The Inquest into the death of Thomas Ryder
Chapel-en-le-Frith. Whaley Bridge, New Mills & Hayfield Advertiser.
24 August 1878

Fernilee: the fatal explosion at the gunpowder mill

The following is the report of the inquest on the unfortunate man Ryder who was killed at Fernilee Gunpowder Mill, as already reported by us.

The inquest was opened at the Stockport Infirmary on Wednesday morning, before F.W. Johnson Esq., coroner; Councillor Jesse Thompson being foreman of the jury.

Emma Pickering, of No 14 Holland’s-place, off Black Rode, Macclesfield, said she had known the deceased for about five years, and he had lodged with her during that time.

He left her house a fortnight last Sunday to go to his work. That was the last time she saw him alive. On Monday morning she received a letter informing her that he had been injured by an explosion at the works and had been taken to the Stockport Infirmary, to which place she at once went, and upon her arrival there she was told he had been dead half an hour. She had since seen his dead body in the mortuary.

James Hall Williamson, on of the firm of Williamson & Co., stated that the deceased had worked at the powder mills about eight years. He was the blacksmith and general mechanic. About ten o’clock on Saturday morning witness was in the office at the works, when one of the hands came in and asked him if he was aware that one of the mills in which the deceased and two others were working had “gone off,” and that all three were burned. He went to the place at once, and met the deceased and two other men walking in the direction of the watch house. The deceased appeared to be a good deal burned, but the others did not seem to be very much injured.
Dr Allan, of Whaley Bridge, was sent for, and he came and dressed the men’s injuries about an hour after the accident, and then ordered the removal of the deceased and Ward to the Stockport Infirmary.

A two-horse carriage was procured, and they were immediately taken to the institution.

The man Collier was removed to his home. Witness saw the deceased twice in the Infirmary before his death, of which he was informed by telegraph about four o’clock on Monday afternoon, and had since seen Ryder’s dead body. He was in the mill when the accident occurred about a quarter past eight the same morning. He did not see anything to complain of at that time. The men were then at breakfast, and witness’s object in going there was to see that the place was safe. He was not able to form any definite opinion as to the cause of the explosion. It must have occurred from friction or a spark.

The men are not allowed to carry matches, and they work in a peculiar kind of dress, without pockets --- jerseys and woollen cord trousers, and leather boots with copper nails --- as prescribed by Act of Parliament.

The building in which the explosion took place was undergoing repairs, and for a time was considered a “non-danger” building. He had since ascertained that one of the men (Ward) at the time of the accident was driving a wooden wedge under one of the runners and the other two men were standing near. Being asked by the Coroner how it was, if this was a non-danger building there was sufficient powder in it to cause an explosion.

Mr Williamson replied that they were very old mills, and the powder that exploded was simply such as had been in the crevices. The building in which the explosion occurred was not injured, but an adjoining building, to which the explosion extended, was damaged. It was 32 years since an explosion occurred at these works.

On that occasion one life was lost.

He had had the place under his management for 20 years, and this was the first explosion during that time.

Mr E. Newton, house surgeon at the Infirmary, said that the deceased was brought to that institution about a quarter to four o’clock on Saturday. He was suffering from severe burns about the head and face, all over both arms, and on the back and thighs. Taking into consideration his age (63 years) and his condition, witness had little hopes of his recovery. He gradually sank, and died about half-past twelve on Monday morning, from the result of the injuries he had received. Deceased was able to speak, and said to witness he was unable to tell how the explosion occurred. The deceased’s daughter and daughter-in-law were here admitted to the jury room. From a statement made by the latter it appeared that the deceased’s first wife was dead. He had married a second time, but had left the woman, who for anything they knew was still alive. They had not seen him for over twelve months. They resided at Upper Hulme, near Leek, and heard of his death on Tuesday morning.

