Cloth of the World: the archaeology of the Lancashire weaving industry

The 1887 horizontal steam engine at Oak Mount Mill, Burnley, September 2015.

The 1887 horizontal steam engine at Oak Mount Mill, Burnley, September 2015.

It’s a warm late September afternoon and the sun, low in a bright blue sky, is streaming through a tall arched window and bouncing off a shiny bright green moving metal surface. I’m standing in the engine house of Oak Mount Mill in Burnley watching the twin compound steam engine run a flywheel and line shafting. It’s a slightly surreal experience since the engine is not in steam but is being run electrically and is therefore making just a whispering sound. It was the end of the CBA North West Industrial Archaeology Panel Conference (NWIAC 35) and twenty of the delegates were packed into the engine house, whilst another 25 were touring Queen Street Mill, the last working steam-powered weaving mill in Europe. Yet this was not a conference about industrial heritage (that is the conservation of industrial remains) but about understanding the long-term impact of the cotton weaving industry on Lancashire through its industrial remains. This is why the day was designed around talks and walks dealing with the archaeology of the weaving industry; the theoretical and the practical. Appropriately we were housed in the Burnley Mechanics’ Institute.

Lancashire looms in action at Queen Street Mill

Lancashire looms in action at Queen Street Mill

Roger Holden began the morning by looking at the technological development of the power loom, from Cartwright’s initial experiments of the 1780s, through the emergence of the Lancashire loom (with its cast-iron frame), to the fully automatic Northrop loom of the 1890s. He noted that there were dozens of different types of the Lancashire loom and suggested that rather being an indication of design failure that rather they reflected the technical response to the demand for different types and quality of woven cotton cloth in the Lancashire textile industry. He also noted that form followed function in the way in which the single storey shed emerged as the preferred building type of the noisy and vibration-inducing loom. Ian Miller then looked at the results of the Lancashire Textile Mill Survey. Set up using the classic building type biography developed in earlier textile surveys of the 1980s he brought to the fore the unique mill landscape of modern Lancashire typified by the new industrial textile towns of the Ribble Valley. This was dominated by the single storey weaving mill with its tall circular chimney, surrounded by rows of mid- to late-19th century terraced houses and serviced by the Leeds Liverpool Canal which threads its way through the Lancashire weaving belt. David Lewis, of the Northern Mill Engine Society, then looked at the technological development of the weaving mill engine, using Lancashire-made engines from the society’s own collection as examples. This began with the application of the beam engine to powered weaving in the 1810s on existing spinning mill sites. The horizontal steam engine, which came to be ubiquitous in the weaving mill, emerged in the late 1850s. It was a key component in the new single-storey weaving shed and was instrumental in the creation of the dedicated single-storey weaving mills and the independent weaving company. Weaving mill power systems also pioneered the introduction into Lancashire of the rope drive system of power transmission in the 1870s. Examples of this can still be seen in situ at Grane Mill in Haslingden and Bancroft Mill in Barnoldswick. Finally, I finished the morning with a study of the development of weavers’ housing, from the three storey workshop dwelling of the mid-18th century to the cellar loomshops of the Burnley area in the early 19th century and the emergence of the domestic terraced house in the new weaving mill towns of the Ribble valley. The domestic vernacular workshop is one of the industrial building types that remains under-studied in the region. Yet, hundreds of examples survive within Lancashire and Greater Manchester, with notable concentrations around Manchester, Bolton, Burnley and Chorley.

To demonstrate the high level of survival of all these features in the early-21st-century Lancashire landscape the conference had a choice of two walks in the afternoon. The first was a visit to see Queen Street Mill. This is a steam-powered weaving factory of 1895 still working in a museum context. Several dozen Lancashire looms were run specifically for the conference, adding to the day by bringing to life the noise and smell of the weaving shed. The second trip was an exploration of the Weavers’ Triangle, an industrial textile landscape of weaving and combined mills strung along a mile of the Leeds Liverpool Canal in central Burnley. Beginning at the Weavers’ Triangle visitor Centre (an early 19th century toll house especially owned for us) we took in the Manchester Road canal wharf with its array of three phases of canal warehouses and finished at Oak Mount Mill, where the engine house of the weaving mill survives in working order thanks to the Heritage Trust for the North West.

This is what the study of industrial archaeology does at its best: it brings meaning, understanding and relevance to the past through the study of the physical remains of industrialisation. It highlights how people’s living and working lives were completely altered in the context of the industrial landscape, in a way that static machinery in antiseptic museum displays, and gentrified conversions of partially surviving mill structures (often typified as industrial heritage) do not. The conservation of this industrial past only has meaning if we understand its significance. Thus, Burnley is a fabulous example of an industrial town of the 19th century, whose architecture and layout is built around the steam-powered weaving mill. Without those mills, the canal network and the workers’ housing that supported them Burnley would not exist in its present form. Without surviving examples of that industrialised landscape the 21st century town would lose some of its meaning.

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