To the north of Faversham, Kent, on the Swale Estuary two key factories for Britain’s war machine were sited. The Cotton Powder Company (CPC) and the Explosives Loading Company (ELC) were instrumental in the production of guncotton, distress signals, detonators and dynamite.
This was dangerous work, however, and strict precautions were put in place because of the high risk of explosions. Metal buttons on clothing was forbidden, women workers were not allowed metal hair grips. Overalls were not allowed to have pockets, to stop prohibited items from being taken in to the factory. Pipes, matched and cigarettes were not allowed inside the workplace.
The factory infrastructure was also adapted to reduce the dangers – buildings were constructed of wood, and spaced out, and metal nails wot used; tram rails close to the buildings were also made of wood, rather than metal. Even the horses had brass horseshoes instead of steel, everything was done to minimise the risk of sparks.
Security was tight – there was a military guard of 128 men and 24 patrolmen for the two factory sites. The CPC had its own part-time fire brigade, plenty of hydrants and hoses and a pump always at the ready to raise extra water. The ELC had only one four-man pump, 100 or so chemical extinguishers and a supply of fire buckets. Water was available from the dykes and streams around the factory site.
One of the buildings – Building 833 – at the ELC had been licences to store TNT and was also used as a repository for ammonium nitrate when deliveries arrived. The building was 50ft (15m) from the boiler house. This was fitted with spark arrestors – although these were reported not to have been 100% effective. Indeed, on the night of the 1st April 1916, two patrolmen found that sparks had started a small fire between the boiler house and Building 833 – they had successfully put it out.
Around lunchtime on Sunday 2nd April, some of the empty TNT bags stacked against Building 833 had caught alight. The works manager was called, and ordered the boxes of TNT to be moved away from the shed. Despite the efforts of the staff and fire brigade, the fire began to get out of control.
At about 1.20pm the worst happened.
The first explosion was followed by a tremendous burst of flame. A second terrific explosion followed, and then a third as two of the nearby process buildings went up as well.
The damage done was severe and extensive. Of the five buildings blown up, there was not trace, and the first explosion left a crater 150ft in diameter and 10 – 15 ft deep. Within a 225 yard radius of the explosions, every building of conventional light construction was destroyed.
Although the actual number killed is not known for certain, it is likely that the death toll was close to 110. The number of injuries overwhelmed the local Cottage Hospital and men had to be taken to two military hospitals and an Infirmary in the area.
An account written by a doctor who arrived on site between the first two explosions reported that “five of the National Guard who were on guard were killed instantly: of one, nothing but his rifle was ever found… a number of men 30–40 yards [27-36m] away from the explosion unharmed, while men 100 yards [91m] away were blown to pieces… Men had all their clothes blown off them and yet were unhurt. Some were blown into dykes and were wringing wet and shivering with shock; others were bleeding and some had half their clothes torn or burnt off.”
There were so many to be buried in Faversham that a vast mass grave – for 69 coffins – had to be dug at the cemetery in Love Lane; another 6 victims were buried in private graves at the cemetery. All 75 were explosives factory employees.
Commonwealth War Graves