An Absolute Beginners’ Architectural Guide to Oldham Cotton Mills

A potted guide for beginners about a dwindling part of Oldham’s landscape

Ever since my formative years, the cotton mills in Oldham and Tameside have been a source of fascination for me. What piqued my interest was the sheer size of the buildings. Also how the early cotton mill architects predated Mies van der Rohr in building such vast structures for commercial usage.

To me, the cotton mills also meant stopping points on the 409 and 427 routes. You knew you were halfway towards Rochdale when you saw Park and Sandy Mills near Dogford Park. Or Grotton once you saw Lees Brook mill. Like the pubs, they were landmarks in the pre-Google Maps era when motorists asked you for directions.

Amid the red brick or stone splendour was toil, long hours and questionable employment practices. Yes, there was also the Wakes Weeks in summer time, but you couldn’t get maternity leave nor compassionate leave if your Jack Russell Terrier had to be put to sleep. Of its survivors, there is reinvention by means of art studios, small to medium sized business units, self-storage facilities and shopping centres.

Thanks to my family history, it is the mills in and around Oldham that has fascinated me the most. My mother and my late grandma (on my mother’s side) have worked in Bell, Duke, and Kent mills respectively. My mother during Bell’s and Duke’s post-cotton era; my grandma during the industry’s twilight years.

To me, Oldham’s surviving mills are akin to The Great Pyramids. Given the choice of seeing Yet Another Housing Estate in its place, I would rather have restoration any day. Whether light industry, retail or residential uses.

The Industrial Revolution

From 1760 to 1840, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland experienced a massive upheaval, known as The Industrial Revolution. This process saw cotton and wool spinning industries leaving cute little cottages in favour of imposing six-storey buildings. The spinning processes became more automated, which led to widespread protests and riots.

In 1760, there was a piffling little town on the banks of the River Medlock and the River Irwell that was on the cusp of being dubbed Cottonopolis. By 1842, this little town became a hotbed of radicalism thanks to the rise of the cotton industry and The Peterloo Massacre. Its population skyrocketed from 70,407 in the 1801 Census to 242,983 forty years later. You might have heard of that little place: it didn’t have its own Member of Parliament till 1832, and it had to wait till 1853 to get city status. Today, you cannot get a seat on a train out of Manchester Piccadilly after 28 minutes to seven at the tail end of the PM peak.

With Manchester’s rise, the city’s peripheries benefited from continuous growth. Soon there was more mills in Bolton, Ashton-under-Lyne, Stalybridge, Hyde, Dukinfield, Rochdale, Middleton, Heywood, Chadderton, and Wigan to name a few.

Second only to Manchester, Oldham was the most prosperous part of what was The Original Northern Powerhouse. Having learnt from the mistakes of its fellow Lancastrian peers, it came late to the cotton spinning party. Thanks to a boom in joint stock companies from 1873 to 1875, a new breed of companies under the banner of Oldham Limiteds led to continued growth. Some employees could have a shareholding in their mill and finance was available for expansion and capital projects.

By 1927, Oldham’s cotton industry grew from 10.2 million spindles in 1887 to a peak spindleage of 17.8 million. This figure was achieved after the opening of Elk Mill – the last purpose-built cotton mill to have been built in Oldham.

The architects

Oldham’s mills have a lot to answer for in my near lifelong interest in 20th Century architecture.

Stott and Sons

If Archibald Leitch’s creations are synonymous with football stands and industrial buildings, the Stott dynasty has a similar claim with Oldham’s cotton mills. Abraham Henthorn Stott, founder of the architectural practice, served his apprenticeship at the seat of Charles Barry (the Charles Barry of the Houses of Parliament fame).

Abraham Henthorn Stott

Founding father of the architectural practice. His children would later help to transform Oldham’s industrial landscape alongside rival architect F.W. Dixon.

Philip Sydney Stott

Key mills: Chadderton Mill (1885), off Fields New Road, Chadderton; Maple Mill (No. 2, 1915), Dowry Street, Hathershaw; Dee Mill, Shaw (1907); Mona Mill (1905), off Fields New Road, Chadderton.

