Bobs Ferry Disaster At Irlam

A Memory of Irlam

This account was researched and written by Duncan Hamman ( It has appeared in the Partington & Carrington Transmitter Community Newspaper.

On Tuesday April 14th 1970 Partington and Irlam hit the headlines with a disaster that resulted in the death of five local men.
On that spring day, early morning workers were making their way over Bobs Ferry to start their days work at Cadishead and Irlam. The ferry had been carrying workers over the Manchester Ship Canal for almost a hundred years, on a short trip that took only a few minutes, from Lock Lane, near Our Lady of Lourdes School, to Bobs Lane, Cadishead.  Taking ten passengers at a time it was estimated that the 20-foot open boat carried 35,000 passengers, at ten pence each year.
The Ferryman's day started early at 5.30am, in order to get the early shift workers over the water, and continued until 11.00pm with trips every 15 minutes.

Strange Smell
This particular morning Ferryman Bernard Carroll, aged 27 of Lock Lane, was worried for, during the first couple of crossings, he had noticed an unpleasant and unusual smell.  Several of his passengers had complained of feeling unwell during the short trip, so Bernard decided to suspend the service until he had sought further advice. As he was phoning the police, several passengers, waiting on the jetty, were worried that they would be late for work and decided to row themselves over the canal. On his return Bernard could see the boat in the middle of the canal with the passengers obviously affected by the 4-foot high mist on the water. He jumped into another boat and started to row towards the drifting boat.

Eyewitnesses later told police that when Bernard was about 20 yards from the other boat the canal exploded into a sea of flames and both boats were engulfed in fire, this was followed by a series of explosions which shook houses a quarter of a mile away. About a one mile length of the canal became a river of fire 60 feet high and nearby houses in Lock Lane had to be evacuated. Nothing could be done until the flames had died down, then both boats were brought to the bank.
The Ferryman had died and five people in the other boat were badly burned.

The injured were taken to Hope Hospital and some were later moved to the Burns Unit at Withington Hospital. Some time later it was discovered that three other passengers from the boat were missing, having either jumped or fallen into the canal. The canal was too polluted for police frogmen to be used and too deep to be dragged and it wasn't until two weeks later that the bodies of the three missing passengers were found. The whole of Partington was stunned by the disaster, which had devastated the lives of nine local families.

The Northwest Forensic Laboratory tested samples from the water and teams of men patrolled the canal banks in an effort to discover the cause of the fire. The inquest would be delayed until the mystery had been solved. Due to the closure of the ferry service local workers were faced with an eight-mile detour, over the High Level Bridge, to reach Cadishead.

On April 30th one of the injured passengers died in Withington Hospital and a fund was set up to help dependants to which Bucklow Council, the Manchester Ship Canal Company and local people donated a total of 2,300.  Residents were nervous and the Fire Brigade was called out several times when mysterious smells came from the canal.

On May 21st Shell Chemicals announced they had carried out an internal enquiry as a result of which two workers had been suspended from duty.

On June 26th the inquest took place at Eccles where coroner, Mr. Leonard Gorodkin, heard the evidence. It was revealed that several hours before the disaster the Dutch-owned vessel 'Tacoma' was being loaded with 1800 tons of petrol at Partington Coaling Basin. It was normal practice to have two men observing the operation as a safety precaution to ensure that petrol did not overflow into the canal. The two men admitted that instead of being on the quayside, they had gone to the canteen and had been there from 2.00am until almost 6.00am drinking coffee and talking. During this period it was estimated that about 14,000 gallons of petrol had flowed into the canal. The Coroner stated: "We will never know just what caused the petrol to ignite and this is a most horrifying story." He continued: "As a result of this inquest I hope people will realise that safety regulations are not just bits of paper." There was a suggestion that the fire started when one of the ferry passengers lit a cigarette, but this was never proved.

A verdict of death by misadventure was recorded on the five who died in the accident, Albert Wimbleton aged 56 of Yew Walk, Brian Hillier aged 18 of Wood Lane, Roy Platt 29 of Daniel Adamson Avenue, Alan Cliff aged 17 of Birch Road and the Ferryman Bernard Carroll aged 27 of Lock Lane, all of Partington. The following were injured: Daniel MacAlister of Wood Lane, George Morrell of Lime Walk, Robert Kilgour of Camomile Walk and Stephen Hunter of Wood Lane.

The ferry re-opened some time after the fire but business declined, as many passengers were afraid of another disaster taking place. Jim and Dorothy Fogarty ran the service, for a time, but passenger numbers continued to fall and eventually the service was closed.

Now the scene of the Partington Disaster is deserted and covered in high weeds.

A memory shared by Duncan Hamman , on Oct 24th, 2009.

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