Colne Bridge Tragedy of 1818

At around 5 o'clock on the morning of 14 February 1818, a fire was accidentally started at Thomas Atkinson's cotton mill at Colne Bridge by a young boy named James Thornton. After being sent down to the carding room, Thornton's candle had ignited nearby flammable material and the fire quickly spread.

According to contemporary newspaper reports, 26 people — mostly girls and young women — had been working through the night. Thornton ran upstairs to alert the workers and he, along with a few of them, managed to escape. It was reported that a girl who was hurrying behind the boy perished when the floor collapsed around her feet and she fell into the inferno below.

The large volume of cotton in the mill meant there was little hope of rescuing the workers who remained trapped on the upper floor. As attempts were made to gain entrance to the far end of the mill, away from the source of the fire, the roof and floors of the mill collapsed.

In total, seventeen girls and young women (aged between 9 and 18) perished in the inferno, including sisters Mary and Elizabeth Moody, although their younger sister Sarah survived. The reported list of survivors were:[1]

  • Dolly Bolton (35)[2]
  • Esther Brook (18)
  • Mary Hay (12)
  • Sarah Moody (11)[3]
  • Mary Smith (20)
  • William Smith (aged 60)[4]
  • David Sugden (10)[5]
  • James Sugden (40)
  • James Thornton (10)[6]

It was reported that the bodies were in "so mutilated a state as to render it impossible for their nearest friends to recognize them". As the parents were unable to identify their children, and reportedly only fifteen bodies were actually recovered, they were buried together in a communal grave on 16 February 1818 at St. John the Baptist, Kirkheaton.[7]

St. John the Baptist's burial register

The Memorial

Donations were collected for a permanent memorial to commemorate those who died and it was erected three years after the tragedy in 1821.

Inscribed on two of the opposite sides of the memorial are:

To Commemorate
the dreadful fate of
Seventeen Children
who fell
Unhappy Victims to a raging Fire
Mr. Atkinson's Factory
Colne Bridge. Feb. 14th 1818.
This Monument
was erected by
Voluntary Contribution
Near This Place
Lie what remained of the Bodies
of Seventeen Children
A striking and awful instance
of the Uncertainty of Life
and the
Vanity of human Attainments.

On a third side are inscribed the names of those who perished, along with their ages:

  1. Martha Hey (9)[8]
  2. Mary Hey (9)[9]
  3. Elizabeth Drake (9)
  4. Abigail Bottom (10)[10]
  5. Elizabeth Stafford (11)[11]
  6. Frances Seller (12)[12]
  7. Ellen Haytack (12)[13]
  8. Elizabeth Ely (13)[14]
  9. Mary Moody (13)[15]
  10. Ellen Stocks (13)[16]
  11. Mary Denton (14)[17]
  12. Mary Dutton (14)
  13. Sarah Sheard (14)[18]
  14. Mary Laycock (14)[19]
  15. Nancy Carter (16)[20]
  16. Elizabeth Moody (17)[21]
  17. Sarah North (18)[22]

On the final side is the following poem:

Stranger! If e'er
A mother's tender fears,
Have watched thy steps
From dawn to riper years.
If e'er soft pity for
Another's woe
Has swelled thy breast
And caused a tear to flow.
Oh then! will Nature
Speak in accents mild,
A parent's anguish for a
Suffering child.
Then will a sigh
Escape the pensive head,
A passing tribute
To the untimely dead.

The memorial was restored in 1986 to mark the Centenary of the Trade Union Congress.[23]

T'Shadder Show

Lockwood poet Fred Brown wrote T'Shadder Show in the 1950s in memory of the victims of the fire:

Bring aart yer ghosts! Yo dark, grey mills;
Wistful an' watchful, wi calm, grave een.
Holdin' dumb ghost-shows, where t'stark leet spills
Tremblin' dubs, where t'dayleet's never seen.
Bring aart yer ghosts! Do shadders shed tears?
Poor, locked-up childer, O motherin' years.
Martyrs wer' burnt; — but they had a cause —
Yo hed nowt, but clammin', and t'tawse.
A young lad whistled as he loaded a scray;
A ghoast-child smiled as it donced away.
A neon lamp flickered, then flooided wi' leet;
A throng o'wraiths trailed aart into t'neet.

© Fred Brown

Further Reading


    Loading... ::::::geograph 4742336:::geograph 4742340:::geograph 7630296:::geograph 7630315:::geograph 7630331:::geograph 7630336:::geograph 7630251:::geograph 7150127:::geograph 7150125:::


Notes and References

  1. Discovering Old Huddersfield: Part Three (2000) by Gordon and Enid Minter, page 67.
  2. Possibly the Dolly Bolton who was baptised on 13 July 1777 at Muker, daughter of John Bolton. If so, her age was about 39.
  3. Baptised 25 January 1807 at St. John the Baptist, Kirkheaton, daughter of John and Elizabeth Moody. Married William Wood on 9 May 1825 at Kirkheaton.
  4. William came in for a degree of criticism for saving his own daughter, Mary, but not the other workers.
  5. Probably the David Sugden born c.1808 who died aged 60 and was buried on 16 June 1868 at St. John the Baptist, Kirkheaton. Recorded in the 1851 Census as a widowed fancy weaver with children stone mason James (21), fancy weaver Thomas (18) and bobbin winder Mary Ann (10).
  6. Probably the James Thornton born c.1808 who died aged 47 and was buried on 27 October 1855 at St. John the Baptist, Kirkheaton. Recorded in the 1851 Census as an unmarried dyer's servant (aged 42), living at home with his widowed father Richard (81) at Dalton Green, Kirkheaton.
  7. According to Kirklees Curiosities, the remains were placed in 11 coffins.
  8. Daughter of Jonathan and Esther Hey, she was baptised at St. John the Baptist in May 1809.
  9. Probably the daughter of Jonathan and Lydia Hey, she was baptised at St. John the Baptist in October 1808.
  10. Possibly also known as Hatty Bottom, she was the oldest daughter of Job Bottom and his wife Harriet (Hannah) née Wood. The couple had at least 13 children.
  11. Daughter of John and Mary Stafford, she was baptised on 9 February 1807 at St. John the Baptist.
  12. Daughter of Thomas and Frances Seller, she was baptised in December 1805 in Kirkheaton.
  13. Recorded as "Helen Haytack" in the burial register.
  14. Possibly the daughter of George and Elizabeth Ely who was baptised in Wakefield on 28 December 1806.
  15. Daughter of William and Rachel Moody, and sister of Elizabeth, she was baptised at St. John the Baptist on 26 December 1804.
  16. Daughter of John and Mary Stocks, she was baptised on 18 November 1804 at St. John the Baptist.
  17. Likely the daughter of Hannah Denton who was baptised at St. John the Baptist in March 1805.
  18. Daughter of Richard Sheard and his wife Sarah (née Hanson), she was baptised on 11 April 1803 at St. John the Baptist.
  19. Daughter of William and Rachel Laycock, she was baptised at St. John the Baptist on 5 May 1803.
  20. Likely the daughter of Benjamin and Sarah Carter who was born 2 May 1801 and was baptised at Huddersfield Parish Church on 2 June 1801.
  21. Daughter of William and Rachel Moody, and sister of Mary, she was baptised at St. John the Baptist in June 1802.
  22. Likely the daughter of John and Mary North, she was baptised on 24 May 1800 at the Independent Chapel in Kirkheaton.
  23. Discovering Old Huddersfield: Part Three (2000) by Gordon and Enid Minter, pages 67-68.