Minor fires were a frequent occurrence in cotton mills and New Mills was no exception. Reports of minor fires can be found in profusion in the local press. The nature of the process and the use of machinery contributing to the risk. Friction of the moving parts of machines was a frequent cause of fire. Mill owners made their own arrangements for dealing with fire, training their own people and buying their own equipment.
An organised response to the danger was slow to develop, but as time went by an informal arrangement grew up between mill owners to come to one another’s aid. Many of the incidents below make reference to the arrival of the brigades of other mills and later reports mention the names of the horse drawn appliances. Fire; however remained the ever-present danger. It was not only a disaster for the proprietor of the mill, but also for the workforce. There was no state relief and unemployment meant poverty or the workhouse.
Salem Mill 30th April 1799
The first traceable mill fire occurred at Salem Mill, and surprisingly was the result not of an accident, but rather of deliberate arson.
Salem Mill stands near the bottom of High Street, on a bend in the river Sett. A mill has stood on this site since the 1300’s. For much of its life it was a corn mill, using water power to grind grain into flour. In the mid 15th century, it fell into disrepair and was rebuilt. This refurbished mill became known locally as the Berdmylne or the Newmylne, a name that would eventually be affixed to the town itself.
In the late eighteenth century, one Ralph Bower acquired the corm mill and by 1789, a cotton mill also occupied the same site. The Manchester Mercury paper of the time carries an advert, which gives an insight into the properties.
“To be let: stone building, convenient good stream of water, lately employed for the purpose of carding and spinning cotton. Adjoining house and warehouse (14x9 yards), three storey’s high, very suitable for the purpose of cotton manufacture. Premises known as New Mills. Also to let and enter upon at Christmas day next, a corn mill, well situated near the above premises.”
In January 1795, Ralph Bower (senior) gave the mills, house and mill croft to his son Edward Bower. By 1799 Edward Bower occupied the corn mill and the cotton mill, the house and mill croft were occupied by Peter Drinkwater.
On The 30th of April that year, a fire broke out in the cotton mill, nearly consuming the whole of the premises. The property was insured for £3000. It seems that this was in fact a second fire, because in May, of the same year the Royal Exchange Assurance Office Company offered a reward in the Manchester Mercury for information to convict the persons who had twice tried to burn down the mill. In the same issue the cotton mill was put up for sale, described as “part standing and part damaged by fire.”
A month later in June, a more complete advert appears offering all the property of Mr Edward Bower for sale by auction: “powerful stream turns four pairs of stones, water wheel, goits, sluices, shuttles, stones, dressing and flour machines. Is now in excellent repair and working condition. Also large and convenient warehouse or factory, drying kiln, and storeroom, stove and other convenient buildings to the said mill. Also stone buildings next to the corn mill for spinning cotton, partly recently destroyed by fire and part now standing, and water wheel.”
In February 1800, the Royal Exchange Assurance Office Company offered a further reward for the fire raisers conviction, and an amnesty for any accomplice giving evidence. It appears this was successful, for the following month John Matthew Jackson appeared charged with wilfully setting fire to the cotton mills, the property of Edward Bowers.
What happened next is uncertain, but it would seem that someone, possibly Jackson, gave information implicating Edward Bower in the arson attacks, or perhaps the insurance company already suspected his involvement for on the 18th of March 1801 he was bought to trial at Derby Assizes.
“Edward Bower, for a misdemeanour in setting fire to his own cotton mill at New Mills, in this county, after a trial which lasted from 8 o’clock on Tuesday morning, until 3 on Wednesday morning, was convicted thereof, and sentenced by the Court to pay a fine of £100, and to be imprisoned 12 calendar months and until such fine be paid. – This prosecution instituted by the Royal Exchange Assurance Company, in which office the defendant had insured the mill, machinery and co. for upward of £3000. Mr Erskine was leading council on the part of the Crown, and displayed his usual eloquence and abilities.”
In March 1802, whilst Edward Bower was still incarcerated in Derby Gaol an insolvency hearing was held at the Star Inn, Manchester and Edward Bower was declared bankrupt. In 1805, the mill premises and all other properties of Edward Bower at Salem were put up for auction in Manchester.
“All those two well built Cotton Factories adjoining each other, the one 15 yards by 10 yards, and the other 16 yards by 10 yards, in the tenure of Messrs Hill and Barnes and others situate at New Mills near Disley, in the county of Derby, upon the River Kinder, which affords an ample supply of water, together with the Water Corn Mill, and five cottage houses adjoining the same. And all those two substantial dwelling houses situate on the northerly side of the said River Kinder, late in the occupation of Edward Bower, but now of John Hill, with stables, shippon and other out buildings, Garden and Orchard adjoining the same. All which premises are freehold of inheritance, subject only to a small rent of about fourteen shillings per year payable to his Majesty and Heirs forever.” The property passed briefly from the Bower family before being purchased in 1807 by Ralph Bower (junior) and Thomas Crowther.
Bate Mill. 11th March 1820.
At the Easter Sessions, 1820, a petition was presented to the court by James and William Bate, of Thornsett, Mellor, showing “that a very sudden and terrible fire” broke out in their cotton mill on March 11th, through overheating of the machinery. In a little less than an hour the fire consumed five double carding engines, all the necessary machinery for preparing and spinning cotton, the cotton then in stock, together with the adjacent dwelling house and its furniture. The petitioners were reduced to utter poverty, and estimated their loss at £862. they appealed to the assistance of “well disposed Christians, and asked the court to certify the truth of the premises to the Lord Chancellor in order that a Brief might be issued.” The truth of the statements is attested by the signature of Mr. Olorenshaw, minister of Mellor, and twenty-five of the principal inhabitants.
