At first, it feels like an earthquake. Windows shatter in Penzance, and oscillation disturbs mid-morning visitors to St John’s Hall. At St Ives, shops lose their plate glass and roofs are damaged. The earth rumbles; a “dull, hollow boom” is in the air. But then the rumours start, helped on their way by the shrill voices of telegraph and telephone, and all too soon they are confirmed. At the National Explosive Works at Gwithian, the febrile product has done exactly what it says on the tin. Over a mile away, out at sea, bits of lead tank and machinery are beginning to fall from the sky.
At the heart of the Gwithian works, nitro-glycerine is filtered and stored. The management has taken what care it can. The work is done in wooden huts, set in the Towans 60 yards apart, each protected by an earth bank, and each the workplace of only two men; a piece of damage limitation serving as a tacit admission of vulnerability. In a lead channel between the two huts flows the newly-made explosive. Today, on the 5th January, has too much water been allowed into the flow? Or perhaps not enough? “The cause will never be known”, the newspaper will announce bluntly, “as the men who worked there are blown to atoms”.
There are 700 men employed at the Works. And on the Towans, where relatives gather, desperate for news, a “black cloud, so dense as to surround everything like a pall”, rolls in. The crowd, kept back from the danger zone, will not see that two of the huts have been “blown to matchwood” and the men inside “terribly dismembered”. One man – blood still oozing from his pallid face; thick-voiced and trembling - tells of being struck in the face by timber, and awaking to “a sense of the calamity…. overpowered by the horror”, before coming to his senses and making sure that his own shed is safe.
In the event, the toll will be light, as these things go. 695 men will count themselves lucky today. Five will never count themselves lucky again. Andrew Curnow, a middle-aged man from Connor Downs, leaves his widow and two children. Walter Luzmoor of Gwithian leaves a widow and young son but his brother – also employed at the Works - survives. William Clift, also of Gwithian, and Simon Jory of Mount Pleasant, also lose their lives. And particularly unlucky is Oscar Shaholme, from Sweden, newly come to the Works. He was in a separate hut, lagging pipes with clay - but thrown to the ground and fatally injured by the force of the blast.
Honour their memory, just for a moment, today. And perhaps, too, when you next hear mockery of Health and Safety legislation.
Cornishman 7th January 1904 page 5
On This Day pieces are often based, as stated, on contemporary newspaper reports and these are not always totally accurate. We are grateful to Rosemary Bentley for providing Walter's baptismal name and new background information on him, since this account was first published in 2017