Grace's Guide To British Industrial History

Registered UK Charity (No. 115342)

Grace's Guide is the leading source of historical information on industry and manufacturing in Britain. This web publication contains 149,887 pages of information and 235,419 images on early companies, their products and the people who designed and built them.

Grace's Guide is the leading source of historical information on industry and manufacturing in Britain. This web publication contains 147,919 pages of information and 233,587 images on early companies, their products and the people who designed and built them.

Thomas Williamson

From Graces Guide

Sawyer by steam, Riga Street, Manchester

Thomas Williamson leased premises from Hardman, Price & Sons, and he sub-let parts of the premises to other businesses. A disastrous boiler explosion occurred there in 1851, with the loss of nine lives.

Boiler explosions were all to common in the 19th and early 20th centuries, but it is perhaps worthwhile presenting some detailed contemporary accounts of this event and its aftermath.

The Explosion

'DREADFUL BOILER EXPLOSION AT MANCHESTER. A shocking catastrophe occurred at Manchester on Tuesday afternoon, by the bursting of a steam-engine boiler, which has resulted, so far as could be ascertained, in the loss of nine lives, besides seven persons being seriously injured.

'The building destroyed by the explosion was about forty yards long, bounded on the east side by North-street, on the west by Riga-street with Mayes-street at the north end, and other buildings close adjoining on the south. The premises belonged to Messrs Hardman, Price, and sons, calico-printers, and were let by them to Mr. Thomas Williamson, sawyer by steam power, who occupied a portion of the lower part of the building, and sub-let the remaining portions of the first and three other floors above to other parties. Mr. George Parker occupied part of the lower storey, and had a willowing machine for cotton waste there. Mr. John Lester, wood-turner, occupied part of the second storey, employing about twenty hands; and Mr. Percival, rule-maker, Lower Mosley-street, occupied part this storey. Mr. Melloy, who had eight workpeople, occupied part of the third storey, and the upper part of the building was unoccupied. About three or four men and women were in Mr. Parker's room at the time of the explosion, and four men were in the engine house, but it is not known how many were in the sawmill.

'The engine had been stopped for repairs after dinner, and had not been started at three o'clock, when the boiler burst. A man named Thomas Lambert, who had been promised work by Mr. Williamson, states that he went into the engine-house a little before three o'clock, and found three men there, who were grumbling that the engine could not be started. They had been lifting at the fly-wheel —the engine having stopped when the crank attached to the wheel was at the bottom - with a view to assisting steam-power giving the first impulse, but had not succeeded. He lent them assistance, and while all four were lifting the wheel the boiler, which stood in a yard close adjoining that part of the building, burst and brought down the whole of the upper stories of the mill upon the lower one, together with a tall chimney at the north end. A part of the boiler forced its way through the wall and chimney at the north end, and destroyed a large stable at the opposite side of Mayes-street, besides breaking the windows of the Wilton Arms Inn, adjoining the stables, and otherwise damaging the front of the house. Lambert found his way into Mayes-street without knowing how, without injury, though his escape from the falling ruins seems miraculous. Egerton, the engine-driver, who was in the engine-house at the time, also escaped. Such of the work-people who escaped, and numerous other persons who soon collected round the heap of ruins, rushed upon the top, as soon the dust began to clear away, and liberated all the people who could be found, including Mr. Melloy, one of the tenants of the building. A more regular search then commenced by the fire-police and labourers employed to assist them, which was continued till twelve o'clock on Tuesday night, and was resumed at five o'clock next morning.

'It was believed all the bodies (or all but one of them) had been recovered. The bodies found make eight killed and seven wounded by this shocking accident, and it is expected that the body of a boy named Fender is still in the ruins. The engine-driver, Egerton, was in custody, and it is expected that it will be shown that he was intoxicated when the boiler burst. Whether any evidence throwing light upon the cause of the boiler bursting will be adduced is not known.'[1]

The Inquest - William Fairbairn's Expert Evidence

'THE MANCHESTER BOILER EXPLOSION. The following evidence as to the cause of this explosion, given by Mr. Wm. Fairbairn at the adjourned inquest on Saturday, contains suggestions which may be useful to engine-men and others. He described the boiler as a cylinder 21 feet 6 inches long and 6 feet 2 inches in diameter, with 5-16th plates, and with a flue 2 feet 3 inches in diameter passing through it. The flue was 6 inches clear at the bottom and the boiler had two diagonal stays three quarters of an inch square, one end of each rivetted through flattened ends to the bottom of the flue. The other extemities of the stays were attached to the flat ends, composed of 3-8ths plates, passing through pieces of angle iron. The ends of the stays rivetted to the flue were flattened to receive the rivets, leaving a very small margin beyond the edge of each rivet-hole, at the ends, to resist any severe strain from accumulation of high-pressure steam.

