1867; Devastating explosion at Weymouth saw mills.

One Tuesday morning in March of 1867, the men made their way to work at the business premises of 37-year-old William Sketchley. He ran a successful steam saw mill business in the Park district of Weymouth. William was not a native of the town, he had moved his family and business here from the London area a few years previous, but he was settled here, and life was doing very nicely  for him, trade was booming, employing carpenters and joiners.


One of those employed by William was 17 year-old Thomas Cosh, he lived just around the corners from the works in Gt George Street with his widowed Mum  Martha and his siblings. He had only been at the saw mill for 6 weeks or so, but he was learning fast, and proud that at last he was earning a wage to help his Mum support his younger siblings, having lost his Dad, James a year or so ago.

George Way, a blacksmith and engineer by trade had taken young Thomas under his wing, making sure that he took  the time to teach the young lad the ropes, showing him how to work the steam engines that William had working in his yard. Explaining to him the extreme importance of keeping an eye on the level of the water in these machines, and the pressure that they operated at. George’s job was the maintenance of the various steam engines that William kept at his yard, some were sold to customers, some hired out for jobs on the local farms, being used to run the threshing machines. A couple of the engines were used in the saw mill to run the huge sharp, deadly blades that cut the wood into planks or furniture and fittings.


These engines were stood outside in the work yard, with  a driving belt that operated the machinery inside the workshop.

That Tuesday morning young Thomas had been left in charge of the steam machinery, both William and George had checked the water levels and pressure as they had passed by earlier, telling Thomas to keep a good eye on it.

Inside the workshop were the other men, busy with cutting the wood needed for the days orders. One of them was William’s brother-in-law, James Clifton, who was working on the other side of the wall to Thomas.

At 20 minutes past 11 that fateful morning, disaster struck!

James heard a sound, at the same instant he was blasted right off his feet and landed, stunned,  across the workshop. Coming to, he heard cries for help, picking himself up and dusting himself off, he tried to gather his senses, what had just happened?

Looking around the shattered building, he saw fellow workmate Turner staggering across the floor, James grabbed his arm and led him to safety outside. As he passed the yard he noticed the motionless body of lad Thomas on the floor in front of the boiler…or rather what was left of it!

The explosion had blown the boiler door right off, sending huge fragments of the devastated machine up into the air, shattered parts landing on the roofs all around.

George Way stumbled through the devastation of the now silent mill, his body and face covered with cuts and lacerations, absolutely stunned.

In the meantime workmen had swiftly gathered up the body of Thomas and carried him back to his Mum’s house a couple of doors away, where he was laid on his bed, and the doctor was called for.

Thomas’s head and body had taken the full force of the blast as the engine had exploded without warning. There was nothing to be done for him now. His injuries were too extensive, his skull broken into a multitude of pieces. He was laid out there now until the day of his burial.

First Martha had lost her husband, now she’d lost her son.

The inquest was held at the remains of the wood mill, where the jury saw the total devastation for themselves, and heard first hand accounts from the men who had been there, but had thankfully survived the explosion.

The coroner passed his verdict;

“killed by explosion of a portable steam engine of which he was the driver, caused by the act of the deceased himself in over-screwing the safety valve, as far as can be gathered from the evidence. At the same time we must express our opinion that one so young should not have been entrusted with the care of the engine.”

Thomas’s remains were laid to rest in Melcombe Regis church yard on the  17th March 1867.

Touched by the sad plight of the widow Martha, the men of the jury had a whip round  and a sum of £1.5s was handed to her.


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