Local Historical Stories


Early in 1996 Alastair Robertson - our local historian was asked if he would write a couple of historical articles for the Alston Moor Newsletter. He thought he could manage three or four but in the event, over 20 years later, they were still going. Once, and only once, he received an unsolicited article from an outside source, this was the reminiscence of a school for wartime evacuees at Nent Hall that came from Mr. Michael Dickinson and it was gratefully included in the series.

They’re a real mixed bag, too random to put into a book, but they’re still worth keeping in a more permanent form, so the Historical Society website seemed the perfect place to have them.

Material for the articles came largely from local sources, from the Alston Moor Historical Society Archives, St. Augustine’s Church Records, Alston Library, the Cumbria County Records Office in Carlisle and the County Records Office Northumberland.

There has been editing in some cases that will be noted at the beginning of each item, otherwise the articles have been left as they were written, complete with occasional references to such things as cement lorries, the millennium, and foot and mouth disease, which are themselves now things of the past (?).
Read on …

Story No 21: Destructive Fire At Alston Woollen Mill

Stacks Image 308810
First Edition map of Alston, 1861, with the Woollen Mill in the centre
This article was edited with great effort from the Alston Herald of July 6th 1878. The Woollen Mill was on the site of what is now the scrapyard; the stone building is what remains of a much taller structure.


Alston Woollen Mill, on Monday morning last was, for the second time within a short period, the scene of a destructive fire. About thirteen or fourteen months ago, a fire broke out in the offices, which did damage to the amount of £500, but the damage done by the fire under notice will, it is estimated, amount to upwards of £13,000. The mill is the property of Messrs. Akerigg who bought it a few years ago, and fitted it up with excellent machinery, and some forty or fifty hands, who were employed, will be thrown out of work by the disaster.
As Mr. James Nelson, who is employed under the North Eastern Railway Company, was proceeding to his work at Alston Railway Station about four o’clock in the morning, he observed the first evidence of the fire at the north end of the mill. He immediately repaired to the house of Mr. Akerigg and informed him of the fact, and the alarm was quickly given. Mr. Jonathan Woodmass, the bellman, perambulated the town, on being informed of the occurrence, and soon people of all ages and sexes, aroused from their beds at an early hour by the startling intelligence, thronged all the places of approach. Before long hundreds were on the scene of the disaster, and all portable goods that could be saved were quickly carried to a place of safety.
The dam sluice on the River Nent was quickly let down, and a copious supply of water procured from the mill-race, by which the lower flats of the building were flooded where possible. The flames spread along the top flat of the building to the north, consuming everything of a combustive nature, and thence by the stairs it spread to the lower flats, the floors which were saturated with oil from the machinery, burning like tinder, and thus on till the main part of the building was consumed, the multitude being powerless to stay its progress.
All the wool, &c, lying in the lower rooms was carried out, and the crowd worked with a will till warned by the falling of slates, that the roof was about to fall, when they were obliged to desist. Much of the wool in the lower storeys was saved, although some had to be abandoned lying at the windows owing to the danger of falling slates and stones, while all the cloth which was lying in the offices was taken off the premises on the first alarm. After the falling of the roof the crowd was obliged to remain almost idle spectators of the imposing sight, as the fire burned rapidly, and nothing could be done to stay its progress.
The iron pillars that supported the floors on the different flats (as the floors were called), were observed to be red hot, while we were informed that where the water was poured in it was observed in some places to boil with heat. As the fire spread the floors fell in, carrying with it the machinery, and soon after, one of the front walls fell with a crash burying everything with debris. If a heavy wind had prevailed and fanned the flame, the whole edifice with surrounding sheds would without a doubt have all shared the same fate, but providentially the large supply of water, which was run down to the south part of the mill and into the building by means of the windows, saved the shed which contained several carding or condensing machines, which were worth about £5,000.
The flames were observed to be threatening this place, so several men quickly mounted the glass roof where buckets of water were handed up to them, by means of which they were enabled to stay the progress of the fire, although it nearly gained the mastery over them, as we observed that in one place a large hole had been burned through the wall.
By about eight o’clock in the morning the fire had spent itself, although places were observed to be smoking for two or three days. All the main part of the building is destroyed in which were some nine spinning machines and a large quantity of wool and cloth, while the water wheel and other machinery connected with the working of the mill was only saved, as was the dye house, which immediately adjoins the place where the water wheel stands but on the outside of it, by the copious supply of water. A teasing machine, called in factory parlance a “devil”, escaped “with a drowning”, it standing in a room partly destroyed.
The ruins as they now stand present a very formidable picture of the ravages of the fire, as all the windows are burned out, and in the bottom lie heaps of broken machinery and large stones, while a small steam engine is covered by the mass of debris.
Some people were of the opinion that much could have been done could a fire engine have been procured at the right moment and brought to bear on the flames, but happily fires of such a nature as this are so uncommon in Alston that our town has never been possessed of one of these invaluable machines, so that in the case of a four storey building like this factory, when a fire commences at the top storey, little or nothing can be done when the flames get such a hold on combustive material.
The fire is supposed to have originated spontaneously through the very hot weather in a store room where wool was kept, while immediately beneath this was a room containing a large quantity of cloth. The Messrs. Akerigg are partially if not wholly covered by insurance, although the loss is estimated at £13,000. We are given to understand that the owners will rebuild the mill, although not to the same height as it previously stood.

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Alston Moor Historical Society was founded in 1973 and, due to the nature of Alston Moor, it is a member of both the Northumberland Association of Local History Societies and the Cumbria Federation of Local History Societies.
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