TWO MEN SUFFOCATED IN THE BLISWORTH CANAL TUNNEL
Since November last many of the boats on the Grand Junction Canal have been propelled by steam instead of being drawn by horses, and, with proper adaptations of the tunnels, &c., there is no doubt that the difficulties hitherto experienced in navigating canals with steamboats are in a fair way of being overcome. There are several Tunnels on the canal, one of them being at Agar (sic) Town, and another, in which the melancholy accident took place, being about half-a-mile from Blisworth Station, whence it runs to Stoke Bruerne. These canal tunnels are made of brick and are little, if any, larger than a sewer, and are so constructed that horse power is of no use. Previous to the introduction of steam, the boats being propelled by a process called “legging”. The process is this: a board is placed out on either side of the boat, and on each board lies a man, who places his feet against the wall of the tunnel, and then pushes the boat along. This system still prevails on boats to which the steam engine has not yet been applied, and as the labour of thus “legging” the boat along is both arduous and disagreeable, the steam engine is welcomed as a very agreeable substitute. The engine, however, is not without its disadvantages, for, as the tunnels are long, and, as we have said, no larger than sewers, the boatmen are half stifled by the volumes of carbon that are emitted from the low funnel; coal being burnt instead of coke. The Blisworth tunnel is about a mile and three quarters in length and has but one shaft in it, and on the evening of Friday last, the Bee steamboat entered it on the Blisworth side a little after six o’clock, and when it emerged again two of the men on board of it were quite dead, and all the others were lying in various parts, having been rendered insensible by the fumes from the engine.
The barge was on its way from Birmingham to London, and was under the care of two engine drivers, Joseph Jones and William Gower, the former being the chief engineer in charge of the boat. In addition to the engine drivers was William Webb, a carpenter, of Stoke Bruerne; Edward Broadbent the steersman and a boatman named Chambers. The two drivers, it appears, were in the habit of attending to the engine turn and turn about, and from Bugbrooke to Blisworth the boat had been under the care of Gower, the second engineer. Between these two places the engine did not act rightly, and on arriving at Blisworth station it was short of steam. The fire was cleaned out and afterwards relighted, and a good fire got up. Before they got to the tunnel, however, they were obliged to stop, for want of steam, but when they entered the tunnel, according to the statements of both the drivers, they had a good fire and plenty of steam. After having entered the tunnel some time they stopped at a place where some repairs were going on, and took up a carpenter named William Webb, who was working there. In the tunnel they were met by several boats that were being legged through in the old manner, by men who get their living by that occupation. They were also met by another steam boat. The time generally occupied in passing through the tunnel is about 40 minutes, and on the present occasion the wind was blowing in the same direction the boat was going. The consequence of this was that the smoke from the engine, instead of being blown from the boat was blown back upon them, and the people in it were all the time in the midst of a dense smoke. After having been in the tunnel some time, the men began to feel sick and faint, and almost without warning, the carpenter, Webb fell down in the hold and died, and the steersman Broadbent was rendered insensible and fell into the water, whence his body was not extracted until midnight. The drivers Jones and Gower were also similarly affected, but happily not to so great an extent, and although they were rendered quite insensible, and fell upon the boiler, and were most severely burnt and injured, they escaped with their lives. Another boatman, a young man named Chambers was also overpowered from the same cause, and just as the boat was emerging from the tunnel at Stoke Bruerne, he, too, fell overboard, but the cold water revived him, and he was able to swim and lay hold of the tiller, and raise himself into the boat again. On emerging from the tunnel, the boat was observed to be running without anyone to control it, amongst the rushes and the mud, and it was immediately boarded, when the melancholy state of things we have described was realised to the spectators. Medical assistance was immediately sent for, and Mr. Watkins, of Towcester, Mr Knott and Mr Knott, jun., of Blisworth, at once attended, and did all they could to alleviate the sufferings of the survivors. Webb however was quite dead, and the body of Broadbent had not then been found.
On Monday last an inquest was held on the bodies of the two men, before P. E. Hicks, Esq., coroner, and a respectable jury of whom Mr Savage was the foreman.
Mr. Anderson, the chairman of the Grand Junction Canal Company, Mr. Rogers, the secretary, Mr. Fulton, the traffic manager and Mr. Lake the engineer attended on behalf of the company, who were also professionally represented by Mr. A. B. Markham.