The mill was repaired and occupied by George Frogatt, but in 1831, suffered another fire and both mill and dwelling were again damaged and the mill lay in ruins for some time. It was advertised in 1832 – ‘ the water wheel is in excellent condition, and the materials already upon the premises being in good condition, buildings may at a trifling expense, be rebuilt, suitable for cotton, printing or bleaching works.’ It was sold and rebuilt the following year.
Fire at Beard Mill 27th April 1832
On Thursday, an alarming fire broke out at Beard Mill, a cotton factory in the occupation of Mr W. Ward, in the above named place. At about a quarter before two in the afternoon, an alarm of fire was given, and a great smoke was seen issuing from the lower part of the building; but a few minutes elapsed before the flames burst from the windows, and with a rapidity scarcely credible, the ungovernable element showed itself bursting from every part of the principle building. At the time of the commencement of this sad calamity, every hand was busied in the various departments of the works, and the utmost alarm prevailed for all who were within its devoted walls. The parents of the children engaged in the concern ran with terror and anxiety depicted in their looks, and literally rent the air with their piercing shrieks; the little creatures, however, were providentially rescued from the impending peril, some by jumping through the windows, and others by means of ladders, and we are happy to add, very little injury was sustained by any of them. By this time the lesser building exhibited evident signs of its being doomed to fall in the general destruction; the smoke had for some time forced itself through the slates, and now the red glare of the devastating element was seen through the windows of the basement storey – a melancholy confirmation of the fears of those who, from the first, predicted that it had but small chance of escape. A short time before three o’clock, the eastern end of the main building gave way and fell with an awful and tremendous crash and threw upwards immense showers of burning cotton, accompanied by clouds of thick smoke, which rose in stupendous volumes and for a few minutes darkened the air, immediately afterwards, the lesser building became enveloped in one continuous blaze and a short interval only elapsed ere it lay in smoking heap of ruins. The origin of the misfortune was attributable to some cotton dust taking fire by coming into contact with a part of a new blowing machine, which from the immense rapidity of its revolutions and not having been sufficiently oiled, became heated by its friction to a degree sufficient to ignite anything susceptible of ready combustion. Mr Samuel Ward was in the room at the moment the accident occurred; but although he used every endeavour in his power to stem the progress of the flames, their progress was so astonishingly quick as to baffle his exertions. It is feared the loss sustained by Mr Ward will be very great, as he had lately fitted up several new machines which, together with several tons of raw material, are totally lost in the general wreck, and we understand the property was not insured.
Schofields Mill (Torr Mill) 22nd October 1838.
Fire broke out in the attic of the cotton factory operated by Mr John Sheldon and quickly spread throughout the whole building. Despite the best efforts of the workforce little could be done, and the building and the whole of the machinery were completely destroyed. The entire site reduced to ruins. The mill was insured for some four thousand pounds, considerably below the amount of the loss. This was one of the most devastating disasters in the town’s history, coming as it did on the eve of a depression in the cotton manufacturing industry. The fire threw a large number of industrious families out of work and caused considerable distress and want. So much so that a relief fund was started to ease the poverty of the mills former employees. The mill was owned by John Schofield who wasted little time in erecting a new, enlarged and modern factory on the site of the old one.
Fire at Barnes Mill 3rd April 1841
On Monday the 22nd February a most calamitous fire broke out at New Mills, in the cotton mill there, belonging to Messrs Barnes and Co., in that portion which is occupied by Messrs Joseph and John Stafford. The fire commenced between ten and eleven in the forenoon, and spread with such rapidity as scarcely to give an opportunity for the hands to make their escape. It fortunately happened that the wind, which was blowing very hard, came from the northwest, or the whole factory would have been destroyed. Great praise is due to the operatives and other persons in exerting themselves to preserve the remainder of the building. Messrs Andrew and Son, of Compstall Bridge, on hearing of the calamity, most cheerfully and promptly sent them a powerful engine, with a compliment of their own men to assist in working it. The activity of the young Messrs Andrew was most serviceable and praiseworthy in directing the firemen and the pipes of the engine so effectually. We understand Messrs Barnes were insured, but Messrs Stafford were not. The sympathy of the village and neighbourhood for Messrs Stafford is most feeling and intense, their conduct always having been marked by industry and strict integrity. Messrs Barnes and Co. have long carried on business at New Mills, and a great number of hands have been thrown out of employ, they have always conducted their business respectably, and this unexpected calamity has added to the already distressed situation of the village, which perhaps, from one misfortune or other, has suffered as much as any place in the kingdom. The fire it appears originated from friction of the machinery.
Rock Mill. 4th September 1846
At about half past five o’clock on Tuesday afternoon a fire broke out in the blowing room of the small spinning factory of Messrs. Taylor and Mellor, of New Mills. The building is about thirty yards long by about ten yards wide, and four stories high. Owing to an insufficient supply of water, and the inefficient working of the engine- arising in great part from the want of practice on the part of the inhabitants - the building was entirely destroyed by six o’clock.
St. George’s Works. 8th February 1850
On the 28th of January a fire broke out in the cotton waste mill belonging to Mr James Fielding, St. George’s Works, New Mills. The fire broke out at about between half past five and six o’clock in the morning, and spread so rapidly that the mill and all its machinery were destroyed in a very short time. The New Mills fire engine was on the scene, but the attention of the firemen was directed to the premises of Mr S. W. Ready, engraver, which adjoins the mill. By great exertions with this engine, and that of the operatives and assistants, the fire was confined to the mill; it is certain that if there was no engine, the engraving premises could not have been saved. Mr Vickers of Disley also sent his engine to assist as speedily as he could.
