No.38: Remember, Remember, the 5th of November

Gunpowder, Treason, and Plot

After visiting the House of Lords on the exceptionally appropriate date of 5th November, my thoughts naturally turned to our wrecks laden with gunpowder, of which we have 24 known records. There are likely to be others whose cargo is masked by description in contemporary sources as ‘warlike stores’ or some such other description; warships and privateers will have carried gunpowder anyway; while many cargo vessels, armed for self-defence, will have carried gunpowder as part of the ship’s stores, which therefore does not qualify for recording as cargo.

Many of these wrecks were lost in the ordinary way and the cargo they carried did not make any difference as to the outcome, which was fortunate in the case of the Charming Molly dockyard tender in 1779 which, ‘lying near Gosport, was carelessly set on fire and burnt to the water’s edge. The powder, except half a barrel which blew up, was got out; the guns and swivels were loaded with ball, which went off, but did no mischief.’ Whether they crew managed to unload the vessel before the cannon went off is not known but if they had to dodge random cannonballs popping all over the place then it was fortunate indeed that ‘no mischief’ was done!

More dramatically, in 1802, the Newham brig caught fire on her arrival at Falmouth on her maiden voyage. ‘Apprehensive of the fire quickly communicating itself to the gunpowder with which the vessel was partly laden, the crew left her immediately . . . The inhabitants of the town were greatly alarmed . . . at 7 o’clock she blew up at her moorings with a tremendous and awful explosion: her masts, yards, etc. and a great part of her cargo were scattered in different directions through the air, her sides were blown out and the shattered hull immersed in the water.’ Despite the worst fears of local residents, this explosion resulted only in a number of windows being shattered.

Oh, I’ve only given you gunpowder – I shall have to truffle out some treason and plot for a later edition!

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