Explosion at Ardeer Factory - 16th June 1937

Three Men killed and two seriously injured
As reported in the Ardrossan and Saltcoats Herald 18th June, 1937

Three men were killed and two seriously injured in Nobel's Ardeer factory on Wednesday forenoon when a series of explosions occurred in the Black Powder Section.

The casualties were: -
George McCully, Fitter, 49 Sidney Street, Saltcoats:
James H. Rainey, process worker, 3 Canal Street, Saltcoats:
Robert Niblock process worker, 8 School Row, Kilwinning.

Seriously Injured
James McNay Process worker 17 Hill Street, Ardrossan:
James Patterson, process worker; 6 Station square, Stevenston.

Despite the terrible havoc wrought and the Possible danger still existing, volunteers ran at once to the scene do what they could for the injured.

Doctors were rushed to the Factory and, after the two injured men had had their injuries dressed; they were conveyed in one of the Factories ambulances by road to Glasgow Western Infirmary.

The force of the explosion was felt over a wide area. In Ardrossan and Saltcoats houses were shaken, while Stevenston, closest to the factory, suffered damage in the form of broken windows. Kilwinning and Irvine also felt the effects.

Great alarm was created in the district, and exaggerated rumours got afloat. Large crowds flocked to the factory gates. There an official statement posted up helped to allay anxiety, although it engendered a feeling of deepest regret that three lives had been lost.
The official statement was as follows: -

It is regretted that an explosion occurred in the Black Powder Section of the Ardeer Factory shortly before 11 'o'clock this morning. Unfortunately, three workers were killed, and two seriously injured. (The names were given.) The cause of the explosion is being investigated.

AT Midnight Last Night.
In reply to a phone message from our office to the Western Infirmary about midnight last night the following statement was given: -

James McNay - Fairly comfortable and sleeping. Condition otherwise unchanged.
James Patterson - Very Comfortable.

Sheet of Flame and Column of Smoke.

There were four explosions altogether, the fourth being tremendous. It appears that four cornering houses were blown up one after the other. Details have not been officially given, but it is stated that Rainey and Niblock were in the hut which blew up first. McCully evidently had been working in the powder mill, which is a short distance off, and was running in an endeavour to get clear when he was killed.

One worker, in particular, had a very narrow escape. When he heard the noise of the detonation, he made a dash for safety, and just got clear when his hut exploded. He suffered to some extent from shock. The explosions went off in succession, almost like heavy gun fire. A sheet of flame went up into the air and then a column of smoke, visible for miles, towered above, billowing out as it rose. This was the chief intimation to the district that the detonations had a deadly significance.

Many people outside the factory had a terrifying view of the flames and smoke bursting upwards.Two golfers on Ardeer golf course had an unenviable experience. At the time of the explosion they were on the sixteenth tee, which is at the boundary of the factory and close to the scene of the tragedy. They dropped their clubs when the shattering roar broke the silence and ran for their lives. Fortunately, they were uninjured, the force of the explosion travelling apparently in the opposite direction.

A Motorist’s Experience.
A gentleman resident in Saltcoats who was motoring between Kilwinning and Stevenston gave the following account to our representative: -

On hearing the first report, my impression was that it was a blast at Hill House Quarry. I felt no vibration in the car. There was a second explosion, followed by two loud double explosions. I saw a huge column of black smoke shoot up from Ardeer factory, and surmised something serious had happened. The traffic on the road came to a stop. The column of smoke rose quickly and spread out at the top until it looked like a huge flower on a thick stem. The sun’s rays had a curious effect on the column. From the point at which they shone on it, the smoke turned from black to pure white like a fleecy cloud. By the time I reached Stevenston people were hurrying down the street to the factory gate. An eye witness of the explosion who resides near the factory, described to our representative as terrifying in its immensity; and also as something beyond the wit of man to understand.

Anxiety in the District.
Great anxiety was evident in the district, the streets from Ardrossan to Stevenston being filled with knots of people discussing the possibilities. The householders near the factory were most affected by the terrible noise, on the other hand, many of the workers employed underground in the factory area, stated that dull thuds, such as from the test blasts, were all that were heard by them, and it was not until later they learned of the disaster. The Black Powder section is of fairly recent addition to the factory, where it is now centralised.

