The New Zealand Exploding Trousers Epidemic

Full disclosure: this blog post isn’t really to do with our cemeteries project … in fact it’s outside of the time period we’re interested in, but when I came across it in my research I couldn’t resist sharing. In the early 1900s, rural New Zealand was beset by an exploding trousers problem. You heard that right. 

At first I thought mentions of this in the local papers were hoax articles, but in farming circles exploding trousers were actually a very serious problem and there are several accounts of tragic death due to igniting pants. So what caused the exploding trousers epidemic? Playing with chemicals to improve colonial farming of course! At this time sodium chlorate was becoming a common spray to get rid of ragwort, a plant toxic to livestock. But sodium chlorate had a dangerous downside – it was extremely flammable. Farmers spraying the fields all day couldn’t avoid getting soaked, leaving their clothes (and particularly their trousers) prone to explosion.

One of the first reports of this issue comes from the 1931 Hawera star which describes Mr. Richard Buckley’s near-miss as his trousers exploded while drying by the fire (see James Watson’s excellent article on this in the references). Rogue matches, cigarettes or even drying in hot sun could also cause ignition, even something as small as friction from walking or riding could set pants alight!

One of the many examples of sodium chlorate spraying gone wrong, from the New Zealand Herald (17th Dec 1930, Vol LXVII, Issue 20749). Accessed via Papers Past (National Library of New Zealand)

What has this got to do with our pioneering southern settlers? If I’m honest not much. I just got caught up in the idea of exploding pants…but in many ways the farmers of the 1930s are doing exactly what our first colonists of the 1860s are – trying to tame and ‘improve’ nature, using the latest methods of British/American inspired techniques. And just like our settlers in Milton, the people of the 1930s were still experiencing unforeseen issues as they tried to streamline their farming practices and get the land under their control! 

Charlotte King

For more information:

Watson, J. (2004). The Significance of Mr. Richard Buckley’s Exploding Trousers: Reflections on an Aspect of Technological Change in New Zealand Dairy Farming between the World Wars. Agricultural History, 78(3): 346-360.

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