The Coroner stated that it would be necessary to adjourn the enquiry. Major Ford, from the Home Office, had made an inspection of the works, but his engagements prevented him attending the inquiry for more than three weeks. Although the fact that there had not been an explosion at these mills for 32 years would seem to indicate that they had been carefully worked, yet it was necessary that there should be a thorough investigation of the unfortunate matter. He proposed, therefore, in order to give all concerned an opportunity of being present, to adjourn the inquest for a month. Major Ford would then be present, and the two injured men might be sufficiently recovered to give evidence, and the man who Mr Williamson said was present at the explosion and was not hurt must also attend.
The inquiry was accordingly adjourned until Wednesday, the 11th of September.

Stockport Advertiser
27 September 1878

The fernilee gunpowder explosion.

On Wednesday, Mr F.W. Johnson, coroner, resumed the inquiry, at the Stockport Infirmary, relative to the death of the man Thomas Rider, who had died in that institution from the results of injuries received in an explosion which occurred at the Fernilee Gunpowder Works on Saturday, the 10th August.

It may be remembered that the deceased and two other men of the name of Ward and Collier were occupied in one of the mills on that day, and that whilst engaged in their work an explosion took place, which inflicted serious injuries upon the whole of the three men.
Rider was removed to the Stockport Infirmary, where his injuries shortly afterwards terminated fatally, and the other men were taken to their homes.

The inquest had been adjourned for their attendance, and both men now appeared, although they are not by any means yet recovered from their wounds.

Ward had both arms wrapped in bandages, and Collier his head and arms, and each of them seemed to have suffered very much from burns and contusions.

The foreman of the jury was Mr Councillor Jesse Thompson, and the proceedings were attended by Major Arthur Ford, of the Royal Artillery, Her Majesty’s Inspector of Explosives.

Major Ford placed in the hands of the coroner a guide book to the Explosions Act of 1875, and Mr Johnson read there from the sections bearing upon the case; and from these it appeared that before repairs were done in the building, it must be thoroughly cleansed, and, so far as practicable, cleared from gunpowder. Mr James Hall Williamson, continuing his evidence, produced a copy of the special rules enforced at the factory.

The works belonged to a limited company, trading under the style of Williamson & Co., Limited.

He was the sole managing director and manager of the works. It was one of the special rules, No. 9, which said: “No repairs are to be commenced to, or in any danger building, until such building has been handed over by the manager or foreman as free from all gunpowder and thoroughly washed out, and the building is to be kept continually wet until the repairs are completed, and work is not to be resumed therein until the building has been inspected by the manager or foreman, and permission given to him to that effect.” The mill in which the explosion occurred had been thoroughly cleansed, in accordance with that rule. The machinery required repairing, and it was necessary it should be converted into a non-dangerous building. He gave the instructions for the building to be cleansed, and although he did not superintend the operations, he afterwards saw that it had been done. He saw the room on the morning of the accident, and the floor was then covered with water. The repairs which were being done at the time of the explosion consisted of wedging up the runners to relieve the spindle, and the deceased, Ward and Collier, were doing the work. --- By Major Ford: We handed over the mill for repairs as free from gunpowder as far as practicable, and as being wet before the repairs were commenced. The handing over of the mill occurred on the Friday morning, the day before the accident. The gunpowder was removed entirely from the bed and the clinker, and the gunpowder which exploded must have been between the stone work of the runners and the iron hoop. The runners were stone, hooped with iron, and the stone portion was honeycombed, or fluted.

The powder had got into the crevices or holes, and that was what was exploded.

On the morning of the accident, when he inspected the place at breakfast time, he found the bed-plate and the kelpins well wet, there being about an inch of water on the bed-plate. There was a quantity of swarthing from the machinery and accumulation from the cleansing in the tub, but it was quite wet, and remained after the explosion.

Major Ford asked Mr Williamson if he was now satisfied that some of the powder was not dry.

The Coroner said that must be obvious from the explosion. Mr Williamson said his answer was that the powder might be damp externally, but not inwardly, and that a blow would lay open the dry powder.