'He had computed the bursting pressure, assuming the flue to be covered with water, at 140 pounds to the square inch, and if the ends had been properly stayed, it would have sustained a pressure of 276 pounds to the square inch.

'In his opinion, the accident did not arise so much from defective construction as from gross mis-management or ignorance of the inevitable consequence which must arise from the state of the boiler at the time of the explosion, as indicated by present appearances. On a careful examination of the flue and the lower parts of the boiler there was every indication of a deficiency of water having existed and of a considerable portion of the upper parts of the flue, and of the sides of the boiler having been red hot during an hour or two previous to the explosion. The fire must have remained under the boiler from the time the engine stopped until the explosion occurred, there being no escape for the steam excepting a defective safety-valve. The result must have been a gradual increase of pressure and of danger, though he believed many engine-tenters would not ? be aware of this. He said this from his knowledge of of the incapacity of great numbers of persons employed in this business; but a person of intelligence and common consideration should have known there was danger from having a fire under a boiler without the means of having blown the steam off as fast as it was generated. Assuming the engineer to know his business, it would be reckless inattention. The boiler would generate steam for a 25-horse engine, but the safety-valve was only 3 inches diameter, and too small, while it was of defective construction from the spindle fitting too tightly, making it liable to get fast from oxydisation of the iron.

'Relying upon the evidence before the jury, however, that steam was blowing off till half an hour before the explosion, when it was stopped, he had no reason to assume that it did not act. The length of the lever from the fulcrum to the valve was 3½ inches, and from that to the end, 22½ Inches; the weight used was of 50lb., and that, at 7½ inches from the end, would allow 44lb. pressure to the square inch. At the end of the lever it would be 58lb. pressure; but neither with that weight, nor with the addition of 6lb. extra (said to have been on it), did he think the boiler would have burst but for letting the plates become red hot. There was a self-acting feeder to admit water to the boiler from the engine to the force-pump, which he did not like so well for a high-pressure boiler as the mode of pumping the water directly into the boiler, because self-regulating feeders were liable to get out of order and not act. If the water was low in the boiler when the engine stopped, by this self-regulating system no more water could come into the boiler, and the steam as it generated would further reduce the water. If the feed-pipe had not been turned off, as stated in evidence, before the engine stopped, there ought to have been water enough in the boiler at the time of the explosion; but he was satisfied, from the appearance of the boiler, that such was not the case, and that there was not water enough to cover the flue at the time.

'He firmly believed the boiler was short of water; and every outlet for the steam being closed, and the flue and sides of the boiler being red hot, a highly elastic steam would be generated (especially if one or two revolutions of the engine were effected in trying it, so as to throw cold water into the boiler under these circumstances), until the balance of the resisting forces of the material would be overcome, when an explosion would ensue. The scarcity of water, and consequent heat of the plates of the boiler, would greatly weaken the material, and the highly elastic force of the steam would then be quite sufficient to tear off the stays from the centre flue, and the large flat ends being thus exposed would rip up the angle iron and rivetting round the circumference of those parts, as might be seen to have been the case in this instance; The expansive force of the steam acting in both directions would then project one part of the boiler towards Mayes-street and the other towards Hanover-street, as found; and the projected parts would destroy the buildings in their way. The blue glimmer spoken of by Reed (a previous witness) quite confirmed his opinion of the great elasticity at which the steam had arrived. The inquest was terminated last Wednesday, and charged T. Egerton, the engineer, and T. Williamson, his employer, with culpable negligence. Both are in custody' [2]

[Note: One of the most significant points in William Fairbairn's statement would benefit from greater emphasis: feeding water into a red-hot boiler will cause rapid and violent generation of steam.]

The Trial

ASSIZE INTELLIGENCE. The Manchester Boiler Explosion.—Conviction of the Engineer.

'—At the Liverpool assizes, on Saturday last before Baron Platt, Thomas Williamson, a man of respectable appearance and address, and Thomas Egerton, who appeared to be a respectable mechanic, were charged with having caused the death of Timothy O'Neil, by the negligent and improper management of a steam-boiler and engine, thereby causing an explosion of great extent and severity, whereby no less than nine persons were killed and many injured.

