Nostalgia - The day Dalkeith and district shook

The ruined Stobbs' gunpowder mills. Photo: Bob Smith
The ruined Stobbs' gunpowder mills. Photo: Bob Smith

It shook the region all around to a distance of 20 miles in two almighty blasts, writes Derek Hanlon (Dalkeith: Historic Town Facebook group).

At Edinburgh, it was assumed that the loud peels of noise had come from neighbouring quarries or perhaps from the naval salutes of vessels out on the Firth.

At Lauder, Ormiston and Tranent, they all felt it. In Haddington, Captain Hall said the noise level was like the South American earthquakes. At Musselburgh, several panes of glass were broken and some received contusions from stones. At North Berwick, they said it was like the distant report of cannon. Their houses shook. At Dalkeith, the streets were immediately filled with townsfolk believing their houses were to be brought down, crushing them beneath. The blast-winds were so strong that their doors blew open and with the tremendous power of concussion, the Church bells of Dalkeith tolled.

At Gorebridge, a shoemaker sitting at work had his head cut by flying pieces of glass when his window was forced out. Indeed, most of the windows of Gorebridge and Stobbs’ village were shattered – many of the casements forced in and the tile roofs partially and in some cases, completely destroyed. Roof tiles blown out of place were said to make the roofs resembled sieves.

The glass in the hothouses at Vogire shattered; the ceiling of a house at Fountain hall was thrown down. Trees in the neighbourhood, some of them quite tall and well established, were described as being torn up by the roots or shivered as if by lightning. People who were on the high road felt a sudden pressure and could not workout the cause until a huge volume of black smoke, mixed with large stones rose from the valley like the irruption of a volcano. They stood motionless, the cloud gathering itself up to completely darken the air.

These are some of the descriptions of the effects of the explosions at Stobbs’ gunpowder mills, four miles south of Dalkeith which occurred on Thursday, February 17, 1825. If all of this sounds a little spectacular and unbelievable to you, consider the likely impact of 90 working barrels of explosive – for that is what went up – converting to, a quite staggering six tons of gun powder.

Stobbs was one of the branches of the extensive manufacturers of gunpowder situated in a deep ravine near Gorebridge and owned by Messrs. Hitchener and Hunter for many years. Precisely how the accident occurred could not exactly be ascertained but the first explosion certainly took place in the drying-house where scarcely a stone remained in its original position. Instantly thereafter, the relief-house (or store-room) at the site exploded in manner even more terrific.

The blasts occurred either just before or just after 8 o’clock in the morning (reports differ on timing) and two men, Richard Cornwall and Walter Thomson, and a horse lost their lives in the disaster.

Mr Cornwall, a workman who had been about 30 years at the works, was in the drying-house, removing a quantity of gunpowder. At the door stood a small waggon and the horse, attended by Mr Thomson, who was conveying the powder in casks from the drying-house to the ‘relief’ about 30 feet distant. The relief house was used to keep the powder in until there was room in the drying house to receive it.

It was believed that Thomson had been in the act of unloading the cart at the moment the explosions occurred. Some of the barrels of powder were blown into the air and exploded over the heads of ploughmen in the fields. One ploughman, some distance away, was said to have been thrown from his plough to the distance of nearly 30 yards. Inevitably, both of the powder mill workmen were blown to smithereens; the horse too was blown away and the cart shattered and dispersed into thousands of pieces – the debris said to have covered the fields like flocks of birds.

For other people at close quarters, the scene was truly terrific; several leaped into the water for safety, others were beaten to the ground by the concussion. For a time, no-one attempted to raise themselves up to make sense of the shock or had the courage to enquire as to the extent of the devastation.

One report says that it was scarcely possible to describe it. The buildings had stood detached and at a considerable distance from each other but, with one exception, all were significantly altered - either the walls or the roofs. The drying house – a building of two stories with a very high chimney was completely levelled with some of the masonry driven into the earth to a considerable depth by the very tremendous blasts. A large boiler, weighing upwards of four tons, was thrown to the distance of fifteen yards.

Back in Dalkeith, the scene was described as one of deep and general alarm. As soon as, the nature of the accident was ascertained, the road to the works was crowded with people from Dalkeith and other parts in one continuous line hastening to the spot in vehicles of different sorts, as well as on horseback and on foot.

By three o’clock, part the mangled remains of Mr Cornwall were found. Mr Thomson’s head (identifiable by his neck-cloth) and parts of his body were also found at some distance. It proved very difficult to say which of the body parts belonged to which man. One reporter saw part of a man being drawn from a burn that ran nearby whilst other body parts were picked up in a field nearly a mile away.

Richard Cornwall’s family were said to be mostly grow-up but Walter Thomas left a widow and five children – the oldest being 13 years, the youngest being 10 months.

The horse had been hurled to a distance of 40 feet and its shoes of the fore and hinder feet of that side which was next to the door of the drying-house were torn off. Its carcass was completely singed and a large puncture was visible in the animal’s side, as though something had pierced through the poor beast’s body.

All very tragic, dramatic and gruesome. However, conducting searches to write this piece, I have to say how surprised I’ve been to read of so many explosions of gunpowder mills around this time. Indeed, at the same mills, Mr Hunter, proprietor of the company, was killed in a previous dreadful explosion on June 30, 1803, when standing in his own garden, a large stone from that blast carried away his arm. It all seems so hard to imagine now – like something from a disaster movie but, as I said, it shook Dalkeith and district to the core 190 years ago.