Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 8/A destructive cap

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They were all plain elm coffins, and there were nineteen of them. They lay, in the sad afternoon sun of a wintry Sunday, upon a row of trestles, beside a broad, deep grave in a Birmingham churchyard. A little group of mourners clustered round the head of each coffin, sobbing and sighing; and a young clergyman, half-hidden by a mound of sand, read the burial service with evident emotion. On every side, rising right away to the very tops of the gun-manufactories that form the churchyard square, stood a great motionless multitude: thousands there seemed, and yet so silent, that the words “dust to dust,” and the hollow rattle of the handful of earth thrown upon the coffin lids, thrilled through to the outermost of them. I judged, from what I saw, and from a fine stress laid upon certain words in the service by the young clergyman, that the dead were the victims of some accident; and, at the close of the ceremony, I asked a slovenly-looking old artisan standing by me, what had been the cause of it.

“Why,” he replied, without troubling himself to hoist his chin out of his many-folded and untidy neckerchief, or even to raise his eyes to look at me, “it’s them theer caps agen; that’s what it is;” and he doled the words out like a man thinking aloud.

“Caps?” I repeated, inquiringly.

“Aye, caps,” he said, “Ain’t ye heerd ’en the exploge?”

Having but just returned from foreign parts, I had not heard of the “exploge,” and I told him so.

“Well, then,” he said, somewhat irritated, as I thought, at my lack of information, “them nineteen poor creeturs was blowed up in a cap ’factory—that’s what they was; and theer’s thirty or forty moor on ’em in the hospital—that’s what there is. God help ’em! They was nothin’ but women and childer. What I says is, that Goverment ought to be blowed to bits and burned like they was for allowin’ sech things—that’s what I says.”

Without expressing my concurrence in this harrowing sentiment, I ventured to inquire what on earth there was in the mere manufacture of caps to cause such havoc?

Raising his head for the first time since our conversation had begun, and eyeing me with a sleepy look of scorn, the old man paused for a moment or two, by way of convincing me that my ignorance was beneath his contempt, and then put this grimly-ironical question: “D’yow s’ppose they was nightcaps as done it?”

Of course I didn’t.

“Very well, then, they was gun-caps—that’s what they was.”

The logic was irresistible. I at once apologised for my dulness, and again asked him how the accident happened.

“Why, it was done while they was a-primin’.”

“And how did they prime?”

That he could not “ha’ while” to tell me just then; and, with a polite intimation that I had better go to some ’factory” and see for myself, the old fellow thrust his hands into the very depths of a pair of greasy, drooping trousers’ pockets, and sauntered off.

That was three years ago. There had been similar calamities before; there have been since. And though two special Acts of Parliament have been passed to prevent it, the old tragedy will be enacted yet again, if there be not a third passed to make the other two operative. Of the justice of this remark, I think the reader will be convinced, if he will only adopt the suggestion of my laconic old friend, and visit with me one of these Birmingham percussion-cap manufactories.

We shall find the object of our search in one of the most densely populated parts of the town; and to reach it we shall have to thread a maze of streets, paved with those excruciating kidney-stones, which, for the benefit of starving chiropodists, the corporation of Birmingham—if there be one—kindly lays down and renews from time to time. The manufactory itself—an ancient three-story dwellinghouse, enlarged from time to time by the addition of surrounding buildings of all sorts and sizes, and in all stages of repair—looks, externally, for all the world like a band of tipsy tenements hugging each other; and, internally, is a complete structural puzzle. To pass from one room to another, even on the same floor, you have to go up flights of stairs here, and down flights of stairs there, and through dark passages, and along crazy out-door galleries, until you become perfectly bewildered; and in the effort to get from one floor to another, you would most assuredly be lost, unless piloted up and down by old hands, whom long service has familiarised with the odd intricacies of the place. With a competent topographical guide, however, the task is tolerably easy, and, with an intelligent one, highly interesting. So, we will suppose, if you please, that we have fallen into the hands of a phenomenon combining both these qualities, and proceed.

