Tragic Fire at Atkinson’s Mill, Colne Bridge…Subsequent Factories Acts

Child Labour in the Early 19th Century

The average family in the early 1800s had between 5 and 10 surviving children. In my family of the distant past, it was not unusual for a father to have fourteen or fifteen children, often to more than one wife, the earlier wife or wives having died, sometimes as a result of bearing their children. In the West Riding textile towns, children had always been put to work at a young age, helping their parents in their small family businesses, the girls perhaps learning to spin and the boys fulling, combing and carding, or dying cloth.

During the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, Britain became the first country to industrialise on a grand scale and was also the first country where the nature of children’s work changed so dramatically in such a short time. As the industrial revolution took hold, domestic industry was replace by mechanised mills and, instead of working at home, children were sent to work at a local mill. Young children were apprenticed from nine years old, though it was not unusual for children from the age of five to be found working in the mills, their small remuneration supplementing the family income, or often for no pay at all. There is an example from Mytholmroyd near Halifax, of 11 boys under the age of 8 being paid 13 pence for working a gruelling 72 hour week.

Factory Children

These children had little or no access to education apart from that which they might be offered at Sunday School. Many child workers were paupers, girls and boys taken from orphanages and workhouses and they were housed, clothed and fed, but received no wages for their long day of work in the mill. Typically they worked 15 hours a day, in dreadful conditions, which was no better than slavery. Up to 20% of the workforce was made up of children under 10 years old.

E.P. Thompson (in The Making of the English Working Class, 1963) described the mills as “places of sexual license, foul language, cruelty, violent accidents, and alien manners”. They were also stifling, noisy and dangerous.

Most of these young workers entered the mills as little piecers, whose job it was to follow the moving carriage of the spinning mule, fixing broken ends of threads. A few started as scavengers, who crawled beneath the machinery to clear it of dirt, dust or anything else that might disturb the mechanism. They were in great danger because the machines were continually running. Accidents were common. Children became tired and clumsy as the day wore on and could become caught up in the machinery…it would be easy enough to lose a hand or an arm or become crushed to death. There is a record, in the Halifax area, of several pauper children who died whilst working at one mill and were buried by the mill owner in a single grave. Life could be difficult and tragically short.

The Colne Bridge Cotton Mill Fire

This is the story of one tragedy, which shook the nation.

Thomas Atkinson was the wealthy, educated son of a Huddersfield businessman and was Captain Commandant in the Huddersfield Yeoman Cavalry. He was, by accounts, a dashing character, admired by the ladies.

Atkinson was a proprietor of an extensive family-owned woollen manufacturing business at Bradley Mills near Huddersfield. He had been personally targeted by the machine-breaking Luddites, who had attacked the mill in 1812. Atkinson was considered to be one of the worst employers for installing the new machinery that put men out of work. Consequently, a local magistrate had received a letter from the Luddites stating that “…those who are among our greatest persecutors, Mr Horsfall and Mr. Atkinson will soon be numbered among the dead”. The letter was received on the day before William Horsfall was murdered. Three local men were quickly arrested and eventually executed for the crime. Atkinson, it seems, had narrowly escaped an attempt on his own life.

Thomas Atkinson also owned a cotton mill at Colne Bridge, situated between Kirkheaton and Huddersfield and lived nearby at Colne Bridge House. Eighty persons were employed at the mill, and it was the practice to work the machinery day and night.

On the eve of Valentine’s day, the 14th February 1818, 26 people, including twenty-two girls with ages ranging from 9 to 18 years, walked to Atkinson’s cotton mill to work their night shift. They did not know the horror that was to come.

On the night of Friday, February 14th 1818, a most destructive fire broke out in the cotton factory of Mr Atkinson situated at Colne Bridge, about three miles from Huddersfield. It appears that the machinery in part of the building in part of the building worked by day and night.

At 5am, a boy of the name of James Thornton had been sent down for rovings (unspun strands of fibres) from the card room, with a naked candle, instead of the glass lamp provided expressly for the purpose.

