Weaving and Spinning in Manchester and Lancashire

Manchester, and the towns of the region, generated much of Britain’s 19th century wealth, as well as pioneering much of its technological groundbreaking achievements.

Methods in spinning, weaving and dyeing had become fully mechanised by the middle of the 19th century, through inventors like Samuel Crompton, and his spinning Mule, James Hargreave’s Spinning Jenny, Richard Arkwright, and many other’s works of invention.

Steam and water had made power plentiful and still cheap, coal came from just down the road at Worsley through Lord Egerton’s Bridgewater Canal, the new railways and the Ashton & Rochdale Canals had made transportation close and convenient.

Mass production methods were gradually introduced and productivity was at an all-time high. Only the American Civil War interrupted profitability. Raw Cotton from the Confederate Southern Sates was being blockaded by the Union North, and this resulted in a major depression in all the textile trades by the early 1860s – a period known as “the cotton famine”.

Nevertheless, many of the mills survived that period, and were in active and profitable manufacture until well after the Second World War, when they failed to win orders against cheaper foreign imports. Some of these mills are with us today. Several are derelict, most are converted to other commercial or industrial uses, though their tall, now smoke-free, chimneys still stand proudly, bearing witness to a time when they were important buildings of trade and commerce.

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The Main Manchester Mills

This mill was commissioned by two Scottish businessmen, James McConnel and John Kennedy in 1790, and was constructed in 1818 as a spinning mill. One writer, Alexis de Tocqueville, described Redhill Street Mill in 1835 as “…a place where some 1500 workers, labouring 69 hours a week, with an average wage of 11 shillings, and where three-quarters of the workers are women and children”. (See “Working & Living Conditions“). Eight storeys high, it was the tallest iron framed building in the world in its day. During the Cotton Famine, the company had obtained rights to Heilmann’s new combing machine, and managed to tick over during the depression. In 1865 the building was altered by the new owner, Sir William Fairbairn, to install larger automated spinning mules. By this time it was the biggest mill in the Manchester region. Further buildings were added in 1868 and 1912 to cope with the demand for increased output.

The so-called Old Mill was built on Henry Street in 1799 for James McConnel & John Kennedy who were textile machinery manufacturers with interests in weaving. This mill was rebuilt in 1912 and became known as the Royal Mill. In 1801, with improved profitability after several lean years McConnel & Kennedy commissioned the building of the New Mill, completed in 1806. This factory had 8 floors and covered an area of 650 square yards. Gas lighting was installed in 1809 by Boulton & Watt. By 1811, with a downturn in trade, like many others, the firm of McConnel & Kennedy went bankrupt. Later, in better times, they were to build the Sedgewick Mill.

In 1815 McConnel & Kennedy purchased land on Union Street in Ancoats to construct the new Sedgewick Mill, which was not commissioned till 1819, when it was designed by James Lowe. Bricks were made from local clays to save money, and the mill was U-shaped with 8 storeys and a 17 bay front on Redhill Street. It was completed in 1820, though additions were made in the 1860s.

1814, Hugh Birley began the building of a mill complex on Cambridge Street in Chorlton-on-Medlock. Birley was a local magistrate and one of the commanders of the Manchester & Salford Yeomanry responsible for the >Massacre at St Peter’s Field in 1819 . The mill had six storeys and two basements with 20 loading bays along Cambridge Street. A further block was added later, in 1845.
This mill was one of the first in Manchester to use cast iron columns and iron framing, in-filled with brickwork. The mill was driven by a beam engine made by Boulton & Watt and had gas lighting, supplied by its own gas storage tanks in the basement. The several mills on Cambridge Street were interconnected by underground tunnels and rail tracks to ensure rapid transit through the new factory system.
By the end of the 1830s, Cambridge Street mill had a 600 loom shed and employed 2,000 people in spinning and weaving – at that time probably the largest mill in Manchester. In the 1860s the mill was bought out by Charles Macintosh & Company to produce rubberised waterproofs, for which he subsequently became world famous, the word mackintosh becoming the generic term for waterproof over-garments.

