FIFTY YEARS ago this week, an enormous explosion rocked a quiet corner of West Bromwich, and several houses were completely destroyed. Ken Ford, now of Great Barr, lived in one of them at the time, but thankfully was in school when it happened.
Here, a full half-century on, Ken gives us both the facts and the personal memories of what happened that day ...
"On the 6th February 1962, a flat bed lorry carrying a mixed load, including 355 gallons of methyl ethyl ketone peroxide, 120 gallons of hydrogen peroxide in carboys, 10 bags of sodium metasilicate, a coil of string and 36 cwt of steel bars, was travelling from Laport Chemicals, Warrington, to Oldbury.
“It was owned by Jacks Motors of Blackburn. In those days there were no motorways or dual carrageways, and the lorry had just left Walsall. When it reached the railway bridge over the Grand Juncton Railway near Bescot yard the driver noticed that smoke was coming from his load. He decided to park on some waste land at the end of Roberts Road and went to the nearby Navigation pub (now gone) to phone the emergency services. Just after the call was made the lorry exploded violently.
"Police and Fire Brigades attended from over the border, including those from Walsall, Wednesbury, Smethwick and Birmingham city, as well as local West Bromwich.
Casualties "There were 30 casualties, mostly from flying glass and shock. Six houses nearest to the lorry had to be demolished with well over a hundred damaged, mostly council housing stock. The Navigation Inn, then owned by Mitchells and Butlers, was also severely damaged and lost its roof and windows. It was closed for weeks. Thirteen vehicles were also damaged, while a surface air raid shelter near to the lorry was untouched "The cause of incident was recorded as unknown. The lorry was completely destroyed and scattered over a 500-yard diameter."
Some of the above information is taken from an article in the August 1996 edition of Fire Power, the magazine of the West Midlands Fire Brigade. The article was written by John Bowen, who was Divisional Commander of Walsall and Wolverhampton when Ken first met him. The following are Ken's own memories of the event, a day in which he heard a distant explosion and was later told that his mother had been involved in an accident ...
"I lived at 290 Walsall Road, one of the six demolished houses. I was 14 ½ at the time and was attending Charlemont Secondary School, it was break time and I heard the explosion, followed by the bells and sirens of the emergency services.
“Before lunch time I was called to the Head Teacher's office and told that my mom Mary had been involved in an accident, and that I was to stay at school for lunch.
Reporting back "After lunch other children came back to school and told me what had happened, some were visibly upset, not knowing what/where this had happened.
With my friend and neighbour Brian Wilks, I asked permission to go home and report back by phone, which we did. We made our way down Bustleholme Lane on foot to a high vantage point above Sandhills quarry, and we could see that our houses had no roof tiles! We then ran to the scene.
“There were hundreds of people there: Fire, Ambulance, Police, Salvation Army, council workers and curious onlookers. After making that phone call I had a cup of tea from a mobile canteen then I was directed to the canteen of a local factory; William Mills (an aluminium foundry, now gone) where I was united with my dad Norman and my older sister Barbara, with her nine-month-old daughter Carol; she was on a weekly visit having walked from Hateley Heath.
"I later found out that my mom had seen the lorry on fire and had taken refuge in the back garden when it exploded, my dad was recovering from an operation and was out at Stone Cross shopping.
“It happened on Tuesday and by Saturday we moved into a new council house on Charlemont Farm estate, having spent the rest of the week with relatives. Most of our furniture was destroyed and we had to get new or second hand replacements.
"The council claimed on our behalf and we got a settlement about two years later. I was told that the council had Sandfield House sheltered accommodation, in Stone Cross, built with their monies."