Due process: The inquest into the Pelsall Boiler Explosion

Now open heathland, but once fire, hot metal and smoke marked this landscape. Imagery from Google Maps.

Since there’s been so much interest, recollection and speculation upon the question of the Pelsall boiler explosion and its cause, I thought we could feature here the newspaper report of the inquiry into the explosion. The article transcribed below is taken from the Birmingham Daily Post of December 31st, 1887.

The report in question has been wonderfully transcribed by top blog reader and contributor Andy Dennis, who’s also contributed the following notes:

I’ll look into this a bit more, but, as you can imagine, Alphonso Ferriday was not hard to find in the censuses! In 1881 he was at Wombridge (a district of Wellington, Salop), colliery engineer-driver. 1891, after the explosion, at Sedgley, rope splicer. 1901 at Aston Manor, colliery engineer out of work. 1911 at Lozells, colliery engine wright, with a son Bertram born Pelsall about 1888 – born 24 Jan 1888, so poor Mrs Ferriday was heavily pregnant when the explosion occurred. The coroner’s verdict will be interesting!

I’d like to find out more about the deceased, but they are not so straightforward.


As ever, I remain indebted to Andy, who works so hard to provide so much great information here on the Brownhills Blog. I really don’t know what I’d do without all the wonderful readers out there.

The final article in the series will be featured in due course.



Yesterday, Mr E.B. Thorneycroft, deputy coroner, resumed an enquiry at the Swan Inn, Pelsall, touching the deaths of Thomas Elwell, William Lever, and Thomas Ledbury, who were killed by the explosion of a boiler at the No. 9 plant of the Pelsall Coal and Iron Company (Limited), on the 14th inst.  The company was represented by Mr. L. W. Lewis, solicitor;  Mr. J. H. Bullock, general manager; Mr J. Hough, colliery manager; Mr. J. Binns, chief engineer; and Mr. J. Davies, C.E.  There were also present Mr. W. B. Scott, Government inspector of mines; Mr. E. B. Marten, C.E., Mr. J. F. Will, C.E., for the Staffordshire Boiler and Engineer Insurance Company (Limited); Mr. S. H. Whitehouse, miner’s secretary; and Police-superintendent Barratt.  —  The witnesses assembled at the previous sitting were recalled, and their evidence was read over to them, and in some instances corrected or supplemented.  John Smith added to his previous evidence that Elwell, his co-engineer, had cleaned out and examined the boiler on the Sunday three weeks before the explosion, and witness cleaned it out and examined it three weeks before that.  He saw no signs of leakage or corrosion.  — Alphonso Ferriday, colliery engineer, said he was in the boiler three weeks before the explosion,  but did not examine it with a hammer.  —  In answer to the Coroner, her said he still considered the boiler was a good one, and quite sufficient for the purposes to which it was put, except where corrosion had taken place.  — John Binns, chief engineer, who was cautioned that his evidence might be used against him, said all the machines, engines, and boilers belonging to the company were under his supervision.  Elwell and Smith, in addition to working the engine, were required to clean and examine the boilers alternately every three weeks.  So far as he knew, the boiler that exploded was a perfectly good one.  Since the explosion he had seen the corroded plates, and did not think it possible for Elwell and Smith to have discovered the defects there, because the defective part rested upon the brickwork.  He did not think that there would be anything to indicate to Elwell or Smith that a removal of the brickwork was desirable.  He did not consider that a boiler like the one in question could be examined properly without the seating being removed.  It had not been removed during the six or seven years since he had been there.  The cause of the explosion, in his opinion, was a combination of pressure of steam and the weakness of the plate since discovered.  He believed that the pressure must have been 60lb. per square inch, and Elwell would be responsible for that.  Witness said that there was more corrision in one part than the others.  By Mr. Scott:  He did not think that arose from leakage, but from ground damp.  He considered that the boiler had been properly examined.  He had not told Ferriday that it was his duty to examine each boiler internally every time it was empty, because Ferriday knew what his duties were.  Ferriday did not do his duty in simply getting into the boiler and out again on the third Sunday before the explosion.  The boiler should have been examined internally as well as externally as far as the brickwork was concerned.  — By Mr. Lewis:  There was never any delay or hesitancy on the part of the company in doing whatever was necessary.  — Alphonso Ferriday, recalled, said he considered that Elwell must have put too much pressure on suddenly, and that that caused the explosion.  He had previously warned Elwell to put on the steam quietly, in consequence of new joints having been put in the pipes down the pit.

