Stories from the Past

Explosion of gas at Cambridge Barracks, Portsmouth (1887)

The memorial seen here on the right is currently held by English Heritage at their store in Fort Brockhurst, Gosport. It was formerly displayed in the Royal Garrison Church, Portsmouth, but was removed following the bombing of the church in January 1941.

The memorial commemorates the deaths of 5 soldiers from the 2nd Battalion Worcestershire Regiment who were killed by a gas explosion at Cambridge Barracks, Portsmouth on the 2nd January 1887.

The inscription on the memorial reads as follows:-




At the time 2nd Battalion were garrisoned at Cambridge Barracks, Portsmouth.

The incident was reported in the Hampshire Telegraph on the 8th January 1887 (Page 6). Below is an extract from that report:

"On Sunday (2nd January) night, about 9 o'clock, Portsmouth was alarmed by a loud report, which many, not noticing the exact time, at first erroneously attributed to the firing of the evening gun, but subsequent events proved that it was from a terrible explosion at Cambridge Barracks, High St., Portsmouth. The cause of the disaster is attributed to an explosion of gas, of which it is reported, a smell had previously been detected.

The scene of the explosion was the three barrack rooms, rising one above the other in the block of buildings almost facing the entrance gateway, and slightly to the westward.

memorial (Portsmouth) 1887

The rooms lead out of 'C" passage and are occupied respectively by "F", "G" and "C" Companies of the 2nd. Battalion Worcester Regiment, which corps is stationed in the Barracks. As is pretty generally known, the buildings are very solid and substantial.

At the time of the explosion the number of soldiers in the three rooms could not be estimated with accuracy, some being subsequently discovered to be away on pass and from other causes.

For a little while after the explosion the fact was not very generally known outside the barracks, but inside it was painfully apparent. The report was followed by a concussion which broke the windows of almost every quarter of the barracks, and stones, bricks and woodwork were hurled with great violence across the parade....the entire front of the three tiers of barrack-room in question had been blown out bodily into the square....

Lanterns and ships' lights were sent for.......other regiments in the garrison hastened to render assistance. As well as the front.......floors fell and imprisoned many in their rooms.....burying occupants beneath the debris.

Roads were frozen - soldiers pulled the ambulances (the horses could not walk on the slippery roads) to and from the Station Hospital on Lion Terrace. Hundreds f people were outside the barracks ......Many men had narrow escapes......It was very cold, rain fell heavily . Work went on
steadily until 20 had been 3 am on Monday the operations were temporarily suspended ......until daylight......those who were known to be past human help. (Many complained about the rescue being stopped until the morning.)

Little doubt seems to be now felt that the cause of the disaster was an explosion of gas, which must, it is thought have been collected very low down in the basement, as the force of the explosion was greatly felt below the flooring boards in the lower room, thus showing that the explosive power must have been from below, and not above.

Private Wakefield - Killed
Private Gateley - Killed
Private Keay - Killed (later this was spelt KAY)
Private Long - wound
Private Wilks - fracture (since dead)
Private Rowlands - contusion
Private Adams - wound
Private Prince - wound
Private Colley - contusion
Private Cooper - contusion
Private Neath - contusion
Private Perrin - contusion
Private Orton - contusion
Private Quarrel - wound
Corporal Cotterell - contusion
Private Jones - contusion
Private Burns - fracture
Private Westbury - Sprain
Private Spiers - Killed (This name only appeared in the account of the inquest)

Message from the Queen.
On Tuesday afternoon H.M. sent Colonel Byng from Osborne to make inquiries......inspected the ruins.....went to Station Hospital to meet the casualties. On Wednesday morning the Worcestershire Regiment paraded on the barracks square to hear a message from the Queen. On Tuesday, the inquest (lists of all those present and full of all the gory details).

On Thursday pm. The funeral at Highland Road. Full military funeral."

The above information was kindly supplied by Tim Backhouse, Director, Community Internet Services Ltd, Portsmouth. Tim is responsible for the memorial web site in Portsmouth.


Lieutenant James John Crowe V.C.

John Crowe was born at Devonport, on 1st July 1877 of a military family. His father was a private soldier in the 36th Foot, later to become 2nd Battalion, The Worcestershire Regiment. The 36th returned to Portsmouth from India in December 1875 and transhipped to Devonport on 19th December. They were then stationed in Raglan Barracks till they left on 31st October 1877, when John Crowe was four months old.