'It appeared that the two prisoners stood in the position of master and servant, Williamson being the proprietor of a circular saw mill in Riga-street, Manchester, Egerton having the management of the engine and boiler connected with the works.

'Egerton was charged with negligence in the care of the engine by which the explosion was caused, and Williamson was charged with aiding and abetting Egerton before the fact.

'The circular saw mill was erected in a large building, which, as well as the saw mill, belonged to Williamson ; the floors of which were separately let off, with steam power, to different tenants. The boiler, which formerly sufficed for supplying this power, had, it would seem, become incapable of answering all the demands, and some time previously, at the instance of Williamson, another engine of 25-horse power, and a suitable boiler, had been laid down by the landlord, , and which was placed under his (Williamson's) control, and of which he was in all respects considered to be the master.

'On the morning of the 25th of March last the prisoner Egerton was attending to the engine. A little before two o'clock, packing the cylinder lid to keep it tight, he asked a man named David Heart to assist him, and Reed and several others likewise went to his assistance, and the cylinder lid was screwed down ; they then wanted to start the engine again, and two of the men tried to move the fly-wheel, but it would not stir; Egerton then tried to move the starting-rod, saying— "I will start her whether I break aught or naught." There did not appear to be any steam, and he cried out "There is no steam - by God it's a case." He then went to the throttle valve, and tried to blow some steam into the cylinder. No steam came ; but a blue glimmer appeared on the cylinder. A great noise then ensued, the boiler rose from its bed, and was projected like a rocket against the walls, which it utterly destroyed, carrying everything before it, prostrating the whole building, and almost all the persons who were in the building were buried in the ruins, and were more or less injured ; nine of them were killed.

'It was afterwards discovered upon examination that the boiler had burst from its not having been properly supplied with water, whereby the plates had become red hot, consequently generating a too high pressure of steam ; the flue had in consequence collapsed from the top to the bottom. It was the prisoner Egerton's duty to attend to the supply of water, the state of the safety-valve, and the general working of the engine and boiler. Mr. Fairbairn, the celebrated engineer, was called, and stated, that he had examined the boiler after the explosion, and that it was 6 feet 2 inches in diameter, made of plates..... [see above]... ; it was well made, except that there should have been two more stays at each end. In his opinion the cause of the explosion was, that the plates having been red-hot, and a portion of the internal flue not having been covered with water, it burst from the high pressure of the steam engendered. The cylinder could not have become red-hot if it had been covered with water. From the appearance of the safety-valve it must either have been made fast or become so by accident at the time of the explosion. It would not matter how strong the boiler was if the safety-valve was fast; the boiler was strong enough to generate steam for a twenty-five-horse power engine. The blue glimmer alluded to is what is called dry steam. The diameter of the safety-valve was three inches. Four inches would have been better; the latter, however, would have been inoperative if weighted too much. The feed valve was a self-acting one ; but no water could get in when the engine was not at work. It was very dangerous to let a large fire remain under the boiler from one o'clock to a quarter to three without the works being at work. The engine had the power of turning water into the boiler, or into the cistern.

'At the close of the case for the prosecution, Mr. Segar asked his lordship if he thought there was any case against Williamson ? His lordship having replied in the negative, Williamson was ordered to be discharged.

'Mr. Wheeler then addressed the jury for Egerton, contending that no case had been proved against him, and that the unfortunate occurrence had happened through the defective state of the boiler. The prisoner had been an engine-driver for twenty years, was a steady man, and understood his business well.

'His lordship having summed up, the jury returned a verdict of Guilty. His lordship, in passing sentence, said when any accident happened to any of her Majesty's subjects owing to the culpable negligence of a man in your situation, having the care of an engine, it is necessary to inflict a punishment; but as you could not have intended to cause the accident, although it happened by your want of caution, the sentence of the court is that you be imprisoned, without hard labour, for six months.' [3]

Location of the Premises

The site is 1/4 mile south east of Manchester Victoria Station. The 36-inch O.S. map [4] shows the layout of the buildings, and the boiler is shown in a small courtyard. The streets remain today, although the character of the area has been completely altered.

See Also


Sources of Information

  1. Westmoreland Gazette, Saturday 29th March 1851
  2. Bristol Mercury, Saturday 12th April 1851
  3. Leeds Times, Saturday 23rd August 1851
  4. The Godfrey Edition Old Ordnance Survey Maps: Manchester Sheet 24: 'Manchester (New Cross) 1849': [1]