Mr. James H. Rainey, who resided at Craigmore, Canal Street, Saltcoats, was a son of Mr. and Mrs William Rainey, 23 Kinnier Street, Saltcoats. The family are well known in the town, the father being the trainer to Saltcoats Victoria, Football Club and deceased and another son being identified with that club and also with Ardeer Recreational Club. Deceased played in both teams for a number of years, and also played in America. James was a carpenter to trade, and served his apprenticeship in Ardrossan Shipyard where he remained for a number of years. After returning to Saltcoats, he was assistant bathmaster at Saltpans Bathing Pond. He was a member Saltcoats Masonic Lodge (Neptune Kilwinning, No. 442), and we understand that the Masonic rights will be performed at the funeral, which is to take place tomorrow afternoon. Mr. Rainey leaves a widow and two children, (both girls, aged 6 and 2 years.)

Mr. G. McCully, who resided in Sidney Street, also belonged to a well known Saltcoats family. His parents are deceased, but several brothers still reside in the town. He was a fitter to trade, and had been employed in the factory during the last three years. He was to have been married in September to Miss Isabella Withnall, Kerr Avenue.

Mr. Robert Niblock, who is the son of Mr. Robert Niblock, 113 Five Roads, Kilwinning, and resided at 3 School Road, Kilwinning, is well known in the town and is highly respected. He was only 32, and his widow is left with three children, the eldest aged 11. Two are girls and one a boy. Much sympathy is expressed with the widow and other relatives. Mrs. Niblock has suffered her second bereavement within a short space of time, her young brother dying only seven weeks ago.

The Injured.
Mr. James Paterson, one of the injured men, who resides in Station Square, Stevenston, came from the West Calder Factory about two years ago. He is 40 years or age and unmarried.

Mr. James McNay is well known in Ardrossan. He originally was a caulker to trade in Ardrossan Shipyard, and then worked on the railway before entering Nobel's. He formerly was drum-major in the Ardrossan Pipe Band, a position resigned mainly because of being on shift time at the Ardeer Factory.Mr. McNay is married and there is one child.

The funeral of George McCully will take place to-day (Friday) to Ardrossan Cemetery; that of James H. Rainey to the same cemetery to-morrow (Saturday), at, 3.30 p.m.; and that of Robert Niblock to Kilwinning Cemetery to-morrow at 3 p.m.

From the deaths column of the same issue.
As a result of an accident at Ardeer, James Harvey Rainey 16th June 1937 of 3 Canal Street. Husband of Agnes Patterson, Son of William Rainey. Funeral to take place on Saturday 19th June from 23 Kinnier Road.

Formal Verdict at Public Enquiry 1937 Explosion
(As reported in the Ardrossan & Saltcoats Herald 20th August, 1937)

A public enquiry was held in Sheriff Court House, Kilmarnock, yesterday forenoon into the circumstances attending the explosion at the ICI factory, Ardeer, Stevenston, on 16th June 1937, resulting in the into the death of the following employees: - Robert Niblock (explosive worker), 3 School Row, Eglinton, Ironworks, Kilwinning: James H. Rainey (explosive worker), Craigmoor House, Canal Street, Saltcoats: George McCulley (engineer), 49 Sidney Street, Saltcoats: James McNay (explosives worker), 17 Hill Street, Ardrossan.

Hon Sheriff Substitute, James Patrick (Dalry) was on the bench. Mr. A. L. Nixon Deputy Fiscal, examined the witnesses, and Mr. Arthur Muir, solicitor, Glasgow, appeared as agent for ICI. A jury consisting of four women and three men were impanelled.

Relatives Evidence.
The following relatives of the deceased men were examined: - Mrs. Jane Niblock, Mrs. Agnes P. Rainey and Mrs. Mary McNay (Widows), and Mr. T.B. McCulley, brother of George McCulley.

