A new gunpowder plot is foiled at Blackwall…or so the newspapers would like you to think

The title of the article covering the Thames Police Court’s business for the 5 December 1870 is almost worthy of the modern phenomenon of ‘click bait’. As the Urban Dictionary puts it, click bait is:

An eye-catching link on a website which encourages people to read on. It is often paid for by the advertiser (“Paid” click bait) or generates income based on the number of clicks’.

The Standard’s headline was: SHIPPING ILLEGAL QUANTITIES OF GUNPOWDER TO FRANCE. Given that the article appeared in 1870 I wondered if it might have something to do with the tensions on the European continent at that time.

In July 1870 France declared war on its aggressive neighbor, Prussia. Prussian troops then won a string of stunning victories until it finally destroyed French resistance at Sedan on 1 September. A day later Napoleon III dissolved the Second Empire and the Third Republic was declared on the 3rd.

France had not surrendered yet so the Prussians besieged Paris and continued to mop up French resistance elsewhere. Paris fell at the end of January 1871 and in March the short-lived Commune attempted to govern a part of the capital before it was ruthlessly destroyed by the French Army during La semaine sanglante” (“The Bloody Week”) in May 1871.

So I wondered if this headline pointed to London’s involvement in supplying armaments to the French forces fighting the German invaders. However, as is often the case with the Police Courts, the truth is sometimes more mundane or at best, hard to unpack.

William Munday was a carrier – in other words he was what we might call today a haulier; someone tasked with transporting goods from A to B. On the 24 November 1870 a clerk from the North Western Railway asked Munday to transport a quantity of gunpowder to Blackwall Stairs, so it could be loaded on a ship.

Munday agreed and 5 tons of gunpowder was duly loaded up on his waggons. This was huge amount of course and we shouldn’t be surprised that there were regulations governing the movement of explosive and other dangerous materials in the 1800s.   One statute in particular (23d & 24th Vict. cap. 139) covered this and was created to protect the public. This act included provisions about making, selling and transporting gunpowder, but also the manufacture of fuses, and the sale of fireworks. Anyone breaking the terms of the act (and Munday seemingly had) could be prosecuted and fined.

However, Munday said he had never transported gunpowder before and was not aware that he had broken any rules. His solicitor told Mr. Paget, the Thames Police magistrate, that his client had ‘inadvertently violated the law, and he submitted a very small penalty would meet the justice of the case. There was no blockade-running or a violation of the laws of neutrality’ (a clear reference to what was going on in France).

Mr. Paget was a little at a loss to know what to do. He studied the Act of Parliament and could see no obvious offence but at the same time he felt the Thames police were justified in stopping and seizing Munday’s cargo of 100 barrels of gunpowder. The act stated that the power to punish under the legislation rested with justices sitting at Quarter Sessions not in Petty Sessions of the Peace (as Police Court magistrates did). This changed in 1861 when a new law amended this one and power was passed to men like Mr. Paget.

In the end Munday was released along with two of his men, and probably vowed never to accept such a dangerous cargo in future. Whether the explosive got to France is unknown, just as we have no idea whether it was intended for the war or for some more mundane purpose.

[from The Standard, Monday, December 05, 1870]

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