A Tragic Accident

During the First World War, vast amounts of munitions were manufactured as part of the war effort. When the war ended, there was a large amount of unused ammunition to be disposed of, some of which was recycled for scrap metal. From the end of 1918 to 1920 there was a spell of prosperity, followed by a deep recession, and much unemployment, which lasted for a number of years.

Some firms cheaply purchased ex-military ammunition for recycling, as a way to earn money at this difficult time. Breaking-up live ammunition to recover lead and copper, is, and was a dangerous business. An appropriate explosives license had to be obtained, high levels of staff training were required, suitable workshop facilities and protective clothing were essential, and health and safety rules had to be followed.

It is listed in a Government report that Major Philip Sydney Babty bought 45 to 47 million rounds of miniature live ammunition from the Disposal Board and sold it to Premium Aluminium Casting Company Limited of Birmingham. The company always obeyed the health and safety rules, had proper facilities, and paid between £3 and £4 a week to the young girls who carried out the dangerous work.

In 1922, the company sold 160 tons of live 0.22 cartridges to the Dudley Port Phosphor Bronze Company, who had a foundry in Groveland Road, Dudley Port. The business was owned by Louisa Kate Knowles and run by her husband John Walter Knowles, who asked Harry Andrews, one of Premium Aluminium’s Directors if he could get some ammunition for him, in order to recover the lead and copper. He agreed to pay £500 for the ammunition, plus half the profits from the sale of the scrap metal.

The location of the Dudley Port Phosphor Bronze Company.

It seems that another of Premium Aluminium’s Directors, Mr. R. V. Dawkins carefully advised Knowles, before delivery, about the health and safety issues and informed him that he needed the appropriate explosives licence. Knowles assured him that he had one and ignored all of his advice. The workshop in Groveland Road was totally unsuitable for the work in hand. All that mattered was short-term profit.

Mr. and Mrs. Knowles ran a small foundry on the Groveland Road site. They decided to use an old pattern shop for recycling the cartridges, which was 30 feet long by 27 feet wide, with a concrete floor, and an old stove in the middle that had been used for heating iron bars. There were no extractor fans or proper ventilation. In order to maximise their profit, they employed young girls between the ages of 13 and 16, on very low wages, with no safety training, and no protective clothing. They were paid between 2 shillings and 4 pence and 3 shillings and 4 pence per week. 30 girls were involved in the project, but the actual number at work on any day varied.

Ebor Chadwick, the foundry foreman, was instructed to oversee the operation, even though he had no experience with explosives and no safety training. He realised that it was dangerous to use the stove in the workshop because of the danger of an explosion from the gunpowder dust that covered the concrete floor and many flat areas, but his worries were ignored by Knowles, who told him 'not to be silly'. Chadwick usually left the girls to their own devices. He hardly ever entered the workshop.

Monday the 6th March, 1922, began like any other day in the workshop. It was a cold morning and so a good fire was burning in the stove and the girls happily worked, sitting on the ammunition boxes while separating the lead and the copper in the 0.22 caliber cartridges and tipping the gunpowder into open boxes, that would be emptied into the canal at the end of the day. At about a quarter to twelve, something terrible happened. A spark, either from the stove, or possibly from one of the girls’ hobnail boots on the concrete floor, caused a massive explosion that blew the roof off the building. The explosion sounded like a clap of thunder, as a thick cloud of black smoke rose above the badly damaged building and the pungent smell of gunpowder filled the air.

After a short silence, the screams and cries of the injured girls could be heard, as people rushed to the factory to help. They came across a terrible scene of death, injury and destruction. The survivors were left with horrible burns and injuries. Some were naked because their clothes had been blown away. They were carefully covered with bags and sacks and conveyed to nearby Dudley Guest Hospital for treatment. Within twelve hours of the explosion, twelve of the girls were dead.

The memorial to the girls in Tipton Cemetery.

The hospital staff did all that they could to save the others, but in spite of their efforts another four died within hours, and three others died in the following weeks. Four of the badly burned girls survived against all the odds, thanks to the new treatment of skin grafting, but their terrible injuries would greatly affect the rest of their lives.

There was a huge public outcry over the way the girls had been terribly exploited and treated by Mr. and Mrs. Knowles. One man even walked to Dudley from Sheffield, to offer some of his skin to save one of the girls. Questions were asked in Parliament and Mr. and Mrs. Knowles and Ebor Chadwick were charged with ‘feloniously killing and slaying Mabel Weaver’. Mrs Knowles, as owner of the factory, was also charged with storing explosives without a licence.

The trial was soon held at Stafford Assizes. Wealthy John Knowles, engaged the services of one of the best lawyers, Sir Henry Curtis Bennett, and they all pleaded not guilty.

The inscriptions on the four sides of the memorial.

