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Week 9: Disaster

William George Lewcock 1839-1887. St George’s Churchyard, Hanworth.

William George Lewcock died on the 3rd May 1887 leaving a wife and 8 children, three of whom were under twelve years old. If we have connected the twigs and branches correctly, he is a very distant relation, my paternal 3rd cousin 3 times removed. His youngest son, Arthur, later died on the first day of the Somme.

Hanworth War Memorial

Private G/6750, 2nd Battalion, Duke of Cambridge’s Own (Middlesex Regiment). Killed in action on the first day of the Somme 1st July 1916. Aged 36. Born Hanworth, enlisted Hounslow. Son of William George and Catherine Lewcock, of Hanworth, Middx. Buried in OVILLERS MILITARY CEMETERY, Somme, France. Plot XV. Row B. Grave 3.

The Shot tower, Crane Park

Gunpowder Explosion

William’s death is widely reported in all the newspapers nationally at the time. He was the sole victim of a gunpowder explosion,  but although through the years there were many explosions causing loss of life,  William has the dubious distinction of being the only fatality whose death is recorded on a headstone.

Extract from the Middlesex Independent 4th May 1887

FATAL GUNPOWDER EXPLOSION

Shortly before nine o’clock on Tuesday morning, a serious explosion occurred at the Hanworth works of Messrs. Curtis and Harvey, the well known gunpowder manufacturers, by which a man named William Lewcock, residing at High Street, Hanworth, lost his life, and considerable damage was done to property in the vicinity. The explosions occurred in one of the glazing sheds, situated on the banks of the river Colne, and owing to the terrific force of the concussion, and the heavy damp state of the atmosphere, the report was heard for many miles and caused great alarm. At Hounslow and Twickenham a large quantity of window and other glass has been shivered to fragments, windows both at Twickenham and Hounslow cemeteries, as well as those at South Western Junction signal box, being almost entirely destroyed, while numerous instances of doors having been blown open are reported in the neighborhood, many person residing outside the town of Hounslow being under the impression that an earthquake had taken place. The shock was felt as far west as Staines, and was also felt at Uxbridge and neighboring places; but it was in the direction of London that the sound of the explosion travelled. At Isleworth, Brentford, Ealing and Chiswick much alarm was manifested, and any news of the occurrence was eagerly received; ; rumour, as usual, largely increasing the magnitude of the affair. A dense volume of smoke passed over Hounslow immediately after the report was heard, and leaves showing marks of having been scorched were picked up near the High-Street. From all parts of the town the people hurried in the direction of the works, and within a few minutes quite a crowd had assembled ……. But the relatives of the men and women employed in the works, as well as members of the press, were vigorously excluded, and it was matter of exceptional difficulty to obtain information of an accurate nature. So far, however, as far as can be gathered from interviews with the persons who were admitted, as well as with several of the employés [sic], the facts are briefly these: –

As previously stated, the explosion occurred in one of the glazing sheds, and at the time of the explosion only one man, Lewcock, was in the building. Upwards of a ton of powder was in the shed, and for the most part contained in a large revolving cylinder. Lewcock is believed to have been in the act of starting the machinery, which had been stopped for the usual breakfast interval, when the explosion took place, and there can be no doubt that but for the fact that the employé had not commenced operations, the loss of life would have been greater. The effect of the explosion was to entirely destroy the shed in question, while two others in the immediate vicinity were also wrecked. A boy who happened to be approaching the glazing shed was struck by some of the falling debris, but escaped serious injury. The whole of the plant in the shed was destroyed, some portions being hurled a considerable distance. With the above exceptions, the damage inside the grounds was of an inconsiderable nature, one of the office windows being blown out together with the sash, while the whole of the glass in the remaining windows was broken. One of the instructions issued to the firm to their employés is that in the event of an accident of this nature occurring, they should at once precipitate themselves into the water, and this appears to have been done by those who had remained in the works during breakfast time. On a search team instituted for the remains of Lewcock, who was literally blown to atoms, only a portion of the deceased’s skull could be found.

Transcribed from a newspaper article on findmypast.


The Hounslow Gunpowder Mills were located on the River Crane between Twickenham and Whitton. It is thought probable that mills were established on Hounslow Heath during the reign of Henry VII or even earlier. It was an ideal situation as there was a ready supply of willow and alder along the banks of the river for the creation of charcoal as well as the water power for the mills and transport by barges.It was also away from settlements.There is one remaining building,the Shot Tower. The last mills closed in 1927 and Crane Park is now a nature reserve.


Photograph of The Shot Tower:

Constructed in 1826 for the manufacture of lead shot, this is the only complete structure left on a site which has a long history of gunpowder making. Remains of the powder mills can be found nearby, notably the millstreams, sluices and wheel bays which powered the grindstones.

Various histories recount the frequency with which the mills used to explode, and the sad loss of life.
There is a letter from author Horace Walpole complaining that his windows had been blown out. (He lived about 3 km away) He suggests orders be given that no more mills should explode and that Gunpowder should be kept underwater until it is needed. A Health and Safety visionary ahead of his time…..

© Copyright Des Blenkinsopp and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.


Photograph: Find A Grave, database and images (https://www.findagrave.com : accessed 25 March 2020), memorial page for William George Lewcock (1839–3 May 1887), Find A Grave Memorial no. 55231229, citing St George’s Churchyard, Hanworth, London Borough of Hounslow, Greater London, England ; Maintained by Kelvin Adams (contributor 47019579) .

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