Papermill Fire 1906


On Sunday, 12 August 1906 the paper mill was destroyed by fire, unquestionably the most dramatic event in the history of the village. The following account was printed in the Kent Messenger of 18 August. The reporting puts all modern efforts into the shade: finely written and extremely comprehensive, it vividly covers not only the disaster, but also the first relief efforts, not forgetting enterprising actions from some ready to feed the curiosity of those drawn to view to scene. Together with the many surviving photographs of the event (some of which were advertised), the horror is fully realized, as is the splendid and immediate response of the Parish in mitigating the distress of those affected:

A fire occurred at Snodland on Sunday which is without parallel in the annals of the village, and which is one of the most serious known in Kent for at least 20 years past. It entirely burned out the papermaking mills of Messrs Townsend Hook and Co., leaving only the carpenters and fitters’ shops standing at one end of five or six acres of ruins.

It created in a few hours damage estimated at from £150,000 to £200,000; Deprived nearly 400 people of their ordinary employment; Caused 31 families to leave their cottages; Imperiled the Parish Church; Filled the air with fragments of burnt paper -resembling a snowstorm – which the wind blew about for a distance of seven or eight miles; and Engaged the services of six fire brigades. We are in a position to announce, however, that The mill will be rebuilt without delay; That, by arrangement with the Insurance Companies, as many of the mill-men as circumstances permit will be employed on the work which is immediately possible; That a relief fund has been started with subscriptions of £20 from Colonel Warde, M.P., and £15. by Mr. W. H. L. Roberts, J.P.; That the Parish Council have undertaken the administration of the money, in conjunction with other prominent inhabitants; and That the Council have accepted the offer of the ‘Kent Messenger’ to acknowledge the sums received through its columns.

Origin of the Fire

The fire owed its origin to some repairing work which was in progress on Sunday morning. A paper mill, especially one supplying the wherewithal for the printing of the London dailies, knows neither night nor day from Monday morning till Saturday night, and it is only on Sundays, when it is still, that the machinery can be overhauled. On Sunday last the opportunity was being taken to splice one of the driving ropes in the machine room, the work being in the hands of a Lancashire firm. The men were early at work, and to assist them had in use a paraffin lamp, and it was in some way through the presence of this lamp no doubt that the fire occurred.

Unfortunately the rope caught, and as a fire-carrying agent there was nothing in the mill to equal this, for, highly inflammatory as it was through the oil it had absorbed in the course of countless revolutions of the great wheels, it carried the flames from floor to floor, and brought about the doom of the whole establishment.

The tide was out at the time, so that in the creek, which split up the mill into two portions, a couple of barges, both heavily laden with pulp, lay high and dry, and fell a prey to the fire. There was also at this time very little pressure on the water main, and thus hampered neither the mill staff, who were on the scene in next to no time, nor the Snodland Fire Brigade, were able to make any impression on the fire; and by the time the Maidstone and Rochester, and the Malling and Halling brigades arrived, it was seen that the mill was past saving. Efforts were therefore made – and not without success – to confine the conflagration to that property. All the dwelling houses around, however, were in peril, and no fewer than 31 families, comprising upwards of 100 individuals, found it advisable to turn out, although a dozen of the families were able to move back again when the flames were subdued.

The scene can be imagined, with about six acres of buildings and their highly inflammable contents on fire, with the flames fanned by the wind, the smoke blown in great volumes over the river, the air charged with the calcined remains of pulp and paper, and around the vast cauldron of the mill a scene of chaos and havoc caused by the hurried emptying of rows of cottages. One lot of cottages, called Mill-row, ran right down to the mill gates; others, called Church-cottages, ran right and left of these and the top of the row, facing the church and the station. Mill-row was quite untenable, and the four end houses were burned beyond repair; the others were more or less damaged. In Church-row, as the backs of the houses became unbearable, the people broke the front windows and willing hands – too many and too willing – rushed out the furniture, higgledy-piggledy heedless of its nature or its value. Thence it was taken to a place of safety behind the church, or laid out in the goods yard of the station until other accommodation was found for it.

