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Remembering the big explosion that rocked part of Norwich

PUBLISHED: 18:08 04 April 2017 | UPDATED: 18:09 04 April 2017

Historic photo of the rear of the Steam Packet Inn, King Street, Norwich and the ferry operated by the publican. Photo: Archant Library.

Historic photo of the rear of the Steam Packet Inn, King Street, Norwich and the ferry operated by the publican. Photo: Archant Library.

Norwich - Rivers G. Christopher Davies (1859-1922) On the Wensum, Norwich. Born in Shropshire, Davies first came to Norwich in

It was 200 years ago today when a huge explosion rocked Norwich claiming the lives of nine men, women and children and causing terrible injuries on board a steam packet as it left the original Foundry Bridge...and then exploded.

A Robert Ladbooke painting of Foundry Bridge in Norwich in the 1820s. Picture: Norfolk Museums Service.A Robert Ladbooke painting of Foundry Bridge in Norwich in the 1820s. Picture: Norfolk Museums Service.

The city was in mourning when the boat blew up killing almost half the passengers on board while others lost arms and legs as the river turned red and the people cried.

The date was April 4, 1817, six years after the bridge had been built and during the work a ten-year-old boy drowned when he fell off it.

It was Good Friday morning when Wright’s Norwich and Yarmouth steam packet blew to pieces just after it had been pushed off from its moorings near the Foundry Bridge.

The explosion could be heard across the city – a very different place to the one to the one we know today – and people rushed to the scene to see if they could help.

And what a terrible scene of carnage greeted them.

The Norwich Mercury reported the day after: “One of those unfortunate accidents which attend even the best arranged establishments that carry with them a certain though remote danger, occurred yesterday morning, and we state the extensive calamity with much acute pain.

“The horrible spectacle of eight mangled carcases, is yet before our eyes.

Life on the river in Norwich around 200 years ago. A picture by artist John Thirtle: Boat Builder’s Yard, near the Cow’s Tower c 1812. Picture: Norfolk Museums ServiceLife on the river in Norwich around 200 years ago. A picture by artist John Thirtle: Boat Builder’s Yard, near the Cow’s Tower c 1812. Picture: Norfolk Museums Service

“These are the miserable victims of the bursting of the steam boiler in the packet which sails from Foundry bridge.

“Just after the boat has started, it had not gone twenty yards, when the tremendous explosion took place.

“The vessel was rent to atoms, so that little remains entire, from the stern to the engine room, except the keel and flooring,” wrote the Mercury.

The report went on: “Twenty-two passengers appear to have been on board. The bodies of eight are found – five men and three women, one child is missing, and six have been sent to hospital in a wounded state: six escaped unhurt.

One person later died in hospital of their injuries.

“Of these, one man was standing over the boiler when the explosion happened. It is said Major Mason was another, whose clothes were torn by the shock, but was otherwise uninjured. The third was an infant, two months old, and the little innocent was discovered at the bottom of the vessel in a profound sleep, after the removal of the dreadful wreck,” added the report all those years ago.

The Mercury went on to explain in detail how the explosion took pace.

Memories of The Steam Packet. The pub named after the vessels on the Wensum. It became The Ferry Inn and The Ferry Boat. Today it has closed and the site is waiting to be developed. Picture: Archant Library.Memories of The Steam Packet. The pub named after the vessels on the Wensum. It became The Ferry Inn and The Ferry Boat. Today it has closed and the site is waiting to be developed. Picture: Archant Library.

“The boiler is a cylindrical vessel, playing fore and aft the vessel, about eight ft long and four ft in diameter, made of wrought iron, excepting one end, which laid towards the stem of the vessel, and is of cast iron

“In consequence of the stress of stream being greater than the boiler was capable of sustaining, the cast iron part of the boiler gave way, and flew in a direction towards the stem of the vessel,” said the report.

It went on to detail how the boiler exploded and swept all before it in its passage to a distance of about 15 yards.

Those who died were later named at a Court of Mayoralty into the cause of the accident:

They were:

John Bleasey (aged 4).

Mary Bleasey (40) his mother.

The steam packet painted by John Crome. Picture: Archant library The steam packet painted by John Crome. Picture: Archant library

William Battledur.

William Richardson.

John Marron.

Richard Squire.

Thomas Luise.

Elizabeth Stevens.

Diana Smith.

The way the Norwich Mercury (now the Evening News) reported the tragedy 200 years ago and the Foundry Bridge after the railways arrived some years later. Picture: Archant Library.The way the Norwich Mercury (now the Evening News) reported the tragedy 200 years ago and the Foundry Bridge after the railways arrived some years later. Picture: Archant Library.

A number of other people, from Acle, Norwich, North Creake and Yarmouth were being treated at the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital for serious injuries and the loss of limbs.

Their plight touched the hearts of the people of Norwich and a public subscription raised £350 (a princely sum in those days) for the injured and the families of those who lost their lives.

It was reported later that steam packet owner John Wright had bought a French boat and fitted it with a steam boiler. He had been challenged to a race and someone had strapped the steam escape value to make it go faster.

The incident was later raised in Parliament when members were told that the accident at Norwich could not have happened, had it not been for the gross neglect with respect to the management of the safety value. It had been overloaded.

For a time steam packets didn’t run but extra safety measures were carried out and they were soon back on the rivers.

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