Finding items or subjects to write about for this blog isn’t always easy. As far as the objects go, I tend to write about things I like, or items that I know something about. Sometimes however I am drawn to feature an object not for its story but for what it means to me. Memory plays a large part in my posts, especially if I can recall using the item, or it reminds me of something from my childhood.
This tin of gunpowder means nothing to me, I don’t know why it was used, or by whom. It isn’t pretty or of great significance, but it reminds me of an important event in my family history.
Thomas Stringer married Fanny Champ, a widow with small children. After they married the couple had children of their own, one of whom became my Great Grandfather. This man, Francis, became a sailor and eventually came to New Zealand where he married and founded a rather large family of which I am a very proud member. His granddaughter was my Grandmother who, as regular readers of my stories will be aware, played a very large part in my life. Tracing the family of Francis was, and remains, very important to me.
Knowing Francis came from Kent I quickly made friends with their archivist at the local museum and he and I corresponded for many years. One day he put me in contact with someone else who was also tracing the family. It was very exciting for me to find a real-life Stringer descendant in England, and we wrote many letters sharing our information.
Discussing our research it was suggested by my new found relative that Thomas may have been married before. I was doubtful, as if it were true he had only been married to his first wife a few years before he met and married Fanny.
My relative then produced a marriage certificate that he believed was for our Thomas, but I still wasn’t convinced. How could it be the right one – I resolutely replied – because there is no death certificate for her?
I did have a fairly open mind, as one needs when one traces people and searches everywhere for proof one way or the other. But there was no sign of her dying. It was, I said, as if she has vanished off the face of the earth!
Actually that is what happened. Faversham was a centre of gun cotton manufacture since the 1600s. Cotton fibre is soaked in vats of nitrate liquid (think nitro-glycerine and nitrate film, both very flammable and unstable). The ‘charged’ cotton was used in the production of weapons but also in explosives to blast rock for roads, tunnels, etc.
A factory was built in Faversham in 1847, and employed a number of locals, both children and adults. Their tasks included rolling the cotton out into lengths, dipping the cotton into the unstable mixture and then taking it out to dry. Tragically one very hot day in 1847 the main factory simply exploded. The explosions could be heard up to 30 miles away and large craters appeared where once there had been buildings.
Many people were injured and ten people were known to have died, while others were simply not able to be identified. As many people were paid by the day as casual labourers, the true death total was never uncovered.
In the sometimes overly graphic details of the accident and coroners inquests published in the newspapers, it was mentioned that one of the ‘missing supposed blown to bits’ was young Sarah Ann Stringer, Thomas’ first wife. It also stated that Thomas was injured, although we don’t know how.
What we do know is that a fund was established to provide welfare for those who survived and with this Thomas established a business as a pork butcher. He moved to West Street, Faversham, where he met a young widow and the rest is (my family) history.
After the accident the gun cotton factory closed for a time, but soon reopened. More tragedy struck in 1916, so this year Faversham again commemorates an explosion, when another 108 people were killed.
While Thomas received money for his injuries he continued to work until his 80s, he died in the local workhouse in 1904 – ironically the year my Grandmother was born.
Museums deal not only in fascinating facts and objects of importance but also memories and connections, however tenuous. This small tin makes few ripples in the sea of history but its power to connect me with an important event in my family, and many other families in Kent’s history, makes it significant to me.
By Kathleen Stringer
- The empty tin of gunpowder that inspired this story. ©Ashburton Museum.
- One of the ways money was raised to help the survivors of the Faversham explosion was the production of a postcard. This replica is still on sale in Faversham, it says: ‘Stringer who stood near escaped a most untimely end but lost his wife, to him, most dear his true and faithful friend.’
- Wood engraving of scene of the Kent gun cotton explosion at Faversham in 1847 from the Illustrated London News