A Disaster at Masbrough


To a resident in 19th century Victorian Rotherham, the level of healthcare that we enjoy today would probably seem incomprehensible. Until 1872, Rotherham did not have any hospital facilities, and only the wealthy could afford to pay the fees that a doctor would charge for his services. Rotherham did have a Dispensary where minor ailments and injuries could be treated, but the majority of residents, would probably have been looked after at home by their family. Anyone who was seriously ill or badly injured would have to travel to Sheffield for hospitalisation. Greater industrialisation of the town, in turn led to an increasing number of workplace accidents, and the need for a hospital grew ever more acute. This became very obvious on the 3rd December 1862 at the Midland Ironworks, Masbrough, Rotherham. The headline of the report in the Sheffield and Rotherham Independent the next day read:


Several boilers, of various dimensions, were sited in the Rolling Mill to furnish the power to drive the large number of rolls that were in use. One of these boilers, nearly the largest in the place, was embedded midway between two smaller ones, at about eighty yards from the entrance gate. The roof of the building was partly sheet-iron and partly slate, and the supports were wooden and iron beams crossed upon iron pillars. Near to the Boiler were two lofty chimneys, into which the flues from several of the boilers and furnaces were conducted.


The Explosion


At a few minutes after seven in the morning, there were about 160 men and boys employed at the works. The work was proceeding as usual, when suddenly a tremendous noise was heard, and the large boiler launched itself forward into the mill, and in an instant the whole place was in ruins. The explosion was described by those who saw it as having been, “most awful.” The two large tubes of the boiler were projected with immense force to the rear of the premises, accompanied by red-hot bricks from the bed of the boiler. Slates and sheets of iron from the roof of the shed, and other debris, covered the whole space around.

The boiler itself, was launched with inconceivable force right into the body of the Rolling Mill. The supports of the roof were broken, solid iron columns of 12 or 14 inches thickness snapped off, as if they had been made of glass. An immense Fly Wheel, of solid iron was broken in pieces, and a Cog Wheel of even larger size was also snapped asunder by the force of the blow. The roar of the explosion was terrible, and was quickly succeeded by still more appalling sounds, the shrieks and screams of the unfortunate persons who were buried beneath the ruins.

The survivors, having first made safe the other boilers, set immediately to work to extricate the injured and the dead. They found five bodies, most of whom had been killed outright by the rush of the boiler or the fragments which it displaced.

Their bodies were removed to the Butcher's Arms, a nearby public house. Two others, were unconscious, and died shortly afterwards. Up to 1 o'clock there had been seven deaths, and many persons injured, most of them suffering from very serious injuries, caused by the scalding water and steam, or by the fall of fragments of the ruins. Nine of the most seriously injured were taken at once to the Masbrough station and by train to Sheffield, where they were removed to the General Infirmary.

The scene of destruction after the smoke and steam cleared away almost baffled description. The vast mass of the boiler had been projected like a mortar shell for a distance of about ninety yards, and lay in a confused heap of beams, iron pillars, and broken machinery.

The exterior of the mill also bore numerous and serious traces of the force of the explosion and the extent of the destruction. One of the 130 feet high chimneys was scarred from bottom to top from the fragments of brick, iron, and machinery, which had been thrown up from below.

Across the Midland road, the public house kept by Edward Bagnall, and other houses, appeared as though they had been subjected to a bombardment. The windows and part of the roofs were blown out. The bed on which Mr. Bagnall lay was set on fire by the cinders, and he had to escape as best he could in his nightshirt. The roofs and windows of Absalom Duke and Mr. Skidmore were penetrated, and the room carpet of the latter was set on fire. Several missiles fell through the house roof of Mr. Dawson the grocer, but fortunately did not get through the ceiling. The fronts of some houses nearer to Rotherham were also damaged, while in the other direction a couple of fields were covered with pieces of sheet iron, slates and bricks. The broken tubes of the boiler, which were about 30 inches in diameter, and several yards long were also found in these fields, one of them at a distance of 150 yards, and the other about 300 yards from the scene of the explosion. The larger fragment of the boiler flue was found in the corner of a field close to the Woodman Inn. The boiler had measured 21 feet by 6 feet and had been in use several years.


                            The Midland Iron Company about 1858.

Image from the New Illustrated Directory, Men and Things of Modern England 1858. Reproduced with the permission of the Library of Birmingham. Reference LF06 (64/3075)



The men who died that day


James Fitzgerald. Puddler aged 20. A single man.

