SHOCKING XYLONITE FIRE AT NETHERTHORPE, SHEFFIELD 14th DECEMBER 1921
‘Men and women made frantic efforts to escape. Some jumped from the window into the yard.’
Headline from the Sheffield Daily Telegraph dated Thursday 15th December 1921
On Thursday December 15, 1921 the Manchester Guardian reported a serious accident that occurred the previous night (Wednesday) in Sudbury Street in the Netherthorpe district of Sheffield. Four persons lost their lives in a fire which occurred in Sheffield this evening. The outbreak occurred at about 5 o’clock in a building in Sudbury Street in which a number of what are known as ‘little mesters’ have cutlery businesses. A quantity of xylonite was ignited, and the fire spread with alarming rapidity. About 100 persons who were engaged in the building at the time made a rush for safety. There were only two exits, and the approach to the building was up a narrow passage. Men and women made frantic efforts to escape. Some jumped from the window into the yard. A man named Clark, who was working in the second storey with his son, rushed to the stairs and fell to the bottom, where he was picked up unconscious. He died later in the infirmary.
When the fire brigade arrived they were informed that nobody was in the building, but when the flames were extinguished they found three bodies, those of a boy, a girl and a man. The boy and the girl were lying together at the top of one of the wooden staircases. They were evidently trying to get out when they were trapped at the top of the stairs. The body of the man was wedged on the second floor underneath some bellows.
It was not the first time that such an incident had happened in Sheffield.
The Manchester Guardian dated 3rd October 1921 gave details of another xylonite-induced explosion – just two months before the fatal fire on Sudbury Street. The precise location of the earlier occurrence is not given in the report, but it must have been in the Shalesmoor area, which is adjacent to Netherthorpe, as the Fire Brigade Station is described as being ‘a stone’s throw away’. This was probably the one at West Bar, which is now the Fire and Police Museum.
"Shortly after midday on Saturday there was a flash and a
loud explosion in a Sheffield cutlers’ shop where three men and a youth were
finishing xylonite handles for table knives. It is believed that a spark came
into contact with xylonite dust, which is highly inflammable, and at once the
whole shop was ablaze. The explosion banged the door of the shop, and for a few
minutes the workpeople were unable to grope their way through the
xylonite-impregnated air The flames rapidly died down, except where pieces of
ablaze, but the fierceness of the flames injured all the occupants of the shop
so severely that it was necessary to detain them at the adjacent Royal Hospital,
whither they were quickly transported. The injuries are to the head, face and
The shop is rented by William Thompson, a table-knife cutler, from Messrs Francis Newton and Sons, Portobello, and he was injured along with Walter Wharton, of Victoria Street, Arthur Broadhouse, of Greenhill, and Collin Mellor, a youth whose home is at Truswell Road, Crookes. The Fire Brigade Station is within a stone’s throw of the works, and the first tender was on the scene within a minute of the call.With the aid of chemical extinguishers the flames were soon subdued. Stainless steel blades in the shop were bright and gleaming when the smoke and the flames had disappeared."
A full report of the latest tragedy appeared in the Sheffield Daily Telegraph dated 15th December 1921
A day later (December 16th 1921) the Sheffield Daily Telegraph published an article that highlighted the dangers faced by workers in premises such as those who died in the Sudbury Street fire:
The Sudbury Street fire, in which four people lost their lives on Wednesday evening, illustrates the danger which hundreds of Sheffield workers are exposed to every day in carrying out their appointed tasks in buildings inadequate to give rapid egress to a terror-stricken crowd of people. The Progress Works in Sudbury Street are typical of many in Sheffield. It contains four storeys, which are reached by means of narrow wooden staircases. The windows are of the latticed type, close together, and afford little opportunity for escape for anyone trapped in the building. An old structure, and containing a great deal of highly flammable material, it is not surprising that once the flames started they spread with great rapidity, and that in a very short time the occupants of the building were running here and there almost choked by the xylonite fumes and blinded by dense smoke. It was difficult in the darkness of Wednesday night to appreciate the horror of the scene, but yesterday, examined in the cold light of day, it was possible to reconstruct the terrible tragedy. It is surprising that there were not more victims as undoubtedly there would have been but for prompt assistance of the Fire Brigade and the willing band of civilian helpers who joined in the rescue work.