One of the overlookers, after he was gone, feeling a sense danger of such an act of imprudence, hastened after the lad, but in vain, for just as he was entering the lower room, he saw the flames rising from a quantity of cotton and carded laps, several skips of which were standing under the stairs instantly in a blaze.

Thornton distressed at the sight of the mischief about which he had inadvertently committed, ran upstairs to communicate the appalling tidings that the factory was on fire. He then hastened back to the top of the stairs and escaped out of the building, but so rapid was the progress of the flames that a girl who followed him dropped through the landing and perished in the flames.

All this occurred in the short space of two minutes and communication by the stairs being now cut off, the situation of the persons still in the mill became alarming in the extreme. To add to the horror of the scene, the flames ascended through a tunnel, which communicated to the top rooms, where several thousand pounds weight of cotton lay ready to catch the blaze to spread the awful conflagration. The card room, too, where the fire commenced was filled with cotton in different stages of process and gave progress to the flames.

To attempt to save any part of the property seemed a hopeless effort, and the attention of the persons assembled was wholly directed to the rescue of the persons within, who were all girls, from the fate that awaited them. With this view, a ladder was placed against a small window at the end of the factory, near the manager’s house, and at the greatest distance from the place where the fire had first appeared. But every endeavour to induce the children to approach the ladder was unavailing; on breaking the glass a dense column of smoke, which soon burst into a flame, issued from the opening, and it is possible that before the humane effort to rescue the children was made the suffocating influence of the ignited cotton had terminated their suffering. A heart-rending scene now took place without, such as a parent who has witnessed the destruction of his child without being able to afford him any relief can alone conceive. Renewed efforts were made, prompted by a glimmering hope, to ascertain the place where the poor children might have fled and to rescue them from the flames, but in the midst of exertions the roof and floors fell in and hope gave place to despair.

In less than half an hour, the entire building, all the machinery, and every article of the stock were destroyed. From a combination of unfortunate circumstances, the fire was more like an explosion or the conflagration of stubble, than the destruction of a substantial building. Not a vestige of property was saved in the mill but the counting house and warehouse, being protected by a strong iron wall were preserved.

When everything combustible was consumed, diligent search was made for the remains of the children, fourteen of them were found in the course of the day; the others have doubtless been reduced to ashes. At the time of the fire, 26 persons were at work in the mill of whom nine escaped and seventeen perished.

From the Leeds Mercury 21st February 1818

After mill’s floors and roof collapsed, the fire burned itself out eventually. Fourteen bodies were recovered. It was reported that the bodies were in “so mutilated a state as to render it impossible for their nearest friends to recognize them”, so they were buried together in a communal grave on 16th February 1818, at St. John the Baptist, Kirkheaton. The three remaining bodies were never found. Two of the dead were sisters, Mary and Elizabeth Moody, though their younger sister, Sarah Moody had managed to escape and survived. 

The girls who died

  • Martha Hey aged 9; Baptised 1809 Kirkheaton; daughter of John & Esther.
  • Mary Hey aged 9; Baptised 1808 Kirkheaton; daughter of John & Lydia.
  • Betty Drake aged 9; Born 1808; baptised June 1809, Kirkheaton; daughter of Charles and Rebecca.
  • Abby Bottom aged 10; Born 1808; Baptised Abigail; daughter of Job & Harriot
  • Elizabeth Stafford aged 11; Baptised Feb 1807 Kirkheaton; daughter of John & Mary.
  • Frances Sellers aged 12; Baptised Dec 1805 Kirkheaton; daughter of Thomas & Frances.
  • Ellen Haytack aged 12; Recorded as “Ellen Atack” in LDS records Baptised April 1805 Almondbury, Huddersfield; daughter of Joseph and Ann.
  • Elizabeth Ely aged 13; Baptised Mar 1805 Kirkheaton; daughter of Abraham & Martha.
  • Mary Moody aged 13; Baptised Dec 1804 Kirkheaton; daughter of William & Rachel.
  • Ellen Stocks aged 13; Recorded as Hellen Stocks in LDS records, Baptised Nov 1804, Kirkheaton, daughter of John and Mary.
  • Mary Denton aged 14; Baptised March 1805, Kirkheaton; daughter of Hannah Denton, no birth year given.
  • Mary Dutton aged 14; Born August 1803; daughter of George and Susey.
  • Sarah Sheard aged 14; Baptised 1803 Kirkheaton; daughter of Richard & Sally.
  • Mary Laycock aged 14; Baptised May 1803, Kirkheaton; daughter of William and Rachel.
  • Nancy Carter aged 16; Born May 1801, Huddersfield; daughter of Benjamin and Sarah.
  • Elizabeth Moody aged 17; Baptised June 1802, Kirkheaton; daughter of William and Rachel.
  • Sarah North aged 18; born 1799-1800; possibly the daughter of John and Mary North, baptised 24 May 1800 at Kirkheaton Independent Chapel.