Brunswick Mill. Great Fire at New Mills. 10th March 1883
On Tuesday new Mills and district was thrown into a state of great excitement by a series of fires, which at one time threatened to destroy that part of the locality called Newtown. A little after two o’clock a fire was observed in the top storey of the cotton mill belonging to the Brunswick Mill Company Limited, and before anything could be done towards extinguishing the flame the whole length of the room was a sheet of fire. A heavy gale was blowing at the time, and as soon as the heat broke the windows the wind fanned the fir to such an extent that in less than half an hour the fire had reached every part of the building. The roof fell in with a terrific crash, and the heat was so intense that the sidewalls were bulged, and the whole length of the mill fell into the Peak Forest Canal. There are two other mills on the opposite side of the canal, and one that is owned by Mr F. Rowbottom was set on fire by the sparks, but fortunately no damage was done. The burning cotton was carried by the gale into the goods yard of the London and North-Western Railway Company, and it set fire to a train of wagons laden with straw and coal and also a vast pile of paper making materials belonging to the Grove Mill Paper Company. Ultimately five fire engines arrived on the scene, but all the brigades could do was protect the adjoining property. The mill was reduced to a complete wreck, and about 150 working people will be thrown out of employment. The damage sustained at the mill will be fully covered by insurance. The conflagration at the goods station continued to burn for hours, the gale fanning the burning mass to such an extent that the water thrown from the engines seemed to have little affect upon it. About a score of railway trucks were burned to ashes. The passenger train leaving Manchester for Buxton was greatly delayed as the flames reached right over the line.
A report on the 29th of September records ‘ the rebuilding of these premises will be shortly finished, as already the roof timber is being put on, so that we may expect the work to be completed before the winter sets in.’
Torr Mill 13th February 1885
On this Monday morning, a small fire broke out in the premises of the Torr Mills Spinning Company Limited. It was discovered by operatives and quickly extinguished before too much damage could be done. An investigation revealed that the fire was caused by friction in the machinery. Many fires were caused by friction in the moving parts of cotton manufacturing machinery. Hot spots could easily ignite the cotton fibres, which acted as kindling to raise a larger fire. All moving parts had to be kept clean and constantly oiled and greased to avoid them heating up.
Warksmoor Mill 10th February 1885
A sensation was caused in New Mills and Newtown on this Friday evening by reports that a mill was on fire in Newtown. Indeed crowds of people began hurrying in the direction thinking there was a most serious fire. Happily, on this occasion, the fire was not so very disastrous as previous ones, but bad enough.
From the direction in which the smoke was issuing a report gained currency that the recently erected and newly fitted up premises of the Brunswick Company were on fire; but it proved to be the factory of Mr Francis Rowbottom, which is situate directly opposite the Brunswick Mill at Newtown. The fire broke out or was rather first observed about twenty minutes to six o’clock in one of the upper rooms, and as the employees in this room were temporarily suspended from work for want of bobbins, the flames must have got some hold before the fire was discovered, there being no one in the room. News of course, especially bad news spreads rapidly, and hundreds of persons were rapidly on the spot, besides the operatives of the Brunswick Mill Company adjoining, and the workmen of Messers. John Hawthorn and company, of the Canal Foundry, who rendered what assistance they were able. The small engine belonging to Mr J. W. A. Turner, brick manufacturer, was procured, as well as a quantity of hose, and as the Peak Forest Canal and a small reservoir are close by, there was no scarcity of water. The fire, which was supposed to be confined to one room, was speedily got out, and all was thought to be right, when it again broke out in an attic. The excitement was now intense, and very speedily all hands were aloft assisting to prevent what promised to be a terrible disaster. The windows were broken and the water played on the flames for some time, until the fire was quite put out. Of course, considerable damage was done to the cotton goods and machinery by fire and water combined, and there was not the least doubt that the water did its share owing to the indiscreet manner in which it was utilised by those who were undoubtedly most anxious to save the premises from destruction. Neither the walls of the building nor the roof suffered, and there was little evidence from outside, apart from the broken windows, that the mill had been on fire. Mr Rowbottom was fully insured and the damage was estimated to be between £800 and £900.
