SHOCKING AFFAIR IN ISLINGWORD STREET (The conclusion)

In the previous issue of the Sussex Family Historian the details of the death and funeral of one of my Great-Uncles, Albert Edward Plank, was described as reported by the Brighton Gazette.  The initial inquest was adjourned for a week to give Albert’s widow, Ellen Plank, time to recover from the coal gas poisoning.  This is how the Gazette covered the resumed inquest:

BRIGHTON GAZETTE

Wednesday, February 21, 1912

POISONED BY GAS

Inquiry Considered

The concluding stages of the inquest upon the body of Albert Edward Plank, the unfortunate victim of the Islingword-road gas poisoning tragedy, conducted by the Borough Coroner on Monday, gave rise to a long series of questions bearing upon water gas.  Mr. S. Ingleby Oddie (instructed by Messrs. Howlett and Clarke) appeared on behalf of the Brighton and Hove Gas Company;  Mr. Hugo Talbot (Town Clerk) represented the Corporation;  Mr. F. W. A. Cushman appeared for the widow;  and Mr. J. Sowerby (Messrs. Stuckey, Son and Pope) represented Messrs. C. R. Smith and Son, of Portslade.

Mr. Oddie intimated that the directors of the Gas Company had instructed him to express their deep regret at the death of the deceased, and he was also instructed to give every facility to the Coroner in the Inquiry.

The evidence at the last hearing was read over and confirmed.

Mrs. Ellen Plank, the widow, said she lived at 76, Islingword street.  Her husband was a night goods porter, in the employ of the Railway Company.  They rented two rooms, using the front one as a bedroom.  They had a gas bracket in the bedroom, and there was another in the passage.  There was another bracket in the basement, where the meter was.  Her husband enjoyed good health.  On Thursday, the 8th inst., he returned from work at 12 noon, and directly he came in he complained of a smell of gas.

The Coroner:  Had you noticed the smell of gas?

Witness:  No sir.

I think at the time you were suffering from a heavy cold? - Yes.

Husband examines the Brackets

What did your husband do when he smelt the gas? - Examined all the brackets, but was unable to find an escape.

He tested carefully for any leakage? - Yes.

Witness added that her husband went to bed about two o'clock.  The bed was against the side wall of the room.

The Coroner:  About a quarter of an hour later did a little girl come from next door? - Yes.

And wanted to know whether gas was escaping? - Yes.  I woke my husband up, but he was satisfied that there was not, and went to sleep again.

Did you suffer from headache that day?  Yes.   It is very unusual for me to suffer from headache.  I first noticed it about half past eleven in the morning.

Did you become drowsy - sleepy? - After my husband had gone to bed I laid by his side.  He was then fast asleep, and breathing heavily, which was usual with him.

You went to sleep, and the next thing you remember was when you were in the Hospital? - Yes.

Mr. Cushman:  Can you tell me what the position of the gas meter was in the house.  Was it on the same floor as you were living?

Witness:  It was in the basement.

Near the ceiling? - Yes.

So that the gas meter would be underneath your bed? - Yes.

In what part of the house did the gas smell the strongest?

In the passage.

I think you had not been outside the house that morning?

No Sir.

Your husband immediately he came home from work at twelve o'clock, smelt the gas? - Yes.

A Passing Lorry

On that morning did you notice anything particular being driven through the street? - I saw a lorry go by that morning about nine o'clock.

Can you more particularly describe it?  Was it a steam lorry? - Yes.

Did it have anything behind it? - Yes it had one wagon.

Was it loaded? - Yes, with flour.  I was in the front room at the time.

Which direction was it going? - It was going from Islingword-road to Southover-street.

Which side of Islingword-street is your house, Mrs Plank? - On the race-hill side, the upper side.

A lorry was going from Islingword-road to Southover-street that day? - Yes.

When you saw it going by can you give any idea as to the distance it was from the pavement? - Mostly on my side.

Had you seen that motor lorry before that day, or any other motor lorry going through? - No, not that I remember.

How long had you been living in the street? - About six weeks.

The Coroner:  You will be excused from further attendance in the Court.  We sympathise with you at the loss of your husband, and we are pleased to see you have recovered.

