The Denholme Mill Explosion


Foster's Mill - early 1960's


Here’s a story taken from the Yorkshire Post newspaper of 2nd January 1922, concerning an explosion a W.H.Foster’s Mill in Denholme, near Bradford, in which a steam engine pipe exploded, killing two worker and seriously injuring two others, one of whom was William Henry Bancroft a mechanic employed by the Mill.

Over the Christmas break, the previous week, work was carried out at the mill renewing various pipes and valves between the steam engine and boiler room, and it was after everything had been tested and signed off that this terrible explosion happened.

Witness stated at the inquest that after the work had been completed, the engine had been run for five minutes and everything seemed to be in order. The next morning however, when the engine was fired up ready for work commencing in the mill that day, the steam pipes within the engine room were cold, showing something was seriously wrong. Two mechanics, including Bancroft were called to investigate and, together with two other men, went into the engine bay bottom to investigate, and check the drainage traps and valves.

 Almost immediately there was a loud explosion and the engine room was filled with steam. Bancroft stated he managed to escape by creeping out on his hands and knees, but another man called Kershaw, should have been in front of me but he must have got caught in the steam, and I never saw him again. Although Bancroft managed to escape, he was severely scalded and was rushed to hospital.

Witnesses said that that they met Bancroft at the engine room door, and he was very badly scalded. They tried to get in to rescue the two other people inside the room, but were unable to enter initially because of boiling water dripping from the roof. When able to enter later the two other workers were found dead, apparently dying of exhaustion trying to get out.

When a witness was questioned about what were the procedures when pipes and valves in the engine room were found to be cold, he stated that this had never happened during the two years that he had worked there.

An H.M. Factory Inspector after examining the site of the incident reported that both the boiler and valves seemed to all be running satisfactory, so concluded that the fault must have been within the newly installed pipes, and also noted that there had been no ‘hammering’ within the pipes before the explosion. A further examination by a Board of Trade engineer concluded that the cause of the explosion was due to drainage tap valves not being properly maintained previously, although it was far from conclusive that this contributed to the explosion.

The jury in the case, after hearing all the evidence, returned a verdict of “accidental death”, adding that there was nothing definite to show the cause leading up to the accident.

Looking at William’s life, before and after the incident, he was born in Denholme on 12th September 1893, the son of Adam and Alice Bancroft. His father was a Spinning Overlooker at Foster’s Mill and the family were living at Clapham Street at the time.

Baptism record


William followed his father, and most of his family into the mill, which was the major employer in the village and he became a mechanic there. Below is a picture of the mechanic’s workshop within the mill around 1930. It’s not clear whether William is one of the men shown in the photograph.


Mechanic's workshop circa 1930


William seems to have made a good recovery from his terrible injuries and continued worked at Foster's Mill, having married Edith Turton in 1924, and as far as I am able to research they had no children.

The 1939 census shows him still working as a Textile Mechanic, and it seems he continued in that occupation until Foster’s Mill closed in 1964.

1939 census

Records show that William died in 1961 age 68 years.

As far as the history of Foster’s Mill is concerned, it was first built in 1838, but was blown down during a storm the following year. It was then rebuilt in 1840 but suffered a fire in 1857 and was again rebuilt in 1858 and then enlarged substantially over the years. It  continued in the hands of the Foster family until 1969 when Fosters sold the vacant premises, after closing it in 1964.  Many workers seeking employment, had settled in the housing built by the mill owners in the village and Foster's Mill was the largest employer in the area, as can be seen from the above picture of village workers making their way to the mill for the morning shift which start at 5.30am.

Workers starting morning shift at'mill

There were quite a few Bancroft individuals, both families and unrelated men and women, employed by Foster’s over the years, and I wrote an article some time ago about some of them which can be read by clicking here

An unrelated Bancroft boy, called Thomas, started work in Foster’s in 1908, and here is his recollections of the experience through his eyes as an 11 year old child.