Edward Bindon Marten, C.E., presented a report of an examination which he had made of the exploded boiler, by the coroner’s orders.  He also presented a model and sketch.  The boiler was a Cornish one, but not quite of the usual form; 18ft. 6in. long by 6ft.4in. diameter; made of 3/4in. plates, arranged diagonally, with ends cambered about eight inches.  The internal tube was 2ft. 10in. diameter in the front, tapering in the middle, and 2ft. 3in. at the back.  The fire was in the larger front part, and the heated gases divided at the back, returned by the side places, and rejoined under the bottom at the front end, passing by the central bottom flue to the chimney.  After describing the valves, &c., and stating that the pressure was likely to be 40lb. at the time of the explosion, he said the first rupture appeared to have taken place on the left hand side of the shell, towards the front end, and the rent then extended each way for about 6ft., and then ran along the line of rivets, allowing the shell to be torn off nearly in one piece.  The piece fell flatted out to the right rear.  The front end and a short piece of the bottom of the shell were thrown to the front and fell in two pieces.  The back ends of the tube were thrown a little to the left rear, the tube remaining intact.  One small piece, forming part of a patch near the first rupture, was thrown a long way to the right rear.  The cause of the explosion was very plain to see, as the plates where they had rested on the left side wall were wasted by external corrosion until little if any thickness was left in some places.  The corroded part was about 6ft. long and 1ft. wide, the rest of the plates being little altered.  The side flues were too small to enter, but the bottom flue could be traversed, and although the corrosion could not be seen from either flue it would have been detected by the removal of the bricks touching the boiler, as the weight was taken by the brackets and not the flue walls.  The corrosion was not to be seen from the inside of the boiler, but the thin parts would most likely have yielded to a moderate blow of a hammer if it had been struck fairly at them.  The corrosion must have been caused from dampness of the brickwork, either from the drainage of a small tramroad on the side, or from the leaking of the patches near it.  The patches pointed to probable strain in the shell of the boiler, most likely from the cambered ends being more rigid and unyielding than the usual flat ends, which allowed for expansion of the tubes when heated.  It was very probable that the firing up for high pressure work expanded the tube and caused the strain on the weakened part, which led to rupture at the particular time.  The explosion confirmed the opinion that however good the general appearance of the boiler its real condition could only be ascertained by examination of every part at short intervals, and without sacrifice of efficiency flues could often be better arranged to facilitate inspection.  In the present instance a central wall making only two large flues would be allowed, all the flues to be traversed, and the contact of brickwork reduced to a narrow-topped wall, easily removed, as the boiler was otherwise supported.  The cause of the explosion, as he had already said, was local corrosion under the brickwork on the left side of the front, as shown on the sketch and the model.  The rent was in the line of the brickwork, and the corrosion did not extend into the flue near the bottom or the side.  The plates of the boiler were generally good, and were defective only at the part resting on the brickwork.  The wasting from corrosion must have been going on some time – more than a year.  The thinness of the plates might have been discovered, but not very surely, by the use of a hammer inside, but it was difficult to get at the corroded part to give it a fair blow, or it might have been discovered easily by the removal of a small part of the brickwork.  He did not think the bottom of the flue could have been traversed without signs of the dampness having been discovered.  The corroded part was about 6ft. long by 1ft. wide, and unless that particular part had been struck on the inside there would have been no indication of the weakness.  The plates on the other side of the boiler were nearly as good as when they were put in, pointing to the conclusion that there must have been extensive leakage on the side which exploded.   The nominal bursting pressure was 60lb., but the real bursting pressure was six times greater, without taking into account the diagonal plates.  He thought there was nothing to complain of here in the matter of pressure, the valves, &c., being all in good order.  — By Mr. Lewis:  There might have been sufficient leakage to cause the corrosion without its showing inside.  If the examinations were made in dry weather there might have been no dampness in the flues.

William Slack, mechanical engineer, said he had known the boiler about thirteen years.  It was first used in the ironworks, but was laid down at the colliery about seven years ago under his (witness’s) supervision, he being then chief engineer to the company.  It was then put in thorough repair.  — The enquiry was then further adjourned for a week.

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9 Responses to Due process: The inquest into the Pelsall Boiler Explosion

  1. Andy Dennis says:

    Thanks, Bob.

    At this stage, it looks as though some witnesses hope the coroner will find fault with Elwell.

    Thomas Elwell was born in 1860 at Sedgley. On 13 June 1881 he married Pelsall lass Elizabeth Harrison (daughter of a William Harrison, but not the coal magnate) at Rushall. After the explosion Elizabeth remarried (1890) and appears in 1891 with two Elwell children: Thomas born 1884 Pelsall and Edward born 1887 Pelsall and baptised 28 June 1887. So the deceased engine-driver left Elizabeth with a small boy and a babe in arms. He left just £70.

    In 1871, Elizabeth lived next door to a John Smith, engine driver, in Old Town, Pelsall.

  2. Pedro says:

    In the article “In Pursiut of the Truth” one of the questions posed was… “how much can miners really be considered to be architects of their own fate?”

    Andy’s comment above…”At this stage, it looks as though some witnesses hope the coroner will find fault with Elwell” is a good example of the thinking at the time. It seems that there is a predisposition to find fault with the workers involved, and this even finds its way into the local community.

    Is Ferriday worried that he will be blamed? Many inquests end with the verdict Accidental Death, but with a censure for one of the workers.

  3. Andy Dennis says:

    I suspect it’s heading that way.

    The other two fatalities were William Lever and Thomas Ledbury.

    William Lever born 1838 Birmingham. In 1881 he was a coal miner, living at Watson’s Lane, Pelsall with wife Fanny Watson (though I’ve found no marriage record), next to family Watson. There were four children, the youngest being Enoch, born 1870 Pelsall. Probate Calendar records his occupation as colliery fireman. He left £70. Fanny didn’t remarry and died in 1905, probably at Little Bloxwich.

    Thomas Walker Ledbury was born 1822 Bromsgrove, but spent most of his adult life in West Bromwich, where he married and had five children, all grown up before the explosion. In 1881 he was at 3 Church Terrace, Pelsall, an overman on colliery bank. Probate Calendar records his occupation as surface colliery manager. He was a widower; his wife died in late 1884. He, too, left £70.

    There is a pattern here!

  4. Pedro says:

    William Harrison Junior died in 1877 and left nigh on £100,000!

  5. Laurence Thacker says:

    Thanks for posting this first instalment. Has £70 been paid out, in compensation, to the family of the deceased?
    Interesting comments so far – “John Binns, chief engineer, who was cautioned that his evidence might be used against him – The cause of the explosion, in his opinion, was a combination of pressure of steam and the weakness of the plate since discovered. He believed that the pressure must have been 60lb. per square inch, and Elwell would be responsible for that.”
    “Alphonso Ferriday, recalled, said he considered that Elwell must have put too much pressure on suddenly, and that that caused the explosion.”


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  7. David Devon says:

    makes for an interesting read thats for sure one of my friends family had someone involved in this and im sure they would like a read

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