A Disastrous Fire

Things went very wrong in the early hours of Thursday 22nd May, 1851 when a severe fire destroyed the original mill building. Wolverhampton Chronicle commented on the fire as follows:

The fire “raged with almost volcanic energy, sending forth huge spires of flame which overtopped the high shaft of the steam engines, and were visible for miles.”  “…although not of ancient date, had been erected before iron girders, and other checks of fire had been introduced. Massy beams of timber consequently were employed to bear the great weight of the grain and of the machinery necessary to grind it; the rooms too, as is usual in such buildings, were low, and thus the joists and flooring being, as might be expected, very dry, an unfortunate facility was presented to feed and to communicate ignition, when it once commenced”.

The building was completely destroyed except for the outer walls, which had to be shored up to prevent collapse. The two steam engines and boilers were only slightly damaged, so presumably they were in a separate building. The house, several store rooms, and the sack warehouse, were saved.

It appears that the fire which started on the 4th floor was first spotted by a boatman who ran up the road to the night watchman shouting “Fire”. The watchman saw the flames coming from near the brusher, ran to get some water, but then found that he could not get near the source of the fire because of flames and smoke. It is believed that the fire had been caused by friction in the machinery.

A Wolverhampton-based fire engine from around 1900.

Four fire engines were called from Wolverhampton, but there was little that they could do. They were assisted by local police, and a detachment of the 50th Foot, consisting of 60 men under the command of Captain Bellars and Lieutenant Galton. The situation was made worse because the mill was fitted with gas lighting, and when the gas pipes melted due to heat from the fire, the gas fed the flames. Around two hours after the start of the fire, the road was dug up and the gas main severed, but the fire was not fully extinguished until Friday afternoon.

At about half past ten on Thursday morning the fire still raged, a large amount of grain and flour continued to burn fiercely. It was feared that the outer walls would disintegrate, due to the great weight that was leaning against them from the floors that had collapsed. Any falling masonry could have resulted in fatalities amongst the people fighting the fire. In order to quickly get the fire under control, extra fire engines were called from Birmingham. 

At the time the mill contained 12,000 bags of grain, most of which were ruined, and carried away in canal boats for disposal. The loss was estimated at between £10,000 and £20,000, only £8,000 of which was covered by insurance. The remaining sum had to be found by the Norton family. The fire had been the largest in the town for many years. Even though a number of fire engines attended the blaze, little could be done because of a shortage of hosepipe, and a lack of power from the engines, which could not direct the water onto the top of the building.

A fire engine from 1906. Courtesy of Arpingstone on Wikipedia.

The Birmingham Journal reported the event on the 24th May as follows:

“Without wishing to impute blame in any quarter, we are only reiterating the almost universally expressed opinion that the existing arrangements of the town are utterly inadequate to meet calamities like the present. The fire engines are not sufficiently numerous or powerful, nor in that efficiency which a town like Wolverhampton requires. However, the present occurrence will doubtless force the subject upon the public authorities”.

"The origin of the fire is involved in doubt, and probably will remain so; but an opinion has been expressed that the great friction of the spindles of some of the brushes caused the adjacent woodwork to ignite. We understand that the evidence of the men who were at work until twelve o'clock at night, has been taken, but nothing satisfactory could be ascertained as to the origin of the fire, although from the rapidity with which the flames spread, it would seem to lead to the inference that the fire must have arisen from the friction caused by the working of 'the brusher', which, it appears, is used for the purpose of cleaning the wheat after it is received from the farmers, and before grinding."

During the following month the Wolverhampton Watch Committee reported that “In consequence of the recent disastrous fire at Norton’s Mill, they recommend that a separate fire brigade be formed.” In reality it took two years to form the Wolverhampton Fire Brigade.

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A Fireproof Mill