The arrival of steam-powered machinery greatly increased production in Victorian factories, and led to the development of much larger and more powerful machines. Some of the steam engines were massive, such as the blowing and hoist operating engines used in ironworks to provide the air blast for blast furnaces, and to power the hoist used to raise the barrows of burden to the top of the furnace. Sometimes engines of this type could develop 150hp. and so large boilers were often used.

In the middle of the nineteenth century, boilers were made from sections of rolled boiler plate, joined by simple overlapping joints, some running around the boiler and others along the length of the boiler. The joints and the double thickness overlaps were stronger and less flexible than the surrounding metal, which could lead to internal cracks or deep pitting caused by variations in the boiler pressure. The internal cracks could corrode, further reducing the strength of the boiler. 

Such boilers needed regular inspection and maintenance, and constant monitoring when in use. Something that was often not fully understood by factory owners, and their employees. Correctly operating safety valves were essential. Sometimes operators would screw the safety valves down to prevent them operating properly, and so increase boiler pressure to get more work out of their machines. Often the dangers of high pressure steam were not fully appreciated. The effects of a boiler explosion could be catastrophic.

Boiler explosions were not infrequent in the latter half of the nineteenth century, but the risks continued to be largely ignored. The sudden failure of a boiler could result in the total destruction of nearby buildings, with large pieces of iron being blasted through the air, often travelling considerable distances. Buildings some distance away could be damaged, and windows shattered. People were often killed, scalded, or badly injured, which had a large impact on the local community.

Wolverhampton suffered from the terrible affects of several such explosions, which were often described in graphic detail in the newspapers and magazines of the day. One of Wolverhampton’s prominent citizens, who suffered from the after effects of a boiler explosion that shortened his life, was local industrialist George Benjamin Thorneycroft who owned Shrubbery Ironworks, and a number of coal mines, including several in Willenhall.

George Benjamin Thorneycroft.

In December 1845 a new pumping engine was being installed in one of them, and George was there to oversee the operation. Unfortunately the safety valve was faulty, and the boiler exploded, killing one man, and seriously injuring sixteen others, including George. On regaining consciousness his first words were “Praise the Lord O my soul.” Followed by “Who else was hurt?”

One year later, with his doctor, Mr. E. Coleman, he presented himself before lecturing staff and students at Queen’s College, Birmingham to demonstrate how the severe burns covering much of his body, had been healed by the use of cotton wool freely applied to the dressings.

Unfortunately he never fully recovered from the effects of the explosion. As time progressed he grew weaker, eventually becoming bedridden.

In the early part of 1851 he suffered from brain disease, and appeared to improve, but a relapse took place, and he died on 28th April, 1851, at the age of 60. His funeral procession was viewed by around 20,000 people who came to pay their last respects.

George, who had been the town’s first mayor after its incorporation in 1848, was a wealthy and generous man who eagerly contributed to many organisations and charities. He was a benefactor to the South Staffordshire General Hospital, and a Justice of the Peace for Staffordshire and Shropshire.

Another disastrous explosion

Six years after George’s death, a terrible explosion occurred in Walsall Street, not that far from Shrubbery Ironworks, at Benjamin Mason’s factory where fire irons were made. Benjamin Mason himself had retired, and the business was being run by his son, Benjamin Mason junior. The explosion took place at around twenty to four, on the afternoon of Friday 24th April, 1857, and had terrible consequences. The ground shook, and people within a half-mile radius of Walsall Street thought that an earthquake had shaken the area. A dense cloud of black dust rose above the factory and pieces of iron, timber, bricks, building rubble, a human body, and body parts flew through the air, damaging the roofs of buildings for a considerable distance, and shattering the east window of St. George's Church.

The aftermath of the explosion. From the Illustrated London News, 2nd May, 1857.

The photograph on which the above illustration was based. It must be one of the earliest industrial photos taken in the area. Courtesy of David Clare.

Most of the factory and some of the tightly-packed surrounding buildings had been completely destroyed and converted into rubble. Next to the factory stood Benjamin Mason’s three storey malthouse, which became a pile of rubble, even though its walls were thirteen inches thick. The egg-shaped, vertical boiler had been mounted against the malthouse wall. It powered a small engine used for the fire-iron factory, and also for a grindery, and wood-turning establishment at the rear of the factory. At the time of the explosion most of the employees in the establishments had been at work. All that survived in the factory was the tall substantial chimney, to which the boiler had been fixed. The chimney completely shielded one of the employees who was behind it in the malthouse at the time of the explosion, saving his life. The grindery and the wood turning establishment had their roofs blown-off, and were badly damaged.

A piece of the boiler weighing 2 hundredweights had been hurled about a hundred yards. At the time of the explosion, Benjamin Mason junior, and the engineman, Joe Cornfield had just screwed the safety valve down because the boiler feeding pipe had burst, and the nearly empty boiler was red hot. They attempted to cool the boiler by adding cold water, which quickly boiled and produced a lot of steam. The boiler instantly exploded, killing both of them. Joe was thrown through the air and crashed through the roof of a nearby house. His clothes had been torn-off, leaving him naked and bleeding. Many of his bones were broken, and he was badly scalded. He died a few minutes later. Benjamin’s fate was even more gruesome. His body, minus arms, and the top of his head was found amongst the ruins. One arm was found in Bilston Street near the cattle market.

