Sleeping London
Woken by Explosion

Macclesfield Bridge Destroyed
Several Killed


              'Macclesfield Bridge 1823' by Thomas Hosmer Shepherd

In the early hours of 2nd October 1874, in the City Road Basin, a train of light barges, or narrowboats, was got ready to move up the Regent's Canal.

'City Road Basin 1826' by Thomas Hosmer Shepherd

At about 3 a.m., the steam-tug Ready drew away from the wharf pulling behind her, the fly-boat Jane steered by Mr. Boswell, the barge Dee steered by Mr. Edwards, the barge Tilbury steered by Mr. Baxton; and two other barges and their steerers, no details of whom are presently available. On board Tilbury were also Mr. Taylor, a labourer, another man, and a boy.

The steamer towed her train of vessels westwards through the night, without event, for nearly two hours, turning into the cut behind the Zoological Gardens of Regent's Park, and passing under Macclesfield Bridge at the North Gate a few minutes before five o'clock.

The barges' passage along the Regent's Canal

As Tilbury went under the Bridge, a most terrible explosion occurred. The barge was shattered and all on board were killed.

Another of the barges was also damaged and sank.

The Macclesfield Bridge was totally destroyed and the supporting columns thrown down, as Tilbury had been directly beneath it when her cargo blew up.

Such was the force of the blast that surrounding houses were severely damaged, their roofs and walls blown down, and some were near ruins. For a mile to east and west, windows and fragile articles were broken, and in every part of London sleepers were woken by the noise as their beds rocked, doors burst open, plaster fell from the ceilings, and everything shook and trembled.

The sound of the explosion carried, it is said, even
some twenty miles to the other side of the Thames.

In great alarm many rushed into the streets wearing only their night-clothes, calling out for help, scarcely pausing to wrap themselves in blankets. People from every quarter hastened towards the thick column of smoke which rose up from the great blaze where the Bridge had been; some began helping the Police and the Fire Brigade to save what remained and search for the lost. The confusion was so great that a detachment of Horse Guards was sent from Albany Barracks to keep order; and it was feared that the wild animals might escape from the Park.

The dreadful event was much talked of, and details of the rescue were given in Saturday's edition of the Illustrated London News. We are able to offer our readers two vivid images of the Scene at the Canal.

[Click on the image above; browser back button to return.]

At the inquiry it was stated that the narrowboats were the property of the Grand Junction Canal Company; the Jane had been carrying "a little gunpowder", while the Tilbury's lading was:

"chiefly of sugar and other miscellaneous articles, such as nuts, straw-boards, coffee, and some two or three barrels of petroleum, and about five tons of gun-powder".

The cause of the blast was thought to be a spark coming off the Bridge and into the gunpowder, though by what means that may have been is not explained.

Dr. Hardwicke held the inquest on the bodies of three of the victims (the captain and two helpers), and sought to establish in every detail the manner in which the barge was loaded, and the regulations under which such dangerous cargoes may be allowed to pass through the metropolis. It appeared that, in addition to the four tons of gunpowder, Tilbury carried six barrels of petroleum, and, moreover, that there was no restriction against the lighting of fires in boats so laden.

The verdict was not given till 19th October, and was to the effect that the three men were killed by the explosion.

Of the dead, were named only: Charles Baxton, who was about thirty-five years of age, and of Loughborough in Leicestershire; and William Taylor, a labourer of twenty-five; the third man and the boy on board Tilbury were also killed.

The Regent's Canal remained closed for four days. This canal, opened in 1820, connects the Paddington Canal and the Thames at Limehouse.

Every house near the Canal was affected by the blast; the worst damage was to the Villa, in the Pompeian style, of the well-known artist Mr. Lawrence Alma-Tadema. Mr. Alma-Tadema and his wife were most fortunate since they had been in Scotland and were not yet returned to London when the barge exploded. Their bed and bedroom were wrecked and had they been at home they might well have been killed.

The unsafe structure was shored up, and the eminent architects, Mr. George Aitchison and Mr. William Burges, oversaw the restoration, so that before long the villa could be redecorated.


I have tried to find the death registrations of those killed in the accident, but cannot be sure of having succeeded. There was a Richard Baxton, b. c.1858 Loughborough, living in Derbyshire in 1881; and a James Baxton, son of Joseph & Elizabeth, was bpt. Loughborough on 13 December 1818. I have not found a Baxton death in 4Q 1874; however, Marylebone district register has in its entries (FreeBMD version) some which might be relevant:

Died December quarter 1874, Marylebone district:

Jonathan HOLLOWAY age 21
Thomas Nicholas KEY age 21
William TAYLOR age 25-26
Charles BEXSON age 42
Daniel YOUNG age 47
Archibald William HENSON age 12
Joseph BEECRAFT age 27
William Evans JONES age 45

A Charles BAXTON d. 1Q 1853 (Ashton 8d/324)
1901: lvg. Battersea, London - Ellen BAXTON b. c.1847 Loughborough, Leicestershire

The bridge was rebuilt and was thereafter referred to as "Blow-Up Bridge"; originally the North Gate Bridge, continuation of the northern carriage entrance to the Park, its name was changed to Macclesfield Bridge when Lord Macclesfield, Chairman of the Regent's Canal Company, made a financial contribution which enabled completion of the Canal. The cast-iron columns were found to be undamaged and were re-used to support the new bridge, but turned around so that there are horse pulling-rope marks on both sides of the columns.

Macclesfield Bridge: the old columns continue to support the arches.
Photo: Michael L. Stevens, January 1999

See more of the Regent's and other Canals today:
Mike Steven's Inland Waterways Pages


The 1809 Explosion
The story of a previous barge explosion on the Paddington Canal
(might there have been a similarity in the cause?)


Regent's Canal: Architect John Nash, Engineer James Morgan; permitted navigation from the Grand Junction Canal at Paddington to the River Thames at Limehouse. Work began on 14th October 1812 and was completed on 1st August 1820; basins at Regent's Park, City-road, St. Luke's, and Limehouse. Regent's Canal

James Morgan

Regent's Park: designed by John Nash and created between 1817 and 1828 from land which had been in Middlesex Forest, and later became a royal hunting ground. John Nash
Regent's Park Zoo: designed by Decimus Burton, created in 1828. Decimus Burton
Lawrence Alma-Tadema: biography and a picture-gallery of the artist's work. Alma-Tadema
Dr. John Snow: London in 1859; history and maps of the outbreak of cholera; Snow's detective work and determination of its causes. Maps of London in 1827, 1859 and 1889; London water in 1856. John Snow
London Zoo: the current approach to the care and study of animals; adoption scheme; educational programmes. Regent's Park Zoo
Regent's Canal Dock: construction, purpose, evolution and present-day use. (This link goes to a page of the "Thamesmead Gazette" website - definitely in Tilberia!) Regent's Dock
London Today: its parks, gardens and other features. Discover the present and the past. Visit London

Newspaper Cuttings, with letters and memoranda, relating to the explosion of gunpowder along the Canal in Regent's Park, London, on 2nd October 1874. Collected by Charles Wordsworth Wisbey; British Library Scholarship and Collections, named collections of printed materials; location: T.C.5.a.4.

"Dead Image", a fictional dectective story written by Joan Lock around the explosion of the Tilbury barge's cargo; ISBN 0709065671.

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