The Low Moor Explosion
Bradford: Monday 21st August 1916
(First published in 1987 in volume 3, pp. 11-20, of the third series of The Bradford Antiquary, the journal of the Bradford Historical and Antiquarian Society.)
When the Great War broke out in August 1914 it soon became apparent that Britain was ill-equipped to do battle with an enemy fighting from deeply entrenched positions. The most effective answer to this new tactic was the high-explosive shell. Initially the British Anny was short of shells and this threw a heavy burden on the manufacturers of munitions, who, in order to make good the deficiency, were required to maintain the highest possible level of production.
The French were the first to use high-explosive shells, and in 1886 substituted picric acid for gunpowder as their bursting charge. Picric acid, when effectively detonated, is one of the more powerful explosives, and for this reason it was soon adopted by the British Anny, under the name of lyddite - so called after Lydd, in Kent, where the initial acceptance trials were made. The acid is also a yellow dye which was used in the manufacture of carpets.
The Low Moor Chemical Company began to manufacture picric acid in 1898, mainly as a dyestuff, but some was sold to provide the bursting charge for shells.1 The company gained its first licence to manufacture explosives on 1st September 1898, in the name of James & M.S. Sharp & Co, and it was about this time that it became part of the newly-formed Bradford Dyers' Association Ltd, known simply as the BDA.
The firm's manufacturing capacity grew until it was one of the major producers of lyddite in the country. At the beginning of the war the Low Moor Chemical Company was renamed the Low Moor Munitions Company and given the designation 'Factory No 182, Yorkshire' by the Ministry of Munitions.2
The situation of the company, in a triangle formed by the Low Moor Iron Works, Sharp's Dyeworks and Bradford Corporation's Gas Works was, as events turned out, far from ideal. The manufacturing process as practised by this factory involved treating phenol with nitric acid to produce tri-nitro-phenol, or picric acid. The yellow crystals of the acid thus fonned were separated from the spent liquors by filtration, washed and transferred to the drying sheds, where they were placed on glass beds heated by steam pipes. Finally the dried acid was transported to the sifting and packing sheds, or magazines, where it was crushed and packed into boxes, ready for despatch by rail to the shell-filling factories.
The works buildings at the Low Moor Munitions Company were most probably single storeyed, constructed of brick, with slate roofs. The buildings away from the picric acid were heated, surprisingly, by open coal fues.3 The drying sheds, and the sifting and packing sheds, would almost certainly be lined with wood to avoid the fonnation of explosive picrates by contact of the acid with lime in the mortar. The picric acid-making sheds were not matchboard lined because it was considered that dangerous picrates could not be formed when phenol was being treated with sulphuric and nitric acids. There was a nitric acid plant which produced the nitrating acid and, like the boiler house, this probably had a chimney. The steam generated here was used to melt the phenol, so that it could be removed conveniently from the drums in which it was delivered, and it was also used to dry the acid in the drying sheds. The complex of buildings (see plan) was surrounded by a barbed-wire fence and guarded by pensioner soldiers and police officers. There may have been two entrances, also guarded, through which the 250 employees (some of them Belgian refugees) Rassed each day, their task being to produce 150 to 200 tons of picric acid per week.4
Soon after the war began the Low Moor Munitions Company applied for two amending licences to enlarge the manufacturing plant in order to increase production. Since the process, as outlined above, was free from danger, and as it was in the national interest to increase output, the licences were duly granted on 28th October and 21st December 1914. A third amending licence was issued on 13th December 1915. It seems likely that other sections would also expand as production increased, but all we know is that at the time of the disaster the drying sheds had been licensed for 2,000lb each and the magazines for 10,000lb each, for the duration of the war only.5
The company seems to have been free from serious accidents until Monday 21st August 1916, although a series of small fires had occurred in the magazines during the six months before the explosion. These danger signals were evidently ignored, perhaps because so much effort was being made to step up production.
Monday 21st August, was a fine, sunny day. The workers - men, women and children - arrived as usual, but there were thirty absentees, some of whom were Belgians. The factory contained 30,000lb of picric acid which was awaiting sampling and then shipment. More was still being processed, and after the lunch break some of this was in transit from the drying sheds to the lower magazine, one of the two sifting and packing sheds.
