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Stowmarket Gun Cotton Explosion

Monday 23rd June 2014

Steve and Sue Williams of the Stowmarket Local History Group provided an in-depth talk on one of the major historical events that took place in the region, the Stowmarket Gun Cotton Explosion of 1871. At approximately 2:10pm on the afternoon of the 11th August 1871 a massive explosion took place at the Patent Safety Gun Cotton Co Ltd factory in Stowmarket. The initial explosion was shortly followed by a second explosion, the explosions demolished the works and killed 24 people, injuring a further 75. The talk began with the discovery of Gun Cotton by Professor Schonbein of Basle in 1846. Steve discussed how gun cotton is formed, it being a highly explosive cellulose nitrate where cotton id digested in a mixture of nitric acid and sulphuric acid producing pyroxylin and zyloidin. The formation of the company and early history was covered where the Prentices set up their gun cotton factory in Stowmarket leading up to the events of 1871. There had been safety related issues prior to 1871 but the general feeling of the company and the government of the day was that gun cotton was safe, especially with the procedures in place following the earlier incidents. The talk moved onto the day of the explosion itself and the facts that are known, followed by a thorough review of newspaper reports both local and from further afield following the explosion. The explosions were huge and heard / felt over a large radius that extended out past Diss. Some of the lasting effects of the disaster were reviewed in the last part of the talk. The large turnout of Engineering Society members then entered into a question and answer session with Steve and Sue.

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