Our guide is the light porter of the establishment—a good-natured looking old man, weighing about eighteen stone. We tell him that our object is to see every process in the manufacture of a percussion-cap; and, in order that we may complain of no lack of courtesy on his part, he at once conducts us into a large cellar, where thousands of oblong sheets of thin metal, resembling brass, are being stored away. This metal, he tells us, is that of which the cap is made; and he adds, by way of explanation, that it is neither brass nor copper, but a mixture of both, the one being too brittle, and the other too dear for the purpose. Thence he takes us through an engine room—where three bright pistons are for ever plunging down to get strength, and leaping up to expend it on a labyrinth of leathern bands that turn thousands of wheels all over the manufactory, up-stairs and down—to an apartment where a score or two of queer-looking iron machines seem to be quietly chewing up, in a score or two pairs of gigantic jaws, the metal we have seen below. A sheet of this metal is put into a pair of the jaws for our special information, and, in a twinkling, it is almost noiselessly crunched into hundreds of little crosses of St. George—of a handful of which we possess ourselves, and pass on.

A series of passages and corridors and flights of steps, leading through packing-rooms and warehouses, brings us out into a long, narrow apartment on the second floor, resounding with a clatter of machinery that just succeeds in making itself heard above the hum of sixty or seventy gossiping girls and young women. “Come, come,” says our guide, in the loudest of tones, and the gentlest of accents, “do be a bit quiet for once, gals;” and in an instant nothing is heard but the sharp clicking of iron against iron. Adown the centre and along both sides of the room run long oaken benches, to which are affixed, at equal distances, a number of iron contrivances that look like patent turnip-cutters in miniature; and in front of each of these stands a girl with a constantly decreasing heap of the crosses of St. George on one side of her, and a constantly increasing heap of what appear to be percussion caps on the other. The light porter explains that the room is the “press room,” the girls the “press girls,” and the miniature turnip-cutters the “presses;” and to show that they are rightly named, he bids us produce a few of the crosses of St. George that were chewed out of the jaws down-stairs. Taking one of these, he holds it against a little round hole in the press with his left hand; gives a twist to a lever with his right; and, before you can say “Jack Robinson,” the cross has been driven into the hole on the head of a punch, and is rolling down in front of you a perfect cup, of which the centre of the cross has formed the bottom, and the four limbs the sides; and, to hide the joints and give a better hold of it, it has been crimped all round. Another and another follow with equal rapidity, and, picking them up, you carry them into another room, where they are thrown, with a few thousand others, into a box containing emery dust, which box is closed, well shaken, and opened again, and there are your little cups turned into bright brazen shell caps, ready for loading.

This loading involves several processes, all of which, by reason of the explosiveness of the material used, are frightfully dangerous. That little cake of hard, whitey-brown matter, which you hardly notice in the bottom of the cap as you hurriedly fix it to the nipple of your gun on the moors or at the rifle-range, has passed through seven stages of preparation, and at almost every stage the life of the preparer was jeopardised—and not only so, but the lives of all the workpeople we have seen on our way through the manufactory, and others besides. During the last three years between thirty and forty lives have been sacrificed in Birmingham alone to this one branch of the manufacture, and at least a hundred engaged in it have been maimed—some for life, and others for weeks or months, as the case may be. How? we shall see as we go on. It would be of no use now to ask our guide, however courteous he might be, to show us these processes. He would tell us that, being dangerous, they were carried on away from the manufactory, and that we could not be allowed to see them. Four or five months ago—before the last explosion, and before the last Act of Parliament was passed—there would have been no such difficulty; for, though the then existing Act forbade the loading of caps in the same building where the metal work was made, it gave nobody in authority the right to see whether it was observed, and, as it thereby became a dead letter, the loading of caps was carried on in the midst of hundreds of workpeople with impunity. The last explosion was, in fact, the result of a direct violation of this very law. On that occasion, nine persons were killed and forty or fifty maimed. Public indignation was naturally excited, and a new law was asked for; and eventually Parliament condescended to make one, or rather to patch up an old one to save trouble, and the result is that, though there is every reason to believe that the loading is carried on in precisely the same places as before, the manufacturers are more careful about allowing people to know it. We will, therefore, date our inspection of this part of the manufacture a few months back.

