The tragic story of the Yorkshire mill girls who died in an inferno

editorial image
Have your say

It was a disaster that should never have happened, and one symbolic of an age of industrial barbarity which seems incomprehensible today.

Valentine's Day marks the 200th anniversary of a Yorkshire mill fire which killed 17 girls working the spinning looms - some as young as nine years old.

It's a story of lax safety regulations and outright callousness from the overseers who ordered their young charges to remain at work even after flames had been spotted.

The blaze broke out at Atkinson's factory in Colne Bridge, near Huddersfield, during the early decades of the Industrial Revolution.

It seems unimaginable to think that on February 14, 1818, the night shift consisted mainly of child labour.

They were aged between nine and 18, and the fire itself was started accidentally by an 11-year-old boy.

At around 5am, young James Thornton was ordered to go to the mill cellars to collect some cotton rovings. In total darkness, the child was given a naked candle rather than a gas lamp, with perhaps inevitable results.

The flame ignited the stored cotton, and an 11-year-old spinner called Sarah Moody spotted the fire burning beneath the wooden floor - James had already managed to escape.

Foreman James Sugden was said to have ordered the girls to remain in the mill, but Sarah refused and escaped through the only stairway with five other workers.

The remaining girls had rushed to the far end of the spinning room, where their bodies were found. Sarah's sisters Elizabeth and Mary, aged 17 and 13, were among the dead.

A new memorial plaque will this week be unveiled by Sarah's great-great-great-granddaughter, Kathy Butterworth, in Kirkheaton, the village where the victims lived.

“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," said Kathy.

“For such a small community to lose so many of its 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 entire building was engulfed by fire and collapsed. Two foremen escaped, and owner Thomas Atkinson, who lived nearby, was at home at the time.

A service was held in memory of the girls, and 4,000 people attended.

Incredibly, the causes of the accident were not fully investigated, as the law did not require inquiries to be held in the 19th century. The use of candles and the fact that the building had only one exit were not seen as practices to be eradicated, and it wasn't until 1961 that it became law for factories to undergo fire safety inspections.

A memorial event will take place at the Royal and Ancient pub in Colne Bridge at 7pm on Saturday, February 17.