It's gone down as the saddest day in the town's history - October 31 1941 - when 49 people, many of them women and girls, were killed in a devastating factory fire. As another sad anniversary approaches BARRY GIBSON talks to one of the survivors
THE year was 1941. Flames engulfed the H Booth and Son clothing factory on John William Street within minutes, killing 49 people.
But the blaze which took so many lives was caused, not by a Luftwaffe bomb, but by a smoker's pipe.
The five-storey building was gutted within an hour because a worker had put a smouldering pipe into a jacket pocket.
When the blaze began just after 8am on October 31 most of Booth's 150 workers were inside.
One of them was Fixby woman Mary Cowley.
The 80-year-old, one of only a handful of living survivors, told the Examiner of her memories of that day.
"I was late for work because I had made some cocoa for my brother George before leaving the house," she said.
Mary, a 15-year-old tailoress at the time, entered Booth's, climbed 12 wooden steps, clocked in and started up the stairs.
But she stopped in her tracks when she heard a voice cry out.
Mary said: "I heard someone shout 'fire' so I headed for the door but when I got to the wooden steps, they had gone. I had to jump."
In the melee she heard her friend Gladys Butterworth yell out from higher up the building.
She never saw Gladys again.
For those on higher floors, the building's design made quick escape impossible.
Mary said: "People inside would have had a chance if Booth's had had an emergency exit."
Dozens perished on the higher floors, with two girls hurling themselves to their deaths to escape the intense heat.
For a 15-year-old girl, it was a traumatic experience.
Mary said: "The horror of it didn't hit me until that night when it got dark.
"I don't feel safe on the third floor of a building even today."
Of the 49 people who died, 36 were women, some the same tender age as Mary.
Joan Doughty of Crosland Moor was probably the youngest victim of the fire, just 14 when she died.
Polio-sufferer Jessie Beaumont was one of several disabled workers unable to escape.
The charred remains of the Paddock woman were identified by her leg irons.
All but six of the dead were buried in a mass funeral at Edgerton Cemetery on November 5.
For Mary it was a painful experience.
She said: "It was just horrendous."
Mary went on to work as a tailoress at Thompson Pickup and Walker on St John's Road for 47 years and still makes clothes today.
She had gone straight to Booth's after leaving school at 14 and has fond memories of her brief time there.
"There was a good atmosphere in the factory.
"I was doing what I wanted to do so I was happy," she said.
But she can never forget the day when friends like Margaret Birkhead died.
Mary said: "I can still hear the bell on the fire engine.
"The anniversary makes me think about it more but I've lived with it for 65 years."
BOROUGH coroner Mr E Norris recorded verdicts of accidental death for the 49 people who lost their lives in the Booth's inferno.
Many though believe the tragedy was avoidable.
When the five-storey building was erected at the turn of the last century it was used as a warehouse.
But when it was later converted to a factory it lacked the facilities to evacuate the larger number of workers.
At the inquest managing director Wilfred Booth explained that two extra staircases were added when the building changed use, but not an outdoor fire escape.
And at least one person saw the tragedy coming.
Almondbury man Stanley Goode visited Booth's as a young window cleaner a few years before the fire.
In 1991 he told the Examiner: "I realised in the first two or three minutes I was there that it was a death trap.
"There were no window sills and the drainpipes were fitted flush to the wall so you couldn't shin down them."
In October 1941 Mr Goode was serving with the RAF at Burtonwood.
He said: "One day a man burst into our hut with a newspaper He said there had been a big fire in Huddersfield with many people dead.
"I said 'My God don't tell me - it's Booth's'"