Tuesday, 24 April 2012

24th April 1812: Westhoughton Mill attacked and destroyed by fire

The Mill at Westhoughton in Lancashire was huge concern locally. It held nearly 200 Looms, powered by a steam engine, and had been operating in this fashion for about 4 years, after being leased to Thomas Rowe & James Duncough.

The Mill had been guarded by the military since the riots in nearby Bolton on 20th April, but the unit stationed there left on the 22nd April. Although the military had left 12 muskets behind for the workforce to use to guard the Mill, on Friday 24th April, they themselves had become so alarmed that something might happen that they left the Mill early. The superintendent stopped the steam engine and sent for help to Bolton.

Responding to this alarm, a party of Scots Greys under Captain Bullen stationed at Bolton arrived at the mill at noon. But all being quiet in the vicinity, Bullen decided it was a hoax. He made it clear, that he would not return without the instructions of the magistrate and Lord Lieutenant, William Hulton, and the party of cavalry returned to Bolton.

Between 3 and 4 p.m., a group of up to 50 people were seen passing through nearby Chowbent (now called Atherton). They were carrying all kinds of basic weapons: pitchforks, bill-hooks, scythes and even sticks.

By 4 p.m., the Mill manager had himself grown so alarmed by the prospect of something happening that he decided to head to Bolton to retrieve the military to guard the Mill. Having locked the doors and mounted his horse, he saw a large crowd of people converging on the Mill. With angry shouts and cries directed at him, he decided to ride away as fast as he could. The crowd lingered until at 5 p.m., when the group from Chowbent joined them.

The destruction at Westhoughton then began in earnest. Stones and bricks were thrown by the crowd, breaking many of the windows. Two very young women were particularly active, breaking the remaining windows with picks and other implements they had brought. A young boy was armed with a scythe and used it to break some of the windows. Many were calling for the mill to be set on fire.

The doors to the mill were eventually broken open, and a light obtained from a nearby house - straw from a barn nearby was brought to use as kindling to start a fire properly, to which was added cloth from the looms. Before long, the fire had taken hold and was out of control.

The Scotch Greys eventually arrived back at the Mill, but not until 45 minutes after the destruction was complete and the roof had collapsed in. The value of the damage varied, but in a letter written just 2 days after the attack, Colonel Ralph Fletcher put it at £6000.

Afterwards, the owners quit the town for good and Power Looms didn't return to Westhoughton for 30 years.

This has been compiled from the Lancashire Gazette of 6th June 1812; a letter from Ralph Fletcher to the Home Office of 26th April 1812, which can be found at HO 40/1/1; and Grimmett and Thomis (1982, p.46).

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