The case of the exploding trousers...?

A lighthearted look at an occurrence that sounds unlikely but did, within bounds, actually happen.

We chortled away at the madcap Goon Show back in the 1950s when Major Bloodnok’s boots exploded, and a little later in the same episode when a couple of bangs indicated that Neddy’s did, too. “With the exploding of his boots, Seagoon realised that something sinister was afeet”.

We laughed at the unlikely scenario but hey, believe it or not, the script was prompted by an actual event. It had to do not so much with someone’s boots exploding as their trousers!

I trust our Kiwi cousins don’t mind if we cross the ditch for this one…

In the early 1930s, New Zealand was reducing its dependence on sheep to a large degree by an increase in dairy farming. A serious problem arose as cows browsed pastures where, before, there had been sheep. Sheep had controlled ragwort but cows didn’t care for it so passed it by. As a result, and with the improvement in fertiliser provided by the cows, ragwort grew (um, sorry!) to be a dreadful pest. Unfortunately, the neat herds were their own worst enemy: The more they left ragwort uneaten, the more they fertilised it, the more they caused it to take over good pasture.

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Large areas of land that had been cleared after World War One were overtaken by ragwort. A cheap and effective method was needed to control the ever-spreading menace.

For many reasons, New Zealand was facing a shortage of available farm labour, some of which included attitudes to child labour, restrictive immigration, a drive for independence for farm workers and higher wages available in urban employment. The New Zealand Department of Agriculture proposed the use of sodium chlorate. It was a cheap, readily available herbicide, capable of simple spray application by a farmer without need of additional farm help. Dairy farmers adopted it enthusiastically.

Sodium chlorate has one major problem. It is highly flammable and above 300°C it decomposes to release oxygen. (Its main uses nowadays are in bleaching paper and providing emergency oxygen supplies in aircraft.) An inorganic compound, it comes in the form of a white powder readily soluble in water. In this form, as used by the farmers, it is sprayed directly onto the weed they want to control.

We can now return to the nub of our story, exploding trousers or, in extreme cases (not that I know of it actually happening other than in the Goon Show), exploding boots.

A farmer named Buckley became rather famous about 1933. He’d been out spraying ragwort in his fields and returned to his house in the evening. His clothing was wet, so he stripped and placed his trousers on a chair in front of the fire. As they dried, they warmed and, one way or another, reached a critical temperature, exploding into flame. Thankfully, farmer Buckley was close by. He grabbed the burning trousers and threw them out the window.

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Much was made of the event, with it widely reported in newspapers. Where the report and fact probably separated was in what actually occurred. The trousers had almost certainly been soaked with sodium chlorate overspray. Removed and spread over the back of a chair before the heat of the fire (and there is no record of how near they were), as they dried there was combustion caused either by overheating or, more likely, by an ember flying out of the fire. The term ‘exploded’ is accurate only in that they suddenly caught fire, not in the sense of a concussive blast.

So there, if you attend a pub quiz and are asked about exploding boots, they were no more than a figment of Spike Milligan’s fertile imagination. If, however, you are asked about exploding trousers, it’s not a trick question. It actually happened.

And that’s about as important as knowing pi to the 50th decimal place, only more interesting.


I feel I should make an acknowledgment. There have been many reports on Farmer Buckley’s exploding trousers over the years. Much of the investigative groundwork into the issue was done by James Watson, PhD, of Massey University, Palmerston North, New Zealand. Thank you, Doctor Watson.