Church-row screened the Parish Church from the fire, but on top of the tower the heat was very great, and in time became unbearable to those who made the ascent in order to get a bird’s-eye view of the fire. From this vantage point they say the sight was awful. First came the insidious curling of the smoke through the roofs, then little tongues of fire, then the all-devouring flames, followed by the collapse of roofs, amid still larger bursts of flames as fresh fuel was thus added to the fire below, fed as it already was by tons upon tons of paper and pulp.

One fortunate circumstance was that the wind was blowing away from the town, otherwise in all probability the fire would have travelled up the High-street, with results too horrible to contemplate. Even more fortunate is it that amid all the ruin no lives were lost nor serious personal injury caused.

With the wind as it was, it was possible to work the railway service without great inconvenience – for the mill walls abutted right on the railway line, and the mill owners had their own siding not far from the railway platform. In fact the mill, the railway station, and the church, with numerous cottages in between, amde up in a close group on the banks of the Medway a not unimportant part of the village.

An Eye Witness’s Description

An eye-witness of the fire, who also knows something of the mill, helped us to some valuable information. He explained that the rope which caught fire was of cotton, of innumerable strands, twisted cable-fashion until it formed a rope of about two inches in diameter. It was the driving rope of the great double crank engine, which with its enormous wheels, 140 or 150 feet in circumference, worked the whole machinery of the mill. From the engine room, the flames “ran along them like fireworks.” First they led to the beating room, the floors of which were laid in pitch in order to make them drip-proof. Therefore the fire at once obtained a substantial hold, and the further it spread the more perishable were the materials it found to feed upon. There were at least 100 tons of rosin; a thousand tons of printing paper in reels ready for delivery; a large number of parcels of paper; many sacks of waste paper from the Government departments; quite 400 tons of dry wood pulp, and one stack of not less than 900 tons of wet pulp, which, in spite of its wetness, was burnt to ashes. There were also the two   barge-loads of pulp, each containing about 100 tons.

The barges, which lay fast on the mud-banks, belonged to Messrs. Goldsmith, of Grays. One was practically burnt to the water’s edge, and the other, though an iron one, is probably past repair. Both were inhabited when the fire caught them, and the wife of one of the captains had to leave in dishabille.

We gathered, further, that there were five modern paper-making machines in the mill; that seven new patent “tower-beaters,” which were an excellent invention, had been installed hardly 12 months; and that the output of the mill was 200 tons a week or more.

Curiously, the only machine saved is the very first one installed in the mill by the late Mr. Townsend Hook and originally worked by water power; while another remarkable fact is that the great engine, from which the fire spread, is believed to be capable of repair. Other survivals are the carpenters’ and fitters’ shops, which stand on the Maidstone side of the creek amid the buildings that formed the old mill and are now utilised for storage.

Yet another interesting fact pointed out was that the iron frame of one of the large sheds had been in two fires. It was part of the Crystal Palace, and after the fire there was purchased by Colonel Holland and put up here. The girders and standards are still intact, though somewhat bent by the heat.

A word of praise is due to the fire brigades. They, it appears, had no chance with the mill from the first, but great as was the conflagration, it would have been greater still had they not been present. The Snodland Brigade naturally were the first on the scene, and with some of the mill men, had just got the hose attached to the gas engine for pumping, when, to avoid risk of explosion, the gas was turned off at the gas works, and they were helpless. Halling, Malling, Rochester and Chatham, and Maidstone Brigades afterwards arrived, and the Maidstone engine probably pumped as much water on the buildings as all the rest put together. Among much efficient and well-directed service – rendered with almost miraculous immunity from serious accident – our informant singled out that of Captain Stevens, of Snodland, and Captain Gates, of Maidstone, for special praise, and his tribute was, from all we hear, well deserved. But, as he says, from the first everything was in favour of the fire: the inflammable material, the high wind, the low tide, and (at first) the low pressure on the wate main. The direction of the wind was fortunate, however, for it blew away from the town and from the manager’s house, which is within the mill enclosure. Had this caught it would have brought the fire within reach of a densely populated locality.

The loss to the cottagers: Monday

Every train today, up and down, brought crowds of people curious to see the havoc wrought by the fire, and it was not until the shades of evening fell that the animation in the vicinity of the church and the ruins at all subsided.

As I write this evening, the flames still keep spurting out from among the debris, the Halling and Snodland firemen, from the half-dozen Fire Brigades summoned, are still active and are likely to be throughout the night.