The rapidity with which the fire spread was described by
Mr G. Howsley, who works in a shop opposite to where the fire started. He had
just finished working and was getting ready to go home when he noticed a flicker
in Mr Dyson’s shop. Next, there was a slight explosion, followed by a big flare,
and within a very short time the fire had commenced in earnest. By the time the
workers in the shop above realised what was happening, all escape by the
ordinary exits was impossible. Some rushed to the windows and descended by
ladders which were quickly forthcoming. One or two men and boys clambered on to
the roof by means of ventilating pipes, and then from there on to the roof the
adjoining property, down on to the roof of an outhouse in the adjoining yard,
Yesterday morning Superintendent Hadwick, of the Sheffield Fire Brigade, saw Frederick Dyson, the cutlery manufacturer who occupied the building in which the fire originated. He stated that at the time of the outbreak there were in the shop himself, a girl and three boys. The younger people were engaged in ‘mashing’ tea and were filling theteapots on the floor. He assumes that a red-hot coke stuck to the bottom of the kettle and fell on the floor among some xylonite dust. Then, immediately, there was a big blaze. Some handle knives were ignited and he could see they were in for a serious fire. He told the young people to shout ‘Fire’ to the upstairs rooms, and then clear out as quickly as possible. This they did. Mr Dyson went for a fire extinguisher, but when he got back to the shop it was one mass of lames and smoke, and so he was unable to do anything.
An inquest into the deaths was opened on Friday 16th December , and was reported in the following day's edition of the Manchester Guardian:
"The Sheffield coroner today adjourned the inquest on the four victims of the fierce fire, fed by xylonite, which destroyed several cutlers’ shops. The Fire Brigade thought [Tom Clark] was the only victim, until the flames had been subdued and a search revealed three charred bodies. Only evidence of identification was taken today. It has transpired that before the arrival of the brigade two men, by means of painters’ ladders, brought to safety more women cutlery workers who were about to jump from the upper windows of the factory. A public subscription on behalf of the dependants of the victims has been opened. The Sheffield Daily Telegraph gave personal details of the victims. They were: Ivy Ibbotson, a pen and pocket knife wiper, aged 16, of No.134 Walkley Lane, Walkley; Frederick Foster, a table-knife hafter, aged 57, of No.33 Romney Road, Heeley; Thomas Clark, aged 39, of No.36 Creswick Street, Walkley, and Tom Clark, aged 62, of No. 28 Sturton Road, Pitsmoor. The dead were officially identified at the inquest by relatives. The younger Clark had left a widow and seven young children.
The Coroner, Mr J. Kenyon Parker, explained that he was
opening the inquest without a jury because he understood that Mr Law, His
Majesty’s Inspector of
Factories, wanted the inquiry to be adjourned to enable him to investigate the circumstances of the fire more fully."
A similar report also appeared in the Sheffield Daily Telegraph
The inquest resumed between Christmas and the New Year, and was reported by the Sheffield Daily Telegraph:
FIRE INQUIRY – SHEFFIELD CUTLERY DISASTER –
CONDITIONS – OLD PREMISES: NEW REGULATIONS
The interest in the proceedings is not confined to those engaged in the cutlery trade, great though this is. The feelings of the whole city were aroused over the horror. Revealing, as it did, the conditions under which the cutlery industry is conducted, it was anticipated that the work people were caught in a death-trap. But no evidence of this nature was given. On the contrary, the premises have at intervals been inspected, and the exits thought reasonably sufficient. More stringent regulations would apply to the premises had they not been built prior to 1892, but as the works were erected 70 years ago, modern methods of fire escape and fire prevention have not been introduced. The cause of the fire is left in doubt after the evidence given by Frederick Dyson, who, having stated that flames rose from the floor at his feet after he had carried a kettle from which might have dropped a hot cinder on to celluloid dust, now states that the more probable cause of the fire was a spark from an emery wheel falling on the celluloid dust.
