The Faversham Munitions Disaster

Memories of the First World War are often dominated by accounts of life at the Front and, in particular, trench warfare in France and Belgium. However, it is recognised that on the Home Front, the thousands of men and women who worked in the munitions industries made an invaluable contribution to the war effort. To meet the needs of the armed forces, factories across the country were turned over to war production. With a shortage of labour due, initially, to men volunteering for the army and later being conscripted into the armed forces, women were employed increasingly in industry. It is estimated that approximately three quarters of a million women joined the labour force during the First World War, often working in physically demanding and dangerous occupations. Working conditions in the munitions industry were particularly hazardous. Regular exposure to chemicals carried significant health risks. For example, the acid used in the production of TNT resulted in the skin turning yellow and led to the women working in the factories being referred to as ‘canary girls’. However, the most immediate danger was the potential for explosion, with men and women handling high explosives on a daily basis. Glamorgan Archives holds the wartime letters of a Cardiff man, Harry Gollop, who worked at the Explosives Loading Company in Faversham and who witnessed one of the greatest disasters on the Home Front in April 1916, which led to the tragic death of over 100 people.

Harry Gollop was 20 years old at the outbreak of the First World War. The son of a carriage builder, William Gollop, of Malefant Place, Cathays in Cardiff, he had attended the Cardiff Municipal Secondary School in Howard Gardens – referred to by pupils as the MSS. His headmaster at the school was William Dyche, a former Head of the Halifax Higher Grade School and a highly experienced and respected headmaster. At the outbreak of war, Dyche wrote to former pupils asking them to keep in touch so that he could collate details of their contribution to the war effort. Harry Gollop was one of many who wrote to William Dyche throughout the war. The letters received for 1914-16 still survive and are held at Glamorgan Archives. They provide a first-hand account of the war time experiences of young men serving in the armed forces and on the Home Front.

In Harry’s early letters he expressed his frustration at being rejected for military service. However, he soon found other opportunities that, arguably, made far better use of his knowledge and skills. On 10 January 1915 he wrote to William Dyche from Faversham in Kent:

On being failed for the Army in Sept 1914 I returned to College in a very unsettled frame of mind and seized the opportunity of a post as chemist here when I was offered it. We are a large works turning out all kinds of explosives both propulsive and disruptive the familiar ones cordite, T.N.T., Guncotton and nitro glycerine being made in huge quantity. It is real war work and as such is rather strenuous and exacting. Still one feels more comfortable in this work at present time than in any other civilian employment.

The war shows no sign of ending apparently. Still it is remarkable how few are the casualties sustained by those I know. Poor Cohen’s death I heard of the other day. He was an excellent fellow.

My brother was at Suvla Bay and after the withdrawal was transferred to Salonika where he will shortly see some more excitement I fancy. His letters are wonderfully cheery. He had a very narrow escape on the day before the withdrawal. He is a field telegraphist and a shell-burst destroyed the instrument which he was manipulating with his right hand but failed to injure him.

The town and neighbourhood here are very uninteresting at this time of the year though few parts of Kent are finer in summer.

There had been gunpowder factories in Faversham since the 16th century. The availability of waterpower, wood for charcoal and waterways that could be used to import sulphur and transport the finished product made Faversham an excellent site for gunpowder production. In the 18th and 19th centuries the use of explosives in the building of canals and railways led to an upsurge in demand and the construction of several factories in the Faversham area.

Harry Gollop worked at a new and large factory complex built on marshland close to Faversham. The complex drew together two factories, recognised as the most modern of their kind, specialising in the production of the most powerful explosives including TNT and nitro glycerine. Although Harry considered his work to be a great deal less hazardous than life in the army, his life was to change very suddenly in April 1916. He began his letter of 10th April with: I think the story I can tell of recent happenings here will be of interest to you.

