Essay: A ‘Dreadful Accident’ The workers and the collapse of Islington Mill, 1824

by Greg Thorpe


“The import of cotton into Great Britain was 187,231,520 pounds, of which 171,993,160 pounds were imported into Liverpool, and may therefore safely be said to have been consumed in and about Manchester.”

– Charles Timperley, The Annals of Manchester

“About twelve years old are preferred. … Those employed from infancy are preferable.”

– Nathan Gough, owner of Islington Mill, Parliamentary Survey (1834), supplementary report on the employment of children in factories

“A more heart-rending scene we never witnessed. It was a day of horrors never to be forgotten in the neighbourhood.”

 – ‘The Technical Repository’, T.G. Gill (1824)


In a painting of Salford in the 1820s by the artist John Ralston we see a pleasing jumble of brick, thatched, and timbered houses characteristic of the town at the time. Standing proudly in the foreground is the Salford Cross. The scene depicts the hustle and bustle of central Salford at the junction of Gravel Lane and Greengate. This is the old Salford that would soon be swallowed up by the coming of industry – a revolution in technology and human misery that left no human life unaltered. Down the other end of Chapel Street, in 1823, just off Oldfield Road, David Bellhouse of Leeds had just completed work on a new six-storey fireproof cotton mill. Aside from the occasional holy spire, Islington Mill was to be the tallest building for miles around, and yet to be rivalled by the behemoth mills of Ancoats, for this is not yet Victorian Manchester, but Georgian Lancashire.

John Ralston; Salford Cross, Greengate; Salford Museum & Art Gallery

Inside Islington Mill, workers as young as nine years old would arrive on foot from the surrounding cramped cottages and pitiful slums to enter the gloomy factory at dawn and work a solid hour on an empty stomach before taking breakfast and resuming their tasks, in shifts that could last up to eleven hours in total. The mill owner Nathan Gough would later suggest that anything less than sixty-nine hours in a working week should be considered “detrimental to trade.” Some of Gough’s workers may have migrated from home or ‘cottage’ industry into these new industrial mills. The rapidly growing cities inhaled new populations into their grimy centres from across the north in order to populate the busy factories. Some of the young workers at this time were likely the first generation to endure an entirely urban upbringing, an experience alien and incomparable to the rural childhoods of their parents.

In 1824, the Salford Cross came down, and so too did Islington Mill. At least in part. On the morning of 13 October 1824, a portion of the mill experienced an internal structural collapse. A flaw in one of the innovative cast iron beams at the top of the building caused it to suddenly break and the floor give way, causing one overburdened floor after another to collapse and concertina all the way down to the ground in a tremendous rush of bricks, metal, masonry and equipment. The outer walls of the building remained intact but inside, the carnage of twisted machinery and rubble would claim the lives of eighteen workers, horribly crushed to death in the collapse, as others lay terribly wounded and maimed beneath the ruins.


These days there aren’t many traces left in Manchester of the architect, builder, and mill owner, David Bellhouse. Next to All Saints Park on the Manchester Metropolitan University campus, you can see the family home that he built for his brother, known simply as The Bellhouse Building. At Heaton Park, the grand columns beside the boating lake are the remnants of his original Manchester Town Hall, relocated from their former site on King Street. The Portico Library is a true Manchester gem, designed by Thomas Harrison and built by Bellhouse, completed in 1806. Bellhouse himself was a founding member of the library.

David Bellhouse, architect of Islington Mill.

Heritage and history often focus on the comparably well-documented and propertied middle and upper-classes, but our research project into the building collapse aimed to look at the mill workers themselves. For almost two centuries we have referred to a list of eighteen dead workers, drawn from the initial reports of the accident.

List of names taken from The Portfolio (London, 23 October 1824).

These names have informed various touching tributes and memorials over the years. Here is a chalk board memorial created by Jo Smartie that was displayed in the entrance to Islington Mill in 2014.

Memorial, 2014, by Jo Smartie.

Here is Fraser Chapman’s ‘Souvenir in Affectionate Remembrance’, held in the permanent collection of the Working Class Movement Library and recently displayed at our 2021memorial event.

Fraser Chapman, ‘Souvenir in Affectionate Remembrance’, 2012. Courtesy Working Class Movement Library.

