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The Great War Centenary - 1917

From Front Line to White Lund

White Lund Disaster
Story of the Great Explosions At a National Filling Factory

The Daily Post, Preston,  25th January, 1919,
The Censor, in October 1917, did not allow much mention to be made of the White Lund Explosion and the aftermath affecting the citizens of Lancaster, Morecambe and district.  The restrictions on the story were relaxed in January 1919.

30,000 People Who Wandered Throughout the Night

October 1st, 1917, will be long remembered by the inhabitants of Lancaster, Morecambe and a much wider area by reason of the disastrous explosion which took place at the National Filling Factory, White Lund. These extensive works, stretching from Oxcliffe Marsh to Morecambe, and practically uniting the boroughs of Lancaster and Morecambe, played a conspicuous part in the Great War, and the workpeople responded with cheery goodwill and alacrity to departmental pressure when the situation on the Western front called for increased output.

For twelve hours there was a succession of explosions which were heard for more than 50 miles around, and filled the inhabitants of the immediate district with great anxiety. Thirty thousand people of Lancaster, Morecambe and surrounding villages wandered through the night in all states of deshabilie, taking to the hills or the open expanse of seashore, and there was not a country lane, church, chapel, or barn for miles around where people were not seeking shelter from what they deemed to be imminent danger. Needless alarms, of course, said wise-acres after the event, but when strong men were thrown to the ground by the force of concussion remote from the scene, windows were shattered, and doors which had been left secure were flung open, the fears commonly entertained were excusable. A police constable at Cottingley Bridge, near Bradford, and another at Birkdale, timed the first explosion. One of the crashes flung open a shepherd’s door in Dentdale, which had been securely bolted. People were rocked in their beds at Fulwood and Bolton-by-Bowland, while inhabitants of East Lancashire and the Rossendale Valley got out of their beds and congregated to discuss the nature of the disaster.

20 Fire Brigades in Attendance

Fire brigades in Bolton and other distant towns did not wait for the alarm before hurrying to the stations for the call, an din an incredibly short time the greater part of the 20 brigades which did duty were assembled to assist. Motor volunteers from Preston, Blackpool, Kendal and elsewhere hurried to the scene with nurses and such other help as might be required. It was a Providential interposition that the disaster began when the work-people were assembled for supper and that the officials were able to make timely announcements of the danger. By common consent and official admission, putting it colloquially, “many V.C.’s were well earned.” In proportion to the magnitude of the disaster the death roll was small.

Very pathetic was the case of the workman who stayed behind to help the firemen, and was found buried by a wall which collapsed still grasping the nozzle of the fire hose and equally so the case of a nurse who, amid the tornado of fire and exploding shells, screened the body of a man mortally wounded for several hours while shrapnel was falling all around. Pieces of exploded shell were picked up at a distance of several miles, though curiously some buildings of public importance in the immediate vicinity, over which flew pieces of shrapnel, suffered less than they might have done from a March gale. In the face of danger responsible heads made a desperate endeavour to clear away as many of the shells as possible, and in the teeth of it all a Midland driver and fireman, with death staring them in the face, coupled up and cleared away a train load of shells.

Many medical men were in readiness to give help as near as it was possible to approach, and one of these had an alarming experience. He was about to start his motor when a violent explosion occurred, and he had scrambled under the car for protection just as a large piece of shell crashed into its working parts, and left him stranded. Elaborate preparations were made at the local hospitals, but the cases requiring aid were few.

The Big Explosion

The explosions commenced at 10.45 p.m., and continued to rave violently to 6 o’clock the following morning, and intermittently till about 3 o’clock the following afternoon. Many people will remember, as long as memory serves them, the terrific explosion which occurred about 3 a.m. First there was a sort of demonical hissing and blue flame, and the next half minute a collapse of plate-glass and windows in all directions. The glare in the sky from the fire was seen from the outskirts of Liverpool. In the country districts farmers became obsessed with the idea that a great raid was in progress, yoked up, and took their families away to the fells, in all directions. Buzzers sounded in vain from employment the following morning at many establishments, and scholars who attended school were either sent home out of consideration for the fact that neither teachers nor children had had sleep, or mothers, stirred by some new alarm, demanded their instant release. Workers displaced were immediately transferred to another part of the country.

The Ministry of Munitions at once appointed an assessor for claims for damage, which were innumerable, and all were met in a reasonable spirit. The heads of the Ministry were early on the scene, and displayed a humane interest in the matter which reflected every credit on the Department, and the King himself showed practical sympathy. In proportion to the nature of the disaster the material damage was relatively small. The Ministry of Munitions afterwards conveyed through the public authorities their appreciation of the gallant services rendered by fire brigades and the timely response of many voluntary helpers.

The censorship at the time barred reference to the disaster other than the brief communiqués of the Press Bureau, which concisely gave the facts, and the coroner’s inquests, which were exhaustively conducted by Mr Neville Holden and his deputy Lieutenant Colonel H D Wilson, DSO., were not at the time allowed to be reported. The Ministry of Munitions, however, afforded the fullest possible assistance in the inquiries, and they showed that there was no slackness, or lack of foresight, or provision in any way to cope with an untoward accident. The closest inquiry, however, left the origin of the fire in obscurity.

The Death Roll

On 3rd December 1918, Lord Shuttleworth, Lord Lieutenant of the county, distributed many distinctions awarded for bravery on that occasion, and paid tribute to the valour of the race as then revealed in the deeds of heroism of women and men. The official death roll in connection with the disaster was as follows:

Firth Dole, 32, filler’s labourer
James Inglesent, 38, fireman
Thomas Henry Beck, 39, fireman
John Crowther, 37, fireman
Frederick Leslie, 38, fireman
Henry Thomas Taylor, 26, overlooker
William Henry Topping, 27, shell searcher
Ernest Duester, 26, fireman
Herbert Peterell, 26, Labourer
Male person – unidentified.


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