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Boiler Explosion at Bray,

16 September 1872

ERNIE SHEPHERD Dip.Loc.Hist. (NUI Maynooth)

Mercifully, boiler explosions involving railway locomotives have been comparatively rare, particularly so in Ireland. However, one such occurred at Bray on the morning of 16 September 1872. On that morning, just as the 9am train was preparing to depart for Dublin, a violent explosion rocked the station and surrounding area. In the flowery language engaged in at the time, the Evening Telegraph of that day gives us a flavour of the scene as follows.

“As soon as the vapour and clouds of debris which enveloped the spot had cleared away a shocking sight presented itself. The huge engine was seen as a wreck upon the line, being shattered in fragments large or small and utterly dismembered. Among the smoking ruin lay the fireman, Patrick Smith, quite dead, and a little way off was stretched the engineer, Patrick Dolan, still breathing, but frightfully injured[1].  The railway employees and such among the passengers as had retained their presence of mind after having hurried out of the train instantly rendered assistance, and the poor sufferers were conveyed to the waiting room where Dolan expired in twenty minutes. The full extent of injury caused by the explosion was soon ascertained. Fortunately though the train, a composite one of many carriages, was full in every compartment, not an individual was scratched, and what is singular, not a mark appeared on the face of the carriage which was coupled next the locomotive, though the tender portion[2]  of the machinery was quite as shattered as the boiler or fore-part. The force of the explosion happily took a forward and upward direction, partly, however, oblique to the station, and its terribly destructive power was shown by the havoc wrought upon whatever lay within the circle of its influence. Several square yards of the roof of the station were blown off, the material being completely pulverised and scattered in fine dust for a considerable distance. Some persons had escapes, which may be regarded as little less than miraculous. The book-stand keeper sitting in his shed, on a line parallel with the engine, had a large fragment driven with tremendous force through the timbers of his stand, the missile passing within a few inches of his head.”

There then follows a description of the after-effects of the explosion on the locomotive itself. “The ponderous engine, No. 4 of the line, which was comparatively new, having been built in 1854 by Farquahar of Manchester[3], was torn to pieces as though it had been a thing of thread and pasteboard. The entire barrel or boiler portion had disappeared, and only the huge and almost solid piece of mechanism which forms the furnace portion behind and the breast in front were even recognisable as having once belonged to a railway engine.”

The Times of London for 17 September was even more dramatic in its brief description of the occurrence. It reported that Patrick Smith had been blown against a wall, whilst Patrick Doolin had ended up on the roof of the station. The railway station was stated to be a complete wreck, the roof being partly destroyed with all windows and frames smashed. In addition many of the windows in Breslin’s Hotel were also greatly damaged. Overall, damage was estimated at several thousands of pounds.

An inquest was held at Bray on the day following the accident. It was a lengthy affair, commencing according to one report at 10am and finally ending at 8pm that evening. It was held in a waiting room at the station, which was reported by The Irish Times correspondent to be too small with little or no accommodation for the press. The proceedings were conducted by Dr M.H. Jones, the Coroner for Co. Wicklow, the jury consisting of 15 worthy gentlemen with Henry Warburton, JP, appointed as the foreman. The Freeman’s Journal, reporting on the inquest, stated that it was the second occasion on which an inquest had been held in the Dublin district on men who had lost their lives through the bursting of an engine boiler. Due to a mistake as to the hour at which the inquest was to take place, the Coroner commenced his inquiry before the solicitor and Counsel for the next of kin had arrived from Dublin. In fact a member of one of the families had drawn the attention of the Coroner to this fact and had requested an adjournment, but his application was refused.

John Tozier, the Bray station master, was called first and stated the facts of the explosion as witnessed by him. At one point, the late driver’s brother tried to interject but the Coroner refused him permission to ask questions. John Bellew, the guard of the train, confirmed that No. 4 had already made a round trip to Dublin that morning – 7am from Bray and 8am from Harcourt Street. On arrival back in Bray, No. 4 had taken water before taking its place at the head of the train. In response to a question from Counsel, he confirmed that he had never heard Doolin complain of the engine. Next to be examined was the locomotive superintendent, John Wakefield. He confirmed that No. 4 had received major repairs in 1865 and had been in shops as recently as June 1872 when no defects were found. In response to another question from Counsel, he stated that the average age of a locomotive would be in excess of 20 years. Wakefield stated that Doolin had expressed a wish to drive No. 4 in June “as he was so used to it;” for a time he had also driven sister engine No. 5. Normally a locomotive was on shed for two days a week when it was inspected by its regular driver and fireman, they then reporting any defects. He confirmed that he had spoken to Doolin on several occasions, including since June, about holding down safety valve levers.

