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Anniversary of massive explosion at Uplees Gunpowder Works that killed 109

On April 2, 1916, an explosion at Uplees Gunpowder works killed 109 men and boys. Frederick William Gilbert was among those who died when 15 tonnes of TNT and 150 tonnes of ammonium nitrate blew up. One hundred years on, Aidan Barlow talked to his grandson about the disaster.

It was never spoken of, ever.

And that is how it has remained for Peter Jackson, whose grandfather Frederick William Gilbert was killed on that awful afternoon.

The funeral procession for those killed in the explosion.
The funeral procession for those killed in the explosion.

Frederick was one of 109 men and boys who lost their lives in a massive explosion at the Uplees Gunpowder Works and was buried at a mass grave at the Love Lane cemetery on the outskirts of Faversham.

He had been a bricklayer by trade, and had returned from Australia to work making munitions during the First World War.

At 2.10pm on Sunday, April 2, small sacks in the works caught fire, triggering an explosion heard as far away as Norwich.

It damaged buildings for miles around and left a trail of devastation behind, including a crater 40 yards across and 20 feet deep.

As a child, Peter learned of the disaster after his mother took him to see the cemetery and he saw Frederick’s name on the memorial.

The mass grave for those killed.
The mass grave for those killed.

Now aged 87, he still has unanswered questions about his grandfather, who left behind a son and three daughters, one of whom was born six months after his death.

Peter, who lives in Bybrook, said: “Faversham was obliterated, and there are still parts of the town which are a wasteland and derelict 100 years on.

“They made gunpowder and munitions there from the 1500s and there had been explosions in the 1700s, but none like this one.

“My grandfather was killed. Nobody mentioned it, nobody would talk about it. I just visited the grave a couple of times as a child, but I wasn’t told anything about it.

“I knew my grandmother Mary Ann Polly because she died in 1941, but I don’t know much about Frederick. It frustrates me because I’ve been searching for years.”

Peter Jackson is commemorating the death of his grandfather who worked at the Faversham Gunpowder works
Peter Jackson is commemorating the death of his grandfather who worked at the Faversham Gunpowder works

Peter has searched in vain to try to find details about his father, including contacting other Gilberts listed in the phone book and through the Faversham Society to piece together more information.

There will be a series of events in Faversham to commemorate the event, with a service to be held at Love Lane on Saturday, April 2, at 1pm, followed by refreshments at the Allegro Dance Studios in Stone Street.

Peter said: “It’s very important that we remember the event. I will be going to the service and I have been to the place where it happened.”

Faversham Society historian and Chart Gunpowder Mills museum curator John Breeze said even at the time any news of the disaster was kept quiet.

The memorial to the men who were killed in the Great Explosion.
The memorial to the men who were killed in the Great Explosion.

He said: "At the time it was devastating for Faversham and for relatives of workers who came in from as far away as Margate, Chatham and Ashford.

"News of what happened was kept very quiet, it was protected information and there was an official prohibition in place on reporting it."

The memorial in Love Lane has now been upgraded to a grade-II listing by Historic England as part of a scheme to preserve more than 2,500 memorials nationwide.

The scheme has also been supported by Culture Secretary John Whittingdale MP who leads for the government on the First World War.

He said: "War memorials are a valued part of our heritage and it is absolutely fitting that we cherish and preserve them for future generations."

If you’re able to help Peter in his search, email favershamnews@thekmgroup.co.uk.

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