:: Rothwell and Kitts Newtown Mill :: Boiler Explosion 1845 ::


This cotton manufactory or ‘mill’ owned by Messrs. Rothwell and Kitts was a six storeyed building built from large stone blocks with integral Engine House containing a beam engine and Boilerhouse with three ‘Waggon-type’ steam boilers fired by coal. There was a square-built 90 feet high chimney which provided the draught for the boilers. The boilers provided the steam for the beam engine which in turn powered all of the mill’s cotton spinning machinery. The middle boiler out of the bank of three, worked at around 5 pounds per square inch pressure (p.s.i.), the other two worked at the somewhat higher pressure of perhaps 20 – 25 pounds per square inch. One of the higher working pressure boilers was not in steam and was being repaired by local boilermakers.

On the floor above the Boilerhouse was the Scutching Room where a goodly number of the mill’s operatives laboured in hot and dusty conditions. There were a further four floors above the Scutching Room, all ram-jam packed with cotton production machinery and more toiling workers.

On the Monday morning of the 15th December 1845 the whole mill was extremely busy, the cotton spinning machines working at full speed. Cotton was in demand and Rothwell and Kitt’s mill was enjoying a full order book and production was rapidly increasing to meet the demand. However, just when the mill was working desperately hard, fate played a deadly card: the middle Waggon boiler that very morning had suddenly sprung a serious leak from a riveted joint in the boilershell plates. The problem was so worrying for the mill’s management, that at around 12.45 p.m. one of the firm’s owners, twenty five year old Edward Hardy Rothwell, had entered the Boilerhouse to ascertain if the leaking boiler could be quickly remedied. He was mindful of the other boiler being currently under repair, hence his concern. Rothwell’s partner, Thomas Kitts was in the adjacent, high-ceilinged Engine House discussing the lack of steam needed for the Beam engine with the engine tenter, Peter Waring. The Scutching Room operatives on the floor above the Boilerhouse were all hard at work. The whole mill was buzzing with profitably cotton production ........ apart from the troublesome Waggon boilers, all was well at Rothwell and Kitt’s Newtown Mill.

However, minutes were ticking away to disaster. For just a few minutes after a nearby clock had chimed one o’clock, the whole mill suddenly reverberated to the sound of a huge and violent explosion followed by voluminous clouds of steam. Following the loud report of the explosion there was a few seconds of deadly silence. Then all hell broke loose as the blood curdling screams of terribly injured people filled the air. Mill workers covered in dust, with blood pouring from serious wounds, and some with horrendous scalds could be seen extricating themselves with much difficulty from beneath huge piles of rubble and crushed masonry. Several of the survivors had missing limbs, others had been partially blinded or deafened by the blast; there was mass panic with people shouting out the names of missing relatives and friends. A man with tears running down sunken cheeks could be seen carrying the mangled body of a young lad.

What had occurred, was that the middle Waggon boiler had suddenly exploded resulting in the total destruction of the entire centre of the six storey mill. Several people working in the Scutching Room had been killed with many more severely scalded and suffering broken limbs, cuts and bruises. Within the whole mill prior to the explosion there had been around ninety operatives hard at work, many of these people, on hearing the tremendous noise of the boiler explosion had run to the far end of the mill where they proceeded to smash numerous windows in an effort to escape. Distraught fathers, mothers, sons and daughters ran about the horrendous scene of destruction, screaming and crying out whilst searching for their relatives.

The aftermath of this terrible disaster revealed tremendous structural damage to the mill. There were distorted and jagged sections of steel boiler plates blown from the middle boiler scattered all over what had been the Boilerhouse. There were hundreds of smashed firebricks lying everywhere; huge lengths of splintered timber beams, a mish-mash of broken window glass, and hanging precariously over the edge of the wrecked mill floors high above were the shattered remains of huge cast iron spinning machines and iron line-shafting. There was enormous damage to the workers’ dwellings across the narrow street, where scores of windows were broken. In the Flag Inn situated about 250 yards down the street, the white-faced Inn-keeper reported that, “seven spirit bottles were smashed and the neighbours were much alarmed imagining that an earthquake was taking place, and had ran out in a terrible fright into the street”.

The human carnage was profound: Edward Hardy Rothwell’s body was extricated from beneath a huge stone wall that had fallen on top of the enterprising young cotton mill owner, smashing his body into a bloody pulp. In the Engine House, the mangled body of the Mill’s manager, Peter Greenhough aged 45 was found. Sadly he left a widow and eleven children. Alongside Greenhough’s body, Rothwell’s partner, Tom Kitts was found in a dreadfully scalded condition. He survived despite his appalling injuries. In a damaged cottage opposite the mill, a young boy of six was discovered fatally scalded. A young gentleman called Heaton, a trainee manager had sustained a severely broken leg and numerous cuts and bruises as a result of masonry falling onto him.

A massive search for survivors and bodies of the deceased lying buried in the wreckage of the mill took place involving scores of police, mill workers, and work people from the neighbouring mills and factories who laboured on without rest until around two o’clock on the Wednesday afternoon – almost forty-eight hours since the boiler explosion – all feverishly working to clear away and sift through the huge heaps of crushed stone, roof slates, lime plaster, smashed and splintered timbers and iron machinery to locate and then carry out the grim task of removing the bodies of the dead.

Ten people had died in the explosion; one more would die due to his wounds later. Eight persons suffered extremely severe scalding, many had limbs amputated that had been smashed by falling masonry, several had been blinded by the escaping steam. Evidently, had the boiler explosion occurred just five minutes earlier, then far more fatal consequences would have resulted as several plates from the Waggon boiler were blown by the force of the mighty explosion onto the nearby Bolton and Leigh railway which struck an empty carriage stabled on the line. The Bolton train steaming in from the Leigh direction, packed full of passengers had only just gone by 5 minutes prior to the boiler explosion!

The Bolton Chronicle and South Lancashire Advertiser dated Saturday December 20, 1845 reported:

“EXPLOSION OF A STEAM BOILER .... SHOCKING LOSS OF LIFE. BETWEEN 30 AND 40 CHILDREN HAVE BEEN DEPRIVED OF A PARENT........ A few minutes past one o’clock on Monday last, the centre boiler of three at Messrs. Rothwell and Kitts cotton factory, which adjoins the Bolton and Leigh Railway terminus in this town, exploded and it will be seen with the most disastrous effect”.

The terrible scene of destruction at Rothwell and Kitts Newtown Mill following the explosion of a Waggon-type steam boiler.

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