Hyde Bank Mill. 31st December 1887
On Monday morning a fire occurred at Beard Mills, which, in its results was the most serious that has occurred in this district since the destruction of Brunswick mill. When first the alarm was given that a fire was raging at the mills not much notice was taken of the rumour, as small fires at Beard Mill are a frequent occurrence, and it was only a fortnight previous that a serious outbreak occurred in the picker room. As the danger of fire is so great where the cotton waste under goes the first process, through bits of iron & co., being mixed therewith, every precaution has been made in readiness for any emergency. The outbreak on Monday was in a department where a fire was least expected. The mills are divided into three departments, one being worked by Mrs. Thornley, another by Mr James Hill, and the third by Mr William F. Hill, and coarse yarn spinning is carried on in the whole mills. It was in the willowing room of Mrs. Thornley’s portion where the flames broke out. Being erected against the bank side, the dimensions of the part destroyed is some what deceptive, there not being as many rooms there as in other parts of the mill. Very fortunately, between the main portion of the mill and the willowing room there is a thick stone wall, with iron doors, and it is doubtless owing to this that the whole structure is not now in ruins. It appears that at about ten o’clock Mrs. Thornley was speaking to the carder Mr Wild, when a sheet of flame seemed to take possession of the willowing machine, and before anything could be done the flames spread over the whole room, and the shawl Mrs. Thornley was wearing was set on fire. As already stated, the willowing department was separated from the main building, and so rapidly did the flames spread over the place that the doors could not be closed as no one could get near the doorway. Without any hesitation the hands were busy with buckets in attempting to prevent the main structure from taking fire, and for a time they were somewhat successful. There was an abundance of ready assistance, and when it became manifest that the fire was likely to be serious telegrams Birch Vale, Hayfield, and Marple for fire engines, and messages were sent to Newtown and Watford Bridge on a similar errand. In a very brief period the engine ‘Prince of Wales’ belonging to Mr Francis Rowbottom, of Newtown arrived on the scene. There was a little difficulty in getting the engine near the river, as the ground is so uneven, but the men in charge displayed remarkable tact and energy, and speedily two jets were pouring copious streams upon the burning mass. By this time the flames had penetrated into the main block, and as the rooms were filled with dense volumes of smoke the men had much difficulty in getting near the fire. The ‘Niagara’ from Watford Bridge Printworks, and the engine and brigade from Birch Vale arrived, and then all fears of the fire expanding into the main block was abandoned. The powerful engine from Birch Vale with the new hose pipes and other appliances threw two strong jets of water upon the flames, and the ‘Niagara’ rendered good service from the mill yard, especially considering that at this point there was a difficulty obtaining water. From the moment that it got to work to the time that all danger was over the engine belonging to Mr Rowbottom rendered splendid service, and if it had not arrived when it did in all probability very serious damage would have been done in the main building. That portion of the mill, which is destroyed, is situated nearest to Meal street, and it consisted of three storeys high and four windows long. At the time of the fire there was a very heavy stock of material on hand, which was stored in this portion. From the first it was manifest that nothing could save this block, for in a very short period of time the middle and upper rooms were like a fiery furnace, and when the roof fell in the spectators in Meal street had to retreat for reason of the intense heat. There are three cottages separated only by a narrow passage from the rooms in which the fire originated, and the occupiers were so alarmed that the furniture was nearly all removed, and the bedding etc. was considerably damaged by mud. When all danger was over the jets were directed to extinguish the fire in that portion where it commenced, and by one o’clock no trace of fire could be seen. Between twelve and one o’clock the engines from Kinder and Strines arrived, but fortunately their services were not required. The telegram for the Strines engine was sent to Marple Post Office, which of course was a mistake, as the messenger would have reached the place sooner from New Mills than from Marple. Kinder men also had a long distance to travel, and the roads were very bad for the horses; and it was certainly very kind of the brigades to come on such a day. The damages will amount as near as can be ascertained to six or seven hundred pounds, which is fully covered by insurance.
Explosion at Albert Mill. 25th February 1888
At about half past five o’clock on Saturday morning a most alarming and destructive boiler explosion took at the Albert mill, paper and bleaching works, belonging to Mr J. W. Turner, situated on Buxton road, Newtown. The main building is divided into eight sections, each of which is two storeys high, and it was in the fourth section from Buxton road in which the explosion occurred. There are four large steam boilers at the Disley end of the works, and at the opposite end of the works five revolving boilers or kiers, were situated. These kiers are used for boiling the paper making material, preparatory to its being reduced to pulp. Each kier is capable of holding four tons of material, and at the time of the explosion two of them were fully charged and at work. The ‘revolvers’ are about twenty feet long by eight feet high, and all are fixed about a yard from the floor. The steam from the boilers is conveyed to the kiers in pipes, and enters the kier by means of a nice contrivance through one of the shafts upon which it revolves. Attached to each kier is an escape valve, so as to keep down the pressure of steam in the revolver. The kiers are constructed of half-inch plates, and as they cost two hundred and fifty pounds each, it will be seen that the material was deemed to be of good quality. Each kier weighs over three tons. The fireman on Saturday had just sounded the ‘buzzer’, which calls the workpeople to their labours, when a peculiar thudding sound was heard by the night men. There would be nearly thirty men duty at the time, and although considerable alarm was occasioned among them, the majority had no idea that an explosion of so disastrous a nature had occurred. Of course the men who were nearest to the scene of the occurrence at once made known to Mr Turner, who resides near the works, what had happened, and the first concern was as to whether any person was buried beneath the debris. Fortunately all the men were accounted for, and the only person in anyway injured was a man named Oakley, who was slightly scalded on the leg. Oakley and another workman were engaged within ten yards of the explosion, and it seems nothing less than marvellous how they escaped from the ruin. When the explosion occurred, three of the large rooms were filled with blinding steam and clouds of dust, and it was some time before the full extent of the damage done could be perceived. At daybreak, however the scene that presented itself was disastrous enough. The outer massive stone walls had been forced down and lay in the adjoining field. Whole windows had been hurled thirty or forty yards, and the material with which the kier had been charged had been carried along the field for a distance of seventy or eighty yards. The first floor and the roof of the building in which the explosion had been were carried completely away for a space of about twenty yards and the debris lay in a confused heap around the remains of the exploded kier. The portion walls on each side were partially blown down, and the roofs of the adjoining sections were considerably damaged. The kier itself was torn open as though it had been constructed of cardboard. One end had been evidently hurled into the air, and it had alighted on the roof of the next building, fully thirty yards away. The four tons of material had been scattered like chaff in every direction some of it being found one hundred and fifty yards away. There seemed to be a consensus of opinion that the report was not very loud, and Mr Turner, although he was awake at the time, did not hear it. No doubt the sound would be subdued by the nature of the material which the kier contained. There can be no doubt, however, about the force of the concussion. From one end to the other the extensive department in which the kier was placed the roof was riddled and will require re-slating. The force of the explosion was carried along the room on the ground floor and at a point forty yards away where the roof was constructed of glass and slates the structure was lifted bodily from the walls and was scattered to atoms. Some of the machines situated near to the scene of the explosion were destroyed, and others were much damaged. At first it was believed that the whole pressure of the boilers had been allowed to be placed upon the kier; but as the engines were at work at the time this could not be the case. With regard to the pressure upon the kier, the workmen who were in charge, most positively assert that only a short time before the explosion the indicator registered a pressure of only thirty pounds to the square inch, which is the ordinary working power. The material placed in the kier was what is known as ‘Liverpool shakings’ and as that was the first placed in the ‘revolver’ from a stock recently received, it becomes a question as to whether there was any foreign substance among it. Another question is as to whether the passage to the valve or indicator had become choked up, and so prevented from registering the real pressure upon the kier. In any case, however it was fortunate that the explosion did not occur half an hour later, or even less. During the cold weather the workpeople are accustomed to congregate for warmth near the kiers before starting work, and even if the workpeople had commenced work, the lives of a great many would have been in jeopardy.
