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Exploding cows, baby killers and death rays

September 5th, 2016 By Dylan Owen

Big fish in a far south pond

Dan Davin, Chris Knox, Bill Manhire, Mils Muliaina, Suzanne Prentice, Bert Monroe, Tim Shadbolt. That’s a pretty illustrious line-up of famous Kiwis either born, raised or living in Invercargill.

One name though is always missing from any list of famous Invercargilites. Nor does it appear in the Te Ara’s New Zealand biographies.

But you can find it in the Australian Dictionary of Biography, listed as John Pomeroy (1873-1950), inventor and pieman.

And Pomeroy’s pies were good, world famous in Melbourne where his pie cart and white horse became an institution, much like Auckland’s White Lady. But this post is not about Pomeroy’s pies, rather his one invention that placed him briefly on the international stage during the First World War.

John Pomeroy invented a bullet that helped saved England from invasion during the First World War.

Early years

Pomeroy was born in Invercargill in 1873 into a typically large (for the day) family of eight siblings. His father, James Henry Pomeroy, was a well-known local fish merchant. An entry in the Cyclopedia of New Zealand lists him as owning:

...the largest fish shop in Invercargill. Messrs Pomeroy own boats at Colac Bay and Pahia, and about twelve persons, in addition to the partners themselves, are engaged in catching, curing and delivering the fish.

Incidentally in 1889, Pomeroy’s fish shop also sold oysters for “Sixpence per dozen for Opened Oysters, and fourpence per dozen for Unopened” according to the Southland Times (scroll down).

In 1899 James Henry Pomeroy applied for a patent that described an “improved ventilated double crate for freezing, conveying, and exporting for sale frozen animals”. Possibly this is where his son John inherited his inventive talent.

From an early age John Pomeroy was both a prolific and surprisingly successful inventor.

His first notable invention was an attachment for the head and foot of a clothes line prop to stop them keeling over. Pomeroy sold his idea to a local hardware dealer for £50. He was twelve at the time.

Patent application for John Pomeroy's improved clothes prop, dated 18 December 1908
Patent application for "an improved clothes prop" December 1908. Via IP Australia.

Attending Invercargill Grammar (now Invercargill Middle School) he was described as a "bright youth, with an exceptionally busy and restless mind." His early working life was varied. Briefly apprenticed to an Invercargill engineering firm, Pomeroy then worked on his father's fishing fleet, and later travelled the world on the massive merchant windjammers that circled the globe at the time.

His true passion was inventing though, and an early list of his patients reveals a fertile, eclectic imagination bordering on the eccentric, not unlike Ian Fleming’s Caractacus Pott. He was at times somewhat facetiously referred to as the Edison of the South. Among his many inventions were:

  • A process for removing bitterness out of oranges
  • A painless rabbit-trap
  • The Pomeroy Smoke and Fuel Economiser
  • Pneumatic horse collar
  • Sheep-shears improvements
  • Improvements in menstruation appliances
  • A hat-fastener
  • Pneumatic leg-guards for cricketers

The last invention was a demonstrable failure. Cricket balls striking the inflatable leg guard were sent flying all the way to the boundary. The hat fastener was more practical:

Diagram for Pomeroy's hat fastener, part of his patent application.
John Pomeroy's hat-fastener, Patent No. 715,600, December 9, 1902.

The hat-pins at present in use by females are awkward, owing to their length, dangerous, owing to their sharpened points, and destructive to the hat on account of its being necessary to pierce the hat afresh with them every time it is worn.

The object of my invention is to provide a safe, efficient, and comfortable means of attaching the hat securely to the hair...

Exploding bullets

Pomeroy’s idea for an exploding bullet arrived in the early 1900s while reading a newspaper article describing a German Zeppelin airship that had come down over Lake Constance in Switzerland.

News snippet, reads 'Count Zepplin (sic), who wrecked his airship and at the same time his fortune, in Lake Constance, Italy, has raised $4,000 by subscription for the purpose of building another ship'.
Lake Wakatip Mail, 15 September 1905.