According to the notes of interviews conducted on 22nd August by the Chief Inspector of Explosives, Major A. Cooper-Key, with various employees who saw the start of the fire (App 1), James Broughton was moving eleven uncovered drums from a drying shed to one of the magazines. At 2.25pm the drums were being unloaded from a bogie which had pulled up close to the door of the lower magazine.
There are conflicting accounts as to the exact position of the first drum when the fire started. One witness says it was halfway through the door: another says it was just inside the door. There is also doubt as to what happened next. Broughton said he heard a 'sizzling noise' while unloading the second drum, and on turning round saw some fused acid just inside the top of the first drum. The fused acid burst into flames with sufficient violence to knock him to the ground. Other witnesses say they saw a flame at the bottom of one of the drums, but the only certainty is that the fire started in one of the drums outside the lower magazine. The dust-laden air from the crushing equipment would ensure that the fire spread quickly into the magazine and possibly to the other drums.
Fred Stobart saw this fire from the window of the chemical laboratory.6 Percy Nudds also saw the magazine ablaze from his confectionery shop at the comer of Cleckheaton Road and New Works Road. He sensed that an explosion was inevitable, and at about a quarter-to-three his fears were realized. One eye-witness saw the magazine being blown into the air, and wood, bricks and iron pipes were scattered over a wide area, falling on houses and open ground.7 A large piece of metal landed in a field near to Branch Road, Scholes, over a mile away.
Mrs A. Hood, at work on the top floor of Cannon Mills, Great Horton, described the explosion.
We felt the vibration, not knowing at first what it was. Well, we rushed into the centre of the room, all looking questioningly at each other, none of us knowing the answer. Our coats which were hung along a wall started swaying. After a minute or two we saw an orange cloud coming up over the trees in Horton Park. 'Oh!', I said, 'It looks like Chemical Works at Low Moor' - not knowing that I had hit the nail on the head.8
About thirty minutes after the first explosion there was a double explosion, which blew up a building belonging to the Munitions Company, and a Corporation gasometer. Mr Hird was working in his garden at Kitson Hill Road at the time. On hearing the double explosion he looked towards Low Moor and saw a huge swirling sphere rise up into the air. The sphere suddenly turned from grey to red, before rushing sky-high as a mass of smoke. Flying debris had hit and fractured the nearby gasometer.9
The first fires inside the plant were tackled by the works' own brigade. Firemen from Odsal, under the command of Station Officer Sugden, were next on the scene, and as they approached they were greeted by the first explosion. The alarm sounded at the Central Fire Station in Nelson Street, Bradford, at 2.33pm, and eighteen men led by Chief Officer Scott set off in their newly-acquired fire engine, 'Hayhurst', which was named after the former Chief Constable.
'Hayhurst' was stationary about thirty yards inside the gate, and just as the crew were preparing to connect the hose to the hydrants the 3.16pm explosion occurred. This killed six firemen, two from Odsal and four from Nelson Street. The 'Hayhurst' was completely destroyed and parts of the engine were found in Heckmondwike railway station, many miles away.
The wedding of Frank and Ida Clarkson had just taken place and the couple were emerging from the Wesleyan Chapel at about quarter-past-three when the second explosion occurred. The waiting horses bolted, the reception was ruined, and the bride's face was cut by flying glass. However, presence of mind saved the wedding cake, which had been quickly covered with a cloth!10
Detonations loud and small continued and at about six o'clock the upper sifting and packing shed exploded. The explosions went on for two days. There were about twenty-two on the Monday, and the fires had not all been extinguished three days later. The munitions factory was extensively damaged and Sharp's Dyeworks, which caught fire after the first explosion, was almost gutted. Two gasometers at the Corporation Gas Works on Cleckheaton Road were destroyed and there was also much damage at the Low Moor Iron Works. Property belonging to the Lancashire & Yorkshire Railway, including a row of cottages called Railway Terrace, suffered considerably, and rolling stock on the sidings was severely damaged by fire. According to an estimate made by the City Engineer and Surveyor's Office (App 2) about 2,000 dwelling houses and premises of all kinds in the neighbourhood were affected, about 50 houses being virtually demolished. The cost of the damage, other than to the Low Moor Munitions Company, the BDA and the Lancashire & Yorkshire Railway, was put at about £40,000. A claim was submitted for property damaged at Hightown Council School, which was 2¾ miles from the site of the explosions.
