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Towlaw Ironworks

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near Wolsingham, Co. Durham

Also known as Tow Law Iron Works.

1846 'FATAL ACCIDENT AT THE TOWLAW IRON WORKS.
On Thursday afternoon, the 11th inst., an alarming accident occurred at the foundry of the above works, near Wolsingham, belonging to Charles Attwood, Esq. and Co., through the bursting of the boiler of the steam engine there used, and by which three men, named Arthur Johnson, James Harper, and Alexander Nelson lost their lives, and several others were much bruised and injured by the falling of the stones of the engine-house.
Johnson was brakesman to the engine, and it appears from the evidence produced at the inquest, that it was through his neglect in not having a proper supply of water to the boiler, that the explosion took place.
The engine was of 14-horse power, built Messrs Murray and Co., of Chester-le-Street, and had only been erected about five months.
The inquest was held on Saturday, the 13th instant, before William Trotter, Esq., coroner, when the following evidence was given as to the cause of the accident :— James Strong deposed, that he is the engineer at the works, and had the superintendence and inspection all the machinery. That he resides at Wolsingham, about three miles off the works, and was there when the explosion took place. That he was sent for, and came immediately, and on examining the engine and ruins, ascertained that the boiler had exploded. James Harper was taken from the ruins of the loam mill house after he arrived. The loam mill was worked by the steam-engine. That on examining the fragments of the boiler, he ascertained it had been red hot before the explosion, which had occasioned it to burst. Has no doubt the boiler being red hot, was the sole cause of the explosion. That it would get red hot from the want of a supply of water. That, on examining the water-pipe which supplies the feed-pump, he found the cock shut, which proved that at the time of the explosion, there was no water going into the boiler. That he thought Johnson must have been mistaken in the appearance of the float, or indicator, which is placed there as a guide to know when there is a sufficiency of water. That he had not been deceived, the cock should have been open to let in water. That the float sometimes sticks fast, from the packing of the float-wire. Thinks Johnson had not tried it with his bands to see if it was in working order. That when the iron is red hot, it absorbs the oxygen gas, and decomposes the remaining water in the boiler, and liberates the hydrogen gas, which being inflammable, ignites at the red hot plate, and so causes an instantaneous explosion. That he believes this to have been the case. That Johnson was steady man, and knew the business which he had been accustomed to. Had suspected the engine and boiler on the Saturday before, and it was then perfect. That the boiler was very good one, and had been in use about five months. That, when absent, William Shaw, the foreman the blacksmiths, inspects the boilers. That Johnson had been at the engine ever since it commenced working, and he had no reason to find fault with him for want of knowledge. Have examined all the pumps connected with the engine, and find them good working order. Have examined the two safety valves to prevent an explosion from the strength of the steam, and found them all right, and that, at the time of the explosion, the boiler was not pressed more than twenty pounds a square inch. It might have been worked from twenty-five to forty pounds with safety, but never had occasion to work her above twenty.
Edward Loat, partner in the firm of Thomas Murray and Co., Chester-le-Street, engine-builder, deposed, that he could account for the explosion in no other way than from Johnson's gross neglect in not having sufficient water in the boiler. Had frequently seen the engine at work, and saw it last about three weeks ago, when he observed every part in the best working order.
William Shaw deposed, that he is foreman of the blacksmiths, and it was his duty to look after the boiler in Mr Strong's absence. Was there on the Thursday morning at half-past seven o'clock, and examined the boiler, and saw no failure. Looked at the bottom. The engine was going at the time. Had some talk with Arthur Johnson, which was the cause of his looking at the bottom of the boiler. That there was a crack at the bottom of the boiler, and there were about three drops of water. Told Johnson that it would take up as soon as the water boiled. Johnson said it would. Never heard of any complaint about the boiler since a new plate had been put in about two months ago.
The jury returned a verdict of "accidentally killed," with a deodand of one shilling on the boiler. [1]

Comment: Another example of bogus phenomena being invoked (hydrogen liberation), thereby preventing a search for the full cause of the explosion.

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Sources of Information

  1. Newcastle Guardian and Tyne Mercury, Saturday 20 June 1846