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Notes from the sticks: Horror at Greendale Mill

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I AM the proud possessor of a book called Historic Steam Boiler Explosions by Alan McEwen. It is a fascinating account of the death and destruction wreaked for decades of early industrialisation by the inadequacies of the boilers which generated steam power.

It seems to have taken a long time for the lesson to be learned that an imperfectly constructed metal vessel weighing many tons and filled with pressurised boiling water and steam is a bomb waiting to go off.

There were an incredible number of such explosions. A chart in the book shows that in 1866 there were 74 recorded, with 73 deaths. In 1869 there were 60 with 86 deaths. Between 1866 and 1908 there were a total of 1,494 explosions resulting in 1,407 deaths. Injuries, which could be very serious, were not recorded.

There were many factors which caused explosions. One was that to join metal plates together the early boilermakers had to punch rivet holes by hand. One man would hold a hazel-shafted punch on a heated metal plate and another would smite the punch with a large hammer called a maul. The force could bend or distort the metal, and the holes might not be perfectly in line so they would have to be enlarged to get the rivets through. In an attempt to deal with gaps round rivets and bulges between buckled plates a gasket of hemp fibre might be inserted, or cow or horse dung would be dropped into the boiler prior to steaming in the hope that it would form a seal. Badly applied rivets could cause the metal to fracture over time. While standards did improve throughout the 19th century, there were still plenty of substandard boilers in use and many owners did not realise that the interior would corrode. Servicing was virtually unknown, and owners of boilers would scour pubs to find stokers or ‘fire beaters’, often drunkards who would work long hours for meagre pay. McEwen says: ‘Most factory owners and even many engineers held the belief that boiler explosions were an Act of God arising from influences beyond human control.’ I imagine that there may also have been an attitude that labour was plentiful and cheap and that casualties could be replaced.

Ultimately rigorous boiler inspection was introduced, and construction techniques improved, but explosions continued almost to the end of the 20th century.

It was through McEwen’s book that I learned that one such disaster had happened in our neighbouring Lancashire village of Grindleton a hundred and fifty years ago.

In the 1850s and 60s a quarter of the adults in the village were handloom weavers of cotton, but industrial mills were being developed apace and depriving the domestic workers of their livelihood. It would have been seen as a benefit to Grindleton when a mill was built there, providing jobs without the workers having to make arduous journeys further afield, perhaps to Preston or Blackburn. Greendale Mill was built in about 1868 by the Grindleton Industrial Association Ltd with space for 180 looms. It straddled a brook and was driven by a water turbine and a 15hp steam engine, which was powered by a huge coal-fired boiler 7ft in diameter and 25ft high. By 1871 the mill had been leased to a tenant, Timothy Marsden. He employed about 50 people and had 100 looms.

At about 12.50pm on Tuesday September 26, Marsden was seen stoking the furnace to get the boiler steam pressure up. Two or three minutes later there was a shattering explosion. Shocked mill workers rushed out and saw the boiler house had been blown to bits. Masonry and roof slates lay everywhere, covering the surrounding fields up to 200 yards away. A pall of steam hung over the mill and the surrounding area, and there was a deathly silence.

Three or four men entered the boiler house and found the boiler had been torn from its brick setting and thrown across the room, its metal plates ripped apart and the rivets sheared through. Timothy Marsden was lying on the floor, an oil can in his hand, gasping for air and making rasping sounds. He was severely scalded on his back, arms and legs, and he had a deep gash on his head.

The workers carried him into the cotton warehouse and a doctor arrived. Slipping in and out of consciousness and deeply shocked, Marsden asked what had happened and when told he said, ‘Poor me! What shall I do?’ With some difficulty his clothes were cut off. He asked to be taken to his home in Darwen, about 20 miles away, so he was carefully wrapped in blankets and loaded on to a horse-drawn cart for the journey. The doctor tended to the terrible scalds and the head wound for the rest of the week but Marsden contracted lockjaw and died on the Sunday night, five days after the accident.

An inquiry was held at the Duke of York Inn, a few hundred yards from the mill, on the afternoon of Tuesday October 14, and the jury returned a verdict of accidental death.

Damage to the building cost £500 (about £60,000 now) to repair and the mill was not fully operational until early the next year. Cotton manufacturing continued until 1930. After that, felt was made for hats, and then engineering components. In 1960 the site was acquired by a haulage firm. It is now a storage facility owned by David Sunderland, who kindly made available documents relating to the history of the mill.

Alan and I went there this week and were lucky to find the site manager Tony Moore, who showed us round. A fair amount of the exterior walls remain, though much of the roof has been taken off.

Inside there is one relic of its use as a mill.

It may be related to the turbine which is still in situ under the floor of the mill. It was run by water taken from the brook, and this is the culvert where it enters.

The area round the mill, about 20 acres, is now owned by the Woodland Trust which planted it with broadleaf trees in 2000 to commemorate the Millennium. There are a number of damson trees to reflect the fact that Grindleton was once home to a jam factory.

With thanks to Alan McEwen for allowing me to draw on his book and to David Sunderland and Tony Moore for their help.

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On my walk last week I missed this patch of primroses (Primula vulgaris) beside the road because I was busy looking at violets on the other side. Simple and beautiful.

I think the other plants in the picture are lords and ladies (Arum maculatum) but I will need to wait for the flowers or spathes to appear to be sure. 

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Duck news: After a couple of weeks of absence the white mallard drake which I first wrote about here has reappeared a couple of times over the last few days. Yesterday he had his standard coloured mate with him. I presume she is nesting. Also yesterday morning the first brood of ducklings came along (two weeks earlier than last year). There were five, but by the afternoon there were only four. As I have mentioned before, there is very little joy in seeing ducklings as they are under threat not only from herons and magpies (and before someone defends magpies I have seen them taking ducklings) but from their own kind. Both drakes and ducks will attack ducklings, and drakes will engage in mass sexual assault on the mother ducks. 

PS: Noon, today Sunday – only two ducklings left.

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Margaret Ashworth
Margaret Ashworth is a retired national newspaper journalist. She runs the Subbing Clinic in a hopeless attempt to keep up standards, and co-runs A & M Records where she indulges her passion for 60s pop.

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