Stories from St George’s: The Gunpowder Mill Worker

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This guest post is written by Dr Carol Shiels,
Museum Curator and Senior Lecturer at St George’s, University of London.

The anniversary of the failed Gunpowder plot is celebrated each year with fireworks and bonfires. If the plot had succeeded, the 36 barrels of gunpowder would have resulted in an explosion that would have destroyed Westminster. In this blog article we get an insight into the world of gunpowder production from an account of a patient at St George’s Hospital in 1850.

In London, a major site of gunpowder production was the Hounslow Powder mills, near Twickenham, in what is now Crane Park. In 1850 a large explosion occurred and a 21-year-old labourer was injured . He was only 5 metres away from the blast site and as a result of the explosion a beam fell on him and flames enveloped him as the loose gunpowder on his face and clothes caught fire. He was able to throw himself into one of the nearby rivers and was taken to St George’s Hospital at Hyde Park Corner. He was admitted to the hospital with his face black, his skin scorched and blistered and his hair and beard burnt away in places.  His major injury was a broken elbow joint; the pointed end of his elbow (part of the ulna) had broken off and the ulna was also fractured into three splinters.

Broken bones in the 19th century were often a life-threatening injury. Caesar Hawkins, a senior surgeon at St George’s, decided to amputate the arm just above the elbow joint. A few years previously this would have been a severe and painful operation, but the recent use of chloroform as an anaesthetic during surgery meant he had a pain free operation. It went well with little blood loss and the patient had an uneventful but restless night. He was given opium to help with the pain and over the next few days his arm healed well with no swelling. Unrelated to the accident, the patient had a bad cough, producing dark coloured foamy sputum. When questioned by Caesar Hawkins, he described this as commonplace in the men working in the charcoal house at the mill. This is most likely to be due to the inhalation of carbon dust from charcoal production and, as the patient confirmed, led to the early death of many workers at the mill.

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The elbow joint from the patient. It has been fixed in formaldehyde and displayed in a glass jar. This has been maintained in the Museum for 167 years.

Caesar Hawkins retained the patient’s elbow joint and added it to the collection of pathological specimens in St George’s Museum. He had discovered a piece of loose cartilage in the joint during the operation and described this as looking like a ‘bicuspid tooth from which the fangs had been removed’. Loose pieces of cartilage can be painful and can make movement of the affected joint difficult. Caesar Hawkins wrote an account of the case and it was published in a 1850 volume of the Lancet. Both the patient’s elbow joint and this early edition of the Lancet are still part of the St George’s Museums and Archives collections.

Such accidents were not uncommon and 55 explosions were reported at the same powder mill over its working life; some described as being like an earthquake.  It is likely that many workers ended up at St George’s as a result of these accidents and their stories will be uncovered with further exploration and research into our Museums and Archives collection.

 


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