Garrison Works 15th June 1894
A rather different type of devastating incident occurred at the Garrison the damage done was later estimated to be far greater than anticipated, in the region of fifteen hundred pounds.
One of the most singular accidents that has ever happened in this neighbourhood occurred on Monday morning at the Garrison Bleachworks, Birch Vale, belonging to Mr J. J. Hadfield. Although externally there appeared to be nothing the matter with the building, when the workpeople arrived it was found that that a portion of the premises internally were completely wrecked. The works is a four storey building, and fireproof, when the workers entered they found every floor from the top to the bottom had given way and with their contents crashed down onto the ground floor. A great deal of machinery was smashed to atoms and a large quantity of finished material was greatly damaged, indeed the loss will be several hundred pounds at least. The whole of the inside of the building presented a complete wreck and it has been visited by hundreds of people, owing to the peculiar nature of the accident. Mr Hadfield, upon whom the loss will fall, has the general sympathy of the public. It is supposed that the catastrophe was caused by the ground giving way beneath the pillars supporting the first floor owing to recent draining operation to convey polluted water from the building to the filter beds. Once the ground floor pillars gave way the others would have followed causing all the upper floors to collapse. Had it occurred a few hours later there could be no doubt that the collapse would have been attended with a loss of life.
Brunswick Mill. 11th March 1905
At half past nine in the evening the towns folk were startled to hear cries of ‘ Fire! Fire!’ and the blowing of buzzers. They rushed out in hundreds in the direction of Newtown, and it was found that the boiler-house and engine-house, which are situated in the rear of Brunswick were in flames. The discovery was made by two girls named Elliot and Southern, who were returning home after taking suppers to the Grove Paper Mills. The latter at once informed her father, Mr. Albert Southern, who is a minder at the mill, and he was quickly on the spot, and gave the alarm. Soon the buzzers at Messers. Wood’s, Hawthorn’s, and Howarth’s places were blowing and in an incredibly short space of time their were hundreds of people in the vicinity; in fact such a crowd has rarely, if ever, been seen in Newtown. The burned building abuts on to the banks of the Peak Forest Canal, and many people got onto the bank, which was a considerable hindrance to the operations.
The brigade connected with the mill were speedily on the spot, and also scores of willing helpers, including firemen from the neighboring works. The brigades from Strines, Watford Bridge and Birch Vale Printworks, and also the Disley fire brigade set out for the scene of the fire. The flames however, had been almost subdued before the more distant brigades arrived, and fortunately their services were not required. There are excellent fire appliances at the mill, including an immense sprinkler, all in good working order. A strong wind was blowing and to some extent it fanned the flames. The efforts of the men were mainly directed to prevent the conflagration spreading to the main portion of the building, and in this they were aided by the wind, which was blowing in the right direction for them. The flames shot high up into the air and presented a remarkable spectacle seen from the top of Union road and High Lee, from where scores of people witnessed the scene.
There is a steam pump at the mill for use in case of fire. This was on the boiler and the men could not get to it to set it in motion; consequently buckets of water had to be used for a quarter of an hour to combat the flames. This however was soon obviated by the foresight of Mr. Edward Godward, C.C. the managing director of the Brunswick Mill Company, Ltd. The firm has another mill called Woodside, a short distance away. At this place also there is a steam pump, and Mr. Godward has had them both connected. When it was found that the pump at Brunswick Mill could not be used, the one at Woodside was set in motion, and was very soon pumping the water, of which, fortunately there was an abundant supply from the Peak Forest canal, on to the flames. The appliances of the New Mills Urban District Council under the direction of Mr. J. Marsland, were exceedingly useful, and did much good work. Only that week a box of fire appliances had been installed by the council at the bottom of Union-road, and these were immediately fetched and put to use. The fire at one time had gained such a hold that those who saw it thought that the whole building was doomed, but owing to the supreme effort put forth the flames were subdued soon after eleven o’clock and the main portion of the building saved altogether. Inspector Burgess, Constables Millward, Levin, Clarke, Ontram, Greatorex and Matthews (Hayfield) were on the spot and rendered invaluable assistance in keeping back the crowd, which numbered over a thousand, and also helping the firemen with their endeavours. Superintendent Savoury of Chapel-en-le-Frith was communicated with and that gentleman was on the scene before midnight, and remained the greater part of the night. The crowd did not leave the scene until the flames had been thoroughly extinguished, and it was quite one o’clock before the streets had been cleared. The ‘buzzers’ could be heard for miles around and this attracted scores of people from adjoining districts. The boiler house roof and windows were destroyed and the damage was extensive.
