12 good men – The verdict

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…

Pelsall North Common Sunset, Pelsall, Walsall 30/01/2011

Image and following accompanying text from the Flickr photo stream of local photographer Gary S. Crutchley. Click on the image to visit his photo stream.
Pelsall North Common Sunset, Pelsall, Walsall 30/01/2011
A too-good-to-miss winter sunset over Pelsall’s North Common.
This area of common would have been used for rough grazing until 1794 when the Wyrley and Essington Canal was built. The canal provided a vital link between local coal fields and the Black Country.
Between 1832 and 1888 a large area of the common was taken up by a huge iron works which was of great importance to the people of Pelsall village, providing over 100 jobs.
The Cannock Extension Canal was built in 1863, and the iron works thrived. However, a sudden slump in iron prices forced the Pelsall Coal and Iron Company into liquidation. Towards the end of the 1920’s the buildings and chimneys were demolished.
A huge machine called ‘the cracker’ was used to break up mounds of foundry waste known as cinder and tap. This gave the common its local nickname ‘the cracker’. The machine was demolished after the Second World War.
Today apart from its historical importance, Pelsall North Common is extremely valuable as a nature reserve. Its rare plants and varied wildlife make the comon a wonderful place to visit.



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.

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13 Responses to 12 good men – The verdict

  1. Pedro says:

    While I must thank Bob for placing this Inquest on the Blog, and the work of Richard and Andy in transcribing, I have a feeling that the Hand of Destiny may play a part here. Last week the findings of the Hillsborough Panel were laid in front of the public, and so 23 years after the Tragedy we can make our own judgements.

    And so it is that the details of the Inquest into the Pelsall Tragedy, just over 123 years after the event, are placed on the modern media where potentially any number of people can access and draw their conclusions.

    I feel that it is worth repeating here the comment by the reporter, or maybe the editor of the Birmingham Daily Post, added at the end of the article…

    “….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

    (Good choice of title as it was not until 1919 that women were allowed to serve on a jury in a criminal court.)

  2. Andy Dennis says:

    From Hansard 23 June 1891 Commons Questions

    “MR. J. WILSON (Durham)
    I beg to ask the President of the Board of Trade whether he is aware that in the Board of Trade Inquiry held to inquire into the explosion of a boiler at Usworth Colliery, three of the workmen were summoned as witnesses; that they lost two days’ work each, incurred the cost of travelling to Newcastle, with other expenses; and that when they applied for payment, they were told that as they were workmen on the colliery affected they could not be paid; and whether, having regard to the hardship inflicted upon these men, he will order their expenses to be paid?

    I am aware of the circumstances to which the hon. Member refers, but there is an express provision in Section 4 (4e) of “The Boiler Explosions Act, 1882,” with respect to the expenses to be allowed by the Board of Trade to witnesses summoned in such cases. Every person so summoned is to be paid if he is not— The owner or user of the boiler, or in the service or employment of the owner or user, or in any way connected with the working or management of the boiler. The three men in question were in the employment of the owners of the boiler, and I have, therefore, no power to order their expenses to be paid.”

    It’s worth remembering that most working people lived very much hand-to-mouth. No savings. No credit. Borrowing was seen as dishonourable. It was a daily struggle to put food on the table. The cost and loss of income for these men were probably very serious and, as the question suggests, may have led to real hardship (as though life was a bowl of cherries, anyway). Clearly, it would be wrong for them to be paid by the employer, who had a vested interest, but some form of public compensation would have helped. However, even now, jury service can be costly business for some.

    It appears John Wilson MP (Liberal) had been a coal miner, but at the time was a union activist, and would become secretary of the Durham Miners Assosciation in 1895. Sir Michael Hicks Beech, 1st Earl Aldwyn, had a somewhat different background!

    • Pedro says:

      There is a mention of John Wilson in “The Origins of British Industrial Relations” by Keith Burgess…

      Being a devout Methodist like Burt, he was more concerned to prove the morality and guarantee the individual salvation of the miners rather than ameliorate their social situation….the third quarter of the 19C marked a period of great prosperity for the coal industry and marked the formative years of Burt, Wilson and Abraham, who had became the articulate voice of the coalfields in the second half…against the minimum wage.

  3. David Evans says:

    HI Bob
    my sincere and immense thanks to all concerned, please.

  4. Laurence Thacker says:

    First I would just like to thank Bob and everybody connected for all their hard
    work in putting this together.
    Interesting comments from final part off inquest –

    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.

    Mr. Marten had told them (the jury) 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 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

    It does appear that without having Mr Elwell available Mr E. B. Thorneycroft, deputy coroner, has guided the jury toward the only conclusion that they could possibly reach. That is corrosion found on the boiler caused the explosion. It is plain though that this alone would not cause a problem and the real question is what steam pressure was reached before the compromised boiler failed, remembering that it had been operated, perhaps only hours before, without incident and at normal operating pressure levels. Had it been running safely, at no more than 40psi, as the jury believed or did Elwell have a problem that morning which placed excess pressure on a defective boiler causing the accident? Is Mr Elwell blameless or did he contribute to the accident. It is this latter theory which was passed along through my grandfather, Levi, via his mother Francis to me. As my family were fortunate to be amongst the few in the village able to read and write at the time, could access to the inquest details published in the paper, have influenced their assessment.
    Comments such as “The cause of the explosion, in his opinion, was a combination of pressure of steam and the weakness of the plate since discovered” and ”He believed that the pressure must have been 60lb. per square inch, and Elwell would be responsible for that.”
    I guess in truth we will never know how village folk-law, regarding this event, came into being but I find it interesting and a little mysterious none the less.

