The day Honiton was rocked by a massive explosion...

Matthews Bros was in Honiton High Street

Matthews Bros was in Honiton High Street - Credit: Honiton Museum

The fireworks exploding into the sky on New Year’s Eve were nothing compared to a terrific gunpowder explosion that terrified residents of Honiton in November 1895.

It happened in the building adjoining the rear of the shop premises of Messrs RH and EW Matthews, (now Smiths) in the centre of the High Street. 

Matthews Bros had, for a lengthy period, carried on an extensive business as wholesale and retail ironmongers. 

The firm also manufactured gun cartridges. 

They kept their licensed powder magazines in a field some way from the town centre.

The roof of the building was blown into the air to a tremendous height, the debris being hurled in all directions. Many people some distance away had narrow escapes from falling slates and other materials.

So intense was the shock that people on the opposite side of the street were thrown to the ground, while the vibration was felt a distance from the town. 

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The buildings in Northcote Lane forming part of the Dolphin Hotel, the adjoining houses, and the tannery, were shattered, the violence of the shock having broken windows, and portions of the building fabric.

Three men were injured. A slate fell on the shoulder of a young man named Harris who was standing in New Street. An elderly pensioner, Mr Mallett, who happened to be passing by at the time of the explosion, was badly injured by falling debris and sustained a severe scalp wound. 

After having his wounds dressed by Dr Shortridge, he was taken home. 

The doctor also attended John Goosey who was found in the wreckage. He had worked for Matthews Bros for four months and was engaged in loading cartridges. 

He was in a critical condition, suffering from severe shock and terrible burns to his face and hands.

Later, Colonel Ford, one of Her Majesty's Inspectors from the Home Office, held an inquiry at Honiton.

He inspected what was left of the premises, took witness statements, and interviewed John Goosey. 

In his official report he attached the blame to Messrs Matthews for having more than five pounds of explosives in the filling room and for breaching other safety regulations. 

He stated that greater responsibility was due to Honiton Town Council’s Borough Surveyor. 

Part of his duties included inspections of premises under the Explosives Act. 

The surveyor had no copy of the local authority guidebook and did not know that the appointment carried any duties, so he had never conducted an inspection.