Knuzden Brook Mill Fire
Fatal Fire at Knuzden Brook Mill, Thursday February 19th, 1885
Knuzden Brook Mill was a six storey high building, a hive of activity, and full of honest, hard working people earning their daily bread. It was the oldest mill in the Blackburn district, over 60 years old. It contained 25,000 spindles and as it was the only one in or near the village, was the principal place where the inhabitants worked. It was the property of Mr John Baynes. At approx 5.30am on the morning of Thursday February 19th 1885, James Nightingale, a 19-year-old weaver was lighting up the gas lamps on the 4th floor of the mill. As he went to light a lamp a spark found its way down and some ”fluff” which had gathered on the tinder dry gas pipes set alight. The fire spread quickly, despite Nightingale and 4 co-workers efforts. The alarm was raised and the building, which was just beginning to welcome its workers for the early morning shift, had to be evacuated.
The surrounding areas were covered by fog that morning so the residents of Blackburn could not see the unfolding disaster. The manager arrived for work at 5.45a.m. and immediately telephoned the mill at Ciceley Bridge, informing them of the situation. Unfortunately, there was a mix-up in communication and it wasn’t until 6.25am - a full 45 minutes after the fire started - that the fire brigade were told there was a fire. Why the manager called Ciceley Bridge Mill instead of the Copy Nook Police Station where help would have been on hand sooner, is a mystery and may in hindsight have saved lives.
The Fire Brigade were laughed at and jeered on their way to the fire as the horses that pulled the Fire Brigade steamer struggled to negotiate the icy morning roads due to the fact that the horses hadn’t been “sharpened”, that is, the hoofs hadn’t been smoothed down to enable the horse to run properly. They were also chaffed for arriving far too late to save the mill.
On arriving at the mill however, they found that the roof of the mill had already caved in and was completely destroyed, but valiantly dispersed volumes of water on the burning mass hoping to save the surrounding buildings. They were handicapped, however by the meagre amount of water obtained from the hydrants belonging to the Oswaldtwistle Water Company.
At about 8am, the Fire Brigade began to try to save the material that was stored in a lower room. Everything was a mass of ruins, the heat was unbearable and seven people, including two Police Constables, were concentrating their efforts to save whatever they could from the one place where the fire had not yet penetrated. The Fire Brigade were concentrating on the east side of the mill and stationed near a doorway situated in a recently added part of the premises when the seven men entered a room immediately beneath a fireproof room containing a quantity of machinery when the flooring near a hoist gave way and the whole weight fell through and buried those underneath. For a few minutes everyone just stood around, stunned with the shock of what had just happened. Then the rescue commenced, for nearly three hours they worked on the rubble until the body of P.C. Dawson was discovered, still with a fire hose in his hand, plainly showing that the brave man had died in the execution of his duty. When he was found he was originally unconscious and was taken to the Knuzden Brook Inn but later died of his injuries. He was badly burned and scalded by the burning water; his left eye was knocked out by a large stone which made a ghastly scar on his forehead.
Superintendent Lewis was in charge of the policemen at the mill and he dispatched a messenger to the Town Hall asking for assistance from the Borough Surveyor’s Department. Mr McCallum, the Borough Surveyor and a team of workmen arrived to clear away the debris that was covering the bodies of the others. At first it was reported that only P.C. Dawson had been killed and one of the first persons to visit Mrs Dawson to comfort her in her time of bereavement was Mrs Clayton, unknowing of course that her own husband had also perished under the rubble. The team of workmen worked around the clock to clear away the debris, looked on by among others The Mayor, Alderman G Whiteley, Councillors Eastwood & Boyle, The Chief Constable, Mr Ward & Superintendent Lewis. Sometimes parts of the blistered walls gave way, leading to a resurgence of the fire and during the afternoon Kenworthy, a workman, was injured and P.C.’s Porter & Craggs had miraculous escapes.
At about 8 o’clock, the team found another body. In the hours leading up to the discovery there was a sickening smell prevailing, telling them that the people underneath were being horribly burned away. A head was discovered and it was thought that it was P.C.Clayton's but upon clearing further they believed it to be James Hall as there was a large door key in his pocket and also a piece of solder. He was dressed in a pair of cord trousers; white linen jacket, striped shirt and strong nailed boots. Otherwise the body was unrecognisable as it was badly burned, the left hand was missing, there was a large wound on the throat and the head was almost burned away. A stretcher was provided and the body was taken to Copy Nook Police Station. Before this body was found, a way had been made into the cellar and the passage cleared to the hoist at the bottom of which was found a handkerchief, a billycock hat, a shoe and a number of bones were found, all of which were transported to the Police Station.
The men worked strenuously under the difficult conditions. Gangs of 15 to 20 people were organised and worked in 6-hour shifts. They were frequently driven back by the intense heat but returned pluckily to their task and load after load of large stones was removed in a state of white heat and immense quantities of iron were in a similar condition.
In addition to the difficulty of working in the heat there was another difficulty of a very sickening nature, the men being almost suffocated by the smell arising from the bodies. A large number of bones were recovered but it is not thought that any of the missing bodies will be recovered, so fierce is the heat of the debris above the unfortunate victims. Heartrending scenes were witnessed as the relatives of the buried came repeatedly to ascertain whether or not their bodies had been recovered. At 5 o’clock the following morning Mrs Thomas, mother of the office lad who perished, went to the mill in a frantic condition and cried piteously for her child who had not been recovered.
Thousands of people flocked to the scene to witness a spectacle of the most heartrending character. The scene of devastation was one never to be forgotten, men filling wheelbarrows with the debris and wheeling them away, lit only by the oil lamps they brought with them.