The Survivors

  • James Sugden, Overseer, (40)  and  David Sugden (10) , his son
  • William Smith, Foreman, (60)  and  Mary Smith (20), his daughter
  • Dolly Bolton (35)
  • Esther Brook (18)
  • Mary Hay (12)
  • Sarah Moody  (11) (sister of Mary and Elizabeth who died)
  • James Thornton (10)


An inquest, quickly held at a local public house, determined that the cause of death of the seventeen girls was accidental, and nobody was ever prosecuted.


Kirkheaton Parish Church © Christine Widdall
Kirkheaton Parish Church © Christine Widdall

On Sunday last, it being generally understood that a sermon would be preached at Kirkheaton church, in the afternoon of that day, to the relatives and friends of the unfortunate sufferers by the late melancholy fire at Colne Bridge, the church was crowded at an early hour, and such was the anxiety and sympathy of almost every description of persons to obtain admittance, that the windows of the edifice were completely surrounded on the outside by a great concourse of people, who were not so fortunate as to obtain a situation within. A most impressive and appropriate discourse was delivered from Amos, chap. iv. ver. 12, “Prepare to meet thy God ;” by the Rev. Thomas Rogers, jun. M.A. resident Minister of Kirkheaton, with his usual feeling and energy — portraying, in strong and lively colours, the awful visitation that had befallen them, enforcing the necessity of constant and vigilant attention on the part of parents and masters, in educating their children and those committed to their care, in the nurture and admonition of the Lord — adding a very affectionate address to the younger part of the auditory, to consider this event as an awful example, and particular warning to themselves.

After the sermon, a collection was made in aid of a fund to erect a monument to the memory of these ill-fated sufferers. We have seldom witnessed a congregation who appeared more deeply impressed with a sense of the solemnity of the occasion. It is computed that no less than four thousand persons were present.

Hull Packet, 3rd March 1818 – Funeral at Kirkheaton

A permanent memorial to commemorate those who died was erected in the churchyard in 1821…..on one side an inscription reads: 

In Memory of Seventeen children whose remains are interred who fell lamentable victims to the destructive element of fire in the Cotton Manufactory of Mr Thomas Atkinson at Colne Bridge Feb 14th 1818; this melancholy catastrophe was occasioned in consequence of the foreman sending a boy into a lower room with a naked light.

Atkinson's Mill Fire
Memorial to the girls who died in Atkinson’s Mill Fire © Christine Widdall
Beaumont Arms Memorial © Christine Widdall

What really happened that night? Could the deaths have been prevented?

The Fires Prevention Act of 1774 had required that “every parish should provide three or more proper ladders of one, two and three storeys high, for assisting persons to escape from fires”. The ladders proved futile in this case. There were no fire brigades before the mid 1820s and outside fire escapes from mills were uncommon for another 100 years.

The deaths might still have been avoidable if modern-day procedures had been in place i.e. escape routes and immediate evacuation of the workforce.