The Coroner said he could not understand why the stone runners became honeycombed and were used afterwards. If they were used it seemed to him that these accidents were liable to occur.

Could not a harder stone be used?
Major Ford said iron ones were generally used throughout the country.

Mr Williamson said the mills had been worked for 50 years, and that it was 32 years since a similar accident occurred. The honeycombing in the runners did not occur through working, but was due to the original formation.

The Coroner: Do you consider it safe to use these stone runners, Major Ford?
Major Ford said he thought they were if in such cases as this the powder could be sufficiently damped or cleared.
The Coroner said from what Mr Williamson said it would appear that it was impossible to get all the powder out of the crevices. At any rate, if iron runners were used there would not be the possibility of powder getting into such crevices.

John Ward, of Kettleshulme, said he had been engaged at the separating house of the Fernilee Mills for six or seven years, occasionally assisting in repairs.

On Saturday morning, the day of the explosion, the mill man, William Depledge, asked him to assist in drawing the spindle of the mill, which had broken down. He went accordingly, and found Matthew Collier and Thomas Rider there. He saw the mill had been well “degged,” but for greater precaution threw two or three more gallons of water over it. Collier and Rider were on the opposite side of the runners to witness, and he commenced hammering to drive in the wedge to get the spindle out. The hammer was of specially prepared metal, and such as is usually used in gunpowder mills. He placed in one wedge, and was driving in a second, when he saw fire come from under the wedge, and called “Fire.” It was then every man for his life, and they made off as quickly as possible, but did not get away before the explosion occurred.

By Major Ford: The runners did not look dry when he went into the mill. The first wedge he drove in was covered with water, but the second wedge was above. This wedge was not in water, and when he struck it the hammer might rebound and catch the iron hoop of the runners. The other two men were simply standing by watching what he was doing, and he was the only one who was doing anything that could have caused the explosion. Collier, Rider, and himself were each wearing powder dresses without pockets, and they had no matches. He knew of nothing to account for the explosion excepting a blow which might have struck the runners.
Matthew Collier, living on the Macclesfield Road, Taxal, said he had worked at the Fernilee Mills for about seven years. His occupation was joinering, and on the Friday he was asked by Mr Williamson to go and assist in repairing the mill in question. He looked into the mill on the Friday night, and saw that it had been well “degged”, and on the following morning went to work about 10 o’clock. Ward and Rider went to the mill about the same time, and before commencing to work they “degged” it again. Ward was driving the wedges in, and witness and Rider were waiting until the shaft was at liberty. The first they knew of the explosion was Ward calling out “Fire,” and directly the powder went off.

Replying to Major Ford, witness said they had on powder clothes without pockets, and that neither he nor Rider were doing anything to cause the explosion. The runners were looking drier than on the previous evening, and they thought it would be better not to commence work without throwing on some more water. Ward and witness both threw water; but he did not know how much Ward threw.

William Depledge, mill tenter at the works, said he had been at that work about seven years. It was his duty to “deg” the mill where the explosion took place, and on Friday morning he swept the place with a brush and threw water over it. He used two “degging” cans full of water, which would be about four gallons, and he then considered it quite safe. He was told by Mr Williamson to do the “degging,” and after he had done it he told him. On Saturday morning at breakfast time Mr Williamson inspected the place, and said it was all right.

He saw Collier with his clothes smoking, as if they were on fire, and he went into some water to put them out. Rider he noticed rolling on the grass in the field by the works, but he did not see Ward.
Neither of the men made any statements to him.

Major Ford, being asked by the Coroner if he had any statement he wished to make, said there could be very little doubt that the explosion must have been caused by a blow from the man Ward on the runners with the hammer. It was not necessary; it must be borne in mind, to generate a spark to explode gunpowder. Gunpowder would explode at a heat of 560 Fahrenheit, whereas it took a temperature of 1,000 Fahrenheit to generate a spark. There could be little doubt, then, from the evidence that the explosion had been caused by a blow from the hammer which Ward was using in driving the wedges. It so happened that he had inspected the works on the 10th July, but there was then no work going on, so that he could not say whether the rules were being carried out. There were several minor defects, very minor things, which he noticed, and which he spoke to Mr Williamson about, and that gentleman seemed very glad and anxious for any suggestions to be made to him.

