Did you know that the location of one of central London's greatest disasters was also the foundation site of a major religion? Our occasional series on forgotten tragedies finds out more.
Tabernacle Street, just north of Finsbury Square, is among London's darkest streets. It gets only an hour or so of sunshine each day, thanks to its narrow course and north-south bearing. Only one tree grows here, and it is not thriving. Part way along, on the eastern side, you'll find a squat, brick building in the process of minor transformation. An old office block is changing into a more modern office block. This unassuming plot, pictured above, has an exceptional and doubly incredible history.
The Foundry, which stood here from 1684, was a well-known manufacturer of guns. It supplied heavy artillery to the nearby HAC barracks and also forged weapons for the Crown. In its bowels, massive cauldrons of molten iron were poured into moulds, forming the great guns of the age.
Tragedy struck in 1716. During a demonstration of the casting process, the poured molten metal came into contact with water in the bottom of the mould. Imagine the sizzle of a hot pan under the cold tap, then multiply that a thousand-fold. The sudden rapid expansion of gas caused a terrific explosion. Metal, both molten and solid, was forced through the building, cutting many bystanders down. According to a later newspaper account, “It blew up with the greatest violence, tearing up the ground some feet deep, breaking down the furnace, untiling the house, and killing many people on the spot with the streams of melted metal”.
Further casualties succumbed to their injuries in the weeks that followed, as indicated in the local Bills of Mortality. In total, 17 people lost their lives, including a number of dignitaries and the foundry's master, Matthew Bagley.
It was one of the worst explosions in London’s history up to that point, and few peacetime explosions have surpassed it since. The incident prompted the removal of all artillery manufacturing to Woolwich (the future cradle of Arsenal football team). A plaque at that site records the event.
The disaster is all but forgotten today, but it did leave a remarkable legacy. Two decades later, a certain John Wesley took lease on the ramshackle factory. As 'The Foundery', it became the London headquarters for his nascent Methodism movement. Congregations in their thousands would listen to Wesley preach on this spot. A plaque on the other side of Tabernacle Street once recorded this association, as well as the death of Wesley’s mother in the same building — it is currently missing. The Methodists later moved a few hundred metres to their current base on City Road.
That one location should be the site of such a powerful disaster, and a foundation stone of a religion that now has 80 million adherents is remarkable, especially when you see the apathetic building that stands on this site today.
The area has continued its association with tragedy. The Moorgate tube crash of 1975 was one of the worst in the network's history, claiming 43 lives. A fire on nearby Moor Lane caused nine fatalities in 1912. And, of course, the area was heavily bombed in the Second World War, as evident from the sprawling Barbican complex that swept away many old street patterns in the area.
For more on the surprising history of Tabernacle Street, see the author's chapter in Mount London (2014).
Other Forgotten Disasters
- The Colney Hatch Mental Assylum fire
- World's worst roller-coaster accident, in Battersea.
- The Denmark Street fire
- London’s worst ever disaster
- The Regent’s Park ice skating disaster
- Britain’s worst mid-air collision, over London
- Toxic sewer tragedy in Pimlico
- The Great Beer Flood on central London
- A map of London’s worst disasters