(First published in 1989 in volume 4, pp. 83-85, of the third series of The Bradford Antiquary, the journal of the Bradford Historical and Antiquarian Society.)
Thanks largely to a mention in the Dalesman and in the Yorkshire Family Historian I have received a number of letters from people whose memories were stirred by articles in Third Series No.3.
There is no mistaking the attachment of a family in Chorley who have named their house 'Bruddersford', or of the strong links felt by a writer who is the direct descendant of Dr Simpson (the first part of whose Diary has been published by Bradford Libraries) and the Horsfall family, whose mill in North Wing was attacked by Luddites in 1826. The Low Moor explosion is vividly remembered by an ex-Bradfordian now living in Taunton, USA, who was then a boy of six. He also recalls how his father took him to hear Philip Snowden (the subject of David James's article) at St George's Hall, but he was more impressed by the explosion.
The most touching and interesting story, however, comes from Mrs Lily Thompson of Meltham who, in 1916, lived in Frogmoor Terrace, Cleckheaton Road, opposite the gasometers which were blown up. Mrs Thompson says,
"We had a holiday from school, so that afternoon mother let Leslie (7) and Vernon (5) go out to play. I was nine and I went out for a walk with my baby sister in the pram. I decided to go up the road and when I reached Wesley Place I saw a crowd at the chapel so I joined it. Someone said 'They are coming out', but just then there was a real big bang. Everyone ran and it only seemed a minute before they had all disappeared."
This was almost certainly the wedding of Frank and Ida Clarkson, which Ronald Blackwell mentioned in his article. The story continues:
"I could see this large cloud of smoke so I ran farther up the road to get away. I reached the crossroads which we called the Guide Post. At the very top of the road the fire engine was just in sight and by the time I had crossed the road it ran past me. I had never seen anything go so quick before. I watched it out of sight and then began running up the road. I was scared. Not a soul did I see until I turned the bend up by the recreation ground, and that was full of people. I kept running past crowds of people at Odsal Top and went on towards Wibsey. All at once a hand shot out and stopped me."
It must be remembered that young Lily was pushing a pram with a baby in it. The hand belonged to her uncle who worked at the Rates Office in the Town Hall, but that day he was on duty at Wibsey and he was standing outside the house where a room was used as a local office.
"The lady of the house, who was standing with him said, 'Come with me and I will make tea and we will have some buns', which we did, and then she warmed some milk and fed Amy. After a while I said I would go back to Odsal to see if I could find Mum and Dad. Dad, who worked at Low Moor Iron Works, made his way to Odsal. Mum and my three brothers also made for Odsal by way of Rooley Lane, and so we all met."
The parents then decided to visit relatives in Oakenshaw, taking a roundabout route via Rooley Lane and Tong Street. It was a lovely summer evening and people were chatting out-of-doors.
"One couple asked where we were going and said it was time the children were in bed. Why not spend the night at their house? They had two girls, so that night it was six in one bed, my three brothers at one end and us three girls at the other. Next day Dad and the two elder boys went to Oakenshaw and Mum took the rest of us down to Woodlands, where we stayed the next night. When Dad took us home we found that the windows were out, the doors off and all the furniture broken. Our house was below ground level, the bedrooms being level with the road. For the next fortnight people came sightseeing and they kept throwing pennies down to us children. We never had such money in all our lives."
"I went to St Mark's School, New Road Side, and I was told that the dead bodies were taken there after the explosion. It was not opened again as a day school."
"Six months later there was another explosion, at Samson Breaks, Wyke, when our windows were blown in again. I mention this because my little sister, Amy, who was 13 months old had died the day before, on 12 February 1916. She had just been laid out and the sheets placed over her were covered with soot and broken glass."
[Low Moor Primary School has some more information about the Low Moor explosion along with some contemporary photos.]
Mrs Thompson's letter gives me the welcome opportunity to say a word - a rather late word - about Ronald Blackwell's book, The Low Moor Explosion : A Mystery Explained?, which was published towards the end of 1987. Dr Blackwell's experience as lecturer in the Department of Applied Physical Sciences at Coventry Polytechnic means that he is well equipped to discuss the manufacture of explosives and to review all the circumstances which surrounded the Low Moor disaster. Likely causes of the fire and the various theories as to how it occurred are examined in two chapters, and there is a nice balance between the detailed sequence of events related by workers at the factory, those really at the scene, and the spontaneous recollections of those who may be called eye-witnesses. The foregoing accounts can be set against the background provided in the Appendix by the report from the Leeds Mercury of 1924 and of the official inquiry carried out by Major Cooper-Key, HM Chief Inspector of Explosions. If we add to all this maps, many photographs and a complete list of the casualties, we have a book that gives a most interesting and comprehensive study of one of Bradford's greatest tragedies. It reminds us of the collapse of Newland's Mill chimney in 1882 and inevitably of the Valley Parade fire. We are indebted to Dr Blackwell for making the results of his long and patient research available to us.
Copies of the book may be obtained from Dr Blackwell at 17 Windmill Close, Kenilworth, Warwickshire (£4.50 + postage), or from Bradford Central Library, Prince's Way. The profits from the sale of the book will be given to a Bradford charity or used to provide a memorial to the munitions workers who lost their lives at Low Moor.
In the potted biographies given under Contributors I said that Elvira Willmott was continuing her research into eighteenth century Bradford, but of course in her position at the Central Library she deals with demands and queries covering the whole of Bradford's history. The Ryburn Map of Victorian Bradford which Miss Willmott has produced will answer at least some of those queries. The map is Dixon & Hindle's 1871 revision of the Borough survey, showing the incorporated townships of 1847. The text contains a wealth of facts under headings such as Transport, Industry, Local Government, Health, Religion, Education and Housing. The large sheet (which is very well behaved) folds neatly into 8" x 10" size, with an attractive engraving of the Wool Exchange on the cover. This is a splendid way of presenting information. The text can be 'understanded by all' and the map is a pleasure to look at. (Price £2.50).
The clouds that hung over Saltaire have now lifted. The seminar held on 18 April 1986 did little to dispel the gloom but a year later a saviour appeared in the shape of Jonathan Silver, former partner in the Dean Clough enterprise, who bought the mill, and in May 1988 outlined an ambitious scheme for its development.
The plan, which is in the hands of Rod Hackney, president of the Royal Institute of British Architects, is to convert the weaving and finishing sheds into a huge shopping arcade second to none in the country - a place which will 'raise the spirit'. With the possible addition of a marina on the Leeds-Liverpool Canal, which runs alongside the mill, Mr Silver has visions of creating an international tourist attraction different from anything anywhere in the country. There is good news, too, about Salts derelict New Mill on the river side. This has now been bought by a West Yorkshire company for conversion into luxury flats.
While Sir Titus would not have been altogether pleased to see his 'Palace of Industry' being turned into a pleasure-dome, he would surely have applauded the courage of a man who was prepared to stand single and risk a fortune, as he did, in order to fulfil a dream.
Once again I must apologise to both contributors and subscribers for delay in publishing the new number, a circumstance not entirely unconnected with my change of address. Help has come, whenever needed, from Tony Jowitt, Warden at the Bradford Centre of the Department of Adult Education, Leeds University, and Hilda Snowden has quietly used her influence to gain a little publicity for us. I am also grateful to Alan Longbottom and Jeffrey Roberts for reading through the articles and proofs.
© 1989, The Bradford Antiquary