The Rifleman Explosion 1886


On Wednesday afternoon hundreds of people visited the scene of the explosion. The wreck of the Rifleman still remains alongside the West Pier, but we are informed by Captain Pomeroy, the dockmaster, that arrangements will be made for her removal today (Thursday). The adjourned inquest on the bodies of the unfortunate men who lost their lives will be resumed at the Town-hall, Cardiff, this afternoon at four p.m., when it is expected that some important scientific evidence will be given by experts as to the probable cause of the accident.


SOURCE : Welsh Papers Online


The only survivor of the persons on board the Rifleman at the time of the explosion is Thomas Owen, a "hobbling" pilot, residing at 11, Stuart street, Cardiff. Directly after the disaster, Owen, together with the boy Phillips, was carried to the Hamadryad Hospital ship, where he still remains. On Tuesday afternoon our reporter visited the ship, and had an interview with Owen. On descending a flight of steps, the pressman found himself in the fore ward on the main deck. This is an airy, whitewashed chamber, with a row of pallets on either side. In the centre are a couple of stoves, around which pale-faced patients were sitting. In the beds were men fast asleep, and others tossing in pain. Owen was lying on a bed in a corner on the port side, and next to him was a young Swede busily engaged expectorating into a bucket as the result of an emetic to get rid of some poison that he bad taken. Owen was surrounded by a little crowd of relatives with whom he was chatting. He is a middle-aged man with black whiskers, and his face has some black marks on it. On the forehead there are patches, evidently the result of scalding. When asked to relate what he knew concerning the explosion, he replied: "I was sitting in the fore-cabin of the Rifleman. I was near a little stove, and was smoking a pipe. No one else was in the cabin. I was going out in the tug for the purpose of bringing a vessel, the Eliza Mary, into the West Dock. The other men on board were on deck. Suddenly I heard a terrific whirring sound, and immediately the cabin was filled with steam and smoke. I jumped np and mads for the companion. I felt water rising, and I was sure the tug was sinking. I became tangled in broken woodwork, and my jacket was badly torn by nails. Before I could get to the top of the companion ladder I was up to the neck ! in water. I was soon floating in the water, and I lost my senses. I understand that I was picked up about three fathoms from the sunken tug, towards the Packet Slip. I am told that a boatman named Challicombe jumped into a punt I and rowed off to me, but that on reaching over the side of the boat to pick me up it capsized. He, however, held me up, and in the meantime two other boats put off, one containing a man named Davies, and the other having in it two men of the names of Holmes and Dunn and my son, Alfred Owen. Challicombe was got into Davies boat, and I was hauled into the other one. I recovered consciousness whilst in the boat, the first words 1 beard being from the lips of Dunn, who said, " It's all right; I have got him" I am thankful to state that my injuries are only of a slight character. My hands are scalded, and, as you see, are in bandages. My forehead is also bruised and cut, but, with the careful attention I am receiving here, I hope to be all right in a few days."


At the Town-hall, Cardiff, on Tuesday, Mr Coroner Reece opened an inquest upon the bodies of the men killed by the explosion which occurred on board the tog Rifleman, on Monday morning. Mr Hancock (Messrs Downing and Hancock) watched the proceedings on behalf of Mrs Spear, the owner of the tug.

The jury, of which Mr Councillor Evan Jones was elected foreman, in the first place proceeded to view the bodies, which lie in different parts of the town. The break provided for the use of the jury, drove from the Town-hall to the mortuary, where the body of Hunt was seen. The jury next proceeded to the house of Captain Pill, in Ludlow-street, and afterwards to the dead-house attached to the Hamadryad Hospital Ship, where they saw the body of the boy Phillips, who died the same morning. All the other bodies were viewed in due course.

