Another great fear for ordinary people was the risk of explosions in the workplace which occurred with alarming frequency. These explosions were usually the result of machinery which malfunctioned from time to time, or steam boilers which suffered the same fate. Workers in all industrial areas were at grave risk of explosions, with Lancashire particularly exposed with its huge concentration of cotton mills and factories. In the Preston area numerous incidents were recorded.

October 1861-Machinery Explodes at Greenbank Mill

“An accident of a very disastrous character happened on the afternoon of Wednesday 23rd October 1861 at Mr Birtwistle’s Greenbank mill, Preston. It appears some temporary repairs had been carried out to a portion of the machinery connected with the steam engine, which was the double type. The flywheel began to break up before being hurled in all directions, breaking the connecting rods and iron beams. Soon afterwards the main cylinder burst throwing pieces of metal through the windows and doors. Some larger pieces were even thrown into the canal, while those that penetrated the doors badly damaged a flight of stone steps.

It seems a miracle that such an occurrence did not claim any human lives and none of the mill hands received injuries. On surveying the engine house after the explosion the havoc was found to be of a terrific character. The work of destruction seemed as complete as if some person had used a sledge hammer to every piece of iron work, with not a single crank or joint remaining perfect. To repair the damage will cost not less than £1,000 and three hundred operatives will be thrown out of employment until the repairs are affected, which will take not less than one month.”

Preston Chronicle-October 26th 1861

November 1861-Explosion at Springfield Mill.

An accident attended by the most miraculous incidents occurred at Mr Richard Goodair’s mill, Greenbank St, Preston on Monday November 15th 1861. At about ten past nine in the morning the entire workforce were rocked by a tremendous explosion which caused a significant amount of damage and brought the mill machinery to a complete standstill. On examination it was discovered the flywheel and spur wheels attached to the engine had been smashed to bits. One section of the flywheel had exploded with such force that it actually penetrated right through a wooden beam 20 inches by 12 inches thick before entering the weaving room. The weaving room is immediately above the engine room where the flywheel was in operation. The engine room is 20 feet in height and the force of the explosion may be ascertained by the state of the wooden beam which was split into pieces as thin as matches as the flywheel passed through it. This section of the flywheel, over six feet in length and one foot wide, then continued its course before smashing into the rafters and wall, then falling on a tape machine which it completely destroyed.

The upper room was full of machinery at which a number of people were working and fortunately not a single injury was caused. On the ground floor in a room adjoining the engine, which is between 30 and 40 horsepower, there was also a number or workers employed at machines driven by spur and cog wheels which connect with the machinery through an aperture in the wall. The larger spur wheel was smashed to pieces as was the smaller one, a part of which was thrown into the air before landing on a loom on which a man was employed. On its way it cut through a large quantity of cloth, and then made its way through an emery beam. A hangar situated 44 feet away at the opposite side of the shed was also broken down. All the steam pipes between the boiler and engine were burst but the engine itself remained intact as the fracturing of the pipes instantly cut off the steam. The engine house door was badly smashed but fortunately serious injuries were avoided as the men in charge of the engine were in the boiler house at the time. The total amount of damage is estimated between £300 and £400. No blame could be attached for the cause of the explosion and the repairs are expected to continue for two to three weeks.”

Preston Chronicle-November 20th 1861

Very occasionally explosions were the result of human error, an example of which is listed below.

June 1866- A Bombshell in a Furnace

A state of panic gripped the neighbourhood of Moor Lane Preston on the evening of July 11th 1866, after a huge explosion similar to that of a cannon was heard. It was soon discovered that the explosion had occurred at the foundry belonging to Mr T Swindlehurst situated at the eastern end of Victoria St. The furnace had been in the process of being filled with scrap iron to be melted down ready for casting. One piece weighing between 20 to 30 pounds and round in shape had been thrown in by the furnaceman who on inspection, believed it to be an old solid cannon shot or a former engine governor ball.

Not long after the metal in the furnace heated, a terrific explosion shook the whole building. Fragments of iron, some of which were red hot were thrown into the air in all directions. Mr Swindlehurst the owner, along with another man was standing less than three yards from the furnace, however, fortunately for them the explosion took place in the upper portion of the cupola and the heated fragments of iron were hurled over their heads leaving them uninjured. The man attending the furnace had only left the place where the blast occurred seconds before.

The streets in the neighbourhood became crowded soon after the explosion with workers in adjoining manufactories rushing out of the premises in terror. Luckily no one was injured. It was later believed that the round metal ball previously thrown into the furnace and which was thought to be harmless, was in fact a bombshell filled with explosives”.

Preston Chronicle-June 16th 1866

September 1869-Disastrous Explosion at Walmer Bridge

“An inquest was held on the body of John Hull, a young man who was killed in a boiler explosion, before Mr Myers, Coroner, at the Walmer BridgeInn on 4th September 1869. John Hull was the son of Barnaby Hull, a farmer of Hoole and was employed as assistant fireman at the Walmer Bridge works. He was 18 years old. Joseph Knowles a tape sizer, said that on the morning in question at about 07.30 am he was at his work when he heard a noise similar to the blowing off of steam. He instantly ran in the direction of the boiler house and found the steam issuing from both ends of the boiler and the bricks at the back blown away. On looking for the deceased he found him lying on his side with his head on the boiler flue and his body below.

