It was 6pm on the evening of Thursday 20 October 1892. It had been an unsettled, breezy day with the constant threat of rain. As darkness descended, the signal was given for work to cease at Britannia Mills. Looms gradually abated, day-shift weavers turned off their lights, and those women not working overtime tied their handkerchiefs round their heads in preparation to leave the building and venture out into the chill, autumnal night.
The building on Geldard Road in Birstall, known locally as ‘Slopers’ Mill, was a five-storey structure. The lower two floors were occupied by Messrs. Charles Robinson and Company, Carlinghow woollen manufacturers. The upper storeys were tenanted by Leeds woollen manufacturers Messrs. Hartley Brothers. The top floor contained around 30 looms, with about two thirds operating that Thursday.
The distance from the ground to the fifth floor was around 30-35 yards . Whilst a long, winding staircase could be used, after a tough day’s work tired workers from the upper floors often preferred to use the mill hoist, commonly used to carry goods between floors. This hoist, located in the centre of the building, controlled a contraption which workers referred to as a cage. Essentially an open-sided box with a wooden roof and floor, it was supported by an iron rope, and worked by pulleys and gearing suspended from girders: in effect a primitive lift system.
For younger workers the journey in this cage no doubt was tremendous fun, adding a frisson of excitement at the end of their arduous workday.
It was set in motion by pulling one of the two guide ropes at the side. One of these ropes acted as a brake. There was no one person designated to operate the hoist. It was started and reversed by the person nearest the ropes, something which might have particularly appealed to teenage boys. Youngsters did not see any danger with it. In fact 15-year-old Hilda North, who had worked in the Hartley portion of the mill for around a week, told her father on the second day there she only got one foot on the hoist when it descended. And it was not unheard of for agile workers to jump into the cage as it passed the lower floors.
The hoist was so popular with the workers that around five weavers from the top floor regularly knocked off at 5.55pm in order to beat the rush, and avoid the inevitable overcrowding. Because overcrowding was commonplace. Reports state many as 20 workers crammed into it on occasions. They rushed to it at the end of their shift, like children racing to leave school. In fact many were only teenagers.
James Gray, the engineman at the mill for eight years and whose responsibilities included looking after the engine powering the mill machinery, had been unaware of any mechanical issues with the hoist in that time. However, it was not his responsibility to oversee and maintain it. And he couldn’t remember any official inspection or maintenance of it by an external official either. The only incident he recalled was around five or six years earlier, when too many people in it caused it to land with a bump.
As a result of that incident the maximum capacity was limited to eight, and pulling on the ropes whilst was in motion was prohibited. The penalty for contravening these instructions ranged from a severe 1s fine to instant dismissal – although it seems these punishments were never meted out. There was a warning note at the hoist entrance, a legacy of the earlier incident, put up by the previous mill owners.
Although prominent, it was perhaps too high for some even if they could read . Neither were new starters routinely informed about the restrictions; nor did it appear to be discussed generally, not even by those aware that the regulations were regularly being breached.
John Howitt, a warp dresser working at Hartleys for a fortnight, only used the hoist if it did not exceed maximum capacity even if it meant waiting. But he admitted he never thought to warn younger workers ignoring the rules . And 15-year-old Mary Alice Mann, a recently employed weaver at Hartleys stated “I saw other people go down in the hoist, and I went with them.”  No thought did she give to numbers.