George Copley (Pettinger). Labourer aged 22. Married 1 child. He was buried on the 7th December at Moorgate Cemetery, Rotherham, and was recorded in the burial register as the son of William and Charlotte Pettinger.

William Carboy. Roller. Single man.

Joseph Adams. Puddler aged 52. Married with a family. Buried on 7th December at St Thomas’ Church, Kimberworth, Rotherham.

William Cawthorne. Roller aged 16. Buried 5th December at Moorgate Cemetery, and recorded as the son of Thomas and Sarah Cawthorne.

John Cawthorne. Iron Roller aged 42. Buried 6th December at Moorgate cemetery, and recorded as the son of John and Fanny Cawthorne.

John Ellis. Roller, aged 29. Buried 6th December at St Thomas’ Church, Kimberworth.


The dead were conveyed across the Midland Road to the Butchers Arms Public House.


                                  The Butchers Arms, Midland Road


List of the injured at Sheffield Infirmary


James Ainsworth. Aged 45, Masbro’. Compound fracture of both bones of the left leg. It is thought amputation will not be required.

Charles Woodcock. 25, Kilnhurst Lane, Masbro’. Severely burnt about the face and both arms, and also received some lacerated wounds on the neck and scalp. (Dangerous.)

William Johnson. 36, Puddler, Masbro’. Very severely burnt about the face, with a fracture of the left shoulder; severely lacerated wound on the scalp, and burnt on the arms and legs. (Dangerous.)

Jacob Foster. Aged 26. New York Road, Masbro’. Not dangerous, lacerated wound over the right elbow, and severely bruised about the back.

Richard Duffield. Aged 20. Midland Road, Masbro’. A very bad compound fracture of the right thigh and the left knee cap, and severe injuries to the back.

James Cooper. Aged 35. Various contusions to the head and back.

Henry Ward. Aged 19. Severely burnt on both arms, and severe contusion on the face, lacerated wound on the left leg and bruises.

James Fleming. Aged 18. Severe lacerated wound on the skull, and fracture of the left leg, necessitating amputation near the thigh.

James Cawthorne. Aged 40. Very severely burned on the face and arms, severe scalp wounds, and compound fracture of the left leg. Lies in a very dangerous state. Not rallied sufficiently to admit of amputation, which will be necessary.


List of the injured who remained at Rotherham


Simeon Edwards. Aged 42. Severely crushed and burnt.

Robert (Thomas) Pinkney. Roller, aged 17. Severely injured.

Frank Damms. Of  Bagnalls Yard, Masbrough. Broken arm and leg.

Thomas Cawthorne. Severely burnt and bruised.

William Murfin (Bagnall). Puddler, aged 35. Bradgate. Dangerously burnt and bruised.

James Wordsworth. A boy. Midland Road. Slightly burnt.

Charles Sheldon. Peggy Lane. Seriously injured.

John Day. Crown and Anchor, Masbrough. Severely injured.

Isaac Wood. Weigher. Slightly injured.

Mick Day. Of the Orchard, Masbrough. Slightly injured.

John France. Slightly injured.

Sam Taylor. Shoulder injuries.

William Myers. Slightly injured.

Thomas Walker. New York. Severely injured.

George Ogley. Slightly injured.

Charles Sorsby. Injuries to arm and head.

Harry Crooney. Severely injured.

George Bradley. Royal Oak Yard, Masbrough. Badly hurt.

William Thompson. Slightly injured.

James Smith. Slightly injured.


Several others received bruising and other injuries. Medical assistance was skilfully provided by doctors, Shearman, Robinson, and Reed; and surgeons, Darwin, Saville, Crowther, Stones, and Clarke. Although some of the survivors were so dreadfully injured that there was little hope of their recovery.




The inquest was opened at ten o’clock on Friday 5th December at the Prince of Wales Hotel, Masbrough, on the death of the seven persons who were killed in the explosion. The Coroner proposed that little would be done at this time other than to identify the bodies and order them to be buried. He was informed that it was likely that there may be two or three further deaths within the next few days, and so the inquest was adjourned until the following Friday at ten o’clock.

The inquest was resumed on Friday 12th December, before Mr. John Webster, coroner.

The inquiry concentrated on an investigation into the conduct of George Radford, who had charge of the boiler at the time when the explosion occurred.

