The day the boiler blew

Here’s another wonderful local newspaper report, found by the diligence of local history ferret [Howmuch?], and transcribed by the wonderful Richard Burnell. Richard is proving indispensable lately, for he’s a whizz at typing and a great chap, to boot.

Richard and his wife, Rose, are expecting a new arrival very soon, and I’m sure all readers will join with me in wishing this great Brownhills couple well. I certainly owe that man a beer…

This report was spotted in the newspaper archives, and comes from the Birmingham Daily Post, of Thursday, December 15th, 1887. This must have gone with one hell of a bang, and just goes to show the hazards working folk faced back then. This ties in nicely with an article I have to come from Peter ‘Pedro’ Cutler, who’s very concerned with the accurate understanding of working conditions of our forefathers.

To find out more about the Pelsall Coal & Iron Works, take a look at the excellent Pelsall History site.

The image above is taken from the wonderful Pelsall History site, and is a painting from the photographic record by Steve Dent. The Pelsall History site has this to say: ‘The painting shows Pelsall Iron Works as it would have looked when it was a going concern in the 1860s, with a locomotive crossing the bridge , horse drawn Shropshire Union barges and furnaces burning bright.The scene is set towards the end of a cold December day after a few light snow flurries, the sun going down and the full moon on the rise(signifing the end of an era).With not much to go on in the way of photographs I had to use my imagination somewhat, anyway I hope it will keep an important and almost forgotten part of Pelsall history alive for a while longer’. I realise this isn’t where the accident occurred, but it’s the same company, and not many folk know about the history of the foundry.



Shortly after mid-day yesterday, a boiler explosion occurred at one of the pits of the Pelsall Coal and Iron Company (Limited), Pelsall, which resulted in the loss of three lives, serious injuries to four other persons (three men and a boy), and some damage to property, two horses that being also so badly hurt that in mercy there were ordered to be shot. The pit where the disaster occurred is known as the No.9 plant, and is one of the smaller pits belonging to the company, raising only about 100 tons of coal per day. The boiler which exploded was one of three which lay side by side on the bank, and was the outer one on the side furthest from the engine house. It was known as a  Goscote diagonal, was about 2ft. by 7ft 6in. in diameter, and was constructed of iron seven-sixteenths of an inch in thickness. When it was placed in position on the bank some seven years ago it was thoroughly overhauled, and was considered capable of bearing any amount of pressure that was likely to be put upon it when in use there. Ordinarily it was used simply for ventilating purposes to meet the requirements of a steam jet in the shaft, and then the pressure at which it was worked did not exceed 20lb, per square inch, but sometimes it was also required for driving a pair of pumps used in throwing water a distance of about sixty yards from the mine to the surface, and then it was said it might be worked at a pressure of perhaps 40lb. What the pressure was at the time of the explosion has not transpired, nor is it quite clear what the engineer- Thomas Elwell, of the Town Road, Pelsall- was doing at the moment. But he was on the top of the boiler, and his fireman, William Lever, of Pelsall Wood, was in his place at the stoke-hole at the end nearest to the Wolverhampton Road; whilst a third man, named Thomas Ledbury, surface foreman, was by the side of the boiler, and other men and boys were engaged on different parts of the bank, or were in the hovel. Suddenly the air was rent by the noise of the explosion, and filled with clouds of steam, dust, bricks, and general debris ; and the work people who had survived, as well as all the residents in the locality, were terror-stricken. As soon as the air had cleared a little it was seen that the place which the outside boiler had occupied was vacant. The body had been lifted up, carried to the left and a little backwards between the engine house and the stack, and deposited, almost flattened out, some twelve or fifteen yards from its original seat ; the tube and the two ends – one still adhering to the tube and showing signs of overheating – had gone to the right and a little backwards, falling about twenty-one yards from the original seat of the boiler ; a third piece had shot forwards seventy or eighty yards, and demolished the front of a house in Wolverhampton Road, occupied by a young man named Ray ; and a fourth and smaller piece had taken a direction a little to the right of the last and fallen in the yard at the back of the house or Mr, A. Snape, so injuring a valuable horse that it had to be shot. Another Horse which was on the pit bank was also so injured that in mercy it too was ordered to be destroyed. A further examination showed still worse consequences, Elwell, Lever, and Ledbury being all dead ; and four other persons – three men and a boy – being injured. Elwell’s body was in the reservoir just beyond the body of the boiler ; Lever’s terribly knocked about lay in Wolverhampton Road, a few yards away from the piece of the shell which had demolished the front of Ray’s house ; and Ledbury lay on the bank. The names of the injured are Thomas Meakin, Goscote ; John Rowley ; Pelsall ; Wm. Hutchings, Brownhills Road, Pelsall ; and a boy named Edward Morgan, otherwise Sedgwick. Fortunately Mr. Houldsworth, assistant to Dr. Somerville was passing near at the time, and he at once attended to the suffering people, the ambulance corps connected with the works also being of much service. Morgan was removed to the Cottage Hospital, Walsall, his right arm being broken ; and Meakin, Rowley, and Hutchings were taken to their respective homes. They were all suffering from the effects of the shock they had received, and Hutchings from injury to the spine also ; but when they were seen at a later hour by Dr. Somerville they were found to be going on as well as could be expected. The two remaining boilers were not seriously damaged, the three being disconnected from each other, and the engine and winding-gear are, strange to say, almost intact ; but the windows of the engine-house are completely smashed, the roof is broken through in places by the flying bricks, and in addition to Ray’s house, some damage was done to the tenements in Wolverhampton Road. The miners in the pit – only about twenty – passed in to No. 10 pit, and came to the surface up the shaft of that pit. Mr. Bullock (general manger), Mr. Hough (Colliery manager), were present immediately after the explosion, and Superintendent Barrett attended, from Brownhills, with a body of constables.