In fact one worker did exit the building to safety at a very early stage of the fire. We will never know the full story of what happened that night, but Huddersfield Historian WR Croft described Sarah Moody’s own account in his book “The History of the Factory Movement”. Sarah, then in old age, described her defiance of an order to return to work, which saved her life. Working on the floor immediately above the fire, Sarah saw the red glow of flames beneath her, through a slit in the floor boards. She and her workmate ran to the overseer, Sugden, to alert him, but he ordered them back to work. Young Sarah, frightened more of the fire than of the overseer, refused and ran out of the mill to safety. Her workmate returned to work as ordered and was never seen again. Neither were Sarah’s two older sisters.

Apparently, the Foreman, William Smith went to the site of the fire with Sugden, but then returned to rescue his own daughter, Mary, aged 20, before returning to help Sugden to fight the fire. The other workers were not allowed to leave. It seems that Sugden and Smith then spent valuable time attempting to control the fire.

When they saw that nothing could be done to save the property, they at last tried to encourage the girls to come down from the landing where they were gathered, but it was already too late because their escape route was cut off. The last person to escape had been young James Thornton, the boy who had accidentally started the fire…he had curled himself into a ball and rolled down the burning steps to reach the outer door.

Sarah Moody also said that she saw “Mr Atkinson, the owner, upbraiding the foreman in the mill yard on the morning after the fire, for trying to save the bales of cotton rather than the mill hands.”

Grieving Parents

The loss of a child of any age is a tragedy felt by everyone from close to distant family and friends. Because infant and child mortality was common in the early 19th century, it has been argued that childhood deaths were not felt so sentimentally, that the parents did not become so emotionally attached to children as they do now.

However, although “childhood”, as a concept, was different in the 1800s than now, recent studies of the depiction of childhood death in paintings and writings from the time, have brought researchers to the view that children were NOT less valued because of the likelihood of early death. Diaries and personal accounts suggest that the loss of a child was deeply felt by both mothers and fathers and that, while pious families might see the death of a child as God’s will and be comforted by that thought, childhood death was nevertheless a source of enormous and enduring grief and pain.

Author’s Family Connection

Two of the children who died were from my extended family, some 5 and 6 generations ago respectively. They were not directly related to each other, coming from two separate branches of my family, but of course they would have known each other well from their lives in the village and their work at the mill.

They were Abigail Bottom and Sarah Sheard.

Abigail Bottom aged 10, born 1808

Abigail was my 2nd cousin, 6 generations removed. In 1818, her parents, Job Bottom and Harriot Wood, already had nine children and Abigail was their 5th child. Job and Harriot had married at St Peter’s in Huddersfield in December 1800. Their first child Ebeneezer had been born in March 1802 and baptised at Queens Street Wesleyan, Huddersfield, in April.  Soon afterwards, the family moved to Kirkheaton, where their second child, Joshua was baptised on 26th Dec 1803. We don’t know what was Job’s line of work, but most likely he worked in the textile industry. Sending a child off to work in the mill as young as Abigail, implies they were not a well-off family. The  family’s older children would almost certainly also be working in the mill by 1818.  Following Abigail’s death, Job and Harriot named their next female child Abi Maria. In total, Harriot gave birth to at least 13 children and lived for 80 years.

Family of Job and Harriot Bottom.

  • Husband Job BOTTOM, Born 11 Jun 1774 Kirkheaton; Died 24 Oct 1854; Heaton Huddersfield
  • Married 1 Dec 1800; Saint Peter, Huddersfield
  • Wife Harriot WOOD, Born 1784 Place Heaton Huddersfield; Died 1864 Heaton


