Explosion, Fire & Pollution in the Blanefield Printworks

A group of printworkers with their foreman
A group of printworkers with their foreman c1880's

Dreadful Boiler Explosion kills seven and wounds seven others

Blanefield Printworks in common with many of the other printworks, had its share of accidents. Printworks were dangerous places and it was only as a result of these accidents that the Government had to act by bringing in the Factory Acts in an attempt to halt the number of accidents.
The Blanefield Print Works suffered a major incident as the tragic events of the 9th September 1864 illustrate. The Saturday Stirling Observer under the headline "Dreadful Boiler Explosion and Loss of Life" provided an account of one of the saddest days in the Parish. The following is an extract:
The accident occurred at half past 4 o'clock. The boiler was located in the centre of the works, which were constructed in such a way that most of the buildings were linked by connecting doors. The furnace door faced a dye house, which was one storey high supported by iron and wooden pillars. An ominous hissing noise was the first intimation of the catastrophe, followed immediately after by a loud report, which shook the works and spread alarm throughout the whole neighbourhood. Then followed the crash of falling masonry, while the vicinity of the boiler became enveloped in clouds of steam and inundated with streams of scalding water. The boiler remained firmly seated in its bed of brickwork but the roof of the shed was destroyed and the brick wall, which separated the back end of the boiler from the engine room, was blown in. The majority of people injured were all at work in the dyehouse when the explosion occurred.
The manager and foreman of the works despatched a messenger for Dr Brown Clark, surgeon to the works, and the injured people were removed to their homes in the village. The Rev. Mr Pearson, the Parish Minister and the Rev Mr Gardner of the Free Church went about the sufferers consoling them as best they could. Of those who died, Andrew Renfrew, the engine man, an unmarried man about 24 years of age, sustained fracture of the skull, and was also severely scalded. He died about mid day on Saturday. Charles Ramsay was a boy about 16 years of age and he was dreadfully scaled all over the body, besides receiving a cut on the head. He expired about two o' clock on Saturday morning. John Tennant, 15 years of age, a boy of delicate constitution, died an hour after the accident- the cause of death, it is supposed, being the shock which he received. (All died of similar injuries.) Some narrow escapes were made by persons in the vicinity at the time of the explosion.

With regard to the cause of the explosion, the commentators of the day could not form an opinion. The Stirling Observer remarked that from their enquiries, the boiler appeared to be perfectly safe, and there was no reason to fear a catastrophe such as actually took place.

Seven people were killed :

Andrew Renfrew (24), Charles Ramsay (16), John Tennant (15), Patrick Dunnion (12), Rosa Sanderson (50's), Malcolm Wallace (20), Samuel Paterson (60).

Four people, three men and one woman were seriously injured and three men slightly injured.

Despite the loss of life and general air of shock that must have descended on the factory, the Stirling Observer noted that "as the machinery has only been slightly damaged, no stoppage of the works will be occasioned." However, it must have been with grieving hearts that many returned to work as well as questioning how this dreadful accident had come about.

A story survives, passed down by Arthur Muir's grandfather, regarding the dreadful boiler explosion. Apparently the boiler was leaking and rather than have it repaired; it was decided to feed in a mixture of sawdust and water to seal the holes. This remedy worked but it also had the result of sealing the safety valve, hence the explosion. Doubts were also cast on whether or not the great fire was started to obtain the insurance money. There is indeed nothing new under the sun.

Fire !!

As well as explosions, fire was a constant hazard. Again the Saturday Stirling Observer of the 5th June 1875 provided a detailed report on "The Great Fire at Strathblane."

On Friday night the Blanefield Printing Works were entirely consumed by fire which broke out in the finishing warehouse?. All the valuable machinery, cloth, & etc are consumed, the principal articles rescued being some hundreds of copper rollers. A range of workmen's houses form part of the premises, and as a precautionary measure the occupants, with the assistance of the willing hands congregated removed their household effects to the adjoining fields but fortunately the flames were stayed before reaching the houses. There was a fire engine belonging to the works, which was of some service in preserving the outer buildings, but the works, as a whole, are destroyed. Some 300 to 400 hands will be thrown out of employment by the catastrophe, but we understand, the Blanefield Printing Company, who own the work, have the loss covered by insurance.
With the combustible nature of the contents of the factory the flames spread with great speed and thwarted all efforts to quell the fire. To supplement their efforts a mounted messenger was despatched to Glasgow for assistance from the fire brigade but the officer on duty rightly judged that before they could arrive with a pair of engines the fire would have spent itself.
The next day the smouldering ruins of the factory became a tourist attraction as people travelled from Milngavie, Campsie, and Glasgow and beyond to gaze at the twisted smouldering ruins and view the twisted and mangled machinery. Various estimates of the value of the property have been made, these varying from ?40,000 to ?60,000.

Dyeworkers at Blanefield Printworks

DyeWorkers Blanefield Printworks - date 1880's

After the Fire - Newspaper reports

By the 12th June the debris of the fire was being turned over in the search for copper engraved rollers but many were found fused together and mixed with the bricks. Upwards of 50 married men were employed in the clearing operations. The other workers were mainly laid off though a number got work at Milngavie, Vale of Leven, Campsie etc.
The Saturday Stirling Observer reported on the 4th September 1875 that rebuilding had commenced and no time would be lost in getting a portion of the works so far repaired that business might be resumed. By the 20th November 1875 progress had been made with the Saturday Stirling Observer reporting that "the first machine shop, in which six printing machines are being fitted, is well advanced, as also the bleaching house, colour preparation room, and other subsidiary shops. The majority of the workers are for the present dispersed but it is expected that early in the new year a start will be made with at least a portion of the works. As the residents depend mainly on these works for employment, their suspension has caused considerable hardship and inconvenience to many families."

Pollution and The Filter Beds

Plans to re-open the printworks after the devastating fire were delayed by a pollution case raised by the local MP Sir William Edmonstone and Blackburns' trustees against the printworks in 1876. The cause of contention was that insufficient care was being taken to prevent contamination and noxious materials from being discharged into the Blane.

The late Arthur Muir's family came to the parish in the 1850's to work on the first water tunnel digging tunnels . After the work was finished they were employed by the Coubroughs to build and maintain the filter beds. The filter beds were large channels dug out of the ground and had a bed of ash and charcoal no doubt a by product from the printworks. The polluted water was channelled into one of these filters and by the time it emerged the impurities had been filtered out. By working a system of using some of the filters while cleaning out the others, it was possible to ensure that no polluted water would be discharged into the Blane Water. The Coubroughs contended that because they had constructed these filters in the 1850's they should be seen as responsible owners. The case was eventually resolved and the works re-opened.

The filters are located down the Blane Water at the back of Ballewan Crescent. Only two remain and can be reached by following a path along the Blane Water at the foot of Station Road. The rest of the filters were filled in during the 1930's when the area was used as a rubbish dump. The path continues along to Parklea (now the Blanefield Nursing Home) and it is likely that the Coubroughs who lived at Parklea would walk along that way to the printworks.

?Alison Dryden, Strathblane Heritage Society 2005