The Coroner asked Major Ford if he could say anything with respect to the stone runners.

Major Ford said it seemed clear that if the stone runners could not be cleared of gunpowder in the crevices it was not safe to carry on work with them as had been done. That was the inevitable conclusion to which they were led by Mr Williamson’s statement. From what had been said it appeared evident that the runners were not wetted and so clear from gunpowder as was contemplated by the Act of Parliament.

In reply to several questions from the jury, Major Ford said that a very small quantity of gunpowder, say half a pound, would do very great injury to three men if they happened to be standing in such a situation as to catch it at the time of the explosion. The gunpowder had apparently collected in the intertices of the runners, and he should say that altogether there would be some pounds of gunpowder in those spaces.

The Coroner remarked that the explosion at the mill could not have been one of great force, as it did not affect the mill very much. What was rather peculiar, Mr Williamson stated at the first hearing that the explosion extended to a second mill, where it was of greater force.

After some other conversation, the Coroner proceeded to sum up. He did not think they could carry the case any further, inasmuch as they seemed to have all the evidence that could be obtained before them. The most important question for the jury to decide was whether there had been any gross or culpable negligence such as would justify them in returning a verdict of manslaughter. Upon that point they must take into their careful consideration the 9th rule which had been given in evidence. It was very necessary that there should be strict rules for the management of a gunpowder works, and it was likewise very essential that those rules should be rigidly enforced, for unless every possible precaution was taken a serious loss of life might occur. As they had heard, Mr Williamson had stated that there had been no accident at these works for upwards of 30 years (30 Mr Williamsonactually) and so far of course that was very much to his credit. Still they all knew that where there had been such an immunity from accidents, indifference might occur and negligence consequently creep in. Not that he said it was so in this case; he merely suggested it to them as a point for their consideration. He asked them, then, to look carefully at the 9th rule, for he did not hesitate to say that anybody grossly disregarding that rule would be guilty of manslaughter. Now it appeared from the evidence that when it was found necessary the mill should undergo repairs Mr Williamson gave instructions for it to be made into a non-danger building, and as they had heard from Depledge, the necessary work was done according to his directions. On the morning of the accident Mr Williamson himself went round to inspect the mill, and he told them that in his opinion it was at that time perfectly safe.

And it seemed to him that they must believe Mr Williamson to have been honest in that opinion, for if he had not thought it safe it was not at all likely he would have allowed the men to endanger their lives by going to work there.

He thought the jury would believe that if there was a mistake in that opinion it was a mistake of judgement only.

Yet they must be satisfied that the rule was properly carried out, and if they found that it was strictly adhered to, they would not of course impute any blame of a criminal character to Mr Williamson.

Although, however, there might not be blame of a criminal nature, it might be that the jury might think there was blame of a lesser character to be attributed. If they should think that Mr Williamson made his inspection of the premises indifferently or carelessly --- in fact that it was not such an inspection as he ought to have made --- then they would not hesitate to impute what blame they thought to be due to him. On the other hand, if they thought Mr Williamson had discharged his duties carefully and with proper precautions, their verdict would be one of accidental death.

There could be no doubt the explosion had occurred, as Major Ford had said, by the blow from the hammer on the runners causing the powder in the crevices to ignite, and if the jury thought it better that plated or iron runners should be used instead of the stone runners, they could accompany their verdict with a suggestion to that effect.

The Coroner and Major Ford retired while the jury considered the case. After a short consultation together they returned a verdict of “Accidental death.” Mr Councillor Thompson, the foreman, stating that they attributed no blame to anyone, but that they considered iron runners ought to be used instead of the stone runners which had been spoken of.