The Explosion



 In 1803 a dramatic and famous explosion tore apart a steam engine designed by Richard Trevithick. In 1993 the site in East Greenwich is a heap of rubble. What has happened there since then? What does that rubble represent? Sadly, that accident was to be the first of many on site.

Today’s Riverway in East Greenwich can be seen on the Roque Map as Marsh Lane, winding down through the marshy fields and fens towards the Thames on the east side of the Greenwich Marsh peninsula.  Around 1800 someone decided to develop the area. That someone was probably George Russell, the site’s owner, in 1801 there was a brickfield on site, indicating that building was going on, by 1805 Ceylon Place was built and one person in residence

A plaque on the contemporary public house, The Pilot, says ‘New East Greenwich.  and that may have been what Russell intended to build.  The Pilot itself was described in 1898 as ‘a good old fashioned full licensed inn’ with a ‘spacious’ bar not a description which those who remember the Pilot before its recent extensions would endorse.

Whoever built New East Greenwich intended it to be an industrial complex. Ceylon Place was built to house workers at a big tide mill.  One day in 1802 or 1803 Olinthus Gregory, Professor of Mathematics at the Royal Military Academy in Woolwich walked down the riverside from Woolwich and talked to the site foreman about the mill, which was being built. Gregory discovered that the mill was being built by John Lloyd of brewers Green Westminster.

John Lloyd had a millwright business in Westminster and represents an interesting interface at the point at which water power was being replaced by steam.  Within two years LLoyd had moved to Nelson Square in Southwark where he was to enter a partnership as Lloyd and Ostell. The company worked on important contracts; Lloyd and Ostells were to install the equipment at Waltham Abbey Gunpowder Works. He also undertook commissions under Simon Goodrich

The work at East Greenwich was being supervised by W. Dryden, who worked for Lloyd. Gregory described the mill which was parallel to the river and forty feet wide. There was a forty-foot waterway from the river to the mill’s sluice gates.  In a plan of 1898 there is a large river inlet in front of the mill described as a ‘layby’ which is slightly offset on the downriver side.

Through this waterway the tide filled a 4 acre reservoir. The 11ft diameter water wheel was also parallel to the river, and had 32 float boards in a special arrangement in its quarters. This was intended to give a smooth motion. The wheel was in the middle of the waterway and the tide flowed into the reservoir on either side of it. When the tide was its highest the water was run out of the reservoir back into the river turning the wheel and running it in an opposite direction to when the tide was coming in.  Gregory’s drawings illustrate the process and he included a detailed description of the wheel and some of the internal workings of the mill.

It is to be regretted that eels congregated under the mill. On Thursday 8th September 1803 the apprentice, left to look after the high pressure steam engine on site, went to catch them ‘impatient to finish the work he had put a piece of timber between the top and the safety value and bent it down so that it could not rise to allow the steam to escape’. The boiler blew up killing three men on site, but not the boy. At the remote scene of the accident a wherry was called and the injured taken by river to St. Thomas’s Hospital, then in the Borough. Thomas Nailor died a few days later, his head and neck had been covered in boiling water. Another man was deafened by the blast

Boulton and Watt were quick to point out the inadequacies in Trevithick’s engines occasioned by this explosion and customers ‘would not patronise high pressure engines.. from apprehensions that the boiler might explode as that at Woolwich had done’ although fourteen years later John Taylor, also an engine builder, was quick to say that the explosion was caused by the safety catch.

Years went by, the East Greenwich mill ground corn and remained in the ownership of George Russell.  In the 1830s the miller was Thomas Patrick and the area is supposed to have been known as ‘Patrick’s Mill’

Around 1835 a house was built on the site occupied until recently by Tideway Yacht Club. The house is said to have been built to use for parties by a Mr. Hughes (or Hewes) It was called East Lodge and had seven bedrooms together with what appears to be a bow windowed frontage facing the river.  It appears to have been set back near the entrance to today’s yacht club. It is reputed to have had a ceiling painted by Sir James Thornhill (he died in 1734!) but painted on canvas rather than on the ceiling itself.

1840 owned by William Miles and by 1842 the mill was owned by ‘Sir W.Towner’

At some point in the 1840s the site was bought by Frank Hills. 1847 it was part of Franks Hill marriage settlement. Frank Hills was an industrial chemist currently manufacturing a wide range of chemicals from the Deptford Chemical Works then in Copperas Street. He had acquired that site in 183? from a German chemist, Beneke. Thomas Hills, either his father or brother, had previously manufactured chemicals at the Bromley by Bow Steam mill.  A letter in the possession of Mr. Humpheries dated 1815 and written by an infant, Frank, refers to ‘Brother Thomas’ at ‘Bromley Steam Mills’.