  • 1 M Ebeneezer BOTTOM, Born 18 Mar 1802 Place Bog Green Hudds; Chris’d 13 Apr 1802 Place Queens Street Wesleyan, Huddersfield
  • 2 M Joshua BOTTOM, Born 26 Dec 1803 Place Kirkheaton, Died 13 Feb 1881 Place Northgate Huddersfield
  • 3 M Benjamin BOTTOM, Born 13 Oct 1805 Place Heaton Hudds
  • 4 F Hatty BOTTOM, Born 1807 Place; Chris’d 11 Oct 1807 Place Heaton Hudds
  • 5 F Abigail BOTTOM, Born 1808 Place Huddersfield; Died 14 Feb 1818 Place Colne Bridge (Mill fire)
  • 6 M John BOTTOM, Born 30 Dec 1810 Place Heaton Hudds
  • 7 F Mary BOTTOM, Born 28 Feb 1813 Place Heaton Hudds
  • 8 F Harriot BOTTOM, Born 27 Mar 1815 Place Heaton Hudds
  • 9 M Thomas BOTTOM, Born 7 Apr 1817 Place Heaton Hudds
  • 10 M William BOTTOM, Born 19 Nov 1820 Place Heaton Hudds; Died 20 Apr 1892 Place Colne Bridge Hudds
  • 11 F Abi Maria BOTTOM, Born 18 Aug 1822 Place Heaton Hudds
  • 12 F Elizabeth BOTTOM, Born 26 Dec 1824 Place Heaton Hudds
  • 13 M George BOTTOM, Born 13 Aug 1827 Place Heaton Hudds

Sarah Sheard aged 14,  born 1803

Sarah’s parents were my fourth great -grandparents, Richard and Sarah (Sally) Sheard. Richard Sheard’s birth has not been identified, but census data would put his birth between 1762 and 1766 in Kirkheaton and it is likely that he married Sarah (Sally) Hanson, in Elland in May 1792.

At the 1841 Census, Richard stated that he was born in Kirkheaton. He was working as an agricultural labourer and aged 75. By 1851, Richard had died (probably in 1848) and his widow Sally was living in Kirkheaton with her son William and his family. Richard and Sarah had at least nine children, including three daughters, of whom Sarah was the third, followed by six sons in succession. The sons became employed either as coal miners or fancy cloth weavers, the two main industries of the Kirkheaton area.

Family of Richard and Sarah Sheard

  • Husband Richard SHEARD, Born 1762/1766 Place Kirkheaton, Died <1848> Place Huddersfield
  • Wife Sarah (Sally) HANSON, Born Place Kirkeaton or Elland Yorkshire, Died <1851/1852> Huddersfield


  • 1 F Hannah SHEARD, Chris’d 9 Apr 1798 Place: Kirkheaton Huddersfield
  • 2 F Betty SHEARD, Chris’d 9 Nov 1800 Place: Kirkheaton Huddersfield
  • 3 F Sarah SHEARD, Born Place: Kirkheaton Huddersfield. Died February 14th 1818. Place: Atkinson’s Cotton Mill Fire Colne Bridge Huddersfield; Buried Kirkheaton Parish Church
  • 4 M John SHEARD, Chris’d 6 May 1806 Place: Kirkheaton Huddersfield
  • 5 M Richard SHEARD, Born Place: Kirkheaton, Chris’d 5 Feb 1809 Place Kirkheaton Huddersfield
  • 6 M Joseph SHEARD, Born 15 Mar 1812 Place: Kirkheaton, Chris’d 15 Apr 1812 Place Kirkheaton
  • 7 M William SHEARD, Born <1814> Place: Yorkshire
  • 8 M Edward SHEARD, Born 1817/1820 Place: Yorkshire
  • 9 M David SHEARD, Chris’d 11 Jun 1821 Place: Kirkheaton

James Thornton

I have often had thought of the fate of the young boy, James Thornton, who inadvertently caused 17 deaths, by carrying a candle rather than a covered flame, in an area that would be oily and covered in highly flammable fine cotton fibres. I have thought of James with some sympathy over the years and hope that the experience didn’t destroy his life as the fire had destroyed the lives of those girls.

Factory Boy – with permission of the Oldham Local Studies and Archive

In the 1841 Census, recorded at Kirkheaton, I found a James Thornton, born between 1807 and 1811. He was unmarried and living with his 70 year old father and his siblings.

