The Explosives Works at Cliffe
Site of the Explosives Factories
Please note that it is not possible to visit this site. Permission will not be given. There is a vast amount of detailed information, explanation, photographs, maps and diagrams contained in the English Heritage report indicated below.
The Explosives Factory at Cliffe is situated about two kilometres to the northwest of the village of Cliffe on the south bank of the Thames. The factory began life as a Gunpowder Works, established in 1892 by Hay, Merricks and Company, gunpowder makers of Roslin, Scotland. It was a specialised Gunpowder Works engaged only in the finishing operations of gunpowder manufacture, namely blending, dusting and packing. A jetty was constructed to receive and dispatch powder and the original licence plan showed it was intended to construct 14 buildings. However, it appears that only two buildings were erected. An amending licence was issued and the site was used for the storage of explosives and electrical detonators, with a potential capacity of 400 tons. During the Great War Curtis's and Harvey at Cliffe was listed as a place where gunpowder was either manufactured or stored.
In 1898 the site was acquired by Curtis's and Harvey, gunpowder makers of Hounslow who by this date had a controlling interest in 50% of the British gunpowder industry. The flat, open and remote site at Cliffe was ideal for the construction of a new chemical explosives factory for the manufacture of nitro-glycerine, and nitro-glycerine based products. In June 1901 an amending licence was issued for the manufacture of cordite, blasting gelatine and gelatine dynamite. Further amending licences were granted as the factory expanded including one to manufacture the chlorate based explosive ‘Cheddite’.
The eastern part of the factory is depicted on the 1908 Ordnance Survey map Kent IV.10, but does not show the functions of the individual buildings.
At the end of the Great War Curtis's and Harvey were absorbed into Explosives Trades Limited which later became Nobel Industries Limited. The Cliffe factory was, however, a victim of the sharp downturn in the explosives market at the end of the Great War and the factory closed in 1921.
Extensive remains of the factory survive on Cliffe Marshes with the potential to recover an almost complete plan of the works. The remains comprise earthworks of traverses and the lines of internal tramways, concrete floor slabs and a number of standing but roofless buildings. A row of concrete stanchions also survives on the site, which may represent the line of steam heating pipes or may be an element of a Second World War Bombing Decoy.
An excellent report on the site has been produced by English Heritage, ‘Curtis’s and Harvey Ltd Explosives Factory, Cliffe and Cliffe Woods, Medway: Archaeological Survey and Analysis of the Factory Remains’ which is well worth consulting.
At its height, during WWI, the explosives works brought many workers to Cliffe but it was a dangerous workplace and several accidents occurred.
Below is a report, by the Chatham, Rochester and Gillingham News dated Saturday. February 27, 1904, on one such incident.
THE CLIFFE EXPLOSIONS
INQUESTS AT ROCHESTER & CLIFFE.
LAST WEEKS DISASTER - “FUMING THE PROBABLE CAUSE”.
INQUEST AT THE FACTORY.
Mr C. B. Harris. Deputy Coroner for the county, opened an inquest at the works on Saturday, on the remains of Daniel O’Donnall, William Henry Know and John Murray, three of the four men killed in the explosion on Thursday last.
The body of Elijah Talbot the fourth victim was lying in St Bartholomew’s Hospital, Rochester, awaiting a inquest before the City Coroner on Monday.
The jury was the same as that summoned to inquire into the death of the young man Kenknight, one of the victims of the explosion a fortnight previously, Mr J. Robertson being again chosen foreman.
The Coroner remarked in opening, that he very much regretted that the juiy should have to be called upon again so soon to inquire into the cause of another accident there, more serious than the last one.
He announced that he proposed that day to evidence of identification and then adjourn until the 10th March, the same day to which the last inquest was adjourned, and dispose of the two together.
VIEWING THE REMAINS OF THE ROUND HOUSE.
The jury then proceeded to view the scene of the disaster, and it was only on arrival at the spot that the awful effects of the explosion could be fully realised. The havoc wrought was simply appalling The “Round House” in which building the nitrating house was included, was blown to atoms and only huge timbers which were snapped like sticks and the mound which had surrounded the house , remained, the debris being strewn all over the factory.
With regard to the numerous other buildings on the works, which cover an area of several acres, all were more or less damaged, but those on the north side , towards which the wind was blowing at the time, suffered most, some of them being completely wrecked.