In a flash of prescient intuition Pomeroy realised that in the future, war would take to the skies. The Wright Brothers first flight took place in late 1903, but Pomeroy was demonstrating his first handmade anti-aircraft bullets in front of New Zealand Territorial Forces in 1904. He recalled in a later interview:

Anti-aircraft guns, and even aircraft itself, were not seriously thought of as effective units of warfare at that time. However, I conceived the idea of an explosive bullet to deal with aircraft, particularly with Zeppelins, and thus had a 12 years' start on the rest of the world.

He wasn’t the only one concerned about the destructive potential of aerial attacks though. As Count Zeppelin’s airships became increasingly sophisticated, alarmed commentators began to focus on their destructive potential.

"In six years possibly," said Major Baden-Powell before the Royal Institute of Great Britain a few weeks ago, "in ten years quite certainly, we may expect to see machines in the air under control and in practical use." When that comes about our Navy will be virtually useless. Every inch of frontier and coast may be fortified with the heaviest artillery. Every adult of the population may be armed and placed behind it, still all will be useless in repelling an enemy who flies high in the air and drops dynamite upon the "impregnable" works and multitudes of soldiers.

AIRSHIPS V. WARSHIPS, Cromwell Argus, 16 December 1907

Why use explosive bullets?

Pomeroy’s invention was a bullet designed to explode on impact, igniting the inflammable hydrogen stored inside a Zeppelin airship. Normal copper-headed bullets simply passed right through the rigid fabric skin of a Zeppelin, and then the hydrogen gas-bags.

At worst, gas would slowly seep out. At best any external hole could be quickly patched by skilled sailmakers who travelled on board First World War Zeppelins for that very purpose.

Pomeroy’s bullet (technically the Cartridge S.A. Ball .303 inch Pomeroy Mark I) was a standard 303 round with a copper tube warhead inserted into the bullet. Inside the warhead was an explosive compound of nitro-glycerine and kieselguhr (a porous earth clay).

Nitro-glycerine, mixed with kieselguhr, makes dynamite. The kieselguhr acts to stabilise the highly explosive nitro-glycerine, a discovery that made Alfred Nobel his fortune.

Exploding... cows?

Testing first occurred in Invercargill, where local legend has it that the first victim to fall to his explosive bullet was a cow. It was either shot in Pomeroy’s backyard or locally at Thompson’s bush. Accounts of the location differ but agree on one fact: with one bullet the cow was blown to pieces. It is not recorded if the cow was alive or dead at the time.

Pomeroy’s further refined his bullet and gave demonstrations in 1904 and 1908, the latter at Polhill Gully Range in Te Aro, Wellington. This time kerosene tins filled with water were used instead of cows.

When struck, the water in the tin was thrown a height of twenty feet in the air, and, on examining the tin it was found to be literally riddled with small ragged holes, and the whole tin was torn open at the seams.

NEW ZEALANDER'S WAR BULLET, Dominion, 18 December 1918

Despite the impressive results military officials saw no reason to take up his invention. Pomeroy was simply too ahead of his time. He subsequently moved to Melbourne to further refine his invention.

Pomeroy was in London when war broke out in August 1914. Not one to miss an opportunity he promptly submitted his invention to the War Office who, with more important matters on their minds, promptly rejected it.

Disappointed, he returned to Australia but as the frequency of Zeppelin bombing raids increased across England he made a return trip via America.

The baby killers

The British War Office was totally unprepared for the first Zeppelin aerial bombings, which began in January 1915. As they discovered, it was very difficult to shoot down a Zeppelin airship.

At the time anti-aircraft batteries and military aircraft were rudimentary, and night fighting was both a novel and dangerous experience for British fighter pilots. Zeppelins commonly completed their bombing runs at night under the relative safely of darkness and height.