Eventually all the bodies were recovered and it they were found all in close proximity, with the heads towards the door of the mill, as though the men were rushing to escape the collapse of the floor above them.
The destruction of the mill was a terrible blow to the families of the village as it was the major employer and the family breadwinners were now out of work.
The Mayor opened a subscription fund for the wives and sufferers of the tragedy. W Coddington donated £25, Mr John Baynes (owner of the mill) £100. The Accrington Amateur Minstrels put on a show in the Assembly room to raise funds for the widows and their children. A Mr Ampson and the artists from the Lyceum Theatre also put on a show.
Thousands lined the route from the fire station to the cemetery when the funerals of the two P.C.’s were conducted and were attended by 40-50 constables in couples who were followed by 180 firemen, representing 30 Lancashire fire brigades, arranged as nearly as possible in alphabetical order. The Borough Band preceded the hose-carrier, which carried the remains of P.C. Dawson. Four horses drew the carrier and the oak coffin was covered by a Union Jack. Four horses drew the remains of P.C. Clayton on an old manual engine, also covered by a Union Jack. The bearers who were selected from both the Police and Volunteer Fire Brigades, walked by the side of the coffins. Nine mourning coaches brought up the rear.
The funeral of William Thomas took place at the same time. In addition to the hearse there were three coaches and three private carriages. The wreathes were forwarded by Mesdames Baynes and the members of the Intack Reform Club.
The Funeral of Henry Marsden took place the following day. The procession consisted of the hearse and five mourning coaches. The remains of James Hall were taken to Preston for internment in the Catholic portion of Preston Cemetry. The cortege consisted of the hearse, two coaches and three private carriages. The remains of John Heaton were interred in Blackburn cemetery. There were five mourning coaches and a full body of Orangemen walked in front of the procession as the deceased was a member. Edward Bell was also buried on the same day at Emanuel churchyard, Oswaldtwistle.
At the inquest the Coroner, after hearing various people give evidence, said that there was no blame resting with any party and the jury immediately returned a verdict of “Accidental Death”.
A total of seven people lost their lives that cold morning, they were:
Police Constable Dawson
Aged 32.Well known in the centre of the town, his beat was mainly in King William Street, where he was known and greatly respected for his quiet assuming manners and kind and genial disposition. He was born in Preston in 1852 and joined the army as soon as he was old enough. At the end of his service he joined the Reserve Force and served the 47th Regiment during the Turko-Russian War and eventually joined the Blackburn Police Force. He was appointed drill inspector to the force and rapidly promoted to First Class and received the Badge of Merit. When the Police Fire Brigade was formed the Chief Constable chose P.C. Dawson as one of its first members. He was married and left a widow and four children, the eldest, a girl, aged 14, the youngest about six years of age. He had just finished his night duty on the morning of the fire and had been in bed just a couple of minutes before he got the call to return to duty. Apparently a week before the fire, he dreamed that he was crushed to death whilst attending a fire.
Police Constable Clayton
Born in Blackburn. He was formerly employed by the Blackburn Coffee House Company and acted as manager of the Tavern on King Street, a position gained through the Founder of the Blackburn Coffee House, Mr Herbert Birch. As a boy he attended St Thomas’s Schools and was taught by Mr W. Maddock the headmaster. He was only in the force 12 months but he was quickly promoted from 4th Class to 3rd Class the previous October. In addition to his other duties the Chief Constable selected him as a member of the Fire Brigade. He lived at Chapel Green with his wife.
Aged 37, he lived at 26 Scotland Road with his wife and three children, the eldest was 6 years old, the youngest, three years old. A plumber, painter & decorator, he served his apprenticeship at Bolton and since then became a journeyman and was employed at the mill. Before residing at Scotland Road he lived in Billinge Street. Whilst at Scotland Road he also conducted a small grocery business. He was on his way to a friend’s house in Furthergate shortly after the fire broke out when someone overtook him and told him of the fire and at their request he went back with them to assist at the fire. His body was discovered on the Thursday evening and his body was removed to the Copy Nook Police Station where his wife identified it by the clothing.
Aged 45. Married with seven children. Eldest was 20 years of age, an apprentice plumber. Lived in Dryden Street, previously lived in Harwood Street. Employed as a watchman for 18 years at W.D. Coddington & Sons, Ordinance Mill, Bottomgate. Previously employed by his father, Mr W.A. Heaton, a boot and shoemaker on King William Street. John had finished his work at W.D. Coddingtons when a number of their Fire Brigade were asked to assist at Knuzden Brook fire when John immediately volunteered.
Aged 26. Born in Lancaster. Married with 3 children, aged 5, 3 and ten months. Lived at 131 Accrington Road, employed at the mill as a spinner. Lived for a short period in Preston and was employed as a biscuit maker. Attended Furthergate Congregational Church regularly. Ran to the mill when the alarm was raised and worked vigorously the save property from the fire.
Aged 16. Born in Knuzden. Employed as bookkeeper in the office at the mill. Started out as a weaver. Had an older brother & younger sister. Lived in Accrington Road. His body was in the best state of preservation and was found in a crouched position shielding his face with his hands.
Aged 27. Married. Was a farm labourer at Knuzden for four years. Lived with his parents, Thomas & Elizabeth Marsden, also farmers at Knuzden, during the week. On Saturdays he lived with his wife & children at Whalley Range. Formerly employed at the Knuzden Mill for seven years where he worked as a grinder. At six o’clock on Thursday Henry noticed the fire from his house and went down to watch. He returned after a short time and was advised by his parents not to return to the fire as they considered it dangerous. After his parents left the house he returned to the fire and was killed with the others when the building collapsed.