The bodies having been viewed by the jury at the inn, the inquest was adjourned to the village schoolroom, when the following evidence was taken:-
Joseph Wickens, legger at Blisworth tunnel, identified the bodies of the deceased, and said: I was legging a boat from Stoke to Blisworth through the tunnel, between five and six o’clock on Friday afternoon, when we met a steamer, but could not see anything for the smoke. The steamer got on one side of the boat I was on and the boat that was tied to it on the other, and the rope got entangled with our boat. I could not see anyone for the smoke, but I halloed as loud as I could, and someone on the haul boat let go the rope and it slipped off up our mast. If that had not been the case the steamer would have taken us back with it. The smoke was so thick and affected us so much that we were obliged to sit down, and did not recover ourselves until the wind blew through the tunnel. – By the foreman: The wind blew from Blisworth, the same way the boat was coming. Before the steamboats ran I have a good many times felt the effects of smoke from the chimnies (sic), but never to such an extent as this. – By the Coroner: There is one shaft 17½ numbers from this end. – By the Foreman: I knew there was another steamboat coming after us when we entered the tunnel, and it came up to us after we had met the one in which the deceased were. The additional smoke caused by the steamer that followed us would affect them to some extent. The wind blew it upon them and would keep it on them. There is more smoke in the tunnel from the steamers than from the chimnies of the other boats. The steamboat that followed us would be about 200 yards behind us when we met the steamboat coming opposite us. – By Mr Howes: We were entangled about ten minutes with the rope. – By Mr Markham: I get my living by legging, and if steam applied to all boats my business would cease. I cannot tell if there was a light on the boats. We could not see. We could see the first boat but could not see the second. The wind blew after the smoke. There might or might not have been a light. The men in the last boat unloosed a rope, and it slipped off our mast. There were three men on the towed boat, and one of them had the strength to loose the rope. They said so after we got out of the tunnel. I never heard any one speak on the other boat. It took me all my time to look after myself and my wings, for I expected to be cut in two. I can’t tell which boat had got the most smoke round it. We met them about 11 or 13. They were going as near the regular pace as could be. There was nothing wrong as far as I know. The shaft is as it has always been. I can’t tell whether it is open or not. You can just see daylight as you go under. If there is a side wind the smoke would probably remain in the tunnel all day, but, as the wind then was, the tunnel would perhaps be free from smoke in two hours. The shaft is not quite open at the top. There are boards nailed over it just like a little hut.
William Gower said: I am second driver of a steamboat belonging to the Grand Junction Canal Company. On Friday afternoon I was at work driving the boat of which I had the care at that time. I was driving from Long Buckby to Stoke where my turn would have ended. The engine did not work properly before we got to Stoke. She was right when I got in, and worked right enough up to Blisworth Station, when it got short of steam. When I found it going bad I cleaned the fire out. She was not cleaned at Birmingham: she was cleaned at London. I cleared her out, pulled the clinkers out , and got a nice fire up. We were going gently on with the steam we had. Before we got to the tunnel we were obliged to stop for steam. We had not sufficient steam to take us through the tunnel without firing up in the tunnel. That means without putting fresh coal on. I never saw any particular instructions about firing up in the tunnel. Jones, my mate, came out as we got to the tunnel, and took charge of the driving, and said we would stop a little. After we got by the stank I saw a man on the side of the boat, and he said come and attend to the engine, for I feel a little sick. I went to the coal to put a little bit on and remember nothing more. I did not put any coal on in the tunnel. I think it was about 19 where I fell. I have been through the tunnel ten times , up and down. I once before experienced a similar sensation. That was about three weeks ago. I felt sick, but was not insensible. - By Mr Markham: Coal is used, but I don’t know what it is. I have experienced the same kind of sensation in the railway tunnels. I don’t know the cause of my sickness. I fell down at once. – By the Foreman: The deceased Webb got up on the boat, where repairs were going on. I had no conversation with him. – By Mr Howes: The times when I felt the sickness before I was not aware there was any other steamer in the tunnel. The flues of the boats were not cleaned out at Birmingham. It is not usual to have them cleaned there. They are usually cleaned in London. I don’t know how Webb came to get on the boat. – By the Foreman: I suppose it was the sulphur from the coal caused that.
