Thomas Abrams was born in 1888 at Runcorn, Cheshire, and the eldest of seven children to Thomas Abrams and Mary (Garner).
Thomas sr and Mary married at St Mary’s Parish Church, Widnes on 29th April, 1888 at lived at 79, Shaw Street, Runcorn.
By the time Thomas jr was thirteen they had moved to 87, Shaw Street. The 1911 census revealed he was working as a packer at the Shotton Ironworks and lodging at 4, Hawarden Terrace, Shotton. He was unmarried and remained so.
On 23rd April, 1912 his father died, aged 50, at the Accident Hospital, West Bank, Widnes, Cheshire following an accident that caused an horrific fire at the Alkali Works in that town which also claimed the lives of five other men. He was buried in Widnes Cemetery.
RUNCORN WEEKLY NEWS AND DISTRICT REPORTER 26th April 1912
An occurrence at once the most terrible in loss of life and mystifying as to causes ever arising directly out of the staple industry of the chemical centre has this week saddened its people in every district. Four families have thereby lost the breadwinners, and twenty-four children, sixteen of school age, are fatherless.
At three o’clock on Tuesday afternoon six men ….
Peter Groom, 10, Princes Street,
William Davies, 17, Farnworth Street,
Frederick Moss, 9, Bower Street,
Thomas Abrams, 35, Denton Street,
Frederick Marsh, Havelock Cottage, Halebank,
Michael Healey, Margaret Street,
…. were at work on the chlorate of potash plant at the Muspratt Works of the United Alkali Co. repairing a large iron tank lined with lead. It measure twenty-four feet by twelve, and weighs, it is estimated, about seven tons. The tank, in which the potash is spread for the purpose of drying, had been out of use for four weeks owing to the coal strike, and advantage was taken to make an inspection. On previous occasions, in certain parts the iron had been found to be eaten away by the action of the chemical and new plates were then substituted for the worn portions.
The tank was raised some two and a half or three feet with the aid of screw jacks, and while in this position Mr J Hedley, the works manager, and Mr T Minton, got underneath the tank to see what repairs were necessary. Mr Hedley decided that repairs were not needed as yet, and after telling the six men named to again lower the tank he left the building and made his way to the office.
Ten minutes later a man rushed into the manager’s office with the excited cry that the chlorate house was on fire. “Why, I’ve only just come from there,” said Mr Hedley, and he made his way to the scene of the calamity. Attracted by the clouds of yellow vapour, which were pouring out of the chlorate shed, a number of workmen already surrounded the building. Two men named John Donaldson, of Deacon Road, and George Lightfoot, of Denton Street, told between gasps for breath how they had run from the shed. Lightfoot had heard a strange hissing sound, and on looking up from his work of packing, saw a broad tongue of white flame race towards them from the direction of the tank the six men had been repairing.
So dense were the fumes that filled the shed that nothing inside could be seen nor entrance gained. Several attempts were made to force a way, one by the manager himself, but the would-be rescuers were driven back time after time. Ten minutes elapsed before the air had sufficiently cleared to allow an investigation.
On all hands there were traces of the intensity of the heat the flame had given off. Lying in the footway, between the tank at which the men were at work and one of similar size, was a blackened heap of ominous stillness. It was the man Groom. The whole body was terribly charred and distorted, “as black as a cinder,” as it was described, and every particle of clothing, even to the clogs, had been burned off. When the rescuers endeavoured to carry the poor fellow into the open air the flesh parted from the body, and the greatest care was necessary. As the doorway was reached, one of the bearers explained: “Good God! He’s dead!” It was indeed seen that the poor fellow had passed beyond human aid. It is stated that Groom’s hand was afterwards picked up near where he was found. It was so charred that it was simply a shell of skin.
By this time it had transpired that the five other men, with the energy of terror and though so badly burned that three of them died in less than twenty-four hours, had succeeded in escaping from the building. One – Abrams – was seen by a boatman on the Sankey Canal, clamouring at one of the windows with anguish and despair written in every line of his face and crying piteously for help. He had climbed forty feet up a pipe and had by some means managed to reach the outside air. The others got out through the door of the crystalising chamber, and were speedily given attention. All of the men were terribly scorched. Abrams, Moss and Davies were burned from head to toe, and were hardly less charred and scorched than Groom. Horse ambulances were summoned, and in a short time the five still alive were being medically treated at the Accident Hospital.
Inquiries at the Accident Hospital during Tuesday evening showed there was only the faintest possible chance of Davies, Moss and Abrams surviving the terrible experiences. At eight twenty-five that evening Abrams died, and Davies passed away at half-past nine on Wednesday morning. Moss only lived an hour longer.