At this point Dr Falconer entered the room and protested against the proceedings beginning without somebody to represent the next of kin. He then requested an adjournment, this being refused, although the evidence to date was briefly read to him. Dr Falconer then proceeded to examine Richard Tait, an engine fitter at Bray with six years’ service on the DW&WR. Tait knew No. 4 and confirmed that it had been on shed two days prior to the explosion when minor repairs had been carried out following a report from Doolin. These repairs, in his opinion, would have had no bearing whatsoever on the safety or integrity of the boiler. As far as he could ascertain, the engine appeared to be perfectly sound. Dr Falconer then examined William Payne, the company’s traffic manager since 1863. Records indicated that Doolin had been with the company for 17 years, having personally known him for the past 10 years. He had never heard Doolin, or any other driver, complain of No. 4, and he was sure he would have, as guards were obliged to submit reports on the running of their trains. A fellow driver, Henry Dixon, who also had been 17 years in the service of the company, normally drove No. 5, but he also had experience of No. 4, and had no complaint about either locomotive. Another driver, James Sterling, said in his evidence that he had heard Doolin comment that No. 4 was hard to work and shy of steam, but he had never said anything about her being unsound.

Next to take the stand was Peter Doolin, son of the deceased. Peter confirmed he was 16 years of age and was the eldest child in the family; he confirmed that he had two brothers and six sisters living. His father had been on duty the previous Saturday for 3½ hours, presumably on shed at Bray. He told how he had overheard his father telling his mother that evening that the coal was bad and “but for the mercy of God, the engine will be blown up, and I hope it will not be my lot to be upon it, for it is nothing but a worn-out old truck.”[4]  Patrick Smith’s father said Doolin had been right in saying that for the last seven or eight years no proper engines, but old broken ones were working on the line. The last witness was Dolin’s widow, Julia (nee Ryan), who confirmed what her son had said. She also said her husband had complained on several occasions of No. 4 having a bad boiler.

Following an intervention from Mr Purcell, presumably on behalf of the company, the Coroner urged the jury to ignore the testimony of the last three witnesses as the evidence given by the officers of the company appeared to completely disprove them. The jury, having deliberated for ¾ hour, returned a verdict that they had no evidence as to the state of the engine, but expressed an opinion that the company’s locomotives should be subjected to more frequent periodical examination.

Commenting on the inquest the Express stated that whilst the public may have been very easily satisfied as to the cause of the accident, they should nevertheless demand much more information than was afforded at the inquest. No explanation had been offered as to how the boiler exploded, and no examination had apparently been made to discover the condition of the boiler. The Express went on to state that, bearing in mind the evidence as to Dowling’s comments, the onus was surely on the company to prove that the engine was in a “fairly good state.”

The funerals took place two days after the tragedy, Doolin’s being held in the Church of the Holy Redeemer in Bray. The two funerals met at the Courthouse at 5pm and proceeded via the market place to the cemetery; it was reported that it was the largest funeral witnessed in Bray for many years. The Irish Times went on to say that Doolin, aged 47, left a wife and nine children, the youngest of whom was 15 months old, while Smith left a wife and three children, with the youngest only five months of age.

In the meantime, the matter had been referred to the Board of Trade and Lieut-Col F.H. Rich had been appointed to carry out an investigation. In addition, the Board of the company set up a small committee to carry out their own investigations. A letter was received from Messrs D. & T. Fitzgerald, solicitors, on 19 September enclosing a memorial of expenses amounting to £16 13s 11d in connection with the inquest on Doolin and Smith. They went on to state that in their opinion that the explosion of the boiler was due to the recklessness of Doolin in putting on too great a pressure of steam, and, if this could be established, the company would not be legally liable to the families of the deceased. A letter was also received from another solicitor, a Mr Ennis, on behalf of Dowling’s widow, asking permission for an engineer to examine the remains of the locomotive. He was informed that the “fragments” could be inspected any day on 24-hours prior notice so that Mr Wakefield could also attend. On the same day a memorial was received from Smith’s widow seeking some compensation.