It is truly a scene of ruin from which the two tall chimney stacks of the mill – the old and the new – seem to rise Phoenix-like. The oldest of these, which has for some time been decapitated for safety, stands well away from the buildings which have now been gutted by the fire. The other was at the very centre of the conflagration. As people look at [it] – it may be their imagination – they declare they see it sway in the breeze; and it is probable that it will have to be demolished. However, for the time being, there it stands sentinel over the ruins – the skeletons of iron and brickwork and tons of useless debris.

It is the mill that represents loss and ruin, but the pathos of it all is most vividly realised when one returns to the cottages and the churchyard. Some of the upper rooms are absolutedly denuded of their windows, and the rooms themselves are empty. Downstairs one sees furniture of all kinds crowded promiscuously into one confused heap. In teh churchyard are fragments of crockery, broken ornaments, dresses, mattresses, chairs, washing stands and all sorts of domestic utensils, unusable, abandoned, showing the panic with which they were tumbled out – anywhere away from the fire.

The dispossessed cottagers come and sadly survey these remnants of their goods, and search for that which they cannot fins, and prompt as were the steps taken for their assistance by a provisional Committee, many must suffer the loss of goods rashly precipitated from the tenements by thoughtless but well-meaning persons.

I learn from Mr. Hilder that as early as 12 o’clock on Sunday morning a number of prominent inhabitants formed themselves into a Committee to cope with the emergency arising among these cottagers. The Rector (the Rev. Finch-Smith), who is away on holiday, was represented by his father, and there were also present the Revs. Hetherington (curate), Galpin (Congregational), and Ronald (Christ Church), Mr. W.L.H. Roberts, Mr. Streatfield, Mr. F. Roberts, Drs. Freeland, Gash and Palmer, Mr. Trechman, Mr. J.H. Burke, Mr. Gooding, Mr. T. Hilder, and subsequently Mr. Hodgkinson. Mr. Roberts was appointed chairman, and Mr. Hilder secretary. They at once proceeded to deal with the accommodation of the dispossessed tenants, and during the day the whole 31 families had been temporarily provided for. By the close of the day, 12 families had been able to return to their homes. Other moved their furniture back into the rooms, and were taken in by friends. Others went into the empty cottages which were found here and there in the village, and several families found accommodation at the old Post Office, placed at their disposal by Mr. Roberts, while a quantity of furniture was stored in the sheds behind the building. The Committee made themselves responsible for the rent where necessary, and Mr. Roberts opened a relief fund with a promise of £15. Today he has lent seven or eight vans, which have further assisted in the removal of the furniture to the new abodes of the owners. I find today all who are in a position of any responsibility impressed with the seriousness of the outlook.

The service at the Parish Church yesterday morning was abandoned, the curate simply reading the Litany to the Rector’s father, while in the evening only a shortened form of service was read, owing to the want of gas.

The station-master (Mr. Horton), whose first duty was to have three trucks removed from the mill siding, had for some time an anxious task in looking after the safety of passengers, who even on Sunday evening poured intot he village in immense numbers to see the fire. Three down trains had to be run past to Maidstone on the up line, which entailed special signalling on the line; and, in fact, the precautions had to be maintained on Monday and Tuesday, when the wall overlooking the line was pulled down as a precaution at the instigation of the Railway Company. The station premises were also made good use of on Sunday, for it was here the books of the mill-owners were first removed, while the station yard as well as the church yard became the receptacle of the furniture which was summarily removed from the houses.

The urgent need for help: Tuesday

There has been a perceptable diminution of visitors today, but the deprivation caused by the loss of work and of household belongings is beginning to be keenly felt. A practical step, however, has been taken to deal with the worst phases of the distress (as reported below).

One of the most piteable cases is that of a widow and her family who lived in Mill Row. She was left with eight children, two of whom worked in the mill and are now deprived of employment. She said to a “Kent Messenger” representative:-

“I was just getting the younger children off to the Sunday school, when one of them ran back saying ‘Oh, mother, there’s smoke coming from the mill’. Well, smoke is a usual thing here, and I took no alarm, but soon there was no doubt that the mill was on fire. Even then I did not think the houses would be touched, and those of whom I enquired assured me that we were safe, but as the flames spead and it was seen the houses were doomed, everybody was eager to turn the furniture out. No doubt they thought they were helping, but there were so many of them that I don’t know what they did do, except that in the result I lost nearly all my furniture. In the upset I even left my money upstairs – my daughter’s savings and the money I had ready to pay the tradesmen – and here I am now without a penny and with very little furniture.”

