Disaster that shattered a community

WEDNESDAY was the 95th anniversary of the White Lee disaster, which killed 10 men and injured six more.

The explosion, at a chemicals factory on Hollinbank Lane, claimed the area's first victims of the Great War.

But the blast was not caused by the German army - it was put down to a tragic accident.

On December 2 1914, an explosion ripped through the acid works of Henry Ellison Limited.

The company had been commisioned by the government to manufacture picric acid for the production of lyddite shells. Workers had been grinding the acid crystals into powder.

The disaster happened at 2pm, followed by a dense cloud of yellow dust, which rose into the air like a huge balloon.

Fifteen men were working in or near the factory at the time, ten of whom were killed. The bodies recovered were mutilated beyond recognition and some had to be identified by the contents of their pockets.

The reporter of the day said: "The task of identifying the victims was carried out by the police and workmen and was a very distressing proceeding.

"A large number of people at first surged round the bodies, for what reason it seemed difficult to conjecture, for the spectacle presented was, to say the least, horrible, and naturally the task was somewhat distasteful to those compelled to undertake it."

The dead were: Frederick Wright, a chemist from Cleckheaton; James Nicholas, a foreman from White Lee; brothers Albert and Nimrod Firth, of Heckmondwike; Percy Ashton, of Heckmondwike; Clifford Thornton, of Heckmondwike; John Edward Morton, a labourer from Staincliffe; George Terry, a labourer from White Lee; J Arthur Cooper, a mason's labourer from Heckmondwike; and William Berry, of Low Moor.

The factory itself was reduced to rubble and pieces of machinery were scattered in nearby fields.

Houses nearby were destroyed and furniture flung out into the street.

Homes in Hollinbank Terrace took the brunt, with many residents injured, while in Healey every house in the terrace at Belle Vue Street had its windows blown out.

At the time, the press described White Lee as "looking as if it had been visited by the German Army", with thousands of broken windows and many homes left uninhabitable.

The cause of the blast was never confirmed but at the inquest into the deaths, the coroner blamed a spark from a grinding machine.

Doubt was also cast on the safety standards at the factory, which had only been back in operation for six weeks before the disaster.

The factory had originally been used to manufacture picric acid for explosives in the Boer War (1899-1902) but then lay unused until the outbreak of the First World War, when Henry Ellison Limited reopened it at the government's request.