Skip to main content
Hide Articles List

8 articles on this Page



THE EXPLOSION AT ERITH. Adjourned Inquest. The adjourned inquiry into the death of the un- ortunate persona killed by the explosion of Messrs. Hall's gunpowder stores at Erith marshes was resumed on Tuesday morning, at the Avenue schoolrooms, Erith. The interest in the proceedings appeared somewhat greater than on the last occasion, there being a much fuller attendance. Mr. Poland again appeared to watch the case for the Messrs. Hall. The Lowwood Gunpowder Company was represented by Mr. Filby, the London agent; and Mr. H. S. Perrin and Mr. Morgan attended on behalf of some of the sufferers,. Notwithstanding the time that has elapsed since the explosion, many of the houses in the neighbourhood which had their windows blown in and their ceilings injured, still remain unrepaired. It is nowsupposed that £ 10,000 will be about the extent of the damage caused by the explosion; but some accounts state that the average amount of injury to the private houses will be at least X60 each. The evidence given by the first witness cleared up all doubt, if any existed, with respect to the explosion originating on one of the barges, &nd a good deal of the testimony adduced went to prove the excellence of their construction, as well as of the barrels in which the gunpowder was packed. It happened, however, that one of the barges lay at Erith, and the coroner and jury were invited to inspect it at the close of the inquiry. They accord- ingly proceeded thither, but the inspection appeared very far from satisfactory. The barge in question was one which had a fire-place at each end, and although the after cabin appeared to be entirely cut off from the hold with double bulkheads and protecting metal, the forecastle had nothing but a slight wooden partition separating it from the hold, and a door, very loosely fitted, led at once from the little cabin in which the stove was, to the hold, which of course is ordinarily filled with gunpowder 'barrels. In addition to this, there were two holes in the door, through which it was easy to put one's finger. This door was only fastened bya couple of common iron bolts. Although we must suppose that when a cargo is shipped :this door as well as f he partition is covered with saltpetre bags, yet nobody but men who had grown perfectly reckless by constant familiarity with this description of danger, could for a moment remain comfortably on board such a vessel when there were some 500 or 600 barrels of gunpowder on board. In addition to this, there was in the hold itself such a quantity of iron knees and joints as appeared quite to scare the Coroner and jury, who were certainly led by the evi- dence to suppose that although undoubtedly iron was used in the construction of the barges, yet it was so covered with leather and other proteetingmaterial as- to prevent it coming in contact with the barrels. A great number of witnesses were examined, the first of whom was Mr. James George Willey, merchant's clerk, of Bexley-road, Erith. He said— The back of my house overlooks the scene of the ex-! plosion. On the day in question I was outside of the house looking over towards the river, and I saw the i first flash and heard the flrst explosion. Both the magazines were standing after that. Then I saw a: second and third flash, and the magazines were no longer in existence. I am quite certain that I. saw both magazines after the first explosion. Indeed, I had no idea that there ere magazines there till after they had exploded, and I said to my wife that a powder ship in the river had exploded. The Coroner: You are quite positive that you saw both powder magazines standing after you witnessed the first flash and heard the first report P Witness: Quite so. The Coroner (addressing the jury) said: Gentlemen, I have a communication to make to you of something which has occurred since I last met you. On Friday last, I think it was, I received a communication from Messrs. Hall that, in company with you gentlemen, I should visit the manufactory at Faversham, and in. spect not only the stock but the cooperage, so as to ascertain the exact condition of the barrels which-are manufactured there. Messrs. Hall also stated that they would willingly pay all the expenses, the sugges- tion being made by them. I, in reply, expressed some doubt as to whether any practical good would arise from such an inspection; but as Mr. Hall seemed to press the matter, I stated that although nothing could fee determined ugon until you reassembled, I should he willing to receive any communication from him on the Subject, and would submit it to you. Accordingly, on the Saturday night I received a letter from Messrs. Hall's solicitor, which I will now read to you. The Coroner then read the letter, and said: I com- municated with your foreman, and he did not see the necessity of such an inspection, but we both agreed that nothing could be done until we all assembled foere, and it is now for you to decide what course shall be pursued, this being all that has occurred between Mr. Tassell and myself. I should be glad to hear your opinion on the subject. Mr. Mackinnon, the foreman of the jury, said that he did not think that there was the slightest occasion for the jury proceeding to Faversham to inspect the stock, although some evidence might be necessary as to the condition of the barrels. Mr. Poland: We have plenty of witnesses to that point. Mr. Maokinnon I should suggest that if we had a barrel or two of those recently delivered, and evidence as to the general condition of the barrels, that would be quite sufficient. Mr. Poland It has been arranged that several wit- nesses shall be hero who will speak to the condition of the barrels, and we have also some of the barrels themselves here to produce. The Coroner: Well, then, gentlemen, I think we may abandon the proposition to proceed to Faver- sham and all we have to do is to express our thanks to Messrs. Hall for the opportunity