“Collapse of Giant Mill Chimney was almost silent”

By Terry Ainsworth & Mike Whalley

Disaster struck Lancaster on Monday February 28th 1966 when the 250ft. factory chimney at White Cross Mill crashed without warning, killing two men who were buried under thousands of tons of bricks and rubble, injuring twelve others and wrecking two buildings.  Within seconds hundreds of factory workers had rushed to help colleagues trapped or struck by masses of masonry and twisted metal.  They were quickly joined by police, firemen, ambulance men and other rescue workers.  The Royal Lancaster Infirmary was alerted and doctors and nurses dashed across South Road with medical supplies.  They crawled among the debris, giving pain-killing injections to those who had been trapped and giving first aid as they were being rescued.

Workers from every department who could not join the rescuers stood watching in stunned silence.  The collapse occurred just before 2pm at the change-over of shifts and for a time there was confusion as to who was missing.  Traffic was stopped to make way for ambulances and helpers who dashed to the infirmary for stretchers and there was a state of emergency in the casualty department.  After the roll-call and other checks it was found that the two men who died were William Brown, aged 39 of Church Street, Lancaster and Albert Dirkin, aged 52 of Loweswater Drive, Morecambe, were missing.  Eleven people trapped or injured were rescued within a short space of time by workers tearing at the rubble with their bare hands and others used shovels, pick-axes, iron bars and any other tool which became available.  The search continued throughout the night with the aid of floodlights and arc lamps for William Brown whose body was not found until 10.30am the following day.

Rescue efforts were stepped up and Civil Defence squads from Trimpell, Nairn-Williamson Ltd, Royal Albert Hospital, the Post Office Savings Department and Lancaster Corporation arrived to give expert aid.  In an effort to quicken the clearing of debris, mechanical earth-shifters belonging to F W Nelson & Sons, building contractors who had been working on a nearby site were brought into action.  Keith Miller, a joiner employed by Freddie Nelson had been working in offices less than 30 yards from the chimney fitting sound proofing and he heard nothing.  When he was alerted to the fact that the chimney had collapsed he went to the office door and saw what he thought was a huge fire when in fact it was huge clouds of dust and steam.

An aerial view of White Cross showing the size & position of the chimney

It was difficult to trace how many were buried deep in the 50ft. high mound of rubble and so that a check could be made a police car toured the factory with an appeal through a loudspeaker for all workers to return to their own departments for a roll-call.

Checks were made by car and telephone as to whether others had gone home and steps were taken to contact as many families as possible to give them news where it was established workers were safe.  The factory was inundated with telephone calls from anxious relatives and as more fire engines, ambulances and rescue vehicles rushed to the scene crowds gathered at the main gate awaiting news and watching the injured being taken to hospital.

There were dramatic moments when calls were made for silence and all digging stopped while men working on the pile listened for any sound from possible survivors under the rubble.  At any one time more than 100 men were digging into the mountain of rubble.  Although rescuers saw the body of one of the victims, Albert Dirkin, at a fairly early stage it took some hours before it could be recovered because of its position.  Rescuers had to work in the confined space of a passageway.

A bird’s eye view of the clearance area

Jim Heys who was working on a roof near the factory said, “It was a fantastic sight.  I saw the chimney shudder and shake slightly and then just crumble straight down into itself”.

One of the injured who had a remarkable escape from death was 19-year-old Roger Wilson of Claughton Drive, Lancaster.  He was in the yard when the chimney fell and hurled against a wall.  He was trapped under piles of masonry but luckily a huge drum wedged above him and prevented him from being completely crushed.  Roger was pulled out suffering from a broken collar bone and broken ribs.

Many others had remarkable escapes which they described after being dragged from the mountain of rubble and debris which was all that was left of what had been Lancaster’s tallest chimney.

One of them was Albert Seward of Chestnut Grove, Lancaster.  Forty four years old Albert said he was in the yard with a workmate when his mate cried out that the stack was falling.  “There was a noise like a terrific gale or an express train close by and suddenly there was nothing but dust and thick black smoke”, Albert said.  “I could hardly see and although I tried to get out of the way I was struck by falling masonry.  For a time I was trapped by the legs but managed to struggle free.

Another employee, Bob Woof, of Morecambe said, “I had just walked past the chimney when I heard a rumbling and looking back I saw a huge mountain of debris.  Dust was rising and the area was covered with smoke.  A few seconds later and I would have been trapped.

One of those taken to hospital for treatment was Leonard Fox, aged 27, of Keswick Road, Lancaster who said after his ordeal, “I was working in an office near the bottom of the chimney.  I heard a rumble and bricks started falling through the ceiling.  I dived under the desk and the whole office roof collapsed on me.  I was trapped by my legs and I heard somebody shouting, are you alright.  I shouted back and they started lifting the stones off me.

