New Bridge House and the Gas Explosion

New Bridge House

New Bridge House

In 1864, the National Provincial Bank Company, later National Provincial & Union Bank, had offices were in Snargate Street, now the Masonic Lodge. That year the Bank acquired the plot of land between the Dour and Camden Crescent and from the outset, they planned a building worthy of the fact that their Chairman was from Dover.

Dover’s Fector Bank, owned by John Minet Fector jnr., in 1842 amalgamated with National Provincial. After Fector changed his name to Laurie (his mother’s surname), he was appointed Chairman of the new, larger, bank. He held this position until his death on 24 February 1868.

New Bridge House - detail showing one of the decorative heads

New Bridge House – detail showing one of the decorative heads

Local architect in private practice and the town’s surveyor, Rowland Rees, designed the handsome single-storey building of rusticated stucco with a central pediment porch. The roof is supported by columns, flanked by recessed portions with urn finials and swags beneath. The building is embellished by decorative heads, probably made locally as there are other, similar ones, around the town. The builder was a Mr Matthews, and the Bank opened for business on 2 March 1865. The company also purchased 1 Camden Crescent as the manager’s residence.

In 1893, the Bank was undergoing a thorough makeover carried out by Herbert Stiff’s company. They were Dover iron-founders, builders and contractors. By the end of July, it was almost complete as the new counters were finished but shelves were still being put up in the strong room. The strong room was at the back of the building and Herbert Stiff was particularly proud of its new door. This was made of iron from his foundry, and mounted with what looked like two beautifully carved wooden doors, also made in his workshop.

Part of the renovation included the installation of electric lights to replace the gaslights that had been put in when the bank was first built. In the strong room the gas pipe ran from above the door up to the and then along the ceiling, from which, in the centre of the room, a pendent was suspended and mounted by two gas pendent lights using ball and socket joint so that they could be moved. The pendent was just less than 6-feet (1.8metres) from the ground and about the same length from the burner to the ceiling. The only ventilation, in this space, came from two closed small windows near the ceiling. These overlooked the outside lavatory.

19th Century Gas Mantles - courtesy of Barry Wilkinson.

19th Century Gas Mantles – courtesy of Barry Wilkinson.

At about 21.00hrs on Friday 21 July 1893 James Malone, the company’s electrician, with the help of Manfred Kemp, put scaffold up in the strong room so that Malone could install the electric light fittings first thing the following day. The scaffolding consisted of two ladders one at each end of the room with two 14-foot (4.3 metres) boards resting on them.

Although the scaffolding did not touch the gas fittings, Malone moved the mantel of one and commented on how ‘free’ it was. He also commented on the intense heat in the space above the mantle and a slight smell of gas from the jets being lit all day. It was because of this he wanted to start work early the following morning. In the room was Edward Hemmings, one of the clerks, who later reiterated the whole conversation.

When the men left, Hemmings checked the room for the smell of gas. He was particularly concerned for the previous Tuesday, Beedon, the bank’s messenger, had said there was a smell of gas outside of the lavatory. Hemmings immediately sent for a gasfitter who found two small holes in a pipe where the men had been putting up new shelves. After the leak was fixed, the smell of gas was no more.

On Saturday morning, Beedon arrived at 06.30hrs to open the bank and Kemp was already waiting outside. Beedon led the way into the strong room and commented on the scaffolding as he lit the gas mantle. Kemp climbed the scaffolding to check if the area was still hot, it had been a warm night, and it was. He said that there was still a whiff of gas so went to fix the under-counter light fittings in the main hall instead. Beedon stayed in the room, checked for the smell of gas, decided that he could not smell any and left.

National Provincial Bank, New Bridge House after 1893 refurbishment. Reproduced by kind permission of The Royal Bank of Scotland Group © 2013

National Provincial Bank, New Bridge House after 1893 refurbishment. Reproduced by kind permission of The Royal Bank of Scotland Group © 2013

By this time William Redman, Stiff’s foreman, had arrived and had spoken to both Beedon and Kemp. He then checked for gas by climbing up to the strong room’s two small windows that faced the outside lavatory. He thought that he could smell gas but not strongly and went to check the strong room. He did not climb the scaffolding as he could not detect any smell of gas below the mantle. Nonetheless, Redman went to get a gas fitter from Stiff’s workshops, leaving both the strong room and front door of the bank partially open.

