The nineteenth century was a time of rapid change, invention and expansion. Living standards varied throughout the century, but by the Edwardian era, the majority of homes used gas for domestic lighting and later cooking and heating. The use of gas was fundamental in improving the lives of ordinary people; with their homes better lit, they could take advantage of extra leisure hours in the evening.
However the gas used was a volatile, flammable gas known as coal gas or ‘town gas’. It was supplied by either town councils or competing private companies and there was little regard for health and safety practices. The Victorians may have coined the phrase “as safe as houses” but as this post will show that was not always the case.
The Co-op Butcher’s Shop – 25th March 1895
In 1895 the Leigh Co-operative Society decided to open a new branch of their shops on Kirkhall Lane, near Westleigh. On Monday 25th March, workmen were finishing their jobs, including testing the gas, in preparation for the grand opening the next day. However unbeknownst to them, an un-capped pipe lay in a cavity above the ceiling of the ground floor and under the floor of the first floor. It quietly released gas into the room until the smell alerted the workmen. However they were unable to find the pipe before the gas filtered into the fireplace, where a fire had already been lit.
At about 4:30pm the sound of an explosion echoed across the neighbourhood and shook nearby houses. Two thick plate-glass windows measuring eight square feet each were blown out into the street and smashed. Half the ceiling was brought down and the floorboards upstairs were uprooted.
The three men and a boy working in the building at the time all fortunately survived with minor injuries. In the upstairs room one man had his face and clothes singed by flames and the boy was blown off his feet. William Wetton, a joiner working downstairs was thrown across the room by the blast badly cutting the fingers on his left hand. Despite his injuries, William went and turned the gas meter off. Another joiner, John Bent was blown off his ladder and he injured his knee.
The damage to the shop cost a considerable amount and delayed the opening, however it was believed that had the door not been slightly opened and covered behind a butcher’s grid, that the explosion could have been much more forceful.
24 Ellesmere Street – 23rd May 1905
Ellesmere Street was a row of houses, which was located where Leigh bus station stands today. The street was made up of typical terraced houses with the following ground floor layout; hallway leading to a front parlour, a middle room used as a living room/kitchen and a back scullery. The houses in question Numbers 22, 24 and 26 Ellesmere Street were owned by a Mrs Partington, who resided in Lytham and rented the houses for 5’6 a week (£26.63 a week in modern terms).
The houses were supplied with gas decades earlier in 1862 from a private company which was purchased by the Leigh Corporation under the 1874 Act. The Corporation controlled the pipes from the mains to the meter in the house. No plumber could repair the pipes connected to the mains or replace the gas meter and if they did so they could face being struck off and fined £5 (£484). This was common practice adopted by many town and city councils across the country at the time, presumably to stop any infiltration with supply.
For a few years Number 26 had been occupied by the Garside family and Number 24 by the Beresford family. Number 22 was occupied by Mr Ward and let to different tenants. Mrs Beresford, a widow, had a new ‘penny-in-the-slot’ meter installed in a cupboard in her front parlour in 1899 and in 1901 new gas lamps were installed on Ellesmere Street. Throughout 1904 Mrs Gardside could smell gas outside her home and regularly complained to the men who collected the gas money.
By March 1905, Mrs Beresford complained to the gas money collectors about a strong smell of gas in her home. They examined the meter but did not examine the service pipes connecting it to the mains. Mrs Garside also complained about the smell of gas and they too examined the meter but not the service pipes. On 22nd May 1905 the smell of gas was so overpowering at 24 Ellesmere Street that Mrs Beresford sent for a plumber. He examined the pipes and fittings and concluded gas was escaping but he was forbidden to touch the pipes beyond the gas meter. Mrs Beresford duly turned off her gas supply and opened all the windows. She even put soap around the chandelier to see if it would stop the smell. Her neighbour, Mr Ward was sent to the gas works that evening, he found no one there so returned the next morning. Mr Mort told him he would send a plumber out to the residence.
At 10:30am on the 23rd May a huge explosion rocked the street. Once the thick black smoke and dust had cleared the devastation could be seen. Number 24 was a just a shell with only the rear wall and roof remaining. The majority of the furniture was destroyed, although a bed survived, having been blown through the ceiling it was hanging from the lathe and plaster. Bizarrely a framed print on the rear wall and a sewing machine both survived unscathed. The adjoining wall to Mr Ward’s house was structurally damage and blown away in several places, as were some of the doors. The effects of the explosion were heard as far as Leigh Cemetery some two miles away, where the caretaker thought there had been a colliery explosion. The Leigh Chronicle offices and the adjoining building shook in the explosion and twelve windows were broken. The rear windows were all smashed at Mr Alcock’s file works, some 20 yards away.
