Gunpowder, Inspection and Death


Gunpowder stored on Greenwich Marsh in the seventeenth century seems to have had a strangely safe existence. This was not to be so two hundred years later and in the 1880s the use of gunpowder in the manufacture of ammunition was to cause the deaths of three women.  A great deal of the information which is available on the industries on the Greenwich Peninsula comes from accident reports – we have them because they were stored in official archives whereas more cheerful information was thrown away.

In unravelling the story of these three tragedies I have solved another puzzle.  I go sometimes to the strangely named Majendie Road in Plumstead and I had always assumed it was called after some long forgotten Victorian battlefield.   Researching this story means that I now know that it was named for Col. Vivian Majendie, Chief Inspector of Explosives.    In 1874 a barge loaded with explosives had blown up on the Regent’s Canal near the Zoo – you can still see some signs of it on the towpath there today. As a result of this frightening accident an Explosives Inspectorate was set up with Majendie in charge.   He had previously been Assistant Superintendent of the Royal Laboratory in Woolwich and he brought all the expertise of that Institution with him to his new job.  Majendie used Woolwich personnel and Woolwich equipment to carry out experiments into the causes of the explosions, which he was investigating and it is all, listed in meticulous detail in his Annual Reports.

In the 1880s Majendie investigated two accidents involving explosives on Greenwich Marsh. One of the features of them is that the people involved lived, worked, and sometimes died in a very small immediate locality. Majendie himself also lived and worked in this limited area.   His work base was furthest away of all the sites – in Woolwich – but his home was nearby, in Victoria Way, Charlton, and well within earshot of these two explosions.

Robsons Ammunition Works shown on the 1880s map. The lane up to the works is roughly on the site of Grenfell Street

The accidents happened at Robson’s Ammunition Works – which in its location only just qualifies as a site on Greenwich Marsh.  It fronted on the Woolwich Road – roughly opposite the entrance to Annandale Road and about where today a fish and chip shop stands.  In the 1880s a path stretched back from the offices in Woolwich Road to a large area of land intersected by ditches and dykes – where Tunnel Avenue and the Blackwall Tunnel Approach now run.  In this area were a number of huts in which work on the explosives was undertaken.  Thomas Robson had founded the works in 1845.   He held patents for ‘firing signals and other lights’ and the factory seems have turned out a variety of signalling devices for ships and railways many of, which were closely akin to fireworks.  They also made ‘proper’ fireworks for displays and a range of other small scale explosive devices

Thomas Robson seems to have left the works sometime before 1880, although it still carried his name. Most probably he had retired and the business’s name was changed to ‘Dyer and Robson’.  James Dyer lived with his wife and baby daughter in Wick Cottage, which was in Woolwich Road adjacent to the works.  He was thirty years old in 1882 and was, in effect, the manager.  Although the works covered a large area it employed relatively few people – eleven men, four women, and four boys.  It was the women who were to be injured and die.

One item made was a railway fog signal, which consisted of two small iron saucers, which enclosed a small amount of gunpowder. A large outer cup went over these with its edge ‘crimped’ to hold it closely together and the cups were then cemented and varnished.  The ‘crimping’ was done by hand using screw fly presses – an operation which carried ‘some risk’.  In fact there was at least one accidental explosion a month but owing to a ‘misunderstanding’ Mr. Dyer had not reported these accidents to the Explosives Inspectorate, as he was required to do by law.  Such operations were very carefully monitored and there was an iron shield, which moved between the worker and the explosives at the moment at which the pressing movement took place. There was also an arrangement to divert the flash to outside the building should an explosion take place.  Employees had to wear special shoes and fireproof clothes with no pockets in them.

The 20th November 1882 was Mary Mahoney’s first day at work on the presses. Although she had worked ‘on and off’ at Robson’s for six years. Emily Gilder supervised her in one of the isolated huts, No.19 shed.  It was a very small space for the two girls together plus the machinery – just six feet by five.  They sat three feet apart together with about 800 explosive signals.  The machines at which they worked were new – still on trial from the makers. It appears that Mary did not understand the process and was, unknown to Emily, putting the cups into the press in the wrong way.  In addition a tray of finished signals was nearby – and contained a quantity of loose spilt gunpowder. This was against regulations and Majendie was later to say that ‘very insufficient attention had been paid to cleanliness’ – indeed he was to rule that this had been the factor which made the accident so severe and probably killed Mary.