In the bank, Beedon was getting on with his work when suddenly there was a roaring noise, an explosion like the firing of cannon and along with some of the bank’s windows, he was blown out of the front door followed by three workmen, who landed on top of him. Simultaneously the roof heaved off the building’s solid sides, the balustrade at the west end blew off. A cloud of smoke and dust filled the air. Fragments of plate glass scattered in every direction, striking the houses in Cambridge Terrace and injuring a number of passers by.  These people later stated that following the explosion there was a sulphurous smell.

National Provincial Bank manager's house 1 Camden Crescent 1906 .Reproduced by kind permission of The Royal Bank of Scotland Group © 2013

National Provincial Bank manager’s house 1 Camden Crescent 1906 .Reproduced by kind permission of The Royal Bank of Scotland Group © 2013

It was 06.55hrs and the Bank’s Manager, William Davey, who lived at 1 Camden Crescent, ran out, and quickly located Beedon. The manager ordered the still dazed Beedon to go at once for the police in order for them to come and secure the Bank.

Initially nobody comprehended what had happened then it was noticed that Kemp was missing. He was found, lying full length on the floor, unconscious. His legs were in an awkward position and he was badly burnt about the face and arms. Kemp was also bleeding profusely from the right side of the head. One of the rescuers lifted Kemp’s head and they could see that his skull was ‘driven into his brain.’  They called for help and a doctor, who lived opposite, was quickly on the scene. An ambulance was called and Kemp was taken to hospital where he later died.

Inside the bank, the upper half of the iron door of the strong room was hanging on one hinge and the lower half was missing.  It was this that had hit Kemp and caused his injuries.

The ornamental ceiling lay on the floor in ruins and there was a wide crack down the wall nearest the Camden Crescent.  The flat roof of the strong room had been lifted and fallen back again covering everything with the debris. Although, it was evident that the strong room was unsafe to enter, the bank’s ledgers were retrieved in order to carry on business. A temporary counting house was set up in the Manager’s house.

Former Dover Town Hall where the Inquest was held

Former Dover Town Hall where the Inquest was held

The inquest opened at the Town Hall (Maison Dieu) on Monday 24 July 1893 by the Borough Coroner – Sydenham Payn. Local solicitors, James Stilwell, appeared for the Directors of the National Provincial Bank and George Fielding for Dover Gas Company.

The victim was 43-years old Manfred Langley Kemp, master carpenter of 24 Bartholomew Street. He was married and had nine children. It was agreed that as Kemp’s body had been identified it could be buried and that the inquest would be adjourned until Tuesday 1 August, during which time further investigations took place.

Prior to the reopening of the inquest, local papers and local gossips made suppositions as to the cause of the accident. By 1 August it was a foregone conclusion that the gas through the mains had been at an abnormally high pressure due to the seafront being illuminated. This, so the gossips said, loosened a repair to the gas pipe. However, no one could explain why twenty minutes elapsed from when the gas was lit to the time of the explosion.

National Provincial Bank, New Bridge House c1893 -1910, note the Dover Hospital collection box on the counter. Reproduced by kind permission of The Royal Bank of Scotland Group © 2013

National Provincial Bank, New Bridge House c1893 -1910, note the Dover Hospital collection box on the counter. Reproduced by kind permission of The Royal Bank of Scotland Group © 2013

At the inquest, Stilwell produced a plan and photographs of the several rooms of the bank and various witnesses gave evidence and were cross-examined. Then Herbert Stiff, the building contractor was called. He said that he found the gas pipe, buried in the debris a few minutes after the explosion. It was broken off just above the ball and socket joint and the arms were broken. He sent this to his workshop and had it fixed to a gas pipe. It was found that there was a considerable escape of gas from the ball and socket joint – some twenty to thirty feet an hour.

Stiff was of the opinion that the leak was in existence before the explosion but that a deposit of verdigris had made the joint tight. This had become dislodged which enabled gas to leak out. Stiff was heavily questioned, but the Coroner dismissed Stiff’s replies as supposition, instructing the jury not to place too much reliance on the evidence.

Finally, Thomas Kirkham, an expert called in by Dover Gas Company, gave evidence. He too had examined the gas fitting and agreed with Stiff, saying that the pendant must have been moved causing the deposit of verdigris round the joint to be removed. He went on to say that, there was a capacity of 1,000 cubic feet at the top of the room above the mantle. To make an explosive mixture the proportion of air to gas would have to be 8 to 1 and he anticipated that the escape was about 10-feet an hour.

