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New Theory about the HMS London Explosion, March 8 1665

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  • Michael Robinson
    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
    Message 1 of 1 , Dec 26, 2008
      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
      17th century.

      "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."

      Pepys's account

      "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."

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