Horrible histories theory of the stinky seamen who blew up HMS London
with methane. Will Pavia
From The Times, December 26, 2008
The explosion resounded across the capital, killing 300 and shocking
Samuel Pepys and all who heard of it that cold March morning in 1685.
[Sic for 1665, http://www.pepysdiary.com/archive/1665/03/08/index.php
HMS London, a royal warship, had left Chatham Docks and was
shouldering her way up the Thames to pick up her captain when, without
warning, she exploded.
Naval historians have been mystified about the cause, one theory being
that an unstable mix of chemicals ignited the ship's supply of gunpowder.
Now a 20-year study of another 17th-century warship has blamed instead
the personal habits of the men on board: in particular their tendency
to relieve themselves into the deepest recesses of the ship.
The theory suggests that rotting faeces in the bilges led to a
build-up of methane that could have been ignited by a candle below decks.
Richard Enser, an engineer and naval historian, arrived at this
explanation while researching the Lennox, launched a decade after the
London exploded. Restoration Warship, to be published in the new year,
takes the Lennox as the archetypal ship of the period. Among her
records was an account of a curious incident, recorded while she was
laid up at Chatham.
The ship's lieutenant fell down the well, an aperture running from the
top deck beside the mast to the bottom of the hold, through which the
crew could pump out the bilges. It appears that the skeleton crew had
been using the well as a lavatory, rather than relieving themselves
over the side as they would have done at sea. When two sailors were
sent to find the fallen lieutenant, according to the report, "they
were rendered in a manner dead by the stench".
Mr Enser told The Times: "They were unconscious. Of course, it is not
the smell that makes you unconscious, it's the methane." This, he
thought, could be the cause of many ship explosions reported in the
"When you have that concentration of methane, all it would take is
someone being sent down there with a lantern to set it off," he said.
"The powder room is in the hold as well."
Charles Trollope, an authority on naval ordnance from the period,
prefers the theory that the explosion occurred as the crew were
reloading old cartridge papers with gunpowder in the magazine, a
common practice. "When they stopped using secondhand cartridge papers
there were no more explosions," he said. "Then again it could have
been the two things together."
"Though a bitter cold day, yet I rose, and though my pain and
tenderness in my testicle remains a little, yet I do verily think that
my pain yesterday was nothing else, and therefore I hope my disease of
the stone may not return to me, but void itself in pissing, which God
grant, but I will consult my physitian. This morning is brought me to
the office the sad newes of "The London," in which Sir J. Lawson's men
were all bringing her from Chatham to the Hope, and thence he was to
go to sea in her; but a little a'this side the buoy of the Nower, she
suddenly blew up. About 24 and a woman that were in the roundhouse and
coach saved; the rest, being above 300, drowned: the ship breaking all
in pieces, with 80 pieces of brass ordnance. She lies sunk, with her
roundhouse above water. Sir J. Lawson hath a great loss in this of so
many good chosen men, and many relations among them. I went to the
'Change, where the news taken very much to heart. So home to dinner,
and Mr Moore with me. Then I to Gresham College, and there saw several
pretty experiments . . . about 11 home to supper and to bed."