Where Tunnel Avenue runs today there was once a firework factory. It was sprawled out on the area of marshland at the back of Woolwich Road, and it consisted of a lot of little huts, writes Mary Mills…
Fireworks factories are normally like this because if there is an explosion the damage will be less than if it is in one big building. These were huts flimsily built deliberately and only one or two people worked in each one.
Thomas Robson had founded the works in 1845. He held patents for ‘firing signals and other lights’ and the factory turned out signaling devices for ships and railways many as well as ‘proper’ fireworks for displays and other small scale explosive devices.
Fireworks in the 19th century were not just for flashy displays at New Year or on Guy Fawkes night. In the days before telephones or radio they had a very real use as warning signals on ships, and as flares in the thick ‘pea souper’ fogs which were becoming all too common.
Robson’s Ammunition Works had a front office on Woolwich Road – roughly opposite the entrance to Annandale Road and about where the chip shop stands. Also in Woolwich Road was Wick Cottage where the manager lived. In the 1880s a path stretched back from these buildings to a large area of marsh land intersected by ditches and dykes – this is where Tunnel Avenue and the Blackwall Tunnel Approach now run. It appears that vegetables were also grown here since the only picture we have of the works clearly shows a patch of cabbages in front of the danger buildings.
By the 1880s Thomas Robson was no longer in charge here, although the works still carried his name. It was now called ‘Dyer and Robson’. In 1882 James Dyer, age 30, the manager, lived with his, Indian born, wife and baby daughter in Wick Cottage. The works employed only eleven men, four women, and four boys. It was the women who died.
Railway fog signals were made here out of two small iron saucers fitted together with some gunpowder in the space between them. The edges of the two saucers were ‘crimped’ to hold them together and this was done by young women using screw fly presses. There were some safety features – when the equipment was activated an iron shield moved into place to protect the worker as the two parts of the signal were pressed together. Also, for safety, employees had to wear special shoes and fireproof clothes with no pockets in them while they were at work. Nevertheless there was an accidental explosion at least once a month and, sadly, it appears these were not reported to the authorities.
The 20th November 1882 was Mary Mahoney’s first day at work on the presses – although she had worked ‘on and off’ at Robson’s for the past six years. She was working in No.19 shed being supervised by Emily Gilder. The two young women sat in an area which was six feet by five, just three feet apart from each other. Beside them were about 800 explosive signals and also a tray of finished signals with some loose gunpowder which had been spilt and not cleaned up.
The machines at which Mary and Emily worked were new and still on trial from the makers. However ‘new girl’ Mary did not really understand the process and unknown to Emily she was inserting the cups into the press the wrong way round.
Mr. Law, the foreman, was doing his rounds and visited Mary and Emily in their hut. He was standing just outside when he was knocked to the ground by a series of explosions. He struggled upright and found Emily on the ground outside the shed – she had either been blown out or jumped.
He fought through the smoke to where Mary was lying on the floor of the hut among loose powder which was exploding all around her while molten lead from the finished signals was falling on her. He managed to get her out and once outside he tried to pull of her burning serge dress and she just said ‘Oh, Mr.Law’ as he collapsed himself – by then he too was badly burnt.
Mary was taken across the road to the Workhouse Infirmary. She was very badly burnt on her back, arms, legs and face. She said ‘Oh, Doctor, I was pressing of those fog signals when it went off … I think I must have pressed it on the side’. It seems that at first it was hoped she would live, although, later, the Doctor said he had no hope from the first. At first she did well but then infections set in and she died four days later ‘of exhaustion’.
She was twenty-four years old, and lived with her parents in Marsh Lane – today’s Blackwall Lane. She was the eldest of four children, all born in Greenwich, to parents, Michael and Mary, who had come from Kerry to work as labourers. The area at the top of Marsh Lane between what was originally the Ship and Billet Pub and Wick Cottage has been described as a small hamlet in the 19th century. Many Irish immigrants lived in this area which has been described as a ‘fairly large colony’ from the 1850s. They were people who had come to find work in the factories springing up along Blackwall Lane. Those that failed in this could find labouring work in the market gardens which still operated in the area.
Mary died in the Workhouse Infirmary which stood on the site of what is now the Greenwich Centre with its library and leisure centre. Most people will remember that this has replaced Greenwich District Hospital, which itself replaced St. Alfege’s Hospital – which had begun as the Greenwich Workhouse. The Workhouse itself had been built in 1840 on the site of a field called Catsbrains. However a new infirmary building was added in the 1870s, and that, we can, assume is where Mary was taken.
Sadly she lived, worked, was injured and died all within an area of a 100 yards or so.
The accident was investigated by the Chief Inspector of Explosives, Colonel Vivien Majendie – after whom Majendie Road in Plumstead is named. Although he worked nationally on investigations into explosions he lived locally, well within earshot of Robson’s Works, in Victoria Way. This was not the only fatal explosion at Robson’s and Majendie’s recommendations and the many other accidents he investigated locally are more detailed subjects.
Today the area of Robson’s works is covered with housing and roads. As we all enjoy firework displays we should also remember that they are only made safely because of the work of Vivien Majendie and the Explosives Inspectorate but that people had to die before he could act. Mary Mahoney was one of them.
The next meeting of the Greenwich Industrial History Society is on 23rd January, with Lindsey Collier on the Lea Valley Heritage Alliance.
Meetings are held at The Old Bakehouse, Bennett Park, SE3. This is a small theatre in the back of the Age Exchange Shop –in The Village opposite Blackheath Station. There is no on site parking – please do not park outside the Bakehouse, but use the car park behind the station. We start at 7.30 and non members are charged £1. We would also remind people that GIHS are not part of Age Exchange and that their staff are unable to answer questions about GIHS or our meetings. Check out http://greenwichindustrialhistory.blogspot.com/ for the latest news