The Board received a report from the sub-committee on 26 September; the Board minutes make no reference to the likely cause of the explosion, but they do refer to the committee’s recommendation regarding possible payments to the widows. In the case of Dowling’s widow, it was recommended that she be allowed 14s per week while she remained a widow and that her children be granted 11s per week until they were able to support themselves; furthermore her eldest son Peter should be taken into the service of the company. As regards Elizabeth Smith, she should be paid 7s per week during her widowhood, and her children 8s per week until able to provide for themselves. A Mr Arthur Galbraith wrote to the company on 17 October claiming compensation for alleged injuries sustained in the explosion, but the directors declined to entertain his claim.

Clearly following a suggestion from Rich, as we shall shortly see, at the end of October the Board ordered that estimates be obtained for procuring Ramsbottom safety valves with a view to applying them by degrees to all the company’s locomotives. Rich’s report was finally sent to the Board of Trade on 20 November. In apologising for the delay in submitting it he commented that he had called in boiler experts and he had also been awaiting a report on the testing of various metals.

So to Rich’s report. Apart from one large piece of iron plate attached to the side of the firebox and another piece to the side of the smokebox, the remainder of the boiler had been blown away. The fire tubes were all pulled out of the firebox and, in Rich’s words, “stood out like porcupine quills from the smokebox.” The framing on one side of the locomotive was broken and the motion destroyed. The cover plate of the manhole, which measured 18in by 15in and which was directly over the firebox had been blown away, the two safety valves being fixed in the cover plate. In all 21 pieces of iron plate and one piece of brass, all from the boiler, were picked up in various locations both inside and outside the company’s premises. Apart from broken glass in the station and the hotel on the other side of the line, remarkably little collateral damage had occurred. The boiler was torn on the centre line from the front of the manhole to the back of the firebox. The rent extended all round the shell of the firebox along the lap, where the plate of the barrel was riveted to the shell of the firebox, except at one spot where the lap joint had been repaired and strengthened with a patch; the latter indicated that the boiler had shown prior signs of weakness.

Lieut-Col Rich confirmed some dimensions for No. 4 – cylinders were 15in x 20in, driving wheels 5ft 6in, leading and trailing wheels 3ft 6in, weight 28 tons, and boiler pressure 105psi. Boiler length was 9ft 11½in with an inside diameter of 4ft and made of ⅛in wrought-iron plates which were single riveted. No record existed of the number of miles run prior to 25 June 1866 but we know that since then it had run 110,164 miles up to the time of the explosion. On the morning of the explosion it had, as already mentioned, made a return trip from Bray to Dublin.

From the evidence put before Lieut-Col Rich, he was in no doubt as to the cause of the explosion, namely that the lever of the safety valve had been pressed or wedged down where it passed through the hole in the weatherboard of the locomotive. It was stated that some of the company’s drivers had previously been cautioned against such a practice, some on several occasions, Dowling being amongst their number. In one instance a pressure of 160psi was noted. Witnesses reported that no steam was seen escaping from No. 4’s safety valves prior to the explosion. While no complaints had officially been made about No.  4, Patrick Dowling was said to have stated that it required to be worked with about 20lb above the 105psi.

On the occasion of his first examination, Rich was of the opinion that the boiler had given way at the bottom end next to the firebox, where the plate was grooved by corrosion. However, he admitted that he had limited experience of boiler explosions[5] and decided to call for assistance from the Manchester Steam Users’ Association[6].   Their chief engineer, a Mr L.E. Fletcher, visited Bray and was assisted by Mr John Bailey of the Dublin firm of Messrs Courtney Stephens & Bailey[7].  After a thorough inspection of the wreckage, Fletcher gave his opinion that the boiler had first given way at the manhole, Bailey concurring in this view. All three men did agree that excess pressure had caused the explosion.

As already noted the manhole measured 18in x 15in, and was cut out of the top of the boiler; its rim appeared to have been as sound at the time of the explosion as when the locomotive was new. Samples of the iron and brass from the manhole were nevertheless sent away for analysis, the results of which in due course indicated that the iron boiler plate had a tensile strength equal to the best Staffordshire plate. The defective plate at the bottom of the barrel, near the firebox, was shown to be corroded about half way through, which should have coped with a pressure of 130psi, or only 25psi above No. 4’s normal working pressure.