An inquest conducted by Mr J.G. Hutchinson, the City Coroner, was held at Bradford Town Hall on 13th September 1916. The writer has not been able to locate the records of the inquest, but an account published in the Leeds Mercury on 4th March 1924 is, according to its author, A J Best, based on the evidence presented at the time. This, and the results of an Inquiry conducted by Major Cooper-Key for the Secretary of State, 'Accident 379/1916', are the only authoritative accounts available. It is not surprising that both sources agree on the timing and sequence of events, because Major Cooper-Key was at the inquest to provide expert opinion and cross-examine witnesses.
There was concern at the time of the explosion that among the thousands of Belgian refugees in the country there might be German spies and saboteurs. The possibility of sabotage had to be given serious consideration by Major Cooper-Key and by the jury at the inquest, especially as some of the thirty or so absentees on that tragic Monday were Belgians. The absentees were carefully questioned to make sure that all could give satisfactory reasons for their absences. As a result, the jury accepted the explanation offered by Mr F.W. Richardson, the City Analyst, that the fire was most probably started by the ignition of iron picrate present on the surface of drums used to convey the explosive between the buildings. (Picric acid reacts with various metals, but not with tin, to produce picrates which are more explosive than the acid itself). The tin-plated drums were those in which the phenol had been delivered to the works. They were lined with wood, but had no external wooden hoops or strips on the sides or bottom to prevent contact with walls, roads and floors during transportation. With use the tin would have been worn away to expose the iron, which then had the opportunity to react to form iron picrate. This substance is sensitive to percussion and may easily have been ignited when the drum made contact with the Yorkshire setts of which the works' roadways were made. Another possibility was that a spark may have been generated as the drums were rolled over the setts towards the magazine.11
The verdict of the jury was sent, by the Clerk to the Coroner, to Major CooperKey on 20th September 1916. (App 3) This letter contains a list of the victims, and also a rider commenting on the manner by which the acid was being manipulated at the time of the explosion.
Both the inquest and the Inquiry showed that there had been serious contraventions of the terms of the licence and of the Explosives Act. The following were the most important considerations.
(a) It was revealed by the magazine foreman that the lower magazine, at the outbreak of the fire, contained over twice the quantity of picric acid allowed by the terms of the licence. (Before the accident it was generally believed that in the absence of picrates or picrate-forming substances, quantities of up to 10,000lb would burn without explosion, providing it were not confined). No explanation has been suggested for such a large excess, but some of the explosive may have been awaiting a release certificate before despatch to the shell-filling factories, thus making the excess unavoidable. Other manufacturers may also have exceeded their licensed amounts without encountering misfortunes which would have revealed their breach of the rules.
(b) Containers used for conveying explosives in the open air must be covered, but at Low Moor it appears the covers were used in inclement weather only. Thus on the sunny 21st August the drums in transit were uncovered. The covers also served to exclude dust and hot clinker, which would ignite the explosive, and to delay the spread of any fire.
(c) Comments were also made about the misuse of overshoes and the failure to report recent fires to the appropriate authorities. In addition it was pointed out that regular use had not been made of the rubber-faced unloading platform. The drums were unloaded directly on to the Yorkshire setts, an action which removed the protective tin plate.
The firemen who lost their lives were buried on 26th August 1916 at Scholemoor Cemetery, Lidget Green. On 4th March 1924 the Lord Mayor of Bradford unveiled a memorial to them, the cost - £1 ,200 - being raised by public subscription.12
A.J. Best's account draws attention to the absence of a similar public memorial to the workpeople who died, in the words:
The names of employees of the fum and of the fIremen who lost their lives are engraved on the War Memorial of the BDA in the Convalescent Home at Silyerdale. This, however, is not a public institution and some heart-burning has been caused to Low Moor and District that no local memorial has been erected to those who gave their lives to their country as truly as any soldier …There has also been some comment on the fact that though in the later years of the war, decorations were distributed with a lavish hand, no employee of the firm nor any relatives of those killed, received any formal recognition of their gallantry and devotion to duty.