[The Coroner] pointed out to the jury that their duty was to decide the time and place of death, and whether the violence (the fire) was accidental or criminal. At the same time it was part of their duty to inquire whether proper precautions against the risks of fire had been taken. It was in their province to inquire whether proper means of escape from the premises had been provided, and it was open to them to add a rider to their verdict. The Coroner went on to say that it was not his intention to hold a roving inquiry into how the cutlery trade was conducted in tenement factories, or the dangers of the celluloid industry. If such an enquiry was desired, it was open for the Secretary of State to order one.
Commenting on the legal position, the Coroner said this property did not come within the by-laws passed by the City Council in 1909, nor did it come under any regulation relating to certain industries in which celluloid was used. Certain regulations were in draft concerning the use of celluloid in certain industries, but these regulations were not law. The only law that affected the property was that under the Factory Acts of 1901.
Supt. F. W. Hadwick (Chief of the Sheffield Fire Brigade) read a report that he presented to the Chief Constable. In this he stated that the supposed cause of the fire was hot cinder falling on celluloid dust. The fire was attended by three officers and 26 men, and the damage was estimated at £5,000. When the Brigade attended the two top floors of the premises were raging with fire, the flames rising through the roof, and the rear part of the premises was a mass of flames. Five jets were turned on the front of the premises and three on the rear. The major portion of the three top floors at the front and the two storeys at the rear were burned out or seriously damaged. The ground floors were damaged by water only.
At this point there was a comical interlude as a member of
the jury began asking Superintendent Hadwick a series of questions. ‘I think
this is getting a sort of duet between you and witness,’ interjected the
Coroner. The juror remarked that this was the first time he had been on a jury,
to which Mr Kenyon Parker responded, ‘I and the rest of the jury will be here a
month or two if you want to ask all those questions of witness.’ Not taking the
hint, the juror then posed another question not relevant to the case. The
Coroner stopped him at once. ‘I am surprised,’ remarked the juror. ‘Don’t
argue,’ commanded the Coroner. ‘I must hold this inquiry with a jury. I cannot
let one juryman hold the inquiry.’ Suitably admonished, the juror desisted and
re-took his seat.
Frederick Henry Dyson, a cutlery manufacturer, of No.19 Cecil Square, Highfield, was the next witness. He said he rented one room at Progress Works, and part of another immediately above, commencing his tenancy just three months before the fire. On the day in question he was in his workshop with William Smith, Annie Smith and three boys. The Sheffield Daily Telegraph report continued: It was tea time, and a kettle had been heated on the gas ring, which was then turned out. Wanting a little more hot water, he placed the kettle on an open fire, which was in the shop. He then carried the kettle about ten feet, and poured some water into his pint pot, and the next minute he saw flames at his feet. He did not see a cinder fall from the kettle, though this might have happened. He tried to stamp the flames out, but they ran along and under a bench, and caught some celluloid handles which were in a wooden box. There were some ten to twenty dozen of them. Realising that he could not get the fire out unaided, he sent William Smith to fetch a fire extinguisher from the yard. At the same time he told the three boys to clear out and shout ‘Fire’. As Smith did
not come back immediately, witness followed him into the yard and obtained an extinguisher from the engine tenter, with which he went towards his shop. The room, however, was at the end of a passage about eight feet long. And he could hardly get inside the passage for smoke and fumes, so he realised it was no use taking the extinguisher up.
A short time after he heard someone coming down the stone steps. It was the elder Clark, who fell right at his feet, head first. With assistance he moved Clark away. A boy told him he thought Ivy Ibbotson was in the buffing room. An emergency door communicated with that room and he got a big sledge hammer and made several attempts to break it open, but it was too strong for him. He shouted but got no reply, and thought the girl had got out. One of the boys told him he had seen her carried out. Questioned by the Coroner, the witness said there was an emery wheel in the room, on which William Smith was grinding. It might have been a spark from that which caused the fire. There had been some filing of celluloid during the day. The dust fell on the floor and was then swept up and burnt. It was cleaned up at
least twice a day, and had been swept up at dinner time on the day in question by Annie Smith. There was no one smoking in the room at the time of the fire. Asked if he had an extinguisher in the workshop, witness said he had only a little water in a small tin. William Smith, back of 80, Carver Street, who was employed by Mr Dyson, said he was using the emery wheel. The witness and Mr Dyson found the engine-tenter, who produced the fire extinguishers. Mr Dyson tried to make one work in the yard. He had no idea how to use it, and all the chemicals had come out. Witness said there was a metallic hood round the emery wheel to capture the sparks, but it was very low level within the framework. The shop was in a cleanly state, having been swept up just after dinner.
