‘Remember, remember the fifth of November…’, goes the old rhyme. It is not, however, that London night in 1605 to which I’m referring… In a grim and ironic twist of fate on that same date in the year 1772, whilst fireworks whir overhead to commemorate the thwarting of Guy Fawkes’s infamous plans, the city of Chester is shaken by a tremendous explosion of its own.
On the night in question and almost as forgotten as the blast itself, John Bowden, a humble Chester artisan-poet of the day, rushes to the scene of the disaster and later that same evening begins a haunting poetic account.
Just before nine o’ clock, a tremor runs through the city: ‘Swift as the flashing spark from smitten steel, / an instant shock we altogether feel’, writes Bowden. In Eaton’s Room, the chamber of a building located off the Southern side of Watergate Rows, a showman, one Mr George Williams, performs a puppet show to a large crowd. Suddenly, in a grocer’s warehouse directly below, 800 pounds of gunpowder put there the day before violently combust, causing a devastating explosion: ‘the massy walls with instant lightning rends’, hurling the spectators and those nearby up into the air,
‘then down again with all the wreck, they go,
and buried in the ruins lie below,
a molten hail-shower covers all the ground,
expulsions crash the neighbr’ing windows round,
and dust and sulphur fill the hemisphere
While earth’s convulsions all the city share.’
According to Bowden, around one hundred and ten people are injured, forty of whom die – about half of them instantly. He goes on to describe the ‘frightful spectacle’ of the victims as they are dragged from the wreckage, questioning: ‘[…] what pow’r of words, what striking verse/ can half the horrors of this scene rehearse?’ Later, he cries out to his Muse: ‘[…] in vain are all thy aims/ to paint the torture of the burning flames’.
Though, a puppet show sounds like a very innocent affair to modern ears, in the eighteenth century and further back in antiquity playhouses were surrounded by a great deal of notoriety, supposedly being the haunts of dishonest men and whores, where sinful bargains were struck and poisonous philosophies were spread. Many at the time, Bowden included, saw the explosion as ‘an alarming providential check to immorality’, a vengeful act of God against such sin. One visiting preacher gave a sermon that evening at the same time as the performance, and was convinced that the Lord had benevolently spared the lives of those that chose to attend his pious talk.
Up until the mid-twentieth century, the alleyway leading to the scene of the explosion was still called Puppet Show Entry. Nowadays, the passageway and the explosion area no longer exist, but after a great deal of sleuthing and map reading on my part, I have worked out that the entrance to the alley was located between Bishop Lloyd’s House and Weaver Street, (where Hobs printers exists today, to be precise). The site of the fateful Eaton’s Room was situated roughly where the far end of The Friars, a grade-I listed building on Commonhall Street, stands today.
It is to the city’s shame that, despite the disaster and terrible loss of life – surely Chester’s greatest tragedy? – no marker or plaque commemorates the accident, which as a result is no longer common knowledge to Cestrians and tourists alike.
To find out more about the author John Bowden:
To purchase a facsimile copy of John Bowden’s poem through Amazon: http://www.amazon.co.uk/books/dp/117037297X
For more information on the explosion, please post any questions below, contact me directly, or visit Chester Heritage Centre.