The Smithfield Mill Disaster, 20th January 1902
“It is with the most profound sorrow that we chronicle the most deplorable disaster that has occurred in Belfast in the history of the city…”Irish News 21st January 1902
At about 9:20am on Monday 20th January 1902, a section of the Smithfield Flax Spinning and Weaving Mill collapsed, trapping the millworkers inside. The factory sited on Winetavern Street was commonly known as the Pipe Lane Mill (the previous name of that street).
Crowds of people rushed to the scene to help with the rescue operation and to discover the fate of loved ones. Firemen worked tirelessly through the day and into the night to uncover the bodies of the dead and injured. The site was illuminated by Well’s patent torches while a gathering of 5,000 people waited outside the gates for news.
In total 14 women and girls perished in the tragedy and many, many more were seriously hurt. Some were maimed and permanently disabled. That day was to change the lives of so many families and cast a dark shadow over the Smithfield district for many years.
The Pipe Lane Mill
The mill on Pipe Lane was situated on the site of the old Belfast jailhouse. In 1805 it was a 5-storey cotton mill of John Milford & Co. By 1853 it was rebuilt as a linen mill under the ownership of the Herdman family. It was one of the oldest mills in the town and employed around 600 people, mainly women. The floors were made of concrete and brick and supported by iron columns. In 1894 the premises were extended onto West Street. At that time the building was examined by surveyors and declared structurally sound.
20th January 1902 – The Collapse
The millworkers started work at 6:30am as usual, and had just returned from their ‘breakfast break’ when a portion of the outer wall on the east side of the building, collapsed without any warning.
As it gave way 30 tonnes of machinery fell through the 5 storeys of the mill, carrying the stricken employees with it. Swept away by an avalanche of bricks and mortar, iron beams and heavy machinery, the women had no chance of escape. The rooms destroyed were a reeling room, carding room, two spinning rooms and two preparing rooms.
Those working nearby described hearing “the burst of an awful roar” which terrified them. When the smoke cleared, a gaping chasm could be seen on the Garfield Street side of the building. The piled debris reached a height of 20ft. Bits of shattered machinery poked from the rubble or balanced tenuously from the upper floors ready to topple at any moment. Scalding steam gushed from broken pipes and the cries of the ‘mangled victims‘ tore through the air.
Firemen were quickly on the scene. Surviving female millworkers who were frantically digging with their bare hands to save their friends were taken to safety to allow the firemen to work in their place.
Three ambulance wagons arrived to take the injured to the nearby Belfast Royal Hospital on Frederick Street.
“The firemen, with their characteristic energy, at once zealously devoted themselves”Irish News 21st January 1902
However, progress was slow due to the precarious state of the building and the threat of further collapses. The cries and groans of those still trapped under the debris, causing heartache among the rescuers and the watching onlookers.
Many of the people gathered had wives or daughters who worked in the mill. As each victim was recovered a surge of hope and fear spread through the crowd.
“The police were kindly but firm with the distracted women, who pleaded to be allowed to search for missing relatives. One of them raised her hands to Heaven and implored on her knees that she might look for her ‘wee girl’. But it was useless to grant her request – the child lay, in all probability beneath the fallen and distorted masonry many tonnes in weight”Ballymena Weekly Telegraph 25th January 1902
Others in Attendance
Among the rescuers were medical men who had rushed to the spot on hearing news of the calamity. These included doctors Dempsey, Taylor, McCrae, Carroll, J W Ritchie and J Davidson.
The police under the command of District Inspector Stevenson, and Head-Constables Good and Regan, were present throughout the rescue attempts. Some helped removing the rubble, others with securing the scene and calming anxious relatives.
“….in a short time quite a large body from Musgrave Street, Queen Street, Divis Street and Cullingtree Road etc. were on the spot working like Trojans for the rescue of the injured. Helmets and tunics were thrown aside, and speedily there was seen the sight of a large number of stalwart RIC manipulating pickaxes and shovels, every man like any four”Irish News 21st January 1902
Also present in ‘the thick of things’ were the priests from nearby St Mary’s Catholic Church. The Rev James Small, regardless of his own safety, was seen climbing the broken stairs to give aid and the Last Rites to the injured women on the upper levels. With Constable Denis Murphy of Queen Street Barracks, the pair tried to help as many of the suffering women as they could.
“Standing on the brink of a terrible chasm filled with steam sent forth in volumes from the broken pipes, drenched with water, and surrounded by the greatest danger, this heroic priest rescued where he could, and where not, he administered the consolations of religion to the injured by his side”Irish News 21st January 1902
The curate of St Mary’s, Fr Daniel Magennis, was also present, working in his shirt sleeves and covered in brick-dust, digging through the rubble to uncover those still trapped beneath. His administrating of the Sacrament was described as a great comfort to the dying and their relatives. Other clergy present included Fr Joseph Burns of the parish, Rev Mr Gibson from Broadway, Rev R Teasey of the North Belfast Mission, Rev J Spence and Rev R McFarland of Ballysillan.