The Accident Report says there is little doubt that the catastrophe would not have occurred 'had the discipline in the factory been of a higher order'. It also points to the rapid expansion of the plant as 'a special concession towards the extreme urgency of the national requirements'. A.J. Best goes further, claiming that the huge increase in output, under peace time conditions,
would have been thought neither prudent nor permissible. It was, in fact, well known that serious risks were being taken, though all precautions known to science were adopted to minimise these risks.
Some time after 1947 the BDA erected a handsome plaque at their Well Street Office, Bradford, commemorating the deaths of their employees in two world wars. The plaque, now in the Industrial Museum at Eccleshill, also refers to the 37 men who lost their lives at Low Moor, but there is still no public memorial to the munition workers who died on 21st August 1916 in performance of their dangerous wartime duties.
Notes taken by Major Cooper-Key at the Munitions Factory on 22nd August 1916.
Low Moor Munitions Co, 39 Well St, Bradford.
Frank Beverley, chargeman of lower mag. Fire started at 2.27 3yd outside the door. 10 tins of p/a were outside the door open at top as brought from stoves. Abt 120-190lb in each. Fire started in the farthest tin of the 10. Turned round to his mates and then ran abt 15yd up the road. He then ran back and tried to turn on the water and broke the wire fastening and pulled the lever but cd not say any water ran. This is attached to the fire pump and the pump was not working at the moment. About three weeks back there was a slight fire and on turning on the water only a little ran. This was at upper mag. There were 1500lb of p/a outside on waggons, 1500lb in the mag and 5000lb grindings. The grinding machine was at work but this did not cause the fire, and the two men in charge escaped through the window. No one was handling the tins at the time the fire broke out. No shovels were being used at the time … as to waggons. Fire started a good 3yd outside the door. Two men passed the mag. door just as the fire started but he does not know who they were. They were going down the hill. There are a good many Belgians in the fac. (Abt. 30).
Jas. Broughton. Took 11 tins to mag., uncovered, only use tarpaulin on a wet day. Wade rolled tins to edge of bogie and both let them slide gently to the floor. I put the 1st. tin to mag. door part in and part out and then with the other tins in the same way. He then noticed that 1st. tin to fuse just inside the top edge, heard a sizzling noise looked round and saw a yellow flame. Fire then burst out all over edge of tin, knocked him backwards to the floor. He then got up and noticed all front of mag. on fire and also tins on bogie. He then ran away. After 7 to 8 mins. I heard an explosion.
Amos Illingworth, marker and packer. On 3 occasions he had to stand by lever on a/c of small fires in the crusher. These were reported to Asquith.
Detective Srgt Rd Battye sd. 24 Belgians employed. 1 killed 7 others absent on day for good reasons and none were near to mag.
Henry Virr, mag. man. The fire started 2 ft ouside mag. He tried to get to door but cd not do so. On a previous occasion 3 months back I tried to get drenchers going on a fire but cd not do so and put out the fire with our caps.
Jas. Sharpe, Managing director.
The drenchers were all right, acting by lever from special tank 8½ft by 30ft. A flood gauge.Inspd. daily. Man responsible dead. © Crown Copyright 1987. Published with the permission of the Controller of HMSO.
Letter from City Engineer and Surveyor's Office, Bradford, to Joseph Farndale Esq., Chief Constable, Bradford. 12.9.1916.
Low Moor Explosion
In reply to your letter of the 8th instant it is very difficult indeed to give you anything but a rough and approximate estimate of the structural damage which has been done to the property outside the Low Moor Munition Company's Works and Sharpe's Dyeworks.
Up to the present there have been reported about 1600 houses and other premises which have been damaged in varying degree, but I must point out that there are many properties which have not been reported in detail to the Corporation and, in my opinion, there will be not less than 2,000 houses and other premises affected. About 50 houses have been practically demolished, and the only thing that can be done with these is to re-build them. Mention might be made of the damage which the Corporation have sustained in the destruction of their two gasometers, the 'Hayhurst' Fire Engines, besides other damages to their properties belonging to the Parks and Cemeteries and Baths Committee in the immediate vicinity, but the Gasworks damage is by far the heavier.
