Gladys Mitchell

HM District Inspector of Factories in Edinburgh

The 23rd of February 2015 marked the 70th anniversary of the issue of the High Court judgement in the case of Mitchell v The North British Rubber Co Ltd [1945-J.C.-69]. This was a landmark case in the development of the law on machinery guarding, and is one of the few of the classic Factories Act S14 cases to bear the name of an inspector (Carr v Mercantile Produce Co Ltd [1949]2KB601, [1949]2AllER531 is the only other one that occurred to Jim Hammer).

The inspector concerned was Miss Gladys Muriel Mitchell, who in 1944 was HM District Inspector of Factories in Edinburgh. In 1978 I tape recorded an interview with Miss Mitchell who was living in retirement with her sister in Aberdeen. Some time ago I was able to recover the tape and recently the tape has been transcribed.

Miss Mitchell was born in New Deer, Aberdeenshire on 27 March 1896 to William and Mary Jane; her father was a General Merchant. I’ve not managed to uncover anything about her early life or education, but she joined HMFI on 15 June 1926 and was promoted to District Inspector in 1941. In the early years of the war she was DI Preston working under P A ‘Pa’ Heath, SI, and in late 1943/early 1944 she must have transferred to Edinburgh District. She retired in 1956 and enjoyed a long retirement, dying in 1987 at the age of 91.

The North British Rubber Company was established in 1856 in Edinburgh on the site of the former Castle Silk Mills, between Fountainbridge Road and the eastern end of the Union Canal. The factory employed thousands of workers over five generations in manufacturing a variety of products from rubber wellington boots to pneumatic tyres and hot-water bottles. The company had many government contracts, and during the Second World War produced millions of civilian gas masks and barrage-balloon fabric. On 19 June 1944, a four roll upright Paraflor calender was being used to produce sheet rubber. The rollers were 60 inches in length, 22 inches in diameter and 70 inches in circumference. The machine was operated by two workers, one at the back and one at the front. Mary Hardie, aged 19, was the back operative and while placing the rubber sheet between two of the rollers, her hand was taken in to the inrunning nip; the emergency stop wire was pulled but her hand was crushed and her forearm had to be amputated. Although the calender had been in regular use since 1917, and had been seen in the past by inspectors, Miss Mitchell decided that prosecution was merited; here is the story in her own words:

“Of course I had a battle with North British Rubber and I can tell you it took 2½ days to get Sheriff Jamieson to understand that there was such a thing as peripheral speed. He couldn’t understand that a cylinder made one revolution a minute no matter what its diameter or circumference. I couldn’t get him to understand that even if the guard had been on, the cylinder surface would still travel about 7 ½ inches before coming to a stop. Your hand would be in and off. He spoke about “degrees of danger” so I thought “you’re on the slippery slope” and gave notice of appeal. And he very nicely said “I’ll try and give you as good a stated case as I can”.

Of course I knew Mr Gordon very well who was the Crown Agent and the case came to appeal before the Lord Justice-Clerk, Lord Cooper, Lord Mackay, and Lord Stevenson. Of course Lord Stevenson would say what Lord Cooper said. Lord Mackay I used to call “Old Grumpy” because he always said the opposite to Lord Cooper, but the two judges found in our favour so it became Mitchell v the North British Rubber Co.

I had another case against the NBRC, but Sheriff Jamieson never appeared, and I thought “This is a bit funny”. Then Sherriff Gilchrist appeared. Sheriff Jamieson was a trustee of some of the Trusts of the NBRC, and so had decided he couldn’t take the case but it was really because he was so stupid about machinery. He said “You know Miss Mitchell, I’m not very good about these machinery cases does the meat get through these little holes?” Go home and look at your wife’s mincer, I felt like telling him!”

Miss Mitchell’s view of the three law lords comes through clearly when you read the judgement; Lord Mackay does indeed seem perpetually grumpy, and Lord Stevenson makes very clear his agreement with Lord Cooper. The view expressed by the Lord Justice-Clerk that a machine is dangerous if “…in the ordinary course of human affairs danger may be reasonably anticipated from its use unfenced, not only to the prudent, alert and skilled operative intent upon his task, but also to the careless and inattentive worker whose inadvertent or indolent conduct may expose him to risk of injury or death…” has been much quoted and the principle was later applied in Summers v Frost and other guarding cases. But of course the principle is of wider application and is at the heart of how we deal with human factors in accident prevention, and its thinking can also be seen in the General Principles of Prevention in the Framework Directive.

Talking to Miss Mitchell back in 1978 was a delight, and there is much more material in the transcribed tape, which I hope to return to on a future occasion. The editor of the Former Inspectors’ Newsletter has kindly gone through some of the earlier editions of the Newsletter and found numerous references to Miss Mitchell including one in the early days when the editors received letters from contributors and were able to comment on handwriting, saying in Miss Mitchell’s case that she had ‘a beautiful regular hand, and very legible at that’. In the Sept 1969 Newsletter, Bessie Blackburn described how she had met “our good friend, Gladys Mitchell, who many of us remember as DI Preston in the days when ‘Pa’ Heath (now over 90 and living in Birmingham) reigned over the North West Division”. In a later Newsletter Miss Mitchell wrote cheerfully from Aberdeen and “reminded us of her time in Liverpool when she tried to tame ‘Pa’ Heath with doubtful success”. In 1977 Miss Mitchell described the hive of activity in and around Aberdeen harbour and the airport busy with oilmen coming and going. But she continued “We are not yet a second Texas and it would take more than an American invasion to change the granite face of North East Scotland. Our greatest treat is the Annual Festival of International Youth Orchestras for 2 weeks in August. We get much more thrill from concerts, opera and ballet than from the more high-brow Edinburgh Festival”. And the broader festival continues to this day.

These comments give a good feel for a lively, interested, and humorous lady whom it was a privilege and pleasure to meet and whose dedication to justice on behalf of a 19 year old factory worker is still relevant 70 years on.

Stewart Campbell