Dartford Chronicle
Saturday, July 5, 1879


A few minutes after eleven o'clock on Tuesday night the inhabitants of Dartford who were, in a large majority of instances, either in bed or chatting drowsily over matters all and sundry, became suddenly aware of a dull heavy thud, which seemed to shake the earth. Simultaneously the sky seemed filled with flames and for a few short seconds there was a brand glare like that of noon-day shed over the upper end of Waterside and the region of Dartford Priory. Few anticipated or even calculated what occurred, for so sudden and violent was the shock that many of those nearest to the centre of disturbance unite in describing the sensation as of falling asleep and awaking from a dream - nothing more. A general extinction of the gas throughout the town, which immediately succeeded the flash, and which seemed to render the darkness deeper and deeper still, conveyed the first correct impression of the catastrophe. In a few moments hundreds of persons were to be seen hurrying down Hythe Street, and Waterside. Near at the gas works the earliest arrivals had to encounter a torrent of water flowing down Gas Lane, but, unheeding this, several of the party, among whom were Mr Wrights and Mr Bayley, solicitors, of Dartford, pushed their way on to the entrance to the works. This was closed, but it immediately became apparent that entrance could be obtained on the left side, the whole of the wall having been blown away. The crowd rapidly increased, and meanwhile two things had become clear. First, that the huge new gasometer, containing 50,000 cubic feet of gas had exploded, scattering destruction around; secondly that there might be lives in peril or even lives lost. In a moment Mr Wright had made his way into the back yard of the engineer (Mr W P Mills) and there the dog, which accompanied the explorer, found the body of the watchman, Belchambers, drenched with water and seemingly lifeless. The poor fellow was immediately removed to an adjoining cottage, and medical attention procured. He was found to have sustained a fracture of the collar bone, and severe injuries to the chest and shoulder bone. We are glad to report that he is progressing well, but he will probably have a stiff arm for life. Meanwhile a ladder was procured and Mr Mills with his wife and family were extricated from their house by means of a ladder. They were suffering, as might naturally be expected, from an extreme nervous shock, but the wife and little ones were promptly welcomed and cared for by Mrs Harvey, wife of the respected stationmaster of Dartford.

The crowd rapidly thinned away, for at the works there was little or nothing to be made out save the vague outline of the wreck. The inmates of the adjacent houses seem to have been completely paralysed for the time by the shock they had sustained, so that no coherent account or description could be elicited. Most fortunately there was no outbreak of fire, the immense volume of gas having exploded so rapidly that communication of the flames was prevented. Thus then, at twelve o'clock, when it had been made clear that no lives had been lost, and that all who had suffered were well cared for, the party thronged homewards, waiting for the morrow to make further disclosures.

Even at daybreak a considerable crowd had collected, but towards seven o'clock at the rush was immense, and as fast as one batch of spectators moved off another arrived, so that in the course of the day some three or four thousand persons must have visited the scene. And indeed the spectacle was no common one. On the south side of the exploded gasometer, there had been recently built a substantial brick wall, seven feet high and proportionately thick. This was razed to the ground, as cleanly as if by a plane; for 50 yards or more scarcely a trace of it could be discerned, the bricks of which it had been fashioned being cast 60, 80, or 100 yards away into the adjoining fields, roads, and lanes. Many of the bricks were collected at the junction of Gas Lane and Waterside. This was not the only wall destroyed on this side, for some 30 yards of the stone environment of Dartford Priory well blown clean out also, this being evidently the direction taken by the principal explosion. Of the eight massy iron columns supporting the fabric not one remained standing. The iron water casing, composed of inch plates, each weighing 40cwt., was entirely blown away. The wreck of the gasometer reposed on the bottom of the tank, and, deprived of its supports, collapsed gradually during the day, so that in eight hours the height was diminished by 10 or 12 feet.

The apprehensions entertained of a sudden parting or falling of the mass, induced the Police Authorities to place an officer on the spot to keep the spectators from too closely approaching it, and it is satisfactory to note that not only was there no scuffling, pushing, or horse-play, but that the utmost good order prevailed, and the constable’s office was at times almost a sinecure.