New Mills Printworks. Friday April 22nd 1909
Shortly after midnight, a fire broke out at Watford Bridge Printworks. Much of the works, which belonged to the Calico Printers Association, still stands on the bank of the River Sett. At the time the works were very busy and in the ‘ageing’ department the machinery was kept running throughout the night. The ageing operation was carried on in a building of three storeys in the centre of the extensive range of premises. The machinery was at work on the second floor when fire suddenly broke out, as it was later declared, a result of friction. The whole floor was soon engulfed in flame. The men on the premises at the time did their utmost to quench the flames and sounded the fire bell, which quickly brought the works brigade together. Only energetic work from all present prevented the flames from spreading to other buildings, and much of the machinery was saved. However, a great quantity of valuable material was damaged by fire and water, and the woodwork of the building was almost totally destroyed.
Torr Mill. 2nd December 1912
What is described as the largest conflagration ever seen in New Mills occurred on Monday when the Torr Mills occupied by Messrs Warburton and Arrowsmith, fustian cutters, were completely gutted. The mill is, or rather was, situated at the bottom of the Torrs from which it takes its name, between the Midland Railway branch line to Chinley and the bridge which spans Union road, and just at the confluence of the Goyt and the Sett. It was an old structure with wooden floors, and for many years was used as a cotton Mill, and, therefore saturated with oil. There were men it is stated working on the premises on Sunday, but everything was left perfectly safe at night. It was about half past five on Monday morning, when people were going to work that the fire was noticed. One who noticed it was Mr J. Mourne, of Spring Bank, who is employed at the Emery works. He informed the police, and the alarm was quickly raised. Inspector Barnsley and the whole of the police were soon on the spot, as were a number of men from the Co-op stables near by. There was no buzzer attached to the works, but that at the canal foundry was sounded. Mr James Marsland, the Town Hall keeper, who has charge of some of the Councils appliances was aroused, and firemen were quickly on the scene from the Brunswick Mills and the Victoria Mills, Newtown. The District Council has no fire engine, but their hose and stand pipes as well as those of the Co-operative Society were available. It was found, however, that there was not sufficient pressure of water in the Torrs to cope with the fire, which by this time had got a good hold. The mains water in Union Road and the higher ground had to be used, but in the meantime the flames had gained a fiercer hold, and the water from the mains was like pouring drops on a mill boiler. Millions of gallons of water were rushing round and under the mill, for the river was in flood, but unhappily there was neither engine nor pump to pour it on the flames. The Watford Bridge Fire Brigade, in command of Mr W. Dark, came on the scene, soon after seven o’clock, but it was hopeless then to endeavour to quench the flames. The old wood soaked in oil, and the fustian itself, are highly inflammable materials.
The fire is supposed to have started in the second storey from the bottom, and in an incredibly short time the roof - the mill was some five or six storeys high - was falling in with a terrible crash. The flames spouted higher than the mill chimneys. The mill roof was considerably lower than the road bridge, and the chimney very little higher. Fears were entertained for the buildings on Union road especially Mr Thornleys printers shop, which stands just on top of the Torrs. Fortunately the wind of Sunday night had abated, and this further calamity was averted. Water was continuously poured on the flames, but without making the slightest impression.
The blaze was a tremendous one, especially when the wing fronting Union road became ignited and illuminated the country for a considerable distance. Crowds of people assembled on the Union Bridge and the bridge which spans the river at the bottom of Church road. From this spectacular point of view the scene was one long to be remembered, the whole building being one mass of flames. It soon became dangerous to be anywhere near the buildings for fear of the outer walls collapsing. Some sections did collapse but happily no personal injuries were sustained. The fire raged for several hours but the men soon gave up the struggle. The fact that there was so much water about the place and no engine to pump it was the subject of much comment. The opinion is confidently expressed that had a fire engine been available the fire would speedily have been under control, and the district council was strongly criticised for not having provided it. Throughout the day there were crowds of spectators. Mr Sheard, the council’s surveyor, was on the scene attending to the hose and mains. None of the proprietors were at the works, nor were any of the work people inside when the fire was discovered. The proprietors arrived on the scene about noon in response to telephonic messages. The origin of the fire is unknown.
The peculiar situation of the mill has often being commented upon. It is down in a hole, and looks to be more so now than it would before the Union Bridge was built. No doubt the site was selected because of the water, which was available for providing motive power, and did so from the time the mill was built until the end. Surrounded by the Torrs it was of course very dark and gas had to be used the whole day in winter time. Torr mill was one of the oldest in the town, and was built about 100 years ago by a family called Schofield, who worked it for cotton spinning for a long period. The buildings are still owned by a member of the Schofield family, who resides in Liverpool. When the Schofields ceased to work the mill it was taken over by Messrs Hibbert and Alcock, of Hyde, who at that time were proprietors of Clough Mill, Hayfield. When they gave it up a local company was floated. This however, failed, and many local people lost their money. Another proprietor was found in Mr Harold Slack, son of the late Albert Slack, of Hayfield. He did not run it long, and when he gave it up it ceased to be a cotton mill, the machinery being taken out. For several years the mill stood idle. Messrs Warburton and Arrowsmith started it as a fustian cutting works about a year ago, and introduced the new industry to the town. About 70 people were employed chiefly girls. The firm has works at Bugsworth and Chapel, and a fire had occurred at the latter works only a few weeks ago.
The amount of damage is not officially stated, but is estimated at several thousand pounds.
Another report mentions a witness to the fire Mr A. E Mottershead; he recalled ‘I was walking to the workshop of John Sayer, cabinet maker with whom I was apprenticed. A man, who had a round as a knocker-up Mr John Tommy Jepson, ran up to me saying ‘Th fustian mill’s on fire!’ I hurried to the Torrs, just in time to see the roof falling in. It was six o’clock, and the fire was most intense.’
