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The Great War Centenary - 1917

From Front Line to White Lund

White Lund Disaster
The Official Report from Chief Constable W J Pringle to Colonel Milman, Ministry of Munitions.

Central Police Office
Blackpool Police

9th October 1917

Lieutenant Colonel L C P Milman CMG
Assistant Director
Ministry of Munitions

Fire – No. 13 National Filling Factory

I beg to inform you that whilst on duty here about 10.4 p.m. on the 1st October I heard and felt a violent explosion, and having ascertained that this and later explosions had taken place at the National Filling Factory at White Lund, and that there was possibly a number of casualties, I telephoned to the Lancaster Borough Police volunteering to send assistance (motor fire and ambulance vehicles and personnel) if they required them. I had all ranks standing by and at my suggestion at 1.10am the St. John Ambulance Association motor ambulance in charge of Quartermaster George Wilson left this Station for the scene with instructions to report to the Officer in charge of the County Constabulary. They arrived at the County Police Office, Skerton, at 2.25 am and at 3.45 am in response to a call they proceeded to the railway by the Power House and removed from there to Lancaster Hospital, William Topping, 37 Westland Street, Lancaster, who had been hit in the chest, and who had received first aid from and was in charge of Nurse Cope of the Factory Nursing Staff, of ‘Engledene’ West End Road, Morecambe. This removal for a considerable distance along the railway was affected under almost continuous explosions and falling shells and debris, and at great risk to the nurse and ambulance men. I most respectfully recommend for favourable consideration this courageous and devoted service rendered by Nurse Cope and in a lesser way that of Quarter master Wilson. On the return of the car to Skerton Police Station it conveyed at the request of the County Police to their homes at Morecambe a number of the factory women employees who were unable to proceed further. This ambulance was the first to arrive, and was, in fact, for several hours the only ambulance vehicle there. It left White Lund at 3.10 pm and returned to this Station at 4.30 pm on 2nd October, having been absent fifteen hours.

(2) At about 11 a.m. on the 2nd October I was told that more and greater explosions were expected. I at once telephoned to the Headquarters of the Lancashire Constabulary and volunteered to send a motor fire engine and personnel if this were, in the opinion of the Chief Constable, desirable. Shortly after noon I received a message from the Chief Constable of Lancashire that these vehicles would be welcomed. At 1.20 p.m. I left this Station with a motor fire engine (Leyland – 450 gallons capacity) and five men, and directed another motor ambulance car with personnel to follow immediately, arriving at the main gate at 2.40 p.m. I was directed to extinguish several fires between the Gate House and Guard Room and neighbourhood, and to work towards the railway running past the Discharge and Charge houses. I began to work from the dyke near the west corner of the guard room and pumped from there without break only for the necessary hose connections until the morning of the 4th October. The petrol consumption in working the pump over this period was 110 gallons.

(3) A ‘Morris’ motor fire engine of 600 gallon capacity with nine men of the Manchester Fire Brigade under Second Officer Sloane, which had arrived immediately behind Blackpool, was directed at once began to pump from a ditch opposite No. 2 Discharge House, to extinguish the fires and cool down all Discharge and Charge Houses.

