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Kem Mill Print Works destroyed

Article - 17 October 1914 Chorley Guardian and Leyland Hundred Advertiser.

Huge fire at Whittle-le-Woods, Kem Mill printworks destroyed.

What proved to be the largest fire that has ever been witnessed in the Whittle-le- Woods district occurred on Wednesday evening when the extensive printworks belonging to Messers J Cunliffe and son. Ltd. were practically destroyed.

The premises which are known as Kem Mill Printworks are situated about a quarter of a mile from the Chorley main road, on the Leyland side and about 170 workpeople are employed there in normal times. Of late, however the works have been running short time, and on the day previous to the fire only about 80 persons had been working. The damage amounts to close on 800,000 (sq ft) and is covered by insurance. The whole premises are about 900 yards in length and about 3/4 of this was totally gutted.

It was Mr A.J Cunliffe himself who first made the discovery. He was in his office shortly before half-past six when he heard a cracking sound. On making immediate investigation he found that a fire had broken out over the machine room, almost midway in the building. This was about an hour after the workpeople had left and the premises were deserted except for the watchman Mr Blackledge and Mr Cunliffe. Buckets of water failed to quell the outbreak. Mr Cunliffe at once gave the alarm, the 'buzzer' being blown, and quickly the men forming the works brigade quickly had three pumping engines at work.

In the meantime the flames spread with Startling rapidity owing to the inflammable nature of the contents of the building. An unwelcome feature was a good wind blowing from the Northwest and this considerably persisted the work of devastation. It was soon apparent that to save everything would be difficult, but around 60 copper rollers each of great value, of a total bordering on 6,000 were brought out.

At ten minutes to seven the Chorley fire brigade were informed by telephone from Messrs Kays cotton Mill, which is situated near Kem Mill, and about a quarter of an hour later they were on the scene with the horse engine, "Bobs" followed by the tender "Jackson" Superintendent Greenhaigh being in command. It is only a few weeks since Superintendent Greenhaigh visited the mill to get an idea of the district for use in case of fire, and this knowledge came in useful on Wednesday.

On arrival it was found that the flames had travelled to the end, where the roller room, over which were the white and grey rooms were situated, and it was plainly evident to save this portion, it was impossible and that any effort in that direction would be a waste of time. In the opposite direction the outbreak had reached the offices, which adjoined the colour shop, next to which was the machine room, containing nine valuable printing machines and a large quantity of cloth. When the roof and walls of the main building crashed in.

The cloud in the sky could be seen for miles around and thousands of people from outlying districts flocked to the scene. The efforts of the fire-fighters was directed to saving the offices, dye house, finishing room and warehouse stables, boilers and machine shop and this was successfully accomplished. The flames being finally cut off after a hard struggle at the offices, which however greatly suffered.

All this time the fire had been moving to the opposite end of the building and to the thousands of spectators in the field near by presented a fine, though sad spectacle. As evidence of the rapidity with which the flames spread, it was apparent at the expiration of about 3/4 of an hour that the main buildings were doomed. At one time the flames endangered the chimney, and successful efforts were made to stop it falling.

Throughout the whole time valuable assistance was rendered by a number of boy scouts from Leyland and Wheelton, also employees of the firm and these were provided with refreshments. It was not until two o'clock on Thursday morning that the Chorley fire brigade were able to leave, but after this water was poured on the flames by works brigade, until the early hours of the morning.

From a distance crashes of falling debris mingled with the metallic sound resulting from the crashing to the ground of hundreds of copper cylinders could be heard. While dense volumes of smoke and myriad's of sparks rose high into the air during the whole time. Over £20, 000 worth of copper cylinders were destroyed and a large quantity of cloth of equal value. The following morning when the fire had been allowed to burn itself out, the remaining presented.

A fitable spectacle had attracted a large number of visitors to the spot. From the charred heaps of debris consisting of partly burnt cloth and woodwork, twisted iron shafting machinery, brick and stone work, etc smoke was still issuing at various points.

Apart from the portion mentioned as saved nothing remained but portions of walls and on the surface of the lodge which runs alongside the works and at one end goes beneath the premises, quantities of fallen woodwork was floating. From what remains of the walls twisted ironwork hung and the whole scene was one of utter destruction.

In normal times this occurrence would have been a huge blow to the people of Whittle-le-Woods, but the present slump in trade, with a prospect of a continuance, makes it doubly so, for the works were one of the major employers of the village.

Had it not been for the plentiful supply of water it is probable that the whole premises would have been gutted, for there was necessarily a little delay in getting to work, due to the fact that the employees were off the premises at the time.

Every credit must be given to the firemen and those who assisted in the task of sowing what is still in tact was well performed, and it was the only course to adopt in the circumstances, due to no fault of their own.

Chorley brigade only arrived on the scene about 45 minutes after the outbreak was discovered, but the three mile journey was made in good time, notwithstanding the fact that the motor engine was not allowed to go, its use being unfortunately in this case to Chorley Borough.


(Chorley Guardian, 17 Oct 1914).

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