Industrial accidents were not uncommon in the glass industry, as in many industries. They were often unrecorded and unreported unless they were so dreadful, they merited reporting in the local press. On the 9th December 1893 the County Express reported on the funerals of two men, Albert Ryder and Enoch Oliver, killed in a Brierley Hill bottle works disaster. The inquest recorded a verdict of accidental deaths and the news report added ‘Such was the dangers of their trades and industries in that they were continually having accidents, though not so terrible as this, occurring every month, the year round’.
The local newspaper, The County Express of Saturday 9th December 1893 reported on the funerals of the two men killed in the Brierley Hill Bottlework’s disaster on Thursday 30th November 1893. The paper said the great topic of conversation throughout the week in the Brierley Hill district has been the terrible accident on the previous Thursday at Messrs Wright and Co glass bottle works in The Delph, Brierley Hill, in which two men Albert Ryder of South St Brierley Hill and Enoch Oliver of High Street Brockmoor, met with horrible deaths. A third man Charles Henry Pearson, who was working with the above two men miraculously managed to escape unscathed.
Between 1:15 and 1:30 PM on Thursday 30th of November 1893 a small quantity of molten glass was discovered by the men to be oozing from the joints underneath the structure of the Siemens furnace which at any one time contained 100 tonnes of molten glass. Apparently, this was a fairly regular occurrence and a crude repair normally undertaken for such leakages was to apply cold water to the area of the leak, thus cooling and hardening the seepage of molten glass from the furnace and therefore arresting the leak. Under the maintenance and operational procedures of Mrs Wright and Co. at the time this was obviously seen as a quick fix to what had become an operational nuisance rather than a potential monumental risk to life.
However, on this particular occasion, a firebrick measuring three foot long, two foot wide and one foot deep finally ‘gave up the ghost’ of continually botched up maintenance and consequently fell from the base of the furnace and, in doing so, spewed its entire content of 100 tonnes of molten glass directly onto the shop floor. The temperature for glass bottles and glass jars manufacture would have been around 2300- and 2800-degrees Fahrenheit.
Albert Ryder and Enoch Oliver were immediately engulfed in the molten glass as they were attending to the repair directly above them, in the base of the furnace. The paper reported that both men met with horrible deaths.
Witnesses at the inquest on the following day attested that whilst all three men made a desperate attempt to escape it was, in the event, only Charles Pearson who managed to get clear. The paper reported that when their charred remains were recovered some two or three hours afterwards the sight was a terrible one.
The inquest was held on the following day and a verdict of accidental death was returned by the coroner’s jury. The funeral of 33-year-old Albert Ryder, a glass stopper maker took place on Sunday the 3rd. of December at South Street Baptist Church, and the funeral of Enoch Oliver took place on Tuesday the 5th. of December at the parish church in Brierley Hill.
Both men left a wife and two young children, for whom a benefit concert was later held at Brierley Hill Civic Hall, on Monday the 5th.of February 1894. Such was the sense of tragedy and loss within the then close-knit community, in and around South St, Derry St, and Church St. Brierley Hill that in Albert Ryders case a considerable crowd of people had assembled in the vicinity of South Street Baptist Church, requiring the whole street to be cleared for the funeral cortege to gain access to the Chapel.
Family, friends, neighbours, fellow workmen and the employer Mr. James Wright, followed the cortege to the funeral service, which was conducted by Reverend W B Bliss, the pastor of the Chapel. Albert Ryder had been a regular and popular attendant at South Street Chapel and was highly respected by the congregation, as he was actively involved in the ‘Pleasant Sunday Afternoon’ classes. Reverend Bliss spoke of him being an untiring worker in anything connected with his place of worship and was often the conductor of Cottage Meetings. The hymns were ‘Why do we mourn departing friends’ and ‘How blessed the righteous when he dies. It was reported that much sympathy was expressed on behalf of the widow, Fanny Ryder (nee Jarrett) and the two young children Lillian and James.
The funeral of the other unfortunate victim of the accident Enoch Oliver took place on the following Tuesday 5th December at the parish church in Brierley Hill. Again, in the presence of hundreds of spectators as well as the usual mourners were colleagues and the employer James Wright, also attended the service, conducted by reverend H Dibben. Apart from the usual sympathy and outpourings of grief from the Reverend Dibben, he also said to the work colleagues at the service, that ‘he trusted this had been a great and solemn warning, these were the things that were happening around them, not only now and then but how often they heard of some brother, who went to his work in the morning and was brought back, a corpse before the evening’. He prayed that ‘the men who went with their lives in their hands would learn that the time for them to die must come as they lived so must they die’. The paper added such were the dangers of their trade and industry, in that they were continually having accidents, though none so terrible as this, occurring every month the year round.
The employer, James Wright addressed the congregation and added that ‘he felt as acutely as any of them the terrible accident which had come upon two very worthy servants. They would be greatly missed in the works, and he hoped that other workers would try and do what they could to fill their place’.
The clear impression, if not the intent, is one of ambivalence on the part of the employer and the clergy, in that such occurrences were inevitable, and to be expected, as natural episodes of the industrial life at the time. There appeared to be a cynical disregard for employees’ safety and welfare, and indeed accountability, on behalf of employers, regarding safe systems of working. Today’s requirements of ‘a duty of care’ under the Occupiers Liability Act were certainly a long way off. Today’s much mocked Health and Safety laws are in fact a godsend. Such an accident these days would result in the immediate temporary closure of the factory as a crime scene, followed by a full investigation by Factory Inspectors, with the resultant outcome of the likes of James Wright, possibly, being sent to prison on a charge of Corporate Manslaughter. Additionally, there would be ‘Death in Service’ insurance provision for dependents, thus obviating the desperate need to stage a Benefit Concert at the Civic Hall, as was the case in point here.