The shattered remains of the three of unfortunate men who were at work inside the building at the time were found among the debris on the site.
Talbot, who died while being conveyed to hospital, was caught beneath the tower of the round house, a huge timber construction, which toppled over and was literally smashed.
The manager, who accompanied the Coroner and jury, explained that at the time of the explosion, there were 2,000. lbs of nitro-glycerine in the house - 1,000. Ibs refined and 1000.lbs in a raw state - this being the maximum quantity allowed. The explosion it was stated, was supposed to be due to the “fuming” of the dangerous compound which was likely to occur at any moment, “fuming” being set up by decomposition or the presence of some foreign matter, such even as a man’s cap falling into a tank containing the mixture.
A large tank filled with water was provided at the top of the building with the idea of flooding the tanks in case of “fuming”. The water had, however, to be turned on instantly otherwise an explosion was bound to follow.
Persons at a distance saw that the acids were “fuming” on Thursday morning, some seconds before the explosion occurred , but whether the water was turned on in accordance with instructions given to the men employed in the house can never be known, as all those in a position to know lost their lives Having finished their examination of the site the jury viewed the remains which had been placed in coffins under the direction of Dr A. B. Rogers.
On the return of the jury to the mess-room where the enquiry was held the following evidence was taken; - Joseph McCleak, foreman [who himself had a narrow escape], gave evidence as to the identification of deceased.
Daniel O Donnell. He was employed as a “hillman”, this being a technical term for a man engaged in the manufacture of nitro-glycerine.
He saw deceased a few minutes before nine o-clock a.m. on Thursday, at the preliminary washing tank in the nitrating or ‘A’ house. A few minutes later an explosion occurred there. Witness had seen the remains viewed by the jury, and was satisfied, from a tattoo mark on the arm and the colour of the hair on the head, which was very close and curly, that some of the remains were those of deceased. O‘Donnell, was 36 years of age and resided at Reed Street, Cliffe.
George Turner, a paste mixer, employed at the works and living at 1, South - View , Cliffe, said he had lived at the same house as the deceased Know. He identified by the hair part of the remains which had been recovered as those of the deceased, who was aged 19 and employed as a bogie runner, employed at the works.
William Murray, caretaker at the works, father of John Murray said the deceased lived with him at the gate-house on the factory and was employed as “hillman”. He was at work in the building at the time of the explosion, on Thursday morning. His son had fair hair and was 37 years of age.
Dr Arthur Bowles Rogers, in practice at Cliffe, deposed that he had seen the remains presumed to be those of Murray. There was a certain amount of fair hair on parts of a human scalp. There was about half the body left but it was very shattered. Witness had known Murray for three years and there was every reason to suppose that these were his remains.
The Coroner here observed that they could not take the matter further that day. Major Cooper-Key; H. M. Inspector of explosives was looking into the matter on behalf of the Home Office, and he would attend the adjourned inquest.
SYMPATHY WITH THE RELATIVES.
The Foreman said he should like to express, on behalf of the jury, their deep sympathy with the relatives of the deceased and was sure that everyone felt very much for them.
The inquest was then adjourned till March 10th.
INQUEST AT ROCHESTER.
On Monday afternoon, the inquest on the body of the deceased Elijah Talbot was opened at St Bartholomew’s Hospital Rochester, before, Mr R . J. M. Steadman, City Coroner.
The deceased was crushed beneath the falling timbers of the tower of the Round House, and could not be extricated until the wood had been sawn through. He was in the act of assisting to hoist a bag of soda by means of a winch and pulley arrangement at the time the explosion occurred. His mate Charles Brown, who was working at the other end of the winch, escaped, although rather seriously hurt. Talbot was placed in an ambulance promptly lent by Mr J. C. Huntley, manager of the Associated Portland Cement Manufacturers works, Cliffe, but died some time before the Hospital was reached.
Mr. R. Lane junior was chosen foreman of the jury.
The Coroner informed the jury that he had hoped at one time to have been able to finish the inquiry at one sitting, but he had received a letter from Major Cooper-Key H.M. Inspector of Explosives, informing him that he would be unable to be present that day. Major Cooper-Key had he believed inquiries to pursue in respect of the three other men killed in the explosion. He proposed, therefore to take formal evidence of identification that day and then adjourn until some day after the 10th March next, when the Inspector told him he would be at liberty to attend.
