My ways and By-ways – ‘Among these dark, satanic mills’

I recently posted some pictures of mill chimneys in my village. Since then I’ve wondered about further investigating the mills still in evidence around the Colne Valley, examining their original purpose, and exploring what’s left of them today. Over the coming months I will be posting a series of individual photos and discoveries. But first, some stuff about the locality…

The Colne Valley

Stretching almost from the West Yorkshire (former industrial, now university) town of Huddersfield, to the village of Marsden, The Colne Valley is a seven mile stretch, rich in heritage. At Marsden, the National Trust tract of moorland merges into Saddleworth Moor at the Lancashire border amongst peat bog and heather, shivering against slanting rains and sometimes biting Pennine wind. The weather has shaped this landscape. So too has the river Colne and it’s moorland tributaries, carving their channels through couch grass.

The valley is a place of wild beauty for those who still look for it, dotted with villages embedded with history. Some echo no more than whispered myths, but there is enough physical evidence to be seen – the occasional tenter-hook, overgrown weaving sheds, rotting doors – as well as still proud mill buildings standing today, to show what the main industry of this valley was a century ago.

These mills were handily situated in this ideally damp environment, with the aforementioned Colne, and also the canal running adjacent in the valley bottom. Mainly the mills here produced worsted (material woven from spun yarns of wool whose fibres had been combed in the same direction). Some companies did different things, like George Cock’s Dyers at Hoylehouse.

The mills

The mill buildings were formidable structures of dark, Victorian magnificence, constructed from local sandstone and millstone grit, the primary building materials of this area. In their heyday, these grim structures hummed from within, day and night, vast machinery churning out superior woolen cloth for the textile industry. Their workforce was a huge proportion of the local communities, being summoned by the 6am buzzers which vibrated along the length of the valley. Weavers, winders, feeders, fettlers, carders, dyers and menders all pouring in through the mill gates.

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J.E.Crowther’s Bankbottom Mills in Marsden, with Crowther Bruce’s behind it.

Several generations of families often worked in any one mill at any one time. And all the while, the chimneys were being stoked up, belching out the ungodly smoke which fogged the valley, and helped give the image of dark, satanic-ness to the surroundings. The most urban areas depict more of this image than the villages, being more hemmed in with industry. Not just the West Yorkshire towns of Huddersfield, Halifax, Wakefield, Bradford, Keighley and Leeds, but also the woolen and cotton towns of Lancashire – Stalybridge, Aston, Oldham, and the industrial hub of Manchester.

The legacy

Forty-five years ago, my mother, having a history of pneumonia, was advised to leave the smoky damp of the Colne Valley as it still was then, for a kinder climate. She never returned except to visit. But I did. By that time, the mills and the textile industry were in decline.

Now most of the mills have gone, either done up into swanky apartments, demolished or fallen into glorious decay. I think that there can be much beauty in dilapidation – like the ruins of a once-magnificent castle. Mill buildings were the fortresses of this beautiful valley. My generation were the only members of my family never to work in mills. Mum and Dad did, so did my grandparents, most aunts and uncles, and lots of ancestors down the centuries. I am descended from handloom weavers and proud of it!

The poet William Blake may have wanted to invoke the building of a new Jerusalem. His opinion was evident in his description of said mills which began to blot the British landscape during the Industrial Revolution. I wonder what he’d think now.

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