Colne Bridge Fire Memorial

Colne Bridge Fire 

200 years ago, on 14th February 1818, a ten year old boy named James Thornton was working through the night, along with 25 other children and adults, at a cotton mill in Colne Bridge. At about five o’clock that morning, James was sent by the foreman, James Sugden, to the basement to obtain some rovings (cotton fibre twisted into strands). Sugden should have given

James a glass oil lamp rather than a naked candle, and whilst in the dark basement, James accidentally brushed his candle against some of the cotton fibres, which duly caught fire. Two young girls on the first storey noticed the fire through the slits in the floor, but when they tried to alert the foreman, they were ordered back to their stations. The fire was so intense and spread so quickly, only nine of the workers managed to get out of the burning mill.

Tragically, seventeen workers – all girls
or young women – perished. They were Abigail Bottom (aged 10), Nancy Carter (16), Mary Denton (14), Elizabeth Drake (9), Mary Dutton (14), Elizabeth Ely (13), Ellen Haytack (12), Martha Hey (9), Mary Hey (9), Mary Laycock (14), Elizabeth Moody (17), Mary Moody (13), Sarah North (18), Frances Seller (12), Sarah Sheard (14), Elizabeth Stafford (11) and Ellen Stocks (13). The victims were buried together in a communal grave in Kirkheaton Parish Church’s graveyard two days

after the fire, and three years later in 1821, a permanent memorial, which still stands today, was erected in memory of those who died.

On Saturday 10th February at 11 a.m. (the Saturday closest to the bi-centenary of the tragedy), there will be a special Service of Commemoration for the Colne Bridge fire victims. I know this event took place two centuries ago; nevertheless, it was a truly appalling tragedy and those who died are buried in our churchyard. I therefore feel it is entirely right and proper, on a significant anniversary such as this, that both the dead and the survivors are remembered and honoured in a special service. May I encourage you to attend this service if you possibly can. It would be good to have a strong presence there of Kirkheaton Parish regulars, alongside those who do not normally attend worship here. The service will then be followed by a plaque being placed inside the Beaumont Arms, commemorating the fire and the children’s burial.

Thankfully, in Britain today, forced child labour has almost entirely vanished (though I would not like to assume that it has disappeared completely). However, in other countries (particularly in the developing world), forced child labour is still very much a reality, and in a Health and Safety climate very reminiscent of that cotton mill 200 years ago. We thus need to pray that as quickly as is humanly possible, this will stop; that soon no child will be forced to work (largely to make products for us in the West), but

instead can receive an education in order to provide for their families when they grow up. And let us do all that we can – perhaps setting up a monthly standing order to a children’s charity such as Save the Children, Compassion or World Vision – to make this hope a reality for a child somewhere in the world in 2018. That is perhaps the best way that we can honour the Colne Bridge fire victims, and render their deaths not in vain. 

Written by Rev Ian Jones, January 2018


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