The first two witnesses stated that the deceased men were in their usual health on the morning of 16th June, when they went to their work as usual. McCulley said that the last time he saw his brother alive was on the evening of 15th June, when he was in his usual health. Mrs. McNay stated that she was informed by two officials from the Ardeer Factory, at 1-30 pm on the 16th June that her husband had been injured in the explosion, and conveyed to the Western Infirmary, Glasgow. The last time she saw him alive was about 4-pm on the 23rd. June, and she was informed that he died at 9 pm on the 24th June.

Medical Evidence.
Dr. H.M. Roberts, Ravenscraig, Ardrossan, (Medical Officer at Ardeer), spoke to having attended James McNay and James Paterson (who was also injured), and ordered their removal to the Western Infirmary. Regarding the finding of the bodies, Dr. Roberts said that his opinion was that Niblock and Rainey had died instantaneously, and that McCulley died from heart failure accelerated by the shock of the explosion. He then spoke to having conversed with McNay, who stated that after he heard the explosion, he went back to the Black Powder Section and shut off the machine. His opinion was that McNay’s injuries were caused by running back to do that, and not having sufficient time to get clear afterwards.

Dr. James C. McIntosh, House Surgeon, Western Infirmary, Glasgow, spoke to having attended McNay and Paterson in Western Infirmary. McNay was injured on face neck back both arms and hands, and had bruises on his legs and a wound on the stomach.

Superintending Foreman.
J. Donaldson, 38 Wallace Avenue, Stevenston (Superintending Foreman in the Black Powder Section at Ardeer Factory), said that shortly before 11 am on the date in question he heard a loud noise, and on looking out saw a cloud of black smoke. As far as he could recollect, had heard five explosions in quick succession after he heard the first explosion. Rainey was in No. 6 house where the first explosion occurred, and shortly before the explosion Niblock took a bogie, containing 1100 pounds of Black Powder into this house. This bogie was put on the hoist. Rainey was upstairs and would receive this load. Niblock would probably be standing at the foot of the hoist, and when the explosion occurred he would be cut by flying debris.

Injured Workers Experience.
James Paterson, West Calder (one of the injured in the explosion), was the next witness. He said he was charge-hand at No. 2 corning house, and had Wm. Ponton as assistant. He spoke to having heard the explosion. He ran and felt the ground shaking. He fell and heard nothing more until he regained consciousness in the mess-room. He was taken to the Western Infirmary. He was discharged from the infirmary on the 22nd June.

Another employee named Wm. Cherry stated that when he heard the explosion he ran. George McCulley was with him. They had not gone far when they heard the second explosion. They were knocked down and got up again. They ran about fifteen or twenty yards when they heard the third explosion. They were again knocked off their feet. He shouted to McCulley to make for the bridge, but he got no answer. He looked round but could not see McCulley. He learned later that McCulley had died and his body had been found. He saw McNay and noticed that he was injured. He was being carried to the mess-room

D. Mitchell, 53 Glencairn Street, Stevenston (process Worker), spoke to having seen Niblock take the bogie to No. 6 house. Niblock had just got rid of the bogie when the explosion occurred.

John Park, New Street, Stevenston (labourer employed at the Ardeer factory), spoke to having cleared away the debris at No. 6 house, after the explosion. At 1.45pm they found Rainey’s body in a cavity formed by large slabs of concrete. These were parts of the building,

Dr. Cattle Explains Process.
Dr. P. Cattle D.Sc., Glenhaven, West Kilbride, said he was superintendent in charge of Black Powder Section at Ardeer Factory. He said there were three ingredients in Black Powder. These were ground together in a mill, pressed and formed into cakes. These cakes were afterwards broken into pieces about the size of walnuts. These were taken in tipped bogies to the cording houses. On reaching the cording houses these bogies were put in hoists, and the charge-man took possession of these. He emptied the contents into the machine which ground them into smaller pieces. The finished article came out at the front of the building, and fell from the machines into hoppers. The men involved in the explosion were engaged in that work when the explosion occurred. The charge-man engaged at the machine upstairs was not allowed to go on the hoist. He had to ascend by the stairs. The walls of the six houses were reinforced concrete, there was an embankment between each and the distance between each house would not be less than 60 yards.