The 1851 Census narrows his birth year down to about 1808, which would have put him at about 10 years old at the time of the fire. James was still unmarried, living with his father, and working as a dyer’s servant.

James died aged only 47 and was buried on 27th October 1855 at St. John the Baptist, Kirkheaton.

Factory Acts

An 1815 Bill had been instigated by Robert Owen, the progressive owner of the New Lanark Mill on the River Clyde, who was concerned about the conditions of children in the mills. He said:

I visited most of the manufactories of the kingdom to enable me to judge the conditions. I saw the importance of the machinery, and its rapid improvements. I became vividly alive to the deteriorating condition of the very young children and others who were made the slaves of these new mechanical powers. This white slavery was far worse than the house slaves whom I afterwards saw in the United States.

Part of social reformer Robert Owen’s New Lanark Mill, built on the Clyde in Scotland, had been founded by his father-in-law in 1786 (this photograph © Christine Widdall)

Owen attempted unsuccessfully to bring in legislation to ban children under the age of ten from any employment. Nevertheless, his work led the way for laws governing the conditions of employment, notably the Factory Acts.

The 1819 Cotton Mills and Factories Act 

Nine days after the factory fire at Colne Bridge, Sir Robert Peel the Elder (himself a factory owner and father of the Robert Peel who was to become Prime Minister), moved the second reading of his Factory Bill in the House of Commons, stating his intention to “prevent a recurrence of such a misfortune as that which had lately taken place at Colne Bridge”. In fact, it was his wish to have no night work at all in the factories and, in that year, a new Act did come into force.

© Christine Widdall

The 1819 Cotton Mills and Factories Act was the first United Kingdom Act of Parliament to attempt to regulate the hours and conditions of work of children in the cotton industry. The Act forbade the employment of children under 9. Children aged 9–16 years were to be limited to 16 hours’ work per day and they could not work at night. The Colne Bridge tragedy had helped lawmakers to concentrate their attention, at last, on the plight of child mill workers. However, there was no effective means of its enforcement, and it was frequently ignored.

The Factory Inquiry Commission

By 1833, the situation in the mills had not greatly improved. The Factory Inquiry Commission was set up in 1833 to look at the problem of child labour. Commissioners went round the country interviewing mill owners and workers. They found that  young children were still working very long hours in workplaces where conditions were often terrible. Reports to the Commission showed that children as young as 5, but more often 7, were still being employed in some of the mills and still working 14-16 hours a day. Up to 20% of the labour force was comprised of children under the age of 14.

Factory Reform Act 1833

© Christine Widdall

The West Riding of Yorkshire was at the heart of the factory reform movement and Richard Oastler of Fixby, near Halifax, became the champion of the “Ten Hours Movement”. He had been born in Leeds and became a Tory radical. John Fielden of Todmorden and Lord Shaftesbury led the campaign in Parliament. Their wish was to limit the working day, for children employed in textile mills, to ten hours.

When the law was passed, The Factory Act of 1833 limited the working hours in cotton mills for the under-12s to eight hours a day, and twelve hours a day for those aged 13-18. It also guaranteed all children two hours schooling a day. The 1833 Act was important, as it established a small ‘inspectorate of factories’, responsible to the Home Office, with powers to impose penalties for infringements.

However, as standards of living gradually rose, it became more common for parents to be able to keep their young children at home. Heavier and more complex machinery required older children and adults to mind the machines and eventually the ideology of the working class changed so that it was expected that the husband/father was the breadwinner of the family…and finally the plight of the youngest children was alleviated, once the first Education Act came into force.

The Elementary Education Act of 1870 was the first of a number of Acts of Parliament passed between 1870 and 1893 to create compulsory education in England and Wales for children aged between five and thirteen. It was known as The Forster Act after its sponsor William Forster. This at last put an end to very young children working in the mills.

Thomas Atkinson

Thomas Atkinson re-built his mill, but within two years his Colne Mill business was ruined. He returned to work at the family business at Bradley Mills, Huddersfield, and died in 1838, aged 59.

© Christine Widdall 2018