You have no doubt read the recent meagre official reports of an explosion at a powder works in Kent. The explosion took place on Sunday 2nd April at a works situated close to ours. It really is an allied company and might be said to be on our premises. It is a department where shells, mines, bombs etc are filled with high explosives.

At noon a fire was detected and the alarm was given. Our fire brigade and many hands were working to extinguish the fire when without warning a store of explosive containing many tons detonated. The explosion wave set off two of our nitro glycerine washing houses situated near and containing a ton of N.G each. Medical aid came quickly to the scene but further explosions had taken place.

The scene was a shambles. Of 200 casualties, 120 were deaths all more or less instantaneous. Ambulance men who assisted say that the sights were ghastly and beyond description.

On Sunday, the little town was stupefied as conveyance after conveyance brought in the wounded from the works 3 miles away. All possible accommodation was made use of. Having spent that terrible day here seeing anxious relatives of employees everywhere I can realise the horror of a colliery disaster.

On Monday I visited the ruined department. Huge craters showed where the holdings had been. Everywhere one could find belongings of the dead. Here stood a burnt out rifle that had belonged to one of the military guard (National Reserve) who had perished. While there a search party dug out a buried corpse. It was really horrible and I shall never forget it.

I knew many of the victims personally and chatted with one – a young fellow of twenty – as we went to work together that morning. I may here say that I was very fortunate as I left for home some few minutes before the fire was detected. Had I remained I should certainly have gone to the scene when the fire was sounded. (Even if I had not done so it would have been miraculous if I had escaped injury from the flying glass which was sent with tremendous force across the laboratory).

The explosions were heard plainly in Essex and it is reported that they were heard at Bury St Edmunds.

The public funeral of 69 of the victims took place on Thursday all being interred in a large trench-like grave. The Archbishop of Canterbury took the graveside service and spoke briefly but well. It was a distressing climax to a terrible disaster.

A touch of irony is given to the whole affair when one considers that this factory is really a comparatively safe place. The explosive used is not easily detonated and generally burns quite quietly with a smoky flame. Of course conditions are everything and it is difficult to guess what the conditions were for the whole place has disappeared.

To theorise would be indiscreet (even if one could) before the official enquiry takes place.

I can assure you that the disaster has moved all of us very deeply though we have not allowed it to get on our nerves.

Faversham apart from this has preserved its monotony but if it can’t provide less ghostly fare for the seeker after excitement then let it remain monotonous.

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William Dyche, reading of the events at Faversham eight days later, would have been one of the first to hear of the disaster in detail, for the Government had suppressed reporting of the blast fearing that it would damage morale.

Although Faversham was a modern factory, the precautions taken could not stop the detonation of over 200 tons of explosives on 2 April 1916. It was thought that the disaster was caused by sparks setting fire to empty TNT bags stacked against the wall of a warehouse. The fire brigade and men and boys from the factory were still attempting to douse the flames and move explosives out of the warehouse when the blast occurred. There was no warning or time to evacuate the site and 115 people were killed, some up to 100 yards from the explosion that left a crater 120 feet across and 20 feet deep.

To an extent it was fortunate that the blast took place on a Sunday. The factory was not fully staffed over the weekend and the women employed in the production process were not present. In addition, significant amounts of explosive failed to detonate. Nevertheless, it was one of the worst disasters ever experienced in the explosives industry. Harry Gollop lived to tell the tale only because he had left just before the fire was discovered. If had been present and, with others, had fought to contain the flames it is very likely that he would have died.

It is recognised that those who worked in the munitions industry made a major contribution to the war effort. However, it was at a heavy cost. Despite attempts by Lloyd George’s Ministry of Munitions to improve working conditions and safety, further explosions in factories at Silvertown in 1917 and Chilwell in 1918 killed over 200 people and injured many more.

With the end of the war, need for large scale production of explosives was removed. The Faversham factory closed in 1919. Those that died on April 2 1916 are commemorated at Faversham Cemetery.

Tony Peters, Glamorgan Archives Volunteer