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Feather's Miscellany: Elsie Kilton And The Westwood Mills Fire

John Waddington-Feather tells the story of a brave young woman who lost her life trying to save others.

Keighworth in its heyday boasted many superlatives; one of which was the weather. Its weather was the wettest in Yorkshire; and as a result its townsfolk grumbled the most; but it was also the wealthiest town for its size in Britain.

However, much of its wealth earned in its textile mills and engineering works went into the pockets of the tycoons who’d set up their businesses in the town during the 19th century, changing Keighworth from a little village into a thriving textile town with some fine Victorian buildings and boasting a magnificent Carnegie Library. A mock Scottish baronial castle had also been built on its outskirts by one of its tycoons with a rich American wife; a splendid building set in acres of grounds and giving the town a touch of class. Some of the richer mill owners also built their mansions in their own grounds not far away at Utworth, the upper crustian end of town in countryside to the west, well away from the smoke and grime of the mills and industry.

Yet for all the architectural splendour in the middle of town and in its churches and chapels, when the winter fogs rolled down from the Pennine Hills about it Keighworth became a dismal place to live in. Right through the winter months the air turned a purplish brown as acrid, murderous smogs were brewed when the foundry furnaces fired and the forest of mill chimneys belched out their black grimy smoke.

Few people lived beyond their sixties then; many died much younger from lung diseases like tuberculosis. Mercifully, the deadly smog lifted when gales came and blew it away, else Keighworth’s population wouldn’t have lasted a winter.

Many of the womenfolk down Garlic Lane worked in the mills as weavers. In lean times it was often they who were the bread-winners when their husbands were out of work for months on end, and I’m going to tell you the story of one of those women, the real unsung heroines of Keighworth. She was called Elsie Kilton and lived with her parents and sister, who had an illegitimate child, in one of the mean terraced back-streets running off the lane. The house had two bedrooms and an attic, with a tiny living room and cellar-head kitchen. In the cellar all the washing was done and odd bits and pieces stored, including a large zinc bath, used by the womenfolk on Friday nights in the living room before the fire when old Kilton was out at the pub. There was a small front room, too, used only on Sundays. A tippler-toilet was built outside in the tiny back-yard.

In her late teens, Elsie’s sister, Annie, had found herself in the family way after a brief but fertile affair with a married bloke in the next street. There were no state benefits then and she had to go out to work to maintain the child as soon as she could, leaving the baby with her mother at home. Annie and Elsie worked at Westwood Mills, about a mile away. Winter and summer, they were up at crack of dawn to eat their sparse breakfast of porridge and toast then trudge to work, fair weather or foul, clad in old overcoats over their mill-pinafores with their head-scarves pulled well round their faces.

They went to work scrubbed and clean. They returned each night tired out and smelling of mill-grease and weft, covered in fine dust. Like many of their fellow workers they had pinched, pale faces and there was a hint of rickets in their bandy legs. They worked from 6.30am to 6pm, carrying their lunch-boxes and flasks of tea with them. They had an hour’s break for lunch which they ate in a nearby park if the weather was fine; otherwise they dined beside their looms. Hard times indeed compared with today, yet in some ways folk were happier then. They made their own fun and there was a strong community spirit in their crowded streets.

Pleasures were simple and cheap: a good gossip over the wall or in a neighbour’s house in summer; or a natter indoors over a fish and chip supper in winter after a visit to the cinema or dance-hall on Saturday nights. The men-folk went to the rugby match and then adjourned to their clubs and pubs after a meal in the evening. The more studious read books from Keighworth Public Library or listened to the radio. The better off went to Blackpool for their annual holiday week along with their fellow workers, while the less well off stayed at home and walked over the moors to Ilkesworth, before catching the bus back to Keighworth. They went in groups for they were a gregarious lot, rarely going anywhere alone.

The Second World War changed their way of life radically when the younger men went into the forces; but it was a very different world they returned to after the war – a more affluent yet in some ways a less contented world. Unmarried, the Kilton sisters worked on at Westwood Mills, earning good money and working fewer hours in the new post-war world. Life compared with pre-war days seemed a bed of roses. Then tragedy struck. The mill caught fire and burned down.

It wasn’t surprising. Fire regulations were inadequate and mill fires occurred regularly when trade was bad. But the Westood Mills blaze was the most tragic mill-fire of all in Keighworth. Ten of the weavers lost their lives including Elsie Kilton.

The fire broke out in the afternoon when the mill was in full use; it spread rapidly for the century-old, wooden-floored building was soaked in mill-grease and the place went up like a tinder-box.

Elsie worked on the ground floor and got out quickly, but then realised her sister Annie was trapped on the top floor along with some fellow weavers. Elsie rushed back in and managed to get her sister out, then she went back to help the others. As she led them through the dense smoke the roof ahead of them collapsed and the stairway was blocked, so they stumbled back the other side of the mill to an old steel stairway which led to a fire-door. When they reached the fire-door it was locked. They were trapped and it was there when they searched the smouldering building that the firemen found their bodies huddled together and smothered by the smoke.

The fire made national headlines and parliament set up a special committee to investigate the disaster. After some months, it produced a lengthy report which ended with the usual cliché: “Lessons have been learned.” but it led to better safety regulations in the mills.

The town, however, grieved the deaths of the ten women deeply and Elsie became something of a heroine, commemorated by a memorial service and plaque in Trinity Church. Most of all she’s remembered by her family and her sister’s little daughter, Elsie, who was named after her; and grew up in a much better home with much better schooling as a university graduate than ever her mother and aunt could have dreamed of.

John Waddington-Feather ©


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