Although causalities were relatively minimal (compared to the Second World War Blitz) the emotional and psychological impact on civilians from these attacks was considerable. The Zeppelins were further vilified and demonised by a jingoistic press who coined the phrase 'baby killers' to describe them.

Newspaper cartoon showing a dirigible dropping a bomb on a small child. Kaiser Wilhelm is presenting the pilot with an Iron Cross.
"The baby killer", The Observer, 30 January 1915.

Throughout 1915 and 1916 British anti-Zeppelin defences were progressively upgraded. More anti-aircraft batteries were set up, search lights were added, and communications equipment to track the movement of Zeppelins was developed.

There was also a growing realisation that the airships were potentially susceptible to explosive fire. It was in this light that the War Office finally agreed to test Pomeroy’s bullets. However, bureaucratic delays meant it was 16 months before Pomeroy heard back from the War office.

To-day Mr. Pomeroy has no illusions about officialism. It took him 12 years to persuade the War Office to look at his invention; and another 15 months to persuade them to use it. "Departmentalism," he says, "kills invention."

THE EXPLOSIVE BULLET, Auckland Star, 27 May 1931

And finally it was good news. None other than Prime Minister Lloyd George and Winston Churchill signed off on his invention.

Meanwhile Pomeroy’s initial development money had run out. Luckily a financier called Abrahams agreed to fund bullet production, on the condition that he received half of any payment for the invention.

So in the summer of 1916 Pomeroy obtained his first order from the British government and production of his explosive bullets began.

Exploding Zeppelins

The first use of the bullets in combat occurred in September 1916. Pilot William Leefe Robinson of the British Home Defence Squadrons loaded explosive Pomeroy bullets into three of his machine-gun drums then flew up into the night sky to attack a Zeppelin, the wooden-framed Schutte-Lanz SL 1.

Robinson made two attacks from below and one to the side without any effect. Flying closer he raked the end of the airship with machine-gun fire. Just as he had finished the airship burst into a mass of flames. Robinson only just managed to escape from beneath the burning Zeppelin as it plummeted onto a beet field at Cuffley, Hertfordshire, killing all its 16-man crew.

This action was witnessed by thousands, some over 100 miles away. As the airship descended, Londoners celebrated by singing the God Save the King. The whole city was illuminated by the intensity of the flames, and one New Zealander who witnessed the event aptly captured the emotional jubilation.

Prince and poorman, beggarman, thief, joined in that great roaring "Hurrah! Hurrah! Hurrah!" Every tongue seemed to give forth its triumph as the monster fell, a mass of destroying flame, victim of Pomeroy's bullet.

POMEROY'S BULLET, Auckland Star, 23 May 1931

For his action Robinson was awarded the Victoria Cross, given £3,500 in prize money, and a silver cup donated by the people of Hornchurch, close to where the Zeppelin fell.

Another account suggested a slightly different source of Pomeroy’s success, when Major C. C. Colley of the War Office stated that he

...saw a tweed-jacketed, white-trousered ghost in his office, and told the secretary to seek such a man. Pomeroy was brought, and Colley, spiritually convinced that he was trustworthy, persuaded Captain Robinson, V.C., to take up a round of Pomeroy's bullets. The result was the destruction of the Zeppelin and Pomeroy's receipt of £25,000 reward.

POMEROY'S BULLETS, Evening Post, 16 May 1931

However unlikely that paranormal account was, Pomeroy did acknowledge that Colley played a pivotal role in championing the development of his bullet. In a 1932 letter to Colley, Pomeroy is full of gratitude.

...had it not been for you and the way you persevered and persuaded me to carry on, the British Nation would have lost one of the most valuable inventions of the War… The bullet had been turned down twice before I met you... [the chairman] ridiculed the idea and said (I believe at a Board meeting was it) "Why the man’s mad" (meaning me and referring to my drawing) see, he has even coloured the filling red...

Major Colley was certainly an enthuastic supporter of Pomeroy. He not only helped modify Pomeroy’s bullet but as a consequence of ‘distributing’ the unauthorised bullets to the Royal Flying Corps he was both almost sacked and mentioned in dispatches (praised in an official report dispatched to high command.)