That Thursday evening was no different. Eager workers, keen to quickly return home, rushed and pushed to make their way towards the exit. A crowd on the top floor jostled and jockeyed for position in the cage, with cries of “Let us get in.” Perhaps some on the lower floors had stolen a march, already in the cage before it reached the upper storey, similar to the tricks we use today at busy lifts: that was one rumour circulating later. According to at least one report one lad, Edwin Day, jumped in as it made its descent. In all, it appears around 16 people were now crammed in. It may have even been as many as 18, for collating names from various newspaper reports the occupants included:
- Fred Beevers, Carlinghow. Born in July 1875, the son of Andrew and Sarah Ann Beevers, in 1891 the family lived on Coal Pit Lane with Fred working as a cloth presser;
- Elizabeth Birbeck, 38-year-old wife of Turner Birbeck. They lived at Lambsfield Place, Geldard Road, Birstall. She only started work that week as weaver at Hartleys. Other information shows she was born on 7 May 1853, the daughter of John and Hannah Gooder, and she married Turner on 25 October 1873 at St Peter’s Church in Birstall;
- Edwin Blakey Day, age 14. He was a piecer and the son of postman Ernest Day of Union Street, Birstall . He had worked six months for Robinsons, but was due to start work the following week at Carr Mill;
- Edith Crossley , weaver, wife of James Crossley of Geldard Road. Other sources show she was born in Holmfirth on 8 February 1861, the daughter of Hugh and Mary Ramsden, and married James Booth Crossley on 23 July 1881 at St Saviour’s, Brownhill;
- Jane Donnelly, Richmond Street, Batley. Looking at other sources it seems likely she was the Dublin-born wife of Richard Donnelly, maiden name Egan. Her age was 30 in the 1891 census and she worked as a woollen machine feeder;
- Ann Frankland, wife of collier James Frankland, of Britannia Cottages, Geldard Road. Further investigation shows she was born on 18 March 1869 and was the sister of Elizabeth Birbeck. She married James on 1 February 1890 at Batley All Saints;
- Gooder, sister of Mrs Birbeck. No Christian name is given in the reports, which only mention she is a girl. Although possible this may be the recently married Ann Frankland, it is equally possible this is another of the Gooder sisters. Weight is added to this because in some of the casualty lists both Ann Frankland and ‘a girl named Gooder’ appear. But there is nothing conclusive;
- Hannah Mary Grayson, Birstall. Putting together other sources she is likely to be the daughter of Solomon and Mary Grayson (and its many surname variants) who was born on 26 November 1863. In the 1891 census she is living with her widowed mother at Cross Street in Birstall , and working as a wool cloth weaver. She married George Easby at St Peter’s, Birstall on 8 January 1897;
- Walter Jones, age 13, piecer, son of tripe dresser Edward Jones and wife Sarah Ann of Low Lane, Birstall. He was born on 12 March 1879;
- Joshua Kellett, age 15, piecer, son of John and Mary Kellett of White Lee Road, Batley;
- Nellie Lee, Skelsey Row, Batley;
- Mary Alice Mann, 15, daughter of Mark and Elizabeth Mann. She was born on 5 November 1876 and lived with her family at Geldard Road, Birstall. She had been employed as a weaver for one week in the Hartley-run portion of the mill;
- Kate McGuire, a young woman living in Batley. Although unverified, this might have been the 23-year-old niece of Michael McGuire living at Parker Buildings, Whittaker Street in the 1891 census;
- Henry Mitchell, the son of Annie Mitchell, of Geldard Road, Birstall. Not employed at the mill, he had been there to drop tea off for another worker. The newspaper reports put his age at 9 or 10. My research points he was likely to be 9-year-old Harry Mitchell born on 17 October 1883, the son of Annie and William Mitchell. In 1891 he was living at Geldard Road with his mother and his maternal grandmother Mary Ann Ramsden. He was the nephew of Edith Crossley;
- Sarah Moon, age 53, weaver and wife of tobacco pipe maker Charles Moon. They lived at Boar Terrace, Geldard Road, Birstall. Sarah and widower Charles married at Tong St James on 9 May 1880 – it was her second marriage too. Sarah was born in Cleckheaton on 24 December 1839, the daughter of James and Sarah Haigh. She married her first husband William Firth in Halifax on 7 October 1860, but was widowed with two young sons, in early 1865. Sarah only started work at Hartley’s on the afternoon of 18 October, in place of Annie Williams who was ill;
- Hilda North, the daughter of George and his Irish-born wife Ellen North. Born on 11 February 1877, her family home was 22 Carlinghow Lane. When the accident occurred she had worked as a weaver for only one week in the Hartley portion of Britannia Mills. Well-liked by all who knew her, Hilda and her family were long associated with St Mary’s RC Church in Batley. In fact some newspapers claimed Hilda was a member of the church choir, though this was disputed in a subsequent report .
- A boy named Ramsden. There are no further details. It is possible that this might be a confusion with Henry Mitchell (above); and
- Ada Rymer, age 17 . Born on 31 May 1875, she was the daughter of Thomas and Eliza Rymer. In 1891 the family address was Riding Street, White Lee, Batley;
Elizabeth Birbeck, holding one of the guide ropes, gave the signal and the cage began its descent. It quickly became apparent that things were not right: the cage was travelling faster than usual. Someone called out “Steady it!” Fred Beevers pulled one of the guide ropes which temporarily righted things. However, before it reached the halfway point, it hurtled out of control down the shaft. Shouting “Pull the rope! Pull the rope!” Elizabeth Birbeck grabbed the left hand side, whilst Fred Beevers took hold of the right. The pair desperately battled to steady the cage. Someone else screamed, and Edith Crossley cried out “Let’s jump up,” in a vain attempt to slow the cage’s descent. But in the words of Mary Alice Mann it “banged reight to t’bottom.” As the cage struck the floor Elizabeth Birbeck exclaimed “Lord, help me!” These were her final recorded words.
