Fuse works and the perils of powder

The introduction of gunpowder for blasting – the first example supposedly in Gwinear in the 1670s – greatly speeded up the excavation of shafts and levels in the Cornish mines. Powder was used in a series of controlled explosions that advanced the rock face. Or often uncontrolled. The main problem was in providing a fuse that could safely allow the miner to light it and retire to a distance. Primitive methods using goose quills and other devices produced short and unreliable fuses. In consequence accidents were all too common. The first of many deaths from explosions was recorded in Breage parish register in 1689. Much more common were cases of blinding or losing a few fingers.

Nonetheless, gunpowder became an essential part of mining as the number of mines grew rapidly in the 1700s. By the early 1800s powder mills had been started, usually in out of the way woods, to supply this need. But the appalling scale of accidents from premature explosions pricked the consciences of many and, belatedly, attention turned to designing a safer fuse. William Bickford (1774-1834), a staunch Methodist, hit on the idea of twisting powder into a rope after visiting a friend’s ropeworks and the safety fuse was thus invented in 1830.

The impressive frontage of Bickford’s works

Bickford’s works at Tuckingmill in the heart of the central mining district became the leading fuse factory. It was the centre of a Cornish fuse industry that dominated world markets until the invention of dynamite and electrical fuses in the twentieth century. But fuse works could themselves be dangerous places to work. Employing mainly women and girls, fuse works were also on occasion the scenes of disastrous explosions and fires.

Cyril Noall, in his book on Cornish Mine Disasters recounted the main accidents at Cornish fuse works. The greatest loss of life occurred at the biggest of these works, Bickford’s own factory at Tuckingmill. Here, on Easter Saturday 1872, the engine had been stopped for cleaning and the women who usually spun the fuses were put to work cleaning their places of work. In the spinning room on the upper floor a machine part was accidentally dropped. This caused a spark, igniting gunpowder dust that had lodged in a crevice in the wooden floor. That in turn led to the firing of a pile of safety fuse coils that, somewhat unwisely, had been stored in a corner of the room, which only had one exit via a staircase.

Noall’s account continues: ‘This (the pile of safety fuse) suddenly blazed up: the upper floor filled with dense, choking smoke and the stampede began. The girls nearest the door succeeded in escaping unharmed; but those who followed, being less nimble or not so well placed for gaining the exit, were burnt as they passed the fuse in the corner. In this way, about ten managed to get clear. Then, one girl fell – probably overcome by the fumes – followed by two or three others, their bodies blocking the escape route. One girl, retaining her senses, rushed over the prostrate forms of her companions, broke down the partition by the stairs, fell into the staircase and was saved, though seriously injured. Three or four others could not imitate her desperate leap for life, and collapsed. Altogether, eight young women perished – the cause of death in each case being suffocation.’

There were other explosions and fires causing loss of life, at a safety fuse works at nearby Pool, when two girls and a man died in 1861 and another two women in a second fire in 1865, and at the Unity Fuse Works at St Day, where five young women were killed in a blaze in 1875.

The names of the women, most of them in their twenties, who lost their lives in these tragedies, are as follows:

At Tuckingmill, Emily Carah, Emily Climo, Ellen Goldsworthy, Annie James, Eliza Marks, sisters Louisa and Mary Sims and Martha Towan.

At Pool, Elizabeth Blight, Ann Hancock, Ellen Opie and Elizabeth Vivian.

At St Day, Ann Davey, Elizabeth James, Margaretta Long, Christiana Mitchell and Elizabeth Pooley.

2 thoughts on “Fuse works and the perils of powder

  1. Thank you so much for this account, which is – how often do I have to use this word (!!) – truly fascinating and sheds so much light on the nitty-gritty of mining. I really appreciate the highlighting of the women and girls’ work in fuse factories, and what an important and thoughtful gesture to let us read, again, the names of those poor dear women who lost their lives in such a terrible and horrible way. It is a good way to honour them.

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  2. My grandfather, Leonard Harry was a foreman there and Bickford-Smith would often seek him out for conversation, their both being strong methodists (well, my grandfather at least later in life anyway). Trebilcocks chip shop opposite was an institution then. I think he also worked at Ponsanooth, walking each way from Redruth every day. The machines grabbing in cotton for use in the fuses were apparently extremely dangerous and would take in a limb just as quickly I was told.

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