And The Surrounding District

Worcester Evening News November 26th 1973, Mike Pryce: Pictures Roy Booker.

A full tally of fingers proves he’s an expert.

“HERE, catch this” said Blaster Bill Howells, tossing a 5 lb stick of gelignite towards me. I was looking the other way at the time and the “gelly" landed with a thud at my feet.

I didn’t know whether to laugh, cry or simply curl ip and die. But I did suddenly feel, very sick.

I felt there was every prospect of me being launched into space with the velocity of an Apollo Rocket.

“Don’t worry it’s  quite harmless”, added Blaster Bill casually, as though he’d just passed over the sauce bottle at lunch. I was thus reassured. Although when half an hour later, when this stick of gelignite plus a few others shifter 2,500 tons of Worcestershire Hillside like George Foreman tipping a pile of pennies, the doubts returned. Photographer Roy Booker and I had come to see how the experts blast out stone from the quarries.

Spectacular cloud.

Bill didn't disappoint us. His blast sent up a spectacular cloud of dust, smashed a rock face to smithereens, and also put the resulting pile of rock, just where he wanted it.

It should be stressed that Bill is an expert with explosives, and he doesn’t usually toss then about with gay abandon. HIs little demonstration of lobbing a stick to me was to allay our fears that the whole box might explode.

In skilled hands, gelignite is relatively harmless until you attach a detonator to it. Without know-how it can be very dangerous at any time.

in fact Bill handles “gelly” so carefully and expertly that in 27 years blasting  he has never had an accident. I asked him whether he’d got all his fingers and he held up his hands to prove it.

he works at Quarries where special granite is mined a stone in great demand. Bill is a “granite man” having spent an explosive life blasting the the stuff. His boss, quarry manager George Thorpe, on the other hand comes from Derbyshire where the stones are a different type and call for different techniques.

Like when we went down to the rock face and Bill asked me to smell a stick of gelignite. I did, and it smelt and looked a little like a glue paste. “Have a closer smell” said Bill. Just as I zoomed in for a better whiff George stopped me.

However George has been around for many years and in the process has got to know Blaster Bill’s little jokes well. In fact, he proved something of a bastion between Bill’s jokes , and me.

Only a joke.

“ I shouldn’t do that,” he advised. ‘You’ll get a cracking headache. It’s the glycerine in it. It’s only one of Bill’s jokes.” I made a note to be extra careful in the future..

In the rock face we were to see blasted. Bill had drilled nine holes each 25ft deep. This in itself is quite an operation, involving a special rig and taking about two days.

We were to see what George called a “primary” blast. This is to blow some stone off the rock face. A “secondary” blast is sometimes use to break up the big stones blown off the face ready for the crusher which grinds them into the mountains of small stones we see being laid on roads, tennis courts and the like.

Standing in the base of the quarry was a bit like being in a Roman amphitheatre. Hight walls of rock bore down on us and if you looked at them long enough they seemed as if they were falling in.

After connecting special wire to to the dynamite sticks, Bill dropped them down the holes. It was strange to see him push a stick into the hole , with a long wait until you heard it hit the bottom. When each hole was filled he connected them all up with another length of wire.


While Bill completed his work, George explained something of the technique involved. The idea was to “kick” the stone off the rock face rather than lift if into the air, os that it travelled horizontally instead of vertically.

Experts can usually gauge how far the rock will fly, but there’s always the danger of a hidden soft section or “fault” both of which will upset the “throwing” distance. Soft rock will fly a far greater distance than the harder stuff, therefore it’s not only advisable, but also very necessary to stand a long way away.

“You’ve got to have a ‘feel’ for explosives” added George. “There’s a sort of book of rules, but sometimes you have to vary them according the the conditions at the time.”

Should there be a mis-fire then it’s Georges decision just what to do. How long to wait before investigating the unexploded gelignite, whether to remove it or try and set if off again.

Meanwhile Blaster Bill had completed his work and attached slow and fast burning fuses to the wire which joined all the holes.

Roy and I were advised that the best place to view would be from a high ledge overlooking th rock face and so we started the long climb out of the quarry.

George followed to explain the procedure while Bill stayed behind to light the fuse. When we were in position George gave a wave and bill struck a match. The fuse was away.

“It’s very much a case of light the blue touch paper and retire immediately,” but one thing Billl never does is run away from the burning fuse.

He had allowed himself about one and a half minutes before the explosion. Ample time to walk briskly out of the quarry. If he tried to run , he might trip, twist and ankle and then things could get difficult.

Back on our perch it seemed the longest one and a half minutes of my life. I’f never been this close before to such a large explosion nearly 600 lb of gelignite was about to go off.

“Five seconds to go” said George. Suddenly there was loud crack followed by a stomach bending image and 2,500 tons fo rock moved in almost slow motion across the quarry.

The clouds of dust rose and then settled to show a mountain of small stones strewn across the quarry floor.

Blaster Bill emerged, walked briskly down the rock face to examine the results of his work.

It as been a good ‘un, he said.

A full tally of fingers proves he’s an expert.