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The Great War Centenary - 1917

From Front Line to White Lund

White Lund Explosion: Coroners Inquest

Spreading Alarming Reports: A Coroners Warning

At the opening of inquests on the bodies of persons who had been killed by the fire and explosions at a Northern Munitions factory as announced by the Ministry of Munitions last week, the Deputy Coroner said he had heard persistent rumours of people in town some miles away from the factory being called out of their homes and ordered to get away into the country. If he interpreted correctly what had happened in the town there was a great deal of blame attaching to some people for needlessly alarming people. At the present moment the police were not considered free from blame and he would like the Chief Constable, for the purpose of clearing the police, to have inquiries made as to who gave the order. A police inspector said inquiries had been made already and would be continued into the matter. The police authorities certainly gave no such order.

The Deputy Coroner said if any of the jury knew of people who had been so warned and advised and would get them to sent their names and addresses to him or the police the matter would be gone on with. A great deal of alarm and disturbance had been caused. It was stated that a great explosion would take place at a specified time and therefore that all houses were to be cleared. If the names of anyone who had made that statement were sent to him or to the Chief Constable the matter would be inquired into. He (the Deputy Coroner) would certainly proceed, whether the person was a police officer, a special constable or whoever he was. The jury concurred and gave their experiences in trying to trace the rumour to its source.

Deputy Coroner Explained How Accident Happened

Major Wilson, Deputy Coroner, held the adjourned inquest on William Topping, Westham Street, Lancaster (who died at the Lancaster Infirmary), on Wednesday 10th October. He said there had been a ‘full dress’ inquest on the other victims on the previous day but they were not able to get down to the bed rock of what had caused the fire. One of the witnesses who saw the fire first saw Topping badly injured, and he would be the only witness called before them. When the fire got hold it became dangerous and explosions followed and Topping and other men were killed or injured during the explosions as they occurred. Deceased’s story was that he was playing water on a burning brick building and that when an explosion took place the wall fell down and partly buried him and that he remained there till found. They were not living in peace times and in war times a factory like this had to be put up with all speed. The first object was to turn out shells and secondly the safety of employees. No doubt from what he heard yesterday if the works were reconstructed further precautions for safety would be taken. It was a Government factory and in these times they could not be tied down in matters of construction as they would be in peace times. But whenever precautions were taken and however carefully places were built, fatal accidents at such factories would occur. Therefore the jury must not approach the matter in a carping spirit and say the man Topping should not have been killed, because so far as he could see anyone who tried to put out the fire took risks that were inevitable. Topping took risks as many other men did and unfortunately in his case the risk proved fatal.

The fire started in a two storey building – Block 6c. In the top storey was a melter in which certain material was melted by heat from steam pipes running into the mixer. Then after being mixed the stuff was run into certain shells. The top floor where the melter was was practically empty at the time the fire took place. There was a man up to 9.55 filling shells from the mixer. He said when he left there was nothing left in the mixer but what was sticking to the sides of the pan. The heat was kept on to keep the stuff soft because if the heat was not kept on it would set hard and be troublesome. The melting pan was a long way off being full and the steam pipe regulating the heat had three different arrangements for safety. Under no circumstances could the heat get to a point that would be dangerous; it could not get within 50 per cent of ‘danger’. Thus there was not the slightest chance of the heater or boiler or melter being the cause of the fire. On the floor was a pile of material to be used in the mixer and melted after than hands got back from supper. It was among these sacks that was the first scene of the fire. If the jury had heard that the fire originated through the fire being left unattended or through getting overheated he assured them that was absolutely impossible. In some way or other, probably it would never be found out, the fire started in that little pile of material and not in the mixer at all.

All the men whose bodies had been recovered died as the result of the fire and whilst doing their duty and the jury would realise they had died whilst doing their duty in a very brave manner. The Minister of Munitions had recognised it. He had sent a letter through Colonel Mulman, the Controller, conveying to the relatives of the deceased his deep sympathy in their loss. Mr. Churchill, the letter went on to say was informed that those who perished had been for some time engaged in the factory and must have been well aware of the danger they were in in the gallant attempts they made. He gave expression to his profound admiration for the intrepid conduct of those who died doing their duty. He (the Deputy Coroner) was having a copy of the letter sent to the relatives of each of the deceased. On the previous day the questions of the water supply was gone into and it was shown that the water supply was adequate. In addition to the pressure from the main, there was an electric and petrol pump. The electric pump broke down soon on, the explosion putting it out of gear but the petrol pump worked till three o’clock in the morning and when the pump was blown through the window the pump was still working. The jury must not imagine that the water supply failed or that panic took hold of the management, because the man in the pump house stuck to his post long after the men were killed.

He also, on the previous day, went into the question of the front gate. No injury was received by anyone at the gate but something had been said about employees being kept in and he thought it better to tackle and bottom the question. He found the evidence there was a delay of a couple of minutes at the front gate owing to the crush. The policeman at the gate was not able to open the gate until a bolt was pulled and he was unable to do it owing to the crush. A motor car arrived and at the sound of the horn the people gave way and by that means the bolt was pulled back and gates were opened. Some people were thrown to the ground but no one was injured. They got straight away and there was nothing in the story of men with fixed bayonets preventing them from leaving the place. When another main gate was put up probably it would be seen that it was made to open even when there was a crush. There was evidence that there was a good nursing staff and an ample supply of surgical requirements. So far as he could see with the exception of a few little things that might be remedied to make them less dangerous, everything seemed to be done to make the obviously dangerous works as safe as possible.

Mr J T Sanderson on behalf of the Ministry expressed deep sorrow and sympathy with the relatives. The men who had lost their lives had done their duty as nobly as the lads fighting at the front.

Evidence was given by Richard Taylor, 104 Thornton Road, Morecambe, who said at 10 o’clock on the night of the 1st October he went to supper everything was in order. He went back to his post at 10.22 and all appeared quiet. To reach his post he had to pass Unit 6C. He did not notice anything then, and when he reached his post he and his companion (whom witness relieved) compared watches. A minute later the man witness had relieved came running back and he said “God help us, look there is a fire”. Witness looked and saw there was a fire, and said to him “Go to No. 15 charge house and telephone the fire station.” What witness saw reminded him of a sunset across the Bay – it was like a lump of fire. He went to the nearest hydrant and began to play on the fire which was in 6C. The fire was in the stop storey. Witness knew Topping and he found him lying down crying for help. He was conscious but could not walk. Witness gave him the fireman’s lift but he cried out and could not bear it. The witness carried him like a child and Topping helped him by directing him which way to take. Witness got him outside the charge house and two soldiers took him from witness. He (witness) went to another charge house and got three lengths of hose out. Topping’s story might be true that he had been hit with a brick; things were flying about wholesale. Witness and others fought the fire until they were driven out and then they played on 7C and later No. 3 explosives house. Witness stuck to the job all night and others were doing the same so far as he could see. There was plenty of water. It was a terrible scene. Witness was left with one fireman and he said “Let us clear out”. They could see no one else.

The Deputy Coroner said Topping told his mother that he had laid till five o’clock in the morning before he was rescued – was it so?

Witness said it was not so; he carried him to the charge house and left him in charge of two soldiers just after the first explosion.

The Deputy Coroner read the verdict returned at the inquest on the previous day which he said left the matter open as to how the fire arose. It was a verdict that would not prevent insurance claims being paid by insurance companies.

They returned the following verdict – “That deceased’s death was due to injuries accidentally received while carrying out his duties during a fire in a national filling factory, there being no evidence to show how the fire originated”.


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