Another employee, Tom Nightingale, who alerted Mason and Cornfield to the damaged feed pipe, and was with them at the time of the explosion, escaped without injury. Several others were not so lucky. Another colleague, Tom Holdridge received terrible injuries and died that night in the South Staffordshire General Hospital and Dispensary, in Cleveland Road. Two children, Matthew William Turner aged 5, who had been playing in the street, and Isabella Hall aged 12 were also killed, both by falling debris. Isabella had been on an errand to buy a writing book for her father, who rushed to the scene of the explosion. He saw a policeman carrying a body away from the scene and recognised her frock. It must have been a terrible moment for him.

Another person was seriously injured, and nine others received lesser injuries. A memorial service was held on the following Sunday in front of the cattle market, and an inquest took place at the Blue Ball Inn in Bilston Street. At the inquest it was stated that the boiler had been purchased second-hand, and installed six years earlier. It had previously been enlarged, and repaired several times. It was also stated that the water in the boiler had been allowed to go so low that the metal was red-hot. The explosion occurred when cold water was poured-in.

The inquest came to the conclusion that the deceased persons died as a result of their injuries received by the explosion of the boiler, and that the explosion was caused by the gross negligence of Benjamin Mason junior.

The explosion at Millfields Iron Works

Five years later another catastrophic boiler explosion occurred about a mile and a half away from Walsall Street, at Millfields Iron Works. The explosion took place on Tuesday 15th April, 1862, at about 11.15 a.m.

The factory, previously owned by the Birmingham Banking Company, was eleven years old. It closed in 1858, and had been idle for four years. There had been a previous accident on the site, which caused the death of five workers on 5th May, 1857.

In early 1862 the factory was purchased by Thomas Rose, who had been looking for sometime for a suitably-equipped iron works. Having found what he wanted, he employed around 40 men and started production, in the hope that he would make his fortune thanks to the insatiable demand for iron at the time.

The factory consisted of two forges and three mills. At the time only one forge was in operation. It consisted of twenty puddling furnaces, a shingling hammer, a rolling mill, and an 80 hp. steam engine that worked the massive shingling hammer. Steam for the engine was provided by two cylindrical boilers with hemispheric ends, both about twenty feet long, and nine feet in diameter. The boilers were heated by the hot gases from the flues of some of the puddling furnaces. One boiler was heated by four flues, the other by two. They were made by John Elwell & Company, at Priestfields.

When the explosion occurred, the puddlers from the four furnaces attached to boiler number one, were taking their red-hot balls of puddled iron to the shingling hammer to produce puddled bars, which were cut-up, reheated, and rolled into merchantable iron in the rolling mill. About forty people were at work at the time.

The scene of the boiler explosion at Millfields Ironworks. From the Illustrated London News 26th April, 1862.

Everything seemed to be going well, until without warning, an excruciatingly loud noise, like a clap of thunder, shook the building. The roof blew off, the walls collapsed, and the building was totally destroyed. Boiler number one had exploded and been torn apart. Three quarters of it, weighing around eight tons was tossed 200 or 300 feet into the air and landed on the other side of the railway line, over three hundred yards away. The other quarter, torn into three parts, had been blown through the forge, each part travelling in a different direction, tearing down the roof supporting pillars, and ripping the massive roof timbers apart. The furnaces were also torn apart, sending their contents, consisting of the molten metal and the burning fires, throughout the factory, to complete the appalling catastrophe.

There were bodies and seriously injured people everywhere. Some were buried beneath the molten iron, or beneath fragments of the fires, or red-hot brickwork. Some people were badly injured by the falling fragments, many of which fell on the boats on the adjacent canal. Within an hour fourteen bodies had been recovered, all of them shockingly mutilated. One person lost his head, which was never recovered, and another had been cut in two. The bodies were so badly damaged that few could be positively identified, something that was not helped by the fact that some of the workers had only been taken-on that morning.

Fifteen of the injured were taken to the South Staffordshire General Hospital, and six to their homes. Three died on the way to hospital, and another died whilst on his way home.

The damage to the works was estimated at between £2,000 and £3,000. The area around where the boiler stood was showered with scalding hot water from the boiler, which indicated that the boiler was full at the time of the explosion. Below the water line was a seam, and a row of rivets with the heads burnt off, which suggested that the explosion was caused by poor quality joints in the boiler barrel. The night before the explosion, the engineer on duty had noticed a loose rivet, which should have started alarm bells ringing.

The explosion, which had been heard for miles around, demolished everything within a hundred yards of the factory. One lucky survivor, 12 years old Billy Williams, was on his second day at work, and standing near to the boiler when it exploded. He was blown more than 200 yards, and ended-up with little more than a few bruises.

The rescuers who quickly attended the scene, were faced with a huge pile of twisted metal, broken smouldering masonry, and the desperate cries of injured and dying men. Throughout the day they searched for bodies, often only finding limbs, or a head. Three victims who were killed by falling debris were on a canal boat over a hundred yards away. Twenty men died at the scene, and another eight from their injuries.

It was discovered that the boiler had not been properly inspected or maintained. It had not even been inspected since Thomas Rose reopened the factory, even though it had been idle for four years. Yet again the factory owner and his employees had failed to appreciate the dangers of high pressure steam.

There were other boiler explosions in the area. One on 5th November, 1884 at Spring Vale killed three workmen, and a second at Tupper & Company’s ironworks at Bradley on 20th January, 1903 killed four workmen and injured another eleven. It took a long time before boilers were treated with the respect they deserve, and were properly maintained, and monitored.

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