100 years ago: Heartbreaking Tipton explosion that killed 19 young girls in their prime

It was a story that would probably have been played out countless times – teenage daughter takes on an unsuitable job against the wishes of her parents and a worried mother turns up at the workplace on her first morning to bring her daughter home. Only on this occasion the story had a tragic ending.

Florence Bryant, pictured the year after the explosion with her surviving children Ted (John's father), Mary, Fredrick and baby Elsie
Florence Bryant, pictured the year after the explosion with her surviving children Ted (John's father), Mary, Fredrick and baby Elsie

Four months pregnant, expecting her third daughter, Florence Bryant was just about to walk out of the door of the L K Knowles metal works with 14-year-old daughter Gladys in tow, having persuaded her boss to relieve the youngster of her duties.

But as the pair headed for the exit, a huge explosion tore through the building, blowing the roof off. Florence was thrown to the ground with huge force, leaving her with life-changing injuries. Gladys was not so lucky. As Florence spent the next few minutes groping around on the floor in a dazed state, frantically looking for her daughter, the reality was that Gladys was already on her way to Dudley Guest Hospital with horrific injuries that would prove fatal.

It will be 100 years on Sunday since what is probably the darkest day in Tipton’s history. Florence was one of the few to survive the disaster. A total of 19 girls aged 13 to 16, all employed illegally by factory boss John Walter Knowles, died as a result of injuries sustained in the explosion.

A funeral for the girls killed in the explosion

It was just four years after the First World War, and the nation was hardened to bloodshed. But even so, the scale of the disaster – and perhaps the fact that the victims were all young girls – shocked many. Clive Wygram, equerry to King George V, wrote a letter of condolence on the King's behalf.

For the Bryant family, it was something that was rarely spoken about.

“I never knew a thing about it until I was 37,” says Florence’s grandson John Bryant.

By coincidence, John, who was a civil engineer, was working on a project in the same road as where the disaster happened. He will never forget the reaction of his father Ted, a hard-bitten veteran of the Second World War, when he discovered where he was working. “One day in 1986 my dad asked me what I was working on, and I said I was working in Groveland Road,” he recalls. “He said ‘Can’t you not work down there?’, and told me the story.

The wreckage of the factory after the explosion

“He was 71, and had never said anything about it before. He was upset, and I must admit that when I went to work the next day it was on my mind a bit.”

John, now 72 and living in the Sedgley area of Dudley, will join his cousins Sandra, Phil and Helen for a memorial service organised by Sandwell Council on Sunday to mark the centenary of the tragedy.

It left a huge mark on the family, living in West Street, Dudley, at the time. Florence’s unborn daughter survived the blast, and was born in the summer of that year, given the name Elsie. But the blast had caused severe injuries to Florence’s hands – leaving her unable to hold the baby. Florence’s husband, Pharoah, died weeks after Gladys’s funeral, aged just 39, and it fell to the eldest surviving daughter Mary – herself just aged about 11 or 12 – to help bring up the baby.

John Bryant holds a picture of his grandmother Florence, who was injured in the explosion, and her surviving children Ted, who was John's father, Mary, Frederick and baby Elsie

The blast took place at about 11.45am on March 6, 1922. Knowles, who lived nine miles away in Stourton, had secured a lucrative contract breaking up surplus rifle cartridges left over from the First World War so they could be sold for scrap

The work had been subcontracted to Knowles from Birmingham-based Premium Aluminium Company, which had been carrying out such work for some time under licence from the Home Office. For a fee of £500, plus a half-share of any profits made, Premium Aluminium handed Knowles 160 tons of cartridges, and it fell to Knowles’ workforce to dismantle the cartridges, separating the copper casing from the lead bullets, and removing any trace of gunpowder so that they could safely be melted down.

But while Harry Andrews, chairman of Premium Aluminium, insisted his company only employed girls aged 18 or over and made sure the cartridges were broken underwater, Knowles was not quite so scrupulous. Andrews paid his adult workers between £2 and £3 a week – about £121 to £182 at today’s prices – but Knowles paid his child labour force just 6s – the equivalent of about £18 today. And while the girls at Premium Aluminium had felt pads on their shoes to reduce the risk of sparks, and fireproof screens to separate them, Knowles did not bother with such matters.

How the Express & Star reported the disaster

“The gunpowder was going everywhere,” says John. “They were told to put it in a bucket, and chuck it in the canal.

“There was a stove alight, my grandmother said, when she went into the factory, she thought it was a spark from that which lit the gunpowder.”

According to reports, the girls were said to have been singing as they worked a few moments before the blast. But when the Express & Star’s reporter arrived, it was a scene of total carnage.

Ebor Chadwick, the 31-year-old works manager, had briefly left the shop, and returned to see a “veritable inferno”. To his credit, he did his best to save the girls.

How the Express & Star reported the disaster

“With great pluck he and others dashed round the room, putting out the flames with bags and the like, and dragging from the burning building the prostrate, or shrieking, panic-stricken girls,” the paper reported.