Neither Mr Soddy, the chemist, nor injured man Brown, were able to be present on this occasion.
Evidence of identification was given by William Elijah Talbot, an insurance agent living at 4. Amy- terrace, Cliffe at Hoo, and a son of deceased, who said his father was 55 years of age and was living immediately previous to his removal to Hospital at - Providence-cottages, Cliffe. He was in the employ of Messrs Curtis and Harvey Ltd.
Witness accompanied deceased to the hospital; his father gave no indication of life after he left the works.
Joseph McKleak, foreman of the nitro- glycerine department at the works, living at Thomy-cottage, Cliffe, said he had known deceased as John Talbot.
He had been in the employ of the Company as “hillman” or nitro-glycerine worker.
The inquiry was then adjourned till Monday March 14th at twelve o’clock noon, at the Guildhall.
MEMORIAL SERVICE AT CLIFFE CHURCH.
A large congregation responded to the rector’s [Rev. H. B. Boyd’s] invitation to join in a united memorial service at Cliffe Church on Sunday evening. The service opened with hymn 449 “When our heads are bowed with woe” and the prayers were intoned by the Curate the Rev. L. Walters.
Very impressively rendered were the special Psalms XXIIII & XC, and the lesson chosen for the occasion, Ecclesiastes XL,9 and XII. and 1. Corinthians XV., 35 to end were read by Mr F Rogers. Hymn 401 “Now the labourer’s task is o’er”. Was followed by special prayers for the injured and bereaved and then followed Hymn 289, “Days and moments quickly flying”. The Rector chose for his text Psalm IXXIII 15-16- “ Then thought I to understand this; but it was too hard for me until I went into the sanctuary of God; then understood I the end of these men”.
The Rev gentleman after, a discourse on the words of the unknown writer, dwelt upon their application to this parish. All had passed through a sad and painful time; many an anxious heart was bewildered. The sound of the explosion filled them with terror. Until the sad news reached them they were filled with foreboding. Was one of their loved ones gone? Life though sudden to them, was not sudden to God, with whom a thousand years were as of yesterday, they must look to him for comfort, for consolation. If God our father was in heaven, all’s well in the earth. The voice of God was speaking to us. Was it a word of warning? ‘'Prepare to meet thy God”. If so they must repent truly of their sins and look to him with the eye of faith, enter his sanctuary and pour out their hearts’ sorrow to Him, who has said “I will not leave thee nor forsake thee”.
The service concluded with Hymn 499 “on the resurrection morning”, and the Dead March in “Saul”, most impressively played on the organ by Mr.L.Search, It was a most affecting service and many were moved to tears.
THE FUNERALS. THE VILLAGE IN MOURNING.
The funeral of the young man Moon, one of the victims of the explosion on February 4th took place on Monday.
He had been a member of the Cline [D] Company of the 4th V.B., the Queens Own [Royal West Kent] Regiment, since its formation and was a corporal, and the remains were laid to rest in the parish churchyard with full military honours. Six of his comrades bore the corpse to the grave, and at the close of the impressive service a salute was fired and the “Last Post” sounded by the bugles.
Capt. C. H. Scriven commanding the Company, and Lieut. H. F. Cobb, were among the mourners ,while several of the workmen from the factory, including some of the heads of departments - Mr Shacklady, the chief chemist; Mr Bryan, engineer, and Mr Woodall, superintendent of the nitric acid departments - also followed . The service was conducted by the Rector [the Rev. H. B. Boyd] in the presence of a large assembly of sympathetic friends. Among the wreaths received were artificial tributes, under glass shades, “from his chums” from his comrades, and “from the Cheddite department.”
The other unfortunate men were buried on Wednesday, and the gloom which during the week had been hanging over the village became intensified. The whole district was in mourning. The whole of the shops closed by arrangement early in the day, and business was entirely suspended; the public houses closed their doors while the funeral was in progress. There was scarcely a house to be seen that had not its blinds closely drawn, and people came from near and far to witness the sad ceremony.
The remains of O'Donnell who was a Catholic, were interred in the morning, the priest being the Rev. Father Regan, of Gravesend. The chief mourners included the grief stricken widow, her two eldest children, and some lady friends.
The Rector also kindly accompanied the widow to the grave side, where the former workmates of the deceased were assembled. In this case also artificial wreaths under shades were contributed by “from sympathetic friends” and “friends of Cliffe Creek”.