The foreman, Mr. Law, had just visited the two girls and left to go onto the next shed.  He was standing about three yards outside when he was knocked over by the force of a series of explosions.   He struggled upright and went back to find that Emily had got out – she had either been blown out or jumped. . He forced his way back through smoke to where Mary was lying on the floor in among the loose powder, which was now exploding while molten lead from the finished signals fell on her. Despite being badly burnt himself Law got her out. Outside she said ‘Oh, Mr.Law’ as he tried to pull off her burning serge dress, until he collapsed himself.

Mary was very badly burnt on her back, arms, legs and face. She was taken just across the road to the Workhouse Infirmary – where Greenwich District Hospital still stands.  She told the Doctor about the accident ‘Oh, Doctor, I was pressing of those fog signals when it went off … I think I must have pressed it on the side’. It seems that at first it was hoped she would live, although, later, the Doctor said he had no hope from the first. A first she did well but then infections set in and she died four days later ‘of exhaustion’. Majendie felt she must have had a ‘delicate constitution’. She was twenty-four years old, and lived with her parents in Marsh Lane – today’s Blackwall Lane.  She was the eldest of four children, all born in Greenwich, to parents, Michael and Mary, who had come from Kerry to work as labourers.  There were many Irish people lived in the area at the top of Marsh Lane around what, until recently, has been the Ship and Billet Pub.

remains of 1888 explosion
Remains of the explosion 1888 – please note the cabbages planted round the workshops.

Mary died within a few yards of both her home and the place in which she had worked and been injured.  Her friend would very nearly replicate her story.  The Mahoney family had taken in another young woman, Catherine Allman, as a lodger and she also worked at Dyer and Robson’s.

On 11th June 1887 Catherine Allman was at work in one of the isolated huts at Robson’s making was were in effect fireworks. . With her were an older woman, Mary Masters, Anne Lake and Elizabeth Millman the forewoman.    Mrs. Millman had already made an explosive preparation for green star Roman candles in another shed. She had brought it in to be dampened with methylated spirits and made into stars in copper moulds. The candles were used as signals on the South Western Railway Steamers from Southampton and the explosive used was an unusual mixture.    The other three were engaged in their own tasks.  Mary was filling ‘lights’ with layers of different coloured ‘composition’.   Anne was filling small paper cones with ‘red fire composition’. Catherine was pressing bright stars for ‘Very Signal Cartridges’ to be used as part of a large order for the Jubilee Naval Review.   The explosion, when it came, was ‘like the firing of a pistol’.

flare made by robson and dyer
One of Robson and Dyer’s flares

It took a great deal of detective work on the part of the Government Inspectorate to work out exactly what had happened. First they examined the shed in which the work had been carried out. It was not structurally damaged but the windows were broken and the tar had melted from the roof.  Inside everything was scorched.  They then visited the women in hospital and asked where the explosion had come from. They carefully noted down what each said and then tried to plot the right spot in the shed. They also compared the burns, which the women had suffered and worked out where each of them had been.

It was concluded that the problem was Mrs Millman’s green stars.  It was a very hot day and experiments in the laboratory at Woolwich were able to prove that some of the ingredients might have become unstable when warmed. In addition it was probable that she was working ‘briskly’ – unconsciously jolting the explosive.  Within the next few weeks two other factories reported accidents with the type of firework.   In both cases the material had become warm and then had suffered an accidental blow. It was shown that Mrs. Millman, a very skilled workwoman and highly praised by everybody, could not possibly have known this and no blame could be attributed to her.

Catherine Allman and Mrs. Millman although badly burnt were protected by their special clothing and lived. Five years earlier Michael Mahoney had had to identify his daughter’s body something which he was spared this time…Both women were well enough to give evidence at the inquest into the deaths of the other two, Anne Lake and Mary Masters.  Once again the cause of death was ‘exhaustion following burns’.

Majendie’s annual reports to the government on explosives and explosions list every conceivable related incident in the British Isles. These, and one, other which also involves fireworks, are the only ones listed for Greenwich between 1875 and 1910. At each of these incidents Majendie made recommendations which doubtless saved lives in the future.  His reports are models of clarity and common sense, and while praising Mr. Dyer for good practice he recommended the following – to partition the shed so that workers handling dangerous substances did so alone, to provide more screens, to use ground glass windows which would avoid direct sunlight and to use specially experienced and instructed workpeople.

The area of Robson’s works is covered with housing and roads – the New Millennium Experience’s southern boundary will be a matter of yards away.  As we all enjoy the celebration fireworks we should also remember that they are only made safely because of the work of Inspectors like Majendie and that people died before he could act.

This article has been put together using official and newspaper reports of the accidents.  I would particularly like to thank Wayne Cocroft of the Sites and Monuments Record who drew my attention to Majendie.


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