My thanks to Joyce Winfield for allowing me to reproduce this chapter from her fascinating history of the Fernilee Gunpowder Mills. Joyce says: “It is a very moving story which reveals the very real dangers faced by men who lived and worked in the valley over a century ago.”
It was the second Thursday in August 1909, the ‘glorious twelfth’, and a party from Buxton had been shooting on the moors above the Goyt Valley. The weather too was glorious. It had been hot for days now and Dr and Mrs Flint, Dr Cox and their friend Mr Hubbersley were relaxing on the warm turf enjoying their picnic lunch.
A couple of miles down the valley, at Fernilee, the powder mills had so much work that the men had agreed to cut short their annual wakes week. The manager had been ill and was taking a holiday on the advice of his doctor but John Ashby was in the office and John Mellor, the foreman, was there to see all went smoothly.
Edward Higginbottom, the service waiter, was tramming barrels of powder between the press room and the corning mill, the latter was two-storied with a slate roof, like a cottage, about fifteen yards from the river.
It was cool inside, out of the sun, and the lack of windows on the south and west sides made it dark. Joseph Hill was engrossed with sifting the powder when Edward went in to collect the finished barrels but George Raven called down from the upper floor to ask him the time.
George was kneeling before one of the milling machines feeding press-cake into the rollers. Edward told him it was twenty past two as he carried another barrel outside to where young Percy Southern was filling fire buckets from the river. Three more barrels and he was off up the yard.
Up on the moors the sound was no more than a loud report but when Dr Flint saw the smoke rise up to a great height and burst into a dark mushroom cloud he knew his services would be needed.
He and Dr Cox went for Chappell, the coachman, who took the shafts of the trap and ran with it down to where the horse was stabled. Once harnessed to the trap, no time was wasted and they covered the distance in just ten minutes. The scene that met them was one of utter devastation.
“The barrels of stored gunpowder had done their work only too well for stone and timber had been pitched for great distances and a hill situated behind had been burned and ploughed up… Machinery was twisted into all shapes and huge beams splintered, the walls of the cottage fallen. Pieces of iron and wood have been thrown high up on one of the hills and one piece of machinery weighing well over a ton was flung into the water…”
Joseph Hill never stood a chance. His mutilated body was almost unrecognisable. George Raven had been flung through the roof onto the far bank of the river, somehow crawling or falling into the water.
The poor man was still conscious and trying to explain to John Ashby and his brother what might have happened. Percy had been on the bridge when something struck him in the stomach with great force, knocking him into the water. They were both in great pain.
A man getting water from the river had ignored his own injuries and cycled to get help and, when a telephone message from Whitehall on Long Hill reached the Devonshire Hospital, the matron, Miss Hyland, came immediately to do what she could for the injured;
“Eye witnesses are loud in their praise of the tender care she bestowed on the injured men”. She travelled back to the hospital with them in one of the company’s own four-wheeled wagons, comforting them and doing all she could to ease their pain.
Whilst all this was going on the company’s fire brigade was playing water on the adjoining powder magazines. Another explosion from a stray spark would have meant further loss of life.
On Friday morning, Mr Kraftmeier, the managing director, met H.M.Inspector of Explosive Factories, Major Cooper-Key, to search through the ruined building for any clue as to the cause of the explosion and in the afternoon, Mr Sydney Taylor, the district coroner, held an inquest in the large mess room. Others present were Mr Kraftmeier, Major Cooper-Key, Mr J. Law, Inspector of Factories, Stockport District, and Superintendent Durkin. Mr Hutton was elected chairman of the jury.
Joe Hill (front far right) perished immediately. George Raven (front third from right) succumbed to his dreadful injuries two days later.
Witness: I had got to the top of the yard and heard a loud explosion, and when I went back to the place I found the corning mill wrecked.
Coroner: Did you see anything of Hill?
Witness: No, but I saw Raven in the brook close by.
Mr Law: When you brought the powder to the corning mill, did it come straight from the press house?
Juror: Did Raven say anything to you when you saw him?
Witness: He just asked me the time, that was all.
Samuel Hill was called to identify his brother. The works foreman, John Thomas (Jack) Mellor, was questioned at length. He said he was last in the corning mill at 11.25. When the coroner asked him if there was any chance of a foreign body getting in to the machinery he explained that there was a rubber band placed on the rollers which opened and shut when anything passed through.
He and the engineer checked it every day and he produced a book showing that day’s entry. He said that the powder was sifted twice every day before milling. Major Cooper-Key asked him if the machinery in this house had been overhauled during the holidays.
Witness: It was an examination of the machine, which was not pulled down but two rollers were moved and put back in their places. The machine had been run for three hours empty before the holidays, and yesterday it had been run from seven o’clock until the time of the accident, so that if anything had occurred in the holidays it must have been found earlier in the day.
The next witness was Charles Smith, the engineer. When the factory inspector asked him if the machine ever got hot, he said that it had never got hot in twenty years. It only ran at sixty revolutions a minute and the examination was only for cleanliness.
The coroner admitted that this was a difficult case and did not want to close the inquiry until George Raven, if he recovered, had the opportunity to give his evidence. He thought it best, therefore, to adjourn the inquest for a fortnight until Thursday, August 26th at 2.00pm in the parish room.
The whole district was left in a state of shock by these events; one young man killed and two others critically ill, three families devastated. Hill and Raven had been the sole support of their widowed mothers.
