On Thursday afternoon, in the Parish Room, Horwich End, Whaley Bridge, Mr S. Taylor, B.A., coroner for the High Peak, resumed the inquiry into the deaths of Jos Hill (32) and George Raven (26), who died as a result of the injuries they received in the explosion at the Fernilee Gunpowder Works on August 12th.
The Coroner said that since the inquest was adjourned Percy Southern, the third man who was injured, and who was expected to recover, or it was hoped would recover, had died.
The jury’s primary duty was to inquire into the two previous deaths, but he would swear them in again to inquire into Percy Southern’s death, and then they could take the three inquiries together.
Mr W.J. Andrew, solicitor, of Cadster, Whaley Bridge, appeared on behalf of the Chilworth Gunpowder Company.
Mr T. Hutton was again foreman of the jury.
Mr W.J. Andrew said: “I desire, on behalf of the chairman and directors of the Chilworth Gunpowder Company, and of their manager, Mr Cox, to express their heartfelt sympathy with the relatives of the three brave men who have lost their lives whilst performing the duties of their employment. They also wish to pay a tribute to the nerve and discipline of their workmen, who, without any prompting, brought out the fire apparatus and took every precaution to prevent the disaster spreading, and meanwhile rendered first aid to the injured, and all this on the spur of the moment. They would thank Dr Cox and Dr Flint, of Buxton, who fortunately happened to be on the adjoining moors, and who grasped the gravity of the explosion, and hastened to render their valuable assistance and relief. Finally they recognise the splendid behaviour of the matron of the Devonshire Hospital in coming alone, without a moment’s delay, to superintend the conveyance of the injured to her hospital. Although no money can be any recompense in so sad a case, they have instructed me to inquire into the circumstances of the relatives, and meet them in any scheme for their more permanent relief than is provided by the Workmens’ Compensation Act. As it has been mentioned in the newspapers, that Mr Cox, the manager, was away on holiday, I should like to explain that this was taken on the urgent advice of his doctor, and that he returned immediately on hearing of the accident.”
The Coroner said that since the inquest was adjourned the jury would have heard a good deal by way of talk and gossip about the matter. In order that they might be clear upon what had been proved in evidence, he thought it better to read over his notes of the evidence already given. The Coroner then read the depositions.
Samuel Hill, recalled by the Coroner, said the correct name of the deceased man Hill was Jos. Henry Hill.
TALKS WITH THE VICTIMS
Mrs Sarah Raven, Fernilee, mother of the deceased man Raven, stated that she saw her son several times at the hospital in Buxton between the accident and his death, which occurred on August 14th. He spoke to her several times, but not to tell her anything that happened. She was quite satisfied that from the accident to his death everything possible was done for him.
Elizabeth Southern, Old-road, Whaley Bridge, stated that she was the mother of Percy Southern, who was 19 years of age. He was a messenger at the Powder Mills. She did not see the deceased before he was removed to the Buxton Hospital, but she saw him on the following day at the hospital. Since then she had seen him several times, and he had been able to talk to her. He had never told her what happened on the day of the explosion, and had never referred to it. She thought he had said something to his father about it on the Friday. Her son died on Tuesday. She was satisfied that everything was done for him after the accident, in fact; he expected to be home in three weeks. Up to Sunday it was expected he would recover.
John Wm Southern, father of Percy Southern, stated that he was the night foreman at the Powder Mill. He had seen his son several times at the hospital. Deceased had told him that he was on the bridge and that something struck him in the stomach. He also said it knocked him into the river or he would have been far worse burned. Deceased had nothing to do with the corning mill, and was outside the building.
John Thomas Mellor, foreman at the works, was recalled, and stated that after the explosion Raven was found in the stream. Southern was in the stream on the opposite side from the corning mill. Hill was beneath the ruins.
Southern was filling water tubs, and that would take him past the corning mill. He had nothing to do with the corning mill. There would be eight to nine hundredweight of gunpowder in the corning mill. The limit to be in at one time was 2,000 lbs. There were no other explosives about the works except powder.