It appeared from the evidence of Mr. Hartley, the manager, that Radford had nothing to do with the supplying of fuel, his only duty in connection with the boiler being to see that the water supply was right, and that the boiler was performing correctly. He had also a steam hammer to attend to, but it was only 12 yards away, and he had plenty of time to go and attend to the boiler. The hammer was not working at the time of the explosion, in consequence of its being repaired.

Mr. Isaac Dodds, Engineer, of Masborough, stated that he had examined the fragments of the boiler, that they appeared to have been in perfectly good working order, and that in his opinion part of the surfaces of the boiler and tubes had got red hot from the water being allowed to run too low, and then, owing to the sudden flushing of fresh water, steam had been generated in such vast quantities that the boiler had inevitably burst.

Mr Dodds suggested that safety valves of any kind would have but little effect in preventing the explosion. The process he had mentioned was the most fruitful cause of the boiler explosion. Mr. Dodds also stated that the system of heating the water, in this instance, though generally employed in ironworks, required more caution than the methods commonly in use. His theory as to the cause of the explosion was fully borne out by the evidence of Isaac Nicholson, who had stated that he saw Radford put water into the engine, and almost instantaneously the boiler exploded.

A point of inquiry in the case was the breaking of the glass gauge indicating the quantity of water in the boiler. It was proved that the gauge had been broken on the night before the explosion, and it had not been replaced when the boiler burst. Radford had stated that he did not know distinctly to whom he was to apply for a gauge, and he applied to Joseph Hobson, the fitter, as soon as he came in the morning. Hobson told David Ogley, the watchman, whose duty it was to find the gauge; but Ogley forgot to supply it. Moreover, Ogley admitted that he saw the gauge broken on the night before the explosion, but took no steps to get it replaced.

The coroner, in summing up, said he thought a criminal charge could not be sustained against Radford. No doubt, he was to blame; but Ogley and Hobson were also to blame, and the proprietors shared the responsibility in having a system of heating which required so much care.

The jury, after a consultation of about an hour and a quarter, returned a verdict of guilty of Manslaughter against George Radford, and that in their opinion great blame attached to David Ogley. The Coroner then issued a warrant for the committal of George Radford to York Assizes for trial.


Further Deaths


It was almost inevitable, following the long, and painful journey to Sheffield that the most severely injured had to endure, that further deaths would occur.

On Monday 8th December, an inquiry was opened by the Coroner J. Webster, Esq. at Sheffield Infirmary into the death of Thomas  Cawthorne.

Hannah Cawthorne of Westgate, Rotherham, identified the body as that of her husband who was 39 years of age. Thomas had died on Saturday 6th December. He was buried 9 December at Moorgate Cemetery, and was recorded as the son of John and Fanny Cawthorne.

Also on Monday 8th December it was reported that James Cawthorne, who, was found to be more seriously injured than the rest, had passed away. On Friday morning his sufferings had appeared to be less intense, and the decision was taken to amputate his injured limb that afternoon. He did not recover and despite all the skill and kindness of the medical officers, his dreadful sufferings finally came to an end, and he died at the Infirmary on Sunday 7th December. He was 46 years of age.

The injured man Thomas Pinkney aged 17, who was severely burned, died of his injuries on Wednesday 10th December at Sheffield Infirmary. He was buried on the 14th December at Moorgate Cemetery, and was recorded as the son of George and Mary Pinkney.

Charles Sheldon aged 19, of Peggy Lane, Rotherham, died during Thursday night the 11th December, at Sheffield Infirmary. He was buried on the 13th December at St Thomas’ Church, Kimberworth.

John Woolhouse aged 26, died on Saturday 13th December, at Sheffield Infirmary. He was buried on the 17th December at Moorgate Cemetery, and was recorded as the son of Peter and Mary Woolhouse.

Henry Ward aged 18 years, died at the Infirmary on 17th December. He was buried on the 20th December at St Thomas’ Church, Kimberworth.

William Mirfin Bagnall aged 35 years, died at his home in Bradgate, Rotherham on Friday 19th December. He was buried on 21st December at St Thomas’ Church, Kimberworth. He was the son of John Mirfin and Eliza Bagnall.

The death toll had now reached fourteen.




At the Winter Assizes at York on Saturday 20th December 1862, before Mr. Justice Keating, George Radford was indicted for the manslaughter of William Cawthorne. Mr. Maule and Mr. Fullerton prosecuted and Mr. S. D. Waddey defended the prisoner.

