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Dr. Ambrose (coroner) conducted an inquiry at the Barking Public Offices on Monday into the circumstances attending the deaths of two East Ham men - Chas. Joseph Pitts, aged 34, a jointer; and James Henry Biggs, aged 18, a labourer - whose deaths from suffocation at the Beckton Gasworks the East Ham Echo announced last week.
Mr. H. Luxton, Mr. Goulden, Mr. Field, Mr. lago, and Councillor Reeson, J.P., represented the Gas Light and Coke Co. Mr. Letchford watched the interests of Mrs. Pitts, and Mr. Strickland (from the office of Messrs. Mitchell, Lucas, and Mitchell) represented Mr. William Burton (foreman).
Mrs. Julia Pitts, 26 Stamford-road, East Ham, identified one of the deceased men as her husband. She said that he had been working at Beckton for two years. He left home at about 6.45 on Thursday morning. She had never known him to have any fainting illness. It was not until the evening that she knew he was dead.
George Biggs identified the other deceased as his youngest son, who also had been employed at the Beckton Works for two years, and had never had any physical complaint. He left 28 Stafford-road (where he lived) at 6.30 a.m. on the date named, and witness was told at half-past four in the afternoon that he was dead.
Councillor Reeson, deputy engineer at the Gasworks, produced photographs of the scene of the fatality. There was a gas main 4ft. in diameter (in which a hole had been cut) and also a man-hole which had been covered up. The men were engaged in drilling.
A Juror: Were they inside or outside the main?
Witness: Oh! outside.
At this time the main was not in use? - No tests are always made to see if there is any gas, and every precaution is taken.
George Farley, 18 Keppel-road, East Ham, stated that at one o'clock on Thursday he asked for Biggs. He could not see him in the lobby, and
he observed the two men there. Pitts was lying on his right side and Biggs was lying on his back, across the other's feet.
The Coroner: It seems as though Pitts got in first, then?
Witness: I could not say.
Did you notice any gas ? - No, Sir.
You had no difficulty in breathing? - No.
Well? - I then handed the men out.
Did you see any life in them? - No.
Did you come to any conclusion as to how they got in? - No I could form no conclusion at all.
Mr. Luxton: Mr. Biggs is a friend of yours?
And so as you are aware he was a steady workman ? - Yes.
Mr. Strickland: Did you notice a hammer or any other tool lying about?
Nor do you know whether anything has been found ? - No.
Willian Burton, of 30 Burges-road, East Ham, was the next witness. As foreman he said he instructed the two deceased men to drill a couple of holes.
The Coroner: When did you last see them alive?
Witness: On Thursday, at 11.30.
Were they alright then? - Yes. He added that the next time he saw the poor fellows they were lying on the path and being treated by the ambulance men.
Dr. Ambrose: What time was that?
Burton: It was about 20 minutes past one when the men came over and fetched me.
As far as you could see they were dead? - Yes.
Did you go into the tube? - No.
Mr. Luxton said that there was another set of men to attend to the fitting; and, as a matter of fact, someone had been asked to attend to it that same afternoon, after the drilling was finished.
Mr. Strickland: Were any nuts found in the main?
Witness: I believe so.
What were they doing there ? - I do not know. I suppose the men dropped them in.
Councillor Reeson said that at about ten minutes past one on Thursday he saw some men carrying Pitts from the trench
and laying him on the path. They did the same also with Biggs. Artificial respiration was resorted to, the oxygen cylinder was used, and Dr. Trevor was sent for. When the doctor arrived at 1.45 he said that
The Coroner: Did you go into the main
Witness: Yes after the accident. I found a hammer, a cap, and a portion of the drilling machine.
A cloth cap? - Yes.
Dr. Trevor deposed that when he arrived at Beckton the two men were lying on the path, and the ambulance men were administering oxygen. There was no sign of life in either.
The Coroner: What do you think death was caused by?
By gas? - Yes.
In summing up, the Coroner said that the men had been told to do a certain thing, but they probably exceeded their duty by getting in the main, which they had been distinctly told not to do.
The jury retired, and on returning the foreman said they were not unanimous as to their verdict.
A Juror: We are all agreed, except the foreman.
The Coroner: How many of you?
The Juror: Fourteen.
The Coroner: I can accept 12, or more.
The Foreman: They think the Company is to blame.
The juror: I think our verdict was "Accidental death; with negligence on the Company's part?"
The other jurymen assented.
The Coroner: Well, if that is your verdict, I have nothing to do but to record it.
Mr. Strikland: Do you find any personal blame?
The Juror: We should like the foreman called again.
Mr. Burton was thereupon re-examined. The men, he said, finished their job with the drilling.
A Juror: Was the main shut off?
Witness: Yes; it has been shut off five weeks.
Do you always make it a rule to be present when the holes are drilled? - Yes.
These men were not skilled in fitting? - No.
The Coroner: An order had been given to someone to do this?
Burton: Yes; I have the man here.
The Juror: I think they were sent there to finish the job?
The Coroner: There is no evidence of that whatsoever.
One of the fitters then gave evidence as to being told to finish this particular work.
A juryman expressed an opinion that in dangerous work of this kind someone should be at the top of the manhole to render any assistance those inside might require.
The Coroner: But the men had no right there.
took place between Mr. Burton and one of the jurors, and there was a lapse of some few minutes before quiet was restored.
Ultimately, a verdict of "Accidental death, with negligence on the Company's Part" was returned, and Mr. Burton was exonerated from all blame, someone remarking that they could not tell what orders he had received.
Quite some time later. With two young daughters to suppport, Julia
is forced into an unhappy second marriage.
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Last modified: 2014 September 3rd.