The 1914 Disaster

As reported in the Ardrossan and Saltcoats Herald 27th of February 1914

On Friday morning shortly after ten o’clock – or at 10.7 a.m. to be precise – a disaster of an appalling and particularly distressing character occurred at the Ardeer Factory of Messrs Nobel’s Explosives Company, Limited. The incident had all the characteristics of previous like occurrences, with the distinction that it was only on one previous occasion exceeded in the number of victims which it claimed. The disaster was caused through the explosion of a building in which blasting gelatine is mixed, causing the utter demolition of the structure and involving in the death of all the workers engaged inside at the time of the calamity. This was followed by the immediate detonation of a small sample magazine, where happily, no one was employed. It is surmised that the second misadventure was occasioned by the flying debris, and that a red-hot bolt or a large piece of hot metal penetrated the magazine and acted as a detonator. The house in which the original explosion took place known as Z5, is a light built structure in dimensions 30 feet by 25 feet and 15 feet in height. Like all other buildings in which explosives are manufactured, it was completely isolated from every other building, placed in the centre of an area of sand dunes, and surrounded by sand banks scientifically arranged so as to lessen the shock of any untoward event and to give the minimum of resistance, so as to allow any explosive gas every facility for expanding upwards, where no very extensive damage can be done. The factory is so arranged that the area of danger is circumscribed and it is impossible for an explosion in one part of the works to communicate itself to another house merely by the violent concussion which takes place.

At The Time Of The Explosion
There were five men engaged inside the building mixing the gelatine, and two runners in loading the manufactured gelatine on to bogies for distribution at the cartridge huts, where the material is made up by the girls. There are in all fourteen men attached to each house – the five mixers, five distributive runners, and four whose duty is to bring the raw material into the house from the "hill." According to the regulations of the factory, which are rigidly enforced at all times, no more than seven men are ever allowed within a mixing house at any one time. The men inside were – G. Mansell; the senior man; J. McManus, second man; and three mixers, W.J. Guiney, W. Kilpatrick and W. Armstrong; while the runners – D. Begbie and H. Taggart – were loading up. D. McLean and W. Harper were waiting outside for the signal that Begbie and Taggart had gone before they would enter the building, and it was just at this point that the terrible disaster took place. No one had the faintest idea of what had happened, and in a second all that remained of the house and its occupants was broken fragments of building material, some scrap iron and charred wood. The effects throughout the factory was electrical; everywhere there was the greatest consternation and dismay; many rushed in the direction of the explosion for no definite reason, and some were in time to see the pillar of smoke and column of fire which accompanied the detonation of the magazine. The violence of the shock threw everyone within its immediate scope to the ground, or against buildings. All the buildings in the vicinity, including the general office and the Works Manager’s house, were severely damaged; every pane of glass within easy distance of the demolished building being shattered, and door locks being wrenched off as by the violent assault of a battering-ram. In some instances the wooden huts in which the girls make the explosives into cartridges were knocked down , and the girls have not the slightest notion as to how they made there escape. There was no danger attached to the falling of the huts, as they are lightly built. The scene within the factory gates was without parallel in the history of the firm. Owing to the character of gelatine, the report and concussion was more violent than that of a year ago, and as the disastrous incidents of March last were still vivid in the minds of the workers, the imagination of the girls was fired with a sense of impending disaster, and they left their respective tasks and fled, not knowing or caring wither. This general panic did not assist the work of management, and the actual result of the stampede was to spread the element of danger and to increase the toll of the injured. Many of the terror-stricken girls rushed towards the scene of the explosion and were struck by splinters of wood and broken stones. Others were thrown into paroxysms of fright and had to be carried to the ambulance room. Many of them rushed out of their huts without thought, attired in the uniform of their work and still holding within their nervous grasp some part of the material on which they had been engaged at the moment of the concussion. The forewomen, all girls of experience, kept a watchful eye on their assistants , and in many cases returned the unfinished cartridges to the huts. Most of the girls took the shortest route home, many of them taking a direct line to the shore and getting to Stevenston by the circuitous route. A number of the male workers received minor injuries, but these were quickly attended to, and the men were able to proceed home. Only one girl received anything in the nature of a severe injury, being struck by a heavy piece of falling debris in the course of her flight.