Samuel Tweedale, aged 64, was one of a number of people working in the panel cutting department.  “Suddenly it was as if there was an earthquake,” he said.  “I saw two men go down under the rubble.  One girl was trapped and I could not help at first because there was so much weight on her.

Victor Davies, of Gregson Road, Lancaster, a works study officer said he was crossing the yard and was close to the chimney when he heard someone shout, “The stack’s falling”.  “Amazingly”, he said, “There was not a terrific noise.  There was a rumbling sound and then the whole place was covered with dust and steam as the chimney collapsed in a huge heap”.  “The chimney crashed through buildings, severing steam pipes and the hiss of escaping steam added to the horror of the scene”, he said.  “Paddy Humpage joined me and we ran to climb up the mound of debris in an attempt to reach the buildings.  We saw a woman trapped between a machine and a wall.  She seemed to be trapped by the legs and we lifted slabs of masonry to get her free.  The people who were trapped were amazingly calm.  Those trapped shouted to attract attention but otherwise showed great courage”.

There were many dramatic stories to be told by survivors and rescuers caught up in the terrifying chimney collapse. Some had to be pulled from underneath mountains of bricks, others escaped death by inches. There were real acts of heroism as people put their own lives on the line to save fellow workers.

Within seconds of the chimney crashing to the ground, shirt-sleeved workers were tearing at the rubble with their bare hands, frantically striving to reach their trapped friends and it was not long before the victims were being released.

The scene resembled a wartime blitz with a mountainous pile of 350,000 bricks and twisted girders. Streams of police cars, ambulances and fire engines poured through the factory gates as a massive rescue operation got under way.

Within hours of the disaster workmen were on the spot carrying out repairs to damaged buildings and the task of removing all the rubble and debris was virtually completed by the weekend. So fast was the clearance work that by Friday many of the departments affected by the collapse were back in production.

By the weekend an emergency chimney had been erected and the firm would soon take delivery of a 150-ft sectional steel chimney. A new boiler was also to be installed.

The company stated there would be no redundancies. Production employees were being retained on clearing operations pending the resumption of normal working.

Of five injured work people who were detained at the Royal Lancaster Infirmary two had been discharged - Mrs Ann Hargreaves (21), Larch Grove, Lancaster, and David Rushworth (16), Morley Road, Lancaster. The others still in the infirmary were Miss Mary Mounsey (19), Butler Street, Lancaster, Roger Wilson (19), Claughton Drive, Lancaster, and John Cannon (44), Springfield Street, Lancaster.

Survivors' stories.....

Miss Maureen Larry, Lindow Square, Lancaster, was working in the panel cutting department when bricks and rubble rained down on her department, knocking her backwards, landing between a machine and a wall.

"I didn't hear anything at all," said Miss Larry. "I was inspecting some panels, seated at a table, when I landed by the machine. I could hear all the debris falling on top of me and I knew I was trapped. I think I was lucky I landed where I did. The machine prevented more boulders coming down on me. I wasn't trapped for very long. First some workers came and then the firemen. I was nearly out by the time they came to drag me out. It wasn't until I got out that I discovered what had happened." Miss Larry was treated for bruised legs.

Foreman panel cutter Joseph Brown, of Newlands Avenue, Lancaster, described what happened in his shop. "I heard what sounded like a train coming. A rush of bricks came down and I was buried. A big brick hit me on the shoulder and another on my legs. Fortunately my head and part of my shoulder were free. I managed to get the rest of me free and was only trapped for a few minutes."

Panel cutter Harold Beckett (45), of Acorn Close, Lancaster, who suffered from shock, explained: "We were working and all of a sudden the ceiling started caving in. I was trapped under rubble and stones for half-an-hour. I couldn't free my legs and there was a boulder across my chest. Firemen used a jack to move the bricks from my legs."

Matthew Smith, (58), a cleaner of Heaton Road, Lancaster, and who was treated for bruising after rescue work, was another who escaped death. "I was walking towards the cutting room when I saw the chimney move. I had a feeling it was going to go. I turned round and walked the other way."

A workman who missed death by seconds was Tom Gallagher, of Lyth Fell Avenue, Halton. He had walked a few yards past the chimney when it fell. He was treated for burns to his wrist and fingers, resulting from his efforts to get people free with his bare hands.

Vale of Lune rugby player John Gill, a factory manager, played a pivotal role in the huge rescue operation.  Wearing a distinctive white helmet, often to be seen standing on a huge pile of rubble, he, along with some of his staff, toiled for more than three hours heaving bricks and metal from the pile.

The Visitor despatched three reporters to the scene - Peter Lovett-Horn, Anne Clement and Mike Whalley.  Whalley remembers clearly receiving a telephone call from Lovett-Horn to say he was following up a tip that a chimney had come down at Storeys. Ten minutes later he was back on the blower, shouting: "It's THE chimney!!"

