Home   Stowmarket   Article

Subscribe Now

How Gun Cotton Way in Stowmarket got its tragic name





With 28 lives lost and more than 70 injured, it was one of Suffolk's darkest days.

More than 150 years ago, two explosions tore through a guncotton factory in Stowmarket.

They were so loud, the devastation could reportedly be heard as far as Southwold – more than 30 miles away.

Gun Cotton Way in Stowmarket was named in memory of the factory tragedy. Picture: Stowmarket Local History Group
Gun Cotton Way in Stowmarket was named in memory of the factory tragedy. Picture: Stowmarket Local History Group
The explosions killed 28 people and left more than 70 injured. Picture: Illustrated Police News
The explosions killed 28 people and left more than 70 injured. Picture: Illustrated Police News

The impact of that tragic event could be felt for decades and is remembered through the name of the street, Gun Cotton Way, where the factory stood.

It prompted SuffolkNews to examine the area’s history and the events that unfolded that fateful day.

Some craters from the explosion were around nine to 10 metres deep. Picture: Picture: Stowmarket Local History Group
Some craters from the explosion were around nine to 10 metres deep. Picture: Picture: Stowmarket Local History Group
An illustration of the aftermath. Picture: Illustrated Police News
An illustration of the aftermath. Picture: Illustrated Police News

On Friday, August 11, 1871, the explosions ripped through the Prentices Guncotton Factory.

The youngest deaths were of four 12-year-olds; Alfred Bloom, Susan Wilding, Mary Mount and Alice Mutimer.

The blasts were so large they also smashed most of the 15th century stained glass windows at St Mary’s Church, in Combs Ford.

Craters left after the explosions were approximately nine to 10 metres deep and around 200 people inn the town were left with hearing issues.

Guncotton was produced to replace the gunpowder used for firearms and for mining.

A cause for the explosion was never discovered. Picture: Stowmarket Local History Group
A cause for the explosion was never discovered. Picture: Stowmarket Local History Group
A plaque was unveiled 10 years to remember the victims - many of which were buried in unmarked graves. Picture: Stowmarket Local History Group
A plaque was unveiled 10 years to remember the victims - many of which were buried in unmarked graves. Picture: Stowmarket Local History Group

It was made by dipping cotton in nitric and sulphuric acids.

Chemist Sir Federick Abel eliminated the chemicals’ impurities to make it safer to handle and process.

However, the dangerous production of the substance resulted in the explosions which killed 28 people and injured a further 75.

Gun Cotton Way, in Stowmarket, today. Picture: Google
Gun Cotton Way, in Stowmarket, today. Picture: Google

We will never truly know what happened at the factory to cause the explosions.

However, an investigation at the time found the materials might have been sabotaged.

Another theory is the explosions were the result of hot weather.

In February 2014, a memorial plaque was displayed at Stowmarket’s Old Cemetery to remember 23 of the victims – most of whom were buried in unmarked graves.

The other five victims were buried in nearby villages in Suffolk.

The plaque reads: “Their brightness on that morning was not to last all day.

“This plaque it’s hoped will mean at least their names will always stay.”