John Fredrick Herring and Explosions at Leigh Powder Mills

Explosion at Leigh Powder Mills: Queen Victoria’s Friend has his Windows Blown Out

There were several explosions at Leigh Powder Mills, and they are listed in Chris Rowley’s book “The Lost Powder Mills of Leigh”.  The Society also has a copy in its archives of a long letter from John Frederick Herring, a well-known painter of the time, to a friend dated 11 November 1855 and below is an extract relating to an explosion in 1855.

John Frederick Herring was born in 1795 and became a stage coach driver in the Borders.  He turned to painting and became the most popular painter of sporting scenes in his day.  He was rich, a friend of Queen Victoria and well known in society and in 1852 he rented Meopham Park on a long lease where he lived very happily away from London where he had found “the stench all around the neighbourhood intolerable”.  Herring lived ten years at Meopham Bank, dying there and being buried at Hildenborough Church.

In his letter he had been saying how much more money his pictures are reaching now he lives in a big house in the country, when he interrupts himself:

‘BANG …  BANG.  “What’s that?”  “Father. Father.  the PowderMills have blown up.”  and so they have.  We live only a straight half mile from some powder mills, and we have just had five shocks that shook the House to the foundations.  ‘tis half past eight & very dark.  When I went out to look, to the Gate that enters the pleasure ground, there were great flakes of Fire lying on the Grass.  I have sent down to  hear if any lives are lost, for though tis Sunday, I believe they are always at work.  The last explosion broke 3 panes of a Glass in the Entrance Hall door, that was about 4 years ago, two men were blown to Atoms.  My Coachman has just come back he says noone is hurt, but in another 5 minutes the Men would have entered the Mills to remove the 2 Charges that have just exploded, another of the interpositions of providence’

Of course, explosions at gunpowder works were a well-known hazard in the 19th century and Leigh Powder Mills had its share.  Local newspapers reported various incidents.  On 21 April 1835, the Maidstone Journal told of an explosion on 16 April – the third explosion in three years – which had occurred in the Leigh works Corning House, where two people had been killed.  Another accident happened on 21 July 1845, although no one was killed (Maidstone Journal 29 July); and some reports mention a further explosion in 1851 in which two men were killed.   The explosion referred to in J F Herring’s letter is 1855.  And there was another explosion in 1864 where four men were killed, all of whom are buried in Leigh Churchyard.


Parish Magazine Article: Apr 2008: by Joyce Field and Chris Rowley