Fraser Chapman also undertook a huge amount of historical research that forms the bedrock of this current heritage exploration, including mapping worker’s addresses and locating primary sources that reference the building of the mill, its role in the city economy, and its untimely collapse. The goal for this new iteration of our research was to formally identify as many of the workers as possible. In other words, to attach at least one primary historical document to each of the eighteen dead in order to verify their identity – be it through birth, baptism, census, or their tragic demise. As with all of our Heritage commissions, we then shared the material of our findings with artists who work in creative and emotive ways to bring the evidence to life.


The original list of the dead

JAMES GREAVES, Dixon Street, aged 14

RICHMALL GREAVES, aged 16, sister to the above.

WILLIAM M’KINZIE, Rowell’s-court, Bank Parade, aged 11.

THOS. CLARKE Hope-street, aged 13.

ANN KAY, Oldfield-road, aged 34.

SUSANNAH HAMILTON, Gravel-lane, aged 18.

MARY MARTIN, Lombard-street, aged 16.

ALICE HALLAM, 5, Back Park-street, aged 30.

MARY ORMES, Irwin’s-court, Oldfield-road, aged 30, a stranger from Derby; no friends here.

MARY ANN FORSTER, Davies-street, Broughton-road, aged 14.

ELIZABETH WILSON, Silver-street, aged 35

ELIZABETH SMITH, Muslinet-court, Oldfield-road, aged 28.

JANE ASHTON, Scotland Bridge, aged 55.

ELLEN ASHTON, 20, her daughter.

CATHERINE SCHOFIELD, Windsor Bridge, aged 11.

FRANCES SMITH, Booth street, aged 27.

ELIZABETH JONES, Union-street, aged 17; a stranger from Holy well; no friends here.

BETTY SMITH, Factory-lane, aged 60: she was found on the top of the engine-house.


The initial appraisal of the accident incorrectly identified 17 and not 18 fatalities. This might be due to the late finding of the body of the oldest victim, Betty Smith, who lay undiscovered for some time on top of the internal Engine House and so was the last to be identified and counted. Another early report summarised the deceased as “sixteen … females, and three boys” – equalling 19 dead, another unexplained error. The coroner and press eventually agreed on the list of eighteen people, which was reported in the Manchester Guardian and elsewhere, and which has been the key resource over the years.

It seems likely that this list of names, ages and addresses was verbally obtained at the location of the accident. An in-depth critique of the coroner’s inquest in the Guardian points out that the identities of the deceased were not verified by any legal person, only by relatives, or just as likely colleagues for those without family, and the bodies were promptly buried before most of the official reports had been circulated. Think for a moment: how confidently and accurately would you know the full names, true ages and home addresses of your work associates, including from another department or floor of the building? Could you recall them in the midst of a tragedy? At the time of telling, the air was likely still thick with dust while the courtyard of the mill held a makeshift mausoleum for the bodies of family, friends and co-workers, some horribly disfigured. Shock and trauma can account for this first introduction of entirely understandable inaccuracies. But there is another potential barrier we will return to later.


Tracing the workers

My resources for seeking records were, Lancashire Online Parish Clerk Project, Family Search, Manchester & Lancashire Family History Search, and the historical archives at Salt Lake City. Burial records became a key goal, given that we know the exact date of the deaths they are easy to verify, and such a record yields the full name and age, and sometimes more. Several workers came rapidly into view via this method, while others had such common names in a place with a staggeringly high mortality rate that they took much longer. About half the workers could eventually be attached to a document via a simple if laborious search through the Lancashire burial records. Errors immediately surfaced, such as the misspelling of names, as well as inaccurate or maybe even falsified ages.­ For example, ‘Thos. Clarke, 13’ turned out to be Thomas Clark, aged only 11.

Then the trail dried up with half the workers still to be attached to any official documentation. I returned instead to my newly-documented workers to see what else could be learned about them. Richmall Greaves was the sister of James Greaves, the only siblings to die together in the collapse.  ‘Richmall’ or ‘Richmal’ is a rare girls name, primarily found in the Bury area, where the writer Richmal Crompton hails from, the author of the ‘Just William’ books. Richmall Greaves is sadly misnamed ‘Richmond’ on her burial entry and it was this error that alerted me to the fact that the records were likely being spoken and then recorded, rather than being copied from another written source for example, and so a gateway for error appears.