Joseph Jones said: I am an engine driver in the service of the Grand Junction Canal Company, and took the care of the boat just before we went into the tunnel. I had the principal care of her from the commencement of the journey to the end of it. I was the chief engineer of her. I went from London to Birmingham with the boat, and was bringing her back. I took the boat from London a week last Saturday (Aug 31), and arrived at Birmingham on Wednesday evening. Before we started from London I examined the engine, and examined it at Birmingham as well. She was examined in London also. She was in working order both in London and Birmingham. From Long Buckby to Blisworth she got clinkered and short of steam. Gower had charge of her from Long Buckby, and I took it again at the tunnel. We had plenty of steam all through the tunnel, and he stopped us against the stanks to tell us to go steady. That was where they were repairing. The steam was shut off to go slower, and Webb got on there, and gave me instructions how to go on. He told me to shut off steam, and then he told me when to put it on again gently. I did as he told me. After we passed the stank we went on as usual, till we met two boats being legged, and then we met a steam-boat. Before we met the steam-boat (the Wasp) I felt very giddy. She passed me before I fell down. I have seen as much smoke in the tunnel as there was then, perhaps more. Broadbent was steering. The name of our boat was the Bee. I felt giddy and called my mate. I was in the engine-room, and went to the fore part of the boat. - By the Chairman: I did not smell anything unusual from the coal. I never felt inconvenience before when there was more smoke, but it had a greater effect upon us. The wind kept the smoke of our boat and the other hovering over us. – By Mr Markham: I have been eight weeks engineer on the canal, but have been nine years in the service of the North-Western Company. I have experienced similar sensations to a smaller degree in the railway tunnel, but you are quicker through them. Webb fell down in the boat, and said, there is a man in the firehold. I went in, but could not find him, and when I was coming out I fell down. – By Mr Howes: We had a boat in tow, but it would not make much difference in the speed. – By the Foreman: We can get through the tunnel in 40 minutes. We can get through without putting coal on. - By Mr Markham: There was a good fire in the engine when we went into the tunnel. There was the smoke from the other boats in the tunnel besides our’s (sic). I put the coal on before we entered the tunnel, at Worster’s wharf. I put one shovel full of coal on in the tunnel, at the time Webb got on. We had two lights on the boat, and anyone could have seen them. I could see the boats as we passed them , and saw the men in them. It was not so thick of smoke that we could not see them.
John Chambers said: I am a boatman and live at Warwick. I was along with the Bee steamer last Friday and I was employed in steering the engine boat. That was the same boat Broadbent was on board and he steered her through the tunnel. I did not see him steering. I was asleep in the hold until Webb tumbled upon me in the cabin and wakened me. He said there was one of the engine-drivers down and couldn’t get up, and Jones ran out to pick him up, and he was taken the same. The carpenter (Webb) began to cry and kick about and I asked him what was the matter with him, and he did not speak. I then came out of the hold, and came abreast of the engine against the boiler, and stood there for two or three minutes, when it took me and I fell in the water. It was like my senses all went away. The water brought me to myself again, and I swam and caught hold behind and shouted for Broadbent to come and pull me in. I thought he was behind. I got in the boat just as it was coming out of the tunnel, and went and turned the steam off. I then went into the cabin, and went off to sleep until they came and dragged me out. I neither saw Webb nor Broadbent. – By a Juror: The boat was in the tunnel when I fell in. I don’t recollect anyone saying anything about turning the steam off. – A Juror here said witness said he turned the steam off. – Witness said he meant to say he stopped the engine. – By the Chairman: Before I fell asleep Webb was lying near me, and I could not make him hear me. – By the Coroner: There was a great deal of smoke.
One of the Jurymen here said this witness fell in the water after the boat left the tunnel.
John Sturgess, labourer, of Shutlanger, said: I was driving Mr Phipps’s cows, up on the towing-path on Friday afternoon when I saw the steam-boat going straight in amongst the mud and flags. I halloed them and said “Hold in”. It was so full of smoke that I could not see anyone on the boat and I ran to the tunnel and saw the driver (Jones) hanging over the side of the boat with his feet down in the canal. I halloed at him, and he took no notice, and I halloed again, and the last witness came out and I said “Look here, this man is asleep or something,” and he said, “He is not asleep, he’s very nearly dead with the smoke. There is another man near me and he is very near dead, he’s a stranger to me, but I believe he’s a company man.” I asked him if I should fetch somebody. He said yes and I went up to Mr Phipps, my master. Mr Phipps came down and I followed him. Before I went up for my master the last witness fell in the water and I told him to scramble about and he would get out. I did not see either Webb or Broadbent.
Samuel Harris, legger, Stoke Bruerne, said: I went search of Broadbent on Friday night. I went into the tunnel with the second lot who went to search for him and dragged from No 14 to betwixt 9 and 10. It was about 12 o’clock when we went in to look for him. I was legging in the tunnel on Friday and met the steamer there. I was on one of the boats, the second that met the steamer. – By Mr. Markham: The smoke was so thick I could not see Broadbent, but I heard him. Wickens was on one boat, and I was on the second.. I could not see if there were any lights on the steamer, as my attention was directed to the rope, which was said to be foul line. The steam boats came on in November, but I have no complaints to make against them. It had some effect on me. There is smoke on other boats besides steam-boats. The smoke from the steam-boats is the worst. – By the Foreman: I have never heard of the rope getting foul before.
One or two jurymen said complaints had been made of it and of the tow boat being too far off the engine boat.
