Saturday, 19 July 2014

Canal Cuttings (34a)

This is just one of a series of around fifty old newspaper articles that I have been reading. I have been researching from old newspapers and magazines. Covering the last 200 years or so of life on the inland waterways. With particular interest in the major issues of the day that were effecting the canals. The most active periods for evaluation and change, has always been just prior, during and shortly after the two world wars. It should be remembered that between the wars the ownership of some of the canals changed hands as the railway companies bought up the waterways to get reduce competition. What is not clear is the effect this early form of asset stripping had on the viability of the inland waterways. Its good to take a look back at what people were saying and doing in the past. Most surprising of all are some of the problems that beset the canals back then - are still prevalent today. Reading old newspapers can throw up some rather interesting stories. Here is what we would call today a public interest story.

Caveat: Some of the articles are difficult to read and even using modern electronic  scanning and text conversion methods. The odd punctuation, word or character may have been transcribed in error. 

South Australian Register
From our Special Correspondent
London. October 30 1874

TERRIFIC GUNPOWDER EXPLOSION The late papers from London by last mail informed you that on the morning when the mail closed, October 2nd, a barge full of gun powder exploded in the Regent's Canal within the precincts of Regent's Park, and close to the fashionable district of St. John's Wood. The loss of life has happily not realized the apprehensions that were entertained in the first alarm which succeeded the horrifying occurrence. The three men employed on the exploded barge were the only victims for whom there is no redress. A few other persons were injured, some on the accompanying barges, and others through the shock given to houses in the neighbourhood, but these are now all in a fair way towards recovery. The damage that has to be estimated in the wreck of an expensive bridge, and the more or less serious injury done to house property in the populous district of St John's Wood.
The householders on who have suffered belong to a select class who, though making no parade of wealth, carry themselves well in society St John's Wood is an artists and a literary quarter. Avenue road, at the end of which the explosion occurred, is almost entirely inhabited by painters, whose elegantly furnished and decorated studios constitute the best part of their wealth. Some of them, like Alma Tadema, had formed ideal homes, in which pictures, statues, bronzes, frescoes, and classical furniture were the treasured companions of their lives. At a blow these magnificent interiors —the pride of the district — have been reduced to a chaos almost irreparable. A Committee which inspected the greater part of the damaged property has reported that £30,000 would not sufficiently compensate the owners. So far as can be seen at present there is no remedy for the sufferers. The Regent's Canal Company is only owner of the waterway, which is leased to the Grand Junction Canal Company. The latter owned the barges and is responsible for the conduct of traffic, but it shelters itself behind the plea that there are no regulations for the conveyance of gunpowder by canals. The Act of 1762 had special reference to seagoing vessels, and only alluded incidentally to inland conveyance; but legal opinion has of late inclined to the idea that sufficient negligence can be proved against the Grand Junction Canal Company to render them liable at common law. 

THE INQUEST. The history of the explosion and its antecedent circumstances has been fully elicited at the coroner's inquest, which extended over three weeks. There were five barges in tow of a single tug. They had been loaded at the City Basin, which is somewhere about the City-road, where the Canal Company has its principal warehouses. Goods are brought there from the docks and elsewhere, the gunpowder coming chiefly from Waltham Abbey and the powder-mills down the Thames. When loaded the barges have to be towed through the heart of Islington and Camden Town past St. John's Wood and across Edgware-road to another wharf at Paddington. There the loading is completed, and the barges start for their destination in the Midland Counties. The Tilbury, which exploded, was bound for Birmingham. According to rule the five barges were started early in the morning, and the steersman of the Ready, which preceded the Tilbury, gives the following account of what happened up to the time of the explosion:

We left City-road early in the morning. It lightened and rained. I steered her to the bridge. It did not rain after we started from the City-road. I did not see any lightning during the night. We passed the bridge. As we did so some one shouted 'Stop.' That came from one of the boats behind. One person distinctly shouted, 'Stop her; this boat's a fire.' I saw no smoke. When the explosion took place there was a bit of a burst of blue fire. It did not go high. It was on the Tilbury. It came out towards the fore-end of the boat. The explosion took place directly after that. I stopped the Ready before the explosion, and went ahead again before the explosion. It might be for two or three seconds. The flames disappeared, and we were in the dark again. It was hardly a minute before the explosion took place, and it all went up in air. I was greatly shaken, but I kept on my legs. I held by the cabin. It all went up with a blue flare. I saw a piece of the bridge move and drop. I could see no more, owing to the black smoke. I could see the next boat to us, and the water threw as on our side. I saw no people about at the time. We were not thrown out of the canal, but on to the side. The reason why we went on was that we thought it better to get out of the way in case of any more explosions. The other boats went on to Paddington.' 