Fortunately only two people were at home, Ellen Beresford (aged 28) and her married sister Mrs Alice Hudson (aged 31). Mrs Beresford, her son, son-in-law and a lodger were out at the time. The two women had just gone to the front door thinking the noise of a passing wheelbarrow was a plumber when the explosion occurred, this ultimately saved their lives. Both were projected high into the air by the force of the blast, a neighbour Mrs Wood later described them “flying through the air like birds“. They both travelled some distance before landing on the ground. Alice landed next to a horse and lorry and she was suffering from shock, bruises and cuts. Her clothes had been torn to shreds and her boots blown off her feet, one of which was never found. Her sister Alice had suffered a harder landing and suffered from a concussion, shock, cuts and bruises. She was unconscious for several hours and taken to the workhouse hospital where she remained until the 5th July. Next door at Number 22, Mr Edward Beverley, an actor performing that week at Leigh’s Theatre Royal, escaped from his lodgings through a window and jumped over the garden fence to safety.
The cause of the explosion was later found to be a 40 year old service pipe which led from the street, under the floor of the house and to the meter. It had broken off about five inches away from the house (hence why the plumbers could not examine it) and from this hole it was estimated gas had been leaking for two or three years.
In June 1905 a relief fund was set up for the Beresford family as they had lost their home, all their possessions and clothing and their income from renting a room to lodgers. Within a week the Mayor and several Councillors had subscribed to the fund. Unfortunately Alice Hudson died on 7th August 1905, she had been in ill-health in previous months but had recovered by May. Her health never recovered after the explosion and the jury returned a verdict of accidental death. Her sister Ellen made a full recovery and later emigrated to Canada where she married her husband in 1910.
Wolseley Cottage, No. 1 Leigh Road -28th February 1910
Wolseley Cottage was built in 1874 by Richard Prescott on Leigh Road, along with neighbouring semi-detached houses which still stand today. The property was the home and workplace of Dr. Bromilow and his family. The left-side gable end of the house, next to Windermere Road was used as a surgery by Dr. Bromilow. The rest of the house was used for domestic purposes; the hallway and staircase separating the two. The dining room was at the front of the property behind the square bay window and behind this was the kitchen and wash-house. The garden was overlooked by Leigh Primitive Methodist Chapel (now the site of the Job Centre). In a ornamental caravan on a plot of land next to the house and Windermere Road lived Madame Ratcliffe, a popular milliner.
At 6:45pm on Monday 28th February, Mrs Bromilow and her twin 13 year old daughters were in the kitchen of Wolseley Cottage preparing to leave for an evening class when an explosion rocked the house. Mrs Bromilow later said:
” I was just going through the kitchen door towards the surgery when I heard a great bang. The children screamed. I heard bricks coming down the staircase. I ran back, my girls threw up the kitchen window and we just got out before the second explosion took place.”
Those who witnessed the explosion from outside said a sheet of fire erupted from the house just after the first explosion. Less than a minute later the second explosion tore through the front and rear external walls; the ceiling of the surgery and the bedroom above it “toppled like a pack of cards“. Firemen from the near-by Leigh Fire Station arrived on the scene and cautiously entered the cellar of the house to turn off the gas supply. It was possible to see right through the house, although a chandelier in the doctors surgery survived the blast undamaged and the other side of the house survived relatively intact. It was noted by all that Mrs Bromilow and her daughters had a narrow escape.
The cause of the explosion was a gas leak in the upstairs bedroom, above the surgery. However it was regarded as a mystery, as the gas was lit only slightly in the entrance hall and fully in the kitchen and none of the occupants smelt an over-powering smell of gas, which must have been lingering in the upstairs rooms.
What was certain was the damage to Wolseley Cottage, which amounted to £350 (£32,220 in modern terms). Fortunately the property was insured. Mrs Bromilow later had to auction off some furniture, including those pieces damaged in the explosion. The ruined house itself became somewhat of a tourist attraction as it was on the main road from Leigh to Bolton. Animated pictures of the explosion were also shown at The Hippodrome, located just across the road from Wolseley Cottage. It must be remembered that gas explosions were normally confined to underground coal mines and Leigh was relatively unlucky to experience three domestic explosions in 15 years. Also this was still the time before the zeppelin raids on the home front of WWI and the mass bombings of WWII; so the chance to see a ruined house all exposed like a dolls house was a curious and exciting thing. Within a year a new shop and living premises had been built on the site.
- Leigh Chronicle, 29 March 1895, p.5
- Leigh Chronicle, 26 May 1905, p.8
- Leigh Chronicle, 16 June 1905, p.1
- Leigh Chronicle, 23 June 1905, p.1
- Leigh Chronicle, 11 August 1905, p.8
- Leigh Chronicle, 17 November 1905, p.8
- Leigh Chronicle, 4 March 1910, p.1 & pp.5-6
- Leigh Chronicle, 17 March 1911, p.4
- Thomas Boydell, The Jubilee History of the Leigh Friendly Co-operative Society 1857-1907, (Manchester: Co-operative Printing Society, 1907) p.273