Upon the jury returning to the Town-hall, the following evidence was taken :-

John Augustus Hawker, 4, Eleanor-Street, Docks, said:-I am a tugboat agent; I knew all the deceased men. James Henry Pill was captain of the tugboat Rifleman ; he was 32 years of age. William Henry Gerrish was mate of the tugboat, and his age was 33. John Lovell, whom I also knew, was the engineer of the tug, his age being 37. George Arthur Clare was the fireman ; he was 19 years of age. George E. Phillips, who was 15 years old, was the cabin boy. William Charles Hunt, whom we saw first at the mortuary, did not belong to the tug. He was a fireman, and his age was 29. The bodies I have viewed are the bodies of these men. I am the agent for the tugboat Rifleman, the owner being Mrs 3pear, who goes under the name of Mrs Webb. The men mentioned, excepting Hunt were the whole of the crew. I have known the tug Rifleman for fifteen or sixteen years. I don't know the age of the boat ; the boilers were built in 1880. I gave the engineer full power to order anything he wanted from the Tyneside Engineering Company. Last Thursday the engineer told me that some repairs wanted doing to the bunker beam ; but he said nothing about the boilers. I told him to stop the tug on Friday for the purpose of having the bunker beam repaired; and also to have any other repairs done which he might think necessary. Lovell, the engineer, was a thoroughly practical man. As tar as I know everything was right with the boat when this accident happened. I was at the Pier-head when the accident happened on Monday morning close upon nine o'clock; I had only just then moved from the boat. She was then lying moored at the entrance to the West Dock, under the pier wall. She had arrived there about 15 minutes before the accident, having previously towed a vessel from the Old Canal to the West Mud. I was not on board the tug, but I spoke to the captain from the Pier-head. All those whom I have mentioned as the crew were on deck at that time. I told the captain that he was to tow the Edith Eleanor to Lavernock Point, and that I. had collected the money for the tug's service. I told him be need not hurry over it. Before I had gone many steps after that the explosion occurred. It was a violent explosion, but the report was not a 'oud one. The debris came flying about. I noticed two black objects, one over the clock tower and the other to the eastward of it. One of them, upon it falling to the ground, was found to be a piece of the boiler casing. That above the clock, I found when it fell, was a body. It was turned over and found to be the captain. He groaned twice, but made no sound afterwards. The next body I saw was that oi Clare, who was lying between the Pierhead and the clock. He was alive and bleeding, blood streaming out of his month and nose. They took Clare away on a stretcher. About three yards from Clare was the boy Phillips, who, though alive, was quite unconscious. I did not see Lovell or Gerrish, neither did I see anything of Hunt. I went to look at the boat, and found that- she had sunk, only a piece of her stern, and a bit of her mast being visible.

In reply to the foreman of the jury, witness said he did not know whether the engineer had a certificate or not. Asked by another of the jury whether the steam was blowing off very powerfully when he was talking to the captain, he said it was not going off with unusual strength, or he would have noticed it.

Resuming his evidence, in reply to the coroner, witness said the captain was close to the dome at the time of the explosion. The fireman and driver were sitting on the dome, whilst the mate and the boy were aft.

Henry Lovell, fireman, said : John Lovell was my brother. I saw him on Monday a few minutes after the explosion. At the time of the accident I was on board the Earl of Windsor, 400 or 500 yards from the scene of the explosion the boiler blown away. I then went to the Pierhead ; and afterwards saw my brother in the Exchange-buildings. He was dead.

John James Gerrish, 31, George-street, Docks, deposed : I am a sailor. William Henry Gerrish, the deceased, was my brother. As soon as I heard of the explosion on Monday I went to look for my brother. I found him about tea yards from the Rifleman, when the tide went out. His body was lying on the stones by the side of the cut.

Dr Hughes said the boy Phillips was brought to the Hamadryad Hospital ship between nine and ten on Monday morning. He was put to bed. George Arthur Clare was afterwards brought up in an omnibus. The boy was alive, but Clare was dead. The boy, however, was unconscious ; and though able to speak a word or two afterwards, he never entirely regained his senses. He died this morning at four o'clock. He had a fracture of the right thigh, which was also lacerated. He had also two scalp wounds, concussion of the brain, and fracture of the collar bone. Clare had a compound fracture of the skull. He must have died a few minutes after receiving the injury.

The inquest was then adjourned till tomorrow (Thursday), at four o'clock, the coroner intimating that in the meantime he would communicate with the Board of Trade.


SOURCE : Welsh Papers Online


Hitherto all the evidence regarding the explosion on board the Rifleman baa been obtained from eye-witnesses who saw It on the land or leeward aide, but Mr. John Davies, of 24, Louisa-street, street that he was boating the screw steamer Stephanotis into the Bute East Dock at the time. When about 30 yards from the Pierhead he was startled by the explosion. He had in his boat a lad belonging to No. 8 pilot cutter, and they at once pulled into the floating wreckage, the debris falling all around them. They first reached an oil coat belonging to one of the crew, and then saw William Challicombe and William Davis, who were getting Owen, the pilot, into their boat. As already reported, it filled, and Mr. Davies immediately sculled his boat to their help, and was fortunate to assist in rescuing all three.