A deeply tragic fact, and one which has excited widespread sympathy in that the four men keave between them twenty-four children, sixteen of them being under fourteen years of age.
Peter Groom, who was 37 years of age, leaves seven children – four boys and three girls, the oldest (a girl) being eleven years of age. Groom previously lived at Upton, and was for some time a carter to the Widnes Corporation. He left this latter occupation to take up work at Muspratt’s.
William Davies was aged 43, and leaves nine children – five boys and four girls. Three are at work and five still at school. Davies took a great interest in the Farnworth Wesley Guild Football Club.
Frederick Moss is survived by a widow and a daughter fifteen years of age. He was 56 years of age.
Thomas Abrams leaves seven children – four boys and three girls. Two of the boys are at work, and four of the remaining children are at school. One of the eldest girls is an invalid.
There have been many conjectures as to how the death-dealing flame originated, seeing that the tank at which the men were at work was completely empty and contained no trace of chlorate of potash.
A statement made by Mr T W Stewart, chief technical engineer to the United Alkali Co. on the scene of the disaster, clears up many points which have caused speculation.
The inquest on the four men was opened on Wednesday afternoon for the taking of formal evidence to enable the relatives to arrange for the funerals. When this had been done, the representatives of the company invited the Coroner and jury to visit the chlorate house at the Muspratt Works. Accordingly, an adjournment was made. The officials of the company present in addition to Mr Stewart, were Mr J Morrison (district manager), Mr J Hedley (works manager), Mr J W Knowles (legal representative of the company), and Mr T Minton (works engineer).
The jury were taken into the chlorate house, the greater portion of which is taken up by two large steel oblong tanks. The side of one rested on screw jacks. The second tank stood near the first, but the space between the two formed a narrow passageway in which the unfortunate men were at work lowering the empty tank into position with screw jacks, when the flame shot out.
From Mr Stewart’s explanation it was gathered that the tanks were known as “dryers,” for the reason that they were used to dry the chlorate of potash which is largely used in match making. When mixed with carbonaceous matter, such as dust, charcoal, or dry sawdust, it forms a violent explosive, but by itself is not an explosive. This was shown by the fact that the flame swept over a tank of potash and no harm caused. In all, the flame spread thirty or forty yards.
“You can put a match to that,” said Mr Stewart, pointing to the chlorate in the second tank, “and it will not burn, but if you mix it with carbonaceous matter it partakes of the nature of gunpowder.” The six men were all on one side of the tank and the foreman was giving directions. Two other men were round the corner packing. There was no dust; everything was quiet and the air was as free from dust as it is now, At that moment Donaldson and Lightfoot, the two men working round the corner, will tell you that they heard a hissing sound like the back draught from a furnace when the wind blows the wrong way.
A big white flame came from underneath this tank the men were lowering. It went through the door into the crystalising room and scorched the vessels there. Fortunately they were coated with silicate and this undoubtedly prevented the spread of the flame. The whole place was enveloped in a white flame. It is believed that most of the men got out through the crystalising room and one probably by a window.
Mr Hedley was called and when, in about ten minutes, the air had cleared they found one poor fellow lying dead in the centre of the passage between the tanks.
One of the six men says that while they were working a flame came from underneath the pan. The flame was so fierce that it set fire to all their clothes, and that is the reason they were severely burned.
“Until we have the evidence of the men who survive,” added Mr Stewart, “that is all we know about the affair.”
John Donaldson, a finely built Scotchman (sic), of 1a, Deacon Road, was called forward to tell the jury what he saw. He told how he was packing with his mate when he heard a hissing noise. “Of course, I turned round as soon as I heard it, and I saw a flame shoot out round the corner there. Then me and my mate rushed to the door.”
Questioned by Mr Hedley, Donaldson said that it was his duty to wash the floor of the house out every morning. He washed it as usual on the morning of the accident.
Mr Stewart explained that the object of washing the floor was to keep down the dust. If everything was kept damp, the danger of the potash becoming mixed with carbonaceous matter was greatly diminished.
“These dryers have been in use quite forty-two years and they have been lifted from time to time for repairs, and we have never before had an accident.”
Mr Hedley: They are the same dryers as when I came into the works forty-two years ago, and we have never had an accident.
Unfortunately something has happened which nobody had experience of, as in the case of the Titanic,” said Mr Stewart, “and we have this horrible loss of life. You may rest assured that any lesson that can be learned from this occurrence will be very fully utilised by us.”
