The Bridge Mills Fire, 1899.

This article was based on eye witness accounts published at the time and at later dates.

Bridge Mills.

The building of Bridge Mills, a development on the Cheshire side of the Etherow of the Waterside complex on the Derbyshire side, was started in 1854. Waterside and Bridge Mills were initially run by different parts of the Sidebottom family but, following trading problems which caused the closure of Waterside in 1895, Bridge Mills were taken over in 1897 by a new firm of T. H. Sidebottom and Co. Ltd., Tom Harrop Sidebottom being the last of the brothers concerned with the mills.

Map of the site of Bridge and Waterside mills about 1899
Map of the site of Bridge and Waterside mills about 1899

The mills were the major source of employment for a large body of workpeople, most of whom lived in Hadfield and Tintwistle. The employment provided at the mills meant that Hadfield was a thriving place and very much self-contained. Hadfield had busy shops on Station road, an abundance of churches and chapels (Church of England; Roman Catholic: two Wesleyan Methodist: Primitive and Five Methodist churches and Independents) which provided both religious religious services and social gatherings, Liberal and Conservative clubs, working men's club and United Irish League club. It is hardly surprising that Hadfield people maintained a continuing independence of Glossop borough.

Waterside had approximately 3,200 looms in seven weaving sheds: Chimney shed 1,000 looms; garden shed 400; old shed 600; Crystal Palace and New Mill bottom sheds 100 each; new river and old river sheds 500 each, totalling 3,200 looms. 2,000 people of more were employed in the latter half of the 1880s. The new and old river sheds were situated alongside the Etherow on the Hadfield side of Tintwistle bridge, the culvert from the inlet sluices from the river running through one of these sheds on its way to the turbines. The weaving at Bridge Mills was done In two big sheds on the Cheshire side of the Etherow, the one alongside the river and nearer to Tintwistle bridge being known as the old shed; the other, the railway shed, was at the west end of the premises.

At the time of the fire, Bridge Mills had seven Lancashire boilers and could develop 1,282 horse power; there were 42,746 self-acting weft, and 47,888 twist mule spindles and about 2,000 looms. At a time when a good average maximum weekly wage for a weaver in the neighbourhood was 18s. 6d. a week, expert weavers at Bridge Mills were weaving a very fast and powerful loom spoken of colloquially as "Hell-Fire Jacks." the output from which enabled the weavers to reach 19s. 6d. to £1 a week. Bonus schemes were used to stimulate production. When the new firm took over Bridge Mills in 1897, it installed a new carding engine at a cost of £8,000 and a patent blower at a cost of £2,000 as well as transferring machinery from Waterside (an exercise which was still under way when the fire broke out).

How the Fire Started and the Initial Reaction.

In those days work started at the mills at 6.30 each morning with a half hour breakfast break between 8:00 and 8:30. Initially the morning of Monday 5 June was normal with no indication of what was to come. An hour or so after the restart, though, two spinners named Bamford and John Handford noticed fire on the top of the second motion shaft — the shaft that turned their mules (Number 1 and 3 spinning mules in the bottom spinning room). The fire was apparently caused by friction in the engine house, which was located on the Tintwistle side of the mills, from the second motion shaft.

The mill engineer, Mr George Birch, was alerted and the engines were stopped, but nothing serious was anticipated as several small fires at the mills had previously been extinguished without great loss (on the previous Monday an outbreak on a small scale in the blowing room was quickly mastered). This time the outbreak was to prove far more deadly. The mill hydrants were brought into use but it was too late to stop the fire from spreading. Helped by the draught, the fire spread up the rope race to the top storey where about thirteen ropes connected with the driving shaft became ignited. As they travelled in various directions fire was spread through the whole room, which was soon enveloped in smoke and flames. The firemen from the different departments in the mill did their utmost to quench the outbreak, but when it was seen that they could not do so they were compelled to make their escape. A rumour later started to the effect that there was no water available to throw upon the flames and that most of the fire buckets were empty but this was denied.

When the seriousness of the situation became apparent an alarm was given to the large number of workpeople throughout the mill (who were already alerted by the stopping of the large engines. Where possible people hastily gathered their clothing and other belongings but, in the panic, many who were dressed in their working clothes, had to leave their ordinary clothing behind, as they rushed as quickly as possible from the doomed mills to save their lives. Work people in the top storey had great difficulty in making their escape in time, many of them doing so by descending by the outside fire escapes.