Some of the occupants were thrown out of the cage which, with the force of the impact, rebounded around three feet into the air. It smashed to the floor for a second time, and this ripped down the hoist’s gears and support girders. Weighing about a ton, these crashed on top of the cage.
The tremendous noise alerted those elsewhere in the mill, and workers rushed to the disaster site. James Gray immediately stopped the engine. Shocked and injured cage occupants emerged coughing and stunned from the dust-shrouded scene. The air gradually cleared, revealing the horrific sight of the crushed and splintered cage. Some mill workers were trapped under the wreckage.
Blocks were hastily assembled and the debris lifted off the badly mangled bodies, with Edwin Day first to be released. Those prominent in the rescue included John Leach, Joseph Wright, John Howitt and W. Lockwood.
News of the accident spread quickly beyond the mill. Crowds gathered at the gates, anxious to hear news of their loved ones. Wider in Birstall, and neighbouring areas, small knots of people gathered to speculate about events. Hushed voices and murmurs, rising to excited and expectant tones as they craned their necks to see the comings and goings at the mill. The local police rushed to the scene, pushing past the throng of people. Birstall doctors, Bridgeman and Field, were quickly summoned to tend to the injured.
By around 6.15pm news of fatalities reached those outside. The arrival of Ambrosine Fox (née Renshaw) must have been a signal, even before the names of the dead seeped out more generally. Married to miner Abraham Fox, the family lived at Chapel Lane in Birstall. Although Ambrosine has no occupation listed in the 1891 census, it seems she was one of the local go-to women for laying out the dead. Maybe she also helped bring local children into the world too, as these two tasks often went hand in hand.
Within the mill boundaries those who perished were taken to the burling shed. Here, illuminated by lamplight, Ambrosine Fox carried out the grim task of carefully laying out their bodies. This traditionally involved undressing and washing them, plugging the various orifices, possibly placing coins on their eyes and something (commonly a bandage) under their chins to keep the eyes and mouth closed. The body would be then dressed in its burial clothes, with bandages or ribbons tied around the body to hold it straight and ready for the coffin.
Four fatalities resulted from the accident, and they suffered horrific injuries caused by the falling debris. Those killed were:
- Elizabeth Birbeck, the most badly injured. Although her face was unmarked, her body incurred severe crush trauma;
- Edwin Blakey Day suffered mainly head injuries, but also a broken right leg;
- Hilda North broke her right leg in two places, her left arm was severed at the elbow, her neck was put out and her head split open; and
- Sarah Moon had a partially severed right leg, chest crush injuries and a fractured skull.
In terms of the injured, Edith Crossley suffered from shock; Ann Frankland had a broken foot; Walter Jones injured his left knee; Joshua Kellett sustained a broken left arm; Mary Alice Mann escaped with only a black eye; Henry Mitchell bruised his left thigh; and Ada Rymer had severe shock. Fortunately none had life-threatening injuries, and all were taken back to their homes to recuperate. It appears all others in the cage had no injuries of note. The belief was if the hoist gears and girders had remained intact, all inside the cage would have survived. It was the fact they came down which proved fatal.
Families were left mourning their loved ones. They also had the ordeal of the inquest, which opened at Birstall’s Coach and Six Inn within 24 hours of the accident. The current building is a 1950s replacement of the earlier structure. The inquest swiftness was down to the need to keep the bodies fresh. No conclusion was reached at this initial hearing, as a report on the condition of the hoist was deemed necessary. But at least funeral arrangements could now be made.
Later that day, Friday 21 October, Reverend Charles Gordon, the parish priest of St Mary’s, Batley, visited the distressed family of Hilda North to try offer some comfort, but presumably to also discuss these funeral arrangements. As was the custom (and for practical reasons with the majority of bodies still being kept at home between death and burial) funerals quickly followed death. So, on the afternoon of Sunday 23 October, less than 72 hours after the accident, all four interments took place.
