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Fatal 1968 boiler explosion at famous Brierley Hill factory

By Black Country Bugle  |  Posted: February 19, 2014

By Dan Shaw

  • Making sausages at Marsh and Baxter in the 1970s

  • Report on the boiler explosion at Marsh and Baxter, Brierley Hill, in January 1968

  • The pipe that burst in the boiler explosion

  • The blast made a 10" x 7" hole in the pipe

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SADLY, death and injury through workplace accidents are a common feature of Black Country history. The heavy industries that dominated our region saw many men, and in the past women and children too, working in conditions that were a danger to life and limb.

Fortunately, legislation in the 19th and 20th centuries has seen great improvements in working conditions, although the dangers can never be eliminated. Fatal accidents have to be investigated and the reports produced can prove to be fascinating for historians.

Lawrence Brownhill of Dudley has loaned to the Bugle his copy of a report into a fatal boiler explosion that took place on 18th January, 1968, at the Hall Street works of Marsh and Baxter in Brierley Hill.

Marsh and Baxter was once a famous Black Country name throughout the land. Alfred Marsh bought a butcher's shop in Brierley Hill in 1867 and by 1871 he was manufacturing sausages and curing hams at his works in Hall Street. In 1912 the business took over the old factory of A.R. Baxter of Dale End, Birmingham, and went to acquire several more businesses. With royal warrants the company Marsh and Baxter became world famous for its hams, bacon, sausages and pork pies but, sadly, the business declined and closed in 1978.

The report into the 1968 accident that was written for the Board of Trade details that one man was killed and another was injured in the blast: "Leslie Alfred James Rich aged 45 a boiler house labourer died through swelling of the epiglottis and burns. James Henry Thompson aged 66 and also a boiler house labourer was burned on the hands and face. He was treated at Corbett Hospital, Stourbridge, and was discharged 1½ hours later and received subsequent treatment as an outpatient for a further few days."

The boiler in question was a Babcock and Wilson cross type that had been installed in April 1954 and had been periodically inspected by a surveyor of the Vulcan Boiler and General Insurance Company, Manchester.

The nature of the explosion was described in the report as follows: "The explosion was described as a loud bang when the fourth tube in the top row from the left hand wall looking at the front of the boiler failed on the underside at a point 47 inches from the front header. The tube opened out longitudinally for a length of 10 inches and the resulting aperture at the widest point was 7 inches, through which the contents of the boiler were discharged.

"The force of the explosion caused the tube to bend upwards a distance of 7 inches in way of the rupture and resulted in a portion of the boiler roof brickwork over the return tubes being blown in all directions. Thus the escaping steam was given free access to the boiler room.

The explosion was caused by the local thinning of the underside of the tube by external wastage. The failure was accelerated by a reduction in strength of the tube material due to the tube being subjected to a higher than designed temperature. The tube was thus not capable of withstanding the normal working pressure."

The report continues: "The boiler which forms the subject of this Inquiry was known as No.5 boiler and was one of two similar boilers housed in a brick building and forming the steam generating plant for the factory. The steam produced was used for the generation of electricity and factory process work.

"The deceased, Leslie Alfred Rich, along with James Henry Thompson were attending to the coal conveyors and bunkers on the upper floor.

"A fireman, W. Gennard, was on duty in the boiler house and was standing on the firing platform in the front of the boiler house. Gennard stated that no difficulty had been experienced in maintaining a correct water level in the gauge glasses and that the plant was working normally when without warning the explosion occurred. The boiler house was filled with steam, hot ash and dust and fireman Gennard left the boiler house by way of the turbine room to obtain assistance. Gennard then met Eric Smith, a foreman fitter, who having heard the explosion had tried to enter the boiler house by the end wall door but was driven back by falling bricks and steam. Together they found the assistant engineer, T. Gordon, and all three returned to the boiler house where they proceeded to isolate No.5 boiler.

"Meanwhile on the upper floor when the explosion occurred, Thompson, knowing the geography of the plant better than the deceased, told Rich to follow him and ran around to the other side of the conveyor and along the inside of the front wall of the building to the bucket elevator discharge. Outside, alongside the elevator head, was a small landing and Thompson managed to get out onto this to the fresh air. It was here that he realized that the deceased had not in fact followed him and called Rich's name several times but got no reply.

"Following the closing of the isolating steam valve to No.5 boiler the atmosphere of the boiler house became a little clearer and it was at this stage that Rich was discovered by Smith on the second grating up from the floor. The deceased was slumped over No.4 boiler soot blower operating wheel which is between the two boilers and at the foot of the ladder going up to the roof.

"Rich was then carried to the turbine house and a doctor was called, who later pronounced him dead."

The Engineer Surveyor-in-Chief concluded, "Careful investigations into the circumstances attending the explosion from this boiler suggest that the cause was external wastage and overheating of the tube which failed.

"Examination of other boiler tubes showed that external erosion, most probably due to fly ash carry over, had taken place in the area of failure and metallurgical examination also showed that this failed tube had also been subjected to a temperature higher than that for which it was intended. This overheating may have been due to scale deposits in the tube or channelling of the flue gas or a combination of both.

"It is noted that the Owners will in future carry out more frequent boiler cleaning and random removal of tubes for thickness gauging. This, together with an improvement in access to and from the upper coal conveyor floor, will go a long way to preventing a similar accident.

"It was most unfortunate that one man lost his life and another was injured as a result of this explosion."

This workplace tragedy left a family bereaved but it led to changes at the works that saw improvements in safety.

Unfortunately, the days of Marsh and Baxter were numbered and it closed down 10 years later. The factory site was redeveloped and the Moor Shopping Centre is now there.

Did you work at Marsh and Baxter at the time and do you recall this incident? What other memories do you have of this famous Brierley Hill business? Please contact dshaw@black countrybugle.co.uk or write to our editorial address.

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