The family had moved into an empty house in another part of the village where, by dint of much cleaning, they had made two of the rooms presentable, and in incongruous collections on the newly scrubbed floor lay a miscellaneous assortment assortment of furniture quite inadequate for any definite purpose.

“This,” said the poor woman, “I went and picked out of the heaps in the Churchyard. But what is it? Here’s the top and end of a bedstead, but not a single piece to connect them; here are a couple of cot mattresses; here’s a broken washstand from the back bedroom. I suppose all my best furniture perished. I have just found a couple of spoons, but I haven’t a knife and only one cup and a few plates; here’s part of one thing and part of another, and I feel as if I had lost all my home – and I an a widow. Both my children, you see, are thrown out of work by the fire, and so are my near relatives; and as to my little children, I lost all their clothes except what they had on – didn’t even save a pinafore.”

The prospect of this wrecked home was truly enough to dismay the stoutest heart. At the time we saw the mother, little was known about the relief fund, and she knew not whence her daily sustenance was coming, let alone the restoration of a home.

Other families, always used to earning an honest living and come in to a comfortable if humble abode, are in a plight only a degree less pitiable, and one can hardly imagine circumstances which should appeal more keenly to the heart of charity.

No doubt among the honestly inclined there were some nefarious robbers on Sunday, but with such a crowd as the oldest inhabitant cannot remember in Snodland, and the excitement and alarm created by such a tremendous conflagration, it is not surprising that confusion, damage and loss should have resulted.

The Parish Council as Relief Committee

Mr. W.L.H. Roberts attended the meeting of the Parish Council on Tuesday evening, and introduced the question of a Relief Committee. Directly this disaster was avident, he said, a few of us who were on the spot formed ourselves into a Provisional Committee, as we could see at once how necessary it was that house-room should be found for the dispossessed people. Now it is incumbent on us to see what we can do for them. I had a talk with Dr. Palmer this morning, and he was of opinion that it would be best if the constituted authority in the village – the Parish Council – took the matter in hand. They, it was suggested, could form themselves into a special Committee, with power to add to their number, and I for one, if they cared to elect me, would be willing to act with them; so would others who take an interest in the matter. I have not yet been able to consult Mr. Woodburn. I went down today, but it was rather too much to expect anyone connected with the mill, fully engaged as they were with the insurance assessors, to do anything then, so I came away; but I hope before long to be able to go into the matter with him and see exactly what the Company propose to do and what they would like us to do in the face of this possible distress among their workpeople. I had a visit from Colonel Warde, M.P., who came over to know what he could do. He said he was prepared to set to work and make a collection among his friends, while he generously gave me £20 himself. Further, a friend of mine, Mr. Thynne, gave me a £5 note today, so that we have quite a nice beginning to our fund. Tomorrow, I propose to say a few words to one of the Committee of the County Council, when a good many of the gentlemen of the county will be gathered together, and to distribute bankers’ slips for them to fill in. Having got the money, we shall have to consider the best form of distributing it. So far as I can gather, those likely to suffer most from the disaster will be the women who have been the support of their homes. Many of the men will be employed, I understand, in various kinds of labouring work pending and during the re-erection of the mill, and they, though inconvenienced, will not perhaps be actually distressed; but the Committee will be bound to do something for the women who were the bread-winners of their families and who have been thrown out of work. I have no doubt, from what I gather from Colonel Warde, that the county gentlemen will show their sympathy with us in this district, and help us to overcome the untoward circumstances; while, in consultation with the managers and directors of the mill, we shall no doubt be guided as to the best way to distribute the money when we have got it, and meet the cases of distress as they arise; for, under the conditions that have occurred, we cannot expect otherwise that that distress will ensue unless means are taken to alleviate it.

Mr. Hodgkinson moved that the Council express their deep sympathy with the sufferers by the fire, and their great thanks to Colonel Warde, as well as to Mr. Roberts; and further that, as Mr. Roberts suggested, the Council form themselves into a Relief Committee, with power to add to their number.