“Some of these were scorched beyond recognition. The flying gunpowder had totally disfigured them, their clothing literally torn from their bodies.”

A total of 22 girls, plus Florence Bryant, were taken to Dudley Guest Hospital, mostly in passing cars or lorries that had been flagged down. Only three survived. The firm employed about 50 girls, and those who were not injured ran home.

“Some of the injured are quite unrecognisable,” said the report. “Not only are their features terribly deformed, but most of the girls have no hair left.”

The girl front centre is believed to be Annie Naylor, who died aged 14

All the injured, apart from Florence Bryant, were described as being extremely ill. Gladys survived until about 7.30 the following evening.

In her harrowing account of the incident, Mary described the agony her older sister went through in her last hours:

“My dear sister was asking for a drink of cocoa, and my auntie said to the nurse ‘Why don’t you give it to her?’

“The nurse replied that if she did that, it would just run out of her back.”

The memorial to the girls at Tipton cemetery

Mrs Bryant was rescued by Sam Morgan, who had been picking coal from a disused pit mound at the time of the disaster.

“I could see several girls inside, screaming tearing away at the few garments that were still on them, and all on fire,” he said.

“The last one to come out, as I thought, was a young woman. She had all her hair burnt away, and nothing on, only her corsets and part of a garment worn underneath them, and still burning in different places.”

Mr Morgan described the last moments of Lizzie Williams, a 13-year-old girl he tried to rescue:

The memorial to the girls at Tipton cemetery

“Inside I came across another little girl lying on the floor, not much bigger than a good-sized doll. She was moaning and muttering, and was nude with only her tattered boots on.

“She again started muttering on the way to hospital, and I could see she hadn’t got long to live. So I thought I would try to get her name from her. She didn’t answer me the first time, so I asked her again, and she answered as well as she could ‘Lizzie’. I said ‘what else?’, she replied ‘Williams, Lizzie Williams’, and I believe that was the last time that the poor little girl spoke.”

Also among those who died was 14-year-old Annie Naylor, a relative of historian Billy Howe who runs the Lost Wolverhampton website. His mother, who was Annie’s cousin, recalled attending a funeral for 12 of the girls.

A letter sent on behalf of the King in the wake of the disaster

“She described the scene to me that day at Tipton Cemetery, as she stood with other relatives, and local dignitaries close to the vast array of floral tributes covering the grave, where a vault had been acquired for the purpose of a mass burial.”

As the mourners emerged through the cemetery gates, thousands had gathered to pay their respects. “The scene was was reminiscent of the few minute before the Cup Final as the crowd falls silent before Abide With Me,” says Billy.

John Knowles, a 55-year-old man of considerable wealth, and his manager, Ebor Chadwick, were charged with manslaughter, while Knowles’ wife Louisa Kate – technically the owner of the factory – was charged with the illegal storage of explosives.

During the trial at Stafford Assizes, it emerged that John Knowles had four previous convictions for offences under the Factory and Workshops Acts, and had served 18 months in prison for receiving stolen metal.

Inspector Mycock of Tipton police examining the wreckage of the building

The court heard he did not have the required licence to handle explosives.

John Knowles was found guilty, while Chadwick – who had been left deaf by the explosion – and Louisa Knowles were acquitted.

The Knowles’s voluntarily paid £10,000 in compensation to the victims and their families, about £640,000 at today’s prices.

Mr Justice Shearman was withering while passing sentence on Knowles who was jailed for five years.

However, according to Mary Bryant’s account, her mother had written a letter calling for his sentence to be reduced:

“She always said when she was talking to him that morning she found him a ‘gentleman’ and understanding.”

The girls killed as a result of the explosion were:

Laura Dalloway, 14, of 36, Upper Chapel Street, Tividale; Nellie Kay, 15, of 20, Great Bridge Street, West Bromwich; Mabel Weaver, 14, of 3, Victoria Terrace, Tipton; Annie Freeth, 15, of Farley Street, Great Bridge; Violet May Franklin, 15, of 17, Cleton Street, Tipton; Annie Elizabeth Florence Edwards, 15, of 77, A block, Munition Huts, Dudley; Annie Naylor, 14, of 162, Dudley Port; Priscilla Longmore, 13, of 337, Dudley Port; Lizzie Williams, 13, of Old Cross Street, Tipton; Edith Drew, 15, of Boat Row, Tipton; Edith Richards, 14, of 7, Factory Road, Tipton; Elsie Follows, 15, of 196, Dudley Port; Gladys May Bryant, 14, of 15, West Street, Dudley; Lily Griffiths, of Railway Street, Horsley Heath; Margaret Burns, 15, of Sheepwash Lane, West Bromwich; Hannah Hubbard, 16, of Dudley Port; Elizabeth Aston, 16; Lucy Edwards, 14; and Ethel May Jukes, 15.

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