Rescue Work
Immediately the ambulance section was mobilised and proceeded at once to the scene of the calamity. On examination of the surrounding embankment, the runners Harper and McLean were discovered mutilated but alive. Their clothes had been blown to atoms, and they had sustained most distressing injuries. McLean was found half buried in sand, and Harper, who, it is supposed had been sitting on the end of the bogie at the time of the explosion, was discovered beneath the bogie badly crushed. The violence of the concussion turned the bogie on top of him, and this somewhat shielded from injury from falling debris, the two injured men were conveyed to the Western Infirmary, Glasgow, in a special train which left Stevenston at 11.35 and reached St. Enoch’s 36 minutes later, where it was met by an ambulance wagon which conveyed the injured to the infirmary in the shortest possible time. Guard Hendry who was in charge of the train, had an anxious time as he had two sons engaged in the factory, and had no knowledge whether they had escaped or not. The condition of McLean was the more precarious, and late in the evening news reached the town that he had succumbed to his injuries. His mate Harper rallied with remarkable vigour, and is likely to be wholly restored to his wonted activity.

Searching For The Victims
As soon as it was known that only two of the men immediately concerned had escaped with their lives, the task of searching for the fragmentary remains of the victims was commenced. A considerable body of men were detailed to perform this gruesome task, and in accordance eith the requirement of the Home Office, whenever any human remains were discovered, the searcher placed a wooden stake in the ground to mark the spot so that it could be removed by the proper authority. Nothing was found which could be identified with any particular person, although the aggregate quantity of human remains was greater than on any similar occasion.

Official Report - The following official statement was issued by the Company:
Shortly after ten o’clock a building in which blasting explosives are mixed exploded, and communicated itself immediately to a small magazine in which there were no workers. The buildings were completely wrecked, and a good deal of structural damage was done to other buildings throughout the factory. Five men were employed in the gelatine house, and it is much to be regretted that these men have lost their lives. In addition to these men there were two service runners, who were taking material from the magazine house. They also lost their lives, and two more runners were also injured, and were conveyed by special train to Glasgow Western Infirmary, where one has since succumbed to his injuries and shock. At present it is impossible to say what caused the accident.

The names of those killed and injured are as follows:-
G. Mansell, chargeman, married, Burnbank Street, Stevenston.
J. McManus, married, pan mixer, Glebe Street, Saltcoats.
W.J. Guiney, married, pan mixer, Limekiln Road, Stevenston.
W. Kilpatrick, married, pan mixer, Townhead, Stevenston.
W. Armstrong, single, pan mixer, Breakplough, Stevenston.
D. Begbie, single, service runner, Parkend Road, Saltcoats.
H. Taggart, married, service runner, Limekiln Road, Stevenston.
D. McLean, service runner, Manse Street, Saltcoats. (died in hospital)
Injured – W. Harper, runner, Gladstone Road, Saltcoats.

Funerals of the victims – Two impressive ceremonies
It was arranged that the funerals for the eight men who lost their in the explosion on Friday should take place on Tuesday afternoon, and in consequence the factory was closed all that day. There were two ceremonies, the first in connection the interment of the seven men who were instantaneously killed, and the second in connection with that of the young man who died as the result of his injuries. As on the former occasion the arrangements of the first funeral were carried out by the management of the factory, and everything was done in a reverent and orderly manner. All that remained of G. Mansell, J. McManus, W.J. Guiney, W. Kilpatrick, W. Armstrong, D. Begbie and H. Taggart was placed in a single oak coffin, and conveyed to the hall above the general office pending the funeral service. Before one o’clock the workers commenced arriving at the factory, and lined up outside the main gate. All the trains which arrived in Stevenston were packed with people interested in seeing the funeral procession, or friends and fellow workers of the departed come to pay their last tribute to their memory. The day was the brightest that has been experienced for months, and the silent but pervading message of life and hope, which the first Spring day brings to all of us after the bleakness of the winter months, was a striking contrast to the sad and sombre atmosphere which hung like a pall over the spirits of the district which was so intimately touched by the tragedy. The relatives of the deceased men were conveyed by coaches to the General Offices, where suitable provision had been made for the service being held. Inside the building the seats were arranged in two sections. On a table stood the coffin, and beside it were the floral tributes. The bedecked coffin and table were eloquent of the high regard in which these men were held, and the very wide field of contributors was testimony to their many-sided lives and extensive interests. On a raised platform were seated the officiating clergymen, and facing the coffin were arranged in sombre rows the relations of the departed. To the right of the coffin places were found for staff. Sir Frederio and Lady Nathan were present, and her ladyship, by her kind and gracious manner in going round the bereaved ones, imparted some measure of sympathy and support to their over-charged hearts. Mr D. B. Milne and Mr Rodger represented the head office of the Company , and all the members of the Ardeer Staff were present. Captain Campbell, D.S.O., Member for the Constituency, as on a former occasion, travelled down from London specially to be present at the funeral.

