Blast factory inferno survivors' stories

Event date

14th August 1920



Saturday Telegraph , 14th August 1920

Source Date

1920-08-14 00:00:00
Entity info.

A little group of men stood by the side of a fence near the scene of the Kingsway factory destruction, and it was amongst those that a Telegraph representative discovered some of the survivors of the original explosion.

All of them bore witness to the ordeal through which they had passed. One had his face bandaged; another had his arm dressed; while one of them wore a shirt which was burned into holes.

These injuries had been dressed by members of the St John Ambulance Brigade who had promptly answered a telephone call. And in spite of their pain most of them were smoking cigarettes.

“There were five of us and a lad on night shift,” one of them told the Telegraph man. “And it is an absolute mystery how the explosion occurred. The most marvellous thing, however, is that any one of us is alive to tell the tale.

“As far as I can say the affair happened at almost six o'clock. We were working some machines which separate the powder, which collects underneath in various proportions. Suddenly one of us – I don't know who it was – discovered that a heap of the powder was in flames.

“A desperate effort was made to extinguish it, but it got too firm a hold, and someone yelled out 'For God's sake run for your life'. The building will go up in a minute.

“Fortunately the doors were open, and we ran as we had never run before. I had to dash through the flames from the powder heap to reach the door, and that is how I got my burns.

“Another man was working some distance from the door, and he did a remarkable leap over some obstacles to reach safety. One was a little late in hearing the alarm and he was burned all over his back by a tongue of flame which shot out of the building.

“I ran blindly on and reached the shelter of a hedge but had barely time to fling myself down before the building went up. There was a terrific roar and the ground seemed to shake like an earthquake. Everything seemed to whirl around, the huge iron girders and masses of brickwork fell all about us, and it was a marvel that we were not hit by some of them.

"Then the small arms ammunition started going off and bullets whizzed about in hundreds, I did not know what had happened to my chums, and when we finally picked ourselves up and gathered together it was hard to realise that we were all alive. Except a lad who was working with us, most of us were burned pretty badly.”

John Carpenter, the night watchman, who lives in Dunstable Road, Luton, was the most severely injured, this survivor said. Nearly all his hair was burned away, his head was injured, and he received extensive burns on his body and limbs.

Others who were burned were Thomas Ralph Hyde, Ralph Robins and Frederick Ellis, and naturally they were suffering somewhat from shock.

The building in which they were working stands some hundreds of yards away from the Great Northern Railway line, and in April last year it was taken over by the Inter-Continental Trust Ltd for the purposes of breaking down ammunition and separating the various components by a special process. It was not considered particularly dangerous work, and it has been conducted for the past six months without any incident occurring which might have been prophetic of this morning's disaster.

The factory itself was a large building occupying an isolated position in Kingsway, the nearest works being those of Messrs Laporte Ltd.The building was composed of walls of exceptional thickness and offices at one end separated by concrete work. The asbestos roof was supported by a network of iron girders, and the window frames were also of iron. It was approached by a railway siding, from which the ammunition was unloaded, and empty cartridge cases and bullet heads were returned.

The violent force of the first explosion blew away the far end of the building, only pasture land received the greater proportion of falling debris. In the area of ground surrounding the building a remarkable confusion of shattered brickwork and iron girders plainly indicated how the explosion had spread itself.

The end facing Messrs Laporte's chemical works was practically intact, with the exception of broken windows. The offices were not damaged, and the wall between them and the ammunition breaking shops had obviously not been severely tested.

With the exception of this one wall, the rest of the building was a complete wreck. Window frames at the sides of the works, massive things of iron standing 15 feet high and over six feet across, were blown bodily out, and one of these was hurled over the railings into an adjoining field, a distance of three hundred yards. Others were lying around the building in company with roof girders and iron standards. Many of the latter had been twisted into weird shapes, which told of the terrific force of the explosion. Corner portions of brickwork were split up, and despite the fact some of these weighed anything approaching a ton, they were thrown into the surrounding fields.

Thousands of boxes containing ammunition were thrown up into the air and dropped around in all directions. One was cast sideways with such a velocity that it broke through the wall of the outbuilding, and another smashed down a fence.

A motor lorry owned by the Thermo Company, which had been left standing by the side of the building, had its body blown completely off and was soon nothing but a charred ruin.

The interior was swept practically clean of all projecting parts, and every machine was hopelessly wrecked before the fire followed the explosion and burnt what standing parts remained.

Outside the building the grass was scarred by the burning residue of the exploded powder, and in two places the ground was blackened where long tongues of flame had swept across it.

The worst danger after the explosion and falling debris was the continuous discharge of thousands of rounds of ammunition. This was in a heap in the centre of the building, and it was while tackling some burning ammunition boxes that Fire Giddings was injured, a bullet or a piece of metal striking him with considerable force between the nose and the eye.

He collapsed at once with blood pouring from the wound and at first it was feared he had sustained a fatal injury. He was carried away from the scene by his comrades and laid in the shelter of a bank, where he was somewhat more secure from falling bullets.

There his injuries were attended to, and a few minutes later hr revived. The St John Ambulance men dressed his wound, placed him on a stretcher, and the motor ambulance was called for. His condition improved while waiting,and he cheerfully smoked a cigarette before being taken away.

Capt John Arthur Bayes, the manager of the factory, in an interview with a Telegraph representative, said he could not explain what had caused the explosion. He referred to the production of Thermalloy powder and said that it went under a process of magnetic separation. Under ordinary circumstances there was not a great deal of danger, and the powder which first caught alight was not of an incendiary character.

He agreed that the workmen had a wonderful escape.

Mr Wells, an engineer at the factory, also could not explain the cause, but added that it was a terrible explosion, and a good thing that no-one was fatally hurt.

A Telegraph man visited the scene again just before midday and found Chief Officer Andrew tired but cheerful, refreshing himself with a cup of tea.

He gave it as his opinion that in all his experience, which is pretty extensive, he has never known an outbreak with such remarkable features. It certainly outshadows the affair at Chaul End during the war and the explosions which took place at Messrs Lye's fire.

“The heat was intense when we arrived,” he said “and we had to concentrate on saving Laporte's works, which were burning in a large number of places.”

The factory was licensed at the end of March for the purpose for which it has since been used. The company applied, with the consent of the Home Secretary, for the Corporation's assent to the establishment of this factory, and statutory notice of the intended application was given in the columns of the Luton News at the time. When the Council formally considered the application on March 30th last, it was reported that no objections had been received, and the Council's assent was accordingly given.

Event Place

Author: Deejaya

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