The aforementioned John Gill complete with helmet and drill

The chimney, a giant structure thought to be the tallest factory chimney in Lancashire was built for Storey Brothers at the White Cross Mills in 1876 and increased in height in 1877 and again in 1878.  The 250ft. brick-built stack stood in a 20ft. base and the 750,000 bricks and mortar used in construction weighed 3,300 tons.  Octagonal in shape the chimney was a prominent city landmark, rearing above most other buildings.  Many local people had for years used it to ascertain the direction of the wind and it was often floodlit at nights.

New 150ft chimney erected in 36 hours

A new 150ft steel chimney weighing 20 tons was erected in 36 hours at White Cross Mills over the weekend following the collapse of the stone chimney on Monday.  Having travelled overnight from Liverpool the first of the four sections arrived in Lancaster on Saturday morning.  The first section, 3ft tall with a base diameter of 10 ft. and weighing 10 tons was lowered into position by a large mobile crane onto a 250 ton concrete base and secured by twenty 2inch bolts.

The entire chimney would be further secured by the use of steel guy ropes.  The inside was lined with a two inch layer of reinforced sand and cement which would prevent corrosion of the steelwork and provide insulation.

The new steel chimney

This is taken from The Visitor report of the inquest by lifelong journalist and former editor of the Morecambe Visitor, Mike Whalley.

An explosion caused by vapour igniting at the base, was responsible for the collapse of the 250-ft high chimney at White Cross Mills, it was revealed at the inquest on the two victims.

A jury of nine men returned verdicts of "misadventure" on 52-year-old Albert Dirkin, of Loweswater Drive, Morecambe, and William Harrison Brown (39), of Church Street, Lancaster.

Twelve people gave evidence during the hearing which lasted almost three-and-a-half hours.

The Coroner, Mr J.H. Jellyman, who sat with Factory Inspector Mr S. Hall, heard the firm's managing director Dr David A. Harper, agree with Mr J.W.N. Petty, who represented the firm that the explosion was caused by a combination of five factors.

First, there was the presence of solid deposits in the ducting which ran from a coating machine to the chimney, in spite of drainage facilities which were considered adequate in the light of past experience.

Secondly, solvent vapours which were passing along the duct, though not explosive did have the effect of lowering the melting point of the solid deposits.

Thirdly, the boiler-house that day was abnormally hot and therefore increased the temperature in the ducting.

Fourthly, in view of the fact that the incinerator was working hard, there was a flow of hot air along the incinerator flue.

Fifthly, it was known that pieces of charred paper unavoidably escaped from the incinerator into the flue and there would be sufficient to ignite any material which was there.

Dr Harper told the inquest: "I read through the evidence last night and it is astonishing how well it all fits together."  He was asked by Mr Hall: "Would you agree that at the particular time, had the vapour which was being taken off the machine been directed into the atmosphere instead of along the ducting, the incident would not have happened?"  Dr Harper replied: "This is my belief. It was the innocent trigger of a series of events."  Dr Harper also explained that every effort had been made to guard against explosive mixtures being present in the chimney. But the build-up of a solid in the ducting, when there was every reason to expect a liquid, coupled with the unexpected effect of the softening of the deposit by solvent vapours - which of themselves did not present a hazard - was a combination of circumstances which it would have been extremely difficult to foresee.

Assistant chief engineer at White Cross Mills, Denis Taylor, said when the chimney was inspected the previous August defects were found but after they had been put in order, both the company and the steeplejacks were satisfied that the chimney was in good condition.

A doctor and nurse on hand to render medical attention

This disaster was felt all over the district and it seemed as though the entire population wanted to help in some way and the directors of Storeys placed a thank you notice on the front page of the Lancaster Guardian.

This article contains the experiences of people as related to the Lancaster Guardian at the time of the disaster 50 years ago but finally I can record a memory of a tradesman told to me a few weeks ago who was working 20 feet away from the base of the chimney.  Keith Miller was working for F W Nelson & Company as a joiner fitting sound proofing into some offices that were positioned adjacent to the stack.  “I never heard a sound and it was only when someone rushed into the offices and said, the chimney stack has fallen that I went to the door to see for myself.  It was a chaotic scene that greeted me and all I could see was what I thought was a huge fire which of course turned out to be dust from the bricks and steam from the boiler room”.

We are eager to hear from any reader who has memories of that fateful day so please contact the Lancaster Guardian or Morecambe Visitor with your recollections.

Finally my thanks go to Joe Sherrington for providing the photographs, Bill Crayston for his report on the disaster in the Lancaster Guardian 50 years ago and Mike Whalley for his advice and assistance in researching this article.

The images below have been kindly supplied by John Gill who was a production manager at Storeys of Lancaster at the time of the disaster and he can be seen wearing a white hard hat in the photographs, a brave man, who with his colleagues thought of nothing but rescuing their workmates trapped in the debris.

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Design: David Ainsworth