Explosion at Lilly Lane Mill, Halifax [1850]

In 1850, Lilly Mill, Halifax was occupied by Firth's.

There were two 6-storey mills. The newer mill was at the southern end of the site.

The boiler and engine house stood between the old and the new mills, and 4 floors were built over the engine and boiler house, the centre mill.

There were 3 simple boilers in the boiler house alongside a single engine. One of these – a 3 hp boiler – was never used, the other 2 were 18 hp and 20 hp. The latter were described as waggon shape and embedded in masonry.

In 1849, the partnership had been dissolved. Isaac took over the old mill, John took over the new mill. Samuel; took over the centre mill which was built over the engine and boiler house. Samuel supplied power to the other 2 mills on an agreed basis. He employed Joseph Helliwell as an engine tenter to look after the boilers and the engine.

In November 1850, Helliwell was ill and his duties were performed by Isaac Walker. Minor repairs had been carried out on the engine and fluctuations and stoppages had occurred in the power. Walker's inexperience caused some concern amongst the employees.

At 3:00 pm on the afternoon of Thursday 28th November 1850, one of the girls went to the boiler house to see whether it was safe to continue work. She was told that it was safe, but as she was returning to work, the boiler exploded and the 4 floors above collapsed.

There were 35 workers in the mill at the time.

The military were called in to help clear the piles of rubbish and the ruins of the mills in order to reach the buried injured.

Several influential gentlemen and some of the medical faculty assisted wherever their services were wanted, and the working classes strained every nerve to clear away the ruins

Those who were killed included:

17 others – including Rachel Jones and Isaac Walker - were seriously injured.

The bodies of the dead were taken to the nearby Blucher Inn.

An inquest on 30th November was adjourned until 4th December, and again until 11th December, and again until 13th December. At the final sitting, the witnesses' evidence was so contradictory that it was suggested they had been interfered with. The evidence indicated that the construction and maintenance of the boilers were responsible for the accident.

After 2½ hours' deliberation, the jury – which included Edwin Lumby and other engineers - returned a verdict of manslaughter against Samuel Firth and Joseph Helliwell.

The men were arrested and released on bail until the Spring Assizes at York on 17th March 1851.

The Jury then returned a verdict of not guilty on both defendants.

The incident alerted workers and engineers to the danger of steam-powered boilers

© Malcolm Bull 2023
Revised 16:11 / 23rd April 2023 / 6753

Page Ref: KK_8

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