Mr. Woodburn remarked that he had already been entrusted with some money for the fund, and numbers of people had written expressing their willingness to start subscription lists; while he was sure the mill authorities would be only too pleased to help.

Replying to a question, Mr. Woodburn said that by the courtesy of the Insurance Companies the mill-owners had been given a free hand in the employment of labour where it was possible to employ it under present conditions, and they would give as much work as they could to their own hands; but they had the winter to face, and with many people out of employment and suffering the loss of their goods, he was sure there would be no difficulty in well spending all the money they received. He agreed with Mr. Roberts as to the widows and other women who earned their own living, and mentioned a sad case in which a wife with an invalid husband was the mainstay of the home through her work at the mill. He was quite sure, however, from the expressions of sympathy he had received, that once the fund was started it would be generously supported.

By the courtesy of the Chairman (Mr. Burke), a representative of the “Kent Messenger” who was present was permitted to make a few remarks, offering the services of this newspaper, both in the way of advocating the fund and of acknowledging the amounts that were received. Such acknowledgement, he thought, would be an incentive to others to subscribe.

Mr. Hodgkinson’s motion was unanimously adopted, and on the proposition of Mr. Stevens, who made a courteous reference to this paper, the offer made on behalf of the “Kent Messenger” was also accepted with thanks.

First meeting of the Committee

The Relief Committee met on Wednesday evening, and adopted as a general principle that money should not be distributed if it could be avoided, but that relief should be given by way of orders on grocers, bakers and other tradesmen, and by the payment of rent. Particular care is also to be taken that there is no overlapping.

A subcommittee of seven was appointed to go into the immediate applications, and it was decided to ask Mrs. Freeland to form a committee of ladies to investigate the requirements in the nature of clothing, some of the people having been dispossessed of almost everything.

Sixpence admission

So many applications have been received, that arrangements have been made to show visitors over the ruins, on Saturday and Sunday, at a charge of 6d. each, the proceeds to go to the relief fund. The taking of photographs will be allowed only by special arrangement.

Adult schools and the Relief Fund

At the Kent Adult School quarterly Council meeting held at Tunbridge Wells on Wednesday, it was unanimously decided to ask all the schools in Kent to immediately make collections for those suffering from distress through the disaster of last Sunday at Snodland, so that the principles the Adult School movement preaches may be practised.


Such a crowd as gathered in Snodland on Sunday evening has never been seen in the village before. There was quite an army of snapshotters among them, but many of their products were indifferent.

The late Mr. Townsend Hook, founder of the mill, had previously carried on business at Maidstone. He commenced the mill with one machine.

The West Kent Hospital will suffer by the fire, for the present works manager, Mr. Taylor, had instituted a fortnightly collection of 1d. from each employee.

The National School children’s fete was postponed from Thursday, and it is said that the money collected for their prizes will be diverted to the Relief Fund.

None of the buildings of the old mill were burned.

Between 50 and 100 firemen were engaged trying to battle with the flames. All but a few of these have been withdrawn in order to give work to the mill men.

The Company’s books were saved, the office being fireproof.

The presence of thousands of old postal orders at the mill was due to a contract with the Government. They are brought to Snodland to be destroyed and be reconverted by an ingenious process into paper. An official of the post office sees to the destruction.

The Company were full up with orders, and appeared to be in for a prosperous time. Latterly their shares have risen on the market. It is providential that this disaster did not come during the depression in the cement industry, in which many of the villagers are employed.

About two dozen of the mill hands belong to the Amalgamated Society of Papermakers. Their out-of-work pay is 14s. a week.

The loss to the Company is said to be all covered by insurance. The policies were shared among several offices.

The Mill Company have made arrangements for placing their orders, and so keeping their business connection.

The capacity of the Maidstone steam fire engine is 350 gallons per minute. Thanks to the Fire Brigades, coal in the yard was saved.

SNODLAND MILL FIRE – Four photographic post-cards, 1s. post free – BROWN, Winton House, West Malling – Advt.

POSTCARDS OF THE FIRE – Five pictures for 6d., postage 1d. Shops supplied at special prices.- R. Mason and Sons, Snodland.- Advt.

Go or send to Hambrook’s Bazaar, High street, Snodland, for the best photographs and postcards of the Mill Fire.-Advt.