Disaster in Nottingham

By Adrian Gray

Adrian Gray reports on the first great British canal explosion – the huge gunpowder explosion in the canal warehouse in Nottingham in 1818.

Nottingham Canal in the 1820s.
Nottingham Canal in the 1820s.

Hezekiah Riley was the captain of a boat that plied along the Trent up as far as Nottingham, where goods could be transhipped to and from the canals of central England. In September 1818 he took his boat, belonging to Richard Barrows, down the Trent to Gainsborough with its small crew of Joseph Musson and Benjamin Wheatley. He loaded up a mixed cargo of stone, cotton, molasses, soap and 21 barrels of gunpowder. The gunpowder, from Messrs Flower at Gainsborough, was destined for the mines of Derbyshire via Cromford, and each wooden barrel contained about 100lbs of it.

They sailed upriver, past Torksey Castle and the small riverside church at Laneham, and eventually moored overnight at Burton Joyce. From there, Riley headed to the canal company’s wharf in Nottingham. Perhaps Riley had been one of the “incalculable number of spectators” who had gathered at the wharf in November five years earlier when James Sadler, the pioneer British balloonist and former pastry cook, had made one of his ascents in the skies – disappearing into the clouds to return the next day from somewhere near Stamford.

The boat was brought into the canal basin under the crane and moored under the arch of the warehouse for unloading into the dry of the stone building. Rather than a routine operation, what followed was a “most dreadful calamity” that “threw the whole town into consternation and spread the most extensive devastation throughout the neighbourhood.” A man in the Meadows described how the whole warehouse appeared to lift up “several yards into the air and then burst asunder into innumerable fragments.” Then, “The explosion was followed by a cloud of smoke which completely darkened the atmosphere.” It proved to be one of the blackest days in Nottingham’s history, a disaster caused by a thoughtless prank. As the smoke cleared, thousands poured into the streets and down to the wharf but others rushed uphill fearing some earthquake or flood. As the crowds approached the scene of the disaster, “agonising cries burst from their bosoms….as in some mangled corpse before them they recognised a tender relative.”

As Riley’s boat was being unloaded, the whole warehouse was suddenly blown into the air so that “not a vestige remains.” Part of the boat sank, several nearby buildings lost their roofs and hundreds of windows were “demolished” in the words of the press account that was distributed across the country.

But worst of all was the human destruction. Initial estimates of deaths varied. The first reports were that at least eleven “had been precipitated into eternity” instantly and that two more were dying. The ‘mangled remains’ of eight men and two boys were collected almost immediately, in various gruesome states. “Two men were found lying on the edge of the boat, with their heads completely taken off” whilst two others were found in the gateway to the warehouse, one of them a waggoner with one of his horses who was killed by the collapsing warehouse. Two bodies were found across the canal in the Meadows, one at a distance of 100 yards and the other at about 350 yards with “the limbs and flesh scattered about in different directions.” One body was “a complete truck, with both arms and legs blown off.” One of the fatalities was a boy who had been fishing in the canal, whilst the man hurled furthest across the meadows had been working on a boat nearby.

Others had lucky escapes. Wilkes, the Canal Company’s agent, was away, but his wife was in their house and was thrown across the room. A stonemason named Hall was blown into a boat which started to sink, but he was rescued from drowning at the last moment. Other houses collapsed, but one man crawled out from underneath. The bodies were taken to the Navigation Inn, where the coroner’s inquest was held. A day or two later the water was drained out of the canal basin to look for extra bodies and to recover some lost merchandise.

What had caused this cataclysm? Initial reports blamed it on a youth named Cross, the supposed son of a boat owner, but the cause was actually Joseph Musson from Riley’s boat and he has been reviled in descriptions of the event ever since. However, the initial cause was the poor quality storage of gunpowder, and Riley told the coroner how the barrels sometimes had an end “out” which could be “matted up”. As he and his two crew were carrying the 21 barrels into the warehouse, the end of one collapsed and he had to set it down on the wharf, where about 4lbs spilled out. Riley tried to put most of the powder back into the barrel, then went to the counting house leaving Musson and Wheatley to finish the job.

Musson, seeing that gunpowder had been spilt, went to get a hot coal from another boat in order to have “a flash”. “You’ve got a fire in your boat, I want a live coke,” he said, “Lads, I’m going to have a flash.” Musson carried the hot coal back gripped by two sticks, but he dropped it; he then picked it up and juggled it between his hands, until he dropped it on the wharf where the powder had been spilled. “In a moment the whole exploded and precipitated himself and nine others into an eternal world.” The trail of spilt powder had set alight in an instant, and exploded all 21 barrels.

It was a spectacular end for Musson himself, who was blasted 126 yards into the Meadows. “The unfortunate author of the mischief was thrown a great distance into the meadows, where his remains were found, rent asunder and scattered in several parts.” He landed on the far bank of the river known as the Tinker’s Leen, with a leg being found on its bank with other parts nearby.

Damage from the explosion was estimated at £30,000, which included 4000 quarters of corn, some paper and cheese in the warehouse. The warehouse was insured, but the insurance company refuse to pay up and the canal company sued Musson’s employers, the Nottingham Boat Company. They won £1000 but the boat company could not pay, and had to settle for £500. The people of Nottingham set up a fund to help the relatives of the victims.