The Explosive History Of Blow-Up Bridge

Will Noble
By Will Noble Last edited 15 months ago
The Explosive History Of Blow-Up Bridge

This is Macclesfield Bridge, in the north of Regent's Park. Its tranquility — pierced only by the occasional jogger, dog walker or duck quack — belies a horrific incident that once occurred here.

In the early hours of 2 October 1874, The Tilbury — a barge containing a concoction of coffee and nuts — exploded right under the bridge. Both boat and structure were immediately destroyed. Alongside its less volatile cargo, The Spectator would later report, was "the perilous combination of two or three barrels of petroleum and about five tons of gunpowder."

A contemporaneous image of the explosion

The three men aboard the Tilbury — one of whom, it's presumed, lit a match that ignited the blast — were killed. Windows shattered a mile from the explosion. Residents sat bolt upright in bed, fearing an earthquake. The animals in the nearby zoo caused a hullabaloo. 'Dead fish rained from the sky in the West End'.

A plaque by the bridge now marks the tragedy, and explains what happened after:

Though Macclesfield Bridge was reduced to rubble, its cast iron columns were relatively unscathed, and reused when the bridge was put back together. The name of the forge — Coalbrookdale, which also built the world's first iron bridge — can still be clearly seen atop the pillars:

It's a rare case of a London structure being rebuilt like for like. Although there was one minor adjustment; the pillars were swivelled round the other way, which is why you can now see rope grooves from boats on either side:

According to an article in The Times soon after the incident, "This explosion has revealed the fact that London has for years been traversed in some of its most populous and wealthy quarters by fleets of torpedoes."

It's no coincidence that, just one year on, this was passed:

From legislation.gov.uk

Bridge explosions have always threatened London, and unlike Blow Up Bridge, most of them have been intentional. On 20 December 1884, an attempt to blow up London Bridge caused only a "displacement of mortar".

© The British Library Board

A small bomb went off on Hammersmith Bridge in 2000, 61 years after another explosion on the bridge. "The sequel will no doubt be acted in the courts," says a stern British Pathé voiceover, "where British justice will assert its superiority over criminal stupidity." In fact the bomb had been a sequel to a second, which a vigilante had hurriedly hurled into the Thames.  

In 2016, a fake double-decker was 'blown up' on the actual Lambeth Bridge, for a Jackie Chan film. Although permission had been granted for the stunt, some onlookers were reported to have believed it to be the real deal.

Last Updated 25 January 2017