An explosive court case

Nunney rectory, 1860
This tiny photograph of Nunney's former rectory, taken around 1870, is an example of an albumen print.

When Rev. John Challen made improvements to the rectory in Nunney, his attempts at digging a well landed a man in court in 1876.

Nunney rectory, 1860
This photograph of Nunney’s former rectory was taken around 1870.

The Rev. Challen’s original mortgage deed of 1877
Rev. John Louis Challen took over as rector of Nunney from Rev. Thomas Theobald in 1877. He started to build a new rectory almost of the site of the previous one, using stone from nearby fields.

He took out a mortgage on the glebe, tithes etc. for £1,350 on 18 September 1877, equivalent to £143,100 in today’s money The mortgage was to be repaid over 30 years with the first payment due in September 1878.

Challen miscalculated his finances, however, and was declared bankrupt. The living of the rectory of Nunney was sequestrated, i.e. confiscated until his debt was paid off.

The building and much of the surrounding land – a very sizeable garden – was sold in 1982 to build the new rectory, a bungalow. The old rectory became the Old Rectory Retirement Home.

Before Challen started to rebuild, however, it seems that he was already trying to make improvements to the previous rectory. Instead of having to use polluted water from the Nunney Brook, he planned to lower an existing well in the rectory grounds.

Faced with thick layers of oolitic limestone, however, he was unable to bore down deep enough.

Western Daily Press - Friday 19 May 1876
Western Daily Press – Friday 19 May 1876

Rev. Challen decided to take drastic action. He contacted Albert Ricketts of Bedminster, Bristol, to order some dynamite. This first order was posted to him in a brown paper package in March 1875, and another one on 4 May.

The second parcel was simply marked “Rev. L. Challen, Nunney Rectory, Frome. Per rail. With care.” This parcel went with other parcels by passenger train from Bristol to Frome.

The Great Western Railway Company became suspicious of the brown paper package and discovered that it contained explosives. In what appears to be a bit of a show trial, Mr Ricketts was summoned to the Police Court in Bristol on Wednesday 5 July 1876 and charged with a breach of the Railways Act as wells as the more recent Explosives Act.

Dean Lane, Bedminster
Mr Ricketts told the Court that he often kept 500lbs of dynamite at home in Dean Lane, Bedminster, Bristol.

The company company claimed that the parcels could have been thrown about by accident and blown up the entire passenger train. It made the case that too many firms sent fireworks and other unmarked dangerous goods without being fined for it.

The Dynamite Company, they said, found it necessary to warn people that they should never use a hammer to put dynamite in place, but that they should firmly and gently squeeze it in. They added that 5lb would have been enough to have blown up the entire train and all the passengers.

Mr Ricketts said that he didn’t think that it was worth making a fuss over such a small quantity. Had it been five or six times as much it would have been another thing. Without a detonator dynamite could not explode, he claimed.

He assured the bench that without that it was perfectly harmless if properly used, adding, “I have some in my pocket now if you would like to see it”, upon which he took a small parcel of dynamite and presented it to the court room.

Ricketts said that people got carried away with the idea that dynamite was dangerous, pointing out that he often kept 500lbs of dynamite in his own family home quite happily.

The magistrates ordered him to take his sample outside the court immediately, upon which Ricketts put it back in his pocket and left.

He had reluctantly accepted that he should have marked the parcels better or otherwise notified the railway company. He pleaded guilty and was fined £5 out of a maximimum possible fine of £20, plus expenses for four witnesses brought over from Frome.