HOW THE TILBURY WAS LOADED. The nature of the weather on the night of the explosion suggested at once that a flash of lightning had struck the barge and ignited either the gunpowder or some other portion of its cargo. For several days the atmosphere had been in a very electrical condition; and the steersman of the Ready deposed that it did actually lighten while they were on their way from the City Basin. In the early part of the inquest questions were asked as to the distance of the tug from the Tilbury, implying that a spark from her funnel might have dropped on the barge, but that supposition was at once disposed of. Next it was conjectured that the cabin lamp or possibly the cabin fire on board the Tilbury had been the cause of the catastrophe. But all these theories were superseded by an ingenious demonstration made by Major Majendie, the Government inspector of gunpowder works, that the benzoline stored along with the powder had first exploded, and from this first explosion had originated the second. He did not broach his theory, however, until complete evidence had been submitted as to the stowage, of the barge. This was obtained from the bargemen and the Company's officials, the latter of whom had to convict themselves out of their own mouths of the most flagrant carelessness in the handling not only of gunpowder but of explosives generally. Mr. Hughes, the Traffic Manager, after having produced the bills of lading of all five barges, deposed that 'there was on board the Tilbury a cargo of sugar, lead, glass, vinegar, stationery, two cases of wine, several packages of gun powder, one case of drugs, one cask of borax, one cask of petroleum, 42 casks of gunpowder, 24 half-casks of gunpowder, some currants, and two barrels of benzoline.
On board the Jane there were 84 lbs. of gunpowder and 49 casks of powder. On board the Ready, the steam tug, there were two barrels of benzoline. On the Dee there were one can of naphtha, one barrel of petroleum, 10 barrels of paraffin, and two casks of gunpowder. On the Hawksbury there were two pipes of oil, benzoline, four casks of spirits, and 24 casks of gunpowder. There was no order against stowing powder and paraffin together. There is no local or Government supervision to regulate the loading of the boats. When the powder is put on board it is done by the Government men and our men. There is no divided responsibility between ourselves and the Government in the loading of the boats. They could not prevent our putting paraffin on board if we wished.' With respect to the absence of regulations for stowing explosives the most damning evidence was given by Captain Hall, of the Limehouse barge. He said 'We do not receive directions except with Government powders, and we have tires. We burn an oil lamp in the cabin, which is placed close to the stove. I do not wear a special dress in putting the powder on board. I do not search the men before they put it on board to see if they have any lucifers on them. We do not trouble about it We wear ordinary shoes not any special magazine shoes. There is nothing placed in the boat before the powder is lodged on board. It is the custom to water the floor. The boats are not specially fitted up. The metal work of them is iron. I have found powder casks leaking, and the powder has been spilt on some occasions into the boat. We gathered the powder up, and put it in the cask again. This was blasting powder.' 

MAJOR MAJESDIE'S THEORY OF THE EXPLOSION. At the close of the enquiry Major Majendie offered himself as a witness, and clenched his evidence with ocular demonstration to the Jury that the benzoline had first exploded and ignited the gunpowder. He exhibited a large model of a barge, and having poured benzoline into the hold covered it up exactly as the benzoline in the Tilbury had been covered. The vapour arising from leakage through the casks was thus produced. A light was placed at a distance corresponding to that of the cabin lamp of the Tilbury from the batches. The intermediate space gradually filled with vapour, and when the vapour reached the name it ignited. The name was flashed back to the benzoline, which exploded, thus confirming the Major's theory of ignition. It was supported by scientific evidence as to the excessive evaporation of benzoline. Dr. Alfred Swayn Taylor, F.R.S., said he had been engaged in 1855 in investigating the explosion of 4,000 gallons of wood naphtha at Newcastle. Benzoline vapour escaped through nearly all substances but glass. A mixture of benzoline vapour and air was very dangerous. He agreed with Professor Keates that the cause of the explosion was a mixture of benzoline vapour and atmospheric air collecting under the tarpaulin, and being drawn to the fire or lamp, which would be quite sufficient to ignite. 

THE VERDICT OF THE JURY was based on this doctrine, and a heavy censure passed on the Canal Company for allowing such infection explosive to be loaded together. They 'found that the deceased met their death by an explosion of gunpowder by the ignition of the vapour of petroleum at the light on board; that in the 'tonnage of the cargo the Grand Junction Canal Company omitted proper precautions and showed great negligence. They further said that the existing statutory laws to the transport of explosives were quite inadequate for the public safety.' In course of the inquest it was intimated by the Traffic Manager of the Company that for the present they had suspended the carriage of gun powder. As soon as Parliament meets Mr. Cross will be asked for a measure to provide generally for the storage and conveyance of explosives. A Belief Committee in St. John's Wood has at a recent meeting resolved under legal advice to test the liability of the Canal Company for all the damage resulting from the explosion. 