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15 Responses to The day the boiler blew

  1. Pedro says:

    First may I pass best wishes to Richard and Rosa, and thanks to Bob for linking to the article “In pursuit of the Truth”

    From the Pelsall History site the origins of the Comany began in 1832, but the reference to a general manager led me to check the owners. The first reference I found was of the First Annual Meeting of June 1874, suggesting that it became a Pubic Company about a year previously. The Company had a fraught time over the years due to the ecomomic situation and competition from abroad and went into liquidation in 1892. One of the directors was a GW Hastings. At the 1875 Annual Meetings Mr Hastings said, in connection with the strikes that had occued during the year…

    He was quite sure that there were those to whom it was more unfortunate, and that was the misguided men who suffered themselves to be led into it. Having for may years past himself been interested in the condition of the working classes, and desiring that they should be independant, and having every shilling they were entitled to, he must express his deep regret, not only for the men themselves, but for the whole of the industrial classes of the country, that they should have suffered the effects of miss-representation and self-delusion.

    Intrigued by his interest in the working classes, and piecing together his history, throws up an interesting anecdote!

    George Woodyatt Hastings was born in 1825 in Worcester, and his father was Sir Charles Hastings was founder of what was to become the British Medical Association. His most famous ancestor was Warren Hastings the first Governer of India! He had his education at Christ College Cambridge, and was admitted to the Middle Temple in 1842 and called to the bar in1850.

    He became a Justice of the Peace, Deputy Lieutenant, and Member of Parliament for Worcester East in 1880.

    But the most interesting is that in December of 1891 he was arrested and charged with fraudulent misappropriation of several thousand pounds belonging to a trust estate of which he remained sole trustee. One witness asked why he invested as much as £15,000 in a Pelsall Company which was not proper debentures.

    He was found guilty and sentenced to 5 years, and a few months after the sentence he appeared at a Bankrupcy Court. As he travelled from the Scrubbs and got off the train there was a large crowd who tried to catch a glimpse of him. One man shouted, “He’s the man who use to sentence others!”

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  3. Laurence Thacker says:

    Thought you might be interested in a little more info on the boiler explosion.
    My Great Grandmother, Francis Elizabeth Williams born16/12/1877, was a school girl at the time of the explosion and whilst on her way to, or from, school heard the bang and turned to witness the boiler flying through the air. The school she attended was opposite the cenotaph in the centre of Pelsall village and she was standing close to the school when the explosion took place.
    According to family knowledge the boiler had been allowed to run dry and water was added to keep the boiler working, this created a massive build up of pressure causing the explosion. As you probably know the boiler remained in its resting place for many years, being seen by my father, John Thacker, during the 1940’s. Francis’s father John Williams, born 18/10/1841, worked at the Iron Works and she used to take soup up to her father for his lunch.

  4. pedro says:

    Sorry for not posting this earler!

    There are 2 more articles in the B’ham post concerning the Inquest into the explosion, and the bottom line was as follows…

    The jury found that the explosion was caused by a weekness in the plates of the boiler in a certain part. But the corrosion was in a place in the boiler which could not be examined without removing the brickwork upon which the boiler rested, and could not be sufficiently tested from inside, because its position only allowed a few inches for the movement of the hammer (used in routine testing)….

