A Burning Question: Why So Many Mill Fires?

drummondmillfire2016

Drummond Mills in Manningham, Bradford. The first mill to fall victim to fire in 2016.

2016 seems to have been a particularly bad year for fires in the historic textile mills of northern England. The year started with the destruction of Drummond Mill in Manningham in Bradford, in January. This was followed by a series of mill fires in Greater Manchester, most notably the destruction of Bailey Mill in Saddleworth in June. The empty Newsome Mill, in Huddersfield was burnt down in suspicious circumstances on November 18 2016 as was Howard Mill in Glossop, Derbyshire, that month. The year finished with a devastating fire at Maple Mill No. 1, in Oldham, on 15 December 2016, which destroyed the structure. This has now been confirmed as arson by Greater Manchester Police. These fires all have two things in common. The structures were large and empty cotton or spinning mill blocks, and all the fires appear to have the result of arson.

Textile mill design developed in part to reduce the risk of fire from the grease, oil and fibers that covered each mill floor. This can be seen in the shift from wooden floors supported by wooden beams to brick-barrel vaulting supported by cast-iron columns and then steel frame and concrete construction. Even so, no mill is absolutely fire-proof. Although the building materials used may themselves not be flamable a hot enough fire will affect the structure and ultimately bring it down. Cast iron will fail catastrophically, particularly if cold water is played on it when hot, whilst steel will ultimately distort under high heat. Even brick arches will fail if intense heat loosens the bricks.

Historically, catastrophic mill fires were not uncommon in the working mills of Derbyshire, Dundee, Glasgow, Lancashire, and Yorkshire. Vernon Mill in Stockport burnt down in 1902, as did Ellenroad mill in 1916. Both fires were found to have been started by friction in the spinning mule headstocks. Fires in working mills continued into the mid-20th century despite new fire regulations: spectacularly so at Clover Mill in Rochdale in 1952, Texas Mill in Ashton-under-Lyne in 1971, and at Thorp Street Silk Mill in Macclesfield in 1977. In the late 20th century, as most cotton, jute, linen, silk and woollen mills were closed, there was an increasing trend for fires in empty factories. Dramatic examples include Tudor Mill in Ashton-under-Lyne (1970), Banksfield Mill in Bolton in 1984, Granville Mill in Oldham in 1999. This trend has continued into the early 21st century, with the loss of several listed early textile mills at Clegg Hall Mill in Rochdale in 2003, Paton’s Mill in Jonhston, Renfrewshire, in 2010 and Frost’s Mill in Macclesfield in 2011.

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The aftermath of the fire at Milnrow Mill, Rochdale, in 1992.

What is worrying has been the rising number of arson attacks in the last few years. A recent freedom of information request to the West Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Service revealed that there were 103 mill fires in the Bradford area over a six year period between April 2010 and September 2016. 58 were found to be arson attacks, of which 36 were in mills classified as derelict or empty. Some of these fires can be attributed to rough sleepers lighting afire to keep warm but others are deliberate attempts to burn the structure.

Similar figures are not available for Greater Manchester, though the Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Services’ website notes at least 28 major mill incidents between 2010 and 2016. Several empty mills have become a focus for repeated arson, such as Elisabeth Mill in Stockport (now renovated), the derelict Gidlow Mill in Wigan, and Maple No. 1 Mill in Oldham. The latter appears to have had six arson incidents in 2016 which culminated in the destructive fire of December 2016.

There remain two stark facts that threaten much of our textile mill heritage across Britain. Firstly, that the huge block spinning mills of the late 19th century, which can be seen in the Greater Manchester, Lancashire and West Yorkshire urban landscapes, are still perceived by some councils and developers as difficult to re-use. The second is that empty industrial buildings attract vandalism leaving them open to constant small-scale arson incidents that can lead to catastrophic fires. This is why Historic England have been working with the all five fire and rescue services in North West England to compile advice and create an ‘Arson Risk Reduction’ leaflet for Heritage at Risk across the whole region and due for release this spring. This work has shown that the best way to reduce fire attacks is to keep textile mills occupied, the sprinkler systems maintained, and to reduce the time such structures are empty ahead of redevelopment: simple steps that could help to save more of these important industrial monuments.

[This is a longer version of the article I wrote for the CBA Newsletter, Issue 39 for Feb to June 2017).

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2 thoughts on “A Burning Question: Why So Many Mill Fires?

  1. Its wonderful to read this biographic study of the cotton mills, particularly the Lancashire mills, but who’s brave enough to take on the responsibility of their upkeep. Oldham Council who went through with a compulsory purchase order with the Hartford Mill at Werneth, pulled out because of its liabilities.

    Oldham Council also owned the listed Park Road warehouse, and yes it was badly neglected where on a Friday afternoon it was declared safe by structural engineers, by the following Monday strangely it was declared unsafe, and demolished very quickly with Council official’s present throughout its demolition.

    Historic England, English Heritage, whatever, is not fit for purpose, its brilliant listing these mills, but once listed the constraints on what you can, or cannot do are ridiculous, so the owners just let them go into dilapidation until its beyond repair, this is the current situation with the Hartford Mill.

    Until there is a change in the listing constraints, Northern England’s heritage will carry on decaying, and in the years ahead we will have nothing to show our children’s children.

  2. I’m not sure that the real issue is the constraints caused by Listing. The majority of such industrial sites are not actually Listed and mills are difficult to get Listed (particularly when compared to churches, country houses and the like). I feel that it is more likely that developers and their bankers/funders just don’t have the vision to see their potential and to ‘risk’ investment in a mill conversion scheme when knocking them down and putting up ticky-tacky identikit boxes is a tried and tested method of making money.

    Could it be that, as a mill is effectively a single unit which needs a complete scheme of works to be undertaken, that it is unattractive to investors who can phase construction (and thus funding) of an equivalent-sized housing scheme and see much quicker returns for some of their money? This could mean that these sites are not of interest to the mass house-builders, and only appeal to those willing to invest in bigger schemes, such as the proposed multi-storey towers for Manchester City Centre. Unfortunately this is often ‘outside money’ and not especially concerned with heritage issues.

    It can be done, and it can be done successfully – HE has sponsored research showing that renovated historic structures provide greater rents/profits and have a lower vacancy rate than equivalent modern buildings.

    And that is not to start on the issue of embedded energy/resources/capital in the extant building, disposing of demolition debris and sourcing new building materials … I have just read a BBC article about mass theft of sand from beaches – made economic by shortages of legitimate materials for city development.

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