The mill was never rebuilt, the location close to a source of waterpower was no longer a necessity and the fluctuations of the cotton trade made any investment a precarious one.
Garrison Bleachworks 22nd April 1913
On this Tuesday night, a fire broke out at the Garrison Bleachworks, owned by J. J. Hadfield and Sons.
Work had been proceeding as usual during the day, and two men named Chatterton and Thorpe were in charge of the fires, kiers and other equipment. Before 10 o’clock, Chatterton noticed a fire in one of the upper storeys of the yarn department, the room in which there is a stove, for the drying of bleached materials. He at once sounded the fire buzzer, and the Bate Mill Bleachworks, which is nearer New Mills, also sounded the fire alarm. The buzzers attracted people from New Mills, Hayfield, Furness Vale, Disley, and other places, and the alarm was heard even at Whaley Bridge.
Local people were soon on the spot to render what assistance they could. The works hose was attached to the District Councils water main close by, but one of the valves was not open and no water could be procured. The hose was attached to the main in the road above the works, but even from here, a sufficient force of water to pour into the flames could not be obtained. A hand pump at the works was got into motion as well, but this also was ineffective, the conflagration in the mean time having spread. The fire brigade from the Birch Vale Printworks, with Mr Bashford in charge, was soon on the scene. The engine is worked by hand, and was attached to a small reserve of water close by the works.
Fire brigades and engines from the printworks at Watford Bridge, Strines and Furness Vale arrived after the fire had been going for a while, and as the Birch Vale engine had got working it was possible to make some progress with the fight against the fire demon. A hose was laid to the Birch Vale Printworks, more than a quarter of a mile distance, and this was attached to the sprinkler engine. This proved to be the most effective means of pouring water onto the flames, steam power being available.
Whilst all this was been done the fire spread with alarming rapidity, and soon the whole of the wing, which faces the Birch Vale valley was involved. The fire did not seem to have been going for much more than half an hour before the roof fell in with a terrific crash, and soon the building which was one of three storeys was gutted. The efforts of the firemen to keep the fire from the other and more extensive buildings at the back were fortunately successful. It did penetrate one room in an adjoining wing, but little damage was done.
From a spectacular point of view the fire was a sight never to be forgotten. The flames shot forth to a tremendous height, and illuminated the sky for miles around. The crowd could be numbered by the thousands, and they witnessed the devastating scene from the road and other coigns of vantage.
Mr J. J. Hadfield, the head of the firm, has been seriously ill for some months, and was unable to be on the scene and direct operations. His sons Messrs. Thomas, William, Wright, Charles and Frank, were however, present, and took charge of matters most efficiently. Several members of the Urban Council, including Messrs. Armstrong (chairman), Crossley and Lowe, were there. Inspector Barnsley and the local police rendered yeoman service. Mr James Marsland, who has charge of the council fire appliance, was quickly on the scene, and took direction of the operations of all the firemen.
As a result of the fire, the yarn department from end to end was completely gutted, and the whole of the material and machinery destroyed. Huge steel girders, weighing tons, were bent like twigs of a tree, indicating the terrific heat. Some hours elapsed before the danger could be said to be at an end, and even on Wednesday afternoon the fire was smouldering, and the hose was being used to prevent further outbreaks. Fortunately, no damage was done to the cloth bleaching department, which is by far the most extensive, and also newer. Work in this place will be resumed next Monday, but some months must of necessity elapse before the other portion burned down can be rebuilt and reequipped with new machinery. As many men as possible will be found employment in the work of renewal and in the other departments. The damage cannot be correctly estimated as yet, but it will be between £5,000 and £8,000. it is covered by insurance. Some of the machinery was comparatively new, and a great deal of money has been expended on the department during the last few years.
When the fire was discovered it was not of serious dimensions. The stove was fitted with iron doors to protect other parts of the building from the great heat. An overlooker said the fire looked as if me could have “batted” it out with their caps, but there were no means of getting to it by hand. Had a steam fire engine being available, even half an hour after the alarm was sounded, the fire could have been confined to the stove. But there is no steam fire engine nearer than Stockport, and the hose and stand pipes, which the District Council provides are stored at the Town Hall, a distance of perhaps a mile and a half, and there is no horse to bring them.
The greatest sympathy was extended to Mr. J. J. Hadfield in this calamity. He has been unable to attend to business for some months owing to heart trouble, and naturally the fire the first there has been at his works, has been a great shock to him. The works are noted for the regularity of work, the good conditions of labour and wages, and the pleasant relations, which exist between employer and the employed.
Torr Vale. 17th May 1929
‘Shortly before nine o’clock in the evening a fire was spotted at Torr Vale Mill. The flames were first noticed coming from a huge hopper over the slashing room, which is almost immediately beneath the chimney of the mill, by members at the Conservative Club. The motor fire engine was called, and soon a second hopper was involved. A hosepipe was attached to a hydrant in the mill yard, but the volume of water was by no means sufficient to cope with the flames as the hoppers were constructed of wood and were very dry. The fire engine was parked in Torr Vale road, and some time elapsed before a satisfactory supply of water could be procured owing to a low pressure in the mains. When the water was available in the requisite quantity under the needed pressure, short work was made of the flames. Meanwhile it was discovered that the fire had not originated inside the room. Beams that were already slashed for the loom were removed from the end of the room where the hoppers had fired to the other in the hope that they might be saved from damage. Then a cry was raised that another hopper at the other end of the roof was blazing. Huge flames shot up into the air, the fire apparently having traveled along the roof. Firemen bravely walked the roof, and used their hatchets on the hopper at the bottom so as to more effectively cope with the flames. They also ripped up the ridge tiles, and put out the burning wood beneath them. Within an hour the brigade had completely subdued the fire. The hoppers, which are used to convey exhausted steam from the cylinders of the slashing machines, were destroyed with one exception and that was very badly damaged. The water did much damage to the material in the slashing room, of which there was a considerable quantity ready for the towel weaving looms. An amazingly large crowd had quickly assembled in the vicinity of the mill and across the river, from where the fire could be viewed. Many instructions were shouted to the firemen, and people with no idea of the difficulties of the brigade made comments that were meant to be sarcastic. But the brigade did very efficient work. Had they not been there the mill, or at any rate a large part of it, would have been destroyed, for there was a large amount of flammable material about the mill.’
