The Explosion on the Town Moor, Newcastle

The following is an account published in April 1888 which tells the tale of a tragic accident which occurred on the Town Moor in Newcastle in December 1867.

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Twenty years ago, a terrible accident occurred on the Town Moor, resulting in the deaths of eight persons, two of them esteemed and prominent citizens of Newcastle. Not since the Gateshead explosion had anything happened which startled and shocked the town so much as this singular and remarkable fatality. The story will not take long in the telling.

In December, 1867, the attention of the police was called to the fact that a quantity of explosive material was stored in a cellar in the White Hart Yard, Newcastle. On examination this proved to be nitro-glycerine, a compound produced by the action of a mixture of strong nitric and sulphuric acids on glycerine at low temperatures. The material was contained in nine large tins or canisters, each holding 24lbs.; and the police were told that it was intended for blasting purposes in mines and quarries, and for this purpose it was doubtless useful, as exposure to flame did not cause it to explode, though explosion instantly followed a strong blow or concussion. The police-superintendent having conferred with the authorities, an order was given that the nitro-glycerine should be at once removed from the town or destroyed. The railway company, however, would have nothing to do with it, and it was ultimately resolved that it should be taken to the Moor, and there poured into the depressions caused by the workings of the Spital Tongues Colliery. The Sheriff of Newcastle, Mr. John Mawson, and the Town Surveyor, Mr. Thomas Bryson, determined to accompany the material to its destination. Accordingly, on the 17th December, 1867, Thomas Appleby, cartman, a labourer named James Shotton, Constable Donald Bain, and Sub-Inspector Wallace, set out with the canisters in a cart, Messrs. Mawson and Bryson following in a cab.

When the party reached the Town Moor, the tins were taken out of the cart, and the contents of some of them poured into the depressions mentioned, which were situated at no great distance from the Grand Stand, and close to a wooden building that had been erected for use as a temporary hospital in the event of a visit of cholera. It was then found that a portion of the nitro-glycerine in three of the canisters had crystallised and was adhering to the sides. Mr. Mawson expressed a wish to have a sample of the compound to take away for further examination. A piece of the crystal was accordingly broken off, and Mr. Mawson put it into the pocket of his overcoat. He then said to the men, “Bring these three tins away, and we will bury them under the other hill” — referring to a part of the Moor distant a few yards away. Mr. Mawson, Mr. Bryson, the policeman Bain, and Appleby and Shotton then went over to the hill indicated, leaving Sub-Inspector Wallace engaged in covering up the liquid compound with soil. What followed after this will never be rightly known.

Just as Mr. Wallace had finished his task, and was about to join the others, a terrible explosion occurred. Fragments of clothing and human remains were sent flying high into the air. Though dreadfully startled and alarmed, Wallace was uninjured, having been sheltered by a bank which lay between him and his unfortunate companions. On hurrying to the scene, the first thing he found was the mutilated and shattered remains of poor Bain, portions of the body having been actually blown away. He next came to the cartman, Appleby, fearfully disfigured and lifeless; and near to him was the mutilated body of the labourer, Shotton, likewise dead. In a hole of the ground above was found a boy, named Waddley, who, as well as another lad named Stonehouse, had followed the cart to the Moor from curiosity. Close to this poor lad was found the body of a man, apparently about forty, whose name was unknown, and who had also followed the cart to the Moor. Lying on the side of the bank was Mr. Bryson, and on the top of the same place was Mr. Mawson, both gentlemen being alive, but fearfully injured.