Witness got a rope, placed it around the deceased and pulled him away from the boiler where it was found he was quite dead. Robert Dearden of Bank Parade Preston and the manager of the Walmer Bridge works said he was at his place of work when the explosion took place. The pressure upon the boiler at that time was about 49 pounds. The boiler could bear 60 pounds. Witness had been past the engine house not more than half an hour before the explosion and the steam was then up to 50 pounds.

Nicholas Evans of Manchester stated he was chief inspector for the Boiler Insurance Co and the boiler at Walmer Bridge had been inspected by himself during the last three months. He had examined the boiler since the explosion and found the plates of the flue had given way at the back seam, leaving a rent of about 3 feet in length and nearly a foot in width. The iron work was not defective. The explosion had taken place due to the overheating of the plates, or through the boiler being short of water. The jury recorded a verdict of accidental death”.

Preston Chronicle-September 11th 1869

November 1873-Explosion at Gas Works

“On the morning of November 21st 1873 a very alarming explosion took place at Preston Gas Works. A few days previous it was discovered there was an escape of gas in one of the Ammonia wells at the Glover St works and orders were given to empty the well for the purpose of remedying the defect. Among those tasked to empty the well was a man named Joseph Craven who injudiciously took a lamp to the well, for the purpose of seeing whether all the water had been extracted.

Immediately he placed the lamp to the well a terrific explosion took place and Craven was blown about five yards from the mouth of the well, receiving very serious injuries. The force of the explosion startled the residents of the neighbourhood, many of whom hastened to the works to ascertain what happened. Following the explosion the men at the gas works rushed to the scene to discover Craven had sustained alarming injuries and he was at once taken to the infirmary. It was later found he had received a severe shock and although no bones were broken, he remained in a precarious state. The arches of the well were all but destroyed and the damage is estimated at about £40.

Preston Chronicle-November 22nd 1873

May 1879-Alarming Explosion and Fire at Preston Gas Works Leaves one Man Dead

“The residents of the Lawson St and Walker St neighbourhood of Preston felt the impact of a terrific explosion on the afternoon of Friday 9th May 1879. So powerful was the blast that people reported they felt their homes “shake” momentarily. It was soon realised that the explosion had occurred within the premises of the nearby gasworks, where a two storey brick building known as the Trap House stood. Situated between two large gasholders the Trap House was where the amount of gas manufactured daily was measured and recorded, with the apparatus required for this task stored on the ground floor. The upper room was used as a joiners shop. The explosion had completely blown away the roof of the Trap House along with portions of the outer walls, while flames soon enveloped the entire building.

The fire brigade quickly arrived and together with sections of the workforce from the Preston Gas Company, battled to prevent the flames spreading to the adjacent gasholders. Some of the debris thrown out from the Trap House punctured a portion of one of the large gasholders, causing the gaseous fluid to set alight. As firemen desperately fought to extinguish the flames and close up the breach, workers frantically commenced running the gas off through the pipe work to a gas holder at Ribbleton. Eventually the flames were put out and the site of the breach in the gas holder covered in sacks, upon which they laid sand and stone. Had they not succeeded a tragedy of terrible proportions could have devastated the town.

Later, among the debris the mutilated body of Edward Atkinson, a joiner and married man with two children from Lawson St was discovered. He was working in the upper storey of the Trap House at the time of the explosion and was blown clean out of the room, his body being found some distance away. So fearful had nearby residents become during the incident that some had begun to evacuate their furniture, anticipating a further explosion from the gas holders. A man named Richard Hodgson had been in the joiners shop with the deceased just minutes before the blast. He later reported that he smelled no escape of gas, nor noticed anything wrong and the cause of the explosion remained a mystery, with the only person who may have known something being the deceased”.

Preston Chronicle-May 10th 1879.

Unfortunately explosions were not just limited to incidents of an industrial nature. As more and more domestic households used steam operated boilers or appliances reliant on gas, more people were exposed to the threat of explosions. One such incident occurred in 1879 in Preston,

February 1879-Alarming Gas Explosion in Home

“A very serious explosion of gas occurred at the house of David Billington of 2 Melling St Preston on the evening of Sunday January 26th 1879. Shortly before 8.00 pm Mr Billington perceived a strong smell of gas apparently coming from the house parlour. With a lighted candle in his hand he opened the parlour door only to be met with a loud explosion, which threw Billington to the floor and partially wrecked the house. The front and rear windows of the house were blown out, the parlour door was completely blown off its hinges and a mirror and several other articles of furniture were destroyed.

The wall between the parlour and the lobby was left cracked and bulging outwards, while the opposite wall was cracked from top to bottom and the flooring of the room above was broken through. In the kitchen the damage done was extensive enough to highlight the force of the explosion, with furniture damaged and the windows blown out. The neighbours of Mr Billington and others flocked to the house and managed to gain access by a parlour window. The poor man was found on the floor laid on his back but completely unable to stand. He was at once removed from the house while medical attention was summoned. It was subsequently discovered that the cause of the explosion was from a leakage of gas underneath the parlour window”.

Preston Chronicle February 1st 1879

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