How the fire started could not be stated with any certainty. Some people said that they had seen sparks coming from the mill chimney, and it was quite possible that one or more of these may have fallen into the hopper and ignited the fluff inside, and thus caused a fire that would have traveled along the fluff. The railway is nearby and it was also thought possible that a spark from a Steam engine may have got into the hopper. In any case it was considered practically certain that the fire was started outside. The mill had closed down for the whole of Whit-week, for some repairs to be carried out. It apparently took some little time to clean up the damage done inside, by the water used on the fire and the mill was soon back in production.
Woodside Mill. 11th October 1961
Flames fanned by strong winds completely destroyed the four storey mill and for a time threatened two rows of nearby cottages. Fire broke out on the third floor, in a part of the L-shaped block. A dense smoke covered the town as the flames spread rapidly to other sections of the mills. The first three floors were used by Kay Brothers (Plastic), Ltd., who employed around 100 workers, and the top floor by T. Helliwell and Co, Ltd., which dealt in nylon and employed around 20 people. The only parts of the building, which the fire did not reach were the nylon firms office, from which books and papers were taken to safety, and New Mills Co-operative Society’s warehouse at the other end of the building. Though both these suffered greatly from water damage.
When the fire was discovered in Kay Bros. Premises the workpeople ran to safety and a roll call was taken. The last out was Mr Alan Jones, aged 23, of Tor Top Street. He said he was on the third floor when he saw a flicker at the other end of the room. He found that some foam sheets wee on fire. After shouting a warning, he started the automatic alarm and threw a bucket of water on the fire. Mr Jones added ‘I grabbed a fire extinguisher and was using it when Mr Albert Jones, my foreman, shouted to me to get out. I ran for my overcoat off the hook, but was then lost in the dense smoke. I stumbled on some foam sheets and thought I was among those, which were burning. I could not see where I was. Then I found the hoist-loading bay and jumped onto a load of goods on the hoist outside. I managed to climb down the load, which put me level with the second floor. I kept shouting ‘open the door.’ Then Mr Jones, by now on the second floor, and Mr Arthur Cropper, another foreman opened the loading bay door, grabbed me, and rescued me. We got out though the mill.’
Woodside Mill. August 1966
Flames were reported to have leapt 80 feet into the air and sparks fell in showers over nearby buildings when fire wrecked Mr Clifford Ashworth’s lyme marquetry premises.
It is thought the outbreak started on the ground floor of the stone built mill, which stood between the canal and Albion Road. The fire rose into the rooms above and eventually the slate roof crashed in. The building was burning fiercely when the fire was first spotted. Several people dialled 999 to raise the alarm at about 3 a.m., but when firemen from New Mills and Whaley Bridge arrived there was little they could do to save the building. Which was used by Mr Ashworth for his marquetry work and for the making of woodwork for fabric printing in schools and colleges.
About 25 firemen, using water from the street hydrants, and from the canal, tackled the blaze. Although they could not save the marquetry works, they drove a lorry and several vans to safety from nearby garages. A desperate battle took place to prevent the flames spreading to Clapham’s joiners shop. Their all-out efforts resulted in damage being confined to parts of the roof and windows, one wall was cracked and there was water damage to the timber stock.
Mrs Margaret Mackinnon, who lived nearby, and was one of those who rang for the fire brigade, said the marquetry works was blazing fiercely when she first saw it.
Dr A. D. Shubsachs. who lived opposite the works, said flames and sparks lit up the sky. It was almost like a fireworks display,’ he said. Mr Ashworth who lives at Buxworth was at home when he was told of the fire. He said later that the damage to his company ran into several thousands of pounds, but hoped that if he could find suitable new premises, he might restart production.
Built around 1872, for cotton production the mill was a completely destroyed, nothing remained but a hollow shell. It was demolished soon after the fire.
Marquetry is the craft of inlaying timber surfaces with veneers of other woods or materials as decoration.
Victoria Mill 13 March 1986
Families on Victoria Street were roused by firemen at 2 a.m. and evacuated from their homes as a spectacular fire engulfed Victoria Mill. More than 100 firemen fought to control the blaze, drawing water from the nearby canal. As the roof fell in flames leapt to a reported 100 feet into the air. The night shift working at the nearby sweet factory was evacuated as sparks from the blaze were blown towards the building by strong winds. Firemen reported that smoke made the job of fighting the fire almost impossible. The fire which started around 1 a.m. was still burning some nine hours later.
Torr Vale Mill 25th July 2001
A large section of Torr Vale mill was destroyed on Saturday 25th July as the result of arson. The mill had stood empty for some time, when at around 9 p.m. a fire was reported to the Brigade. Firemen from all around the district converged on the mill, but despite the best equipment available a large section of the building was destroyed.
Even modern fire fighting methods cannot cope with a full blown mill blaze, which gives some idea of the resolve of those who fought fires in the early years with equipment that might today be considered as primitive. Images of the fire courtesy of Peter Beardwood.