The Rev. A. Gillespie opened the service with the invocation, Rev. R. J. Kyd gave the Old Testament reading, and in a brief prayer spoke words of comfort and consolation : Rev. D. D. Rees read the New Testament lesson ; Rev. A. Morris Moodie offered up prayer ; and the benediction was pronounced by the Rev. Matthew Miller. The cermony was exceedingly impressive, and those present were deeply effected . Proceeding outside the relatives entered the waiting coaches, and the funeral cortege wended its way to the cemetery. The procession was headed by the pipe band of the 5th Royal Scots Fusilers, who played the doleful strains of "Lovat’s Lament." Then followed the body of the Ardeer section of the Fusiliers, their red tunics being in acute contradistinction to their drab surroundings. The Territorials were followed by the members of the Shepherds’ Society in checked plaid and tam-o’-shanter, and then came the Gardeners, Rechabites, Templars and Orangemen, each with the distinctive regalia of their order. The workers in the Gelatine Department, both male and female immediately preceded the hearse and then came the coaches of the relatives, the factory staff, and in the rear the Union Officials, the members of local public bodies, and the general body of workers. All along the streets were lined with grief-stricken spectators. All the blinds in the town were drawn, and all the shops were closed in token of respect, and as the sad procession wended its way through the town there were many who gave manifestation of being deeply touched by the spectle. The funeral procession was the longest that has been seen in the town, and took twelve minutes to pass a given point. As it neared the cemetery the advance section lined up outside the gate, ??? Territorials forming a cordon along the street. Filing along the cemetery walls to the place of interment, the procession passed the spot where last year’s victims were buried. A fitting memorial has been erected by the Company over the grave of those heroes in the industrial field. Round the open grave the relatives assembled, and there some pathetic scenes were witnessed. The full significance of the occurrence seemed to present itself to the minds of some of those present in the spectacle of the grave. The committal ceremony was conducted by the Rev. Alexander Copland, Rector of St Andrew’s Episcopal Church.

A very large proportion of the workers proceeded to Saltcoats immediately thereafter to be present at the funeral of the young man McLean, who was being buried from his parents’ house in Manse Street, Saltcoats. The funeral service was there conducted by Rev. D.D. Rees. Similar manifestations of sorrow were evident in Saltcoats as had characterised the funeral in Stevenston. Manse Street to Ardrossan Road was lined on both sides spectators, and as the procession moved along the crowd showed its respect by bowed and uncovered heads. A great number of wreaths had been sent in from sympathisers, and these followed the hearse in an open carriage. The Friendly Societies and the fellow workers of the deceased were also present, and the silent cortege was an effected sight. The remains of the young man were interred at Ardrossan Cemetery.

Effect On Stevenston
The entire township of Stevenston was strung up to a high pitch of nervous excitement by the deafening report which accompanied the explosion on Friday, and immediately houses were deserted and the streets throng with anxious and apprehensive men and women. There is not a home in Stevenston which is not in some way connected with the great explosives industry, and consequently the first vibration of an explosion carries a painful significance to every house in the town. The minute or thereby that elapsed between the first and second explosion was sufficient to fill the streets, and as all eyes were turned in the direction of the factory the effect of the second explosion was witnessed by a large number of people. In describing this effect an eyewitness said that it resembled a gigantic firework display, in which balls of fire burst into myriad-coloured flames. The most brilliant pyrotechnic exhibition conducted in the darkness of night could not be compared with the effect created by the daylight fireworks of the magazine explosion. Almost instantaneously the concussion shook every building in Stevenston to its foundation. Windows and doors rattled, and in many cases the glass was unable to withstand the shock. At the Buttercup Company’s premises and at the Cooperative Store

The plate glass windows were blown into the shops. So terrific was the violence of the explosion that throughout the town people engaged inside workshops and houses had a feeling that the building was going to fall about their ears. When the first shock of the explosion had passed, and the people realised the possibilities of the incident, there was at once a general movement in the direction of the factory gate. In a very short time the Dynamite Road was thronged with relatives of workers eager to know the fate of their friends. The wildest rumours were current, but nothing definite was known. In order to allay ungrounded fears, work was entirely suspended in all departments, so that the employees could carry the message of their personal safety to their anxious kinfolk. By the time the first group of employees had gained the outer gate the seat of the disaster was made known, and the news travelled round with remarkable rapidity, carrying a feeling of security to the majority, but increasing the fears of those who knew their friends were engaged in that particular section of the work. As soon as the facts were known, an official statement of the killed and injured was posted by the management , and the worst was soon told in the town.