Having thoroughly considered all of these points, it seemed clear to Lieut-Col Rich that the weakest part of No. 4’s boiler was the lap joint between the barrel and the firebox shell at the right side near the bottom of the barrel in a seam that had been patched in 1865, and that the boiler exploded from over-pressure, which had been applied by the driver weighting or wedging down the safety valve. The destruction of the crank axle and engine framing near the bottom of the barrel tended to indicate that the principal force of the explosion was downwards and that the first rupture took place at the right side near the bottom of the barrel, where it joined the outer shell of the firebox. If the first rupture had occurred at the manhole, as suggested by Fletcher and Bailey, it was likely that the roof over the station platform would have been destroyed or at least suffered considerable damage[8]. 

No repairs had been done to the boiler since 1865, at which time it had received a new copper firebox, new copper stays and new copper tubes. A new plate was put on the barrel next to the smokebox and a new patch applied to the left hand side of the boiler next to the firebox shell. The engine had last been in shops in June 1872, at which time the boiler was examined and was found to be tight; the tubes were not removed at that time. The boiler had apparently never been tested and it would have been impossible to have detected the defective portions of boiler plate without taking out the tubes and removing the stays.

In conclusion Lieut-Col Rich had several recommendations. Locomotive boilers should be periodically tested to double their working pressure. Manholes of boilers should be guarded with substantial mouthpieces to compensate fully for the amount of metal cut away. No. 4 had been made by one of the leading manufacturers, but with the manhole only about half the strength of the remainder of the boiler. It would be advisable for all locomotive superintendents to examine manholes on all boilers in their charge to see how far the condition existed and, if necessary, rectify it. Lastly, it would be desirable that the levers of safety valves should not pass through weatherboards, and arranged so that drivers could not fasten them down. In this regard, Ramsbottom’s safety valve[9]  deprived drivers of the power of fastening them down.

As a postscript, it is of interest to refer to a Board minute of 21 November 1872, two months after the explosion at Bray, when the Board investigated a complaint made by Mr Bradshaw, the locomotive foreman at Bray, against a driver by the name of Whiston for having had too high a pressure on 25 October, together with a counter complaint against Bradshaw of being under the influence of drink on the same occasion. Tozier, the Bray Station Master, gave evidence. Resulting from the investigation it was resolved that Bradshaw be allowed to resign. Whiston was called into the Boardroom and severely reprimanded and cautioned by the chairman. The sister engine to No. 4, No. 5, remained in the company’s service until 1900, presumably with new safety valves.

My thanks for supplying information are due to Fiona Scannell and Robert Butler of the Wicklow Library Service in Bray, to the British Library for producing a copy of Ramsbottom’s Patent, and finally to Jackie Hickey of the General Register Office for permission to use copies of the relevant death certificates to illustrate this paper. Mention should also be made of the website which is gradually including more and more accident reports to its website, including quite a number of Irish ones. C.H. Hewison’s book Locomotive Boiler Explosions (David & Charles, Newton Abbot, originally published in 1983 and reprinted in 2003) is a useful source of information on the subject, although only three are listed for Irish railways.

[1] According to his death certificate the driver’s name was Dowling, although the Board minutes also refer to him as both Dowling and Doolin. His widow, Julia, who died in 1902 at the age of 64 was also shown as Dowling on her death certificate. The names as indicated in the various documents are used in this paper.

[2] The locomotive was in fact a tank; presumably the reporter is referring to the bunker portion.

[3] It was of course a product of Messrs Fairbairn of Manchester, one of two introduced by the company in 1855.

[4] The alleged poor quality of the coal was robustly contested both by Wakefield and Payne.

[5] In fact Rich’s only previous inquiry into a boiler explosion was that which occurred on the Manchester Sheffield & Lincolnshire Railway at Deepcar on 25 October 1870.

[6] The MSUA had been formed in 1854 in response to the proliferation of steam boilers in mill buildings in Manchester, many of which had been constructed by blacksmiths with little or no theoretical boiler training. These were not the responsibility of the Railway Inspectorate. The MSUA merged with the British Engine Insurance Company in 1932. This is the only known occasion when the Railway Inspectorate and the MSUA collaborated in such an inquiry.

[7] Known as Courtney & Stephens prior to John Bailey joining the partnership in 1865.

[8] Perhaps this is the reason for the MSUA not being consulted in future!

[9] John Ramsbottom (1814-97) had designed a safety valve so as to be tamper resistant. A pair of plug valves were held down by a common spring-loaded lever between them with a single central spring. Even if the lever was held down, thus increasing the force on the rear valve, there was a corresponding reduction of force in the front valve.


The remainder of this article appears in IRRS Journal number 181, published June 2013

Copyright © 2013 by Irish Railway Record Society Ltd.
Revised: August 23, 2013 .