Saturday 6 June 2020

Nitro-glycerine really was dangerously unstable

I can remember, vaguely, a (re-run) episode of Casey Jones, the 1950s American TV series, when I was a kid; which impressed me greatly with its plot that hinged on the incredibly powerful, dangerously unstable explosive nitro-glycerine - used, I seem to recall - by gold miners.

I discovered a few years ago that Newcastle upon Tyne has its own nitro-glycerine story. The tragedy played-out on the Town Moor, a large expanse of cattle-grazed rough pasture at the edge of the old city, and which I often walked on my way to and from work.

You can read a contemporary account; but here are some excerpts.

From: Historical Register of Remarkable Events, Vol IV by T. Fordyce (Newcastle, 1876) Transcribed by Chris Morgan. December 17.

A frightful and lamentable accident took place on the Town Moor, Newcastle-on-Tyne, whereby eight persons lost their lives...

From the evidence brought out at the inquest, it appeared that a considerable quantity of a very dangerous material, which, on examination, proved to be nitro-glycerine (for blasting purposes in mines, &c.), was stored in a cellar at the White Swan Yard, Cloth Market. On examining the cellar, the police found eight tins.

After conferring with the magistrates and Town Clerk, it was ordered to be removed out of the town or destroyed. Not being able to induce the Railway Company to carry it, it was decided to destroy it by removing it to the Town Moor, and emptying it into the earth at a part of the Moor where there was a subsidence in the ground, caused by the workings of the Spital Tongues Colliery.

The Sheriff and Mr. Bryson determined to accompany the material to its destination, and see it destroyed. When on their way to the Moor, Mr. Mawson thought it desirable to examine one or two of the cases, for the purpose of ascertaining what kind of instruments would be required for opening them. 

On arriving at the spot on the Moor, which is a little to the west of the Cholera Hospital, there were eight canisters in baskets, and one without a covering of that kind, taken from the cart and placed upon the turf; and, by direction of the Town Surveyor and the Sheriff, the cartman, the labourer, Sub Inspector Wallace, and P.C. 34 A. Donald Bain (who had also been sent on this duty), proceeded to draw the corks.

Mr. Bryson drew several of the corks, a pricker being used for the purpose. They emptied the liquid of the whole nine into the subsidence of the earth, and after this was done they found that three of the canisters still felt weighty. The Sheriff thereupon ordered the men to take off the ends, which was done by means of a shovel, when it was found that a portion of the contents had crystallised, and were adhering to the tin. 

The Sheriff expressed a desire to obtain a piece of the crystallised material, and asked for a piece of paper, but what followed is not known. He said, however, "Bring them away and we will bury them on the other hill," referring to a hill a little further from where they put the liquid material. He also gave directions to Sub-Inspector Wallace to place some soil over the spot into which they had poured the liquid.

Wallace immediately engaged himself in this occupation, and Bain, Shotton, Appleby, the Sheriff, and the Town Surveyor, went away to the hill with the three canisters containing the crystallised nitro-glycerine, for the purpose of burying it. 

What occurred here is unknown, and probably never will be. The Sub-Inspector had got his task completed, and was about leaving to join the others, when a dreadful explosion took place. Wallace felt the earth shake, and at the same time saw fragments of clothing and other articles flying high up in the air. Though so near to the scene of the explosion, he was happily uninjured himself, his escape being accounted for by the fact that the bank was between him and the explosion.

He immediately proceeded to the spot, and, on the west side of the hill, where the explosion took place, found a portion of the body of P.C. Bain dreadfully mutilated and shattered - the other portions of the body, horrible to relate, being blown away. On the south side of the hill was also a body frightfully mutilated: this was the body of the cartman, Thomas Appleby; and, near at hand, was the body of Shotton, the labourer, also mutilated. 

In a hole of the ground, immediately above, was a boy alive, but greatly injured: this was the son of Mr. Wadley, living in Villa Place, The body of another man, unknown, was also found. Mr. Bryson, severely injured, was lying on the side of the bank to the eastward; and immediately on the top of the bank was Mr. Mawson, who was also much injured.

The jury returned the following verdict:- "That death has been caused by the explosion of nitro-glycerine accidentally; and the jury are unanimously of opinion that the law in reference to the storing of nitro-glycerine has been grossly violated in this case.


The Sheriff was John Mawson, who was a significant historical character being the business partner of Joseph Swan - and Swan invented an incandescent light bulb; of the type that illuminated Lord Armstrong's mansion in Cragside, Northumberland - the first use of hydroelectricity; and the Savoy Theatre in London - the first public building lit by electricity.

1 comment:

dearieme said...

As we learnt at school, it was because nitro-glycerine was so dangerous that dynamite was invented.

It's odd the fragments of chemistry lessons that have stuck. Maybe this one did because explosives featured in many Saturday morning cowboy films.