It's a summer's evening in July 1826 on the Isle of Wight.

A cart drawn by two horses is approaching a landing stage on the foreshore of the Medina at the end of Dodnor Lane, Newport.

A naval boat, The Pitt, is waiting there to load the wagon’s contents on board.

At the reins is George Mundell, with him is his assistant, and behind them on the wagon are 44 barrels, each weighing 100 pounds, full of gunpowder and live ammunition from Albany Barracks.

This was Mr Mundell's second trip. The first had gone without a hitch and he now had just 25 yards to go before reaching the foreshore and the waiting boat.

Isle of Wight County Press: George Mundell’s wagon carried two tons of gunpowder in each load – 44 barrels like these, each weighing 100 pounds.George Mundell’s wagon carried two tons of gunpowder in each load – 44 barrels like these, each weighing 100 pounds. (Image: Steve Berden)

And then disaster struck.

There was a massive explosion, so loud that it was heard in Shanklin and Mr Mundell and the horse nearest the cart were literally blown to pieces, parts of the horse being found on the opposite riverbank.

A waiting naval officer was also killed instantly. Of the cart, literally nothing remained. What had led up to the incident? And what had caused it? 

The first question is the easier to answer. In 1798, Albany Barracks was built, where today's prison stands, and it became home to between nearly 2,000 soldiers.

By 1826, surplus stocks of gunpowder and bullets had built up at the barracks.

Isle of Wight County Press: 'X' marks the site of the explosion.'X' marks the site of the explosion. (Image: Alan Stroud)

It was decided that nearly four tons would be shipped back to Portsmouth and George Mundell, a local carrier, was contracted to take the gunpowder to Dodnor Hard and the waiting Pitt, in two loads.

The Salisbury Journal of July 13, 1826, reported: “Orders were given to the cooper to secure the casks. To prevent any friction, blankets were placed on the trucks.

“The first load was conveyed safely but on its way a quantity of gunpowder had escaped the casks and was scattered along the road.

“The second load, which consisted of 44 barrels of ball cartridges and loose powder, was likewise conveyed to the riverside, when on the point of stopping to unload, the whole went off with a tremendous explosion.

“George Mundell was killed on the spot, Purvis, one of the seamen of the vessel was also killed; Mr Mundell's man was very severely hurt and carried away the distance of 25 yards; he is so much hurt that his life is despaired of.

Isle of Wight County Press: The site of the explosion in Dodnor Lane. Medina Cottage was renamed ‘Dodnor House’, and possibly rebuilt, at some point at the turn of the last century.The site of the explosion in Dodnor Lane. Medina Cottage was renamed ‘Dodnor House’, and possibly rebuilt, at some point at the turn of the last century. (Image: Tom Stroud)

“Two soldiers who were guarding the ammunition were also dreadfully wounded and have since died.

“The explosion took place about 25 yards from the residence of Dickens Buckell, Medina Cottage.

“The family, including their daughter, had just dined; their consternation may be conceived, when we state that not a window remains entire in the whole house - bullets and glass flying in every direction, the ceiling falling down, and the house literally shook to its foundations.

“Miss Buckell, who was sitting with her back to the window, was cut very much by the glass, and a bullet entered just between her shoulders.

“The trees in the garden are all scorched up, as if a large fire had been made under them.

“The hindermost horse in the truck shafts was completely blown to pieces, part of his carcase being found on the opposite side of the river; and the foremost horse was so much injured, that he has since been killed, forty bullets being found in various parts of his body.”

What actually caused the fatal spark is unclear.

“Strict methods for the handling of gunpowder had been in force for centuries.

“A 19th century Act laid down handling procedures when delivering powder to a ship.

On receiving gunpowder, ammunition, the Master of the vessel will see that the platform in the hold, the gangways, and hatchways are covered with tanned hides.

“A cushion (stuffed with white oakum) covered with leather, will be used for landing all powder barrels upon, whether on the vessel or the wharf.

“The barrels will be carried, and on no account rolled, unless tanned hides are laid down for protection.

Neither fires, lights, nor smoking, will, under any circumstances, be permitted on board and any person found to be in possession of Lucifer matches will be immediately dismissed.

All persons employed in the receiving boats, and magazines, will change their outer clothes and wear the suits specially provided for them.

“The suits of clothing provided and required to be worn by the persons employed are as follows: Cap. Jacket. Cloth trousers. Woollen shirts. Magazine shoes.”

There is no reason to doubt that these rules were followed but the inquest a few days later could provide no definite explanation for the fatal spark beyond stating: “The explosion is supposed to have proceeded from one of the horse's shoes striking fire on some loose powder which fell on the ground owing to the casks not being properly coopered.

“Some boats lying in the river were pierced with balls.

“The shock was heard at Cowes, Ryde, and Shanklin.”

The inquest verdict was suitably inconclusive: “Accidental death of four persons, owing to the ammunition being conveyed on an improper truck.”

My thanks to Steve Berden and Richard Brimson for their assistance with this article.