Huge crowds attended an outdoor service on New Mills market ground. All denominations were represented and Captain Monk of the Church Army gave the address expressing his sympathy for Mrs Hill. A collection for her raised £7.15s.3p.
Joseph’s funeral service was taken by Councillor J.G. Downers at their home in Bridgemont, then a procession of mourners and sympathisers walked from there to Taxal for the interment including members of the Mission and office staff of the company – J.T.Mellor, C.Smilth, D.Sherwood, J.W.Southern, A.Shaw, A.McBean, R.D.James, J.Ashby and J.Bennett. w.P.Stamper of Chapel-en-le-Frith, took the service at Taxal.
George Raven died on the Saturday, the day of Joseph’s funeral. On that day, Percy Southern’s condition seemed to improve. He was expected to recover but died on the Tuesday after a relapse. The family were heartbroken.
He was described as “a most genial and straitforward a young man who bore his sufferings with a patient and Christian fortitude”. Rev Betson said that Fernilee was indeed under a dark cloud. In addition to trying to comfort the families he did his best to help in practical ways like taking them to the hospital.
At the adjourned inquest on the Tuesday, Mr W.J.Andrew, the company’s solicitor, expressed sympathy to the families on behalf of the chairman and directors and the manager, Mr Cox. He payed tribute to the workforce for acting quickly to prevent the disaster spreading, to Dr Cox and Dr Flint for their “valuable assistance” and to Miss Hyland for her “splendid behaviour”.
“The company had instructed him,” he said, “to inquire into the circumstances of the relatives and meet them in any scheme for their more permanent relief then was given by the Workman’s Compensation Act.”
The first witnesses were relatives. Samuel Hill confirmed his brother’s full name as Joseph Henry Hill. Sarah Raven, of Fernilee, said she had seen her so several times at the Devonshire Hospital and was well satisfied that everything possible had been done for him but that he hadn’t been able to tell her anything about the accident. Elizabeth and John William Southern, of Old Road, were called in turn. They had just identified their son’s body.
Jack Mellor gave evidence again. He told the coroner where the three men were found; Southern and Raven in the brook and Hill lower down on the other side. When a juror asked him the amount of powder in the corning mill, he said there was 8 or 9 cwt., well below the limit of 26 cwt.
He could not suggest a reason for Raven saying “Something has gone through the machine”, unless it was a bit of wood. Nothing had been found amongst the wreckage. There was no sign of a scratch on the bronze rolls, he said, to indicate that something had gone through.
A juror asked him how often the machine was checked. “The engineer examines it three times a day,” he said, “and I also examine it.” He explained that the roof was matchboarded to guard against anything dropping through. The foreman asked him if there were one or two explosions. He thought there were two, the second more intense than the first.
When John Ashby, the cashier, was called, he said he was with George Raven and his brother immediately after the accident. Raven had told him that he thought something had come through the powder.
In summing up, the coroner regretted the lack of evidence but felt that there had been no carelessness here. He agreed with Major Cooper-Key who had written, “I think there is no doubt that some hard particle passed through the cracker rolls, or perhaps a nut or some piece of metal might have fallen from the roof of the building, although this, I may add, is extremely unlikely.”
The coroner then asked whether the jury thought the explosion was a result of something which could have been prevented or that sufficient precautions had been taken and it was therefore an accident. The jury returned a verdict of accidental death for the three men, Hill, Raven and Southern.
Percy Southern’s funeral was at Fernilee on the Friday afternoon. Crowds of people watched as coaches brought mourners to the chapel. Mr and Mrs Southern, Mrs Jodrell, Eliza Southern, Joe and Ernest Southern, Mrs J Southern and Miss Neate in the first coach. Mr and Mrs G Jones, Sam Goddard, James Southern, Tom Goddard and Stephen Jodrell in the second, Mr J Barnes, Mrs Richard Goddard, Mrs J Jodrell, !r Enoch Ashby, Mrs Morris, Mrs C Bagshaw and Mrs Hill in the third and Misses E and Josephine Corrigan, William Scholes, the postmaster, Mr A M Burgess and Mr Fergie in the fourth. Mr Gosselin-Grimshaw was there and John Ashby represented the Chilworth Gunpowder Company. after the service, led by Rev J Bonsall of Chapel-en-le-Frith, the coffin was carried to the grave by Fred Wharmby, W Harrop, O Goddard and H Morten, Jun., Percy’s Sunday School friends.
On the Sunday, Whaley Bridge Brass Band led a procession of about eight hundred people, employees of the powder mills, the Sons of Temperance Friendly Society, the Whaley Bridge Men’s Meeting, the Wesleyan Young Men’s Class, the Wesleyan Young Ladies’ Class and the Whaley Bridge and New Mills section of the St John’s Ambulance Brigade and many more. They marched through the village to Fernilee where Mr Daish led an outdoor service. Miss Cissie Wainwright was the soloist.
In the December another gunpowder employee died. John Ball was only 54 and had worked at the powder mills for years, walking there and back each day and never once being late.
William Hill died on Friday, December 10th, aged 84. The dreadful accident and death of his grandson, Joseph, had affected his health. he had been widowed nine years and left four sons and a daughter. The funeral was the following Wednesday afternoon at Taxal led by Rev Samuel Evans.
The explosion and deaths of three young men also upset the employees at the powder mills. They had demanded extra pay for what had proved to be a dangerous occupation and, when this was refused, twenty or more of them went on strike. Mr Cox met with them and they agreed to return to work on his terms.
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