Fighting the Fire.

When it became apparent that the manual fire extinguishing apparatus at the mill could not cope, hurried orders were sent to Mersey Mills, lower down the valley, to ask for their steam fire engine and firemen to help. They arrived quickly but the water pumped by the equipment was hardly sufficient to reach the top storey, where the fire was worst. Attention was turned to the lower spinning rooms for, although the mill was deemed fireproof, it was feared that the weight of debris would crash through the flooring and so ignite the lower rooms. The large block, where the fire was greatest, consisted of three spinning departments on the upper storeys, and underneath those were a card room and a lower spinning room. Unfortunately, the fears that the fire would spread to the lower rooms was too well grounded. About half-past ten a large portion of the roof fell in with a terrific crash, and all hopes of saving the building then appeared to be fruitless. Even so, the firemen laboured away under the broiling sun doing what they could to make best use of the appliances they had.

Fighting the fire
Fighting the fire

About 10.30 a telephone message was sent to the Glossop Borough Police Station on Ellison Street requesting the members of the fire brigade to hold themselves in readiness in case they were needed. In the course of a few minutes the men were assembled and the horses to pull the engine were obtained from the Glossop Carriage Co.'s depot. It was about ten minutes to eleven before the brigade was asked to attend and they were soon on their way via High Street West, Brookfield, and Woolley Bridge. By the time they arrived, flames were leaping all over the upper portion, and the roof had fallen in. The brigade took up a position on the edge of the river in the field next to the road leading to Tintwistle and the appliances were quickly got to work. The Chief Constable (Mr J. G. Hodgson), who was also the superintendent of the fire brigade, his assistant Sergeant Depledge, the firemen, and members of the police force from Glossop and Hadfield were soon in the thick of the fight. Mr Hodgson and his men and other willing volunteers waded through the river, about three feet deep at that point, and got the hose turned on to the burning building. They tried to pour as much water as possible on the Hadfield end of the building, where the flames, having swept from the other end right along the block, were burning furiously. They were hampered by the fact that the river was so low down, which meant that from the outset it was almost impossible to throw any adequate quantity of water on the top two storeys. The Chief Constable and his assistants, firemen Depledge, Beard, and others risked their lives by clambering on to a building abutting that wing of the mill, which now glowed almost like a furnace, and standing under the towering mass of burning building above, Mr Hodgson effectively manipulated the hose and poured in a good supply of water. Although the position was one of great jeopardy they maintained their ground until they had no option but to fall back. They then attempted to save the small building on which they had clambered and which contained a number of Jack frames. They were assisted by the arrival of the fire manual “The Deluge” from the mills of Messrs F Sumner & Co Limited at Wren Nest, and by a diverse band of volunteers including the vicar of Tintwistle, Rev J. W. Fairhurst.

A request for help was also sent to Hyde Borough, which had a larger fire engine, the famous "Maggie". The brigade came as quickly as possible and took up a position at the higher part of Tintwistle brow, where they were able to connect their larger feed pipe to the Manchester Waterworks main and run a length of hose piping for a distance of about 250 yards to the mill below. The "Maggie" was able to work at high pressure, and the Hyde firemen promptly brought the hose into play on the wing of the mill premises facing Tintwistle, a number of firemen mounting a wooden shed projecting from the premises in order to obtain greater effect with the water. Repeatedly they were drenched by the falling water but zealously they applied themselves to combating the flames and saving the remaining buildings. On the Hollingworth side of the extensive block the manual engines from Mersey Mills and Bridge Mills fought the fire but despite their efforts the flames continued to progress.

At ten minutes past twelve a high portion of the walls on the Hollingworth side fell with a terrific crash, and this appeared to give fresh impetus to the fire and made a further outlet for the flames. The fire was burning from the top storey downward and a few minutes later a mass of stone work fell with a great crash in the interior of the building. The fire forced its way into the room below, the third spinning room from the top. Flames were soon seen sweeping along this room. For a brief time the windows remained intact but then a crackling sound, as the windows gave way, announced that the room was now well in the clutches of the flames. Courageous firemen mounted the weaving sheds abutting, and poured on water where the blaze was greatest. A report, followed by curling wreaths of bluish white smoke from towards the centre of this block, intimated that some of the steam pipes had bursted ; and it was recognised that the task of saving any substantial portion of that part of the premises now almost hopeless. Even so, there was no relaxation of the efforts of the firemen. The greatness of their task only spurred them on to renewed efforts, valiant work being performed with a desire to confine the fire to this part of the mill and thus save the adjoining weaving sheds, and this result was achieved. Throughout the two large wings of the mill the fire proceeded on its damaging course. The lower storeys caught fire, and although windows were broken and water poured in, the rooms were almost utterly gutted. During the whole of the afternoon and well on into the evening the jets continued to play on the fire, which was gradually extinguished, there remaining the fantastically contorted machinery and the blackened and charred walls - grim monuments of the fierce destruction which had been wrought.

