Plus parts of East Cornwall and West Devon

  Brian Moseley, Plymouth
Webpage created: August 12, 2021
Webpage updated: August 12, 2021

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On Wednesday July 5th 1865 an explosion destroyed a large amount of the buildings at the South Down Powder Works at Millbrook, East Cornwall, immediately across the Hamoaze from Devonport.

The Works manufactured blocks of Davey's patent safety blasting powder in a large block of four stone buildings each measuring 120 feet by 30 feet and separated by strong party walls.

Also on the site were three larger buildings.  One, occupied by Mr Blight, of Plymouth, housed 200 tons of bark; the second contained empty barrels and sundries; the third contained the steam engine and machinery that was used in the manufacture of the powder.  These three buildings were only slightly damaged in the fire and consequent explosion.

At about 10.30am the manager of the Works, a Mr Kellow, spotted coming from from the north end of the block of buildings mention earlier.  As the Works had been closed for the last three months because of a fall-off in orders, and up-for-sale, there had been no purpose in anybody going into the buildings and Mr Kellow concluded there must be a fire causing the smoke.  However, he also knew that a couple of days previously some five tons of the patent powder that had been damaged by water at a fire in Glasgow had been returned to the Works to be dried out and that on the previous day a small portion of the powder had been placed in drying-pans in a room in that building.  Steam would be used to dry the powder.

The smoke soon attracted the attention of the Royal Navy men aboard the flagship HMS "Royal Adelaide" moored off Mount Wise and they fired a gun to alert the other ships in the Hamoaze.  Some four hundred ratings from HMS "Royal Adelaide", HMS "Cambridge" and HMS "Indus" immediately set off for South Down, under their respective officers, Captain Seymour (HMS "Royal Adelaide"), Captain Ewart and Commodore Parvy (HMS "Cambridge"), and Captain Symonds (HMS "Indus") and two fire engines from HMS "Canopas" and one from HMS "Royal Adelaide were also despatched along with fire float number 2 from the Royal Dockyard.  The Admiral-Superintendent of the Royal Dockyard, Rear-Admiral Thomas Matthew Charles Symonds CB sent the Dockyard Surgeon, Mr John Reid, in anticipation that many people had been injured.  All the while there were small explosions going off but before the engines could be brought into use there was a terrific explosion in the centre building of the block mentioned above, which sent slates, rafters and beams flying.  Some adjoining dwellings that had approved uninsurable and the manager's house were also destroyed.  The building that had been the scene of the large explosion had contained 70 tons of soda, 50 tons of sulphur and a large quantity of tan, which in this patent powder took the place of charcoal.  There was also 50 tons of the patent powder in a magazine some distance away.  Most of the 5 tons of powder returned from Glasgow was rescued.

Soon after 2pm the fire appliances were withdrawn and the remnants of the fire were left to the powder works' own fire engine, which had by now got up steam.

It was felt that given its current financial position, the Company were unlikely to rebuild the Works very quickly, if at all.