THE PUPPET SHOW EXPLOSION – Chester’s Forgotten Tragedy

‘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.

IMG_20130802_175428IMG_20130802_175757Just 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.

 20130731_150912-003Up 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:
https://chesterculture.wordpress.com/2013/08/05/john-bowden-bard-of-chester/

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.

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3 thoughts on “THE PUPPET SHOW EXPLOSION – Chester’s Forgotten Tragedy

  1. Hello Matthew, Your article is great news for me as I have just found out that my great grandparents lived at No 4, Puppet Show Entry in Chester! Sad that it no longer exists. I would really love to have a larger view of the map shown and any links that might give a clue to which house they lived in!
    Kind regards, Eric Walmsley, Author & Journalist

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    1. Hello, Eric

      I’m very glad to hear the article was helpful in your family genealogy! I was able to get hold of the maps at the Heritage Centre on Bridge St., but if you’re able to provide me with an email address, I’ll happily send you some larger images I have. Unfortunately, though, the buildings shown aren’t numbered, nor is any remnant of the alley that could give you a clue remaining today. Presumably, however, the numbering began from entrance on Watergate Row, which will give you at least a rough indication as to where they probably lived along the Entry. If you’d like me to explain the present location to you any further, please don’t hesitate to ask. Best wishes, Matthew

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