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The Day the Sky Fell In: Tragedy on the Town Moor

We all know Victorian Newcastle must have been a dangerous place to live in - disease and crime to name a few. Sue Hope has delved into the story of another untold danger that led to tragedy in Newcastle, one Christmas day in 1867.

Just over 150 years ago, a little-known and violent tragedy took place on Newcastle Town Moor.

It was a few days before Christmas in 1867, and eight people were to die, with others sustaining horrific injuries.

December 17th, this black day for the city, began with someone thoughtlessly storing explosives in the cellars of the White Swan Inn, in what is now the Cloth Market.

Police were alerted and found about nine canisters there, containing “Nobel’s Blasting Oil,” a nitro-glycerine preparation used in mining. This substance is highly volatile at the best of times, but the rusty old containers it was kept in would turn a bad situation into a lethal one.

The authorities now had to come up with a plan – and quickly.

Unfortunately, they were unable to remove the chemical from the town altogether, as the railway companies refused point blank to have anything to do with transporting such a dangerous load.

So it was decided to move the liquid nitro-glycerine without delay to the open spaces of the city’s Town Moor and, erring on the side of caution, bury it in some shallow pits there rather than trying to explode it themselves.

This seemed the most sensible course of action at the time.

The canisters were carefully placed on a cart driven by Thomas Appleby, an intrepid carter’s boy, whilst a horse-drawn cab full of policemen and officials followed. The most prominent men amongst these were Sheriff John Mawson and Town Surveyor Thomas Bryson, both there to supervise proceedings and make sure everything was brought to a satisfactory conclusion.

Mawson, the leader of the operation, seemed ideally suited to the task. He was a noted chemist who pioneered several techniques in the new science of photography. His partner and eventual brother-in-law was no less a person than Joseph Swan, inventor of the incandescent light bulb.

Two boys and an unknown man followed the vehicles on foot out of curiosity, completing the strange little procession, as Appleby cautiously drove his cart towards the Town Moor whilst doing his best to avoid any bumps in the road.

When they reached what was considered a safe part of the Moor, procedures to render the substance harmless began at once.

The corks of the canisters were drawn out with a pricker and the deadly liquid emptied into depressions in the ground left behind by the workings of the Spital Tongues Colliery. A policeman named Wallace was now given the job of covering these with soil.

So far, all was going well.

But three canisters still felt heavy, and Mawson ordered that they be broken open to see what the problem was. Unbelievably, the ends of the containers were now hacked off with a shovel.

It was discovered that some of the contents had become crystallised over time and were adhering to the sides of the canisters, and the Sheriff himself led the remainder of the group over to a nearby hillock to bury them.

This was the moment when something went catastrophically wrong. Exactly what, still isn’t properly understood but there was now a huge explosion from this area. The ground shook, and earth, debris and even human body parts rained down from the heavens.

The blast was so powerful that the cabman who had brought the officials there, and who had been driving round to exercise his horses at least a hundred yards away, had all his cab windows broken and was actually blown forward on to the horses’ backs by the force of it.

When the smoke eventually cleared, a ghastly sight met the eye.

Wallace, who had been working behind an earthen bank, was unscathed. The rest were not so fortunate.

Mangled and mutilated bodies lay everywhere. Several people, including one of the young boys, George Stonehouse, and the mystery adult onlooker, a man aged about forty, had been killed outright. Others were horribly injured.

The cabman immediately drove Wallace into town to fetch help and they soon managed to find two medics, Doctors Fife and Heath, who hurried to the site of the disaster.

Also, by a strange piece of luck, a young surgeon called Walpole, from the nearby Infirmary, had been walking on the Moor close to where the explosion struck and was very quickly on the scene trying to give what assistance he could.

Some victims were beyond help, but the injured were comforted and had stimulants administered to them. Three of the worst affected – Mawson, Bryson and the second boy, Samuel Wadley, who had only tagged along for fun – were taken by cart to the City Infirmary. Samuel died there two hours later, and Mawson and Bryson the following night. Eight people were killed in total.

Not surprisingly, there was a great public outcry over what had happened. A man called Burrell was identified as the owner of the canisters and it eventually came out that he had persuaded an ostler at the White Swan Inn to store them in the pub cellars for him.

A Coroner’s inquest was convened for Sheriff Mawson, as the person who had been in overall charge of the doomed disposal effort. The jury, in their verdict, decided that the deaths of Mawson and the others had been caused by a tragic accident, but noted sternly that “the law in reference to the storing of nitro-glycerine has been grossly violated in this case.”

This tragedy had involved civilian officials and police who were trying to do their civic duty in an extremely difficult situation. Perhaps some of their actions might be considered careless or amateurish today, but there were no such things as military bomb disposal squads then, nor did they possess the detailed knowledge of explosives we now possess, won at hard cost over the years.

These were undoubtedly very brave men who paid the ultimate price for trying to be public spirited.


Sue Hope is a History graduate with a particular interest in local history and has had articles published in "The Northumbrian" and "Durham Town and Country." She is currently working on a novel about George Cooper Abbes, an eccentric antiquarian from Cleadon Village who was a close friend of Charles Dickens.


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