The fatal explosion at the Bathurst Basin, 21st November 1888


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Welcome to the Bathurst Basin, in Bristol. Today, the basin serves as a pleasant mooring point for pleasure craft, surrounded by residential properties, but it would have had a very different character in the past. It was built in the early 19th century as part of Bristol's floating harbour, then a busy array of industrial docks and wharves. The warehouse apartments would have been warehouses, the site of the footbridge on the right there would have been a twin track goods railway bridge, and the boats here, likewise, would have been for industrial cargo, not recreation.

One such boat that was here in 1888, was the Jersey-registered 'United', a 58-ton ketch. At this point I feel obliged to illustrate what she would have looked like, but it's hard enough finding any photo of a late 19th century 58-ton ketch when you don't really know what a ketch is - let alone a photo I'm legally allowed to stick in this video. The best I could do is this 32 ton ketch built in 1899, and quite besides the fact it's about half the size I'm not even sure if it's the same sort of design at all.

Anyway, the United was captained by Henry Cartwright; his brother Joseph Cartwright was Mate; 17 year old Albert Dreeland, known as Toby, was Ship's Boy; and the four-man crew was rounded out by French Seaman Edward Menier, who was also known as Joseph Basle. Why he had two names I'm not sure.

On the morning of November the 21st, 1888, the United was waiting on the north-west wall of the dock. She should have departed by now but the wind had been unsuitable, so she was awaiting the next high tide to try again.

Over the past three days she had been moored on Welsh Back as her cargo had been loaded, with extreme caution on account of it being highly dangerous. She was conveying a shipment of naphtha, a petroleum derivative whose name seems to have been invented specifically to stumble over in scripts. 12,400 gallons of naphtha, to be precise, in 310 forty-gallon barrels, which had been brought down to Welsh Back by horse and cart from the secure storage facility of Colthurst and Harding, located up the Bath Road.

Colthurst and Harding were a paint and varnish manufacturer, and their storage facilities for their dangerous chemical ingredients evolved into today's Paintworks, the still somewhat unfinished mixed-use development of residential and light industrial spaces. They were shipping the naphtha to London, and being well aware of the dangers had taken additional precautions, with dock managers informed and dock police instructed to ensure no fires were lit in the vicinity.

The crew of the ketch had likewise been repeatedly warned not to allow any fires or flames on board the ship, and had insisted they understood, but tragically, it appears they did not. At 11:30am a huge explosion tore through the ketch, killing the Cartwright brothers and the young lad Toby. All three had been below decks, Toby playing a concertina. Menier was up on deck and thrown high into the air by the explosion, landing in the basin; he managed to swim to another boat, where he was helped out of the water, having broken his leg.

Beyond the tragic loss of life on the ketch, the destruction caused by this blast was extensive. At the general hospital alone, 700 to 1000 windows were shattered, costing £200 to replace, although thankfully there were no serious injuries to staff or patients.

The light petroleum spirit floated on top of the water, on fire, as captured in this photograph from the local press, and it took several hours for the fire to be extinguished. 160 feet (about 50m) of the wharf's wall along this side of the basin was fire-damaged and needed replacement. The floating inferno spread underneath the Guinea Street railway bridge and 30 feet beyond, up by the Ostrich pub, suspending railway traffic. Although one track was soon restored, the second line was ruined.

An inquest led by Colonel Majendie, H.M. Chief Inspector of Explosives, concluded that Colthurst and Harding had hired an unsuitable vessel. Naphtha gives off flammable, potentially explosive vapours even at normal ambient temperatures, and the cargo holds of the 'United' were not airtight. Thus anyone lighting a stove, or pipe or cigarette in the cabin risked an explosion like this. The captain had insisted he understood not to light fires, but it seems likely to me he interpreted this as meaning ' the cargo hold', thinking he'd be OK in the cabin. Indeed, the inquiry noted that the Captain had never carried such cargo before, and there was no feasible way the ship could have completed its trip to London without anybody lighting the stove or a lamp at some point, for the purposes of food, heat or being able to see!

Toby and the Cartwright brothers were buried at Arnos Vale cemetery. Their deaths were additionally tragic as the captain's wife was heavily pregnant at the time, and his mother was also economically dependent on her two seafaring sons. Unfortunately, with over 170,000 burials here over the years, I was unable to find their exact graves to film, so this is just some general footage.

As for Bathurst Basin - there is more I could say about it, but I've already said most of it in previous videos, and I don't want to bore people who have seen them, or indeed myself.

This used to be a mill pond on the River Malago just before it emptied into the Avon, until the digging of the New Cut severed that flow. For more on that, see my video on how Bristol's rivers shaped the city.

Architecturally, the standout buildings are the General Hospital and the former Robinson's warehouse. Both are attributed to Victorian architect William Bruce Gingel and both have since been converted to apartments. For more on them you can see my first ever video on this channel, on Bristol Byzantine.

To the southwest is a little row of classic Georgian houses painted in that quintessentially Bristolian rainbow of pastel colours, and guess what, I did a video about those colourful terraces, as well.

Also of note are the Louisiana and Ostrich pubs, and the lightship John Sebastian, but I'll leave them for another day; that's all for this video. As always there's a full list of sources on my website. if you enjoyed it, give it a like, subscribe, share it with friends, and all that. Cheers.