The history of gas purification is a long a complicated one. Sufficient to say that oxide purification had become the ruling method of cleaning gas in the London gas works and that Frank Hills held the patents. After the gas has been purified using the oxide process, and the purifying mixture ‘revivified’ a number of times a large sulphur rich residue remains which can be recovered by a chemist to make sulphuric acid. It was no doubt with this in mind that Frank bought the old mill and set up chemical manufacture on the adjacent site.  Its seems very likely that corn continued to be ground there as the stones were still in situ in 1898.

Soon after Frank Hills bought the site more men were killed in an accident on the site.  In 1846 Francis Levers, Thomas Darby and Richard Middleton were suffocated by the fumes of ‘sulphuretted hydrogen’ while cleaning out a giant mixing bowl. Hills installed a manager in the works, Thomas Davies who lived with his family in East Lodge

mill ms contents0001

At some time during Hills occupancy an artesian well was dug under the mill site. Equipment in the mill included a 25 hp steam engine described as having two oscillating cylinders, an 18ft 6in fly wheel.  This engine was by Joyce of Greenwich. Other machinery included a two 30 ft long steam boilers going to a chimney, elevators with strap and buckets, separators, seven pairs of stones as well as an ‘Archimedean screw’ and a bone crusher.

In 1870 the site was visited by an inspector of industrial pollution, Edward Ballard. He described the manufacture of manure there since 1856 where previously nitric, tartaric and oxalic acid had been made.  Manure was made from shoddy, waste leather, dry bones, bone ash and the refuse from sugar bakers.  Although Ballard said that the smell from the works was not too bad he nevertheless asked Mr. Pink the local Medical officer of health, to look at the works and see what could be done.

More cottages were built in a terrace, now demolished, called River Terrace.  These were built by Frank Hills for workers at the site at some in the late 1840s. This comprised a shop occupied by ‘Thames Church Mission; in the 1898 they were on the whole larger than Ceylon Terrace.

The Mission was also used as a Working’ Men’s Institute said to have been fitted up by Frank Hills. A poster advertises a talk about the House of Commons to be given there, previously the boat had been moored in the river

Frank died in 1897 By that time he was one of the richest men in England. This is a tribute to his energy. At his death he and his family controlled an industrial empire. There were copper and pyrites mines in Spain, there was a copper work in Newcastle and connections with coppers mines Anglesey. Another family member was in Bristol.

All of this was spread between Frank’s brothers and their children. Other part of the empire, owned by other family members, may yet come to light. The jewel in the family’s crown was Thames Ironworks managed by Frank’s son Arnold. Frank himself died at Redleaf in Penshurst, the house built by John Wells the shipbuilder.

The chemical empire was sold to United Alkali in the 1890s and the old mill (now nearly a hundred years old remained). Frank’s son and heir, who inherited the site died only four years after him and before the legal problems connected with the site could be sorted out. so the sale documents reflect his name not frank’s.

By 1898 when the site was sold the block immediately adjacent to Riverway had already been acquired (built??) by the Blackheath and Greenwich Electric Light Co for a power station.  The power station began supply in 1900 and was not demolished until 1947.

A postscript this saga is the terrible accident in the power station in 1911? William Shaw and James Coombes were killed as the result of a boiler explosion. Mr. Shaw and Mr. Coombes were literally blown to pieces and could not be identified.  Mr. Shaw was an inspector from the national Boiler and General Insurance Company called in to examine a leaking drum on the boiler and was looking for the site of crack when the explosion occurred.

The main chemical works to the west of the mill, which appears to have functioned from 1869 became the Phoenix Wharf site of the East Greenwich Gas Works owned by the South Metropolitan Gas Co. on which plant was not renewed until after the Second World War and then only as the result of enemy action; the new plant was to specialise in the use of spent oxide.

Today the site of the millponds now the power station is demolished are slowly returning to Fen. Who knows if any of the dredged channel remains in the river.

(update 2014.  The site of the Millponds became a hill in 1999 thanks to the landscape team from the New Millennium Experience. They also built a wall cutting off the site of the ponds from the river.  There are now mega flats on the site of the mill – and we will never know about any remains because they were all dug up and the archaeologists employed by English Heritage forgot to mention the mill’s exsistence in their report to the Council)

Return to New East Greenwich and the Tide Mill

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