On October 7th, 1925, the S.S. "Roman Star" bound for London from South Africa, put into Brest following an explosion in the stokehold, in the Port Boiler, to land two firemen severely scalded, and the body of a third who had died shortly after the accident. The explosion was attributed to the presence of a detonator in a boiler furnace, such as miners use for coal extraction, and the Port Boiler on Inspection was found to be undamaged, the Surveyor at Brest refused to grant a Seaworthy Certificate for it, and the "Roman Star" left for London on October 9th, with two of her three boilers in service, but put back to Brest the same day owing to shortage of steam pressure.
I was then told to get across to Brest at the earliest possible moment and, as all the usual means of travel had ended for the day, a two-engined plane was chartered and I flew from Croydon Air Port to France. The French Naval Authorities refused permission for a direct to Brest - a Naval Port - so I flew to Le Bourget for Paris where I caught the night train and arrived at Brest early next morning.
I went straight on board the "Roman Star" and found the Engine Room and Stokehold crew in a state of alarm, and much talk of bombs and detonators, and the possibility of their presence in the coal remaining in the ship's bunkers but, after inspecting the boiler and making enquiries I came to quite a different conclusion as to the cause of the explosion.
In an old steamer like the "Roman Star" was, leaks often developed in the steam condenser and the steam condensed to fresh water, and pumped back into the boilers became contaminated by sea water, thus allowing salt to enter the boilers. Leaks also developed from the boilers themselves, most frequently into hollow mass, which sealed itself and contained the full pressure of the boiler and was known as a "salt ball". This process was carried out in the high temperature of the furnace.
Ample evidence was found in the centre and port furnaces where salt balls were developing to reconstruct what had occurred in the starboard furnace. The fires in the furnaces were cleaned in rotation and at regular intervals, and accumulated ash and clinker removed and a heavy tool called a slice, 5.0ft. to 6.0ft. long, like a long steel poker with a chisel point, was used to detach clinker from the firebars and back end of the furnace. At the time of explosion, the starboard furnace was being cleaned and there is little doubt that the fireman using the slice ruptured the salt ball at the back end of the furnace and the slice was thrust back and struck him and the rush of steam and hot water scalded him and the other two men.
I had the greatest difficulty in convincing the port officials of this, and that there was no evidence of bombs or detonators having exploded, the boiler being quite undamaged, but eventually succeeded in doing so. After that I had the crew to deal with and, although I had explained the cause of the explosion, they flatly refused to sail in the steamer. I offered to remain in the stokehold with them but that was not at first accepted but, when I offered to charter a tug-boat to accompany us to the English coast, they agreed and we left Brest.
All went well and we duly arrived at the English coast and took on our Pilot for the Thames and Gravesend and he produced that morning's "Daily Mail" which contained a lurid account of how bombs had been put into the bunkers of the "Roman Star" in South Africa with the coal, and which had exploded at sea and had killed several men and how a posse of Detectives from Scotland Yard had met the vessel at Gravesend to investigate the matter.
Well, we duly reached Gravesend, where nothing more exciting occurred than the usual visit of the Port Medical Officer, followed by the Customs and River Pilot and we berthed in the Royal Albert Docks without further incident and not even the smallest paragraph appeared in next day's "Daily Mail".