The Coroner: “Can you suggest what caused the bump which Raven heard?”
“A piece of wood might have gone through, and that would make a bump.”
He added that amongst the wreckage there was no trace of anything that would throw a light on the explosion. The rollers were made of phosphor bronze, and were so made to minimise the danger. He had examined the rollers and there was no sign of anything being in the corning machine. The Coroner said that if the jury had heard any rumours which they wished to clear up, now was the time to ask questions. He did not wish the jury to go away and think any questions had been omitted.
A JUROR’S QUESTIONS
A juror asked the witness several questions about the corning machine, and in answer to one he said the powder made its own pressure on the rollers. He produced a rubber band, which allowed the rollers to part when anything passed between them. When they got hard they were renewed. A metal spring would be rather dangerous.
To another juror, witness said they used up the powder which went on the floor.
The juror: Suppose a bit of grit gets in? ---- Witness replied that the room was clean. The men who worked there had special boots, and they never went outside in them. The machines were examined four times a day. He thought they could tell more about the machine when it was in motion than when it was stopped during the meal hours.
Answering other questions, witness said that in his opinion there were two explosions, and the last one was of greater intensity. He did not know whether the explosion on one floor set the other off, but the second explosion was immediately after.
The Coroner: Is it possible for anything to drop from the roof? Witness said all the roofs were of matchboard, and copper nails were used. Every precaution was taken to guard against danger.
The Coroner: Would a piece of wood cause an explosion? Pieces have gone through many a time without causing an explosion.
Mr Mellor, a member of the jury, said the cause seemed to be a mystery. If there could be some satisfactory explanation it would be some relief to the men who worked there.
The Coroner: Yes; but unfortunately the nature of gunpowder is such that all evidence of that kind is destroyed.
Mr Andrew: It would be a great relief to the company if they could find it out. They have tried every means, but have not been successful.
Mr Ashby, the cashier at the works, stated that directly after the explosion he saw Raven, who made a statement to the effect that he thought something came through in the powder, and he heard a bump. Witness asked Raven if he heard Jos Hill call out, and he replied “No: he did not know what struck him.”
John Thomas Mellor, recalled, said this was the safest type of machine, and the Government Inspector said so.
The Foreman: The Government Inspector gave a splendid report of the machinery.
The Coroner: Yes: he spoke very well of it.
The Coroner, summing up, said he would like a little more evidence, if he could get it, as to how anything got into the stuff and caused the explosion. But the very nature of the thing they were dealing with blew away all evidence of what might have caused the explosion. He did not think anything could be gained by adjourning the inquiry, or he would adjourn it. In a case of that kind they felt inclined to ask if there were any unusual circumstances. There were two unusual circumstances in this case. One was that the day of the explosion was one of the hottest there had been this summer, and it was also the first working day after being closed for the holidays. It was explained in evidence that there was no glass to focus the sun and cause the explosion, and that also the machinery had only been cleaned, not repaired, or anything new put into it. It was run empty for three hours before it was started on powder, and then it ran satisfactorily from 7 o’clock until 2 o’clock on the day of the accident. If anything had been wrong with the machine it was likely it would have been found before the explosion. The statement of Raven that something went through the machine, and he heard a bump was, no doubt, what happened. It was desirable they should know what that something was, but they would agree that it was utterly impossible to find out. In a letter to the Coroner, the Inspector of Factories said “no doubt that some hard article passed through the cracker rolls and fired the powder: or, perhaps, a nut or some piece of metal might have fallen into the rolls from the roof of the building, although this, I may add, is extremely unlikely.” The Coroner added that the jury might return an open verdict, or, having regard to the precautions taken at the works, they could find a verdict that it was an accident due to something which could not have been reasonably prevented.
In all three cases the jury returned a verdict that death was caused by an accidental explosion of gunpowder, and that all due precautions were taken.