(4) Mr Sloane of the Manchester Brigade, Wheeler (the Officer in Charge of the Factory Engine) and I then went to the Factory Fire Station and had the water supply, etc., for the protection of the Works explained to us by Wheeler. We were informed by him that the main from Lancaster Corporation was burst on the Factory side but that he did not know where; that there was little or no water in the Factory cistern or well; that the pumps were out of action, and that a large number of drenchers was running and or burst. I was always looking out for the burst 8”, as I thought it might be dammed and utilised to pump from, but I failed to find it. I then went to the railway sidings on the east side of the Factory to ascertain if there were water available for the extinguishing of the fire in the wagons containing projectile cases on the first railway track, and fire burning in wagons containing filled projectiles on the other tracks. Explosions were occurring at this time amongst the wagons and it was suggested by a representative of the firm that at that time it was extremely risky to tackle the fires there. As a a matter of fact there was not sufficient water. I tried at least three hydrants between the factory fire station and there, but the pressure was useless. The supply of water was totally insufficient: there was neither pressure nor volume. We then returned to the main gate and found that a “Morris” motor fire engine of 600 gallons capacity, a “Leyland” motor tender with a large quantity of hose, etc., and eleven men of the Liverpool Brigade, under Second Officer Oakes, had arrived. After conferring and hearing that it was desirable that the T.N.T. Magazines and Bonded Stores should be saved Oakes, Sloane and I together went around on a tour of inspection. On the road leading past the T.N.T. Magazines we found the Lancaster, Preston, Chorley, Barrow (and perhaps another which I may not recollect) motor fire engines pumping or ready to pump from ditches and ponds to the magazines. The Officers in Charge had displayed energy, resourcefulness and courage in the finding of these natural sources of water supply and in taking up these, at that time dangerous, positions. We noticed two dykes passing under the road along the south side of the Bonded Stores. On examining the latter we decided it was most urgent, as the trucks on fire could not then be tackled from the other (north) side and because the fire was approaching the Paint Shop, in which we saw great quantities of inflammable material, to prevent the fire spreading from the Railway wagons to the Paint Shop and to the Bonded Stores, that this should be stopped forthwith and that this could best be done by damming the ditches which passed under the road and for the Liverpool and Manchester engines to pump from there up the road leading between Bonded Stores No. 8 and 12 to the fires referred to. We opened several of the hydrants between the Bonded Stores, and found that the water in the mains was flowing only half bore and to about 18” to 24” from the hydrants. They were hopelessly useless for fire extinguishing purposes. We then returned to the Main Gate. The Liverpool and Manchester engines went to the ditches referred to and began laying out a line of hose for the purpose of extinguishing the fires in the trucks.

(5) I then left this point and returned by the road to the Gate House, and when I went past Mitchells’ Mess Room to examine the hydrants to examine the hydrants again, with a view to getting to work on the railway trucks, I found at the southerly side of the pipe shed the Vickers’ Barrow engine “Fire King”, of 500 gallons capacity, with fourteen men under the Superintendent, getting ready to pump from a dam to be fed from the mains in the neighbourhood. I was so pleased with the pluck, coolness, and the mind and eye for the instant need of things he had displayed that I commended him cordially and told him that I would report his section for recognition. At about 5.45 p.m. he got to work on the nearest burning wagons. At this moment I could see at the other side the Liverpool and Manchester men working most vigorously in the immediate neighbourhood of fairly frequent explosions and without any shelter whatever except what the burning wagons, containing the empty projectile cases provided on the easterly side, and I respectfully bring to your notice, for such action as you deem desirable, the equally conspicuous work of these detachments. The Liverpool men were conspicuous to me at this time and in later work for their constant clam indifference to danger (their work was always calmly and deliberately performed) and the Manchester men for the pluck and dash they invariably displayed. As the Vickers’ engine was getting a very small volume of water I ran back to the ditch opposite No. 8 Discharge House from which the Fulwood (a “Shand Mason” steamer) engine was cooling the Discharge and Charge Houses, and directed him to run a line of hose to the Vickers’ engine to augment his supply of water and to enable the Vickers’ to get to work with immediate effect at this fire which was causing such considerable anxiety at that moment, and this was done with commendable smartness. This enabled the Vickers’ detachment fairly soon to get under this dangerous fire.

(6) I then returned to the Lune side of the Bonded Stores. The Officers in charge of the Liverpool and Manchester units informed me of their intention to return to the northerly side of the works, as they found their present an unsatisfactory working position, and because the tide was then rising. They did so later.

(7) About this time I made arrangements for the feeding of all Units, and for the issue of petrol and lubricant to the engines requiring the same. The number of engines on the road had been increased by the arrival of Bolton, Leyland, Salford and Horrockses Crewdsons’ (Preston) engines.