Mr John Law, Inspector of Factories, stated that the Progress Works had been visited from time to time by various factory inspectors, who had made no written complaint about inadequate means of escape to the authorities or the owners, except on one occasion, in May 1920, when an order had been made to re-open a locked door. Mr Law himself had visited the premises on another matter prior to the fire and was reasonably satisfied with arrangements, taking into account the age of the building and the difficulty of providing the best type of external escape and internal fireproofing. Mr Law also stated that the owners and several of the occupiers of the premises had been served with the draft regulations concerning the use of celluloid. Here the Coroner adjourned the inquest until January 5, 1922.
After two more days of inquiry on January 5 and 6, Mr Kenyon Parker made reference in his closing comments to the responsibility of the City Council in regard to its liability for ensuring that adequate means of escape from the building were provided. The legal position was laid down in the Factory Act of 1901, under which the Council had to ascertain whether a factory had adequate means of escape. It was the Council’s duty to serve notices on the owner for such provision. There was no evidence that the Council had or had not done anything in the matter. The Coroner suspected that the factories inspector had overlooked this provision of the Act. He also said that the Council could not throw any light on this matter because it was not represented at the inquiry by either the Town Clerk or the chief building surveyor. Said Mr Kenyon Parker of their absence, ‘The reason I am at a loss to know.’ He added that Mr Langley, the engine tenter who knew how to use the fire extinguishers, would have done better going directly to the fire instead of handing one to Dyson, who ‘immediately made a muddle using it’. Only two extinguishers were available, but many people did not know where they were kept. The Coroner also remarked that Langley had cut off the gas supply to prevent an explosion, but although a well-meant action it was premature as it left a number of men in darkness inside the gas-lit building. There was no evidence that a basket or box had been left on the stairs, which might have caused the elder Clark to trip and fall as he tried to escape. The final comment made by Mr Kenyon Parker referred to the draft regulations about the use of celluloid. It appeared that not even John Law, His Majesty’s Inspector of Factories, was aware when he gave his report to the inquest at the end of December that the regulations had been published in the London Gazette on November 28, 1921, and therefore, in the Coroner’s opinion, they were part of the law and affected the owners and occupiers of the factory, but they were ignorant of them. There were various things lacking at the Progress Works which contravened the rules. Finally, the jury delivered its verdict. The jurors found that the fire appliances at the works were insufficient and the means of escape for the workpeople were not adequate. They also recommended that a suitable fire alarm be installed in works of this description and that the new regulations concerning the use of celluloid in industry be made operative as soon as possible. No blame was attached to any individual for the fire that caused four people to be killed at their place of work.
Sudbury Street 2000
Sudbury Street 2012 - Sudbury Street is situated in the Netherthorpe district of Sheffield, running between Malinda Street and Meadow Street. It is a matter of yards from Doncaster Street, where 22 years earlier a boiler explosion killed seven people
In the 1920s this combined residential and industrial area of cramped housing, small workshops and larger factories was still a dangerous place to live and work. The substance that caused the Sudbury Street fire, xylonite (not to be confused with a similar American product known as zylonite) was a manmade material derived from a process first used in the 1860s to manufacture photographic film. It could conceivably be described as one of the earliest types of plastic, though this definition is not strictly correct. Invented by English scientist Alexander Parkes and named ‘Parkesine’, it was intended as an alternative to vulcanised rubber. ‘Parkesine’ was produced by dissolving the cellulose content of vegetable matter in acid. It could be heated and moulded, and set hard on cooling. Dyes could be applied to produce virtually any colour. The company set up by Parkes went bankrupt, so the manufacturing process was taken up by a rubber manufacturer called Daniel Spill. It is notable that in the later newspaper reports of the Sudbury Street fire the word ‘celluloid’ was substituted for xylonite; perhaps the editors believed that the general public would then have a better understanding of the material in question.