When the gas was lit on that fateful Saturday morning, the heat from it would rise and displace the mixture of gas and air. The latter, already warm would gradually move down until it reached the ball and socket joint and the result was the explosion.

The Coroner then briefly summed up the evidence and after a short consultation, the Foreman said the jury were of the opinion that the deceased met his death by the explosion of gas. However, bearing in mind the Coroner’s comments after Stiff had given evidence; he said that they did not consider there was sufficient evidence to show how the explosion occurred.

(On concluding my research, I contacted the Royal Society, who recommended Barry Wilkinson, an expert on 19th century Gas fittings and gas explosions.  His response concurred with the evidence given by Stiff and Kirkham in 1893 and is detailed below. *)

National Provincial & Union name change to National Provincial 1924

National Provincial & Union name change to National Provincial 1924

Following the explosion, the building was reconstructed and returned to its former glory. In 1924, the Bank formally changed its name to National Provincial Bank Limited, dropping the Union Bank of England from its title. Eight years later, on 22 February 1932, the Bank moved to the Market Square and on 14 November that year, Dover Harbour Board moved into New Bridge House. Since shortly after the Harbour Board had been formed in the early 17th century, they had been in Council House Street, in the Pier District. Renaming the building Harbour House, it became their headquarters. However, on 1 September 1940, the building was bombed and also succumbed to shell damage as World War II progressed.

As part of the reconstruction of Dover, following the war, Professor Abercrombie was brought in and New Bridge House was marked for demolition. However, Dover Corporation, using ‘vesting declarations’ under their Redevelopment Plan took possession. The Harbour Board, having undertaken renovations, moved to Waterloo Crescent and in July 1948, the Town Clerk‘s department, under James A Johnson, along with the Borough Treasurers department moved in. The latter moved to Brook House in 1957. After a legal struggle with Dover Corporation’s Town Clerk, James A Johnson, ‘adequate’ compensation was eventually paid to Dover Harbour Board.

James A, as he was called, arrived to take up the post of Town Clerk, coroner and later Registrar of the Cinque Ports, from South Shields in December 1944. He was a formidable character, feared by most, he virtually ruled Dover until the late 1960s. Following the loss face over what became known as the Cowper Road Gate Affair, many of those who had ‘sucked up’ to him before, wielded proverbial long knives. He retired as Town Clerk and coroner in April 1968 and within a year moved away. However, keeping his position as Registrar of the Cinque Ports he still had a desk in New Bridge House and a plaque besides the main entrance. In 1978, four years after the birth of Dover District Council, they removed the plaque. A row broke out with James A refusing to help with the installation ceremony of the Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, as Lord Warden in 1979. James A Johnson died in November 1998.

Former Dover District Council Chief Executive Office. Dover Museum

Former Dover District Council Chief Executive Office. Dover Museum

In 1970, the renamed New Bridge House became part of a Conservation area and even though Local Government reorganisation of 1974 caused the demise of Dover’s status as a Borough, the building was designated as the Office of the Chief Executive of Dover District Council (DDC).

Five years later New Bridge House briefly reverted to its original role as a bank for BBC’s television serial, Telford’s Change. Then, in 1985, it was put on the market in preparation for the centralisation of DDC at Whitfield. Since then it has been in the possession of private companies.

* (Above) Barry Wilkinson added:

The evidence it suggests to me that the light fitting with the ball and socket joint had been damaged with all the work going on around it and had come apart – providing a more definite leak than from the joint. It was found damaged, and allowed considerable leakage of gas (note the higher gas pressure that day) which could have happened before the explosion – a lot of work had been going on in the room.

The ignition source must have been from the gaslights. The actual volume of space in the strong room was about 2400 cu ft and the space above the gas lights about half of this (say) 1200 cu ft. The minimum volume of gas required for the explosion was less than 60 cu ft, which would have accumulated near the ceiling above the gaslights.

This would have probably taken between 2 hours and 5 hours to build up from a broken pipe depending on pressure in the gas pipe and degree of damage. There is also the possibility of sewer gas being involved from the proximity of the toilets – sewer gas has similar explosion characteristics as mains gas.

  • Published:
  • Dover Mercury: 17 & 24 January 2013

About Lorraine

I am a local historian, whose love of Dover has lead to decades of research into some of the lesser known tales that this famous and beautiful town has to tell.
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