The Discovery Under the Road

Albert Edward Beal, 26, Tillstone-street, a foreman in the employ of the Gas Company, said on Thursday, 8th February, about ten minutes to eight in the evening, in consequence of a message, he went to Islingword-street.  He was informed that there was an escape of gas there.

The Coroner:  Did you examine the gas lamp?

Witness:  Yes.

Was the gas lamp near No. 76 - Yes, sir.

Witness added that he had the road broken up when he discovered that the escape of gas came from the service pipe opposite No. 75.  It was about 6ft. 6in. off the kerb where the breakage was.

The Coroner:  It supplied No. 75 - Yes.

Will you describe the position? - The gas pipe was bridged over a cavity.

What had caused this cavity? - I do not know exactly.  I would say it was the drainage.

What had the pipe been laid upon originally? - Chalk.  It was 22ins. from the surface where the break was.

Did you examine the broken portion carefully? - Yes.

It appeared to be a recent breakage? - Oh, yes. It was quite bright.  The pipe appeared to be as good as when it was put in.

By the Town Clerk:  The main sewer was rather further out in the road, but he did not know how far it was below the surface.

Would you be surprised to hear it is about 20ft. below the surface? - I shouldn't be surprised.

By Mr. Cushman:  There was six or eight inches clear underneath the pipe, and beneath that was crumbly chalk.

Is it usual to find a cavity 20ft. above the drain pipe? - It may not be usual.

Unusual? - We find them occasionally across drain headings.

Witness explained that pipes were laid in solid ground, and were packed up where necessary.

The Lorry

Mrs Amy Carrol, of Southampton-street, said she saw a motor lorry pass along Islingword-street on the morning named.  It belonged to Messrs. Smith and Co., millers, of Portslade.  It took about three inches of dirt up from the ground.

The Coroner:  Do you mean to say the wheels sunk in three inches? - Yes, sir, they did.

By Mr. Oddie:  The lorry passed about 10.45.

Mr. Sowerby told witness the lorry was some distance away from there at that time, but witness adhered to her statement, saying it stopped at the corner.

By Mr. Cushman:  She had never seen any other heavy motor lorry like that along there.

Mr. Arthur Stanley Cooke, Chief Inspector in the employ of the Gas Company, said the pipe was absolutely new;  it was as strong as any pipe put in.  It was of steam-pipe character, and would be good for many years.  It was made of wrought iron.  The fracture was quite recent.  He should say the pipe had been in the ground six or eight years at the outside.

By Mr. Cushman:  No record was kept of the laying of pipes.

What is the average life of a pipe? - It depends entirely on the soil.  This is one of the best soils to lay them in.  There is no clay in it, so the pipes last well.

Witness proceeded to explain how trenches were opened, and how the cavity might have been caused.  Sinking of the soil, he said, went on for years.  The deeper the drain was laid the greater would be the sinkage.

The Town Clerk:  Can you speculate as to when the subsidence took place?  Soon after the ground got consolidated? - I should think there would be a gradual subsidence which might and does last for years.

Asked whether he suggested that there had been a subsidence since the drain was put in by the Corporation, witness replied in the affirmative.

Don't you think it had sunk all it was going to sink in 32 years? - I don't.  Not where heavy weights are concerned.

A later Institution

The foreman of the jury asked whether 22ins. was a sufficient depth to lay the pipe.

Witness said 18ins. was sufficient, and 22ins. was ample.

Mr. Sowerby:  Having regard to the weight of motor lorries? - Motor lorries are a later institution than the laying of pipes.

You are not taking that into consideration? - Not at all.

The Coroner said that since the last hearing his attention had been called to the Gas Company mixing carburetted water and coal gas, it being alleged that water gas contained carbon monoxide, which he understood had a very dangerous effect on anyone inhaling it.

Mr. Cash, engineer and general manager of the Gas Company, said he had held that position 26 years.  He said that in their gas was a substance called carburetted water gas.  They started to use it in 1896.

Mr. Oddie:  What proportion of your gas is the carburetted water gas? - It varies from time to time generally, but 30 per cent is our usual average.

30 per cent of water gas and the remainder coal gas? - Yes.

How many local authorities supply gas like yours? - In 1910, about 29.

As regards seaside resorts and health resorts generally, there are a large number of these places supplying similar gas? - There are.

Also a large number of residential towns and manufacturing towns? - Yes.

The whole question of this mixture was gone into at a Government inquiry in 1898? - Yes, I gave evidence.