His mother was a local girl, confirmed by the late Mrs. Livingstone, formerly Mrs. Gorrill, whose mother was the sister of Mrs. Crowe. I am not aware of the maiden name of Mrs. Crowe.

John Crowe joined his fathers Regiment, by now the Worcestershire Regiment in 1897, the year of Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee, and served in the ranks for 17 years, 211 days and was a Warrant Officer for 3 years, 63 days. He served the whole of his time with the Regiment, including that in each of the four battalions of the Regiment. His latter years in the ranks were as Regimental Sergeant Major of the 2nd Battalion.

He served throughout the full 4 years and 3 months of the Great War and although he was frequently in the thick of the fighting he ended the war unscathed, although twice being blown up and once buried.

He was promoted Second Lieutenant of the same battalion on the 1st April 1918, and acting Captain on the 26th May 1918.


He gained his Victoria Cross with the Battalion at the Battle of Neuve Eglise on the 16th April 1918 - during the stand against the German onslaught on the Lys Valley. Battalion Headquarters with “B” Company took up its position in the Town Hall of Neuve Eglise. They were soon closely engaged with the enemy, who poured into the village and surrounded them. The defence held out stubbornly against the fire of machine guns and trench mortars, but it was only a matter of time before they must be overwhelmed. An attempt was made to get a message through for help, but the officer taking it was killed. Second Lieutenant Crowe was Adjutant of the Battalion, and he decided with volunteers to make a sortie and clear a path for retirement. With a quick rush they occupied a cow shed close by; then, with two men, Second Lieutenant Crowe crawled round and rushed a machine-gun post, capturing both guns. The others then came up, and communication with those in the rear was established. Fresh reinforcements for the enemy arrived, and the little garrison, ammunition exhausted, retired; Second Lieutenant Crowe’s party covered throughout their retirement.

The Citation for his award of the Victoria Cross reads:

“For most conspicuous bravery, determination and skillful leading when the enemy for the third time having attacked a post in a village, broke past on to the high ground and established a machine gun and snipers in the broken ground at the back of the village. Second Lieutenant Crowe twice went forward with two non-commissioned officers and seven men to engage the enemy; both times in face of active machine-gun fire and sniping. His action was so daring that on each occasion the enemy withdrew from the high ground into the village, where Second Lieutenant Crowe followed them and himself opened fire upon the enemy as they collected in the doorways of the houses. On the second occasion, taking with him only two men of his party, he attacked two enemy machine guns which were sweeping the post, killed both gunners with his rifle, and prevented any others from reaching the guns and bringing them into action again. He then turned upon a party of the enemy who were lined up in front of him, killed several, and the remainder withdrew at once. He captured both the guns, one of which was the battalion Lewis gun that had been captured by the enemy on the previous day. Throughout the seven days of operations Second Lieutenant Crowe showed an utter disregard of danger and was recklessly brave. His personal example and cheerfulness contributed largely to the determination of the garrison of the post to hold out. It may be safely said that but for his coolness and skill at the last moment when he personally placed the covering party in close proximity to the enemy, who were again closing round, and were also forming up in fours nearby, the garrison of the post could never have affected its escape. The valour and zeal displayed by Second Lieutenant Crowe was of the highest order”.

His Majesty King George V presented him with his Victoria Cross in the Field in France.

In addition to the award of the Victoria Cross Second Lieutenant Crowe was awarded the Croix de Guerre by the French Government.

A most interesting feature of the award of the Victoria Cross to Second Lieutenant Crowe is that he earned the highest honour for valour at the age of 41. He is therefore believed to be the only man ever awarded the Victoria Cross who was already a holder of the Long Service and Good Conduct Medal. (In those days, and indeed when I received mine in 1965, one had to serve for eighteen years to qualify for this medal. Some time later, the time was reduced to fifteen years bringing it into line with the Royal Navy, Royal Marines and Royal Air Force).

The Worcestershire Regiment had long held the reputation in the British Army of being a top class “Shooting” Regiment. It is not surprising to learn that the then Sergeant J.J. Crowe - who was an excellent rifle and revolver shot -was a member of the successful team from the 4th Battalion of that regiment, when it won the Queen Victoria Cup, the “blue ribbon” for rifle shooting, in 1904.

Captain Crowe retired from the Army and the Regiment in 1920 when he became School Attendance Officer for Brighton, which appointment he held for a further 22 years. He died at the General Hospital, Brighton, on 27 February 1965, aged 88 years.

Souce: This excellent article was written by Major John Barrow, MBE and published in the “Old Plymouth Today” news letter Issue 8, March 1998.