Our guide would then, no doubt, after showing us the various processes in the manufacture of the shell-cap, have conducted us from the top to the bottom of those crazy old tenements, through crowds of girls and women and children; right away down into the cellar again; and, opening a cupboard, would have shown us a large brown-paper parcel containing, perhaps, a dozen or fourteen pounds of white silky needle-like crystals. If of a humorous turn of mind, he would, perhaps, make us nervous by telling us that, by pressing his two thumb-nails together in the midst of that mass of crystals, he could blow up the whole of the manufactory and half the street in which it stood. Supposing he did, he would tell us truly, for the brown-paper parcel contains fulminate of mercury—the all-important ingredient in the detonating powder with which the caps are loaded. Of the terrific explosive force of this fulminate, figures will convey no adequate idea. The best plan to arrive at it would be to put a common percussion-cap on the nipple of an unloaded gun and fire it at a lighted candle some three or four yards away. You will find that, if your aim be accurate, the candle will be blown out. Then consider for a moment. There lay concealed in the drop of matter at the bottom of your percussion-cap, an amount of force sufficient to blow out your candle, and only half that drop was detonating powder, the other half being varnish to keep it in. Of the half that was detonating powder, only one-fourth part was pure fulminate of mercury, and that atom of fulminate was the only explosive agent in the whole compound. You may now form some notion of the mighty force wrapped up in that brown paper parcel before you: it is, as our guide says, fourteen pounds of death and destruction. To release that force the slightest neglect or carelessness either in manufacture or in transit will suffice. Could it be believed, then, that the building, where tons of it are made yearly, stands next door to a national school-room, which is all day long filled with little boys and girls; and that, by one explosion,—which luckily occurred on a Saturday when the children were not at school,—it has already given timely warning of others to follow! Yet so it is; and the new Act of Parliament does not compel the proprietor to remove it.

And now, having examined the raw material, we are taken from the cellar to the very top of the building, into a little attic covered with a light roof, where the first process in the manufacture—“mixing”—is carried on. Our guide, with bitter but unconscious irony tells us that the mixing is done in that room because, in case of an explosion, the light roof would offer least resistance, most of the force of the explosion would go upwards, and there would not be so many killed. Nevertheless, the nineteen poor creatures we saw buried just now lost their lives by an explosion in just such another room—the whole building crashed down and killed them, though there was not more than a pound of fulminate in the place.

To return: the sole occupant of the attic, at the door of which we now stand, is an elderly woman, whose length of service has proved her general carefulness, and, in the mind of her employer, has rendered her a fitting person to hold in her withered hands the lives of more than a hundred human beings. As secluded as an alchemist of old, she, like him, seems wholly absorbed in her work, for, beyond glancing hurriedly and somewhat petulantly at us as we enter, in company with our guide, she bestows no further notice upon us. Upon a table before her lies a clean sheet of brown paper, which she rubs again and again with a clean linen cloth until she is apparently satisfied that not a particle of any foreign substance remains upon it. From a strong iron safe, imbedded in the wall, she then brings out a packet of pure fulminate of mercury; and, familiar as she is with her work—she has been a “mixer” twenty years—her hand trembles nervously as she scatters a few ounces of it upon her sheet of paper. Carefully refolding the packet she replaces it, and, locking the safe door, seems glad to be rid of so dangerous a burden. Going, then, to a closet, she takes from sundry jars certain proportions of nitre, chlorate of potash, sulphur and ground glass, each of which she damps and deposits in little heaps on separate parts of her sheet of paper. All is now ready for the most perilous part of the operation; and in the midst of a painful silence, broken only by her own heavy breathing, she takes up the sheet of paper between the thumb and finger of each hand, and letting the centre droop slightly, holds it at arm’s length, and gently rolls the ingredients backwards and forwards. In her every motion there is danger. If any part of that powder be too dry; if the paper be shaken too roughly; if one end of it fall and drop the powder; if any foreign substance get amongst it, or if it even come into violent contact with the thumb or finger-nail, there is danger of the whole exploding; and, the whole exploding, the operator is blown to atoms and the manufactory laid in ruins. No wonder, then, that the old woman should breathe harder and harder, and tremble more and more as she sways to and fro with her paper, in an agony of carefulness. At length she ceases, and a sense of relief comes over us. Her part of the work is completed, and we find, on inquiry, that she has transformed the several ingredients into what is called detonating or percussion-powder, ready for use in the loading of percussion caps. It may be handled more freely now, but if we are allowed to take one of the paper bags, into which it is poured, into our own hands, we must be careful not to drop it;—the concussion would explode it, perhaps, and Heaven only knows what would follow upon such a mishap!

