The Vanity of Human Attainments

Memorial (front, left) to "commemorate the dreadful fate of seventeen children who fell unhappy victims to a raging fire at Mr Atkinson's factory, Colne Bridge, Feb. 14th. 1818."

Memorial (front, right) to “commemorate the dreadful fate of seventeen children who fell unhappy victims to a raging fire at Mr Atkinson’s factory, Colne Bridge, Feb. 14th. 1818.”

Having relocated (to West Yorkshire) and switching job (to the University of Huddersfield) in the last month or so, I am beginning to settle in to my new pastures.  And mine are literal pastures.  The windows in my new study look out onto the sweeping rural landscape of the Colne Valley and I have six ponies as my direct neighbours (including two adorable young foals).  I’m slowly exploring my new environs and the recent summer warmth has allowed me to make the most of the local bridalways and footpaths.  This morning, I was delighted to discover a new laneway, which took me across fields (the home of two more horses) and deposited me at the lychgate of the local village church.  From my reading of the gravestones, a surprising number of which dated from the 1700s, the local bigwigs appear to have been the Beaumont family.  The most imposing tombstone in the churchyard (pictured here) has a textile industry-related – and utterly tragic – story related to it: Huddersfield and its surrounds being one of the engines of the Industrial Revolution and famed for its cloth manufacturing and wool worsted.  I have moved to what once was mill country.

The memorial commemorates the “dreadful fate” of 17 girls, who were killed in a raging fire at “Mr Atkinson’s factory”, a cotton mill, on 14th February 1818.  Controversially, and presumably for productivity purposes, the mill machinery was operated on a constant basis throughout the day and night.  The night shift included child labour and, in the early hours of the morning in question, a ten year-old boy, James Thornton: “had been sent down for rovings from the card room with a naked candle, instead of the glass lamp provided expressly for the purpose.”  The cotton provided a perfect tinder box, with the fire instantly taking hold and ravaging the building in what was reported as just half an hour.  Nine workers escaped, 17 children aged between 9 and 18 years died, and the mill was razed to the ground.  A facsimile of the burial register may be viewed here.

The incident was a national tragedy and was cited in parliament by Sir Robert Peel in order to lend weight to his Bill for the reformation of factory working.  The fire was descibed in the contemporary press as a “holocaust” and a transcript of the original news report from the Leeds Mercury, 21st February 1818 gives further, chilling, details of the event here.  The overarching suggestion is that the fire was a dreadful accident.  What the Mercury account fails to mention is that is was common practice at the time to lock workers in to a factory for the duration of a shift and, further, that some suggested the overlooker in charge on that particular, fateful, night at Atkinson’s factory had locked up the girls and left them to go for “his evening meal or home to bed”.  An official inquest concluded that no individual was culpable.

The legend on the gravestone memorial reads thus:

Near this place lie what remained of the bodies of seventeen children.  A striking and awful instance of the uncertainty of life and the vanity of human attainments