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Mr. Wallace hurried with all speed into the town, where he informed Dr. Fife and Dr. Heath of the terrible affair. These two gentlemen set out at once for the scene of the accident. It happened that, just as the explosion occurred, a young surgeon named Walpole was walking on the Moor only a short distance from the spot. Dust, stones, fragments of clothing, &c, suddenly fell all around him. About three hundred yards from whore the catastrophe had occurred, he found the foot of a human being, supposed to be that of poor Bain. Hunting forward, Dr. Walpole next discovered Mr. Bryson in one of the excavations, and to all appearance dead. Stimulants having been administered, however, he began to show some signs of life. Dr. Walpole then placed Mr. Mawson, Mr. Bryson, and the boy Waddley in the cart which had brought the terrible explosive to the ground, and they were conveyed to the Infirmary. Two hours after his admission, the boy succumbed; and at half-past one o’clock next morning Mr. Bryson died, Mr. Mawson surviving him an hour and twenty minutes.

It is really impossible to adequately describe the excitement and consternation which this awful accident caused in Newcastle. Mingled with the sorrow and sympathy felt for the victims there was a great amount of indignation against those who had stored the fatal agent in the very centre of a large town. A Mr. Spark, an auctioneer, commission agent, &c, had settled in the town a few months before, and had taken an agency for nitro-glycerine from a Mr. Burrell, who had resigned it. Some little time before, Burrell had prevailed upon the ostler of the White Hart inn to allow him to store several tins of the explosive in the cellars of that hostelry. This fact coming to the knowledge of the police, they seized the tins, with the terrible result that we have recounted. The day after the explosion Mr. Spark presented himself before the magistrates in order to explain his possession of the material. Little blame seems really to have attached to him, since at the time of the occurrence he was not the regularly appointed agent, and was still negotiating with the firm to which the nitro-glycerine belonged. A great deal of evidence was given at the inquest which was subsequently held, and the jury returned a verdict of “Accidental death.” In all eight persons perished in the explosion — the Sheriff, the Town Surveyor, P.C. Bain, Thomas Appleby, James Shotton, the boys Stanley Waddley and James Stonehouse, and a man whose name was never ascertained.

The terrible nature of the accident was discussed all over the country. It was about the time of the Clerkenwell outrage, and, of course, till the full particulars were explained, the Fenians were suspected of causing the calamity.

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John Mawson, a native of Penrith, was apprenticed to a chemist and druggist in Sunderland. When he had finished his apprenticeship, he began business on his own account in that borough, but was not successful. He shortly afterwards removed to Newcastle, where he opened a shop, and here he also failed. This failure, however, was due to his having stood bond to a large amount for a friend, who left Mr. Mawson to pay the money. Nothing daunted, he tried business once more, this time in Mosley Street, where he remained till his death. Here he was more fortunate, and began to make fight against his debts, having resolved to pay everybody to the last farthing. He stoutly refused to take “the benefit of the Act,” and, like most men who stick to a good resolution, he ultimately achieved his purpose. And he deserved to succeed, for he worked with great energy and determination. His first successful venture was the introduction into Newcastle of Rothwell’s Fire Fuel, which he afterwards got a patent to manufacture. With this material he did a very large trade. His next venture was in German yeast, which was first imported into the North of England by Mr. Mawson. The writer remembers the crowds of people who used to go to his shop for this indispensable commodity, as that was the only place in the town where it could then be purchased. Mr. Mawson, in partnership with his relative, Mr. Joseph Wilson Swan, famous a few years later for the invention of the electric appliance known as the Swan Lamp, produced a series of very great improvements in photography.

Now that the tide had turned, Mr. Mawson saw his way to the great object he had always held in view — the discharge of every farthing of his debts. Such were the honour and probity of the man, that he seemed to work for this sole object. But he had his moments of despair. “I shall be eighty before I can pay all I owe,” he once said to an old friend. Before he was forty, however, he had succeeded in his laudable purpose. A splendid bookcase, filled with valuable books, was presented to him on the occasion by his gratified creditors. This took place, we believe, in 1849. Thereafter, till his sad and tragical death in 1867, Mr. Mawson’s career was one of unbroken prosperity and public usefulness.