A few years ago I was applying for my Irish passport when my mother, a Dubliner by birth, explained that I might encounter something unexpected on her birth certificate. Her name, ‘Mary Jean’, is incorrectly entered there as ‘Mary Jane’. As I listened to her explain this to me, and I looked at the document in my hand, I detected that in her Dublin accent the words ‘Jane’ and ‘Jean’ are actually not so distinguishable, perhaps even less so to a middle-class Dubliner, or an out-of-town culchie, or even an English administrator at a Dublin record office. In short, it’s apparent that official documentation cannot be relied upon.


Finding the voices of the past

Back at my Islington Mill research I happened to spot that the record of someone with the family name ‘Gough’ had been rendered as ‘Goff’, clearly another mis-transcription of a phonetic exchange. Now that I was faced with the prospect of spoken misunderstandings, I knew the next step was to begin to speak the names of the workers aloud to see what other forms they could take. I have a Lancashire accent myself so I joyfully cranked this up into an even more northern tone as I recited the now-familiar list of names. Unbelievably, I happened on some phonetic variations that actually led me to find actual missing names and records:


WILLIAM M’KINZIE became William Kinsey

SUSANNAH HAMILTON became Susannah Hambleton

MARY ANN FORSTER became Mary Ann Forsyth

ALICE HALLAM became Alice Allum


All four were soon verified – and could ‘Mary Ormes’ in fact be ‘Mary Holmes’? Try saying it aloud and Lancastrian. Phonetically it’s identical. ‘Frances’ turned out to have been buried by her shortened name of ‘Fanny’, and the Smiths and Jones were eventually found by a long process of elimination, except for one which I will come to. Now there were traceable records for fifteen of the eighteen deceased, nine of which had been recorded on the original list with inaccuracies in name or age or both.


The updated list of the dead

This is the most up to date list of names and ages of the workers who died, in order of age from youngest to oldest. Each person listed here has at least one piece of documentation to connect them to the original accident report. Those in italics have yet to be verified.




















The unidentified

‘MARY ORMES, Irwin’s-court, Oldfield-road, aged 30, a stranger from Derby; no friends here.’

 Our ‘Mary Ormes, 30’ remains elusive. ‘Ormes’ is a genuine English surname but the ‘Holmes’ prospect is tantalising. Neither have borne fruit yet. There is a particular sadness in Mary’s anonymity, described in the report as ‘a stranger from Derby; no friends here.’ At least two possibilities present themselves: that nobody knew Mary well enough to accurately give her details to the inquest (even the tidy ‘30’ seems like a guess); or, that ‘Mary Ormes’ was not in fact her real name and that she had escaped her origins (perhaps not even Derby) for some unknown reason. Either way, the fact she remains a ‘stranger’ in life and death is a sad result.


‘MARY MARTIN, Lombard-street, aged 16.’

Another Mary, the teenage Mary Martin of Lombard Street, has also proved impossible to verify. Her address on Lombard Street off Deansgate was a notorious site of poverty and deprivation. The original mission that became the Wood Street Mission was founded there and it was also home to two pubs, a Ragged School and a Working Men’s Church. Lombard Street was one of many streets destroyed to make way for Manchester Central Station, built in 1875, and Mary’s memory seems to have gone with it.


‘BETTY SMITH, Factory-lane, aged 60: she was found on the top of the engine-house.’

Factory Lane would once have cut through the site where St Philip’s school playground now sits, so for Betty Smith there was no getting away from the mill that towered over her life, as it towered over her home too – she lived in its shadow and died in its ruins. I have found no records for a Betty, Bet, Elizabeth, Lillibet, Bessy, Liz, Eliza Smith or any variation on the name who was aged 60 and who died on 13 October, or on any day in October of 1824. ‘60’ itself sounds like another estimate and it is not at all surprising that a person subject to the rigour and distress of mill life might seem older than their years. Knowing that other workers were also recorded with inaccurate ages, I broadened my search to include every Betty Smith of any age who died in 1824. This produced a huge number of people. At this stage of research there is nothing for it but to read each and every record in turn. Eventually I came across this:

Betty Smith’s burial record? (Downloaded from, 2021)

Her name is Elizabeth Smith from Salford. She was buried on 17 October 1824, the same burial date as all of the other victims. She was 52 years old, and her burial entry includes a tiny addendum that reads: ‘Coroner Inquest’. Burial records are only marked ‘Coroner Inquest’ for crime or accidental death. Do we think this is our Betty Smith? At our memorial event in October 2021, I put it to the audience who overwhelmingly believed that this was the missing ‘Betty Smith’. The date, name and town are correct. The age is different, as are others. The ‘Factory Lane’ address is missing. The name is extremely common. The desire for a definitive answer is overwhelming. ‘Betty Smith, 60’ is the entry we settled on for the memorial, for now at least. The next step is to explore the inquest referred to, which might just lead us back to that careless gathering of a jury “at ten o’clock on Thursday morning… at the Angel Inn in Whitecross Bank” where the forgetting of the workers began..


