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Valentine’s Day mill fire tragedy which claimed 17 young lives is commemorated 200 years on


West Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Service (WYFRS) is preparing to mark one of the most tragic fire disasters in British history, in which 17 girls and young women perished.

The Fire Service has joined with Kirkheaton Family History Group, Yetton Together Community Group and Kirkheaton Parish Church to commemorate 200 years since the Colne Bridge mill fire of February 14th, 1818.

On February 10th there will be a special memorial service at 11am at the church, where most of the victims of the fire were laid to rest, and a headstone bears the girls’ names.

The service will be attended by Chief Fire Officer, John Roberts, as well as Chair of the Fire Authority Councillor Judith Hughes and Kirklees Mayor, Christine Iredale (who both hail from Kirkheaton).

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.

The young cotton mill workers were all aged between nine and 18-years-old and had simply gone to work on the nightshift of Friday 13th, tragically never to return home.

The devastating blaze, which happened at Mr Atkinson’s Factory in Colne Bridge, left a shadow of sadness over the parish of Kirkheaton – where all the victims had lived – which remains even to this day as the community, including relatives of the survivors, reflect on the sombre events of two centuries ago.

The fire started when at around 5am, an 11-year-old worker was ordered by the foreman of the mill to go downstairs to collect roving’s (combed cotton twisted into strands).

It was total darkness and the boy, Jim Thornton, had just a naked candle, rather than a proper glass lamp.

The flame accidentally brushed against some loose strands of cotton, which due to being highly flammable, immediately ignited.

Upstairs the workforce continued to operate the spinning frames, unaware of the calamity beneath them.

Worker Sarah Moody spotted the fire through the wooden beamed flooring and raised the alarm, but the foreman James Sugden is said to have ordered the girls to return to work.

Brave Sarah, who was also just 11-years-old, refused and quickly escaped via 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 Butterworth , who is the great great great granddaughter of Sarah Moody, 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.”

The young boy Jim Thornton also miraculously managed to escape before the entire building was engulfed and collapsed.

The two foremen also escaped the blaze and the factory boss Thomas Atkinson had been at his residence nearby and would be woken to the catastrophe.

Following the disaster a commemorative service in honour of the girls drew around 4,000 people from all over Huddersfield and shockwaves were sent around the nation and through parliament. The law at the time did not require an in-depth enquiry.

The development of ‘fire safety’ and the safety of people within buildings was to take a great deal longer and is still an ongoing issue today.

It was not until 1961 that the Factories Act was amended to require fire brigades to inspect and report on fire safety in these types of buildings.

Chief Fire Officer John Roberts said: “It is impossible to read about the events at the Colne Bridge cotton mill without being touched by the sadness of the terrible fate that these girls and young women met.

“We hope that by marking this tragedy we can give some comfort to the descendants of survivors, such as Sarah Moody, who lost two sisters in the fire but escaped herself.”

Fire Authority Chair, Councillor Judith Hughes 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 worker’s rights were unheard of and the dawn of fire safety legislation was still over 150 years off.

“The attempts to fight the fire would have been futile without the modern equipment we have today and as such the terrible events played out.”

Richard Heath, a local historian and researcher, 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.”

The West Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Service Band will also be playing at the church service, which begins at 11am on February 10th and a fire officer will lay a wreath in memory of the girls.

A Huddersfield Trades Union Council and Unison representatives are also due to be attending the service at the church in Church Lane, Kirkheaton.

Other events have also been organised locally to mark the bicentenary.

These include:

  • A group of volunteers are working with the Canal and River Trust to produce a memorial garden on the canal bank next to the site where Atkinson’s mill stood.
  • Complimenting this is the work done by a group of schoolchildren from Salendine Nook High School under the leadership of Artist, Ged Walker. They are creating seventeen sculptured birds – one for each of the victims.
  • A memorial evening will be taking place at the Royal and Ancient pub in Colne Bridge at 7pm on Saturday, February 17.