top of page

Wonder and Dread (2): Preventable factory disasters, then and now

When I started work on the "Wonder and Dread" project I was keen to investigate something that had been on my mind since making my works about the 2013 Rana Plaza disaster (see my post of 31/7/14 here ): Surely, there must have been similar disastrous textile factory collapses in 19th century Britain? It didn't take me long to find Bradford's Victorian "Rana Plaza": the destruction of the Newlands Mill (also known as Ripley's Mill) in Bradford on 28 December 1882, when the factory's 4,000 tons chimney collapsed, crushing the 4-storey mill under is weight. One side of the mill was completely levelled to the ground. The mill employed over 2,000 people, but because the accident happened during breakfast hour, "only" 54 workers died; many more were seriously injured.

Newlands Mill collapse, 1882 - commerating the 54 victims. Bradford Industrial Museum

Card commemorating the 54 victims of the Newlands Mill collapse, Bradford Industrial Museum

The disaster was widely reported in the Bradford and English press. What's great about 19th century news illustrations is that they are drawings, not photographs.

Newlands Mill collapse, eye witness illustration. Bradford Local Studies Library

Bradford industrial Museum has one photo of the disaster site, but I find the drawings much more evocative.

Photo of the Newlands Mill collapse, Bradford, 1882. Bradford Industrial Museum

The photo of the collapsed Newlands Mill from Bradford Industrial Museum's collection

When I read through the news reports from 1882, I was struck by the similarities between the Newlands Mill and the Rana Plaza disasters:

  • Most importantly, both disasters were entirely preventable, because the faults in the buildings that caused their collapse were known well in advance. The owner of the Rana Plaza building knew that he had illegally added 3 storeys to a building that could not structurally support such additions, and that the building was not built for housing garment factories with 1000s of whirring sewing machines - it was supposed to be an office building. Moreover, cracks had appeared in the building walls the day before the collapse and workers had left the building in fear. However, the next day they were ordered back in by their bosses who did not want to lose business for running late with orders. In the case of the Newlands Mill, the chimney had structural problems from the start. Corrective repairs had to be made to stop the chimney from leaning even before it was finished, and cracks in the chimney wall had to be repaired in subsequent years. By now the chimney was considered unsafe by the general public. After bulges had appeared in the chimney in December 1882, further repairs were scheduled over the christmas period but were delayed due to bad weather. There was no suggestion ever that work should be halted until the dangerous situation had been fixed.

  • The majority of victims of both disasters were girds and young women. In Bangladesh, the minimum working age is 14, and the garment sector is female-dominated. Many girls from impoverished villages see a garment factory job as an opportunity to earn their own money and escape dire poverty and early marriage. In 1882 Bradford, the minimum working age was 10, and of the 54 disaster victims 31 were 11-17. One girl, Susan Woodhead, was only 8 years old. Why was she even there? Most likely because she was with her mum - the victims list also includes one Selina Woodhead, age 32. As I looked closer I noticed more siblings and parents & children who had died together in the ruins.

  • Both incidents occurred in the morning between 8 and 9 AM.

There is an important difference though:

After the Rana Plaza collapse, the owner, Sonel Rana, tried to escape to India but was arrested after a 4-day manhunt. In August 2017, he was jailed for 3 years for corruption; he is also facing changes for violating the building code and for murder, along with 37 other responsible people. If convicted of murder, he could face the death penalty.

After the Newlands Mill collapse, there was no criminal trial, just a govenrment-sponsored inquest, which found that the owner was not guilty of negligence and gave a verdict of accidental death. This caused a huge outrage locally and nationally,

including within the construction industry. The inquest was seen as an establishment whitewash aiming to protect the owner, Mr Ripley, who was one of them.

Very quickly I decided that my work inspired by Newlands Mill would be a companion piece to "Aftermath", one of the works I'd made about Rana Plaza, using a similar technique of constructing a relief with fabrics stiffened with transparent acrylic medium.

Alke Schmidt, Aftermath (detail)

Detail from "Aftermath"

However, the colours and fabrics would be quite different. Ironically, the Rana Plaza disaster site in Dhaka looked quite colourful: brightly coloured cloth and clothes were intertwined with concrete, steel and bodies, and drenched by the hot April sun.

By contrast, all reporters of the "terrible calamity" at Newlands Mill emphasise the winter darkness. One eye witness describes that the space was covered "by an indescribable mass of broken machinery, beams, bricks, stones, skeps of wool and bobbins, and heaps of ironwork, from the depths of which could be distinctly heard the agonising cries of human beings for help and water".

AlkeSchmidt A Terrible Calamity Detail

Detail from "A Terrible Calamity"

I considered using original old bobbins and mill equipment in my relief construction when I came across an "objects for disposal" notice from the Science Museum Group that included a couple of boxes of bobbins, metal bits etc . Alas, there was no way I could have gotten hold of those boxes in time for making my work - I was ready to go right over there to pick them up, but the wheels of admin turn a lot more slowly ...

I wondered what clothes the workers would have worn, and asked Bradford Museums' social history curator for advice: it would have been simple, drab, home-sewn cotton and/or wool garments , often "recycled" from previous uses e.g. from bed sheets. Children might have worn ill-fitting hand-me downs. Given that I could not use original 19th century clothing in my work, I used a similar process, "recycling" bits of fabric from second hand work shirts, trousers, etc. To commemorate 8 year old Susan, I made a little blouse from an old bed sheet.

Eyre Crowe, The Dinner Hour, Wigan (1874), (Detail) Manchester Art Gallery

Detail from Eyre Crowe, The Dinner Hour, Wigan (1874), showing workers' blouses. Manchester Art Gallery

My next idea was to commemorate each worker who had died with a bobbin bearing their name. It would have to be small bobbins, considering the overall scale of my work (much smaller than regular mill bobbins). Eventually I found some little ones of varying lengths. My system was: the younger the victim, the shorter the bobbin. I used wool yarn from Bradford's Bulmer & Lumb in the piece, as well as unspun wool from Bradford's Haworth Scouring - keeping it local where possible.

Gradually assembling the work was a lot of fun. It's really hard to begin with when there's very little there, but the more I started piling up the fabric, yarn etc, the easier it got.

Alke Schmidt "A Terrible Calamity" - work in progress

"A Terrible Calamity" - Work in progress

Featured Posts
Recent Posts
Search By Tags
Follow Us
  • Instagram Social Icon
bottom of page