Alkali processing in St. Helens.
The old St. Helens hospital had two men’s wards named Gamble and Kurtz. This was a great irony as these wards were where many of their workers came to die, their teeth blackened, if they hadn’t already fallen out and their lungs eaten away with the caustic fumes that they were subjected to every day of their working lives.
The chemical industry in St. Helens had its origins in the manufacture of soda first for the soap boiling industry and then the glass industry. In the early days of soda processing hydrochloric acid was an unwanted by-product and was allowed to escape into the atmosphere. One can only imagine what conditions were like for the mainly poor working population that lived in the Finger Post and Parr districts down wind of this infant industry.
James Muspratt and Josias Gamble both independently manufacturers of soda came together as the Muspratt & Gamble Company and set up their manufacturing plant at Gerards Bridge close to the old double locks on the Sankey Canal about 1828. The partnership between Muspratt & Gamble was short lived and in 1830 Muspratt built himself a new factory further down the canal at Earlstown leaving Gamble with the Gerards Bridge works.
The Kurtz factory explosion: Preamble
Another short lived partnership in the alkali industry was that between Darcy & Diedan who in 1832 purchased a small parcel of land close to the canal and railway and next to the newly established gas works. This partnership was doomed from the start. Heavily burdened by debt they first mortgaged their property in an attempt to stay afloat and then were forced to sell up in 1842. There were no buyers so the factory was dismantled and the land sold to Andrew Kurtz. A few years later Andrew Kurtz erected his own alkali works on the land that he had purchase from Darcy & Diedan. At his death in 1846, his son George took over and developed the firm. It was under the ownership and management of George that the disastrous factory explosion occurred on 12th May 1899 killing 8 of its workers and injuring 137.
TERRIBLE EXPLOSION AT ST. HELENS
CHEMICAL WORKS DESTROYED
LOSS OF LIFE
MANY PERSONS INJURED AND GREAT DAMAGE TO PROPERTY
These were the headlines on the front page of the Liverpool Mercury, May 13th 1899. The explosion was reported by the Mercury as a ‘great force, causing devastation throughout the works, shaking the whole town by the earthquake’
The seat of the explosion was the chlorate house where a fire ignited and detonated 60 or 70 tons of potassium chlorate stored there.
An inquest was held at the Town Hall on the deaths of the five men who died. They were:
Frederick Faram, aged 62, shipping clerk of 61 Argyle Street.
Thomas Duffy, aged 35, labourer of 42 Barber Street.
Richard Swift, aged 21, slater of 14 Orrel Street.
William Gibson, aged 40, labourer of 5 Frozers Court.
James Grey, aged 64, labourer of 35 Manor Street.
The injured numbered approximately 137 were too numerous to name.
The force of the explosion was so great that it set fire to and detonated a further explosion in the adjoining Hardshaw Brook works also owned by United Alkali. Flying debris tore into the nearby gasworks gas holders but fortunately no secondary explosion occurred, instead the gas ignited and shot flames high into the air. At the time of the explosion the tank held 250,000 cubic feet of gas. Fred Farram was killed on the spot whilst Thomas Duffy was blown out of the works into Langtree Street and having fallen about 50ft, was killed instantly his head almost being blown off. A young man at the gas works had all of his cloths burnt off him. Some of the schools had their roofs blown off and many pupils were injured and a complete row of houses in Peasley Cross was left without glass in any of its windows.
Of the 137 reported non fatal casualties, 17 of the more serious cases lay in Peasley Cross Hospital. The Liverpool Mercury did not report any of these 17 hospitalised casualties subsequently dying but some sources refer to a final figure of 8 dead.
Terrible Destruction of Property
Newspaper reports and a subsequent Government enquiry refer to the immense amount of damage to property estimated to be £100.000. Nothing was said about the terrible conditions in which the local workforce laboured.
Alkali workers were described in Pearson’s magazine of 1896 as ‘The White Slaves of England’. Gas emissions on a daily basis caused havoc to the workforce and destroyed trees and plant-life for up to ten miles down wind of the plant. A Medical Officer of Health stated that these gases were responsible for a quarter of the deaths in town, many of them breathing their last painful gasps in the Kurtz and Gamble wards of St. Helens hospital kindly funded by their employers.
Joseph Stamper, the St. Helens author b 1886 in his autobiography ‘Less than the dust’, describes when he was forced to take some casual work in a bleaching works wrote. ‘When the catch was knocked up and the door was swung to one side, a thick muddy substance commenced to viscously ooze out. Resembling slaked lime mixed with greeny-grey grease; the fumes that came from this made one gasp’.
‘When the substance fused to ooze out any more of its own volition, men thrust long iron rakes into it and pulled it out. It was then shovelled into wheelbarrows then run up a plank and tipped into a railway wagon’.
‘What the slush was I never got to know; I asked one of the regular men who had worked there for years but he did not know either’.
‘But the stuff had a peculiar action on the exposed parts of the body, somehow drying the skin and making it brittle’.
Some commentators have described how the teeth turned black before falling out and the hair was bleached green. The worker when finish the shift could not wash in water for fear of the residue of and ammonia charged lime burning the skin from their bodies. They resorted to using butter, fats or oil to cleanse their skin.
Joseph Stamper did not enter the chlorine kilns a second day and refereed to the work as ‘a killing job’.