From the mid-nineteenth century and well past the dawning of the twentieth century, North West England’s ever-expanding industrial cities and towns suffered many devastating steam boiler explosions.
At this period Northern England’s heavy industrial conurbations of coal, iron and steel, brick-making, paper-making and cotton manufacture were tightly-packed, cheek by jowl into South Lancashire, North-East Cheshire, the topmost corner of Derbyshire; and also including across the Pennines, the woollen, coal mining and quarrying districts of the West Riding of Yorkshire, contained the greatest concentration of steam boilers and related pressure vessels in the world. It is recorded that in the 1880s there were over 100,000 boilers in total within these industrial areas.
In these burgeoning Northern industrial regions, the explosion of steam boilers was a far too common occurrence, many resulting with much loss of lives and huge damage to industrial and domestic property. There was a definite lack of knowledge regarding the properties of steam under pressure, and the manufacturing techniques of steam boilers, particularly in the earliest decades of the nineteenth century which in the least were questionable and at worst – deadly! Operating and maintenance of all types of steam boilers was generally a rule of thumb affair, and boiler inspection was unheard of until 1854; and even then, it was not statutory. Inevitably, therefore, many steam boilers employed in the hundreds of cotton and woollen mills, bleach works, collieries and ironworks scattered over these bustling industrial areas of Northern England, due to a variety of reasons regularly exploded, resulting in the deaths of scores of people. The destruction of property and commerce was indeed substantial.
These are the stories of two of Bolton’s most serious boiler explosions:
ROTHWELL & KITTS’ NEWTOWN MILL, BLACK HORSE STREET, BOLTON MONDAY 15TH DECEMBER 1845.
This cotton manufactory or ‘mill’ owned by Messrs. Rothwell and Kitts was a six-storeyed building built from large stone blocks with integral Engine House containing a Beam engine and Boilerhouse with three ‘Waggon-type’ steam boilers fired by coal. There was a square-built 90 feet high chimney for dispersal of smoke and providing the draught for the boilers. The Waggon boilers provided the steam for the Beam engine which in turn powered all of the mill’s cotton spinning machinery. The middle boiler out of the bank of three, worked at around 5 pounds per square inch pressure (p.s.i.), the other two worked at the somewhat higher pressure of perhaps 20 – 25 pounds per square inch. One of the higher working pressure boilers was not in steam and was being repaired by local Boiler Makers.
On the floor above the Boilerhouse was situated the Scutching Room where a goodly number of the mill’s operatives laboured in hot and dusty conditions. There were a further four floors above the Scutching Room, all ram-jam packed with cotton production machinery and more toiling workers.
On the Monday morning of the 15th December 1845, the whole mill was extremely busy, the cotton spinning machines working at full speed. Cotton was in demand and Rothwell and Kitt’s mill was enjoying a full order book, and production was rapidly increasing to meet the demand. However, just when the mill was working desperately hard, fate played a deadly card: the middle Waggon boiler that very morning had suddenly sprung a serious leak from a lap-riveted joint in the wrought-iron boiler-shell plates. The problem was so concerning for the mill’s management, that at around 12.45 p.m. one of the mill’s owners, 25 year old Edward Hardy Rothwell, had entered the Boilerhouse to ascertain from the fire-beater if the leaking boiler could be quickly remedied. He was mindful of the other boiler being currently under repair, hence his concern. Rothwell’s partner, Thomas Kitts was in the adjacent, high-ceilinged Engine House discussing with the engine-tenter, Peter Waring the troublesome lack of steam. Both men appreciated a good volume of steam was urgently required for the Beam engine. The Scutching Room operatives, men, women and children, on the floor above the Boilerhouse were all hard at work. The whole mill was buzzing with profitably cotton production …….. apart from the troublesome Waggon boilers, all was well at Rothwell and Kitt’s Newtown Mill.
However, minutes were ticking away to disaster. For just a few minutes after a nearby clock had chimed one o’clock, the whole mill suddenly reverberated to the sound of a huge and violent explosion followed by voluminous clouds of steam lifting skywards. Following the loud report of the explosion there was a few seconds of deadly silence. Then, all hell broke loose as the blood curdling screams of terribly injured people rent the air. Mill workers covered in dust, with blood pouring from serious wounds, and some with horrendous scalds could be seen extricating themselves with much difficulty from beneath huge piles of rubble and crushed masonry. Several of the survivors had missing limbs, others had been partially blinded or deafened by the blast; there was mass panic with people shouting out the names of missing relatives and friends. A man with tears running down sunken cheeks, could be seen carrying the mangled body of a young lad.
What had occurred, was that the middle Waggon boiler with the badly leaking shell-plates had suddenly exploded resulting in the total destruction of the entire centre of the six-storey mill. Several people working in the Scutching Room had been killed outright, with many more severely scalded and suffering broken limbs, cuts and bruises. Within the whole mill prior to the explosion there had been around ninety operatives hard at work. Many of these people, upon hearing the tremendous cacophony of the boiler exploding had run to the far end of the mill where they proceeded to smash numerous windows in desperation to escape. Distraught fathers, mothers, sons and daughters ran about the horrendous scene of destruction, screaming and crying out whilst searching for their relatives.
The aftermath of this terrible disaster revealed tremendous structural damage to the mill. There were distorted and jagged sections of wrought-iron boiler plates blown from the middle Waggon boiler scattered all over what had been the Boilerhouse. There were hundreds of smashed firebricks lying everywhere; huge lengths of splintered timber beams, a mish-mash of broken window glass, and hanging precariously over the edge of the wrecked mill floors high above were the shattered remains of huge cast-iron spinning machines and iron line-shafting. There was enormous damage to the workers’ dwellings across the narrow street, where scores of windows were broken. In the Flag Inn situated about 250 yards down Black Horse Street, the white-faced, deeply shocked, inn-keeper reported that, “seven spirit bottles were smashed and the neighbours were much alarmed imagining that an earthquake was taking place, and had ran out in a terrible fright into the street”.
