Stoker buried alive in coal bunker

Historian Keith Johnson looks back at a factory accident that claimed the life of a stoker.

By The Newsroom
Thursday, 15th June 2017, 10:33 am
Updated Monday, 19th June 2017, 12:46 pm
Courtaulds Plant at Red Scar where tragedy struck
Courtaulds Plant at Red Scar where tragedy struck

By April 1940 the Courtaulds factory at Red Scar, that had begun production of rayon yarn in early January 1939, was heavily involved with supplying products for the Ministry of Defence following the outbreak of the Second World War.

Amongst the employees were brothers Frederick and Joseph Lawrence, employed as a stoker and fitter’s mate respectively. At the time the brothers occupied a house in Villiers Street, Preston, and due to the requirements of the shift system one brother was often working and the other sleeping.

Such an occasion was the second Wednesday of April 1940 when Frederick went off to do a night shift and his brother went to bed. The following morning when Joseph turned up for work he was called into the office of works manager Mr Kenyon to be told the sad news that Frederick had met with an accident and died.

The tragedy had begun to unfold shortly before midnight as Frederick and another man called Chisnall, who worked together in the boiler house, had been alerted to a problem with the large hopper, from which coal was fed down a circular tube into the automatic furnace feeding plant. The coal in the 25ft square hopper, about 300 tons, had become stuck in some way. For working in the hopper safety belts were provided and both Lawrence and his colleague were wearing them as they clambered into the hopper with a safety line attached.

As they attempted to free the coal up with their shovels it suddenly moved under their feet. Lawrence at once disappeared under the coal, but Chisnall, who was working at the side of the hopper, managed to clamber to safety. After securing the safety line as best he could, he immediately went for assistance. Work people from various departments were mobilised, but rescue proved a hazardous undertaking.

With Lawrence buried under many tons of coal the rescue attempt was problematic and as time ticked by all hope of saving him declined. Great efforts were made fixing up shoring timbers and extracting the coal but eventually, after six hours of frantic efforts, the lifeless body was extricated.

A few days later an inquest was held in Preston before deputy coroner Mr. AL Ashton into the death of the 33-year-old bachelor. Mr. Clarke, the boiler house superintendent, told the court that the tragedy would not have happened if the regulations regarding the safety belts had been properly observed. According to him, if the safety belt instructions had been carried out properly Lawrence would have been suspended in the air when the coal on which he was standing moved away.

Chisnall, an electrical maintenance worker, had to once more relate the harrowing account telling the court: “Lawrence had tried for about 15 minutes to free the coal, and then, as he was turning to come out of the bunker, there was a dull thud, and the whole of the coal started moving. The coal started pouring in on him. It buried him completely.”

It was revealed that since the war had started, stoppages in the bunker had occurred because the firm had to take whatever coal the colliery could send them and it was often below the best grades.

The deputy coroner stated that it was not clear to him if the regulations had been carried out as they should have been. The jury then returned a verdict of misadventure and the inquest was concluded with expressions of sympathy from the firm at the loss of Lawrence who was described as an energetic and conscientious workman. A funeral service was held at the nearby Emmanuel Church and it was a grief filled occasion.

After the war, Courtaulds in Preston continued to expand and for more than 40 years was a centre for rayon production, employing over 2,000 workers prior to its closure in 1980.