Workers in focus

A sad irony to the tragedy of these 18 deaths is that without this devastating accident, we might have known nothing at all about these individuals’ lives. Susannah Hambleton lived at Gravel Lane, the site of the Salford Cross. Researching this key street in Salford revealed that only a few years prior to the collapse of Islington Mill, a number of Susannah’s neighbours were amongst those injured in the Peterloo violence of 1819. They may have known Susannah, they would certainly have heard about the accident, may have seen the Salford Cross being taken away, and now have their own memorial outside Manchester Central.

Aside from the moving experience of locating true records for the individuals named, the documents can reveal small vital fragments of information that cast a momentary light on the mystery of their lives. Jane and Ellen Ashton were mother and daughter, killed together in the tragedy. Their burial records read as follows:

‘Jane Ashton Spinster aged 55 years who died Oct 13th on accidental Death by the falling in of Goughs Factory Oldfield Road Salford’

‘Also Ellen Daughter of Jane Ashton Illegitimate aged 20 years who died by the falling in of Goughs Factory Oldfield Road Salford lived at 109 Millhill Manchester’

So we learn that Ashton is a birth name not a married name, that when Jane was 35 years old and unwed she became pregnant, that the father didn’t stay, and that she and daughter Ellen went on to work and die together at Gough’s terrible factory. The naming and describing of their deaths in this way is a tremendous find for a researcher. The Ashtons lived at Scotland Bridge. Here is an image of some dwellings there, taken twenty or so years after their deaths.

Dwellings at Scotland Bridge Salford, c. 1850s


‘ANN KAY, Oldfield-road, aged 34.’

Ann Kay is the figure that most captured my imagination in this story. This is how we encounter her death in the reporting:

We were particularly struck with one old man, whose name we understood to be Kay. He had a daughter, remarkable for her steady, industrious, economical habits,—who had saved (as we have been informed) from her wagers as a reeler, upwards of £100. Hearing of the calamitous occurrence, he went to seek his daughter, and he found her a mangled corpse. We never saw distress more forcibly depicted on the countenance or in the gesture of a human being.

There is a lot to process in these precious few lines. First some facts, that Ann was a reeler, also confirmed on her burial record, so is one of the few whose actual role at the mill is known. A reeler’s job is described as follows:

Received yarn on bobbins or paper tubes and arranged them on a shelf above the machine; guided and attached the end of the yarns to swifts (skeleton reels), which revolved and wound the yarn upon themselves in skein form; controlled the power drive on the machine; mended broken threads; removed the hanks or skeins of yarn from the machine when completed.
(Hall Genealogy Website, accessed June 2022)

Ann is born in 1793, so is aged 31 at her death, not 34 as the report states. The devastation her father endures shows that she is deeply loved and mourned. She still has her family name so hasn’t married and is presumably living at home with her parents. She has supposedly saved ‘£100’ which would be the equivalent of almost £6000 today. The Inquest papers give the value as a more realistic ‘100/ (shillings)’, almost £300 today, still a small fortune for a factory worker at the time. (Calculations using National Archives Currency Converter). What we perceive is that Ann has imagined a future for herself, that she has quite another kind of life in mind away from the mill. Does this inform the depth her father’s grief? The overwhelming feeling that she oughtn’t to have been at the factory at all?