The funeral of the other three men followed in the afternoon, and was of a most impressive character.
Poor Talbot was conveyed from his residence in Reed -Street, on the shoulders of six of the committee of the local Co-operative Society, of which he was president, and was followed by a long procession of relatives including his family, and many representatives of the Co-operative Societies from all over the county. Among the latter were Messrs. W. J. Penny, president of the Sheerness Economical Society; C. E. Streetfield, president of Green-street Co-operative Society; J. Woodhams, director of the Sheerness Co-operative; Mark H. Clear, secretary of the Southern Section [Sheerness District] Co-operative Union; E.
T. Butterworth and A. Cunningham of the Co-operative Wholesale Society. R. Powell, president, and G. E. Turner, a member of the Committee of the Rochester and District Co-operative Society; W. T. Barnett secretary of the New Brompton Co-operative Society; C. Cooper, auditor and A. L. Chesterton, manager to the Cliffe- at- Hoo Co-operative Society; W. May of the Gravesend Co-operative Society; W. Williamson of the Folkestone Society; R. Temouth , of the Chatham Society; J. Barden, president of the Rainham Society; and N. Andrews, president of the Sittingboume Society.
The remains of Murray and Know were brought from the works, where they had remained from the time of the explosion, in glass cars, the coffin containing those of Murray, who was also a Volunteer, being covered with the Union Flag.
Semi military honours were accorded the latter. Captain C. H. Scriven, Sergt, Instructor Byrne and a number of non-commissioned officers and men of D. Company meeting the car containing the coffin on the road, and forming an escort to the burial ground.
Many of the workmen from the factory which was closed from mid-day also joined the procession at the same point, while others met it at the entrance to the churchyard.
Among the employees from the works present were Mr. Shacklady, chief chemist, Mr Soddy, chemist: Mr Woodall, Superintendent, nitric acid department; Mr Drake, chief clerk; and Mr Bryan, engineer. The manager Mr Seip, was unavoidably absent, he having been called away on urgent business. The three processions arrived simultaneously at the church yard at three o’clock , the hour appointed for the funeral to take place, and were preceded into the church by the clergy - the Rector [the Rev. H. B. Boyd) the Curate [the Rev L. J. Walters], and the Rev. Gustavius Jones, Rector of Southfleet - reciting the opening sentences of the solemn service for the burial of the dead.
The body of Murray was conveyed in by six of his comrades of D Company, while that of Know was borne on the shoulders of six of his young workmates.
The bells which had previously been chiming the funeral hymn, “Days and moments quickly flying”, and in this way had rung out a solemn warning to the crowd assembled, were now slowly tolling.
Men removed hats and all were hushed as the bodies passed through into the sacred edifice. Here they were placed side by side on trestles in the central aisle, the church being crowded with a large reverent and sympathetic congregation, at the close of the first portion of the service, the coffins were taken again into the churchyard and deposited by the graves prepared to receive them.
The mourners and the people quietly assembled round the respective graves, and the three clergymen taking their stand in each case at the head, pronounced the closing sentences as the remains were lowered to their last earthly resting place.
Not a sound was heard, save from the voice of the Priest and the occasional sobs of the sorrowing friends, and of women in the crowd. The scene was indescribably sad and impressive, and many a cheek was moistened by the tear which refused to be restrained.
The service over, the friends took one last long look into the grave which contained that which they held so dear, and then left to return to their respective residences. The crowd soon after quietly dispersed, and thus ended a scene which will live long in the memories of the villagers.
Many beautiful wreaths were placed on the coffins, Those sent to the Talbot family included beside several from relatives, one under a glass shade from the Co-operative Unions ; the National Deposit, Friendly Society: the members of the Cliffe-at-Hoo Co-operative Society : Committee and employees of the same Society ; the London branch of the Co-operative Wholesale Society ; and various friends.
On the coffin of Murray was a beautiful floral tribute, inscribed “a mark of respect and deepest sympathy from his comrades of the D Company, 4th V.B., R. W. K . R., Cliffe”; and another from friends of Cliffe Creek.
An artificial wreath “from his friends” was also placed upon the grave of “Willie” Know.
According to the reports between 1904 and 1921 by HM Inspector of Explosives the number of people that were killed were twenty-one and a further thirty-eight suffered injuries. Thankfully there were also a number of accidents, twenty in all, which did not result in death or injury.