The Victoria Mills in Varley Street, Miles Platting, were constructed in 1867 and 1873 for William Holland, by the Architect George Woodhouse of Bolton. The earlier Georgian Mills had long since outlived their usefulness, and were soon outgrown in the face of increased production, and Holland decided to vacate his former Adelphi Mill in Salford after severe flooding.
He chose to move to Miles Platting, which was beginning to be developed by other mill-owners at that time, and planned his huge mill to be built in two stages, six storeys high, and of two identical buildings joined by a common engine house. The dominant feature was to be the chimney. In those days steeplejacks were paid according to the number of bricks they used, and as a result they ingeniously contrived to cap chimneys with as much masonry as it could stand. This chimney was no exception – it is tall octagonal and graceful, its slender shaft falling into a large drum with arcading.
The mill still worked until 1960, and thereafter remained in a sadly derelict condition for many years. More recently it has undergone a renaissance as new apartments and offices for the NHS.

This mill was built in the early 1820s on Bengal Street in Ancoats in three sections to facilitate 3 different owner/occupants. A further wing, the Jersey Wing, was added later in 1824. It had a revolutionary prototype fireproof system of stone flags laid on cast iron beams with no woodwork at all. The roof was also supported on iron trusses. This form of “fireproofing” was to catch on, and many subsequent mills, factories and warehouses were to employ the system.

Built on Great Ancoats Street, it had seven storeys and was in an L-shaped formation. Initially used in the cotton trade, it later had several different occupancies and was used for smaller trades. It was in this mill in 1910 that Verdon Roe established the AV Roe Company manufacturing aeroplanes.

It was not only textile manufacture that thrived in Manchester, but, by the mid-nineteenth century, thanks largely to engineers like William Fairbairn and industrialists like Joseph Whitworth that the city became a manufacturer and supplier of mill machinery, spindles and other goods to the surrounding towns to fuel their burgeoning textiles industries. The Soho Factory had many specialist manufactures within its 100 yard frontage, including machinery makers, spindle makers and calico printing machinery makers. They also supplied goods and parts for the dyeing, bleaching and growing local chemical industries.

Built in Bradford Road alongside the Ashton Canal, this 1840 building was designed by David Bellhouse. Its seven storeys had 35 loading bays facing directly onto the canal as well as front warehousing facilities. The Brunswick Mill was one of the largest in Britain at that time and by the 1850s held some 276 carding machines, and 77,000 mule spindles.

Built 1820 with an adjoining 1823 built warehouse at right angles. The mill has wooden floors (not fireproof) but the warehouse has iron columns. This one has not yet been converted for modern apartment living. There is a truncated chimney at the back. (Little more known).

The Chorlton New Mills were located in what became known as “Little Ireland” in Chorlton on Medlock, most of which is now overbuilt by buildings of Manchester Metropolitan University. The Mills are made up of three multi-storey mills built in stages in 1813, 1818 and 1845. They were built for the Birley family. The complex included mills and associated engine house and a basement level gas works. The steel strapped chimney was built in 1853. Hugh Hornby Birley, the principal figure in the founding of the Chorlton Mills came to “fame” as the captain at the head of the Yeomanry who charged the crowd in the Peterloo Massacre of 1819. The mill buildings are now converted into apartments.

See Also:

Recommended Reading:

“Cotton Mills in Greater Manchester”
by Mike Williams with D A Farnie. Greater Manchester Archaeological Unit in association with the Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of England. Published in softback cover 1992 by Carnegie Publishing Limited, Lancaster LA1 4SL. Website: www.carnegiepublishing.com. ISBN: 0 948789 89 1.
A comprehensive account of the mills of the region copiously illustrated with graphic drawings, schematics and period photographs as well as detailed text accounts of construction and histories. A major reference work.

“A Guide to the Industrial Archaeology of Greater Manchester”
by R McNeil & M Nevell, published in 2000.

“The Buildings of England: Lancashire, Manchester & the South-East”
by Hartwell, Hyde & Pevsner. Detailed and analytical on Manchester buildings including mills and industrial archaeology.