The property belonging to the Yorkshire & Lancashire Railway Co. suffered considerable damage, especially a row of cottages known as Railway Terrace; the signal-box which was destroyed and much damage by fire to their rolling stock stationed in the Sidings adjoining the Munition Works.
The Low Moor Company's Iron and other works, have, I am informed been considerably affected and damaged besides the demolition of houses already referred to.
The Bradford Dyers' Association, as such, had the branch of Messrs. Sharpe's practically gutted from end to end.
Messrs. Henry Ellison Ltd, of Cleckheaton, who work certain benzol works on the Low Moor Co's property, suffered some structural damage.
Many working men had their homes practically wrecked besides being rendered homeless for some time, but I am glad to report that the owners of property have made all possible haste with having the repairs carried out, and many of those who were dis-housed temporarily have now had their habitations restored to them, but the Housing question in the District is very acute indeed.
It may be interesting to note that a claim has been sent in for property damaged at Hightown Council School, which is 2¾ miles from the site of the Munition Works.
As a very rough estimate I should think that the sum of £40,000 would cover the structural damage to properties belonging to other owners than the Low Moor Munitions Co, the Bradford Dyers' association and the Lancashire & Yorkshire Railway, as of course I have had to include a sum without any particulars for those properties which have not been reported to the Corporation.
Letter from Coroner's Office, Bradford to Major Cooper-Key, H M Chief Inspector of Explosives, Home Office, London. 20.9.1916.
re Low Moor Explosion
In the absence of Mr. Hutchinson who is at present away on holiday, I send you a brief summary of the above as per your request by telegram this morning:-
The Verdict of the Jury was:-
"Died from … the result of an explosion of Picric Acid and consequent fire at the Low Moor Munition Works, Low Moor, Bradford aforesaid on the said 21st day of August last such explosion and consequent fIfe having been caused by the ignition of Picric Acid probably due to the presence of iron picrate on the receptacle containing such Picric Acid which was immediately outside a Magazine at such works where Picric Acid was being manipulated and that there was no negligence of a culpable or criminal character on the part of any person or persons"
and the Jury added as a Rider (not to be included in such verdict) "That the Jury are of opinion that a certain amount of carelessness or neglect had occurred both in respect of carrying out of Regulations and the methods of manipulation of so dangerous a commodity".
The total death roll was 38 but one of these, namely Martha Briggs, of Kellett Buildings, Wyke, was not an employee at the works and she died from a fit of apoplexy brought on by shock resulting from the explosion. The bodies actually recovered from the debris were those of:
Firemen Fred Normington, Joseph Edmund Binns, Knighton Pridmore, Charles Sugden, Edgar Shaw and Eli Buckley.
Police Constable Harold Reveley.
L & Y Railway Fireman Henry Richard Tunks.
Benjamin Woodward, a male person unknown, Frank Van Dender, Thomas Pedley, Harry Clayton, Guy Langton Tillotson, George Sutcliffe, Frederick Clegg, John McHugh, Bentham Cornwell, Cecil Victor Landon, Ernest Butler, George Slater, William Asquith, George Field, John Dobson, Percy Hopkmson, Willie Coates, Herbert Briggs, Ernest Wolfendale, William Henry Stone, Mark Murphy, Charles West.
Sam Wade a Carter employed at the works was killed in Wilson Road, Wyke.
Herbert William Broskham, and William Henry Jay, employees died at the Royal Infirmary.
Squire Jagger a Carter employed at the Works died at St. Luke's Hospital.
John Majerous the Manager died at 700 Huddersfield Road, Wyke, and
James Wolfenden an employee at Messrs Sharps Dyeworks adjoining died at the Royal Infirmary.
I believe it is Mr Hutchinsons intention to write to you personally on his return to the Office.
Clerk to Coroner
John Majerus, the manager, who was of French descent, had worked for the company since 1889 and was held in high regard by the directors. Shortly before the explosion he was seen attempting to deal with the fire and between 5 and 6 o'clock he was found crawling on hands and knees among the wreckage. Although apparently little worse for his ordeal, during the night he became very ill and died. (Ed.).
The letter at App 2 is quoted by permission of the City of Bradford Metropolitan Council and that at App 3 by permission of the Coroner's Office, Bradford.
© 1987, Ronald Blackwell and The Bradford Antiquary