(8) Officers in the Ministry of Munitions and Officials of the Factory in the late evening interrogated Mr Oakes and me on the conditions existing. I was again impressed with the necessity for the prevention of disaster to the T.N.T. Magazines and Bonded Stores.

(9) Explosions had by mid-night ceased in the neighbourhood of the railway trucks but they were fairly frequent in the neighbourhood of the Melt and Steaming Houses and Transit Sheds. The Officers of the Liverpool and Manchester detachments and I decided on the following course of action to extinguish the fire which was causing the explosions referred to in the proceeding sentence. To place the Liverpool engine to pump from the artesian well at the Fire Pumping Station direct into the pump of the Manchester engine at about Discharge House No. 4, and the latter and the Blackpool engine pumping from the dyke at the Guard Room to pump direct into a dam place as far down the avenue between No. 4 Charge and No. 6 Discharge Houses as the road would allow us to take the Lancaster and Bolton engines, and from which dam these engines would pump to the fires at the Melt and Transit Houses. At about this time it was reported to me that someone had requested the Lancaster engine to take up another position and the officer in charge had refused to do so. On going myself on the road I found the Lancaster engine made up, and on telling the Officer in Charge what was required, he at once came to what was at the time the most risky position. Just later the Officer in Charge of Barrow informed me that he had been ordered to leave his position because it was said he was serving no useful purpose by remaining there. For this reason, and because there was no working position for him, and after hearing from the officer who directed the move his reasons for so directing, I ordered Barrow to remain where he was and to continue drenching the magazines, extinguish immediately falling lighted debris, and that, as far as possible, he was to advance on the fires at the Westerly Charge and Transit Houses. Later he informed me by messenger that he could accomplish the task given him if I could send another engine and three hundred yards of 2 1/2” hose and I at once sent the Chorley “Leyland” engine. Five hours later he reported all fire extinguished, and rapid progress blackening out. At about this time I believe I removed friction which had arisen between the Officers in charge of one or more of the detachments. Later I was grieved to hear from Sir Hilaro Barlow, Bart. CB RA, that he had been informed by an officer in charge of another detachment that the Barrow Corporation Officer had done nothing whatever. As a matter of fact I was in the car which took petrol to the Barrow engine about 5 p.m. on the 2nd, at the Pond, White Lund Farm. He had been pumping, but was shut down for want of petrol at that moment. His position was an important one. He pumped-intermittently, it is true, for about twenty five hours, and he, in my opinion, performed his duty in such a creditable manner that I have no diffidence at all in placing it on record and recommending him for commendation, and most respectfully beg to assure you that this Officer at no time failed.

(10) Mr Field, Works Manager, was, during this late night and early morning, ceaseless in his efforts to secure everything required, and his advice and guidance was most helpful to us in the approaching and extinguishing of fires in the danger area. In doing so he was regardless of his won personal safety, but at the same time displayed constant anxiety for the safety of all firemen, and I recommend his conduct for your favourable consideration.

(11) The Bolton and Lancaster firemen had most pluckily pressed right on and passed the No 6A Melt House to the Component Parts Store which was burning fiercely, and in the neighbourhood of which were large quantities of charged projectiles, and, indifferent to the fairly frequent but less fierce explosions. About 4.15 a.m. a rather violent explosion (and the last) occurred on the right rear, I thought in the No. 6 Transit Shed. This knocked down several of these firemen and acting on Mr Field’s suggestion, we deemed it desirable to withdraw the men from the advanced positions in which they then were, and shut down, until it was sufficiently light to enable us to detect projectiles exposed to fire or considerable heat. Up to about this time the fires gave us sufficient light to enable us to work. At about 5.45 a.m. the pumping was resumed, and was carried on in the area continually until everything was blackened out and cold. I did not obtain the names of the Lancaster and Bolton men who were so plucky during this stage of the operations, but I could identify one of the men of the former. All men of these Units did well, but I beg to recommend for your consideration the name of one man of each of these two units for recognition. The Liverpool engine had early in the night and in a few minutes, pumped out the artesian well, and the Salford engine was put in to pump from the ditch opposite Number Two Discharge House into the Manchester engine and the Liverpool engine drawing forward from the artesian well to this point also. The Fulwood engine and the Vickers’ “Fire King” were all this time pumping on the railway wagons and fires in that neighbourhood, and we continuing to do most useful work.