A triple ceremony, for Edwin Day, Elizabeth Birbeck and Sarah Moon, was held at St Peter’s, Birstall. The coffins set off from their respective homes, and in a praiseworthy feat of co-ordination by Birstall undertakers Messrs. J Akeroyd and Sons, the processions met up as they journeyed to the church, timed to reach there at 4pm. In the procession were many of those in the hoist when the accident occurred. Crowds lined the route, tears staining the cheeks of bystanders. The numbers led one report to claim that:
…the multitude of people in the town on Sunday…was never exceeded at any time in the annals of the town on an occasion of that description… 
As the cortège approached the church, a muffled peal rang out from the church belfry. The three coffins were gently removed from the three hearses in absolute silence and carried into the crowded church for a service. Not all those present could fit in the building, forcing many more to assemble outside. The coffins were then borne to their final resting places in the churchyard, as the solemn, muffled peal of the bell pierced the silence. The sun shone brilliantly throughout, but a bitingly cold wind swept the graveside. There:
The children wailed continuously, the women were loud in their lamentations, and men were completely broken down…
Once the service ended the trio of coffins were covered with earth. Mourners dispersed, offering words of sympathy to the bereaved families as they left. As darkness fell over the now-empty churchyard, the many wreaths laying on the three burial mounds stood silent witness to the tragic events.
That same afternoon Hilda North was committed to rest in Batley cemetery, in a similarly impressive service conducted by the Reverend Charles Gordon. Once more the approach to her final resting place was lined with a huge throng of people. The cemetery too brimmed with mourners, with a vast number of wreaths placed on her grave.
The adjourned inquest resumed at the Coach and Six on 28 October, with a report from Bradford engineer John Waugh into the state of the hoist. After establishing this did not contribute to the accident, the jury reached a verdict that:
…the deceased were killed by the falling of the cage of the hoist and the subsequent fall of the gear and supports of the said hoist, by the crowding into the cage of a greater number of persons than it was calculated to carry, and by the improper use of the gear ropes by some of the persons in the cage, that the overcrowding of the cage was in contravention of a warning which was conspicuously pasted up on the door of the hoist chamber…
Finally, for those familiar with Birstall and wondering why Britannia Mills today does not bear any resemblance to the five-storey building of 1892, the answer is the all-too familiar fate which befell many mills: fire. In July 1905, when under the ownership of Batley mayor George Hirst and primarily occupied by the Extract Wool and Merino Company which he chaired, a fire took hold and ravaged the building. The reconstruction resulted in the smaller structure we are familiar with today. But as you pass, do pause and think. Over a century ago four local people lost their lives here, simply by going to work. Two of them would, by today’s standards, be still of school age. How times have (thankfully) changed.
 Some reports say almost 40 yards. 1 yard = 3 feet. I suspect these reports may be an exaggeration, because an official report quoted in the Batley Reporter and Guardian of 29 October 1892 into the state of the hoist mentions the distance from the hoist girders to the floor was 67 feet;
 6 feet off the ground according to Mary Alice Mann;
 Batley Reporter and Guardian, 22 October 1892;
 Batley News, 28 October 1892;
 Some reports say Low Lane. They also incorrectly give his father’s name as Edward;
 Some reports incorrectly state Eva;
 In the 1891 census she is recorded as Hannah May Grayson, and her mother is Mary Medcalf, TNA Reference RG12/3722/70/17. Her birth in the Dewsbury Registration District in the December quarter of 1863 is under Gration;
 Batley News, 28 October 1892;
 Newspaper reports give her age as 18;
 Batley Reporter and Guardian, 29 October 1892;
 Yorkshire Evening Post, 28 October 1892.
• 1861-1901 England and Wales censuses;
• Batley All Saints church marriage register;
• Batley Cemetery burial register;
• Batley News – 21 and 28 October 1892, and 21 July 1905;Batley News – 21 and 28 October 1892, and 21 July 1905;
• Batley Reporter & Guardian – 22 and 29 October 1892, and 21 July 1905;
• Birstall St Peter’s church parish registers (baptisms, marriages and burials);
• Funeral Practices, British Customs: https://www.encyclopedia.com/medicine/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/funeral-practices-british-customs
• Leeds Mercury – 24 October 1892;
• Leeds Times – 22 October 1892;
• OS Map is reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland under a Creative Commons licence. https://maps.nls.uk/index.html
• Tong St James parish register (marriages);
• Yorkshire Evening Post – 21, 24 and 28 October 1892;