The name xylonite was taken from the Greek word for wood (xylon), and the
product was used as a substitute for wood, ivory, tortoise shell, horn and bone
to make articles such as combs, spectacle frames and dress jewellery. Its
potential for knife, fork and spoon handles was noticed by Sheffield cutlers,
who began to use it in their work, shaping, filing, grinding and buffing it for
everyday tableware. These processes produced the fine powder, or dust, that
proved so combustible. It may seem surprising that a powder can be explosive,
but such occurrences are relatively common. For example, flour dust, if the
right conditions exist, can explode when a source of ignition is applied, and
strict safety regulations apply at flour mills and grain silos. The dust of
coal, wood (sawdust), sugar, powdered milk and pollen can also cause
Xylonite, like flour, was made from organic material containing carbohydrates, therefore was dangerous to use in proximity to other processes of cutlery manufacture, such as grinding, in which sparks could be produced. This possibility may have been known to the ‘little mesters’ (self-employed cutlery workers, the name deriving from the Sheffield dialect word for ‘master’), but they probably knew nothing of the additional health hazard caused by breathing in the dust.
And finally the victims. Thanks to the reports of the inquest and the excellent Sheffield Indexers site, I have been able to locate the four graves. The father and son, Tom and Thomas Clark are both buried in Sheffield's Burngreave Cemetery, Tom with his late wife Elizabeth. Frederick Foster is buried in Sheffield's City Road Cemetery whilst Ivy Ibbotson who was so severely burned by the explosion that she was unrecognisable, is buried in Crookes Cemetery
FOSTER, Frederick (Table Knife Hafter, age 56). Died at 33 Romney Rd; Buried on December 19, 1921 in Consecrated ground; Grave Number 23583, Section II of City Road Cemetery, Sheffield.
IBBOTSON, Ivy (Daughter of Thomas, age 16) Died at 134 Walkley Lane; Buried on December 20, 1921 in Unconsecrated ground; Grave Number 1779, Section D of Crookes Cemetery, Sheffield.
CLARK, Thomas (Cutler, age 39). Died at 36 Creswick St; Buried on December 21, 1921 in General ground; Grave Number 1150, Section KK of Burngreave Cemetery, Sheffield.
CLARK, Tom (Cutler, age 62). Died at 22 Sturton Rd; Buried on December 21, 1921 in General ground; Grave Number 940, Section KK of Burngreave Cemetery, Sheffield. Remarks: Officiating Minister, Charles Greenwood: Removed from Pitsmoor Parish.
Tom was buried alongside his wife who had died four years earlier
CLARK, Elizabeth (Wife of Tom., age 61). Died at 22 Sturton Rd; Buried on November 10, 1917 in General ground; Grave Number 940, Section KK of Burngreave Cemetery, Sheffield. Parent or Next of Kin if Available: . Remarks: Attending Minister, M W Chandler: Removed from All Saints Parish. Plot Owner: Tom CLARK of 22 Sturton Road.
In November 2013 I received the following e-mail from the great grandson of Frederick Foster who tragically died in the fire
"Dear Mr Hobbs
I came across the web page on your site regarding the fire on Sudbury street in 1921 whilst researching my family history.
My Great Grandfather was Frederick Foster who died in that fire and although it was known that he died in a fire, it had always been assumed (by older family members) that it was in the Skeltons Cutlery Works fire.
I did some research in the library and was puzzled that there were no casualties of that fire.
However, after a recent article in the Sheffield Retro mentioning Frederick Foster, I put 2+2 together and made 5, by assuming that the deaths occurred at Skeltons.
Having now seen your web page, I now know the full story.
I appreciate the research work you have undertaken and know that it will be of much interest to my family, especially my uncles, his grandsons.
If you have no objections, I would like to have a permanent link to this page on our family history web pages."
Needless to say I was delighted to help Frederick's
The Manchester Guardian dated 3rd October 1921
The Manchester Guardian dated 15th and 17th December 1921
The Sheffield Daily Telegraph dated 15th, 16th and 17th December 1921
The Sheffield Daily Telegraph dated 28th and 29th December 1921
The Sheffield Daily Telegraph dated 6th and 7th December 1922
Thanks to Matthew Bell for the 2012 photograph of Sudbury Street
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This page was last updated on 07/11/13 14:28