    ….in the Pelsall case there was certainly no evidence of criminal neglect…it was an accident in the purest sense of the word.

    B’ham Daily Post 7 January 1888

  5. Laurence Thacker says:

    Firstly, thanks for the new information regarding the inquiry. I was unaware there had been such an investigation conducted. I should say I have no vested interests regarding the cause of the accident as no family members were involved on either side, workers or management/owners, only feelings for the people affected by the tragedy, workers killed or injured and any wives /children left without partners and income.
    I do though now consider this event a bit of a mystery, as I can’t readily see why villagers would arrive at a different conclusion to the official inquiry as this verdict would have, presumably, been common knowledge at the time.
    Is this then an early conspiracy theory or is there a fire behind the smoke. When listening to my Grandfather tell this story as a child was I hearing a corrupted version of history or was he closer to the facts?
    Having read the initial newspaper article which states ”nor is it quite clear what the engineer- Thomas Elwell, of the Town Road, Pelsall- was doing at the moment. But he was on the top of the boiler” coupled with “the tube and the two ends – one still adhering to the tube and showing signs of overheating” and “What the pressure was at the time of the explosion has not transpired” all points to something other than a corroded portion of boiler giving way during normal operation. The size of blast and subsequent damage sound at odds with the 20/40 psi generated during day to day operations? Could it be that this corroded part of the boiler did fail but at much higher pressure, caused by cold water being added to a red hot boiler?
    Presumably with the boiler in pieces and the deceased operators unable to contribute evidence, a definitive answer would have been difficult to ascertain?
    With the inquest being carried out openly and with due scientific diligence it would be wrong to ignore its findings; however inconsistent they seem to a layman 130 years on.
    Again, a big thanks to all involved for providing us with “The day the boiler blew”

    • Hi Chaps, if I may interject a wee bit.

      These events took place in 1887. At that time, few working men were literate, and indeed, anyone who could read at all in the tiny community of Pelsall and Brownhills would have been regarded as an intellectual. Nobody working at the site was likely to have read the report into the boiler explosion, at least, nobody on the ground.

      I have little doubt that the inquest is correct; the science behind boilers and their construction and testing was over a century and a half old, and even then, analytics and accident investigation are well advanced.

      A trip to the railway museum at York will find a large section on the failure of steam engine boilers. it’s grim stuff.

      I think the investigation will have had little impact to the works or the villages as such; workers will always blame their workmates in an accident in that way, as it’s better than contemplating the alternative. I don’t doubt that the men working were under the certain duress of unemployment with no rights to speak of, so would probably have been quite prepared to toe the company line.

      Peter has communicated to me that the reports in the archives are long, but hopefully I can get them online for you within a few days.

      There’s no conspiracy, just the prismatic lens of time, memory, oral communication and human memory.

      Best wishes.


  6. Laurence Thacker says:

    Hi all, I can appreciate that making this report available is a lot of work and would just like to say thanks, in advance, for your own and Peter’s efforts. Although I am now far away in the wilds of Stafford I spent my first 16 years in the village and family members still live there. Interesting you should bring up the point regarding adult literacy at this time in the village. Another family story which has been passed up through the generations talked about my Great, Great Granddad a Mr John Williams, b1841, who used to sit on a wall in the village, reading and writing letters for people who could not do these themselves. Although we don’t have a date for this it could well have been during this period.

    Best regards, Laurie.

  7. The almost cinematic detail of the 1887 journalism is very striking. You can imagine that the contemporary vernacular of the body “terribly knocked about” and the patients “going on as well as can be expected” to be verbatim descriptions that the journalist received from numbers of eye witnesses all eager to relate their version of events to him.

    “There’s no conspiracy, just the prismatic lens of time…” That’s poetry, Bob, and true, of course.

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  12. Edwina. says:

    What fantastic pieces of writing about local history you lads are doing. I am finding it all so very fascinating as my great grandad was a horse nail maker. I have only just discovered that my ancestors came from Pelsall in the earlyish 1800s and wondered what the heck was he doing in Pelsall as a nail maker (knowing absolutely zilch about local history). You lot are educating me on that subject immensely and I’m Lovin it … Keep up the excellent work …

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  14. Dave says:

    Thank you kindly for all the hard research and effort involved by all. As a boy I played in the then remains of the factory for many, many years. I have a print of the photo above and two others including the colliery disaster (By Steve Dent) sitting on my bedside chest of drawers here in Saudi Arabia to remind me of humble beginnings. I often heard stories passed down from my Great, great forefathers of my Great grandfather working there and walking from Wood lane to the basin to get his wages. Oh how the times have changed.

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