Destructive fires, Bickerstaff and Rainford

Southport Visiter, April 30th, 1852


For several days fires have been raging on Rainford Heath, about 10miles from Liverpool, and in various other districts in that direction, extending for miles around. In that locality large tracts of land are kept as game preserves, and in places covered with a kind of moss of considerable depth, and which, owing to the long drought, had become very dry.

The keepers and stewards of the Earl of Derby, knowing the dangers of firing the heath, had given strict orders to the tenantry not to burn anything upon it, but in the middle of the week a farmer named SWIFT, unwisely set fire to some rank grass. He quickly discovered the error he had made.

There was a strong westerly wind and the fire was driven along till it reached the thick bed of furze, which blazed as though they were impregnated with an inflammable liquid.

Trenches were dug and sods placed down in the hope they would act like barriers, but still the flames sped on, leaping over the trenches and through the long grass and furze, over exposed soil, high roads and by-roads.

Occasionally the flames would appear to die away, the only indication of the fire being the volumes of smoke and the smouldering appearance peculiar to burning cotton, but a current of wind would fan the latent element into a flame of fearful magnitude.

The supply of water to the area was small, and messengers were sent to the nearest place for a water cart, but, attempts to extinguish the flames by this means was aborted, for still the fire extended.

The trees, dry as firewood, gave fuel to the flames, which shot up high into the air, like a giant refreshed. The fire then extended and destroyed a plantation on Rainford Heath.

The screams of hares and rabbits, and the cries of Pheasants and partridges, as they were roasted alive, where quite distressing.

The hay and corn stacks on Lord Derby’s farm were removed, but fortunately did not extend in that direction. They did burn the eddish of a considerable number of grass fields and scorch young crops of corn, just peeping above the soil.

On Friday the fires were at their height, and had been burning several days in parts of the Parish of Bickerstaff, through which the East Lancashire Railway passes. It commenced in the side of the line, supposed by a hot cinder falling from a passing engine on the dry grass.

In the course of a day or two it had crept along the sides of the line until it was 2miles in length and for a considerable distance across the moor, or heath.

The only dwelling on the line, called “The Level Crossing House,” is a house placed as a protection to the Earl of Derby’s private road. The occupant, Thomas SHACKLADY, a hale old man, and his son, were obliged to exert themselves most strenuously on Thursday and Friday to prevent flames extending to their home and destroying it.

All their efforts seemed unavailing, the flames gradually creeping to the house, which they would have reached, had not the father and son worked with superhuman energy. On Saturday they battled with the devouring element and had no opportunity of breaking their fast till evening. They remained up all night fire watching, for every passing train created a draught, which caused the fires again to shoot forth.

The inhabitants of a farm-house, named DUTTON, a little distance from the place, were also alarmed, even though the fire had not reached them they made preparations to remove their furniture.

Several plantations in Bickerstaff were destroyed, besides a large extent of grass land, including two and a half acres, adjoining a lodge on the Earl of Derby’s road, being seriously damaged.

A man aged over 100yrs, says he has frequently seen the moss on fire, but never to such an extent. The loss to the Earl of Derby, to whom the property belongs, will be several thousand pounds, at least.

The poor old man at the gate house, appeared quite bewildered, and unable to give the slightest account of the matter, said when interviewed, -

“I’ve known nowt about it how it got agate, nor how far it goes – there be fires all round, for miles round.”

Afterwards in alluding to the great exertions he and his son had used he observed –

“I’ve never had such another job in my life – we’ve been hard at it all day, and ha’been obliged to sit up two nights, and shall again tonight. There’s no depending how soon the flame may break out again.”

At 9pm on Saturday the fires were still smouldering and we believe they still have not yet died out.

A correspondent who passed on the London and North Western Railway between Liverpool and Manchester on Friday evening, described similar scenes of devastation at Barton Moss.


Copyright 2002 / To date