The staff of the Belfast Royal Hospital worked strenuously with the influx of injured patients. However, some were suffering from such catastrophe wounds they could not be saved. Frederick Street was swamped with dazed and anxious relatives and the sound of weeping filled the air.
- Ellen Scott (14)
- Alice Cunningham (20)
- Mary Ann Burns (18)
- Mary Williamson (22)
- Mary Ellen Burke (19)
- Mary Alice Kerr (20)
- Annie Jane Hunter (16)
- Martha Williamson (18)
- Martha Macauley (13)
- Alice McDonald (18)
- Ellen Corr (40)
- Ellen Jane Scott (50)
- Mary Jane Duff (60)
- Lizzie Campbell (22)
The funerals of the victims of the Pipe Lane Mill collapse took place over the next few days, once the Certificate of Interment had been granted by the City Coroner. Most of the burials took place in Milltown Cemetery and the others in Belfast City Cemetery with Martha Macauley being interred in the Shankill Graveyard. The Falls Road and the streets leading to it were crowded with sympathisers. Many millworkers left their places of employment to pay a last tribute to the dead workers.
The first burial at Milltown was that of Mary Williamson. The service was officiated by Rev J Tohill and Rev E Laverty of St Peter’s Catholic Church. Other corteges arrived at short intervals, Ellen Scott at 12 o’ clock, Mary Alice Kerr at 1:30pm and Ellen Corr at the same time. The Smithfield Spinning Company sent representatives to all the funerals.
On 23rd January the Lord Mayor, Sir Daniel Dixon, convened a public meeting in the Town Hall for people to express their sympathy and to set up a fund to provide financial assistance for the bereaved families. A second charitable fund was also established by the Belfast Evening Telegraph. Individuals, businesses and institutions from all walks of life contributed to these collections.
“Mr Sinclair truly and appropriately remarked that the sufferers were all children of toil, the humble, but none the less useful members of the great industry which is the staple enterprise of the city and province….”Irish News 24th January 1902
The Inquest into the Pipe Lane Mill Disaster took place at 11 o’clock on 11th February 1902 in the Recorders Court in the Town Hall Buildings. The empanelled jurors had previously been taken to the mill and viewed the bodies of the deceased in their own homes.
The City Coroner, Mr E S Finnigan, listened to the evidence given by witnesses and the experts. The verdict was delivered on 12th February
“The collapse of the mill was due to the defect at the base of the piers and that the defect could not have been discovered by ordinary inspection, and that no blame can be attached to any person in connection with the accident”
A voice crying “da da!” attracted the rescuers to a mound of debris, painstakingly they dug down and came across a hand. They were then able to uncover the head and shoulders of a boy named Thomas Foote. It took over an hour for his body to be freed, during which time falling masonry threatened to take not only the life of the boy but also his saviours. Eventually the 13-year-old from 27 Kent Street was extricated, however, his legs were badly mangled by the machinery. He was transported to the hospital and survived.
Other millworkers reported hearing a loud crack, then finding themselves among boards and bricks and rubble on the ground, shocked but relatively unscathed.
One young girl had a remarkable escape. She was working alongside her sister Mary Ann on the top storey. She heard a great noise and the floor beside her gave way and her sister disappeared. Mary Ann’s lifeless body was later found among the ruins.
Other wounded in the collapse of the mill included –
- Annie Scott aged 13, from 31 Sydney Street
- Bridget Baxter aged 26, from 24 Glasshouse Street
- Alexander McDermott aged 17 from 54 Brown Street
- Maggie Donnelly aged 21 from 31 Millfield Place
- Bella Allen aged 14 from 23 Arnon Street
- Samuel Cairns aged 11 from 48 Olliver Street
- Ann Fraland aged 17 from 33 Gardiner Street
- Casey Downey aged 16 from 34 Hamill Street
Remembering the Victims
Millworkers had extremely hard lives, often working in harsh unhealthy conditions with long hours and low pay. Their stories are seldom told as not much information was ever recoded of the poor – so what we know of the victims of the Pipe Lane Mill tragedy is scant.
Mary Ann Burns, aged 18, was employed as a spinner in the mill. She lived at 34 California Street off the Old Lodge Road in the Carrick Hill district. She was working next to her sister when the disaster occurred. Her sister survived.
Mary Ellen Burke from 39 Arnon Street (just two streets away from Mary Ann Burns) worked as a spinner. She was 19. Her obituary was placed in the Irish News by Patrick and Annie Burke, most likely her parents. That the family had members who had emigrated is suggested by the wording ‘American and Australian papers please copy’.
Lizzie Campbell, a reeler, lived at 117 Bristol Street, Court Ward. A reeler fixed the yarn onto the empty reels attached to the machines. She resided with her father William, mother Sarah and younger brother John (18). Her father and brother were stonecutters. Lizzie was the last of the millworkers to die, passing away in hospital on 28th January 1902. She was 22.