The probable cause of the explosion was throughout the whole of Monday and Tuesday the chief topic of conversation amongst the engineers and practical men at the Docks. Aa stated in our Tuesday's issue, opinion is divided, tome experts favouring the theory that the water had got too low, and that, instead of drawing the fires, a fresh supply of water was suddenly pumped in, while others iodine to the belief that, steam was allowed to accumulate until, with the great pressure, something had to give way. The former, however, is the theory most favoured, and there is strong evidence to prove it is the correct one. The boiler, it appears, was of the ordinary marine type, of a somewhat old-fashioned description. The plates used in its construction were rather thin. No longitudinal stays were used, but the back and front plates were held by gussets- triangular plates of iron riveted to the shell and ends. Though this Absence of any stay longitudinally was, of course, no defect, yet had such been provided the force of the explosion would not have been anything like so intense. From what can now be seen, the explosion must have started at the back of the combustion chamber, bursting this out towards the fire. The top of this chamber has to a certain extent collapsed, and, on a casual inspection, the appearance of the plates seems to indicate that they were overheated to a very considerable degree, being blue, dry, and clean. The top rows of lubes also bear these signs of heating, in Addition to being turned slightly upward, all of which goes to show that the water was out of the boiler, and that the flames hid free play upon the plates. If this be the case, any sudden inflow of cold water coming in contact with the hot iron would cause steam to be generated with such great rapidity that no safety valve would be able to relieve the pressure. Heated plates naturally would be soft, and, generally speaking, when a collapse takes place from this cause the hot portion only gives way, the water and steam escaping downwards. That the plates must have been heated to redness is said by engineers to be conclusively proved by the bulging inwards of the combustion chamber, which would naturally be the weakest part. At the same moment the chamber collapsed the exterior shell of the boiler, where attached to the front plate, would be immediately blown away, the bottom giving way List. This would have the effect of raising the boiler considerably at the stern end, and then it would shoot away at a tangent. The boiler would then be very much like a mortar, while the shell and end, which would be in shape something like a bell, would receive toe full force of the explosion. The enormous distance to which a portion of the boiler was hurled would thus be accounted for. In its fall this great mass of iron struck the Italian barquentine with such force that the plates were doubled in; then, making half a somersault, it fell over against the rigging killing the man Hunt A rumour was current on Tuesday that the Rifleman's safety-valve was undergoing repairs, but after the disaster it was found near the wreck and taken by Mr. Loxdale, board of Trade surveyor, to the Tyneside Works for examination. When discovered the valve was found to be stuck, but whether it was lammed when closed or open has not transpired. In a conversation our representative had with an eminent engineer on Tuesday, the latter said the steam gauges or indicators io general use on tugboats were not to be depended upon, and were more frequently out of order than otherwise, the drivers relying on the safety valve to show when the ordinary pressure had been exceeded. The boiler itself was not of a type usually used for tugs. Being a tubular boiler, it would not contain such a large quantity of water as others, and would, therefore, want mere attention, requiring a supply of water about every ten minutes, whereas with another type once in half an hour would be ample. All these things point to shortness water as the cause of the explosion, and one gentleman who inspected the boiler shortly after the catastrophe is of opinion that the water was quite eighteen inches below the top tube instead of being four inches above, as it should be.


SOURCE : Welsh Papers Online


The inquest to inquire into the circumstances attending the deaths of the six persons who were killed on Monday by the bursting of the boiler on the tug Rifleman was opened at the Town-hall, Cardiff, on Tuesday. Mr. Hancock, solicitor (of the Arm of Hancock and Downing), was present to watch the proceedings on behalf of the owner, Mrs. Spear. After the jury, of which Councillor Jones was foreman, had taken the oath, they set out on the unpleasant errand of viewing the bodies. All the poor fellows bore evidences of a violent death, but perhaps the body of the unfortunate nun Hunt, who was killed on the Clotilde B, was the most frightfully mutilated. The head, which had been struck by the immense projectile, was almost completely cut off.

On returning the following witnesses were called:-

John Augustus Hawker, residing at Eleanor street, docks, tugboat agent, said that he knew all the deceased men. James Henry Pill, captain of the tugboat rifleman, was 32 years of age; Wm. Henry Gerrish, mate, 33; John Lovell, engineer, 37; George Arthur Clare fireman, 19; and George Emmanuel Phillips, cabin boy, 15. William Charles Hunt, 29. did not belong to the tugboat, but was a fireman. Witness then said that the bodies the jurors had viewed were those of the above-named men. He was agent for the boat, the owner being Mrs Spear, known as Mrs. Webb, residing at the Museum Hotel, Docks. He had known the boat 15 or 16 years, but did not know how old it was. The boilers were built in 1880. The engineer had full power to go to the Tyneside Boiler and Engineering Works, Cardiff, to get any repairs done to the boilers, The boat was taken alongside the works last Friday as the engineer told witness on Thursday that the bunker beam wanted repairing. Witness told him to go on Friday, and if anything else required doing to have it done at the same time. The engineer said nothing about the boilers, Lovell had been engineer for a number oi years, and was a thoroughly practical man, and, so far aa witness knew, everything was right when the accident happened. Witness was on the Pierhead at the time the accident occurred, about nine o'clock. The boat was lying at the West Pier under the pier wall, near the entrance to the dock. She had previously towed a vessel from the old canal to the West Mud, and had Just returned. He spoke to the captain from the Pier-head, and all the crew were on deck. He told the captain to tow the Edith Eleanor to Lavernock Point, the money for which lie bad already received, and that lie need not hurry. The captain replied, and witness left. A few seconds after he heard the explosion, and saw the debris flying about. He noticed two black objects, one over the clock tower and the other eastward of the clock, but could not distinguish what they were, on account of its quantity of steam dying about. When he tan the' body on the ground lie rushed towards it and found it was that of the captain. The next body he saw was that of Clare, lying between the Pier-head and the tower. He was alive, and blood was streaming out of his mouth and nose, witness next saw Phillips, lying about three yards from Clare, he was quite unconscious. Witness did not see Lovell, Gerrish, or Hunt. He then went to look at the boat. It had sunk, only a part of the stern and mast being visible Questioned by the foreman as to whether the engineer bad a certificate, witness said that he had not. A juror asked him if, when he was talking to the captain, he noticed any steam blowing off strongly. Witness said he did not, and that there was nothing unusual, or be should have noticed it.

