2 October 1874. It was just before 5am on this autumn morning in Regent’s Park when a small convoy of narrowboats, pulled along by a tugboat, glided westwards along the Regent’s Canal, heading for the Midlands. On board the third narrowboat in the convoy – Tilbury – was captain Charles Baxton, a labourer named William Taylor, a third man and a young boy. Also on board was a cargo of sugar, nuts, three barrels of petroleum and around five tons of gunpowder.
The vessels were just turning into the cut behind the Zoological Gardens and passing under North Gate Bridge, when Tilbury suddenly exploded. The violence of the blast was so great that it was heard 20 miles away. Debris flew in all directions, the roofs of surrounding houses blew off, windows smashed, trees uprooted and dead fish rained down on the West End. The tugboat’s keel was found embedded in a house 300 yards away. The bridge was destroyed and all aboard Tilbury were killed.
Londoners flocked to the scene, still in their bedclothes, to help the police and fire brigade sift through the wreckage and recover bodies from the canal. Horse guards from the Albany Barracks were brought in to keep order, particularly because of speculation that cages in the zoo had been damaged and wild animals were on the prowl. According to one newspaper: “Several persons died from fright. A number of the animals in the Zoological Gardens were killed. There was great commotion among the animals… their howling added considerably to the excitement.”
The canal remained closed for four days, and architects George Atchison and William Burges oversaw its restoration. The bridge was rebuilt in 1876, referred to thereafter as ‘Blow-up Bridge’. The original cast iron columns survived the explosion and were reused, but turned 180 degrees so old tow rope grooves can still be seen on both the canal and towpath sides today. There’s also evidence of blast damage to the beautiful fluted columns.
But, what caused the blast? There’s been much speculation over the years. Some say a spark came off the bridge and landed in the gunpowder. Most assume that it was one of the Tilbury crew striking a match to light a pipe or to heat up their cabin; igniting the petroleum vapours from the barrels. The canal company that owned Tilbury was condemned for gross negligence in permitting the “highly imprudent and improper” practice of carrying petroleum and gunpowder aboard the same barge.
The catastrophe would have been far worse had the barge exploded in the highly populated areas of Camden and Islington, which the convoy had passed through earlier that morning. According to The Times, “This explosion has revealed the fact that London has for years been traversed in some of its most populous and wealthy quarters by fleets of torpedoes.”
Something positive did come out of this tragic incident, however. It accelerated the passing of the Explosives Act in 1875, which regulates the manufacture and carriage of dangerous substances. A lesson was indeed learned that fateful day.