A mill fire that claimed the lives of 17 girls and young women is to be commemorated 200 years after the event.
Tragedy struck on February 14, 1818, when fire broke out at the mill in Colne Bridge. The young cotton mill workers were all aged between nine and 18 and had gone to work on the nightshift on Friday the 13th, tragically never to return home.
The devastating blaze, which happened at Mr Atkinson’s factory off Colne Bridge Road, left a shadow of sadness over the village of Kirkheaton, where all the victims had lived.
Now the local community, including descendants of the survivors, will reflect on the events of two centuries ago with a special service to be held at 11am next Saturday (Feb 10) at Kirkheaton Parish Church. The victims were laid to rest at the church and a headstone bears their names.
West Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Service has linked up with Kirkheaton Family History Group, Yetton Together Community Group and church for the commemoration service.
Fire authority chairman Clr Judith Hughes and Mayor of Kirklees Clr Christine Iredale, who both hail from Kirkheaton, will attend along with chief fire officer John Roberts.
During the service a plaque will be unveiled by Kathy Butterworth, a descendant of Sarah Moody, one of the few mill workers who survived.
The fire started at about 5am when 11-year-old worker Jim Thornton was ordered by the mill foreman to go downstairs to collect rovings – combed cotton twisted into strands.
It was total darkness and Jim had only a candle with him. The flame accidentally brushed against some loose strands of cotton, which immediately ignited. Upstairs the workers continued to operate the spinning frames, unaware of the danger beneath them.
Sarah spotted the fire through the wooden beam flooring and raised the alarm, but foreman James Sugden is said to have ordered the girls to return to work. Sarah, who was also just 11, refused and quickly escaped by the only stairway which led outside, with five others fleeing with her. But the remaining girls had rushed in terror to the far end of the spinning room where they had huddled together and sadly perished.
Kathy, Sarah’s great great great granddaughter, said: “It’s hard to contemplate what it was like for parents to have to send their children to work the night shift in a factory.
“For such a small community to lose so many of it’s young people in such a way must have been devastating. It’s sobering to reflect that, if Sarah had obeyed her boss and returned to work, I wouldn’t be here today with my sons and granddaughters.”
Young Jim Thornton also miraculously escapes before the entire building was engulfed and collapsed. The two foremen also escaped the blaze.
Following the disaster a commemorative service for the girls drew about 4,000 people from all over Huddersfield and shockwaves were sent around the nation and through Parliament.
It is believed that a mill now occupied by Huddersfield Auctions was built on the site of the Atkinson’s complex.
Auction house boss Steve Mynott says the premises have an eerie feeling and ghost hunters from Sefton Paranormal visited last year to carry out an investigation.
Steve said: “It’s an eerie place at night and I am always looking over my shoulder.”
Clr Hughes said it was important to remember and added: “Being from this area, I feel a personal connection to story of the Colne Bridge mill fire having been told of the tragedy by my own family as I grew up. I feel it’s really important that we mark the poignant bicentenary of the disaster to ensure the young victims are remembered throughout history.
“Sadly, they were not only a victim of the fire but also a victim of their time when workers’ rights were unheard of and the dawn of fire safety legislation was still over 150 years off.”
Local historian Richard Heath added: “The commemoration of the Colne Bridge mill fire of 1818 reminds us of what must be the saddest chapter in Kirkheaton history. It will bring us together in the very place where 4,000 people gathered to pay their respects to the unfortunate young girls who went to work one dark Friday night – and never returned home.”
Among other events to mark the bicentenary, a group of volunteers are working with the Canal and River Trust to create a memorial garden on the canal bank next to the site where Atkinson’s mill stood.
Pupils from Salendine Nook High School, led by artist Ged Walker, are creating 17 sculptured birds – one for each of the victims.
A memorial evening will also take place at the Royal and Ancient pub, Colne Bridge, at 7pm on Saturday, February 17.