William Grisdale is enveloped by fire

Posted: August 29, 2014 in Ancestry
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I often write about people who have done interesting things or perhaps emigrated or fought in various wars. Some of these people might even have left numerous descendants and be the ancestors of some of us today. I have to say that it is these stories that understandably provoke the most interest and comment. But in any family the vast majority of people led simple and very often unrecorded lives. Some also left no descendants to carry their name or even their memory. Yet they are nonetheless part of ‘our’ extended family and their lives are perhaps more representative than those who were perhaps more heroic. This is the sad story of the tragic but heroic end of a young Manchester warehouseman called William Grisdale.

Bobbins

Bobbins

William was born in 1816 in Over Staveley in Westmorland, the fourth of nine children of bobbin turner John Grisdale and his wife Jennet Stainton. At this time Over Staveley was pretty much totally dedicated to making bobbins to supply the mills in Lancashire and elsewhere. Staveley had first had cotton mills but’ it was the growth of the bobbin mills that caused the most rapid period of change in the village in the years 1820-1850’, by 1851 ‘there were 187 bobbin workers in the Staveley area and well over 100 in the village itself where there were bobbin mills in what had been Rawes Mill, in the old fulling mill at Newgate (Gatefoot today) and in part of the Barley Bridge Mill and at Chadwicks… ‘

Bobbin Mill

Bobbin Mill

William grew up in Over Staveley with his siblings while his father went off to turn bobbins in one of these Staveley bobbin mills. Perhaps William couldn’t find work in the bobbin mills or didn’t like the work; in any case he moved to Liverpool and became a ‘labourer’ living in Crosshall Street, where in 1842 he married a girl from the same  street called Ann Thexton. After their marriage couple moved to Lower Grafton Street in Toxteth, where the next year a son John was born. Sometime over the course of the next few years the family moved from Liverpool to Salford where William found work as a ‘warehouse porter’. In 1851 the family were living in Yearsley Street in Salford, but the next year, sadly, eight year-old John died. Perhaps the family’s grief was assuaged a little when a daughter was born in the spring of 1853, named Jennet after William’s mother.

Street next to Crosshall Street in Liverpool in mid 1800s

Street next to Crosshall Street in Liverpool in mid 1800s

William was obviously a good worker because by 1853 he had become the chief warehoseman at the Manchester Bonded Warehouses in Salford. Bonded warehouses were regulated by the government customs and excise and allowed merchants to delay payment of tax on imported goods until they were sold and delivered to customers from the warehouse. One of the main things stored in these warehouses was spirits.

On Tuesday 21st June, just weeks after the birth of daughter Jennet, William went to his job in the warehouse as usual, it was not however to be a usual day. A few days later several newspapers told what happened:

Reginald’s Newspaper 26 June 1853.

Narrow Escape of the Manchester Bonded Warehouses –

On Tuesday, a man named William Grisdale, was trimming some spirit casks from an open vat containing 1,700 gallons of brandy, in Manchester Bonded Warehouses, when the light in his lamp by some accident set on fire the spirits in one of the casks he was filling, at the bunghole. The flames spread over the outside of the cask, wherever the brandy had run, burning with great ferocity and there was a danger of that in the open vat taking fire.

Grisdale with great presence of mind and intrepidly, rolled the barrel out of doors, and this probably saved the buildings and property from destruction. As it was, a track of flame was left along the floor from the brandy which escaped through the bunghole as he rolled out the cask, and the door through which the cask was rolled also took fire; but, with the assistance of the other warehousemen, the danger was speedily overcome by extinguishing the flames on the floor and door. Grisdale was much burnt about the face, hands, and other parts of the body, and had to be removed for surgical aid, but is likely to recover.

A former Manchester Bonded Warehouse

A former Manchester Bonded Warehouse

The previous day the Manchester Courier had reported similarly but with other details under ‘Fires in Manchester’:

… About one o’clock on Monday, as William Grisdale, a person in the employ of the Bonded Warehouse Company, was engaged under Mr Vivian, the landing waiter, in what is termed ‘vatting’, whilst pouring some brandy into a cask, a drop splashed up from the bunghole to the top of the lamp, and caused a blaze. The flame was augmented by some drops of spirit on the cask, and in another instant the brandy in the cask caught fire, sending forth a large flame from the bung-hole. With great presence of mind, and although enveloped in flames, Grisdale succeeded in rolling the cask to the door. At the time of the accident Mr. Vivian stood a few yards from Grisdale; and seeing him on fire, while he courageously rolled the cask out of the door he pulled of his coat and dashed it against the flame, with which Grisdale’s clothes were enveloped.

Assistance being speedily got, while some of the men succeeded in extinguishing the fire upon Grisdale’s clothes, others put out the flame, which still blazed along the ten yards over which the cask had been rolled. Grisdale, who was badly burned, especially about the legs, was taken at once to the Infirmary surgeon and his own medical man. We are glad to say that he is in a fair way of recovery, and it is to his courage and self-possession that the preservation of the warehouses and their contents are to be attributed.

But the Manchester Courier had just got news that William Grisdale had died at his home two days previously, and on a later page to the above story reported that ‘Grisdale died at his own home on Thursday, leaving a wife and child’. Other reports said he had spent three days in excruciating agony before he died.

Spirit barrels afire

Spirit barrels afire

William’s courage had saved a lot of people a lot of money and a fund was established to help his wife and infant children. In September the Manchester Courier was asking for subscriptions to ‘aid the widow and infant daughter of the late William Grisdale who was burned to death in extinguishing a fire… which he accomplished at the cost of his own life’. Many companies (mostly insurance) and local merchants had already given and their individual contributions were all listed, totalling so far nearly £300.

At least the money would help William’s widow Ann to feed and clothe baby Jennet Grisdale. But it was not to be, because just four months after William had died of his burns one-year old Jennet died too. Widow Ann would soon remarry and have two more daughters but as I said at the beginning who was there to remember William and his two children? His courage and heroism was at least as great as others I have written about on this blog and at least I commemorate him here.

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