Maritime Tales - terror of the Lottie Sleigh

Article Featured Image
an oil painting showing a large wooden ship exploding

The Lottie Sleigh explosion.
Image courtesy of Liverpool Daily Post & Echo

Loud bangs and crashes are something which I, Stephen Guy, hate so this was one event in Liverpool’s history that I would not have wanted to witness. It was a noise to almost waken the dead – an incredible, ear-splitting blast that could be heard more than 30 miles away. People covered their ears and cowered in terror as the terrible explosion followed by a huge gust of air wrecked property and smashed thousands of windows in Liverpool and beyond.

The cause of all this mayhem was a blast that destroyed the sailing ship Lottie Sleigh moored in the Mersey. The most miraculous thing about that terrible day in January 1864 was that nobody was killed.

It all started with a simple accident on board the ship as she lay at anchor in the river. Fire broke out after a steward upset and ignited a can of oil as he trimmed a paraffin lamp. The fire spread quickly and a passing ferry took off the crew. Doubtless it quickly dawned on them what was about to happen – the Lottie Sleigh was carrying 11 tons of gunpowder.

A tremendous explosion tore the ship apart and a contemporary account reads: “The contents of the vessel blew up with a report which it is hardly possible to describe. The simultaneous explosion of 500 pieces of heavy ordnance could not have produced so terrible and alarming a shock.

“Its effects in every part of Liverpool were severely felt and created indescribable terror. At the same time the most solid blocks of warehouses, offices and private dwellings were shaken to their base – doors locked and bolted were thrown wide open – hundreds, yea even thousands of squares of glass were smashed.”

Most of the gas lamps in Liverpool’s streets were put out by the massive rush of air. Considerable damage was also caused on the Birkenhead side of the river. Chester was among the distant places where the explosion was heard. The authorities telegraphed Liverpool to discover what had caused the sound.

The shattered wreck was later beached at New Ferry where it was broken up. Remarkably, the figurehead of the Lottie Sleigh survived and is in the collections of the Merseyside Maritime Museum. The ship dated from 1852 and the figurehead presumably shows the lady after whom the ship was named.

A new Maritime Tale appears every Saturday in the Liverpool Echo.