Jump or burn?

The second success from Pomeroy’s bullets occurred a month later in October 1916 when a new super-Zeppelin (the L31) was shot down by Wulfstan Tempest, a pilot awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) for his exploit.

Commanding the L31 Zeppelin was the young German war hero Capitanleutnant Heinrich Mathy. He had taken part in more Zeppelin raids than any other commander – a total of 14 combat flights. In one raid alone in September 1915, Heinrich Mathy had accounted for almost two thirds of damage inflicted on Britain by Zeppelins during the war.

Apparently before he departed on his Zeppelin raids Mathy was asked by reporters, ‘jump or burn?’ This was a reference to the two options facing a Zeppelin crew if their airship went up in flames – this was before widespread adoption of parachutes. Mathy replied along the lines of, you will have to wait and see...

As the L31 Zeppelin came flaming toward the ground you can imagine the crew’s terror, and Mathy opted to jump. It is reported that he survived, (there is even a photograph of the indentation his body made in the soft earth) but only for a few minutes.

blog explodingcows endofthebabykiller
"The end of the baby-killer", British propaganda postcard, 1916. Via Wikimedia Commons.

For his invention Pomeroy received and extraordinary £25,000 from a grateful British government.

Pomeroy’s wife was also recognised. For her services she received £500 and an award from the King at Buckingham Palace. The citation read in part for "having executed a task requiring exceptional courage and self-sacrifice."

So just what were her services and self-sacrifice? She had handmade the first 5000 bullets then filled them with dynamite (what John Pomeroy referred to as his 'dope') in a bedsit on top of Adastral House, London. Apparently she was one of a few women who were immune from the effects of the fumes!

The later years

After the war Pomeroy returned to Melbourne. In Australia he became well-known for his landmark pie cart outside Flinders Street station and Princes Bridge in Melbourne. Called 'Pop's Pie Cart’ and initially drawn by a horse called Snowie, it sold pies, peas and pasties throughout the night for well over fifteen years.

Pomeroy's cart horse, alongside Australian and US soldiers.
Australian and United States soldiers talk to the draw-horse of 'Pop's Pie Cart', 1942. Via Australian War Memorial.

Pomeroy also continued with his inventions. He made a small fortune in America selling his elixir of life, Pomeroy’s Puratone, set up a Chinese medical practice, and further developed his explosive bullets, selling them to Chiang Kai-shek. And if you believe everything in the papers he also had time to invent a death ray!

Article, reading 'DEADLY RAY - DESTROYS AIRCRAFT - NEW ZEALAND INVENTION... A ray said to be capable of destroying aircraft has been invested by Mr John Pomeroy... Now under contract to the Chinese Government, Mr Pomeroy landing in Hong Kong about six weeks ago intending to fit up his ray and use it in the war against Japan'.
"Deadly ray destroys aircraft", Waikato Times, 1 September 1938.

Ahead of his time, this gifted, flamboyant New Zealand inventor died in 1950 in Australia. Pomeroy’s last quest was to find a cure for cancer. Ironically it was cancer that claimed him first.

Post a blog comment

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7 January 2019 9:48pm

This was so cool to read because I have recently found out that John is one of my ancestors.

Niki Pomeroy
28 May 2018 9:31pm

Thought you might like to know he was my grandfather. I have some family photos and the letter from George V for my grandmother Amy Pomeroy.

Cecily Fisher
8 September 2016 2:54pm

I come from Invercargill and have never even heard of this man---thank you, Dylan for telling the story of yet another classy, innovative Southlander!

Michael Brown
7 September 2016 6:31am

Great story - are there any photographs of the wonderful Pomeroy?

Peter Ireland
6 September 2016 3:49pm

Dylan, this is fabulous, well done. Move over Bert Munro and Mayor Tim. Call Peter Jackson now.