The Newlands Mill Chimney Disaster

A large chimney at Newlands Mill, Upper Castle Street (part of Ripley Mills complex) fell at 8 am on 28 December 1882 killing 54 people. The chimney stood behind two 5 storey weaving sheds. When it fell in a SE direction one of these two sheds was cut in half. The catastrophe occurred exactly three years after the Tay Bridge Disaster and was Bradford’s single largest loss of life from a mill accident. An inquest into the tragedy was conducted some months later.

The chimney had been designed by Andrews & Delauncy in 1862 and built by John Moulson & Sons at a cost of £942.5s.10d. It appears that the designs were ‘not strictly adhered to’ and that changes were made during construction. Among these was an extra 90 feet (27m) height and recessed ornamental panels. The chimney was unusually high at 255 ft (76.5m) and was octagonal with a square base. A batter was decided on which resulted in its diameter decreasing from 7m at the base to 5.25m at the top. Although the site has been described as ‘green-field’ it was close to extensive disused coal and ironstone mines. As far as I can tell the mineshaft was filled with concrete and around it 4 piles were driven down into the ground. These were eight feet diameter piles, sunk below the Better Bed coal seam. On these a square concrete base was constructed and on this base footings consisting of two courses of thick stone. Although the base was square the chimney was a regular octagon above ground. Surrounding mine galleries were filled with stones and oak wedges.

The alignment of the partially completed chimney was checked on 7 June 1862 and was found to be vertical by plumb-line. The next day a ‘bulge’ was noted by the builders and, on re-checking, the chimney was found to be 1m out of alignment. James Woodman of Manchester (the original ‘Steeple Jack’) was consulted. He evidently decided on a very drastic measure. The chimney was reduced in height and on two occasions stone courses were removed on the side of the chimney opposite the lean. Initially the spaces were occupied with iron wedges but when these were knocked out the chimney returned to the true at, I presume, the cost of creating two areas of weakness in the structure. The chimney was completed in 1863. It weighed 4000 tons and had an overhanging cornice alone weighing 50 tons. Twice, later in 1863 and again in 1873, cracks appeared in the structure but were repaired. There doesn’t seem to be much doubt that the chimney was talked about, and periodically mortar and masonry fell from it.

In December 1882 bulging and cracks had been noticed; workman had constructed scaffolding to examine the bulges. The outer stones in one bulge could be pulled out but the other bulge was ‘too tight’ for the stones to be removed. Work was suspended until 28 December but gales dislodged stonework which partially destroyed the scaffolding. At 6 am on the fatal day the engine man ‘threw-on’ the belt to power up the mill. Around 8 am stone fell into the yard but the 100 workers eating their breakfasts in the weaving sheds were not aware of this. Then the upper part of the chimney ‘settled’, losing stone and mortar, and finally fell. The catastrophe killed 54 people, many of whom were children. There were also a large number of injured. One child, David Charles Brewer, was buried for 30 hours before being rescued. The subsequent inquest on the victims was held by the Bradford Coroner, James G Hutchinson; a Lt.-Col Seddon (RE) was a government appointed inspector. The initial presumption was that the chimney’s foundations were faulty but in the final verdict the owners were not blamed and the fall attributed both to the repairs and to the strong wind.

Large factory chimneys consisted of a foundation, pedestal and shaft. The shaft consisted of an outer circle of common brick (or as in this case stone) with an inner circle of heat resistant firebrick. Sometimes shafts were stabilised with iron hooping if the chimney bulged. The pedestal (described at the inquest as ‘hearting’) was thick rubble walling. The foundations were criticised since the area on which the chimney stood had been undermined with coal shafts and galleries. The owner of the mill, Sir Henry Ripley, had died seven weeks before the disaster but, when called as a witness, the builder William Moulson suggested that firebricks should be laid with 1:4 courses of headers. Common bricks were laid with 1:5 headers. This does not seem to have been the case with this chimney. More headers were used, possibly because special circular bricks (made by S. Pearson & Sons, Mill Lane) were unavailable. This seems strange to me since in a well-designed chimney a brick lining should not have compromised the overall stability of the structure. Long stone ‘throughs’ were pushed right through the chimney walls at regular intervals. The concrete piles may have been 60 ft deep but did they all reach firm ground? Firebricks are more brittle than household bricks, and in use it was important that they were not expected to sustain a load. There seems little doubt that in this chimney lining the firebricks were exposed to some load.

The inquest conclusions were widely considered to be a ‘white-wash’ by local people. In reality the erection of the chimney was unsafe and it had given ample warning in the past. The principle cause of the chimney fall must surely have been construction on ground made unstable by mining. No attempt seems to have been made to understand the cause of the bulging of the chimney noted in June 1862. The actions of steeplejack James Woodman can only have made the structure even more unstable by breaking stones opposite the bulges. The wonder is not that Newlands Chimney fell but that it stood as long as it did.

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