Mills of all sorts can be found across the globe, and are generally seem as fairly safe places to work. As technology has developed, it has been integrated into these mills to increase production, automate many processes, and prevent injuries to workers limbs.
But it would not be wise to assume there are no hidden dangers. Mills are hazardous places to work, especially flour mills. With flour dust in the air and coating everything, the entire mill is incredibly flammable, and if the conditions are right, explosions can occur.
It would also be wise to take a lesson from history as to just how dangerous such places can be. In 1872 in Glasgow, Scotland at the Tradeston Flour Mills, workers and onlookers got a clear view of the dangers of working with flour.
The Tradeston Flour Mills
The Tradeston Flour Mills was a giant complex of mills that stretched the majority of a block around Clyde Place, Commerce Street, King (now known as Kingston) Street, and Centre Streets in Glasgow, Scotland. The mill was owned by Matthew Muir & Sons and by 1872 had been in operation for 30 years. The Tradeston Flour Mills was one of the busiest mills in Glasgow.
On July 9, 1872, at 4:00 pm, mill employees were getting ready for their shift to finish when a massive explosion occurred. This explosion demolished both the front and back of the mill building.
Survivors claimed that a small explosion filled the interior of the building, which then set off an explosive chain reaction which resulted in a larger explosion that blew out the walls. After the larger explosion, fire engulfed the wreckage of the mill.
Due to the size of the fire, firefighters from every fire station except for one were dispatched to tame the blaze. The firefighters at the Bridgeton station were being held back on reserve in case another fire was to break out, but that was it: every firefighter in Glasgow was tasked with bringing the conflagration under control.
The explosion left debris everywhere, and the firefighters worked to control the fire to prevent it from spreading to the buildings nearby. Surrounding the mill was the Gorbals Free Church, some small shops, tenement houses, and the Bute Hotel.
- What Started the Great Chicago Fire, and What was Lost?
- Boston’s Sticky History: The Great Molasses Disaster of 1919
Another significant threat was the fire spreading to nearby sheds on the banks of the River Clyde and the Bridge Street railway station. The force of the explosion had destroyed the windows of the railway station, and several portions of the building’s glass roof were also damaged.
There was a large spirits shop in the basement of the railway station, and if the fire reached the store, an even larger fire/explosion would be triggered by the alcohol burning. Ships docked on the quayside (sandbanks of a river) were forced to evacuate to prevent the fire from spreading to the wooden ships.
After hours of burning, The Tradeston Flour Mills roof collapsed, as well as the remains of one of the walls that faced onto Commerce Street. However the tide had turned, and seven hours after the explosion the fire was officially declared “under control” by 11:00 pm that night.
The next day, the small fires continued to burn within the charred ruins of the mill. People immediately set out to remove any unstable or insecure pieces of debris from The Tradeston Flour Mills that were too close to the streets around the wreckage. On that day, the first two bodies were found.
A Deadly Catastrophe
The first two victims of the Tradeston Flour Mills Explosion to be discovered were a mother and her child in a nearby tenement house at the corner of Clyde Place and Commerce Street. The mother, Catherine Drennan, was a widowed mother of five children.
Fortunately, three of her children were not home at the time of the explosion. One of Catherine’s daughters, who was in the home, survived the explosion but was not so lucky: she managed to escape the house before she fell victim to the fire that spread to the building.
It is believed that Catherine was struck by falling stones, which buried her under debris from the building. That might have killed her or knocked her unconscious, but she was unable to escape the fire and was likely burned to death. Catherine’s nine-month-old daughter was also killed in the explosion and subsequent fire.
Search teams had a difficult time finding victims in the mess of rubble that was once The Tradeston Flour Mills, but the dedicated searches continued for almost an entire month. Another known victim of the explosion was Jane Mulholland from Ireland. Jane worked at the Bute Hotel next to the mill, and at the time of the blast, she was removing laundry from the clothesline behind the hotel.
Two children who worked at the mill also lost their lives. One was 14-year-old James Tanner from Ireland, who was working in the mill when it exploded and burst into flames. Another unnamed 12-year-old boy working in the mill was also killed.
- The Dublin Whiskey Fire: Drowning Your Sorrows?
- The Crash at Crush: A Deadly Stunt in a Make Believe Town
The last named victim of The Tradeston Flour Mills was an employee named Arthur Ferns, who was 29 years old at the time of his death. A total of 18 people were killed, and an additional 16 people were seriously injured.
What Caused the Explosion?
Following The Tradeston Flour Mills Explosion, an insurance company recruited Macquorn Rainke, a professor of Civil Engineering and mechanics at Glasgow University, and Dr. Stevenson Macadam, a chemistry lecturer from the Royal College of Surgeons in Edinburgh, to investigate what caused the explosion. The two men believed that “the explosion was caused by a spark or fire from a pair of millstones igniting the finely ground flour dust in the air. The fire was drawn by a fan into an ‘exhaust box’ that was designed to collect grain dust, which then ignited, causing a second explosion that destroyed the building.”
At the time of The Tradeston Flour Mills Explosion, there had been several flour mill explosions and similar incidents worldwide. Due to the public’s concerns about the safety of flour mills, the explosion and its subsequent investigation were widely reported globally.
Six years after The Tradeston Flour Mills Explosion, the Washburn A Mill in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in the United States exploded. Eighteen people died in the explosion and the fire that came after destroyed six other nearby mills. The risk of milling flour was high, and the milling industry is still trying to make its facilities safer for employees.
Flour and flour dust are flammable and can catch fire or explode due to an ignition source, oxygen dispersion, and a combined space. The flour has a great surface area in a powder form, which causes a high air-to-fuel ratio.
Flour dust is more explosive than standard gunpowder and almost 35 times more volatile than dust from coal. Flour will not combust in small quantities, so while you can start a fire with flour on your stove top or counter, it is not at risk of explosion because it is not flour dust.
When there are airborne flour particles, there is enough oxygen to trigger an explosion. Flour mills are full of equipment that can act as an ignition source, like millstones rubbing together or pulley systems.
While a mill may be in operation for many years without issue, that doesn’t mean it is safe from fire and combustion due to the accumulation of dust particles. In the past 35 years, over 500 incidents have occurred in mills across the United States, causing 180 deaths and 675 serious injuries. This is only a small portion of mill incidents that have occurred and are still occurring globally.
Top Image: Contemporary illustration of the aftermath of the Tradeston Flour Mills Explosion. Source: Unknown Artist / Public Domain.