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Elce and Cottam

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Elce & Cottam of Jersey Street, Ancoats, Manchester

This is the same establishment as J. Elce and Co

1841 Explosion of a boiler at the works, which resulted in the death of eight employees. A report [1] gives an interesting insight into the design and working of boilers of that era, and into the variety of opinions confidently expressed by those called in as expert witnesses. It also provides information on the machinery used in the works, all driven by one old high pressure steam engine, of 8" bore and 2 ft stroke. The equipment is described below.

A patternmaker at the works, Steward Sands, described the equipment driven by the engine: Ground floor: two grindstones, seven lathes, a drilling machine, a smith's bellows, and a boring apparatus for headstocks. Second floor: small grindstone, six lathes, a planing machine 4 ft long, a centering machine, and a wheel cutting machine. On the third floor there was a roving or jack frame of 72 spindles, which had started about a fortnight previously, and worked only at intervals. (It is not clear whether this was used for spinning or whether - more likely - it was being developed by the company). The witness considered that the engine, and more importantly the boiler, would have been overworked, necessitating overpressurising the boiler. He said that 'when the engine is not overweighted, it goes so freely that its motion is not heard, but when it is overweighted it goes stiffly, and makes a loud hissing noise'. He had told Mr Elce that the engine was overworked.

One of the deceased was Edward Allen, the foreman.

Witnesses called included John Lee of Manchester, machine maker, who was quick to absolve the company of any blame; George Branson of Manchester, Engineer, who proferred the bizarre explanantion that the water had come into contact with red hot plates, being thereby broken down into hydrogen and oxygen gas; Robert Armstrong of Salford, Engineer; Thomas Banks of Manchester, Engineer, who had fitted a Salter safety valve to the boiler, and noted that Mr Elce was always anxious to prevent accidents; Expert evidence was given jointly by George Watson Buck, William Fairbairn and Richard Roberts

Later Report on 1841 Boiler Explosion

'THE LATE BOILER EXPLOSION IN JERSEY-STREET. ADJOURNED INQUEST. The inquiry into the cause of the fatal accident which occurred in the establishment of Messrs. Elce and Cottam, on Wednesday week, was resumed before Mr. Chapman, the borough coroner, in the Manchester Infirmary, on Monday last, at three o'clock. The following were the principal witnesses examined:-

'John Lee, machine maker, Store-street, Manchester, deposed as follows:-I have had much experience in engines and boilers. I saw the premises immediately after the accident, and since the boiler was found. I have examined it and the ruins in order to ascertain the cause of the accident. I first thought that the boiler had been short of water; and that by pumping cold water on the heated plates it had generated some elastic force within the cylinder, which caused an explosion; but on inquiry I found that the engine had not started that morning. Boilers are more frequently burst at starting than otherwise. If there was too much steam in the boiler, if it was over loaded, the steam suddenly generated, or the valve being fast an explosion would take place. The valve was of sufficient size to carry off the steam. It was my opinion from the very first that the valve was not fast, and for this reason, that the first projectile force was given through the safety valve, which threw the blow pipe across the yard, to the distance of 160 feet, and forced it six inches into the brick embankment; and from an examination of the valve since it was found I have been confirmed in that opinion. I found the valve in good order, but it was bent in consequence of being thrown from the boiler at the time of the explosion. I got the rod straightened, took off the gland, and found inside a greasy substance. The packing was in good order; and from this I concluded that the valve had not been neglected. I think the boiler was sufficiently strong, the plates being thicker than those I have seen in boilers of a similar nature. My opinion is, that the stay-rod was not sufficient to counteract the sudden expansion of the steam; but it is such as is generally made, and in use at the present time. It would have been better had there been more stay-rods. The link to which the stay rod was attached at the back end was bent the wrong way: had it been bent the right way the explosion would not have taken place. The shell of the boiler I conceive to be as good now as when it first came out of the maker's hands. I am of opinion that the plates had never been red hot. It was not possible for an explosion to have taken place in case of the plates becoming red hot, unless cold water had been poured upon them, which could not have been the case in this instance, because the pump had not been worked that morning, the engine not having started. I cannot speak with certainty whether, in case there was not sufficient water in the boiler, and the plates had become hot, the effect upon the water would be such as to create an explosion before the safety valve could be got up.

'George Bransome engineer, of Manchester, deposed, that on the 8th instant he went through every part of the premises of Messrs. Elce and Cottam, and observed the whole of the machinery particularly He had seen the boiler frequently, and considered it a good and sufficient one. He saw it since it was taken out of the canal, and still held the same opinion. It had not gone one-eighth of an inch out of circle; and the body of it was as perfect, in respect to shape, as when it came out of the maker's hands. He examined the premises since the accident, and was of opinion that the explosion proceeded from the hydrogen and oxygen gases coming into contact with the red-hot plates of the boiler, and not from any pressure of steam. If the water was boiled down lower than the place where the fire acted upon the boiler, the plates of the boiler would then become red. hot. and would change the water into hydrogen and oxygen. The hydrogen would remain floating about; the iron, which had a strong affinity for oxygen, would take up a portion of it, while the remainder, with the hydrogen, coining into contact with a spark, would explode. He came to the conclusion that the explosion had been caused in this way, not from any experiments which he had made himself, but from having seen in the Mechanics' Institution a vessel containing these gases, and hermetically sealed, exploded, by passing an electric spark through it by means of a wire. There was no difference between the caloric in an electric spark, and that in the common fire. He had seen explosions take place from low pressure boilers, where parties had professed to work with only 4 lb on the square inch. He did not know how much pressure was on this boiler; but he was confident it would carry 150lb. to the square inch. He was convinced that the stay-rod was quite sufficient for the boiler.

'Mr. Armstrong, engineer, Chapel-street, Salford, said he considered the accident had arisen from the water getting too low, and the steam generating too rapidly from the plates becoming heated. This being considered satisfactory by the jury, no further witnesses were called. Coroner then summed up the evidence; and the jury, after about ten minutes' deliberation, returned a verdict of "Accidental death by the bursting of a boiler; but they could not come to any positive conclusion as to its cause, nor did they attribute blame to any one." '[2]


See Also

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Sources of Information

  1. [1] 'The Civil Engineer and Architect’s Journal', Feb 1842 pp.51 & 52
  2. Manchester Times, 23rd October 1841