    Best Regards Laurie.

    • Hi Laurence

      I’ve followed this thread closely (obviously), and I’m intrigued at the way so much has changed since the accident, and yet so much is still predictable human reaction.

      First off, Elwell was always going to get the blame; his workmates would be under huge pressure, financially and socially, not least from their employers, to blame him. Blaming the dead man was the safest way; not only could he not speak for himself, but it would divert attention from the employer.

      It’s telling that you see the same behaviour in workplace fatalities today. It sees like a safe way out, the dead man can’t be hurt anymore. What you have to think is that Elwell wasn’t a reckless man, he knew his equipment.

      As to the boiler running at 40psi hours before, well yes. Everything functions, right up until it fails. 40 and even 60psi are not high pressures. Factory compressed air runs at about 80psi, a car tyre maybe 30-40psi. My bike tyres run at 100 psi. All fatal if released suddenly, but both pressures should be sustainable by a good boiler, but this one harboured corrosion. Repeated pressure and temperature cycling will have created a weak fatigue spot. I guess it just got to an exact moment where it couldn’t take the stress anymore.

      I’ve often mused of the exact reasons and times when machinery fails for whatever reason; I’m sure there’s a good thesis in there somewhere.

      As you say, we’ll never know; but in the case that the court found for corrosion rather than human error, it must have been serious. Courts rarely found employers neglectful in those days.

      glad you’ve found the piece illuminating.



  5. pedro says:

    Problems a few years earlier.

    Leicester Chronicle Saturday 14th May 1880…

    At Willenhall, Staffs on Monday, the full penalty of £20 prescribed for neglect to provide adequate ventilation in coalmines was imposed on Michael Harle, certificated manager for the Pelsall Coal and Iron Company. The neglect charged against the defendant led to the occurrence of an explosion in November last by which six men lost their lives, and the prosecution was undertaken by direction of the government.

  6. Andy Dennis says:

    Thanks, Laurie. The personal stories are often missing from history, but I find it interesting to see how people react to and recall events in their midst. I don’t recall an explanation of the 60 psi figure. It may just not have been reported in the paper, but I can’t imagine a modern coroner accepting such a figure without compelling technical evidence. As reported, the verdict was that corrosion was the cause and not unduly high pressure (presumably because it could be no more than conjecture). It seems the unfortunate Mr Elwell had no reason to be concerned for his own safety and was continuing as usual.

    Boiler safety was debated in the Commons in 1895, with some startling statistics and shocking opposition. It was clear that the bill had already been considerably watered down, so even eight years on and hundreds of explosions later nothing had been done. More reading at: STEAM ENGINES (PERSONS IN CHARGE) BILL. HC Deb 03 April 1895 vol 32 cc821-43 http://hansard.millbanksystems.com/commons/1895/apr/03/steam-engines-persons-in-charge-bill#S4V0032P0_18950403_HOC_7

    And thanks to Pedro, too. Further evidence of how mens’ lives were valued. About £3 6s 8d each, by the look of it.

  7. Pedro says:

    Whilst it is true for the Coroner to say that in the absence of Ewell the Jury would miss important evidence, there is no reason to believe that Ewell was incompetent or would risk blowing himself and his mates to kingdom come.

    However we do have the evidence of persons who are directly involved in the maintenance of the boiler, being the colliery engineer Alfonso Ferriday and John Binns chief engineer, who are very much alive. There must have been a great deal of local discussion before any inquest took place.

    It is Binns who speculates that the pressure could have been 60 pounds per square inch and that Ewell was responsible for that pressure, and it is Ferriday that speculates that Ewell put too much pressure on suddenly, and even adding that he had warned Ewell to put steam on quietly.

    Other parties without anything to loose, such as the Government inspector of mines, Scott, says that Ferriday did not do his duty in simply getting into the boiler and out again on the third Sunday before the explosion. Ferriday admitted that he did not use a hammer internally. Marten, CE, said that he thought there was nothing to complain of here in the matter of pressure.

    In its deliberations the Jury has not only given its verdict, but has considered and suggested means to try to stop such a tragedy occurring again.

  8. Laurence Thacker says:

    Thanks for the Hansard link Andy, it does show how attitudes regarding safety have changed, thankfully for the better, since then. My family have also experienced their fair share of injury and near misses while working at local mines. In 1930 my grandfather, Levi Thacker, was employed at the Grove Pit and would have been underground, on that October morning, when the explosion occurred but for swapping his shift with another miner. His older brother Albert, known as Alfred, was killed on his first day at work, aged 13 in 1915, also at the Grove, when he was pulled into machinery whist minding it for another miner. There may have been an inquiry into this but we are unaware of one if this is the case. People had an option at the time of accepting the risk or starving.

  9. Andy Dennis says:

    I think many of us are in the same boat, but the corrosion in the Pelsall boiler case has a certain resonance for me. In 1868 one William Dennis (18) and brother James (13) – you can imagine mother saying “look after him for me” – were among eight men descending in a cage when the wire broke. James was one of five who died on the spot, one other died in hospital and William and another survived. William returned to the pit and brought up a family. The upshot was the engineer had placed some rope over the wire to indicate when to stop the engine and, although inspection seems to have been otherwise adequate, the rope concealed corrosion! The penalties for the mine management were more or less a slap on the wrist.

    Sadly, as you point out, for most in this area the mine was the only game in town and you had to play by its rules or go hungry.

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