Viewed from the rent in the Priory wall the following appearances were presented. The top of the gasometer was intact, save where a pillar had pierced it; the whole of the shock having expended itself on the casing and the water in the tank. One of the supporting columns, hollow, and of stout cast iron, had fallen inwards at full length, whilst the pedestal on which it stood was wrenched up from its concrete foundations. On the left a second column, or rather what was left of it, reposed at an angle of 45 degrees against the side of the gasometer, having rent a huge hole in it during the fall. The light railing or gallery round to the top was broken off in several places and hung picturesquely across the front in an oblique direction downwards, from left to right, while two other portions formed an acute angle on the right side. A few remains of the carving could be discerned, the torn and irregular form of which bespoke only too eloquently the fearful violence of the explosion. But a further confirmation of this was afforded by examination of the blown fragments of the casing. These were distributed in a rude semicircle on the south and west at distances varying from 30 yards in the case of the light portions to 10 or 12 yards in the heavier. Fragments of three or four tons weight were frequently pointed out, nearly 20 yards from the wreck.

There is good reason to believe that as in the case of the Regents Canal explosion some years ago, and embankment (in this case that of the South Eastern Railway) received the shock and arrested its progress, otherwise serious damage might have been caused, for an explosion which could demolish one wall as if it had been of pasteboard, and then blow twenty yards of solid stonework clean away, must have had a large reserve of unexpended force. It seems little short of a miracle that so serious an explosion should have brought such limited mischief. This could be accounted for, however, on noting the direction of the shock. It tended, as we have seen, partly towards the Priory wall and the railway embankment, partly to the open fields on the western side. Here an interesting view of the wreck was obtainable. As on the south side of the brick wall was razed to its foundations - verily as though, like Carthage, the site of the structure were ploughed up and strewn with salt. Hundreds and thousands of bricks might be counted within a 50 yard radius beyond that they grew smaller and sparser; whilst nearer to the meter lay massy fragments of the crown, twenty or thirty bricks still adherent. Again was the mind impressed with this exhibition of force.

This wall has been levelled and swept away, much as a mighty wave would demolish a schoolboy’s structure of sand and shingle on the sea shore. The bricks were scattered abroad like so many levels. The columns on the western side had fared worse than those on the southern. They were not only snapped off their pedestals, but smashed to pieces, some of the latter lying ten yards away from the wreck. The pedestals were in several cases torn clean out and lay prone on the earth. On this side the huge rent in the receiver torn open by the explosion was clearly seen; a waggon might have been driven through it, and the tie-bands was twisted and bent into the most fantastic shapes. Further to the left was another and smaller rent. The scene of confusion was indescribable, for it was on this site that the largest “distribution” had taken place. A very small portion of the wall remained standing, indicating the curve of force, viz., from the left extremity of the Priory wall, nearly in a semicircle round to the bend in Dartford Creek.

Pursuing the journey around the wreck, the havoc became less noticeable till the engineer's house was approached, and here a curious spectacle was to be witnessed. It would appear that the first portion that gave way was the casing, and on that yielding, the force was expended on the 18 feet of water in the tank, thousands of gallons of which were blown with irresistible violence towards Mr Mills’s dwelling. The first object they encountered was the curve of an empty gasometer and from this the deluge seem to have been diverted towards Mr Mills’s back door, and to the watchman's house. The latter had the sides completely driven in and the door driven out. The unfortunate occupant was carried with the torrent of water, bricks, and mud, 30 or 40 feet down the back of the yard, where he lay till found, as already described.

Another portion of the wave of destruction impinged on Mr Mills’s back door which, with the scullery partition, was driven in and all the glass broken. An inner door with glass panels was similarly driven in and smashed, the flood then filling the dining room, kitchen, and drawing room to a depth of several feet. The scene in the drawing room, which had been most comfortably and elegantly furnished, was deplorable. The Brussels carpet was everywhere covered with a layer of mud 3 inches deep; the chairs, couches, table cover, etc, etc, were soaked, stained, and spoiled, and a valuable walnut piano filled in its lower part with water. Several articles had been floated and washed about, while the albums and books on the table were utterly spoiled. It was well-nigh as complete a picture of “a ruined home” as the mind could conceive - and all through the day the scene was regarded, with many expressions of commiseration, by a large concourse of persons without.

