The Great Molasses Flood

Do you know how many people died in the Boston Massacre?

Four.

No, Really.

There were actually more fatalities in the Great Molasses Disaster of 1919 where 21 Bostonians and several horses came to a sticky end in waist-deep treacle when a 2,300,000 US gallon tank collapsed and filled the streets with a gooey black slick.

Why am I talking about this? Because Greenwich actually had her own Molasses Flood in the early part of the last century. I can’t be sure when because sources seem to be at odds with each other, but since I don’t want a schlep up to Colindale to search through the newspapers of the time, I choose to believe the splendid Mary Mills in her delightful picture book “Greenwich and Woolwich at Work.”

I said I’d gradually talk about the efficacy of various Greenwich Books and this is an excellent start. The pictures are all old photos from various sources, but the commentary is by Mary and is succinct, knowledgeable and very readable. And of course, her being a long-term resident of the area, some of the more recent pics have personal resonance for her.

So many books of this kind are dry monographs for enthusiasts only. This one, being mainly pictures, is a real light, pleasurable read. If you want more on any particular subject, then joining the Greenwich Industrial History Society (or cribbing from their excellent website) will help (unless you’re planning on doing a PhD – in which case, get studying now…)

But back to the molasses.

Those rotten smells you get around Blackwall Tunnel are nothing new. They may have changed (I have a theory that the factories there now don’t actually produce anything any more – they just create worse and worse smells in the hope that Anschutz will eventually pay them to go away) but back in the early part of the 20th Century they were just as putrid.

The culprit then was Molassine, a company that made animal feed. Its dog food was particularly popular – you can still find advertising postcards and tins on ebay from time to time. It also made horse and cattle feed and only eventually died in 1981. There’s an excellent account of the company on the GIHS website by John Needs

http://gihs.gold.ac.uk/gihs10.html#molassine

so I won’t go on about it here, but in Mary’s book (just inside the front cover) there’s a great picture of people milling around Blackwall Lane, which actually looks like a river as the sticky goo runs down from the factory on the Peninsula. She dates it as being in the 1920s. John Needs quotes someone (unnamed) as describing it making “its ponderous but inexorable way into the neighbouring Tunnel Avenue,” which frankly I can’t top.

As with the Great Molasses Disaster of Boston, the tank had collapsed, though unlike the American incident, the only casualties were the Greenwich tramlines which got so badly gommed-up that the service was severely interrupted.

“Treacle on the Tracks” – sounds like a modern-day British Rail excuse, doesn’t it…

The picture is fantastic – certainly people seem to be enjoying the diversion rather than panicking at the sight – though a woman in an apron does look as though she is about to put her foot right in it.

“Greenwich & Woolwich at Work” by Mary Mills is published by Sutton.


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