So, the final instalment. Regular readers will recall that we’ve been discussing the fatal explosion at Pelsall Coal and Iron Company, that took place in December, 1887. The inquest into the deaths, having been adjourned, was resumed, and this is the account of the second day, published in the Birmingham Daily Post of Saturday, 7th of January 1888. It’s a very sobering thing indeed, and says much about the view of workplace safety of that period. Sadly, in some respects, we seem to be currently winding the clock back.
I’d like to thank three great readers and friends of the blog for their work on this series of articles. Both Richard ‘Wee ginger sausage’ Burnell and Andy Dennis have undertaken what must have been mind-numbing transcription duties, Andy manfully stepping in when Richard was otherwise engaged with a new arrival. I doubt either chap realises just how much I appreciate their work – Transcribing stuff to text makes it machine searchable, so Goole can find it, and makes it easier to read and digest. It takes me ages to do even simple transcriptions, so I’m eternally grateful.
I’d also like to thank Peter ‘pedro’ Cutler for his research too, which adds greatly to the story. From not knowing much of this incident at all, we now have an extensive record available to anyone who comes looking. That can’t be a bad thing.
Finally, I’d like to express my thanks to all who’ve commented and entered the debate. This process would be very dull and unrewarding with you guys. Cheers.
Right, on with the show…
THE PELSALL BOILER EXPLOSION.
ADJOURNED INQUEST AND VERDICT.
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 ult. The company was represented by Mr L. W. Lewis, solicitor; Mr. J. H. Bullock, general manager; Mr J. Binns, chief engineer; and Mr J. Davies, C.E. There were also present Mr. W. B. Scott, Inspector of Mines; Mr E. B. Marten, C.E., Mr J.F. Wills, C.E., for the Staffordshire Boiler and Engineer Insurance Company (Limited); and Messrs. John and Henry Ledbury, two sons of one of the deceased men. The following additional evidence was called:-
James Ward, boilersmith, Pelsall, said he had been in the employ of the Pelsall Coal and Iron Company, and during the whole of that time had known the boiler which exploded. When he came it was in use in the forge. About seven years ago he placed it at the No. 9 colliery plant of the company, thoroughtly repairing it with a whole-size plate in the casing and one patch. In was then in his opinion a good boiler, and capable of ten or twelve years’ reasonable work without repairs, and without a removal of the brickwork, unless there was something to excite suspicion. About two years ago he further repaired it by putting three rivets in the top of the flue over the fire bridge. The he made as thorough an examination as he could without removal of the brickwork; but it was not possible to make an absolutely thorough examination of such a boiler without the removal of the brickwork, and that he should not think necessary to do so in so short a time, unless he saw something suspicious. The corrosion along the side of the boiler he should not have expected to find in so short a time. The damp which must have existed to cause this corrosion would not be observable from the outside, becasue the brickwork which was over it would be dried by the fire. The corroded part could only be lightly struck in the inside to test it, beacsue there would be a space of only four inches for the movement of the hammer. — By Mr. Scott: The patch, which was put on about seven years ago, was put upon a larger and earlier patch, but he did not know when that earlier patch was put on. — By Mr. Marten: The boiler rested upon the brickwork and not upon the brackets. — Mr. Marten remarked that in that case the removal of the brickwork for the purposes of examination would be much more difficult than he stated last week. The plan of seating was prepared by Mr. Slack, who was then chief engineer. The quality of the iron with which the repairs were done was very good, as was the quality of the original plates.
Joseph H. Bullock, general manager for the Pelsall Coal and Iron Company, said Mr. Binns’ duties were to take charge of all the company’s engines and boilers, and to appoint persons to assist him. If repairs were wanted he had power to do them without going to witness; and it was his duty primarily to see that the engines and boilers were in good condition. The daily external examinations under the twenty-eighth special rule were, however, delegated to Ferriday, but there was no rule compelling an internal examination. There was, however, a regualtion that every engineer in the company’s service should examine his own boiler. He found from the books that this boiler was supplied new between the end of June, 1869, and the beginning of July, 1870, by Messrs. Wright of Goscote. The boiler was therefore about seventeen or eighteen years old. For ten years it was worked in the ironworks at a maximum pressure of 40lb; but he should consider that it was made to carry a pressure of 70lb or 80lb. The highest pressure at the colliery would be 40lb, or certainly not more that 45lb.
