Great War Faversham Munitions Factory Explosives Loading Company Distinguished Service Medal for the Great Explosion of 2nd April 1916, silver, hallmarks for Birmingham with date letter ‘r’ for 1916, 39 mm in diameter, the obverse engraved: ‘PRO PATRIA APRIL 2ND: 1916’ the reverse engraved: ‘Presented to A.J. Epps by Explosives Loading Company for Distinguished Service’. Housed in a fitted case by Mappin and Webbs Ltd. Rare.
Condition: Good Very Fine.
Epps is a well known local name in the area, and a Steve Epps, of the Cotton Powder Company Fire Brigade received the Medal of the Order of the British Empire for the Faversham Explosion incident.
The Faversham explosives industry has claims to be the cradle of the UK's explosives industry: it was also to become one of its main centres. The first gunpowder plant in the UK was established in the 16th century, possibly at the instigation of Faversham Abbey. With their estates and endowments, monasteries were keen to invest in promising technology. Faversham was well-placed. It had a stream which could be dammed at intervals to provide power for watermills. On its outskirts were low-lying areas ideal for the culture of alder and willow to provide charcoal — one of the three key gunpowder ingredients. The stream fed into a tidal creek where sulphur, another key ingredient, could be imported, and the finished product loaded for dispatch to Thames-side magazines. The port was also near the Continent where in warfare demand for gunpowder was brisk.
Gunpowder is a low explosive, best used as a propellant. Guncotton, the first high explosive, more useful for its destructive powers, was invented in 1846. It was first manufactured at Faversham’s Marsh Works in 1847. The manufacturing process was not yet fully understood. On 14th July 1847 a serious explosion killed 18 staff, only 10 of whose bodies could be identified. As a result of the blast, the factory owners shut the plant. Guncotton was not made again in Faversham until 1873, when the Cotton Powder Company, independent of the gunpowder factories, opened a new plant on a remote site near Uplees, about four km northwest of the town centre. It was still within the parish, but alongside the River Swale, the deep-water channel that divides mainland Kent from the Isle of Sheppey. Deliveries of raw materials — cotton waste and sulphuric and nitric acids — could readily be made, and the product was easily dispatched by water. With a buoyant market, the factory rapidly expanded, producing each new high explosive as it was formulated. Adjoining it to the west in 1913 an associate venture, the Explosives Loading Company, built a plant to fill bombs and shells. Both plants were high-tech state-of-the-art, with a power station, hydraulic mains and an internal telephone and tramway systems. Together they occupied an area of 500 acres — almost as large as that of the City of London.
When the First World War started in 1914, the two factories were requisitioned by the Admiralty and armed guards were mounted. Production facilities were further expanded and many new staff recruited from Faversham and elsewhere in East Kent. Road access for the workers was poor, so the Admiralty built a metre-gauge railway, the Davington Light Railway, to transport them from a terminus at Davington, near the Home Works, to Uplees.
The owners of both Swale-side factories had foreseen that they would become superfluous at the end of the First World War, and they closed promptly and permanently in 1919. The Davington light railway track was lifted; its three steam locomotives found new homes in South America, where at least one is thought to survive.
The 1916 explosion at Faversham, otherwise known as the ‘Great Explosion’, was the worst in the history of the British explosives industry. At 14:20 on Sunday 2nd April 1916, a huge explosion ripped through the gunpowder mill at Uplees, near Faversham, when a store of 200 tons of Trinitroluene, otherwise referred to as TNT, was detonated following some empty sacks catching fire. The TNT and ammonium nitrate, the latter used to manufacture amatol, had exploded. The weather might have contributed to the start of the fire. The previous month had been wet but had ended with a short dry spell so that by that weekend the weather was "glorious" ... providing perfect conditions for heat-generated combustion.
As it was a Sunday, no women were at work. Initially reported as "200 casualties", the final total is not universally agreed. There were 115 deaths of men and boys in the explosion and in subsequent sympathetic detonations, including all the Gunpowder Works Fire Brigade, some local firemen and ambulance men, and five men of the 4th Buffs were also killed. The bodies of seven victims were never found; 108 corpses were buried in a mass grave at Faversham Cemetery on 6th April.
The munitions factory was in a remote spot in the middle of the open marshes of North Kent, next to the Thames coastline, hence the explosion was heard across the Thames estuary and as far away as Norwich and Great Yamouth. In Southend-on-Sea domestic windows and two large plate-glass shop windows were broken.
The East Kent Gazette published in Sittingbourne, did not report the explosion until 29th April. Although recognising the need for some censorship, it referred to the reply given in Parliament to an appropriate question as "mystifying and ambiguous" and called for the fullest precautions to be implemented to "prevent another calamity of the kind" occurring again.
Although not the first such disaster at Faversham’s historic munitions works, the April 1916 blast is recorded as "the worst ever in the history of the UK explosives industry", and yet the full picture is still somewhat confused. The reason for the fire is uncertain. And considering the quantity of explosive chemicals stored at the works — with one report indicating that a further 3,000 tons remained in nearby sheds unaffected — it is remarkable, and a tribute to those who struggled against the fire that so much of the nation's munitions were prevented from contributing further to the catastrophe.