William Tew: shoemaker, Stoke Bruerne, said: On Friday afternoon I was near the canal, and went on board the steam-boat Bee, and in the hold I saw the deceased Webb. I did not go down to him, but saw him got out. He was got out directly, but appeared to be quite dead. – By the foreman: I was the first on the boat. – The Foreman: Were they not burning nine or ten minutes? – Witness said he could not tell how long the two men Jones and Gower were lying burning against the furnace. – The Foreman said they were there nine or ten minutes after they emerged from the tunnel, and must have been lying in that state at least twenty minutes before assistance was rendered them. – A rather warm discussion here commenced between one of the jurymen and the foreman, which was put a stop to by the Coroner, who said they were not there to enquire as to the manner in which the injured came by their injuries, but into the death of the two men Webb and Broadbent. To that circumstance their enquiry must be confined.
In answer to an enquiry from the Coroner, Mr Phipps, one of the jurymen, who was present when the men were taken from the boat, said he did not believe that, at the time he was found, Webb was dead, for he felt his temples beat.
Mr. William Parsons Knott said: I am apprenticed to my father, surgeon, at Blisworth. On Friday evening my father was sent for, but he was not at home. I was not at home, but was met by a boy with a horse and came off immediately. I first went to the injured men and attended and then went to Webb’s house. I examined his chest but did not examine his limbs until afterwards, when I examined them with Mr Watkins. There was great venous congestion, as in cases of death from suffocation, and I should say he died from that cause. On Saturday morning I saw Broadbent with my father, but I believe Mr Watkins had seen him previously. The body was congested, and had a dark appearance, but it had been in the water for some time
Mr. Watkins, surgeon, Towcester, said: I saw Webb on Friday evening in the company of Mr Wm Knott. I carefully examined the exterior of the body, and found the face much congested, particularly the lips and the eyelids. The whole of the surface of the body was congested with venous blood, but there was no mark of violence on any part of the body. Having heard the previous evidence, I am decidedly of the opinion that he died from asphyxia. That means he died from want of air to breathe that would support life. I also examined the body of Edward Broadbent on Saturday morning, and found similar appearances to those on the body of Wm Webb. There was also a quantity of bloody spittle issuing from the mouth. I am of the opinion that he also died from asphyxia, and that it was produced by the coal smoke in the tunnel. – By Mr Markham: That would exclude the presence of oxygen. – The Chairman: If the smoke alone produced this, why were not the other boats affected? - Witness: There was not the same amount of smoke. – The Chairman: How is it the children and women in the other boats were not at all hurt by it? – Witness: The others were merely in it for a very short time, but the men in the “Bee” had it clinging around them all the while.
The Chairman said he merely put the question because when the steam boats were first started, the coal used had so much sulphur in it that great inconvenience was experienced, and it was discontinued. – Several other questions but not of importance, were put to this witness.
Mr. Watkins afterwards remarked that the two deceased were the stoutest men in the boat, and would probably require a larger quantity of oxygen than the others.
The foreman of the jury said that the man who was first attacked was the thinnest of any of them.
Mr Markham here wished to call the chairman of the company, to give any explanations that might be desired and to state what the instructions of the company were as to the management of the engine when passing through tunnels.
The Coroner did not consider it to be necessary. There had been no imputation that the accident arose from any negligence on the part of the company.
The Coroner addressed the jury and said it was their duty to analyse the evidence, and to form their own opinion as to the cause of the death of the two men, Webb and Broadbent. The facts were few and the medical evidence was that on which they would principally have to rely. From that evidence the unfortunate men appeared to have died from asphyxia, and if that was their opinion, if, in fact they believed the men died from suffocation, their verdict must be in accordance with it. As far as could be ascertained from the evidence of the men themselves who were injured, there did not appear to have been any negligence on the part of the company, but as it was quite clear the men died from smoke, the directors would no doubt endeavour to adopt some plan of dispensing the smoke more rapidly. If there had been any grounds for believing that the engine had not been properly cleaned there would have been the question of liabilities which would have been tried in another court. The captain of the boat, however, who was himself injured, said that the engine was clean and in good working order, and so far it appeared that the company had done their duty. The chairman of the company had told them that the coal at first used had a great quantity of sulphur in it, but as soon as that was discovered to be the case, it was put on one side, and if the jury could suggest anything to prevent the recurrence of such a melancholy accident no doubt the company would be glad to act upon their suggestions. The question was not so much an engineering as a chemical question, and their duty was simply to express their opinion as to the cause of death.
The jury returned a verdict of accidental death, strongly recommending that more ventilation should be given by sinking more shafts.
The Chairman said the recommendation of the jury had already been anticipated by the directors who on the Friday previous to the accident had given orders for additional shafts to be sunk in all the tunnels. Their object in attending that day, was to ascertain as far as they could the cause of the accident as they were most anxious to prevent anything of the kind occurring again. The families of the poor men would not be uncared for.
|<< Back to Introduction|