The People of Gibraltar
1845 - The Loreto Nuns - 27. “The Explosion”

Mary Ann Fairchild and Mother Dympna Crowley - Mother Paula 
Mothers Consuelo Conroy and Evangelista O’Donnell - Mother Hildegarde Galbally 
Mothers Bernadette Warnock  and Colette Hooper  
Mothers Gerard Benner and Anna Kennedy
On April 27th 1951 the ammunition ship SS Bedenham arrived in Gibraltar and tied up at the Ordnance Wharf, close to the Admiralty Tower and Ragged Staff. It began to unload its deadly cargo on to a lighter which was alongside. Unfortunately one of the armaments on the lighter exploded causing a fire which rapidly spread to the rest of the ammunition. The fire in the lighter then reached the Bedenham and a few moments later there was an immense explosion which shook the Rock. 

The Bedenham just before it exploded

The bows of the ship landed in the Dockyard; the rest of the ship sank. Pieces of metal and ammunition fell about a mile from the site of the incident, whilst some fragments flew right over the Rock and landed in Catalan Bay on the east side. The sky was darkened by a huge mushroom cloud of smoke. Many thought that an atomic bomb had been dropped. 
Mary Ann Fairchild’s granddaughter Angeles (née Bishop) happened to be looking out from her window at “Shorthorn” on Europa Road, near the Convent, and saw the first flames. When the big explosion came her glasses fell on to the terrace below. There was a story that someone in the town accidentally caught a bird as he raised his hand to protect his head.

In the town windows were smashed, doors came off their hinges and roofs collapsed. The streets were littered with glass. There was chaos everywhere. Practically all the buildings in the town area suffered damage of some sort; among the worst were The Convent (i.e., the Governor’s residence), the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity, Ragged Staff NAAFI, the Government Secretariat and the buildings in the parts of the town nearest to the sea. 

Thirteen people died as a result of the explosion and many were injured, some permanently maimed. Parents rushed to the schools to collect their children, but found themselves trapped in traffic jams. In Form IA in the Europa Convent Mother Dympna was presiding over a Latin Test. The blackboard flew off its stand on to the heads of the eleven-year-olds in the front row. The next thing they knew they were with the rest of the school, crying quietly and wandering aimlessly in the back patio where the statues representing Roman Virtues surrounded the perimeter of the netball court. There was glass everywhere. 

The aftermath

Mother Paula remembers exactly what she and Mother Consuelo were doing when the explosion occurred. Mother Paula had been working with a small group (probably doing Latin) in the black and white tiled classroom. Mother Consuelo was on the large tennis court conducting a netball or P.E. class. Taking their cue from Mother Consuelo her pupils threw themselves flat on the ground in preparation for a possible second explosion. 

In high dudgeon Mother Paula quickly made for the door to lodge a complaint with management that the authorities had failed to notify the school that there would be heavy gun practice that morning. She ran straight into Mother Evangelista, who hurriedly told her there was an explosion in the harbour, and asked if she would help to get the children into the relative safety of the back tennis court and patio.

The nuns did their best to keep things calm. Memories of bombing during the War were still relatively fresh both for the children and for some of the nuns. In fact, a few of the younger children simply assumed that it was the War somehow continuing and – frightened though they were – they didn’t consider the event extraordinary; it was more or less what they had known of life so far. Parents eventually arrived to collect their children from school. 

A section of the Bedenham ended up near the Cathedral

For the next few days most of the schools in Gibraltar were closed and children from the two Loreto schools housed in the Europa building went up to the Convent to help clear away the debris. A week later there was a twenty-one gun salute for some Royal occasion, and Form I was at Spanish with Mother Hildegarde Galbally. The children again panicked and rushed out of the class, pushing poor Mother Hildegarde before them. They were roundly reprimanded by Mother Evangelista later! For some time afterwards the saluting guns were heard with some trepidation.
The Loreto nuns in Gibraltar at this time were: Mother Bernadette Warnock the Superior, and Mothers Hildegarde Galbally, Colette Hooper, Gerard Benner, Dympna Crowley, Consuelo Conroy, Anna Kennedy, and Head Teacher of the grammar school Mother Evangelista O’Donnell. . .