A juryman (Mr Devlin) asked if it was possible that the friction of the screw jacks had set fire to some chemical.
Mr Stewart: There must have been something which took fire underneath there. It might have been some friction from the jacks or a spark from the irons of the clogs the men were wearing would ignite the material underneath. There must have been something underneath the pan to cause the fire, and until we have evidence we can’t quite tell what it was.
Mr Hedley described the measures the company had adopted to ensure safety to the men who regularly worked the chlorate of potash plant. They entered the house by a special door and changed the clothes they wore for a complete outfit provided by the company. Their own suit they placed in an iron safe until they had finished works. The boots they wore were specially made, wooden sprigs being substituted for the usual nails. The men received a clean outfit every morning and no outfit was worn twice without being washed.
Mr Stewart said that the six men were known as the “handy gang,” for they were accustomed to moving boilers and other awkward constructions.
Before the precautions spoken of by Mr Hedley were adopted, on several occasions men worked in their own clothes. When they went home, they lit their pipes by the fireside and their clothes had become so charged with the potash and dust generally, they set fire to themselves and were burned to death.
In addition to the clothing now provided, two large tanks were kept close at hand, so that if a man did get on fire, despite every precaution, he could jump into the water. In the present instance of course there was no time; everything was so sudden.
As mentioned below, the inquest on the victims was adjourned for a month, and the jury having had these explanations given them, intimated that they saw no reason why work should not proceed on the plant in question, providing that Mr Jackson (HM Chief Inspector) was also satisfied.
In conversation with George Lightfoot, who resides in Denton Street, a “Weekly News” representative learned that Lightfoot was the first to notice the flame. He cried: “My God! There’s a fire coming,” and he and Donaldson ran from the building.
Donaldson had hung his coat and hat in a corner a foot from where they were working, and a black patch on the wall where the coat had hung showed what would have been the men’s fate but for their good fortune in seeing the fire.
Several pieces of leather belting in the house were so burned as to fall to pieces when touched.
Coroner S Brighouse opened the inquest on Tuesday afternoon at the Police Station. In addition to the officials mentioned above, Mr B B Peters was present on behalf of the relatives of Davies and Moss.
The Coroner said that he deemed it advisable in the interests of the relatives of the men who had lost their lives to start upon the inquest as early as possible so that arrangements could be made for the funerals. The jury would quite appreciate that in a matter of that magnitude it was imperative that the inquest should be adjourned to a future date.
Mrs Groom, 10, Princes Street, said that her husband left home at ten minutes to one on Tuesday afternoon and was brought home dead at quarter to five.
John William Abrams, 35, Denton Street, said that he saw his father on Tuesday at the Accident Hospital shortly after he had been conveyed there, and his father was able to speak to him. He died the same night.
Thomas Davies, 17, Farnworth Street, gave evidence relating to his father, and Mrs Ellen Moss in respect to her husband.
Mrs Nutter, matron of the Accident Hospital, spoke as to the time the deaths of three of the men occurred.
The Coroner: Are the men in the Hospital likely to recover?
Mr J Morrison: One is pretty certain to recover, but one is very bad.
The Coroner: Do you think an adjournment for a month would enable them to be called?
Mr Knowles: Yes, I think that would do.
The Coroner: It is desirable that these men should be present to give evidence. If we proceed without them there is always the suspicion we are not getting a full account of the affair.
It was decided to adjourn the inquest until Tuesday, 21st May at 10-15 a.m.
Mr Knowles, on behalf of the Company, expressed deep sympathy with the relatives of the deceased men.
Mr Stewart said that the only thing the officials of the Company could do to indicate their sympathy and regret at the loss of these poor fellows was to express words of sympathy. Mr Hedley, the manager of the works, felt the matter most keenly.
Mr Morrison said that they were all first class men bearing good characters, and they were greatly respected by the manager. The whole staff were sorry for the relatives.
The jury afterwards visited the scene of the affair as described above.
It was ascertained at the Accident Hospital late last (Thursday) night that the men, Frederick Marsh and Michael Healey, were progressing satisfactorily.
Before his army service Thomas junior was residing at 88, Church Street, Flint, with his brother John William, and was employed as a packer at the Shotton Ironworks.
He was awarded the British War Medal and Victory Medal and is remembered on three war memorials – Flint Town, St Mary’s Parish Church, Flint and Victoria Park, Widnes. He is also remembered on his parents’ headstone at Widnes Cemetery (Grave 2997, Section C, Row 7).
His mother Mary died on 4th February, 1934, aged 66, and is buried with her husband.