THE SCENE AFTER THE EXPLOSION has been graphically described by some of the residents who had their bedroom windows blown in upon them. Painters and littérateurs have found ample opportunity of indulging, though at their own serious expense, their love of the picturesque. The Canal Bridge under which the barge exploded was thrown up heavily, and when it fell it filled up the water-way with a pyramid of twisted girders, shattered masonry, and splintered beams. According to the Times. The great kerb stones which fringe the towing path of the canal were thrown up into the road. Pieces of clay were hurled by the force of the concussion out of the canal bed over the three storey house, against the ivy-clad wall of the outbuilding behind, and into the room where the coachman was sleeping. A chimney on the roof is in a perilous position, and threatens to add to the destruction by falling into the house. This is one of the worst cases, but the Baptist College close at hand, and the houses for many hundreds of yards and in many streets have suffered similarly.
Far down Albany-street the houses were pitted with broken windows. In streets like John-street, close by, sashes and all are blown out, shop-fronts destroyed with the shutters or in spite of them. Doors and furniture are turned into torn and shattered planks. Clocks, ornaments, and' looking-glasses have of course suffered. Heavy coach house doors, firmly secured with large iron bolts and locks, have been burst open. A wall with iron railings on it was blown down for about sixty yards. Trees on the canal banks were uprooted, and their branches blown to long distances. In the Zoological Gardens the glass is broken in the elephant-house, the monkey-house, and the giraffe-house. The monkeys appear to have successfully avoided the falling glass. The giraffes were found huddled together in terrible fear. The elands, and one little deer, recently presented to the Gardens, have suffered, as their timid nature would suggest, very much from their panic.
The way beside the canal from the open ground at the foot of Primrose Hill to Wellington-road is commonly called Regent's Park-road, but is really divided into Park-road and Albert-road and into numberless terraces. Not a house here but sustained some damage. From many of them the occupants have gone away, the houses having been reported by the architects to be unsafe. Not only are the roofs often dangerous, but bricks are blown out in places. There are rifts and clefts all over Mr. Howard Paul's house, which is thirteen doors down the Avenue road, in a line with the direction of the exploded bridge. Those who remain in their ruined homes have been obliged to board up doors and windows, and if they have been fortunate enough to be able to share the gas-fitting repaired they are able to see the faces of their friends. At Mr. Gorstenberg's residence, Stoekleigh House, built by Sir Thomas Wyatt at the order of George IV. for Mrs. Fitzherbert, there were two relief's opposite each other in a room in the upper part of the house, supposed to have been by Sir Thomas Wyatt himself. One remains untouched. The other fell, ruining in its fall itself and other objects of art beneath. One of the children in the house awoke to find himself covered with piastre, above which the window blinds had arranged themselves: but he was dug out unhurt.' Alnia Tadema's Pompeian studio was among the most eccentric of the many household wrecks. He had engraved over his door the Roman welcome 'Salve,' and an ironical fate spared the 'Salve' while demolishing the object to which it had applied.' Mr. Tadema's was in the Highlands when he learnt by telegraph the irreparable misfortune which he had suffered. In the same way, Mr. Hepworth Dixon landed in New York to find a 'cablegram' informing him that his son was blown out of bed and his house half to pieces. Mr. Tadetna's loss is greater, for no one was more careful to work in what he thought a proper milieu. The front door is boarded over, but ingress is obtained through the area; and the first thing seen is a bust of the Indian Bacchus with the beard blown off. The bust remains on the shelf precisely where it was and otherwise unhurt. Some photographs were hung upon the stairs, close to a pair of glass doors. The doors had been blown out, one of the photographs in. These photographs are not, like Mr. Hatton's engravings, riddled with glass.
A lady sleeping in the top of the house woke and found half the ceiling on her, the roof destroyed, and the sky visible. The daylight can be seen through fissures in the artist's luxurious Pompeian studio. In a room at the top of the house there were three beds. The two nearest the windows escaped unhurt. The blind flew across from the casement, knocked the plaster off the ceiling, and fell with that upon the occupant of the third bed, a servant, and the only person in the house who was seriously hurt. She has gone home to her friends. The children had one consolation. The Tilbury was partly laden with nuts. The nuts have been blown over into Mr. Tadetna's garden.'

THE CRACK OF DOOM. The idea that the last day had dawned did not confine itself to St. John's Wood. Wherever the explosion was heard, and the report is known to have extended over a radius of about 30 miles, there was a general apprehension either of earthquakes or of judgement to come. Dr. Collins, who lived in Albert terrace, close to the canal, says: 'At a few minutes before 5 o'clock in the morning I was suddenly awakened by a loud and deafening report, which fearfully shook the very foundations of the premises; then followed a tremendous crash from the breaking of the plate and other glass, which was flying about in all directions. I at once proceeded to adjust what few clothes I could find, and made my way into the street. Here I witnessed an extraordinary scene men, women, and children rushing about in a state of semi-nudity, uttering the most hideous cries. One lady in her night dress clung to me, exclaiming, 'Is it come? Is it come?' I had no sooner extricated myself from her grasp than I was clutched by another, who in a confidential way said, with terror depicted in a careworn face, that she was 'so glad to see any one. Soon afterwards we were enveloped in a dense suffocating smoke, with strong sulphurous odour, the wild beasts in the Gardens, too, screaming for their very lives. Suddenly I saw a large mass of flame ascending into the air. To the spot whence it proceeded I speedily made my way, and there learnt the nature of this sad and melancholy catastrophe.'

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