Over Cotton Mill Fire
A tragedy that made the headlines in 1874

Wednesday, October 28, 1874
A crowd watched in horror yesterday as a mother and child fell to their deaths in a massive blaze at a cotton mill in Over.

Harriet Whitehurst and her three-month-old baby were trapped on the fourth floor as flames engulfed the six -storey building. It is believed the woman tried to save her child by dropping him 70 feet into a water tank below, but he crashed to the pavement in front of stunned onlookers. Mrs Whitehurst then attempted a similar escape from the inferno but also perished.

Minutes later the crowd watched helpless as another woman burned to death, caught by her clothing on a rail 60 feet above them.

The fire broke out at about five o'clock yesterday afternoon, but by the time volunteer firemen arrived from neighbouring towns, the mill was almost a total loss. They concentrated on saving nearby property, but their work was hampered as walls of the giant mill collapsed and flames leapt hundreds of feet into the night sky.

It is feared other mill workers may have died, but no details have been released.

Over Cotton Mill was a spinning and doubling mill, built about five years ago and owned by Messrs Abraham Haigh and Sons. More than 300 people, many having moved from Lancashire, were employed there. Head of the family firm is Mr James Haigh of Over Hall who was away on business when the fire broke out.

Thursday, October 29, 1874
Firemen have found five more bodies in the charred remains of Over Cotton Mill which was ravaged by fire on Tuesday. It brings the death toll to eight and an inquest will be held at a nearby pub later today.

The grim discovery of the bodies was made by two Tarporley firemen 12 hours after the tragic fire first broke out. Earlier crowds had watched as two women and a three-month-old baby died as they attempted to escape from the flames.

Damage is estimated at about 2150,000 and the entire workforce, of more than 300, are out of work and without wages.

It is understood the mill was about 180 feet long and 90 feet wide. It had six storeys, divided into compartments, and the fire started in the spinning room on the fourth floor.

An eye-witness, Mr William Bullock, of Over, was one of 18 men working in the spinning room and claims a spark, caused by friction from the machinery, started the fire. "Flames spread like a flash of lightning," he said.

Mr Bullock and other spinners tried to smother the flames, but fumes quickly overcame them and they made their escape. There was no prearranged fire drill, he claims, and buckets of water were not always kept along-side the machinery by the spinners.

The owner of the mill, Mr James Haigh returned from Southport late on Tuesday as firemen were battling to contain the blaze. He was not available for comment at his Over Hall home, last night.

Friday, October 30,1874
A coroner's jury viewed for themselves, yesterday, where eight people died in the Over Cotton Mill fire. They later returned a verdict of "accidental death" on all the victims.

One of the principal witnesses at the inquest, held at the Wheatsheaf Inn, was 13-year-old Margaret Whitehurst who was called to identify the remains of her mother and three-month-old brother, Thomas.
The girl said the three of them had first tried to escape by a staircase. They had not seen the flames at first, but were being overcome by fumes. Mrs Whitehurst had thrown the baby out of a fourth floor window and then jumped herself.

They both crashed to their deaths, but Margaret had a miraculous escape by falling into a giant watertank on the ground. She had worked at the factory since she was eight.

Spinner, William Bullock said there had been no appliances to fight the fire and they had waited about 90 minutes for volunteer brigades to arrive from Witton, Middlewich and Tarporley. There should have been eight dozen water buckets throughout the mill, but none were found in the spinning room where the fire started.

The Coroner, Mr Churton, accepted evidence that friction from a pulley had ignited loose cotton and sparked the tragedy.

Spinning master, John Kay said he went to the top of the building for water when the fire began, but was overcome by smoke and fell down three flights of stairs. Passage down was impossible, he added, and he had jumped through a window into the same water tank that had saved the life of Margaret Whitehurst.

Summing up, the Coroner stated no-one was to blame for the fire, but he felt it would have been wise for the owner, Mr James Haigh, to have kept a small portable engine on the premises.
Collections have begun in Over and neighbouring districts for the families of the fire victims, and the bodies will be buried in a common grave at St John's Church, Over.

The dead have been named as Harriet Whitehurst, 34, and her three-month-old baby, Thomas, of Factory Street; Martha Anne Goulding, 15, of Factory Street; Miriam Whitehurst, 23, of Factory Street; Catherine Mountfield, 17, of Over Lane Terrace; Ellen Fletcher, 18, of John Street; Eliza Hindley, 16.

The eighth victim has not been officially identified, but is believed to be John Timperley, a married man of Factory Street, Over.