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Abiding mystery of the Stowmarket gun cotton explosion

PUBLISHED: 07:35 05 May 2018

Children listed with adults in the memorial to victims of an Suffolk explosives disaster. Picture: Don Black

Children listed with adults in the memorial to victims of an Suffolk explosives disaster. Picture: Don Black


In the reigns of Victoria and Edward VII more East Anglian civilians may have died making means of war than the local soldiers who used them. Don Black delves into some near-forgotten facts.

Some of the extensive ruins of Stowmarket gun cotton works soon after its disastrous explosions. Picture: Stowmarket archivesSome of the extensive ruins of Stowmarket gun cotton works soon after its disastrous explosions. Picture: Stowmarket archives

Victory in Europe in May 1945 began the final winding-down of an industry that had brought both income and sadness to counties better known for farming and fishing.

Some men did not return from conflicts in those earlier years, but their numbers must surely have been exceeded by men, women and children who died from explosions and toxic fumes in factories that also produced material for peaceful uses.

The worst tragedy happened in 1871 when Stowmarket gun cotton works blew up with the loss of 23 lives and 70 further casualties.

Nine of the dead were children: 12-year-olds Alfred Bloom, Mary Mount, Alice Mutimer and Susan Wilding; 13-year-olds Amy Hare and John Girling; 14-year-olds Francis Mayhew and William Parker and 15-year-old James Thomas.

A contemporary account of the horrific events at Stowmarket.A contemporary account of the horrific events at Stowmarket.

Alfred Williams, 16, and Anna Miller and James Read, both 17, were among others who died in the explosions. More than half the victims were, therefore, very young people.

The tragedy was caused by sulphuric acid added mistakenly - or wilfully - to the lethal product. But blame was never established. And the reward for the truth is still outstanding.

Suffolk chief constable Clement Heigham issued this notice: “The reward (of £100) will be paid by Her Majesty’s Government to any person who shall give such information as shall lead to the Discovery and Conviction of the Perpetrator or Perpetrators of this Outrage.

“A FREE PARDON will be granted to any Accomplice, not being the actual Offender, who shall give such information as shall lead to a like result.”

Numbers killed on August 11 1871 varied in books and newspaper reports until 2014, when a black marble memorial was dedicated in the town’s Victorian cemetery.

Steve Williams, archivist of Stowmarket Local History Group, inspired and researched this commemoration, which brings those names together for the first time. It has been placed close to Violet Hill House, Stowmarket health centre.

The industry is also newly commemorated by the road name Guncotton Way. It links supermarket and residential development on a hill not far from the site of cordite works that exploded in May 1915 with the loss of four lives.

In October 1914 a building in which raw cotton was processed caught fire. The blaze lit up the town, but thankfully there were no more casualties.

All these incidents happened near the main Norwich-Ipswich-London railway and River Gipping, the two routes by which explosives and other products were dispatched.

Industry still dominates the rail track for two miles through Stowmarket. But nowadays, when you travel by road along the A14 or even the old A45 through the town, you see little or none of it.

Stowmarket Business Park and a malt products factory trade where the gun cotton was produced. A tramway once ran under the railway to the cordite works that occupied dispersed buildings on the Creeting St Peter side of a new road that now connects the town with the A14.

Prentice Road is an old road which runs close to the river near the town station. The late Manning Prentice, a solicitor at Needham Market, bore family names respected in the town since 1799. He charged no fees when he helped hard-up servicemen in the Second World War to solve their problems.

The first Manning we know of, an immigrant from Bungay, began a dynasty that traded in everything from coal and corn to chemicals. Among other things they made a brand of artificial fertilisers from coprolites, fossilised dinosaur droppings dug up along the Suffolk coast and estuary shores.

One Manning Prentice, already known for perfecting production of sulphuric and nitric acids, headed their enterprises after director Edward Prentice, 33, and William Prentice, 23, were killed in the 1871 explosions.

The first blast happened at 2.05pm when three magazines filled with 14 tons of gun cotton exploded, killing about 12 workers and injuring many more. Edward and William, who went to the rescue of people trapped in burning buildings, died in a second explosion.

Gun cotton had been claimed to be “stronger, safer and more convenient” than gunpowder. But its method of manufacture, which involved dipping the cotton into acids and running water, proved to be far from safe.

An inquest lasted nearly a month, the jury returning this verdict: “We find the explosion was produced by some person or persons unknown adding sulphuric acid to the gun cotton subsequent to its passing all tests required by Government.”

The EADT noted name changes of the company to Stowmarket Gun Cotton Ltd, then to New Explosives Ltd, along with occasional labour disputes. The 1914-18 war brought censorship as well as a massive upsurge in production and employment from around 500 people to more than 2,000.

Hundreds of workers came in special trains from Ipswich and Bury St Edmunds and they worked in shifts around the clock. Peace ended production of explosives and started its switch under new ownership to paints.

Prentice Brothers’ fertiliser side was hit by a major fire in 1922 and suffered further from foreign imports. It merged with similar companies to be Ipswich-based Fison, Packard and Prentice, finally in 1942 into Fisons Ltd.

Prentice Aircraft & Cars on the Felixstowe Road at Ipswich reminded us of their aviation pioneering in Suffolk between the wars. Back at Stowmarket the family had long-term leadership in the Congregational (now United Reform) Church and Boys’ Brigade.

The 1871 disaster could never be forgotten. I knew Jimmy Lillistone, wholesale and retail tobacconist, who as a boy had felt the blast.

There was also quite a lot of poetry written about it, including such terrible lines as “the town was all in glee” before disaster struck. At school, our chemistry teacher Tommy Staynes (‘Tas’) was not a man to make light of war or its chemical weapons; he suffered from poison gas in the trenches.

But he could not escape this horror of schoolboy verse: “Poor Tas has gone, Our science master is no more, For what he thought was H2O was H2SO4.”

It still prompts a relevant thought. Did someone accidentally and innocently add what he or she believed to be water, but was actually sulphuric acid, to the gun cotton? We shall never know.

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