Elaborate Precautions were taken to see that no foreign material got into the Black powder. The ingredients were carefully examined and put through a fine sieve. It might be possible, although not probable, that foreign material would get into the load in the course of transportation. Every chargehand, when taking over from the man on previous shift, had to examine the machine carefully and try it empty to see that it was in proper working order. All the machines were systematically examined periodically. The vital parts were cleaned and in fact the machines were stripped completely under the supervision of a qualified engineer. This overhaul was subject to certification by a recognised authority. If any defect arose in the course of the processes at No. 6 house it was something they would not have foreseen.

In answer to a question, (by deputy fiscal), as to what the men involved were likely to be doing when the explosion occurred, Dr. Castle said that the place where Rainey’s body was found suggested that he had been on the top floor of the building. He probable tipped the load into the hopper and was probably on his way back to the hoist when the explosion occurred. Niblock would have been standing at the front of the building. The work carried out on that day seemed to be going on normally as far as he could see. The cause of the first explosion was either foreign material in the load or a defect in the machine.

Mr. Jenkins Dr. Sc. Ardeer factory said that some foreign matter might get into the load. It might be metal from the machine. The man who emptied the load into the hopper had no opportunity of checking this.

Hon. Sheriff substitute, Patrick said that every possible precaution was taken to avoid accidents at Ardeer factory and the men in charge of the machines were thoroughly experienced men.
Dr. Jenkins said that was correct.
The Deputy Fiscal said that H.M. inspector of explosives had made a through investigation and in his report he stated that there was no suggestion of any default. He desired to complement the men on the way they had acted. They turned back and turned off the machines, and by doing so minimised the result of the explosion.

Hon. Sheriff Substitute, Patrick said there was no evidence to show there had been any default. He therefore recommended that the jury return a formal verdict. This verdict was accordingly returned in the usual form.

An inquiry was also held into the circumstances attending the death of John Lewis, process worker, 14 Moorpark Road, Stevenston, which occurred on Tuesday 27th July. His death was the result of injuries received on the previous day while engaged in his employment at Ardeer Factory. 

Minutes of Fatal Accident Enquiry
Kilmarnock Sheriff Court House
On the Nineteenth Day of August Nineteen Hundred and Thirty Seven
In the Presents of James Patrick Esquire Sheriff Substitute of Ayrshire

For a Fatal Accidents Inquiry to be held at Kilmarnock on
19th August 1937, at 10-15 a.m.

Special Jurors.
1. James Paterson, Butcher, 41, Kay Park Crescent, Kilmarnock.
2. William Hodge, Farmer, Dalsangan, Mauchline.
3. David Bell, Spirit Merchant, Helena, Kilbirnie.
4 Mrs Agnes MacLean, 19 Christie Gardens, Saltcoats
Not Known
5 Mrs. Ellen M. Haggarty, Loudoun Arms, Galston

Common Jurors.
6. John W. Robertson, Insurance Agent, 44 Glebe Road, Kilmarnock Gone Away
7. Adam A, Wilson, Engineer, 9 Scott Road, Kilmarnock.
8. David Howatson, Farmer, Threepwood, Galston.
9. Robert L. Morton, Cattle Dealer, Townhead, Newmilns.
10. Andrew M. Aird, Electrical Engineer; 5 Granger Road, Reccarton.
11. Mrs. Martha Kelso, 62 Glasgow Street, Ardrossan.
12. Miss. Mary McNicol, 8 Dean Road, Kilmarnock.
13 Mrs. Margaret Boyd, 8 Windmill Street, Saltcoats. Ill health
14. Mrs. Christina Carey, 35, Chapplewell Street, Saltcoats.
15. Mrs. Janet Johnston, 52, Parkhouse Road, Ardrossan.

Those shown blue were balloted for and all lawfully sworn

Fatal Accidents Inquiries 19th August 1937
Kilmarnock Sheriff Court.

1 Deaths of Robert Niblock
James Harvey Rainey
George McCully
James McNay Ardeer Factory.