Even after the fire had all but exhausted itself by gutting the two wings, danger was far from at an end. The firemen still needed to extinguish the smouldering material and to prevent burning debris from damaging the weaving premises adjoining. To effect this required unremitting attentions by the firemen. They were at any rate able to check the progress of the flames to the lower sheds practically completely. By the evening the fire was being beaten, but for long afterwards the interior of the building was a mass of red-hot material. A large fissure, some yards wide, extended from the top of the building downwards, on the Woodhead side of the premises. Working from the top of the intact sheds next to the ruined portion, the firemen continued for several hours to discharge water on to the smouldering pile, which kept breaking out afresh in various places.

The ruined mill building
The ruined mill building

With the approach of the evening the great fire was well nigh suppressed. The Hyde engine, “Maggie," and its firemen, left the mill about eight o'clock, leaving behind the Glossop borough manual, Wren Nest Mills manual, and the smart little steam engine from Mersey Mills to complete the work of extinguishing the smouldering remains. The Glossop borough manual, with firemen Bamford, Beard, Shaw, Bowden, and others remained at the scene of the fire throughout the whole of Monday night, together with the Mersey Mills steam engine, and poured water on the building. The Chief Constable and Inspector Cooper, and members of the borough police force, remained at the fire until the early hours of Tuesday morning. The Borough Fire Brigade left the scene about eleven o'clock on Tuesday morning, when all real danger had been overcome, but it was deemed expedient that the Mersey Mills engine and men should remain on the spot for some time. They continued to pour water on the various parts of the mill throughout Tuesday and finally left about six o'clock on Tuesday evening.


The location of the mill meant that there was a grandstand view of the progress and effect of the fire from the side of the hill in the fields on the Cheshire side. Some hundreds of people gathered there to watch, having left the Tintwistle road where the view of the fire was partly concealed by the dense volumes of black smoke being emitted from the burning building, and carried in that direction by the wind. There was a perfectly clear view On the west side, and even down the valley as far as Woolley Bridge. Hundreds of people began to arrive from all parts of the district, augmenting the already large gathering of workpeople and others who surrounded the mill. Numbers came over the hill from Glossop on foot, by cycle and vehicle. People flocked from Hyde, Ashton, Stalybridge and even as far as Manchester. Amongst the crowd were Tom Harrop Sidebottom, M.P., owner of the mill, Henry Weetman, managing director at Wren Nest Mill, Councillor Herbert Partington, of Glossop, Councillor William Sargentson, and others. The crowd was further swelled when workers in other mills finished for the day and swarmed to Waterside to see the results of the fire.

The police had a busy time keeping the crowd a reasonable distance from the ruined buildings as people were eager to see all that they could of the damage which had been done. Outside, heaps of debris lay scattered about; pieces of shattered and scarred machinery, piles of soaked timber and cotton, and large stones, slates, and broken window frames. From the outside it appeared as if the walls might not hold together, and from some portions stones, timber, and slates came crashing down outside the structure, making it exceedingly dangerous for the spectators. Inside the walls was even worse. The bottom floor was covered with a shapeless commingled heap of masonry, woodwork, slates, steel and iron, the machinery of the upper stories having crashed though the floors one after another, until it found a permanent resting place. In some places shafting and gearing hung suspended, and looking as though if touched it would drop into the debris below. The weaving sheds were not entirely untouched for in several parts the falling stones had smashed in the slates and skylights and done damage to the looms &c. There again the water had penetrated and damaged cloth and other material. Not until late at night did the crowd begin to thin and disappear, many anxiously wondering as to what would be the future of the mill.

Ruined mill interior
Ruined mill interior
The interior of the mill after the fire.

Lucky Escapes.

