Collapse of Newland Mill Chimney in Bowling, Bradford

Collapse of Newland Mill Chimney in Bowling Bradford memorial stone

By Vivien Teasdale

Most people now realise that Victorian mills were dangerous places. The huge machinery had few guards, children crawled inside, under and over them to ensure that the looms operated non-stop. Fluff from the raw materials was everywhere; liable to catch fire anytime a bit of grit caused a spark to fly out from the machines. Boilers burst with seeming regularity, and on 21 June 1861 a boiler had exploded at the dye works of Messrs Ripley and Son, at Bowling, Bradford, causing great destruction of property, and the death of sixty-four-year-old William Rouse, and serious injury to Isaac Brook.

The boiler was torn from its seat, blown in two, lengthwise, and the centre portion, weighing nearly four tons, was tossed high into the air, rolled up like sheet lead, and carried a distance of 30 yards. The cause of the accident was put down to the plate becoming so thin by corrosion that it could not bear the pressure used. Unfortunately, fire, disease and explosion were not the only hazards. Mills were usually massive buildings of local stone or brick, the engine houses required tall chimneys that belched out smoke and both required good foundations. Good foundations were expensive.

Sketch of the layout of Newland Mill, showing the direction the chimney eventually fell

“Extra work weakened the chimney”

In 1862 Sir Henry Ripley commissioned Messrs John Moulson & Sons to build an 80-yards-high chimney for his mill in Bradford. The cost was agreed at £942 5s 10d. They had decided to build the chimney over an old coal shaft, which was filled with concrete to form a central pillar for the chimney. Recommendations by the local clerk of the works to have either dressed stone inside the chimney or solid brickwork were ignored. Instead there was a brick lining with stone facing and ‘backing’ of loose rubble between the two. However, Sir Henry, in common with many other factory owners, didn’t just want a working chimney.

Many industrial buildings of the time were designed to look like cathedrals, country houses or Italian villas with elaborate doorways, ornate windows and rooftops. Almost as soon as the work on the mill started, it was stopped whilst new designs were produced to make the chimney more ornate. Unfortunately, in this case, the extra work weakened the chimney and a definite tilt became obvious, with a bulge in the brickwork at one side and corresponding hollow on the other.

“Repairs had to be carried out regularly”

To rectify this, one course of stones, 70 yards up the chimney, was cut out and wedges put in to make it ‘as nearly perpendicular as possible’. Finally it was finished, standing proudly in the centre of the mill complex that covered the whole area between Springmill Street and Upper Castle Street. Sections of the building were rented out to various firms in the area, including A Haley & Co, W H Greenwood & Co and J Horsfall & Co. However, over the next twenty years, repairs had to be carried out regularly to bolster up the chimney, until in 1882 cracks in the wall developed into bulges.

On 20 December Mr Francis Haley, the agent and manager of the mill, wrote to Henry Ripley jnr to complain of the state of the chimney, stating that Mr Humphreys the builder at the mill ‘is of the opinion that the damaged portion which is four or five yards in length, will be forced out before the end of the week’. He was told that preventing people walking near it was an adequate safety measure but no actual work was authorised.

“Whole chimney fell directly onto the mill”

To look inside the chimney and see the full extent of the problem would have meant allowing it to cool down. That would have meant stopping work and the owners would not allow it. Then some of the outer casing fell off and, on 28 December, after an exceptionally windy night, the whole chimney fell directly onto the mill, destroying many of the buildings and killing fifty-four people.

The only thing to be thankful for was that it had not fallen a few minutes earlier. It was eight o’clock in the morning and most of the mill had just stopped work for breakfast. One comment made at the time was that it was ‘not to be wondered at that the chimney fell, but the wonder is that the structure stood so long as it did’.

It took three days to recover all the bodies, many of them child workers, brought out at considerable risk to those working at the site. Matthew Laycock, who had come up from Surrey more than twenty years earlier and been appointed the first sergeant at the local police station, was later decorated for his bravery at this incident. He went on to serve Bradford until 1890 when he retired.

Collapse of Newland Mill Chimney in Bowling Bradford leeds town hall

The inquest was carried out in Leeds Town Hall

“Verdict of accidental death was found”

The inquest began on 9 January. One reporter wrote that ‘a painfully pathetic incident was narrated by one of the witnesses’, a young widow named Sarah Hancock, whose husband, John, a stone mason from Derbyshire, had recently died, leaving her with two small daughters, Margaret and Annie, and a thirteen-year-old son, James Henry. She said that as he was leaving, just before 6am to go to work at the mill where he was employed as a doffer, James had said to her: ‘Don’t let me go this morning, someone will be killed at that place before breakfast time.’ His mother had replied: ‘It’s my rent week this week and thou must go.’