Mr. Mawson was twice married. His first wife, to whom he was united in 1838, was Miss Jane Cameron, of Sunderland. This lady, after a long and severe illness, died in 1844. She was a singularly amiable and exemplary woman; and two years after her death, Mr. Brown, of Barnard Castle, and the well-known Dr. F. R. Lees, compiled from her diary and correspondence a “Memoir of Mrs. Jane Mawson.” Some years after her untimely death, Mr. Mawson married the niece of his first wife, and the sister of his partner, Mr. Swan. Of this marriage there was a family of five or six children.

Elected to the Newcastle Town Council for West All Saints’ Ward in 1858, Mr. Mawson was allowed on all hands to be a faithful and zealous representative. It was during his absence on the Continent that he was elected to the office of Sheriff, on the 9th of November preceding his death.

From a very early age Mr. Mawson was a zealous reformer. In Newcastle he always supported the Radical candidates for Parliament, and he seconded Sir Joseph Cowen at that gentleman’s first election. Those who are old enough to remember the Old Lecture Room meetings, where there was always so much public spirit and heartiness displayed, will also recollect that John Mawson’s pleasant smiling face was seldom absent. He was a hard working temperance reformer, too, and frequently travelled with other zealous teetotallers amongst the North-Country pitmen, doing his best to make converts to the cause. As a member of the Peace Society, he attended several of the international conferences which were held from time to time in different parts of Europe. But perhaps, after all, it was as the friend of the slave that he was best known. He was for many years the earnest and willing helper of George Thompson, William Lloyd Garrison, William Wells Brown, and other eloquent advocates of negro redemption. During the terrible war between the Northern and Southern States, when the slaveholders found so many friends in England, and even great statesmen prophesied the ultimate success of the South, John Mawson remained a constant adherent of the Northern cause, and never wavered in the opinion that slavery would be blotted out for ever. When the war was at length at an end, his life-long friend, Mr. Garrison, came to Newcastle, where he was entertained at a soiree in the Assembly Rooms.

For this sketch of the career of Mr. Mawson, we have been much indebted to an article which appeared in the Daily Chronicle at the time of his death. We cannot do better than quote here the few concluding lines of the biography, which form a summary, as it were, of the deceased gentleman’s many good qualities: — “Honest in business, intelligent as a politician, earnest in public matters, faithful at all times to his convictions, Mr. Mawson was certainly one of the most esteemed citizens of Newcastle. The integrity of his conduct, the excellence of his public, the spotless purity of his private, life, and the tragic manner of his death, all conspire to claim for John Mawson a distinguished place in the catalogue of Newcastle worthies.”

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Mr. Bryson was a native of Tweedmouth, and was Apprenticed as a stonemason in that town. While still a very young man, he left the little Border town, and was employed for some time at Howick Hall, the seat of Earl Grey. Subsequently he was engaged by Mr. Richard Grainger, who was then carrying out his great improvements in Newcastle. Mr. Bryson showing great practical ability, Mr. Grainger appointed him to a place of trust and responsibility. While engaged on some work at the Exchange Buildings, Grey Street, he slipped from the scaffold on which he was standing, and fell a distance of 38 feet. He was dreadfully injured, and lay for some time unconscious. It was several months before he recovered from the effects of this serious accident; but when his health was sufficiently restored, he entered into the service of the Newcastle Corporation as Superintendent of Works under Mr. Wallace. This position he occupied until 1854, when important changes were made in the duties of the officials. Mr. Wallace was appointed Corporation Property Surveyor, and Mr. Bryson was promoted to the position of Town Surveyor. In the performance of his duties he displayed the most zealous care for the interests of the town. Many incidents which occurred during his useful life illustrate his kind and benevolent disposition. Mr. Bryson was interred in Jesmond Old Cemetery on December 21, 1867. A very large number of friends, as well as members of the Council and other influential inhabitants, followed his remains to the grave. Dr. Rutherford (with whose congregation the deceased gentleman had been connected for many years) conducted the service. Mr. Bryson was 62 years of age at the time of his untoward death.

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