Thomas (Tom) Griffin, the son of William and Hannah Griffin of Welford, Northamptonshire, was born in about 1878. By 1899, he was living at 75 Usk Road, Battersea, and working at nearby Garton, Hill and Company’s sugar refinery, Southampton Wharf, as a fitter’s labourer under engineer Frederick Biggs. On the fatal Wednesday morning of 12 April, 1899, while the workmen were changing their clothes in the boiler room in preparation to start work, a jarring sound was heard and Biggs went to the adjacent room to have a look. A steam pipe burst and Biggs was injured in the ribs, but managed to escape by another door before the steam could harm him. A fellow-worker, William Woodman, who heard the burst and saw the steam escaping closed all the doors and told the others not to go in because of the scalding steam. Griffin, mistakenly thinking that Biggs was still in there, shouted “my mate, my mate” and entered the room where the pipe had burst, only to return a few seconds later scalded all over with the skin hanging from his hands. In one report, his mates took him into the yard where he was given first aid – the newspapers do not tell us what that first-aid consisted of – and in another report he was taken to the office where his hands were dressed. Whatever the details of the aid, his fellow workers did their best for him and subsequently took him to Bolingbroke Hospital on Wandsworth Common where he unfortunately died a few hours later. Dr. Lyster said at the inquest that Griffin’s body was scalded all over and that he died of shock.
The manager of Garton’s, Mr. Spencer Pratt, said at the inquest that it was the first accident of its kind to have happened at the refinery. “The pipe, a cast-iron one five-eighths of an inch thick, had had steam in it three days before bursting. It burst when the pressure was only 50lb to the inch, and was completely severed, the parts being blown nine inches apart.”(1) Other reports said the pipe was 8 inches thick, which sounds more likely as it was allegedly a main pipe.(2) Mr. Harper, the barrister for Garton & Co, expressed his condolences to the family and remarked that it was particularly sad that Griffin died as he was due to have been married only a few days after the accident. No mention is made of the bride-to-be’s name or background, nor is it clear whether she attended the inquest. Griffin’s father formally identified the body as that of his son and said he had heard from him on the night before his death and that he was then in good health.(3)
The jury returned a verdict of death by misadventure and the Deputy-Coroner said, “We all recognise that he acted heroically on this occasion, and we appreciate the act”.(1) The Coroner added, “The conduct of a man like him deserves to be recorded. No doubt there are heroes in everyday life, but they do not come to the front, so we do not hear of them”.(3) But that latter statement is not quite true, as we have heard of Griffin’s selfless act through the Postman’s Park initiative of George Frederick Watts who set up the memorial to unknown heroes. Watt’s wife Mary added more tiles to the memorial wall after the artist’s death. Griffin’s plaque was one of the first batch of four memorial tiles to go up on 30 July 1900. These first tiles were designed and made by William De Morgan.
(1) The Morning Post, 18 April 1899.
(2) New Zealand Herald, 3 June 1899.
(3) The Standard, 18 April 1899.