Water Gas

Did that Committee report that the maximum amount of carburetted water gas should be fixed by Parliament? - They suggested that there should be some definite amount fixed, but no action was taken.

They recommended that carbon monoxide should not exceed 20 per cent? - Yes.  We do not exceed that amount.

Do you test your gas every day? - Yes. On that particular day there was 13.8 per cent.

On the day before? - 13.6 per cent.

And on the day after? - It was the same, 13.6 per cent.

Do you endeavour to keep your carbon monoxide down to that figure? - Yes.

You have the gas tested voluntarily.  You are under no obligation to do it at all? - No sir.

In answer to the Town Clerk, witness said that the gas contained about 30 per cent of the water gas, or about one-third of the whole.

Can you give me the maximum figure of your gas? - Every year we have to make a return to Parliament, and I think for 1910 the maximum was 43 per cent of water gas.  On one occasion 45 per cent was the highest, and I have not exceeded that since.

What was your figure on 5th February, in regard to monoxide? - 16.6 per cent.

Was it tested yesterday? - Yes.

What was it? - Yesterday it was 14.4 per cent.

The Town Clerk pointed out that the Departmental Committee, in their findings, said that, with regard to the limitation of water gas, it ought to be made the subject of public legislation, affecting all Companies equally, and that was why they did not insert a provision in the Brighton Companies Bill.

Mr. Oddie said the Departmental Committee mentioned 12 per cent as being a desirable figure but under present conditions of gas supply, 20 per cent of carbon monoxide should be allowed.

Mr. Cash pointed out that they had never found more than 20 per cent of carbon monoxide in the gas.

Summing Up

Mr. Cushman:  There is 6 per cent of carbon monoxide in coal gas, and the introduction of water gas made the product more poisonous? - Slightly, the smell emitted by the mixed gas was more easily detected.

Witness pointed out that it was very much to be regretted that complaint was not lodged with the Gas Company as soon as the escape was detected.  He thought the gas found its way under the door step, and collected between the floorboards of the ground floor and the ceiling of the basement.

Summing up, the Coroner said he must say that it struck him as being a remarkable thing that having to work its way through the ground did not have a purifying effect on the gas, and that the gas collected in such volume and had such an effect.  He could not help thinking that the gas must have been very noxious.  There did not appear to be any inherent defect in the pipe.  The suggestion that abnormal pressure might have snapped the pipe was a reasonable one, but it was not necessary for the jury to fix the cause.  From Mr. Cash's evidence and the statements made to him by other persons, he had no hesitation in coming to the conclusion that water gas was very dangerous to persons inhaling it, and he certainly thought it was time when the percentage of water gas should be defined by Act of Parliament.   It was very satisfactory to find that the Corporation was alive to the danger, and that they had tried to get a limiting clause inserted in the Brighton Gas Company's Bill.  Unfortunately, they were unsuccessful.  The responsibility was with Parliament and not with the Corporation, who had done all it could to safeguard the public.  He suggested that the jury might add a rider on the subject.

The Jury's Return

After deliberating in private for a time with his colleagues, the Foreman returned, and raised the question as to whether the gas pipes were laid too near the surface.

Mr. Cooke said he considered 22ins. was ample under any circumstance.  There had never been a similar accident before so far as he knew.

Mr. Cash:  And we have 40,000 service pipes.

The jury returned a verdict to the effect that deceased met his death by the breaking of a pipe belonging to the Gas Company, caused by a heavy lorry running over the surface of the road, and probably accelerated by a cavity in the ground.  They added a rider to the effect that there should be a lesser percentage of water gas used.

The Coroner:  You really find that death was due to misadventure, caused by coal gas poisoning?

The Foreman: Yes.

Further answering the Coroner, the Foreman said they agreed with his remarks about the water gas.  They expressed deep sympathy with the widow.

The Coroner:  It is a very sad case indeed.

The Foreman added that the jury wished to commend Mrs. Brett and P.C. Tester.

The Coroner: I am very glad you have said that P.C. Tester is deserving of praise for the way in which he discharged his duties in this case.  Not only was he energetic and prompt in endeavouring to restore animation, but he made an intelligent investigation, and prepared a plan which has been of considerable assistance to the Court.

Superintendent Hale promised to report the commendation to the authorities.

Part 1