they have afforded to us of inspecting the stock. A Juryman: Nothing can be more satisfactory than Messrs. Halls' offer. The rest of the jury having concurred, the evidence was proceeded with. Alfred Rayner, son of the deceased foreman, sworn I am fourteen years of age. On the morning of the -accident I had not been up more than a few minutes before the explosion. The Coroner: What did you see or hear ? Witness: I didn't see or hear anything. I was smothered under the heaps of bricks and mortar. I was taken out. I was sensible. I knew the magazine had exploded, because it was gone when I got out of the rubbish. My father used to do his writing in the magazine always. I did not use to go into his room where he wrote, but I did once. I have aeen father's writing, and sometimes put -letters in the post for him, but not lately. About two months ago I posted a letter to Mr. Hall. I can read a little, and I could read that letter, and the direction was, "Messrs. Hall and Son." On the letter being handed to witness, he said: Father did not write on "paper like that. He used to write on blue paper. I never heard father reading letters to my mother, or my mother reading father's letters. I don't know Mr. Monk, but have seen him. By the Jury: I did not see the barges there the night before, but I have seen them there before. I have not seen men boiling their kettles or smoking. I go to Mr. Davis's school. I have nwer seen powder leaking from the casks when they have been unload- ing. I have been on the wall, but not on any of the barges. • William Mackay, of Faversham, master of the barge Black Boy; owners, Messrs. Hall, Faversham, said: 'The Black Boy was expressly built for conveying powder. She is thirty-six tons register. I carried only one man with me. I used to sail in the Good Design. At the time she left I was at Faversham. My barge came the week before. We came to and 'fro once in about nine or ten days. The average passage up is two days, perhaps more in winter. Sometimes we are up in seven or eight hours; some- times, when it was blowing heavy, we were a week on the voyage, laying to. I was delivering powder a fortnight previous to the blow-up on the Saturday. I delivered about 250 barrels, some in quarters, some in halves, some in barrels, the largest proportion being in quarter barrels. Mr. Rayner received them. We p At 'petre bags on the floor-what we call gunny bags. We have nothing else to use. We always sweep the hold clean, not swab it; then we put 'petro bags, and 1iben the barrels. Every one is handed. We don't foil them, but lift them. When the hold is full we fatten down the hatches, and put down a double set of tarpauling. I assist in unloading. At that time we use slippers, like those in the magazine. The Coroner: When do you have 'fires ? Witness: Not when we are loading, but we do when it is all battened down. The Coroner Had you any fire on the last passage ? Witnees Not when we were alongside unloading. The Coroner: But on your passage up ? Witness: Yes; on the passage when we were battened down we did. Are Messrs. Hall aware that you have fifes on board when the hatches are battened down ?-I don't know whether they are or not. You do as you like, I suppose ?—We are allowed to have fires then, I believe, but we let them out before we get alongside, when we are allowed to have our victuals cooked on shore. The jetty was always washed down when the tide Was up. We wear our ordinary boots when on the voyage, but not when we ceme to the wharf. All the barrels I brought up were sound, no leakage at all. The head of a cask never comes out, or the hoops come off. Never was such a thing as their coming to pieces in handling. Rayner used to send frequent messages by me. He iused to send letters by me. On last voyage I took no letter from Mr. Bayner to Mr. Monk. By the Jury: Are you not prohibited from burning a fire on board? Witness No, never, not that I ever heard of; but we never have any fire when unloading, only when the hatches are on. There is no regulation I know of pro- hibiting coasters from having fire, and we are coasters. We never carry barrels of powder on the deck. I have heard that they have done so, but don't believe it. If they ever have had anything on the top of the hatches it was empty casks. It is impossible for me to say whether either of the barges delivered powder in the river. I never delivered powder to a,steamer. Neither I nor nay mate smoke. By Mr. Poland: When the hatches are on and covered with tarpauling, in my opinion there is no danger, or when unloading. I have seen sparks fly on board of us many a time from steamboats when we are coming up the river. If anything occurs we are on the spot. Mr. W. W. Pocock, of Knightsbridge, architect and surveyor, sworn and examined by Mr. Poland: Made the drawings and specifications for Messrs. Halls' magazines. I remembered the old magazine now be- longing to the Government, and rebuilt it by direction of Mr. Hall, and subsequently it was transferred to the Government. The nails and hinges were entirely of copper. I superintended the building of it, and was not restricted to any expense. There was some little iron about the building. There was some iron braces for the ceiling. It was painted twice over before fixed, and twice after. There is no danger from any iron in such places, as there could be no concussion. The magazine was not built by contract, but by a schedule of prices, and there was no motive for the contractor or builder to scamp the work. I had it particularly examined, and, in my judgment, it was a suitable and safe building for the storing of gunpowder. I prepared the plans for the jetty, and they were approved by the Trinity Board. He then described the construction of the jetty. There was, of course, iron used to fasten the piles. Iron nails were used to drive through the boards, but in such a, way that they did not come up to the top at all. In my opinion the jetty was constructed on a sound plan, and one that was