The day the chimney fell

Helping the injured from the scene of the Storeys chimney collapse in Lancaster.
Helping the injured from the scene of the Storeys chimney collapse in Lancaster.

Disaster struck Lancaster 50 years ago when the 250ft Storeys factory chimney toppled killing two men and injuring 12 others. TERRY AINSWORTH looks back on that fateful day.

The collapse occurred at White Cross Mills just before 2pm on Monday, February 28, 1966, at the change-over of shifts.

The chimney crashed without warning, killing two men who were buried under thousands of tons of bricks and rubble, injuring 12 others and wrecking two buildings.

Within seconds hundreds of factory workers had rushed to help colleagues trapped or struck by masses of masonry and twisted metal.

They were quickly joined by police, firemen, ambulance men and other rescue workers.

The Royal Lancaster Infirmary was alerted and doctors and nurses dashed across South Road with medical supplies. They crawled among the debris, giving pain-killing injections to those who had been trapped and giving first aid as they were being rescued.

Workers from every department who could not join the rescuers stood watching in stunned silence. For a time there was confusion as to who was missing.

Eleven people trapped or injured were rescued within a short space of time by workers tearing at the rubble with their bare hands and others used shovels, pick-axes, iron bars and any other tool which became available.

The search continued throughout the night with the aid of floodlights and arc lamps for William Brown whose body was not found until 10.30am the following day.

Rescue efforts were stepped up and Civil Defence squads from Trimpell, Nairn-Williamson Ltd, Royal Albert Hospital, the Post Office Savings Department and Lancaster Corporation arrived to give expert aid.

Many people had remarkable escapes.

One of them was Albert Seward, aged 44, of Chestnut Grove, Lancaster.

Albert said he was in the yard when a workmate cried out that the stack was falling.

“There was a noise like a terrific gale or an express train close by and suddenly there was nothing but dust and thick black smoke”, Albert said.

“I could hardly see and although I tried to get out of the way I was struck by falling masonry. For a time I was trapped by the legs but managed to struggle free.”

Another employee, Bob Woof, of Morecambe said: “I had just walked past the chimney when I heard a rumbling and looking back I saw a huge mountain of debris. Dust was rising and the area was covered with smoke. A few seconds later and I would have been trapped.”

One of those taken to hospital for treatment was Leonard Fox, aged 27, of Keswick Road, Lancaster, who said after his ordeal: “I was working in an office near the bottom of the chimney. I heard a rumble and bricks started falling through the ceiling.

“I dived under the desk and the whole office roof collapsed on me. I was trapped by my legs and I heard somebody shouting, are you alright. I shouted back and they started lifting the stones off me.”

There were real acts of heroism as people put their own lives on the line to save fellow workers.

The scene resembled a wartime blitz with a mountainous pile of 750,000 bricks and twisted girders.

So fast was the clearance work that by Friday many of the departments affected by the collapse were back in production.

By the weekend an emergency chimney had been erected and the firm would soon take delivery of a 150ft sectional steel chimney. A new boiler was also to be installed.

The company stated there would be no redundancies. Production employees were being retained on clearing operations pending the resumption of normal working.

Of five injured work people who were detained at the Royal Lancaster Infirmary two had been discharged - Mrs Ann Hargreaves (21), Larch Grove, Lancaster, and David Rushworth (16), Morley Road, Lancaster.

The others still in the infirmary were Miss Mary Mounsey (19), Butler Street, Lancaster, Roger Wilson (19), Claughton Drive, Lancaster, and John Cannon (44), Springfield Street, Lancaster.

Vale of Lune rugby player John Gill, a factory manager, played a pivotal role in the huge rescue operation. Wearing a distinctive white helmet, often to be seen standing on a huge pile of rubble, he, along with some of his staff, toiled for more than three hours heaving bricks and metal from the pile.

The Visitor newspaper despatched three reporters to the scene - Peter Lovett-Horn, Anne Clement and Mike Whalley. Mike remembers clearly receiving a telephone call from Peter to say he was following up a tip that a chimney had come down at Storeys. Ten minutes later he was back on the blower, shouting: “It’s THE chimney!”

The chimney, a giant structure thought to be the tallest factory chimney in Lancashire was built for Storey Brothers at the White Cross Mills in 1876 and increased in height in 1877 and again in 1878.

The 250ft brick-built stack stood in a 20ft base and the 750,000 bricks and mortar used in construction weighed 3,300 tons. Octagonal in shape the chimney was a prominent city landmark, rearing above most other buildings. Many local people had for years used it to ascertain the direction of the wind and it was often floodlit at nights.

A new 150ft steel chimney weighing 20 tons was erected in 36 hours at White Cross Mills over the weekend following the collapse of the stone chimney.

At the inquest into the deaths of the two men killed, William Brown, 39, of Church Street, Lancaster and Albert Dirkin, aged 52 of Loweswater Drive, Morecambe, it was revealed that an explosion caused by vapour igniting at the base was responsible for the collapse of the chimney.

A jury of nine men returned verdicts of “misadventure” on the victims.

This disaster was felt all over the district and it seemed as though the entire population wanted to help in some way and the directors of Storeys placed a thank you notice on the front page of the Lancaster Guardian.

We are eager to hear from any reader who has memories of that fateful day so please contact the Lancaster Guardian with your recollections.

Finally my thanks go to Joe Sherrington for providing the photographs, Bill Crayston for his report on the disaster in the Lancaster Guardian 50 years ago. Mike Whalley for his advice and assistance in researching this article and to sponsors Vincenzo’s Coffee House.

A birds eye view of the clearance area at White Cross Mills, Lancaster, after a factory chimney collapsed on February 28 1966.

A birds eye view of the clearance area at White Cross Mills, Lancaster, after a factory chimney collapsed on February 28 1966.

An aerial view of White Cross showing the size & position of the chimney.

An aerial view of White Cross showing the size & position of the chimney.

John Gill (in white helmet) played a pivotal role in the aftermath of the White Cross Mills chimney collapse in Lancaster on February 28 1966.

John Gill (in white helmet) played a pivotal role in the aftermath of the White Cross Mills chimney collapse in Lancaster on February 28 1966.