As the workers left the mill in response to the alarm someone noticed that an old man, named Joe Etchells, putting his head through one of the windows at the top of the building and calling for help. He was saved by the heroism of a young man, George Ashton, who went back into the building and guided him to safety. In a subsequent interview Mr Etchells (the oldest minder at the mills, who had worked there from 1863) explained why he was the last to leave the building. Because of the record of several previous small fires he didn't immediately realise how serious the situation was, even when his companions left the building. By the time George Ashton reached him the room was full of smoke, the fire was raging at the opposite end and coming up the rope range like a house chimney on fire. He had to drop on his hands and knees down the spinning room to the fire escape.

Another worker, James Avison, found himself in one of the doomed rooms with the flames making fierce headway. He escaped by attaching a rim band to the headstock of a portion of the machinery, throwing the band through one of the windows and sliding down it to the ground. His hands were badly injured by the friction but he was otherwise unhurt. Another man named Hart slid down the spouting from the top of the mill and reached the ground that way.

One of the employees named James Harrop was lucky when the portion of the walls on the Hollingworth side fell just after 12. Shortly before the mass of debris fell in the yard he had walked by the place.

George Land, an overlooker at the mill and one of the mill firemen was standing on the roof of a shed fronting the Hollingworth side of the valley, fighting the fire with a hose pipe. In order to make his foothold more secure, and so that he could place his foot upon a beam, he attempted to break one of the skylights. In doing this his foot slipped through a portion of the window and he received a terrible gash on the lower part of the leg, a cut which penetrated to the bone and severed an artery. Fortunately, assistance was at hand when he jumped to the ground. Superintendent Cooper and Sergeant Marshall, of the Dukinfield Division police, who were present with a number of the Cheshire force, tore up an apron as a temporary dressing. Dr Whelan of Hadfield and Dr Wylde, of Hollingworth, two of the medical practitioners who had come to help applied a tourniquet and Land was taken home to recover.

A youth named McCommon injured his fingers badly whilst helping on one of the manual engines but otherwise only a few minor accidents, such as bruises, slight burns, etc. none of which were of a serious character, were recorded.

The Damage Which Resulted and the Aftermath.

The damage caused by the fire amounted to approximately £45,000 and was covered by insurance. Some of the new carding and other machinery, of the value of several thousand pounds, was saved but a large amount was destroyed. The engines practically escaped damage. On the Tintwistle side of the building too the lower room escaped with very little damage. Numbers of the workpeople lost clothing, and other belongings. Comparatively little damage was done to any of the weaving sheds.

It was quickly possible for work to be resumed in one of the weaving sheds, is situated a considerable distance from the scene of the fire, but initial hopes that the mills would be rebuilt were unfounded. They closed, the machinery being sold to another firm or installed in Waterside Mill which, as mentioned previously, had been unused since 1895. Tom Harrop Sidebottom, who was 73 at the time of the fire, retired from politics the following year and sold out to Gartside and Co. Ltd.

The most serious effect of the fire was the attendant distress and unemployment, as there was no unemployment benefit. The unions paid out what benefit they could but, of course, only to their members (membership of unions in those days was unpopular with the bosses). Tintwistle Parish Council opened a distress fund, all of which was inadequate to relieve the stricken families.

It is sometimes stated that the fire at Bridge Mills, and the subsequent stoppage, started the migration of workers from Hadfield. However, whilst it undoubtedly had a detrimental effect, it would appear that the downturn which caused the closure of Waterside in 1895 was when the decrease in population started.

One good thing which followed the fire was the re-equipping of the Glossop Fire Brigade. A Chronicle reporter interviewed the Chief Constable on the day after the fire. Mr Hodgson explained that the equipment at Glossop Fire Station was eighteen lengths (400 yards) of hose and a manual engine. At the Hadfield Station were seven lengths (nearly 200 yards) of hose, and three stand pipes. In Mr Hodgson's opinion that was sufficient to cope with a fire in a cottage, or a small shop, but utterly inadequate for fighting a fire in a six-storey mill. Two months later, at the suggestion of Mr. Hodgson, the Town Council decided to buy a new steam fire engine. This was the real beginning of the Glossop brigade. A photograph of this first steam fire engine, taken at the top of Station Road and showing the team and the committee used to hang in the corridors of the Municipal Buildings. .

The new steam fire engine, team and committee
The new steam fire engine, team and committee

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Last updated: 8 November 2022