When James stated that he’d seen the chimney move in the wind, she continued: ‘The masters know better than such as ye. They will never put you in danger’. The newspaper commented: ‘We trust that the persons responsible for his safety will not go unpunished.’ Despite evidence that the owners had known of the dangerous state of the chimney, a verdict of accidental death was found.

“Seven weeks wages as compensation”

James Henderson was the father of two of the girls killed in the accident and in 1884 he took Sir Edward Ripley, Ripley’s brothers and a Mr Taylor to court. The case appeared before Justice Manisty and jury at Leeds summer assizes. Henderson was a wool comber working for Greenwoods, a firm which rented part of Ripley’s mill. His two daughters, Mary and Sarah Jane, worked as drawers for the firm of Sugden & Briggs, also in the mill complex. Mary earned 7s 6d a week whilst Sarah Jane was a half-timer, working part of the day in the mill and spending the rest of the day in school, earned 3s 6d, though their colleague, James Nicholls told the court that their wages would soon have risen to 11s and 9s respectively.

This was an important consideration since most families at the time relied heavily on children’s earnings to support the family. Henderson also had five other, younger, children to look after. The two girls worked from six in the morning to half past five or six at night. After their death the Ripley firm paid their funeral expenses and gave seven weeks wages as compensation.

“Memorial stone naming those who died was finally erected”

The court heard that Sir Henry Ripley, who had died in 1882, had acted almost as his own architect, but in the end the judge decided: ‘That the owners did all that unpractical men could be expected to do under the circumstances and therefore we do not attach any blame to them or find them guilty of negligence and we give as our verdict accidental death. We are of the opinion that the foundation was good, and that the fall of the chimney was partly due to the cutting, aided by the strong wind on the morning of the accident and we regret that the works were not stopped during the repairs.’

Many of those who died were from the same family. Joseph and George Boldy, were two of five sons of Benjamin Boldy a blacksmith from Scotland. Urina and Walter Hicks were the eldest children of William Hicks of Cornwall, whilst Sarah and Lily Burley were the only two daughters of the family though there were five sons. Selina Woodhead, aged thirty-two, had only recently begun work in the mill, as had her daughter Susan. Both died there. Ellen Lumb died in the accident but her sister survived, as did their father, Shepherd Lumb. Though there had been an unmarked commemorative stone, taken from the chimney itself, this eventually disappeared, so it was only in 2002 on the 120th anniversary of the event that a memorial stone naming those who died was finally erected near the site of the mill.

Collapse of Newland Mill Chimney in Bowling Bradford memorial plaque

Memorial plaque to the Newland Mill chimney victims

“Realised that something was wrong”

The list of dead does not give all the story, however. The newspaper report often included the gory details of wounds received and tracked the progress of the injured. On 28 December the Bradford Daily Telegraph  named Grace Ellen Fawthrop of Parsonage Road as having ‘injuries to head and system (hopeless case)’. On 3 January there was a report by Samuel Oddy of Park View, Manchester Road who worked as a fireman (one who was responsible for the boilers) for Messrs Haley & Co, who stated that he had realised that something was wrong and rushed out of the boiler house in order to ‘get between the ashlar stones of the engine bed’.

After the chimney fell he went back into the works, saw Grace Ellen and took her to the relative safety of the engine room where she was later found – and remained for sometime because the doctors were afraid that moving her would undoubtedly cause her death.

“Pulled from the wreckage”

Later she was taken to hospital and by 3 January she was ‘partaking of refreshment and expected to recover’ though she had a fractured skull and had lost an eye, but despite early hopes she died on 8 January. To add to the anguish of the family, her father, Ephraim Fawthrop, was seriously ill with pleurisy.

Another story related the tale of David Charles Brewer, son of David Jones Brewer, Round Street, Bowling Old Lane. He was pulled from the wreckage more than thirty hours after the chimney fell, when it was reported that, despite the danger, ‘volunteers whose courage cannot be sufficiently praised’ rushed to his rescue. Once they had made contact they gave him ‘refreshments in the shape of brandy and other suitable articles’. Since the lad was only about ten years old, brandy may not have been the most suitable drink to give him. His two rescuers, G Ainsworth of Caledonia Street and Sam Fearnley of King Charles Street, managed to raise the beam, which had held him pinned down. He was largely unhurt from the episode and went off home to a good night’s sleep.

Early in January Pullan’s Theatre of Varieties held a benefit performance for the relief fund which had been set up and David Brewer was taken on stage and presented with a gold watch by the owner, Mr Pullan. Susannah Wright, sixteen, Calcutta Street, had a miraculous escape. Whilst having her breakfast, Susan Woodhead arrived with her mother’s breakfast and should have brought some cotton for Susannah, but forgot. As a result Susannah ran back home to fetch it and was just about to return to the mill when the chimney fell.

Article taken from ‘Yorkshire Disasters: A Social and Family History’ by Vivien Teasdale, £10.99 from Pen & Sword


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