perfectly safe. The magazine stood on a large space of ground, eighteen acres in extent, in order to prevent the proximity of other buildings. I consulted with the Messrs. Hall several times as to the best mode of providing against danger, and also with Bayner, who was a sound practical man. The magazine cost between ^83,000 and £ 4,000. By the Coroner: The greatest source of difficulty and danger was the public footpath, the tramway run- ning right across it, so that any person walking along the footpath would step on the tramway and leave dirt. To remedy that we had a piece of wood put up for some distance, in order that people might first tread on it, and I believe that provision was made to stop the gangways while the barges were unloading. Mr. Pocock was recalled, and, in answer to a jury- man, said that Mr. Rayner was a very shrewd man, and not likely to write such a letter as had been pro- duced Unless he had good grounds for complaint. Mr. John Deacon Harry, assistant storekeeper at Woolwich, was then recalled, and produced a copy of an order made by the Government authorities conse- quent upon an examination and report of the -state of the magazine transferred from Messrs. Hall to the Government. He was sorry to say that it contradicted almost every word that Mr. Pocock had said. He then read the report, which stated where iron was used and what was to be done in consequence, and he added that the estimate for the necessary alteration's took three months to prepare. Sir.' Harry said that fee had examined the floor yesterday, and to his surprise he found that the nails fastening the flooring were made of iron. Cross-examined by Mr. Poland: I am aware that three officers inspected the building, and that not a word is said in the report about iron nails in the flooring. My attention was only called to the iron nails in consequence of one sticking up, and I said, "I hope at all events this is copper;" but to my sur- prise I found it was iron. The Coroner: Whether iron or copper, the responsi- bility rests with you now. Witness We have had orders for a long time not to place any more ammunition there. Benjamin Peene, a person employed at Messrs. Ibms, factory twenty-nine years, explained the process of dusting and removing the barrels, and stated that, to the best of his judgment, all the barrels shipped aboard the Good Design and the Harriet were per- fectly sound and in good condition. He stated that he was sent to Erith when the new magazine was built to instruct Bayner in his duty, and he had always found him a most truthful man, and certainly not likely to write such a letter as that produced unless he had good ground for complaint. Mr. W. D. Mason, olerk to Messrs. Robinson, ship- brokers, stated that they had last year shipped about 81,000 packages of Halls' gunpowder by clipper ships, all of which contained most valuable cargo, and it was almost impossible that anything at all defective could be shipped. They were especially careful with respect to gunpowder. He also bore testimony to the excel- lence of the barrels. The witness Silver was recalled, and, in answer to the Coroner, stated that he remembered, just after the explosion, he did say something about he ex- pected some day it would come to this;" and he had many times gone down there with his heart in his mouth." That applied entirely to the steamboats passing so near, but he was so confused after the ex- plosion that he really did not know what he did say. The Coroner: Have you ever had occasion to com- plain of the carelessness of the bargemen ?—Well, I never have complained. I have seen fire in the cabin when the barges were at the wharf, but it has been when the wind was blowing off the magazine. By Mr. Perrin: I have often seen two barges at the same time, and I have seen the smoke of a fire in the empty barge, and I believe it was to cook their victuals. On the morning of the accident I did not look to see if there were any barges there. I had not been on thebank,since the previous Thursday. I did not notice whether there was a fire on one of the barges on the previous night. Mr. Bayner was a very careful mam indeed. A Juryman: You yourself have been in groat fear sometimes r- Well, I must say that sometimes my heart has been in my mouth, as the saying is, when I have had a barrel of gunpowder in my hand and I have seen the sparks coming out of a steamer close by. The Coroner stated that he was afraid they could not bring their labours to a close that day. There were some other witnesses it was necessary to ex- amine who were not at present in a condition to appear before the jury. He had himself visited the hospital to inquire into the state of the sufferers. It was believed that Mrs. Bayner might be in a condition in about a fortnight's time to give some Important evidence with respect to the date of the letter which has been so frequently alluded to. At present she was so excitable that the least reference to, the event drove her almost mad, and at present it was quite certain that aha could not be examined. The Foreman And possibly when she is her tesbi- mony will not be very valuable. The Coroner: Perhaps so, though it is likely she will recover, and will ba calm enough to answer questions in reference to the sad event in a fortnight's time. We may also have Mrs. Yorke by that time, and an important witness named Singleton. The Foreman I think that under the circumstances it would be better that we should adjourn again. The Coroner; Mrs. Bayner, I believe, professes to have a knowledge of the letter which has been found, of where it was written, and also when it was posted; for there is some reason to believe after all that it may turn out to be a copy of one sent. It is, therefore, proposed, gentlemen, that you should adjourn till this day fortnight (Nov. 1). The jury, having assented, entered into the ordinary recognisances to be present on the day to which the inquiry was adjourned, aahd the proceedings were accordingly adjourned.