History feature – Significant Fires in the Industrial Revolution

When the Industrial Revolution arrived, fire insurance practices were not fit for purpose to keep up with the inventions, innovations and new processes. Large mills and factories were being built across the country, new machinery was constantly being developed, new types of materials imported and stored in areas we would never dream of using, such as alongside machinery where they were exposed to fire. The insurance profession, its policies, measurements in risk and pay-outs, evolved hand in hand with the Revolution. New ways of looking at risk developed, with an increasing use of data and an understanding of how that data had to be implemented to reduce risk.

As is always the way with such evolution, it was often dramatic and tragic events that changed how people understood and perceived risk. There were a number of significant fires that destroyed factories and people’s lives. The new Insurance Museum online gallery, Powered by the Industrial Revolution, looks at the development of insurance between 1760 to 1823, and this history feature is going to look at three examples of fires that broke out during that period, which gives an glimpse of the fire risks and impact of them.

Mills and machinery

A good example of new technology going wrong is the Albion Mills Fire. Albion Mills opened in 1786 on the southern riverside of the Thames in Southwark. It was London’s “great wonder” of the industrial age, being the world’s first steam-powered flour mill, with revolutionary steam engines engineered by James Watt and Matthew Boulton. The building itself was considerable, designed by Samuel Wyatt. Being situated on the riverside it pumped water directly out of the River to the steam engines driving the 20 pairs of millstones. Flour was milled on a massive scale, processing 10 bushels (363 litres) of wheat per hour. That is as much flour a traditional wind-driven mill could produce in a month. In fact, the Albion Mills ran several of the wind-driven mills in Lambeth out of business.

There were teething problems with the running and maintenance of the engines, and this was still being rectified into 1790. On 2 March 1791 at 6.30am, the entire building burnt down. Many difficulties were faced by the firefighters who were run by the fire insurance companies. Usually, they would pump water from the River Thames for river-side fires. On this occasion there was an unusually low tide, and it was difficult to access water to extinguish the flames. On hearing of the fire, spectators rushed down to the River to see the event. People got in the way, a scuffle broke out, and the insurers’ fire brigades turned their hoses on the crowd rather than the building. The building was completely gutted within two hours.

Arson was strongly suspected, perhaps by the nearby millers whose businesses had gone out of business or were close to it. The manager of the mill claimed it was an accident, blaming it on a lack of grease on a corn machine in front of the kiln, a maintenance issue. The rebuilding of the mill was disallowed by the authorities and the building remained derelict until it was pulled down in 1809.

Damage was estimated at £150,000. Over 500 people became unemployed. One of the investors, Joah Bates, who had invested all his own and his wife’s fortune in the Mills, was nearly ruined, causing him much anxiety and potentially ill health that led to his death in 1799.

Warehouses and stock

The Ratcliffe Fire is famously known as London’s largest fire between The Great Fire in 1666 and the Blitz in 1940. In 1794, Ratcliffe was one of London’s East riverside industrial areas with large warehouses and factories. The area was cramped, with narrow lanes and huge amounts of materials in storage. 

On 23 July, at around 3pm, an unattended kettle of pitch boiled over at Clovers Barge Yard, setting it on fire. These flames quickly spread to a nearby barge loaded with saltpetre, a substance used to make gunpowder and matches. The barge exploded violently, scattering burning fragments in all directions. Fires spread to the north and the east, consuming timber yards, rope yards and sugar warehouses. Sugar refineries had become common on the London industrial riverside and it was one of the many high risk fire hazards. In fact, under the right conditions, sugar can be flammable. Many insurers had already stopped cover for sugar processing.

The situation made firefighting difficult. The explosions had spread fire to a large area, the tide was low, so water supply was difficult to obtain, and the streets were narrow and difficult to access with large fire engines.

Around 450 houses were destroyed, and 1,400 people were left homeless. At this time Ratcliffe had a population of about 5,600. Temporary tents were set up for the homeless in the grounds of St Dunstan’s and All Saints Church, and the Corporation of London, Lloyd’s of London and the East India Company contributed almost £2,000 (over £3m in today’s money) for the relief of the homeless. Insurance policies of the time did not cover such humanitarian impacts.

Human cost

Colne Bridge Mill was a cotton factory, built in 1775, in the village of Colne Bridge near Bradley and Kirkheaton, Huddersfield, West Yorkshire. It was owned by the wealthy manufacturer Thomas Atkinson. The mill was destroyed by fire on 14 February 1818, with adults and children perishing in the fire.

Around 5am, a 10-year-old boy named James Thornton, was sent through the carding room to collect unspun pieces of cotton called “rovings”. Carding is the process of cleaning the “raw” cotton and separating tangled fibres in preparation to create a thread ready for spinning. The air would have been thick with dust and cotton fibres. To see his way through, James was given a naked candle instead of a glass lamp, which would usually have been used for this purpose. It didn’t take long for a fire to ensue, and an instant blaze spread rapidly and lit much of the nearby stored cotton.

Many of the workers were left trapped in the mill’s upper floors. As they tried to escape and attempts made to rescue them, the mill’s floors and roof collapsed. By descriptions of the time, it was possible that at that point, they would have already died through smoke inhalation.

Twenty-six women and girls had been working through the night, and of these 17 aged between 9 and 18 years old, were killed. The bodies were in such a mutilated state that they were unidentifiable, and the 15 bodies recovered were buried in a communal grave at Kirkheaton Parish Church on 16 February 1818. The story is a tragic one, and was reported in the Leeds Mercury on 21 February, 1818. You can find out more in depth about the event here  https://kirkleescousins.co.uk/atkinsons-mill-fire-21st-february-1818/

The inquest found that the deaths were accidental, and no one was prosecuted. Although, the debate around working conditions and working children raged on. Sir Robert Peel the Elder moved the second reading of his Factory Bill in the House of Commons to prevent recurrence of “that which has lately taken place at Colne Bridge”. The Cotton Mills and Factories Act 1819 was enacted the following year. This was the first piece of legislation to regulate the hours and conditions of work of children in the cotton industry.

Slow progress

During the Industrial Revolution, there were many other fires, financial losses, and human tragedies which progressed the understanding of fire risk and the impact of fires. Legislation changed and risk management was implemented to reflect this. The insurance profession adapted their business models, started to level premiums appropriately to cover the new large mills, ever developing machinery and storage of materials. Considering how quickly the Industrial Revolution was developing and impacting upon cities and towns, progress within the insurance profession was slow and did not happen overnight. It took over four decades for insurance companies to understand the challenge of fire risk posed by the Industrial Revolution.

To find out more about the development of understanding fire risk and insurance, visit Powered by the Industrial Revolution gallery.

History feature – Significant Fires in the Industrial Revolution

June 29th 2023

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