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Brunswick Mill, Preston

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Cotton spinning mill.

Proprietors Cooper and Garrington (John Cooper and Thomas John Garrington).

1848 The mill's boiler exploded, resulting in seven deaths by scalding, and many injuries.

The inquest heard clear evidence that the boiler had been deliberately and seriously overpressurised, and that this was a result of management policy, despite warnings from the mill's personnel. The inquest returned a verdict of 'Accidental Death', but with a comment from the jury about blame being attached to the engineer and manager in working the boiler at excessive pressure.

1849 A verdict of accidental death in such cases was by no means unusual, and that was usually the end of the matter, legally. However, the victim's families and members of the public at large were rightly dissatisfied, and pressure resulted in the mill manager, Fogg, eventually being charged with murder. There were unsatisfied demands to also charge the owners, John Cooper and Thomas John Garrington, with murder. The conduct of the trial at Liverpool Assizes was far from satisfactory, but fortunately the families and friends of the victims were represented by an eminent and determined Preston solicitor, Robert Ascroft.

Fogg was found guilty, not of murder, but of manslaughter, and fined £5. Although the penalty was trivial, the finding was regarded as significant as a warning to reckless factory owners.

The accident and the subsequent case were widely reported in the newspapers, and a thorough summary may be found in a Paper written in 2009[1]. The document reproduces an 1849 sketch of the failed boiler, and this leaves no room for doubt about the boiler having been seriously over-pressurised. It was an old-fashioned waggon-type boiler, made with concave flanks and underside: after the failure, the boiler's concave surfaces had become convex.

1849 Editorial: 'THE BOILER EXPLOSION AT THE BRUNSWICK MILL.
The extraordinary result of the coroner's inquest, in July last, on the bodies of the seven unfortunate persons killed by the boiler explosion, at the Brunswick Mill, in this town, entailed upon us at the time the painful task of commenting upon the unsatisfactory mode in which so important a judicial investigation had been conducted. We were at some pains to enforce upon government and the public the absolute necessity of some further inquiry into a casualty that had hurried so many beings into eternity, and deprived whole families of their means of support. Disagreeable as was this duty, it was a paramount obligation upon us to interfere where the lives of fellow beings were at stake, whatever might be the feelings dictated by friendship or personal regard. Backed, as those sentiments were by the generally expressed feelings of the inhabitants of the town, a further investigation was directed, and the bill of indictment preferred by government against the manager of the mill, has resulted in a verdict of guilty. The same evidence that induced a coroner's jury to attribute the cause of death to " accident," was considered so conclusive before another tribunal, that the judge actually stopped the trial to inquire if the counsel for the defence could shake the facts of so clear a case ! The counsel admitted that he could not. A verdict of "guilty" was directed, when the judge passed a sentence merely nominal,- indeed, one which has caused much surprise, as being out of all proportion to the offence.
We will not, however, quarrel with the sentence, nominal though it be; the jury who recommended to mercy, and the judge who sentenced the prisoner, felt that though he was not merely legally, but morally culpable, he was not the real criminal, and that the parties directing the use of an imperfect engine, and knowingly exposing to destruction so many lives, were the real culprits. Public opinion, in seeking for further inquiry, and for the arraignment of those whose negligence - to call it by no harsher name - had caused this catastrophe, was influenced by no feeling of vindictiveness or revenge. It has triumphed in a verdict being recorded against the reckless system of working with imperfect machinery ; the majesty of the law, in its highest and noblest attribute, - the protection of the poor and weak, - has been vindicated, and an instructive lesson has been read to those Mammon worshippers who regard with less care the life of a human being than they would the health of a favourite horse, or a prize ox. The ulterior proceedings have prevented the perverse verdict of the coroner's jury being drawn into a precedent, and the whole affair, painful though it be, cannot but have a salutary influence upon those who have large bodies of workpeople employed in the vicinity of machinery, the neglect of which may occasion such devastation. We sincerely trust, for the honour of our town, that such an occurrence may not again occur, and that every appliance which science can dictate and skill can embody will be sought to provide for the safety and the comfort of those whose lot is toil.'[2]

The disaster was one of several highlighted in an article in the Practical Mechanic's Journal in 1848. It quotes evidence from the boiler maker, Mr Clayton. He had originally fitted the waggon-type boilers with two register or 'boil-over' pipes to indicate over-pressure and to protect the boiler by blowing out the water seal. On enquiring, he learned that the pipes had been removed and the connections blanked off. Asking why, Fogg told him that the engine could not drive the machinery with them on - they were perpetually boiling over! Clayton said 'yes, that was what I wanted, what I put them up for....'. The pipe was originally 25ft 8" high, for the boiler to work at 9 psi and for the water to be displaced at something more than 12 psi. With the connection blanked, there was no protection. The article strongly condemned the employment of ignorant or reckless managers and operators on such dangerous equipment, and 'the impotency of the coroner's inquest, and the emptiness of the verdict of an unthinking and unscientific jury.'[3]


See Also

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Sources of Information

  1. [1] 'Coroners and Steam Boiler Explosions. The Case of Richard Palmer in Early Victorian Preston' by Gordon H. H. Glasgow. University of Salford, European Studies Research Institute, Occasional Papers in Contemporary History and Politics. Note: 21 MB pdf
  2. Preston Chronicle - Saturday 31 March 1849
  3. The Practical Mechanic's Journal, 1848, pp.145-6