In March 1866 a 100lb shipment of a new material, nitro-glycerine, arrived in Sydney and was stored in the Bridge Street warehouse of Messrs Molison and Black. The substance, also known as Nobel’s Blast Oil, was to be tested by the importer as a means of blasting rock.

At 6.30pm on a quiet Sunday evening the nitro-glycerine exploded. The building was there one moment and gone the next. In the following photo the damage appears relatively contained, but in reality it created havoc over a wide area.


A dense column of dust and debris rose to a height of about 150ft, a sight captured in a graphic illustration;


The concussion of the atmosphere was such that the glass of all windows which happened to be closed at the time within a radius of three or four hundred yards was smashed. A quantity of the plate glass in the offices of Pacific insurance Company, the Exchange, and several stores in Pitt Street, was broken; while in Bridge Street, between George and Pitt Street, there was not a house the windows of which escaped. ….As to the stores of Messrs Molison and Black, they were completely demolished, there being literally no stone left upon another. The destruction of the buildings was instantaneous. The stores, which were one storey high, had a frontage of fifty feet to the south side of Bridge Street, and extended back for a distance of seventy to eighty feet, were built of stone and divided by a wall of about two feet thick, The front consisted of solid blocks of masonry, and several stones three feet long and of proportionate length and thickness, were thrown right into the street. (Kyneton Guardian March 7)

Buildings in Bridge Street were cracked and pushed out of alignment. Even windows of The Mint, in Macquarie Street were shattered. Miraculously, because the streets were almost empty at the time, there were no fatalities and only two people were recorded as injured.

The damage incurred by Molison and Black was estimated at £20,000, but it was the loss suffered by a small Bridge Street grocer, Mr J.M. Blake, that touched one correspondent. Blake’s shop stood directly opposite the warehouse. Fortunately, family members were eating supper in the back rooms at the time of the blast;

His means were not large, but by perseverance he managed to accumulate stock – groceries, sweetmeats, vegetables and fruit, glass cases, and other nick-nacks estimated at £150. All this has been partially demolished, and Mr Blake has been ruined. His shop presents a most deplorable wreck, an object of pity and commiseration to all who pass. Last week his wife was nearly given up by her medical attendant. Only a short time since he buried two of his children. His remaining two children were in delicate health from the mishap that recently occurred to the mother. The explosion came, and from the force with which several iron bars were projected, and the violence with which his shop front was smashed in, he received such a blow on the head as to completely stupify him. His sick wife, now in imminent danger, and his two sickly children wander about the ruins of their little home, too feeble yet to make an attempt to place their shop in order. (The Queenslander, March 17 1866)

Within twelve months Molison & Black were bankrupt, with liabilities of almost £60,000. (NSW Government Gazette March 1867)

Another image of the explosion that appeared in the press;

Graphic illustration of the nitro-glycerine explosion.

There was huge concern when it was revealed that a second shipment of the explosive was on its way to Sydney, this time with 200lbs on board. It was recommended that the ship be banned from coming any closer to shore than Fort Denison until the shipment was either thrown overboard or landed in some ‘unpeopled spot’.

A lengthy inquiry ruled that no-one could be held accountable for the disaster. This was because the parties involved were deemed to have been unaware of the material’s extreme danger. However, there were lessons to be learned and changes made to existing regulations;

…also the speedy passing of an act to prohibit the keeping of nitro-glycerine in any inhabited house, and to regulate its storage…they further urge the propriety of amending and consolidating the existing Acts relating to gunpowder and other explosive substances, and that on new explosive substances being introduced they should be treated similarly to nitro-glycerine until their nature be understood. (Illustrated Sydney News 16 April 1866).

In June that year a letter to the editor of Empire raised concerns about that projected arrival of a second shipment;

My object in addressing you is to call public attention to the fact that we may now have amongst us this second consignment of nitro-glycerine. Ample time has elapsed for its arrival, and the question arises – where is it? Is it stored in Sydney? Is it on board a ship now in harbour? In either case an explosion would in all probability be productive of a more frightful calamity than any that the past records of the colony can show, and it is high time that the government took prompt and vigorous action in the matter, for we can scarcely expect that a second explosion would occur when the streets are deserted and business premises unoccupied….G.R.H (Empire June 26)

I was unable to discover what happened to the shipment.

Sydney Punch added a satirical note to the invention of nitro-glycerine on March 31;

Satirical piece on nitro-glycerine.

And yes, A. Nobel was Alfred Nobel, who founded the Nobel Peace Prize.


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