1864 The Explosion of the Lotte Sleigh

The night of 5th January 1864 was a night to remember for the folk of Birkenhead town. It began peacefully enough; boats were anchored in the river awaiting favourable winds and tides; the Birkenhead Ferry boats were setting down the last of their passengers on the Cheshire shore after a busy day in the city; and aboard the Lottie Sleigh the crew were preparing the boat for the coming voyage. The Lottie Sleigh was a sailing vessel which had taken on a general cargo, including some ten tons of explosives, all bound for Africa. In the business of preparing the vessel for her voyage, one of the crew spilled some paraffin on the deck while cleaning an oil lamp. The oil caught fire, the alarm was raised, and the crew tried to tackle the blaze. It soon became clear that the ship was doomed and the captain, aware of the powder keg beneath the decks, signalled for assistance.

The crew were taken off by the old Rock Ferry boat the Wasp, which took them and the passengers to the safety of the Cheshire shore. Contemporary accounts tell the rest of the story. ‘The utmost anxiety prevailed on both the Liverpool and the Birkenhead shores. Thousands of people watched and waited for the finale. The fire reached the magazine at about 7.30pm, when there was a terrific report; and the vessel was blown to pieces and sunk.

All the houses facing the river were severely shaken, and nearly every pane of glass was smashed.’ J. R. Kaighin recalls in Bygone Birkenhead ‘There was an old woman at her stall in the Market who was reputed to be hard of hearing. She however heard this thunderous roar right enough, for she fell on her knees in prayer, believing the Judgment Day had arrived! Another employee in the Market, busily engaged in dressing a rabbit at that moment, dropped it and ran for all he was worth. Following the flash and roar came the sound of falling glass; every pane and window in the neighbourhood was smashed. The utmost alarm and confusion prevailed as the crowd rushed hither and thither in the darkness trying to discover what had happened.’ Henry Aspinall was living at Claughton Hill at the time; his dining room faced the river to the east ‘Suddenly we all felt a vibration as though the large plate-glass windows were bursting open, but the distance from the river, two miles, was too great for any danger of breakage.’

The explosion was heard four miles away at Old Swan, and in Liverpool city the blast damaged roofs, blew in windows and extinguished gas lamps in the streets. In Birkenhead debris from the vessel rained down into the streets, causing considerable damage and some injuries.

Hilda Gamlin recalls, ‘We lived a mile and a quarter from the scene of the disaster, and when it happened, I was playing chess with a sister, we left the game for a time, and on resuming it, we found that the concussion had caused every man on the board to move an inch from his place. The whole of the town verging on the river was wrecked completely. On the following Sunday there was to be seen a sight without parallel in our annals. Hamilton Square, had almost every pane of glass broken by the disaster, and day of rest as it should have been, every house had glaziers at work repairing the damages. All the glass in the vicinity was exhausted, and a raid for supply made on St Helens.’

One of the largest items to fall in Birkenhead was a 10 lb ‘deadeye’, (iame below) complete with iron shackle, which landed near the priory in St Mary’s churchyard. This can be seen today in the local history gallery of the Williamson Art Gallery & Museum. Amazingly, the ship’s figurehead was recovered and stood, for many years, in the offices of the Royal Insurance Company in Liverpool; the Royal had been closely involved with claims arising from the explosion. It is now on permanent loan to the Maritime Museum on Liverpool’s waterfront, where it is displayed in one of the exhibition halls. Taken from the Wirral Journal Winter 1985 edition (no longer in publication).