Henry Lovell fireman, brother of John Lovell. said that he saw his brother a few minutes after the occurrence. He was on board the tug Earl of Windsor, and was about 500 yards off in the gut, when the accident occurred. He saw the boiler flying in the direction of the East Bute Dock, and ran to the Pierhead. He then saw his brother, who was then dead, in the Exchange Buildings.

John James Gerrish, seaman, brother of William Henry Gerrish, living at 31, George-street, was at the Windsor Slipway when the explosion occurred He immediately went to the Pierhead, but could not find his brother. About one o'clock be found the body by the side of the gut on the stands tea yards from the wreck, which was then brought ashore.

Dr. Hughes of the Hamadryad Hospital Ship, was next called, and he stated that George Henry Phillips was brought to the Hospital Ship between nine and ten in the morning, and George Arthur Clare was conveyed to the ship in an omnibus, but was dead at the time. The boy was unconscious, and did not entirely regain consciousness, dying at four o'clock on Tuesday morning. He had a fracture and laceration on the right thigh, two scalp wounds, concussion of the brain, and injuries to the collar bone. Clare could not have lived many minutes after the occurrence, having an extensive compound fracture of the skull.

The inquiry was then adjourned till Thursday at four o'clock, in order to allow the Board of Trade an opportunity to view the vessel.


SOURCE : Welsh Papers Online


At the ordinary meeting of the Cardiff Town Council on Monday the Mayor asked permission of the council to take some business other than public before they entered upon the routine proceedings. The Royal Humane Society had awarded their certificates to William Challicombe and William Davis for services rendered to one of the survivors of the recent late explosion on board the Rifleman. It appeared that one of the crew at the time of the explosion was down in the forecastle, and when the boiler burst he was precipitated into the water. The two boatmen, in a very courageous manner, hurried to the spot, at great peril to themselves, and rescued the drowning man. Representation had been made to the Royal Humane Society making known the facts concerning their brave conduct, and certificates were awarded to both of them. (Hear,)

The Mayor then presented the certificates, which were engrossed on vellum, and enclosed in neat leather cases, to Mr. Challicombe and Mr. Davis, adding a few suitable words as to their behaviour. The recipients of the honour then expressed their thanks and retired.


SOURCE : Welsh Papers Online


The damaged boiler of the ill-fated Tug "Rifleman," was this morning lifted by the crane, at the top of the East Dock, from the deck of the " Clotilda B., on to a truck and passed over the weighing machine. The weight is 4 tons in its present condition.

Funeral of Lovell.

This afternoon the funeral of John Lovell, the engineer on board the ill-fated tug Rifleman, took place at the New Cemetery. A large number of tugboat captains and pilots followed, to show their respect for the deceased. The bodies of the captain. Pill, and the boy Phillips, will be interred at Llandaff on Saturday. To-day men are engaged in removing the engine and the remains of the boiler from the sunken tug.


SOURCE : Welsh Papers Online


Mr. Adam Willis, shipwright, Old Sea Lock, Cardiff, who has purchased the hull of the tug Rifleman, has had it removed from the gridiron to the neighbourhood of the channel tip, where it is now hauled up above high-water mark. This gentleman successfully raised the schooner Empire, laden with grain, which stranded some time ago on the Flat Holm.


SOURCE : Welsh Papers Online


A meeting of the committee formed for distributing relief to the widows and orphans of the men killed in the explosion on board the tug Rifleman was held in the Town-Hall, Cardiff, on Wednesday, under the presidency of the mayor. The collections and subscriptions amounted to £503 7s 4d, and £107 11s were raised by concerts, &c., thus showing a total of £610 18s 4d. After some discussion it was decided to invest £300 in Corporation Stock in the hands of the Mayor, Mr E-R. Moxey, and Mr T.H. Plain. A sum of £200 will remain in the London and Provincial Bank of England on deposit. About £38 has been already paid, and a substantial balance will be thus with the committee for all present necessities.


SOURCE : Welsh Papers Online