Ann Kay also has the only grave inscription I’ve been able to locate. She was buried at St Mary the Virgin churchyard, later Eccles Parish Church. The church once had a graveyard but burials ceased around 1963, and in 1966 most of the memorials were removed and the graveyard laid out as gardens as it remains today. However, the inscriptions were recorded for posterity and here is the wording from the Kay family headstone with the coda written as if from Ann herself:

Here Resteth the Body of
John Kay who departed this life
Decr 3rd 1844 aged 77 years.
Also Hannah Wife of John Kay who
departed this life June 1st
1828 aged 66 years.
Also Mary Daughter of John and
Hannah Kay of Salford who
departed this life August 24th
1807 aged 18 years.
Also Ann their Daughter who departed
this life October 13th 1824 aged 31 years

Weep not for me Parents dear
We must lie here till Christ appear
And at his coming, will hope to have
A joyful rising from the grave

Here we learn that John Kay had already lost a daughter, Mary, and so the harrowing description takes on yet another aspect: We never saw distress more forcibly depicted on the countenance or in the gesture of a human being. This was not John’s first loss. Through I have been able to make contact with the great great great great niece of Ann Kay and have found Ann’s family tree, from which she and her sister Mary were both missing and have now been added. A tiny victory over obscurity.


The grave sites

It’s no exaggeration to think of Chapel Street as one big charnel house. From Greengate to Islington Park there are thousands of bodies buried in deconsecrated, or never consecrated, ground beneath our feet. Our mill workers died before the great cemeteries of Manchester, such as Weaste and Southern Cemetery, had been established. Some were buried as paupers and may never have had headstones at all, but the map of their final destinations shows a radically changed urban topography.

Thomas Clark, Catherine Schofield and Elizabeth Jones were buried at the New Jerusalem Temple. If you stand facing The Filaments apartment building at the corner of Gore Street and Trinity Way, they are somewhere underneath the small run of townhouses there.

The Filaments, Chapel Street, Salford, 2022.

Jane and Ellen Ashton were buried in the graveyard for the poor at Christchurch on King Street. This was a car park for a long time but recently underwent an archaeological dig in preparation for a new public space there.

Extract from ‘Archaeological evaluation report: Christchurch (Plot K), King Street, Salford (University of Salford, 2019, available online here).

Susannah Hambleton and Fanny Smith are at rest in the beautiful and now deconsecrated Gartside Gardens in Rusholme.

Gartside Gardens, Rusholme.

One of the few spots that still feels something like a burial ground is St Stephen Gardens, just off Chapel Street, where Elizabeth Wilson is buried and which inexplicably still has two lone gravestones in the corner of the grounds.

Graves in St Stephen’s Gardens, Salford

Also buried in St Stephen’s is the artist John Ralston, mentioned with his painting of Salford Cross at the beginning of this essay, whose vibrant work gives us imagery that helps us to place our story in the imagination. Sadly John was not able to make a living as an artist in his day and he died in the poor house in 1833. There is something about our commitment to supporting artists at Islington Mill to this day that makes me want to hold John in our memory.


The survivors

The collapse of Islington Mill also contains stories of extraordinary survival. Elias Foden, an ‘overlooker’ or supervisor, was standing beside the arch of the floor that collapsed, only a few feet from certain death, and his testimony helped ascertain where the collapse originated. Here are some other very close shaves:

[A] young man working at his lathe, in the fifth floor from the ground, almost miraculously escaped the fate with which he was threatened, by springing on the ledge of the window, and remaining in that situation in a state of horror and alarm amounting almost to insensibility, while he viewed the ruin that surrounded him, and the gulf which opened beneath his feet and swallowed up his less-fortunate companions.

Some of those who had fallen from the top escaped unhurt; and one of the boys who was in this situation, said the descent was as easy as riding in a coach.

Then there was mechanic James Lee, who in his 40 years of life had already survived a drowning, a fire, and a diving boat accident, and in the collapse of the mill became trapped under the sixth floor but was deposited with only bruises onto the roof of the ground floor engine house.

What it was like for the rest of the survivors of the tragedy to have to go back to work, as no doubt they soon had to, in the newly repaired mill where so many had died, we can only guess.




Further information…

Two permanent memorial works were commissioned as part of this research project and the selected artists each took a different approach to the remembrance of the eighteen. Sarah-Joy Ford is a textile artist specialising in quilting, feminist practice and archives. She created a memorial quilt bearing the names of the workers, combining elements of watercolour and digital embroidery, incorporating illustrations and symbolism that speak to the historical context of the accident. Astarte Cara explored the idea of an embodied memorial, creating a wearable dress based on early nineteenth century patterns, and dyeing and printing using natural techniques and flora that relate to memory, loss and to other Manchester tragedies. You can read about both of these works in more detail here, and about other memorials here.

You can also explore historical maps, workers’ death certificates, and an exploration of the technical aspects of the building collapse. You can hear music of the 1820s, and visit our Heritage Timeline, and our Heritage Page.