(Otherwise entitled the worst practical joke in history)
I love this part of the Nottingham Canal. It’s a place of peace and tranquility in the middle of the city. Narrowboats mooch on by, chugging along at just a few miles an hour, fishermen sit quietly on the bank waiting for the next bite and there are walkers and cyclists along the towpath enjoying their exercise. In the evenings it livens up a bit with drinkers and diners filling the bars and restaurants along it.
But it hasn’t always been like this. Before the coming of the railways, this was a hive of industry. Huge warehouses were filled with goods to be transported up and down the country, boatmen thronged the banks loading and unloading their wares. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, this was the transport equivalent of the M25 – a crowded, bustling place where goods were dispatched from a to b.
It was also the scene of the first great British canal explosion. Nottingham has a lot of firsts and I think this is one of the more unusual.
The Nottingham Canal stretches 14.75 miles. An act of parliament granted permission for its construction in 1792. It was completed 10 years later.
By 1818, when our story takes place, this part of the canal was one of the most important transport hubs in the country.
On Monday September 28 1818, Captain Hezekiah Riley, working for the Nottingham Boat Company, moored a boat under the warehouse of the Nottingham Canal Company. It was laden with a varied cargo that included stone, cotton, molasses and 21 barrels of gunpowder destined for the mines in Derbyshire. Each barrel contained 1001lbs of gunpowder.
Riley disappeared off into the warehouse while crewmen Benjamin Wheatley and Joseph Musson were left to start unloading. On the dock, the top of one of the gunpowder barrels had broken, spilling gunpowder on to the floor… and Joseph Musson had what he thought was a bright idea.
Along the dock a little was a boat with a fire going. Musson went along and took a piece of burning coal between two sticks and carried it back along the dock. He dropped it and picked it up in his hands, juggling it to stop his fingers burning. And then he dropped it on to the spilled gunpowder, thinking he would make a little flash.
All 21 barrels ignited – more than 21,000lbs of gunpowder – BOOM! The resulting explosion lifted the entire warehouse several feet in the air before it ‘burst asunder into innumerable fragments’ according to the witness testimony of a man in The Meadows. It blew the unfortunate Joseph Musson 126 yards across the canal where his body was found (in several locations apparently) in The Meadows. It also killed nine other people, including a young boy who had been quietly fishing by the canal, and a horse.
Buildings collapsed, roofs blew off, hundreds of windows shattered and heavy pieces of furniture fell over as if the city was suffering an earthquake. It “spread the most extensive devastation throughout the neighbourhood” and was described as “a most dreadful calamity”.
“The explosion was followed by a cloud of smoke that completely darkened the atmosphere.”
The bodies of the dead, many of whom had been blown a considerable distance in the blast, were taken to The Navigation where the inquests were held.
The damage caused to the warehouses was estimated at £30,000 but the insurance company refused to pay so Nottingham Canal Company sued boat operator Nottingham Boat Company and won damages of £1,000. Unfortunately, the boat company didn’t have that sort of cash and the Canal Co received just £500.
The people of Nottingham began a fund to help the relatives of those who had died – a 19th century crowdfunding project.
At 3pm on September 28 last year – 200 years to the minute after the explosion – this plaque was unveiled by Nottingham Civic Society to commemorate the first great British canal explosion. It was this plaque that prompted me to find out more.
And when I was researching the history of the disaster, I came across this on a site called Songs of the Inland Waterways.
It’s a folk song by Buz Collins entitled William Parker and it’s about the explosion.
The final lines say:
It was ten men that were killed that day and many others hurt
And it’s still I’ll haunt that warehouse where my body was torn and burnt
And it’s still I’ll haunt that warehouse for my spirits shall never be free
So remember the great explosion at the Nottingham Boat Company
It’s also really rather nice. I like folk music.