Today (October 2) in London History – Huge explosion

“The most terrific gunpowder explosion which has occurred in the metropolis during the memory of man” took place on October 2, 1874. This Today in London History podcast tells the tale.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

It was the big bang. You could hear it all over London.

The Telegraph described it as “the most terrific gunpowder explosion which has occurred in the metropolis during the memory of man.”

Three people were killed. Many were injured. At ground zero there was massive property damage. The full radius of the damage extended for a mile or more.

The psychological consternation – the fears, the confusion, the anxiety – was way over into the red zone.

So what happened?

Very early on the morning of October 2nd, 1874 – a train of five barges was being towed by a steam tug along the Regent’s Canal, towards Paddington. The Steamer was The Ready. It was followed by the fly-boat Jane. Next to her was the Dee. The Dee was followed by the Tillbury. After the Tillbury came the Limehouse. Bringing up the rear was the Hawksbury. The Tillbury, was laden with sugar, nuts, straw-boards, coffee, several barrels of petroleum and five tons of gunpowder. It was crewed by two men and a boy. The convoy was moving through the section of the canal that passes along the northern border of Regent’s Park, very near the London Zoo. Three or four minutes before 5 am the train of barges was passing under the bridge at North Gate, Regent’s Park. The Tillbury was directly under the bridge when the gunpowder suddenly exploded with, in the words of a contemporary newspaper account, “fearful violence.” The three crew members were killed instantly. A 74-year-old lady in the neighbourhood died of fright. A boy became idiotic. Lots of people were cut by flying glass. It was a lucky thing that they were in bed, in the prone position soldiers are taught to assume to avoid the force of explosives. The Tillbury, needless to say, was shattered to pieces. Apart from some of its columns, the North Bridge was entirely destroyed – the vessel and bridge were, in the words of a contemporary newspaper account, dashed into atoms. The noise and shock was registered in every quarter of London. In many instances ten or twelve miles away, both on the north and south side of the Thames. 

Working out from ground zero…

The canal was obstructed by a heap of rubbish 20 feet high, amidst which were to be seen some of the columns which supported the arches of the bridge. 

One of the other barges was sunk. A cottage, the new North Lodge of the Park, which stood just yards from the bridge, was completely destroyed. Trees on the canal banks were torn and scorched by the fire. Drains and sewers were burst open. Several nearby houses were half ruined. The contents of nearby shops were all over the pavements, the insides being perfectly gutted. Many houses didn’t have a single intact pane of glass. The luckiest man in London that night was the watchman on the bridge. He had just stepped off it a few minutes before.

Windows were broken and fragile furniture damaged in hundreds of other houses, a mile east or west of the blast site.

People in nearby houses were blown out of their beds by the shock. 

Residents a little bit further away told of hearing a tremendous report, finding their windows and doors driven in, their houses shaken, and the earth quaking. Whole neighbourhoods rushed out of their houses screaming for help, stricken with terror. Wild-eyed, they wondered where the explosion had come from. 

Was it the magazine at the Life Guards Barracks, which wasn’t far away. Or one of the huge gasometers, also close at hand. Could it have been a Fenian outrage? For anyone not familiar with that term, a Fenian was a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, a 19th-century revolutionary nationalist organisation. They were responsible for isolated revolutionary acts against the British until the early 20th century, when they were gradually eclipsed by the IRA. 

People dwelling close to the London and North-Western Railway imagined for a moment that a locomotive engine had blown up or that two engines had run headlong against each other. 

In the event, the effects of the explosion could have been far worse. If the blast had occurred in a tunnel amidst the crowded buildings of Finsbury or Pentonville – or at any part where, as in Kentish Town, the surface of the water was near the level of the adjoining streets – the fragments of the barge and cargo, would have been hurled in every direction for a hundred yards or more with terrible force and effect. Instead they were mostly confined to the deep cutting of the canal. It served as a conduit for the explosive gases of the gunpowder and petroleum, and for the violent currents of air, which took their direction due east and west, along the line of the canal. So there was very little damage done to the houses just a little to the north or south of the line. The houses at a far greater distance east and west felt the blow much more severely. 

Two final matters. Needless to say, the animals in the zoo were much terrified by the blast. Their cages weren’t blown open. Had they been so, terrified agitated lions and tigers and bears and elephants and antelopes and apes and the zoo’s rhinoceros would have been on the loose in London. A few small birds did escape. They may have been the second luckiest creatures in London on October 2nd, 1874.

Secondly, another weird coincidence. Ten years ago virtually to the day – ok, it was October 1, 1864 – a powder magazine in Erith in southeast London blew up. Londoners thought it was an earthquake. Is there something about early October and gunpowder and London? Summer going out with a bang and all of that?

And a Today in London recommendation. This one’s a no-brainer. Go on the Regent’s Canal Walk, the one from Little Venice to Camden. It goes up “blow up bridge”, as it’s known today. And to this day there’s trace evidence – more than trace, significant evidence – of the explosion. Roger and his team make sure you see that evidence. And understand what you’re looking at. 

The next Little Venice to Camden Walk this year, 2022, takes place on December 4th. The River Tyburn to Camden Walk the IWA team of guides do also takes in the bridge. Though admittedly that walk comes up much less frequently in our programme. 

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just-the-right-size walking tour company. And as long as we’re at it, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative. 

That’s the key to everything. It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for £20 a walk. But you cannot get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.

It’s not rocket science: you get what you pay for. And just as surely, you also get what you don’t pay for. 

Back in 1968 when we got started we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a searching question: Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world? You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world you do whatever you have to do to attract and keep the best guides in London – you want them guiding for you, not for somebody else. Bears repeating: the way we’re structured – a guides’ cooperative – is the key to the whole thing. It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason people who know go with London Walks, it’s the reason we’ve got a big following, a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality.

It’s the reason we’re able – uniquely – to front our walks with accomplished, in many cases distinguished professionals: barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, a bevy of MVPs, Oscar winners (people who’ve won the Guide of the Year Award)… well, you get the idea. As that travel writer famously put it, “if this were a golf tournament, every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”

And as we put it: London Walks Guides make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. See ya tomorrow.

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