Leaving the mixing room we are next led to the priming room, and this we find, like the other, and for the same reason, is also an attic with a light roof. We should hardly have expected to find it next the mixing room, for we had already heard from our old friend who advised us to come here, that “priming” is at least an occupation from which very serious results might be expected. Yet there it is; and the slightest explosion in either apartment—they are only divided by a thin partition—must inevitably communicate itself to the combustibles in the other, and render the result tenfold more disastrous. The occupants of this priming room are an elderly woman—the “priming woman”—and about a dozen little girls between the ages of eight and twelve, who are called “fillers” and “wetters,” and all of them are very busily employed. Half the children are sitting beside large baskets filled with the shell caps we have already seen made, and, picking them up rapidly, one by one, are placing them, mouth upwards, into a block filled with hundreds of regular indentations made to receive them. These are the “fillers,” and as soon as they have filled their blocks they carry them off to the priming woman. Following the last filled, we find that the priming woman places it on a stand before her, and then has recourse to a copper contrivance which we are told is the “priming plate.” In reality it is two plates of copper, both pierced with holes to match each other, and to correspond with the indentations in the blocks we have just seen filled, and so attached to each other that the holes in the upper plate may be brought either over those in the under one, or over the solid metal between the holes at the will of the operator. At the present time she has so fixed the plate that the top holes are over the solid metal. With the utmost care she now takes a packet of the detonating powder made in the mixing room, and, sprinkling some of it over the top plate, gently brushes it into the holes with a hare’s foot. This done she lifts the whole priming plate, and placing the bottom holes over the mouths of the shell caps in the block, pushes the top plate along until the holes come over each other, when, as a matter of course, the detonating powder so carefully brushed into each of the top holes falls through the bottom ones into the caps, and the caps are primed. But here again there is danger in every movement. The least particle of grit between the plates, the least pressure upon the powder, the least accident on the part of the children, and there is an explosion. If no powder in the bulk be near, it may as our guide tells us, only blind the priming woman for a day or two and blow out the windows; but if there be powder near, as ten chances to one there is, the result cannot be estimated. This time, however, there has fortunately been no such mishap. The block-full of caps has been primed, and is now passed on to the other half of the little girls, each of whom has a similar block before her, and each of whom with a camel’s-hair brush is dropping one drop of liquid shellac into each of the caps to keep the powder in. These are the “wetters,” and, their work done, the caps are carried off to a stove and dried. When dried they are sent down into the packing rooms by the million; and, following them there, we shall find that, even when finished, they afford employment to some twenty or thirty workpeople; for, while two or three lads are for ever making little round tin boxes, half a dozen girls are making similar boxes of cardboard, and while in one corner one set of girls are busily packing the caps in the boxes, in another, another set are busily labelling them, and in the warehouses, several warehouse girls, warehouse men, clerks, and porters, are constantly engaged in packing the small boxes of caps into big boxes, directing them, making out invoices, and seeing to their shipment to all parts of the world.

We have seen that the lives of the whole of these workpeople are in continual peril, and common sense suggests an instant remedy. Remove the fulminate of mercury from the cellar, give the primer and mixer rooms of their own at some distance from each other and the manufactory, take all those little girls away from the priming room, and let them pursue their harmless calling out of harm’s way; and then, even if the worst come to the worst, more than one life need not be sacrificed by the most terrific of explosions. This no doubt was the benevolent intention of Parliament, when after each of the two great explosions which have happened recently, it made a law relating to “explosive compounds.” But Parliament, however good its intention, did not go the right way to work. It said to these manufacturers, it is true, “You shall neither prime, nor mix, nor store your powder in the same manufactory where you do your metal work, nor within a hundred yards of any other building;” but it gave no one the right to go into these same manufactories to see whether the law was kept or broken. The result was that the manufacturers, forseeing the inconvenience and expense of having their workpeople scattered about at distances, not putting any very high estimate upon human life, and finding the law would be inoperative if they were circumspect, closed their doors to all comers and went on as before. By-and-by there came another explosion, and then Parliament, to remedy its former blunder, made another law giving a power of inspection, but appointed no local inspector. That is the position of the matter now, and no doubt will be until another frightful explosion shall occur to wake a dreaming legislature from its slumbers. Then, perhaps, we may get what is wanted—an Act of Parliament that shall compel percussion-cap manufacturers, like powder makers, to carry on their business in some secluded country place, where each dangerous process shall be carried on in light sheds, sufficiently far apart to prevent the destruction of one involving the destruction of the whole—workpeople, neighbours, and property.

J. L.