Tom’s story starts with a wild shriek of the mill “whew” [mill hooter] gently rattling his bedroom window at 5.30am. This was it!....He had been lying awake for a long time waiting for this great day, when he ceased to be a school kid and became a man. He had been looking forward to this for months, and had been fully accepted by the Spinning Department Manager at W.H.Foster’s Mill, Denholme to start work at six o’clock that morning, a beautiful day, 6th June 1908…his eleventh birthday. After a pot of tea with his father, who was an Overlooker at the same mill, they both set off for work, up the main street to ….THE MILL!

His father then left him in the scurrying crowd of other part-timers at the mill door at around 6.00am, with a tap on his back, saying “ See you at 8.00 o’clock lad” After making his way to the Spinning Rooms, he was directed to the Overlooker, Percy Myers, who was walking along the long isles banging the floor with a foot wide strip of leather, some 4-5 feet long, attached to a short wooden shaft. The noise this made on the floor could be heard above the howling of the two long rows of spinning frames. Percy’s first words to Tom, on seeing his size was “ I’ll hev ta finned thee a box ta stand on”.
He then met Sarah, a nice lass of about seventeen, who looked after some spinning frames, and was given instruction as to what to do as a new “doffer”. He watched the more experienced boys and girls till 8.00 o’clock when the “Whew” blew again, and joined the swarm of men, women, boys and girls pouring out of the main gate.

Just enough time to get home for breakfast and then back before the doors closed again at 8.30 am so he could get back to Sarah, before the Overlooker’s whistle blew to start work again. From then till 12.00 he then followed on, copying the other boys and getting the hang of doffing. It took him weeks before he do this properly, and found school dull after a morning in the mill. He couldn’t wait to get back again the following morning.
After he had picked up the knack of doffin, Sarah gave him some more instructions, about what to do when the thread broke on a bobbin. She was able to take the waste off the roller on the spinning frame, without stopping it and start it on the bobbin again. He had watched her do this scores of times a day with just a finger and thumb, so had a go under her watchful eye. When he tried to do this, he had to jump back from the frame sucking a blistered thumb and finger. Sarah stood there laughing and said “ It’s no good laking wi’ it, th’sta grab it ‘ard before it burns tha”. He collected a few more blisters before he got the knack, but then enjoyed watching the new lads burn their fingers as they also learned the knack.

When his twelfth birthday arrived, it found him as a fully trained doffer, and he automatically became a 53 hours a week full-time mill worker. On Friday, payday, he proudly handed his wage of half-a-crown to his mother, who always gave him something back. He felt he had grown up and was justifying his existence in a fine family life

All this from a lad of 12 years of age!

 The closure of the mill came as a great shock to everyone in the village, who had never known a time when it had not been there to support the livelihoods of many in the village, and the local vicar wrote the following open letter to his congregation at the time.

‘ One does not have to have imagination to realise the deep personal sorrow that lies in the heart of Mr Garnet Foster, in closing the mill started by his forebears 134 years ago, and carried on so loyally by him. When I visited him on the morning after the announcement, with disregard for himself, there were his first words to me. I am truly sorry for my staff and work folks who have served me so loyally, and I shall do all in my power to help them to face up to the crisis, which has been building up for some years, and which I have made every effort to avoid’

At the time the mill employed over 300 people, it being estimated about one eighth of the village would be affected by the shutdown. The local newspaper reported the main reason for the closure was a shortage of operatives;

 ‘From as far back as 1947, Fosters found it necessary to recuit girls from Ireland, but recruitment had not kept pace with needs. Denholme Mill in Denholme is not attractive to operatives because of travel from places such as Bradford and Keighley where there is full employment’

Nothing remains today of the mill….the site has been developed over the years into a large housing estate, vastly transforming and changing the whole character of the village.


Foster's Mill circa 1940

This early morning picture of the Mill shows the size of the complex with the walkway above road hight to enable produce to be moved from one side of the mill to the other for processing.



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