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Fire!

An atmospheric photograph taken at the height of the Witney Mill fire of 1905.
An atmospheric photograph taken at the height of the Witney Mill fire of 1905.
Fire was a source of particular danger during the 18th and early 19th centuries. Houses and workshops were lit by rush lights, candles or oil lamps, which could easily be knocked over and, once fires had started, they spread rapidly through closely spaced buildings. The introduction of gas lighting and steam power presented further problems - even though boilers and furnaces were often housed in detached buildings to reduce the risk of fire.

New Mill - 1883
Despite these precautions, mill fires took place with considerable frequency. New Mill, for example, caught fire in 1783, 1809, 1818, and again in 1883! The premises were rebuilt after each disaster and, by the 1880s, the mill consisted of a large three-storey block sited at right angles to the river, containing carding, spinning and willeying equipment, together with two breast-shot water wheels developing up to 60 horse power.

A very severe fire took place at New Mill on 19th January 1883, this incident being particularly spectacular. It was, claimed The Witney Gazette,

'one of the most calamitous conflagrations that has ever taken place in the district... the good people of our quiet town were about to retire to rest, when suddenly there burst upon the stillness of the night that most alarming cry of Fire! And when, in reply to enquiries, it was reported that New Mills were on fire, the consternation was very great'.

The night sky was lit up for miles around, and large numbers of people were soon hurrying down to the river to see 'the grand, but awful spectacle'.

The Witney Volunteer Fire Brigade were on the scene within just six minutes, but their feeble hand pump could not stem the appalling destruction, 'the fire having got such a firm grip that the building resembled one vast furnace'. The firefighters therefore concentrated on saving a group of nearby cottages, together with the tucking shop and other outlying parts of the mill. The fire was brought under control in about three hours - the main block having burned itself out. The cold light of dawn revealed the extent of the damage, with expensive spinning machinery lying blackened and distorted among the smoking ruins; rebuilding operations took around seven years.

Witney Mill - 1905

Souvenir photograph of the ruins of Witney Mill after the 1905 fire.
Souvenir photograph of the ruins of Witney Mill after the 1905 fire.
Early's Witney Mill suffered a major fire on the evening of 22nd March 1905. At 5.15 pm, just as people were sitting down to their evening meals, frantic whistling of the factory's steam whistle raised the alarm, and the Witney Volunteer Fire Brigade was soon on the scene. Little could be done to save the main buildings and, instead, the firemen directed jets of water onto the steel fire doors which connected the burning departments to the engine house and fulling block.

At 5.35 pm a 'powerful steam pump' was dispatched from Oxford and members of a volunteer ambulance brigade set off on bicycles. Meanwhile, floors and machinery crashed through the doomed building, while at the height of the blaze the red glow over Witney could be seen as far away as Reading. Vast crowds hindered the firemen in Mill Street but, as the fire burned itself out, the danger to the vital engine house subsided and the power plant was saved.

Pritchett's Blanket and Glove Factory - 1926
The 1899 Ordnance Survey map shows a small 'blanket and glove factory' in Newland, although the site was used primarily as a glove factory by William Pritchett. A fire at Pritchett's Glove Factory on the night of 14th April 1926 caused a major local row, as the Witney Fire Brigade refused to attend - the Newland district being part of Cogges. As a result, the factory manager had to enter the burning building in order to telephone the Oxford Fire Brigade, whose motor fire engine arrived some three quarters of an hour later. The Witney firefighters had, meanwhile, made some feeble attempt to connect their hose to a hydrant in Newland Blanket Warehouse, but the hose was found to be too short!

The three-storey glove factory was totally destroyed. An eye witness remembered that, at the height of the blaze, chickens in a nearby hen house burst into flames as their feathers ignited in the searing heat. The Pritchett's fiasco persuaded the Witney Urban District Council to buy a Leyland motor fire engine for 250, and the new pump arrived in February 1928, in time to attend a fire at Colliers' former blanket factory in 1937.

Mount Mills - 1953
Mount Mills, the home of blanket manufacturers James Marriott and Sons, was a comparatively modern factory that started production in 1900. The mill was damaged by enemy action on the night of 21st-22nd November 1940, when the Luftwaffe dropped two high-explosive bombs on Witney, one of which caused blast damage to the glazed roof of the weaving sheds. Falling glass severed the warps in many places, and Marriott's workers were sent home for the morning while the 'chains' of warp were replaced. The mill suffered a much greater disaster on 13th April 1953, when it became the setting for yet another of Witney's periodic factory fires.

The 1953 fire was another nocturnal blaze, and the town was bathed in an eerie red glow as flames leapt high into the sky. The carding and spinning departments were soon well alight, the fire being so serious that United States Air Force fire engines were sent from nearby Brize Norton aerodrome. Fortunately, the fire was confined to the carding, spinning and warping sheds, and the weaving department was able to continue production using yarn from Marriott's other mill at Worsham and from other companies.

The Buttercross Works - 1939 and 1968
The Buttercross Works was a large, two-storey building on The Leys, which had been built by the Witney Blanket Company, a large mail order firm, in 1921. The building was destroyed by fire in 1939 but it was subsequently rebuilt and, in the Second World War, served as an aircraft components factory.

On the morning of Friday 22nd March 1968, the building was destroyed by fire for the second time in its history. An arsonist entered the two-storey factory in the early hours of the morning, and the extensive modern premises were well ablaze by 7.00am. Three hours later, at 10.00am, the entire roof collapsed with a great roar, and firemen dived to the ground as horizontal jets of flame shot out of the gaping windows, scorching trees up to fifty feet away.

More than a dozen fire engines attended the Witney Blanket Company fire, which left an acrid fog of asbestos-laded smoke over much of the town. Only the main offices at the front of the building were saved, and these were later incorporated into the present structure, which is now a discount warehouse.

Newland Warehouse - 1975

The fire at Newland Mill being brought under control.
The fire at Newland Mill being brought under control.
Another factory fire took place on the afternoon of Thursday 3rd April 1975, when the upper floors of Early's blanket warehouse in Newland were burned out. As with most of Witney's fires, the origins of this blaze are shrouded in mystery. The three-storey stone building, erected by William Cantwell in the 1880s, was no longer connected with the blanket industry, as Charles Early and Marriott Ltd had sold it to a property developer.

In the event, the future of the building was placed in doubt when planning permission was refused. On the afternoon of Thursday 3rd April 1975 the upper part of the empty building was damaged in a mysterious fire. Ten fire pumps attended the fire and the building was saved from total destruction, but regrettably, the damaged warehouse was later demolished to make way for residential development. One of Witney's finest industrial monuments was thereby destroyed.

References
Jenkins 1978
Jenkins 1980
Jenkins 2001
Jenkins 2002
Witney Gazette
Listen:
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Alan Pullin, a 'weft man' for Smith and Philips' blanket company (1964-1974) recalls a strict ban on smoking within the mill buildings (40Kb).

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Mr L. Dixey, a former worker from the Early's blanket industry, recalls clearing up after a fire in the spinning shed (155Kb).