(12) Lieutenant Colonel L C P Milman CMG, Assistant Director, Ministry of Munitions, Lieutenant Colonel Sir Hilaro Barlow, Bart., CB RA, Mr Bannister, Director of Messrs. Vickers Ltd, Mr Stokes, General Manager and Mr Field, Works Manager, had at about 8 a.m. on the 3rd October met the Chief Officers of all the Brigades and conveyed the thanks of the Right Honourable Mr Winston Churchill, MP, Minister of Munitions, for the service already rendered by all ranks of all Fire Brigades at this disaster, and desired that this should be conveyed to all ranks of each Unit. Colonel Milman intimated that he would meet Chief Officers of Brigades at noon to discuss what further action, if any, should be taken. They then proposed on a tour of inspection of the Factory, and at a later conference, Colonel Milman directed me to take direction of all the fire extinguishing operations with full power to act, at the same time impressing upon me that he required everything made safe so far as was possible for the men to do so before I left the works.

(13) Almost all Brigades were by this time anxious to return to their stations, and I immediately took steps with due regard to the early completion of the task in hand, to relieve for rest as many as possible of the men of the Brigade. All detachments of the Brigades not actually at work were then dismissed to return to their Stations.

(14) I at once directed the Officers in Charge of the Manchester and Liverpool Brigades to direct personally and be responsible for the blackening out of all fire, and to relieve each other at their convenience, but to report progress and their requirements to me at the Factory Police Office. At 4 p.m. the position occupied by Barrow was taken over by Chorley at which time Barrow left to return to their station. The Chief Officer of the former reported to me considerable damage to his hose pipes from falling debris, and that he was also obliged to leave a quantity of hose which Chorley required. It was undertaken to see to the return of the Barrow hose. Bolton left at the same hour. By the evening all fires were blackened out, and from now onwards cooling work was performed. I then arranged for half of the men on duty being sent to rest (the first) from 2 p.m. to 10 p.m. and the feeding of them at a hostel kindly placed at my disposal by the General Manager, Mr Stokes. From this hour until the departure of all Units the hours of work and rest were regular and then men were punctually fed.

(15) Seven bodies were recovered on this day, i.e. the 3rd. There was a number of narrow escapes from failing fragments but so far as I am aware no fireman of the visiting Units was hurt.

(16) The work of cooling was assisted by heavy rainfall during the evening of the 3rd, and a fairly strong wing assisted us in finding smouldering fire. By 8 a.m. on the 4th the Factory was made, as far as it was possible for firemen to see, perfectly safe, and on my reporting to this effect to Mr Stokes at 9 a.m. we were informed that we could now return (except Lancaster) to our Stations, and by noon all had left the Factory.

(17) The want of uniformity of size and pattern of hose couplings caused inconvenience, and, on one or two occasions some delay.