It appeared that the duty of Radford was to see that the boilers of two engines were supplied with water to work a Condy's Hammer, and to see that the pumping engine which supplied the boilers with water was kept going.

Radford was told that the float gauge, which measured the quantity of water in the boiler, had been broken the night before, and Radford had asked a man named David Ogley for a glass water gauge at 5.30 on the morning of the explosion. A water gauge had not been supplied.

Radford's duties during his 12 hour shift required him to attend to the steam hammer from 200 to 300 times. Mr. Waddy, contended that the fault did not rest with George Radford that the glass water gauge was not supplied, and that in attending to his other duties he had not observed that the water had got too low in the boiler. The crime, if any, was not on the part of the prisoner, but attached to those who heated this boiler in such a dangerous way, in order to save their fuel. He hoped that the Jury would not visit upon the prisoner the sins of others; of careless masters.

His Lordship in his summing up, left it to the jury to say whether the explosion had been caused by the culpable negligence of Radford. His Lordship went on to say that he hoped that in the future, it would be made the duty of some person to attend to the boilers where it was so all important that their condition should be monitored, and the person employed in this duty, should not have his attention distracted some 200 to 300 times a shift, by having to look after the working of the steam hammer.

The jury, after a brief deliberation, returned a verdict of not guilty.


Yet More Deaths


On Tuesday 23rd December, Richard Duffield, of Midland Road, Masbrough, died at the Infirmary from the effects of injuries received in the explosion. He had sustained a very bad compound fracture of the right thigh, and of the left kneecap, and was severely bruised about the back. He was 20 years of age.

On Saturday January 3rd 1863, Simeon Edwards aged 42 of Masbrough, died at Rotherham. He leaves a widow and seven children.

Wednesday January 28th, James Flemming aged 18, passed away at Sheffield Infirmary. He was buried 1st February 1863 at Moorgate Cemetery. He was recorded as the son of Henry and Hannah Flemming.

The total number of deaths had now reached seventeen. A much higher figure than has been previously recorded.




The Midland Iron Company it seems suffered little, and subsequently recovered from the disaster. The company was still in operation more than a hundred years later, and was apparently doing quite well in 1912 as shown in the advertisement below.



The consequences to the families of the dead and injured would have been far more serious. The loss of their loved ones, and the loss of income would have been a devastating blow to many families.

As a result of the deaths, and injuries that had occurred from this and from many other accidents and tragedies in and around the town, the need for a purpose built hospital to serve the people of Rotherham became undeniable.



                    Rotherham Hospital Doncaster Gate, Rotherham


In the years following this disaster, funds were raised by donations and by public subscription to enable the building of a hospital, although it would be almost ten years later before Rotherham Hospital finally became a reality. The first patients were received in May 1872, and the hospital would go on to serve the people of Rotherham for many years.

Sadly despite much local opposition, this fine historic building was recently demolished.

© 2015 Pat Bagnall



This narrative will hopefully add a little local history interest to the site. Most of the details have been extracted from the Sheffield and Rotherham Independant, and this version of the story was first published as an article in the September 2015 edition of the Rotherham family History Society journal




The story can be found in a number of other locations, on the internet, but having carried out further research I think I have managed to add much more detail than has been previously published.



A view of the junction of Midland Road running lower left to upper right, Clough Road to the upper left, and Union Street to the lower right.

The Butchers Arms is the building on the end of the row of houses on Midland Road, at the corner of Clough Road.

The row of houses to the right hand corner of Clough Road are still standing today.



A view of the main gate of the works, which opened onto Midland Road. The building directly opposite at the left is the Midland Inn, kept at the time by Edward Bagnall.

The Midland Inn is still in business as a public house.


A view through the gate taken about 100 years later in the 1960s.











Left: the Midland Iron Works about 1858 just a few years before the explosion occurred.

The site is now occupied by the Rotherham Bus depot.




















Left: Enlarged view of the several boilers that served to power the works.


























A view of the Butchers Arms from the 1960s.

Part of the Midland Iron Works can be seen to the left of the photo'.


















A 1960s view of the Woodman Inn.

The larger fragment of the boiler flue was found near here.









A Midland Iron Company advertisement from about 1858


Image from the New Illustrated Directory, Men and Things of Modern England 1858. Reproduced with the permission of the Library of Birmingham. Reference LF06 (64/3075)


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