Echoes of the past: Tragic mill fire shocked workers in Brighouse

The funeral of Fireman Alex Carmichael
The funeral of Fireman Alex Carmichael

In 1872 one of Brighouse’s latest and most impressive mills was officially opened for business, the Alexandra Mill in Mill Royd Street, owned by Ormerod Brothers.

Over the next 30 years each day it was to employ just over 400 young people, parents and grand-parents often from the same family.

Monday 26 October 1903, started just like any other working day. As the clock gradually got nearer to the sounding of the dinner time buzzer many would have been listening out for it.

When it sounded hundreds of workers poured into Huddersfield Road to a well earned break – leaving the usual skeleton number of staff to keep things ticking over before the buzzer signalled the return to work.

With lunch break over many heard the steam buzzer of the nearby Victoria Mills - this sound had not been heard for many years. It would have sent a shudder down the spines of the older workers who knew what it meant. Then the ear piercing sound of the fire alarm at the Alexandra Mill was heard. Workers were spilling out into Huddersfield Road all looking skywards to the mill roof – was it our mill or someone else’s ? Were the thoughts of the crowds.

The fire had been seen first by George Cooper, an assistant engineer who along with some colleagues had tried to extinguish the flames. He had seen the first signs of the fire in the wheel race, a shaft at the end of the mill which ran from top to bottom.

When the power was in operation there was a huge draught down this shaft which would have acted as a giant fan to the initial flames.

Whilst messengers were sent down to Sugden’s Flour Mill to contact the Fire Station. Local fire chief, Superintendent Gaudin and some of his staff had already noticed the smoke hovering over the town. He soon arrived at the fire station and as the remainder of his staff arrived they made hurried preparations.

One of the first Firemen to arrive was Alexander Carmichael who had been a fireman for many years and would have attended a number of these large mill fires before. It was reported later that he and his wife had just finished their dinner at home in Commercial Street and he had set off walking back to his labouring job at Woodhouse and Mitchell when he heard the fire alarm. As with the modern day fire appliance each of the firefighters had their own allotted place on the appliance. As they set off from the fire station and hurtled down Halifax Road, Alexander was not in his usual place.

Harry Child the fire engine’s teamer raced the horses down Halifax Road and into Commercial Street, when suddenly the fire engine swerved to avoid some loose road setts practically outside Alexander’s front door. He was thrown from the fire engine and fell into the road. His death was later recorded to have been instantaneous from the head injury he received.

As the fire engine hurtled along Commercial Street Supt Gaudin was heard to shout to passers-by in the street to help. He was carried into his own home and Dr Graham pronounced life extinct. Fireman Alexander Carmichael was the first Brighouse Borough Fire Department fatality.

Alexandra Mill was completely guttered at a reported insurance cost of £40,000, all 400 employees were now out of work.

Whilst the loss of the mill was a shock to many. As the news of 51 year old Alexander Carmichael’s death spread throughout the town, particularly in the town centre where he lived, local people were even more shocked. He was a popular man and well liked. When he died he had been a fireman for over 25 years firstly as a volunteer and a regular when the Borough Fire Service was formed in 1893.

His funeral was the largest the town had seen with crowds lining the streets from his home in Commercial Street up to the Lightcliffe Road Cemetery. One surprising aspect of his funeral was that considering the scale of funeral that was held. With the attendance of over 100 representatives from the county wide fire services, 70 representatives from the Duke of Wellington’s Regiment where he had been a volunteer for over 20 years, 6 buglers, the Mayor of Brighouse and representatives from the Borough Council, Watch Committee and work colleagues from Woodhouse and Mitchell. When I last visited his grave site 20 years ago there was no head stone. This was the biggest funeral ever seen in Brighouse up to that time.

In 1905 the numbers attending Mrs Sunderland’s funeral were even larger.

The top photograph on this page shows his funeral carriage in Commercial Street.