(18) At 2.40 p.m. on the 3rd, the Mayor of Lancaster (who is Chairman of the Water Works Department of Lancaster Corporation) called on me and informed me that it was being stated in Lancaster that owing to a burst Corporation water main there was no water with which to extinguish the fire. He stated that the shortage of water to extinguish the fire. He stated that the shortage of water was not due to this cause, but that his Department having heard that water from the sprinklers and mains in the Factory was running to waste deemed it desirable to throttle well down the supply from their main to prevent waste. He added that they had any amount of water, and that a pressure of sixty to eighty pounds was available. I asked him to cause it to be diverted to the Factory main until further notice all possible pressure and volume of water. Their action, I think, especially as they appeared to have taken no steps to verify the statement upon which they acted, was regrettable. The Corporation ought not to have throttled down without express instructions to do s until a burst occurred on their side of the Factory mains, as the arrangement of the valves in the Factory were admirable for shutting down any section rendered unserviceable. The Water Department of the Corporation ought also, in my opinion, to have sent and kept a man or men on the scene of the fire whilst water from the Department was necessary. All along I had doubted the statements about a burst (and had expressed my doubts to several) because there was some water at all hydrants opened; but I formed the opinion that there was not the alleged pressure (sixty to eighty pounds) from the Lancaster main, and that the drenchers opened and or burst were impairing the supply from the mains. I also though at that time it was a mistake to have had the drenchers drawing off the main. As a matter of fact the impairment was due to the throttling down of the Lancaster 12” and was not because of the drenchers being off the mains in the Factory and or burst mains in the Factory. An advantage in this instance would have been gained by separate supplies for the sprinklers and hydrants, and, notwithstanding the views of some fire engineers, I would not recommend, for obvious reasons, the installation of a separate supply. The cost of installing separate services, particularly if the drencher supply were not laid in the same trench as the hydrant supply, would not, from the experienced gained at this fire, be justified and it is very questionable whether circumstances could arise where services laid in separate trenches would be of any practical value. I would, however, draw attention to the natural sources of water supply. Fire engineers (I mean the “trade”) and firemasters of larger towns fire brigades are rather apt to overlook such sources. I have, in a preceding paragraph, referred to the use of natural sources on this occasion. It may be that in dry weather they would not be the quantity of water there was available, but these natural sources ought to have careful attention, especially they under mentioned:

1. The ditch opposite No. 2 Discharge House
2. The ditch at the corner of the Guard Room
3. The ditch running alongside the road parallel to the T.N.T. Magazines
4. The pond at White Lund or Lunn Farm
5. The ditches (tidal) near the Bonded Stores.

I would suggest sumps at Nos. 1 and 2, and several in No. 3 No. 4 requires special consideration. The possibilities are considerable. There is a large quantity of water: it is on high ground, and fairly convenient for use at the T.N.T. magazines and westerly Houses and Sheds. No. 5 might be so sluiced or timbered at one or two different points so as to be damned readily and made available for suctions. At this point a road sufficient to carry a seven or eight ton engine would be required. The Manchester engine went up to the axle, and it was only with great efforts that it was extricated.

(19) There would appear to have been an absence of systems for calling up assistance, and I would suggest this be considered and provision made not only for summoning one or more brigades for a small fire, additional for a more serious, and say a dozen for a still more serious, but for the calling up of:-

1. Telephone linesmen with materials etc.
2. Men of the Corporation Water Department, with tools
3. Electrical Engineers
4. Messengers
5. Local Police
6. Ambulances

(20) Provision for command is also desirable. It will be gathered from this report that by an implied general consent in the earlier operations. I took command, but the prevention of friction or irritation required constant and careful consideration.

(21) The telegrams from the Minister of Munitions and the letter from Messrs Vickers Ltd., expressing satisfaction with the service rendered, and thanking all ranks for the same, was received and are regarded with much pride, and as ample reward.

(22) I most respectfully recommend the under mentioned for special commendation and or recognition:-

1. Nurse Cope
2. The Officer in Charge of Vickers’ (Barrow) Brigade
3. The Officer in Charge of Liverpool Fire Brigade
4. The Officer in Charge of Manchester Fire Brigade
5. A fireman of Lancaster Brigade
6. A fireman of Bolton Brigade
7. Quartermaster George Wilson, of the St. John Ambulance Association.

I am Sir,
Your obedient servant.

W J Pringle
Chief Constable
Chief Officer of the Fire Brigade.



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