John Hough, certificated colliery manager, said Ferriday was responsible for the external examination of the boilers, but the internal examinations were made at the discretion of Mr. Binns. Both were competent men. Ferriday was engaged with his approval, but Binns was in the service of the company when witness came. — By Mr. Scott: The responsible person under the 28th special rule was Ferriday. — By Mr. Lewis: Smith and Elwell were accustomed to make the internal examianations, and he had never had occasion to suspect that they did not properly discharge their duties in that respect. Ferriday had also discharged his duties very thoroughly.
William Holland, aged fifteen, a “nipper,” or coupler of the tube together, said Elwell, at the time of the explosion, was on top of the boiler, with a spanner in his hand, as if he was just going to turn the steam on to go down the pit.
Mr E. B. Marten, in answer to jurors, said he could see no signs of the boiler being overheated at the time of the explosion and cold water being let in. Indeed, it was a moot point whether the turning in of cold water necessarily caused an explosion; but such a state of things was a trial to the boiler, because it suddenly brought down the temperature of the plates. The opening of the cock to let the steam go down the pit would reduce the pressure; and if the cock had been suddenly opened and shut, the effect, he believed, would simply have been to cause the original pressure to be regained, but not increased. The valves were ample: but for the corrosion, the boiler was quite strong enough for all the purposes to which it was put. This completed the evidence.
The coroner than read over the main parts of the evidence, and, with regard to the cause of the explosion, said that in the absence of Elwell, the engineer in charge at the time, they would miss important evidence. He was the person who was responsible for the pressure and the mode and manner in which that pressure was applied. The duties of Smith, his fellow engineer, were similar. Supposing the jury considered any person or persons responsible for the explosion, they would have to consider in what degree. Those persons would be Elwell, Smith, Binns and Ferriday, and what their duties were and how they had discharged those duties the jury had heard. Mr. Marten had told them that the defective part of the boiler, which was corroded about 6ft. by 1ft. along the side, was the cause of the explosion, and that the valves and other appliances were in order. The men who examined the boiler did not find out the corrosion, and a question for the jury was whether they ought to have found it out upon a reasonable examination. The evidence went to show that, as men of experience, they would not have expected that corrosion to have taken place in seven years, and would have no suspicion of it; and unless they could find in some manner that the defect existed they would consider it unnecessary to remove the brickwork. It would, however, be for the jury to say whether the examinations were fair examinations, and whether enyone was responsible in relation to them. If any of them were guilty of gross carelessness or palpable negligence,they would be guilty of manslaughter, and would have to take their trial accordingly; but if, as competent and skilled men, they conducted their duties in a fair and reasonable way — and he did not see anything to the contrary — they would only be liable to that extent and in that way. Men in charge of boilers should be careful to see that all was in order, everything depending upon them, and it would be for the jury to say whether these man had to the best of their abilities discharged the duties devolving upon them.
The jury deliberated in private for about an hour, and on the repopening of the court they returned a verdict to the effect that the explosion was not caused by any deficiency of water, but by a weakness in the plates of the boiler in a certain part due to corrosion arising from damp. Such corrosion could not be easily detected by an ordinary examination of the boiler, and they therefore found that the causes of death were from an explosion, and were brought about accidentally. They added to their verdict a rider “strongly recommending that a better system of examination, both externally and internally, should be made, boiler to be thoroughly overhauled by a practical man other than the engineers employed in the works, at certain fixed dates, recent events showing that the usual mode of examination is both unsatisfactory and insufficient; and legislation is urgently needed to this effect.”
Mr. Bullock, on behalf of his company, said they shold be glad to carry out the recommendations of the jury. — The Coroner, in discharging the jury, said this rider showed that they were thoroughly alive to the situation, and thoroughly understood the enquiry.