The human carnage was profound: Edward Hardy Rothwell’s body was extricated from beneath a huge stone wall that had fallen on top of the enterprising young cotton mill owner, smashing his body into a bloody pulp. In the Engine House, the mangled body was found, of the Mill’s manager, 45 year old Peter Greenhough. Sadly, he left a widow and eleven children. Alongside Greenhough’s body, Rothwell’s partner, Tom Kitts was found in a dreadfully scalded condition. He survived despite his appalling injuries. In a damaged cottage opposite the mill, a young boy of six was discovered fatally scalded. A young gentleman called Heaton, a trainee manager, had sustained a severely broken leg and numerous cuts and bruises as a result of masonry falling onto him.
A massive search for survivors and bodies of the deceased lying deeply buried under the wreckage of the mill took place involving scores of police, Rothwell & Kitts’ mill operatives, and also workers from the neighbouring mills and factories, who laboured on without rest until around two o’clock on the Wednesday afternoon – almost forty-eight hours since the boiler explosion – all feverishly working to clear away and sift through the huge heaps of crushed stone, roof slates, lime plaster, smashed and splintered timbers and iron machinery to locate and then carry out the grim task of removing the bodies of the dead.
Ten people had died in the explosion; one more would later die due to his wounds. Eight persons suffered extremely severe scalding, many had limbs amputated that had been smashed by falling masonry, several had been blinded by the escaping steam. Evidently, had the boiler explosion occurred just five minutes earlier, then far more fatal consequences would probably have resulted, as several plates from the Waggon boiler were blown by the force of the mighty explosion onto the nearby Bolton and Leigh railway violently striking an empty carriage stabled on the line. The Bolton train steaming in from the Leigh direction, packed full of passengers had only just gone by 5 minutes prior to the boiler explosion!
The Bolton Chronicle and South Lancashire Advertiser dated Saturday December 20, 1845 reported:
“EXPLOSION OF A STEAM BOILER …. SHOCKING LOSS OF LIFE. BETWEEN 30 AND 40 CHILDREN HAVE BEEN DEPRIVED OF A PARENT……..
A few minutes past one o’clock on Monday last, the centre boiler of three at Messrs. Rothwell and Kitts cotton factory, which adjoins the Bolton and Leigh Railway terminus in this town, exploded and it will be seen with the most disastrous effect”.
THOMAS WALMSLEY’S, ATLAS FORGE, BRIDGEMAN STREET, BOLTON THURSDAY 8TH JANUARY 1874.
“The terrible disaster which occurred at the Atlas Forge, yesterday evoked feelings of profound sorrow and regret throughout the town. It is a calamity, unhappily, not paralleled, for a similar catastrophe occurred at the Forge, exactly twelve months ago yesterday, at which one workman was killed and a number of others injured. It is painful to record and to read of anniversaries so sad and disastrous in their results”.
So reported the Bolton Evening News of Friday 9th January 1874. For on the previous day at 10 minutes to 3 o’clock in the afternoon, a massive steam boiler had without any warning whatever, suddenly exploded with an ear-splitting roar which was heard all over the district. The blast hurled bricks and debris over a considerable distance. After the cacophony of the explosion had ceased, and the huge pall of dust and steam cleared, the wreckage in the immediate vicinity of the blast was strewn over a considerable area. Prostrated amongst the ruins were the bodies of a number of men and young boys. Soon, the severely shocked and stricken Blacksmiths and other Forge workers could be seen digging with their bare hands in the mounds of rubble searching for their workmates. There were around twenty men seriously injured, suffering from broken bones, severe bruises and deep cuts caused by flying hot metal and brick debris.
One poor fellow, 18 year old James Barlow had been walking through the Atlas Forge Works Yard around a hundred yards from the Boilerhouse, when the explosion occurred. A huge section of jagged boiler plate that had been hurled high in the air by the force of the explosion, struck him on its downward travel, completely severing his head from his body. Both of the young man’s arms and one of his legs were also torn off and scattered over a wide area. Another young chap, Levi Kirkman aged 15 was killed; Richard Tipton, a puddler aged 26 also died. He had only been employed at Atlas Forge for two days. Israel Waine, aged 54, a ball furnace man and Abraham Leach, all died. There were around twenty other operatives with varying degrees of injury.
The boiler that exploded, was, evidently new and built from steel boiler plate: (a considerably superior material than wrought-iron) – to Stanley’s patent by an engineering firm called Pollitt & Company from nearby Lever Street.
It had been installed within a specially built brick Boilerhouse as recent as the previous Tuesday; the boiler’s duty was to provide steam for powering one of the two gigantic steam hammers used for the forging of heavy iron and steel products. The Stanley design of the boiler allowed for firing high temperature, waste furnace gases exhausting from the iron puddling furnaces; the maximum working steam pressure being around 50 pounds per square inch.
Twelve months earlier, another boiler explosion at the Atlas Forge claimed the life of one of Walmsley’s workers, injuring several others. Even though there were Coroner’s inquests, the explosion of these two boilers remained a mystery.
Alan McEwen is the author of a widely acclaimed book on early boiler explosions titled: HISTORIC STEAM BOILER EXPLOSIONS, ISBN 978-0-9532-725-2-5
Copies can be obtained at sledgehammerengineeringpress.co.uk