This battered memorial card to 11 Black Country men and boys killed in an explosion at a West Bromwich ironworks has been carefully kept for almost 150 years. The aim of the card, and the commemorative verse by R. Jukes, was to preserve the memory of those killed.
But who today knows of the Hall End boiler explosion or its victims? The card was brought to us by R.T. Edwards of Sedgley and it was found in his maternal grandmother’s possession. Florence Lucy Cole died in 1961 and it is thought that one of the victims was a relation of hers.
A graphic account of the explosion was printed in the Wolverhampton Chronicle, Wednesday, 9th March, 1864, just over a week after the incident. The headline was: “Frightful boiler explosion and loss of life. Eleven persons killed and fifteen injured.” Some of the details are confused, as would be expected; the reporter has different ages for some of the men and he lists George Grice among the dead when it was Isaac Grice who was killed, but the account has an immediacy that brings home the terrible nature of the deaths suffered by those Victorian workers ...
“On the afternoon of the 1st inst., an accident of a frightful and fatal character occurred at the ironworks of Mr T. Johnson, sen., Church Lane, Hall End, by which 11 persons were killed, and 15 others shockingly injured. It appears that Mr Johnson’s works, which are known as the ‘Old Works’, are connected with what are called the New Works, in the occupation of Johnson and Co., and extend over an area of ground of about a hundred and twenty square yards.
“In the old works, where the catastrophe took place, there were ten furnaces, three of which were attached to the boiler, which stood in a perpendicular position, firmly embedded in massive brickwork, round which to give greater strength were girthed strong iron bands of six inches in width, placed at a distance of two or three feet on masonry. The boiler was about 18 feet by 11, and 7-16ths in thickness, and had been worked for about nineteen years.
“At about a quarter to two o’clock on the afternoon named, the boiler exploded and spread death and destruction throughout the works. The masonry of two of the three furnaces in the vicinity of the boiler was entirely blown away, leaving the framework standing. One portion of the boiler was carried, together with a quantity of brickwork and hooping, about sixty yards. Near to the canal side, another part was driven against a tall furnace-stack, which toppled and fell, burying the blacksmiths’ shop, on which it abutted, beneath the mass of rubbish.
“Those in the immediate vicinity describe the effects of the explosion as darkening the air. Tons upon tons of bricks and mortar were precipitated into the streets. The shopping was blown from its foundation, the roofs of the various buildings in which the work was carried on were literally riddles by the falling material. Three only out of the eleven furnaces were left standing after the explosion, and beneath that mass of mingled iron, brickwork, and débris lay the unfortunate men and boys who, but a few minutes before, were cheerfully labouring, without dreaming of the fate that was to overwhelm them.
“A cart which was standing in Church Lane, near the wall of the premises, was smashed to atoms, but the man and horse escaped. A quantity of the blazing coal and hot bricks was blown by the explosion on to the barn of Mr Henry Parish, of the Nag’s Head, and set fire to an oat-rick. The fire, however, was fortunately soon discovered and speedily extinguished. A large quantity of bricks, mortar, timber, and iron was precipitated into the timber yard of Mr Butler, which is situated opposite to the works.
“The explosion was heard at a great distance, and immediately after the report hundreds of mechanics from the neighbouring works rushed to the scene of the catastrophe, and, as many as could, set to work in right good earnest to gather the dead and dying from the ruins underneath which they were buried. Messengers were sent to the Police Station at West Bromwich, and for medical assistance. Major McKnight, deputy chief-constable of the county, Inspector McCrea, Police-sergeant Lester, and a posse of police soon appeared on the scene, and under the direction of the former, the parties engaged in rescuing their fellow creatures worked with more order and to a better purpose. Mr C.T. Male, surgeon, of Black Lake, and Mr W.J. Kite, of West Bromwich, were also speedily on the spot.
“The list of those killed and injured is as follows:– Dead:– Benjamin Carter, 30, a married man, having three or four children; Charles Stone, 24, recently married; Lemuel Johnson, 11; Thomas Knowles, 25, unmarried; Walter Keay, 16; Charles Mellow, 19, unmarried; I. Rollason, 17; F. Teyther, 22, married; a boy named Williams, 14; George Grice, 13; J. Hughes, 63, married.
“Injured:– J. Henn, 30; E. Bradley, single, 22; Mountain, 22; Reeves, married, with family; Nicklin, 23; Spooner, 25, married; Hobday, 45; Edwin Grice, 12; Isaac Grice, 11; Woodhall, 31; Leonard, a boy; Ward, 12; Gilbert, 32, married; Parker, 30, married; Crump, 31; John Knowles, 14.
“Thomas Knowles, who was in the blacksmith’s shop, was afterwards literally dug out from a burning grave, as red-hot bricks were found piled upon him. His body was beneath the ruins, and close to the anvil. His father, who was also a smith, escaped in an almost miraculous manner. At the time of the explosion he was standing near the hearth, screened from the falling material. His youngest son, who was a striker for his father, had been standing only a moment previously beside the anvil, and the brother, in going to his assistance at the time of the explosion, met his own death.
“The brother of the deceased (Thomas Knowles) escaped, but is seriously injured and burned. Charles Stone was at work in the rolling mill, and was busily engaged in tieing up [sic] bundles of iron, when the brickwork of the boiler was precipitated against the gable end of the building, which it drove in and buried him under the immense mass of iron and debris. His body was discovered and borne out by his brother, who sank exhausted with his burden, and was so paralysed with fright that he was afterwards unable to render further assistance.
“Joseph Stone also escaped most fortunately, having only for a few moments left his furnace where he was at work, after charging it, and walked a short distance into the bar yard, when the crash came and overwhelmed all in one indescribable scene of destruction. The body of Benjamin Carter was found head downwards in the flue immediately under the boiler, or rather where the boiler stood. It is wonderful how he could be placed in such a position, into which he must have been hurled instantaneously with the explosion.
“The actual cause of the explosion has not yet been officially stated. The inquest was formally opened by E. Hooper, Esq., coroner, on Thursday, but after the jury had viewed the bodies and also inspected the scene of the explosion, the inquiry was adjourned until the 16th inst. The damage done to property is estimated at about £1,000.” Why is this tragedy not more widely known today? Sadly, because accidents like this were all too common in the days before workplace regulations, when safety was routinely skimped in pursuit of profits. ‘Health and safety gone mad’ is a complaint often heard today but were those Hall End men and boys better off without it?