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Plumstead Cemetery in the Royal Borough of Greenwich

We discover more about Plumstead’s connection with the Woolwich Arsenal Armament Factory

Opened in June 1890, the cemetery backs on to Bostall Wood and its location on a hillside gives it, like Greenwich Cemetery, excellent vistas over London

Previously on this blog we looked at the life of Bertie Mee, one of the most successful managers of Arsenal Football Club. Although it is a north London side now, Arsenal began life south of the river as a football team for a group of workers from the Woolwich Arsenal Armament Factory. Soon to be known as the Royal Arsenal, the side played its first match on 11th December 1886. The team changed its name to Woolwich Arsenal after becoming professional in 1891 and were known as the Gunners in reference to their association with the factory. The Club joined the football league in 1893 and were still based in Woolwich in 1903[1] when disaster struck, affecting the lives of many in the area.

On Thursday 18 June 1903 at 8.10 in the morning, an explosion ripped through the shell filling rooms in the Lyddite Factory at the Royal Arsenal, Woolwich. These rooms comprised large corrugated iron huts set on bricks. Inside the factory, workers had been involved in the process of turning picric acid into the highly explosive substance known as lyddite, which was used for filling shells of army and Navy ordnance. At the time of the explosion, a group of men was handling a shell for a 9.2 naval gun, weighing 435lb., and containing a bursting charge of 46lb. of lyddite. As The Times recorded the next day, this charge of lyddite then “exploded with terrific report". A number of men were blown to pieces. Others were later identified by their limbs. Investigators were able to establish the exact time of the explosion from a watch, found on the body of the supervisor, Edwards, which had stopped at 8.10.

Those killed included labourers on 21-28 shillings per week and their supervisor. Those who died were:
  • James Henry Usher, 39 years, married, assistant overlooker, 33, Abbey-wood Road, Abbey-wood.
  • Francis 'Frank' Curran, 41 years, married, 56 Higham Road, East Ham.
  • William Henry Edwards, single, 6 Greening-street, Woolwich (son of the principal foreman of the lyddite factory. He was directing the work in that morning)
  • Charles Denny Adams, 37 years, married, 4 Fenwick Street, Woolwich
  • John Henry Swords, 28 years, 96 East Street, Charlton
  • Alfred Greenlees, 42 years, married, 54, Piedmont Road, Plumstead.
  • Edward Felix Pinhorn, 36 years, married, 68 Tourmont Road, Plumstead
  • George Case, 52 years, stoker, married,  6, Blaxland Cottages, Belle Grove, Welling
  • Edmund Harry Newton, 30 years, married, 17 Kirkham Street, Plumstead
  • Alfred Philip Smith Remington, married, 4, Miriam Road, Plumstead (died after admission to hospital)
  • James Patrick Larkin, 31 years, married, 26 Palmerston Road, Plumstead (died after admission to hospital)
 Five men were too badly injured to be identified at the time, but they were later discovered to be:
  • Walter Herbert, 26 years, 123 High Street, Plumstead, or Wickham Lane, Plumstead
  • Thomas Marshall, 38 years, 164 Burrage Road, Plumstead
  • Peter John Joseph Connor, 27 years, 130 Sandy Hill Road, Plumstead
  • Frederick Morley, 35 years, 4 School Lane, Welling
  • Stanley Johnson, 30 years, 58 Fenwick Street, Woolwich
From our database: page 254 of the Burial Register of Plumstead Cemetery shows eight of the victims of the Lyddite Explosion

Over one thousand workers at Woolwich were members of the Labour Protection League, which represented its workers at the inquest into the incident. Concern was shown by the court over the piece rate system, which meant men may have rushed their work for money. The superintendent of the Royal Laboratory at Woolwich, Major H. W. W. Barlow RA, told the inquest, “Do you know that for filling a shell the men would earn 4s. 5 ½d., which is divided between 90 men, and so the advantage a man had in risking his life and the lives of his fellows by forcing out a “former” rather than sending it back to the oven was a beggarly half-penny”[2]. 

The inquest concluded that there was "a negligent system of working and arranging" at the factory, with buildings too close together, too many men working in the danger area, and a lack of independent inspection. No cause of the explosion was ever agreed.

Only a few months earlier, on the 16th February 1903, shells containing gun cotton had exploded, killing three men:
  • Captain Richard Grenville Partridge R.A. (died in hospital from injuries sustained)
  • J. Hall
  • G. Dennison
There had been explosions at the factory previously, but the closeness in date of these two disasters, together with the high loss of life, led to the creation of a memorial fund. After the Lyddite Explosion, the Employees of the Danger Buildings at Royal Arsenal commissioned the Royal Arsenal Explosions Memorial to be built in Plumstead Cemetery in memory of their colleagues. Woolwich Borough Council donated the plot of the memorial, waiving all fees. The pink granite obelisk was unveiled on 30th April 1904 and is dedicated to the nineteen victims of both the Lyddite and the Gun Cotton explosions, most of whom are buried nearby.

The victims of these disasters are just some of the 56,000 buried or commemorated in the cemetery. Others include two recipients of the Victoria Cross, Gunner Alfred Smith (d. 1932) and Thomas Flawn (d. 1925), and two former Mayors of Woolwich, Colonel Sir Edward Hughes (d 1904) and Albert Gorman (d 1959).

Grave of Thomas Flawn V. C.

The Times (London, England), Friday, Jun 19, 1903; pg. 7; Issue 37111.
The Times (London, England), Saturday, Jun 27, 1903; pg. 9; Issue 37118.
The Times (London, England), Wednesday, Jul 01, 1903; pg. 9; Issue 37121.

[1] The football team moved to Highbury in 1913, as a Second Division side.
[2] The Times (London, England), Wednesday, Jul 01, 1903; pg. 9; Issue 37121.


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