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‘The St Day Calamity’

This week in 1875, on Tuesday 23 February, four oak coffins were carried in a procession of over four thousand people from Tolgullow through the Cornish mining town of St Day to the parish church. The first bore the name of 37-year old Ann Davey, a resident of Tolgullow. Next came the coffin of Eliza Jane James, aged 27, from Chapel Street in the town, followed by that of Christiana Mitchell, a 17-year old from the nearby hamlet of Crofthandy. The last coffin was that of 14-year-old Elizabeth Ann Pooley who lived down the hill in Poldice. After the funeral service the coffins were placed in a single grave in the churchyard. The following day another funeral service took place when 19-year-old Margaretta Long was buried in her family’s grave plot in the same churchyard.[1]

These five unmarried women and girls represented almost half of the workforce of the Unity Safety Fuse Manufactory in Tolgullow, one of a number of fuse factories that had sprung up locally to serve the mining industry since William Bickford’s patent for his revolutionary safety fuse had expired in 1845.[2] Most of the workers in these factories were female, some as young as 10 years old. Making fuses involved working with explosives – controlled amounts of gunpowder were fed into yarns being twisted into a fuse by steam-powered machinery. It was a dangerous work. In the 20 years prior to 1875 there had been four explosions or fires in Cornish fuse works resulting in the deaths of 14 women, with others suffering serious burns or life-changing injuries.

One of those earlier incidents had happened in 1855 at the previous premises of the Unity Fuse Works (then known as E.H. Hawke Fuse Works) in Tolgullow. An explosion had destroyed the building, leaving at least two dead: Mary Hawke, aged 43, and Fanny Mitchell, just 13.[3] At least seven other women and girls were injured.[4] One of those was Ann Davey, then 17, who despite being badly burned and thrown into a nearby tree by the explosion, survived and continued to work at the relocated works. Twenty years later her luck ran out.

On the morning of Saturday 20 February 1875 Ann, along with Christina, Elizabeth, Eliza and Margaretta, was working on the upper floor of the works where the fuse filling process took place.[5] Four women were doing other tasks on the floor below: Rosella Stephens, Caroline (Susan) Jones, Catherine (Kate) Luke and Eliza Jane Martin. The works foreman, John Hamlin, the only male employee, was in the engine room talking to Mary Jane Davey, Ann Davey’s younger sister.

Around 11.30am something happened on the first floor. A small explosion was heard in the neighbourhood, but most on site were more aware of a blast wave followed by fire. Rosella Stephens and Kate Luke working below were knocked away from their work stations and found themselves in darkness, as did Caroline Jones. All three were able to escape into the yard with relatively minor injuries or burns.

Eliza Jane Martin’s sister, Emily Martin, was working in a shed in the yard. She had heard a noise but didn’t realise what was happening happened until Kate spoke to her. 13-year-old Emily rushed to the building in time to see her sister emerge with her clothes alight, but was able to put out the flames with her apron.

The foreman, John Hamlin, had been knocked unconscious. When he came to and struggled out of the engine room he encountered Rosella who told him that four women were still in the building. Those in the yard saw two figures at one of the upstairs windows, but they soon disappeared. Margaretta Long could be seen struggling to open another window with bloodied hands. Hamlin rushed to get a ladder, but by the time he returned Margaretta had jumped out, enveloped by flames, which he and one of the girls quickly extinguished. Although badly burnt Margaretta was conscious and even able to walk home with help, but she was unable to explain what had happened. She died of her injuries some hours later, at midnight.

Of the others who had been upstairs with Margaretta there was no sign. The intensity of the fire, small secondary explosions and the risk of the boiler exploding prevented anyone from approaching the upstairs room. On seeing the smoke, local miners and others, including the father of the still missing Elizabeth Jane Pooley, had rushed to the scene, but were unable to gain control of the fire for another hour. The remains of the four missing women were later found in the rubble.

The inquest into the five deaths was opened at Bennett’s Commercial Hotel, now the St Day Inn, the following Monday, but after hearing evidence from some witnesses was adjourned for a fortnight to allow John Hamlin time to recover from the burns he had received. Mary Jane Davey who had been with him when the explosion happened had been more badly burnt, and had also lost her sister in the fire, was not called to give evidence.

During the inquest it emerged that although the women were under strict instructions to wear slippers while inside working with the explosives, when Margaretta was being treated immediately after the accident, she was still wearing her old nailed leather boots. A spark from these was thought the most likely cause of the explosion. The jury found that Margaretta had died from burns and shock. Ann, Elisa, Christiana and Elizabeth had died from suffocation. Their remains were too badly burnt to allow individual identification, the likely explanation for their burial together.

There are no headstones to mark either of the two graves, and we don’t know where within St Day churchyard the women are buried. But we know they are there, somewhere,… and the women’s resting place, like all those in the churchyard, will soon be covered with spring flowers, as they are every year.

A note on locations

The exact location of the fuse works at the time of either of the accidents isn’t clear. The original owner Edward Henry Hawke also had a rope works in Tolgullow, situated just opposite the current entrance to Tregullow, and it has been suggested that the building destroyed in the 1855 explosion may have been here or nearby. By 1875 the fuse works had relocated to the Wheal Unity Count House, but with archives and libraries closed due to Covid, I haven’t been able to find out where this was. By 1878 the fuse works relocated again to a new single floor factory, and this is the building in Little Beside, now a dwelling, known as the Old Unity Fuse Works.

[1] St Day burial register; Royal Cornwall Gazette, 27 Feb 1875, p.4. [2] Lynne Mayers, A Hazardous Occupation! Women & Girls of the Cornish Explosives Industries 1800-1920, Blaize Bailey Books, 2014; J. Mills & P. Annear, The Book of St Day, Halsgrove, 2003, pp.115-117. [3] Royal Cornwall Gazette, 3 Aug 1855. [4] Mayer, pp. 50-51. [5] For the inquest see Royal Cornwall Gazette, 27 Feb 1875 & 13 Mar 1875. Transcription available on the Cornwall Online Parish Clerk website:

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