Viewed from this side of the spectator was forced to ask himself what would have been the effect had the explosion vented its power towards the house. It is perfectly reasonable to believe that not only would the structure have been utterly levelled - not one stone left standing on another, - not only would the inmates have perished, but the greater number of crowded tenements adjacent would have fallen also, and a calamity of direful magnitude have occurred. Even as it was, the experience of some of the residents were, as we shall presently see, not such as they would ever wish to endure again - nay there is even now a cold pain awakened by the recollection of the sudden glimpse of death obtained in that terrible moment, when they stood as mortal men looking into their own graves - aye and treading near on the brink.

We gather several statements:

FP - residing in Gas Lane, says; - “I went to bed on Tuesday night, about ten to eleven, as near as I can guess. I was roused by a rumbling noise and I got up. It was just as if a lot of water was “rooshing" through the lane. While at the window, and while the water was going on I saw a body of flame rushing in the same direction, it lighted up the whole street and lasted, as near as I can judge, about two minutes. The shock was, I am certain, after the rush of water. I am perfectly satisfied of that. On hearing the rush, I immediately went to the window. I opened it and looked out. The shock reminded me exactly of the jumps of a train shunting. My wife said “The tank must have ‘busted’. I said “It must have been the gas holder”. The report shocked the house. It was a bright moonlight night. When I recovered I saw a crowd of people. Many of them came from Crayford. I should think the water came quite 10 seconds before the explosion.”

The wife of the last informant said to our representative “When my husband saw the flame, he fell down instantaneously in a fit. He is subject to fits. The flame seemed to come from the top of the holder at first there was no noticeable heat.”

The husband, further questioned, said “I have no doubt that the tank gave way first. There were many hundred people there when I recovered. It was quite six seconds from the time of the coming down of the water to the explosion”.

An informant says dryly “Twenty sovereigns would not tempt me to go through it again”.

The general testimony of other persons, residing in the immediate neighbourhood and interrogated by our representative, is to the effect (1) That the shock seemed to come from the earth and was sufficiently strong to lift the bedsteads etc. (2) That there was a distinct interval between the rush of water and the subsequent explosion. (3) That the duration of the blaze was very brief indeed.

The flash is described by more distant spectators as resembling, on a large scale, the soaring of a rocket: others compare it to a plume of feathers; it has also been compared with sheet lightning, or the passage of a meteor. Certain it is that, the combustion of the gas was very rapid indeed, and that air must have been mixed with it or obtained free access to it.

The utmost reservation is preserved by the company, but we learn that several scientific men have specially examined the wreck and given their opinion. The gasometer had only been in use a fortnight. When tested, it appeared perfectly sound. The makers were Messrs Horton, of Birmingham, and we learn, that the loss cannot be far short of five or six thousand pounds.

Several photographs of the ruins were obtained, among others by R F Jarvis Esq, of the Downs, Darenth. Our representatives succeeded in securing two sketches, which have been published with descriptive letterpress by Messrs Dunkin and Co., of Dartford.

The Rev F S Dale, vicar, of Dartford, writes: ' I am anxious that the generous and self-forgetting kindness of our townsman, Mr William Wright, should not be either unknown or forgotten. Immediately after the explosion on Tuesday night, Mr Wright was on the spot, foremost among the helpers. With a cool head and a brave heart, which seem to make him upon such occasions a leader, he continued to search among the rubbish, until he found the poor man Belchambers, whom he helped to carry home. Not content with this, he himself lighted the fire, and tended to the wounded man, and assisted the doctor, proving himself “a friend in need”. I dare say Mr Wright will not thank me for drawing attention to little acts of kindness of which he probably thinks nothing, but when men, regardless of their own safety or ease, care for others, I think those who look on should take a lesson.'"

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