The Judge, when summing up, stated that it was the worst case of manslaughter, he had ever come across. He found it difficult to believe that Knowles, a man with intelligence, could claim he knew nothing whatever about the explosive act, after being given advice, and some guidance from the Premium Aluminium Casting Company Limited. Like many others he said, Knowles had chosen, in the pursuit of avaricious greed, to exploit, and put in extreme danger, very young girls, desperate for work.

The court also found that it was the duty of Mr. H. Andrews and Mr. R. V. Dawkins, directors of Premium Aluminium Castings to see that the ammunition was broken down under proper precautions, and that their negligence was a contributing cause of the explosion.

The jury decided that Louisa Kate Knowles and Ebor Chadwick were not guilty, and so they were acquitted. John Walter Knowles, aged 55, was sentenced to five years Penal Servitude. Knowles lodged an appeal against the sentence, but this was refused. Many people at the time thought that his sentence was far too short and that he had got off lightly.

Louisa Knowles, as the factory owner, was ordered to pay compensation of £10,000 to the families of the dead and injured. Only £5,650 of this was recorded as being received. Both her and her husband were wealthy and lived in a grand house. When John Knowles died in 1951 he left over £50,000 in his will and when his wife died in 1955 she left an estate valued at £93,000. After the trial, Louisa Knowles sold the Groveland Road factory, to Thomas Dudley.

The exact number of survivors of the accident is uncertain. It is often stated that there were four, but some records state that there were six. Compensation was paid as follows: Mrs Bryant, who was seriously, injured received £1,230. Three of the others, who were seriously injured, each received £900. Another girl, badly injured, received £200 and an injured child received £105. The dependents of the 19 dead girls each received £75. As already stated, the remainder of the compensation was never paid.

From a contemporary newspaper cutting from an unknown newspaper:

At Stafford Assizes, John Walter Knowles, 55, manufacturer, was found guilty of the manslaughter of Mabel Weaver, one of the victims of the Tipton workshop on March 6. Mr. Justice Shearman sentenced him to five years penal servitude. Eber James Richard Chadwick, 31, works manager to Knowles, was found not guilty and was discharged.

The girls were engaged in breaking down miniature rifle ammunition when the explosion occurred. After the verdict, Mr. Justice Shearman was informed that nineteen had died from their injuries, and three were still in hospital. The police proved a previous conviction against Knowles of eighteen months imprisonment for receiving stolen metal, and several convictions for contraventions of the Factory Act.

Mr. Graham Milward, who defended Knowles, said that ammunition worth £2,800 had been seized by the authorities, and there were twenty three actions pending as a result of the explosion.

In passing sentence Mr. Justice Shearman this was one of the worst cases of manslaughter he had ever had to deal with. He was not taking into consideration any previous offences at all. Knowles saw an opportunity, as so many people did now, to make a big profit on a transaction. There was gross exploitation of the labour of little girls and boys – the sweepers were the little boys – in order to get more profit out of it. If he were to treat the case lightly he should be wanting in his duty.

A public appeal raised £4,766. Three of the girls, all disfigured and disabled, were trained at college as commercial clerks. They each received 12 shillings per week, and a £6 dress allowance. The invested funds provided the disabled girls, 5 in total, with a lifetime income of 17 shillings a week, or a lump sum of £133 on reaching the age of 21. The bereaved parents also received funds from the Dudley Port Explosion Fund, which raised over £10,000.

Councillor and hinge manufacturer, William Wooley Doughty, J.P., Chairman of Tipton Urban District Council, set up a relief fund on behalf of the town to pay for funerals etc.

The 19 girls who sadly lost their lives, were as follows:

Elizabeth Aston age 14    Died later, no address given.
Gladys May Bryant age 14   15 West Street, Dudley Port.
Margaret (Maggie) Burns age 15   Sheepwash Lane, West Bromwich.
Laura Dalloway age 15   36 Upper Church Street, Tividale.
Edith Drew age 15   No1 House, 1 Court, Boat Row, Tipton.
Annie Eliza Florence Edwards age 15   77 "A" Block, Munitions Huts, Dudley.
Lucy Edwards age 14   Died some weeks later. 3 Sheepwash Street, Tipton.
Elsie Follows age 15   196 Dudley Port.
Violet May Franklin age 15   17 Cleton Street, Tipton.
Annie Freeth age 15   42 Farley Street, Great Bridge.
Lily Griffiths age 15   Railway Street, Horseley Heath.
Hannah Hubbard age 16   No.1 House, 5 Court, Dudley Port.
Ethel May Jukes age 15   Died some time later, no address given.
Nellie Kay age 15   Dudley Port, Tipton.
Priscilla Longmore age 13   337 Dudley Port.
Annie Naylor age 14   162 Dudley Port.
Edith Richards age 14   Factory Road, Tipton.
Mabel Weaver age 14   3 Victoria Terrace, Tipton.
Elizabeth (Lizzie) Williams age 13   Cross Street, Tipton.

The five survivors listed on the memorial were:
Florence Bryant, Florence Masters, Mary Luker, Nellie Warmer and Gladys Williams

A final view of the memorial.

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