Ellen Corr aged 40, worked as a drawer in the mill and was also a landlady. She lived at 14 Artillery Street, near the old barracks. She had two boarders, John Laird, a labourer, and Catherine Laird, a winder in a flax mill. It was quite common for poor people to take in lodgers to supplement their income.
Alice Cunningham was a 20-year-old reeler in the Pipe Lane Mill. She lived at 17 Jude Street in the Lower Falls. In 1901 this property was listed as a 2nd class house containing 4 rooms, with a slate roof and 2 front windows.
Mary Jane Duff at the age of 60 was the oldest of the Smithfield disaster fatalities. She was employed as a reeler. There is some discrepancy as to her address, in the newspaper it was listed as 23 Wilson Street but, on the death register 262 Ormeau Road. Mary Jane died in the Royal Hospital, Frederick Street, on 26th January 1902.
Annie Jane Hunter lived at 8 Sackville Street, Smithfield Ward, between Melbourne Street and Coates Street. The millworkers all lived within walking distance of their employment. She was only 16 and worked as a doffer. A doffer removed the full bobbins from the machines and replaced them with empty ones. This job was traditionally done by children.
Mary Alice Kerr, a spinner, was aged 20. She lived at 79 Union Street, off Donegall Street. Her father Edward was born in Scotland and her mother Isabella in County Armagh. Mary Alice was the eldest in the family. She had 5 brothers John Joseph (18), Edward James (16), Hugh (14), Francis (9) and Thomas Emmet (2). She also had two sisters Isabella (7) and Jane (3 months). The Kerr family lived on the ground floor of the house, while the upper floors were used as a boarding house and in 1901 had 13 male lodgers.
Martha Macauley was the youngest of those to die at only 13. She resided at 49 Wall Street in the Carrick Hill district, just around the corner from Mary Ellen Burke. She was employed as a doffer.
Alice McDonald worked as a preparer in the mill. She lived at 4 Lorton Street (in the census as Lortoy Street). Her father was Drew and her mother Agnes. She had a younger sister also named Agnes. The family also took in lodgers. Subsequently the McDonalds moved to Sackville Street, where her father died on 30th December 1902. So, her mother lost both a daughter and her husband within a year.
Ellen Scott 14, was a doffer in the mill. She lived at 4 Letitia Street. I think this Ellen may well be “the young girl Nellie Scott” mentioned in the Irish News on 22nd January among those moved to the Mater Infirmorium Hospital. Nellie was a common pet name for Ellen. She was described in news reports as being “in a very pitiable condition, her ribs penetrating her lungs”.
Ellen Jane Scott aged 50 was another veteran millworker. Millworkers in general did not have a very long life-expectancy. She lived at 49 Eighth Street. First to Tenth Streets ran between Conway Street and North Howard Street
Martha Williamson resided at 23 Mitchell Street with her mother Eliza, sister Letitia (12) and brother James (15). Martha, the eldest at 18, worked as a flax spinner while her little sister was a doffer, James did cellar work and firework. The family also took in a lodger. The top floor of the house was occupied by a Mr John Cairns, a general labourer.
Mary Williamson was an 18-year-old and from the death register we know she lived at 69 Sultan Street in the Lower Falls district, running from Bosnia Street to Cyprus Street. In the 1901 census a Williamson family are lodging in this house with a Mr and Mrs Donaghey. Mary was employed as a spinner in the Smithfield Mill.
The Smithfield Flax Spinning and Weaving Mill
The Smithfield Flax Spinning and Weaving Mill was rebuilt and within a year was working again at full capacity. However, the souls of those killed so suddenly, may well have remained, as there were many unexplained sightings over the years. In particular, the ghost of Mary Jane Duff was seen standing at a machine on the repaired section of the building. Also the figure of a young girl was frequently seen, even by outsiders and building inspectors, hurrying down the stairs only to disappear.
“Both the old woman and the girl on the stairs were claimed to have been seen on a number of occasions after this and it soon became known as the Pipe Lane Mill Hauntings”Joe Baker, Old Belfast: Remembering the Old Smithfield Area
In 1930 the, then disused, mill was sold to the London Midlands and Scottish Railway Co. The buildings were demolished and the site used as a bus station for decades. Today it is Smithfield carpark.
The Disaster Remembered
This is a sad story, not just because of the catastrophic events that happened that January morning, but because it shows how many children were working in the mills in a time of widespread poverty. Accounts of the shoes and shawls found in the ruins and on the stairs brings the fate of these “children of toil” poignantly to life.
The Pipe Lane Mill tragedy may be over 100 years ago but the fate of those victims deserves to be remembered. Each person suffering death, disability or bereavement had their own story to tell.
It was reported at the time that one of the victims was spending her first day in the mill. She had just been hired and was overjoyed to find employment
“….(she) had only been taken on yesterday morning, and so terminated her engagement with ‘death’”.
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