Joseph Stott

Key mills: Manor Mill (1906), Victoria Street, Chadderton.

George Stott

Key mills: Devon Mill (1907), Chapel Road, Hollins; Regent Mill (1905), off Oldham Road, Failsworth.

Potts, Pickup and Dixon

Second only to the Stott family, the Potts, Pickup and Dixon architectural practice was among the most prolific designers of cotton mills in Oldham and surrounding area.

Key mills: Belgrave Mills (No. 1 to No. 4, 1885 – 1920s), Honeywell Lane, Hathershaw.

Edward Potts

In addition to creating some of Oldham’s best remembered cotton mills, one of his finest achievements is hidden out of public view. His patented method of fireproof floors and ceilings. When triple brick arches were used by his contemporaries, Edward Potts opted for 7″ concrete floors. His attempts to patent this method was rejected.

His floors were more rigid, though this needed more supporting columns. Nevertheless, we have his vision to thank us for today’s office blocks, apartments and superstructures.

Key mills: Swan Mill, Foxdenton Lane, Chadderton.

Frederick Whittaker Dixon

Key mills: Hartford Mill (1907), off Block Lane, Freehold; Orme Mill (1910), Greenacres Road, Waterhead.

Wild, Collins, Wild

Key mills: Lion Mill (1907), Fitton Street, Royton; Bee Mill, Shaw Road, Royton.

A. Turner and Son

Key mills: Elk Mill (1927), Broadway, Chadderton; Fir Mill, Highbarn Street, Royton.

Common architectural features of an Edwardian cotton mill:

Unless you have never seen a cotton mill, this is Key Stage One stuff.

  • Security Lodge/Gatehouse: always beside the main entrance;
  • Office Block: often seen at the front of the mill beside the…
  • Water tower and stairwell: typically, each mill’s water tower would have been topped with a copper tower. Often with domes or peaked roofs with a flagpole;
  • Carding shed: where the carding machines were housed;
  • Engine house: as most late 19th/20th Century mills were powered by steam engines, this imposing part of the mill was accompanied by its chimney;
  • Chimney: typically cylindrical, though sometimes in cuboid form with campanile leanings.

Decline, demolition and reinvention

By 1927, Oldham’s cotton spinning capacity had reached its peak. By the 1930s, all this changed.

One turning point was the creation of the Lancashire Cotton Corporation by the Bank of England in 1929. Soon, several little companies – 105 across the County Palatine of Lancashire – became part of a regional body. After five years of making losses, it turned a profit in 1935. Starting with 140 mills in 1929, the LCC had 66 mills in its first year of profitability.

By 1964, the LCC was sold to Courtaulds, which had a considerable market share in the cotton spinning market. The mills had had been modernised with improved staff welfare facilities; some had nurseries and social clubs. It all came too late as cheaper imports saw to the demise of most of Lancashire’s mills.

Oldham was no exception to this rule. In place of cotton spinning came catalogue shopping, toasters, baked beans, light bulbs, business startups and dance schools. Or – as in many cases – demolition followed by housing estates in their wake.

Reinvention

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, the John Moores Organisation – of Littlewoods Stores and Burlington catalogues fame – took over a fair number of Oldham’s cotton mills. Notable examples included Hartford Mill, and Earl Mill. Great Universal Stores had similar thoughts when Raven Mill and Bell Mill was used for warehousing and distribution.

Regent Mill became the home of Pifco’s UK operations. Off Oldham Road, Failsworth, it supplied the Russell Hobbs toasters and various hairdryers for countless retailers and catalogues. As Spectrum Brands, it fulfils this role to this day.

Why was Oldham chosen over, say East Cheam as a desirable location? Firstly there was the road network, enhanced by today’s M60 motorway. Secondly, the local labour market which had a number of semi-skilled and unskilled staff. Thirdly, a comprehensive bus network had already been established alongside the cotton mills.

By the 1970s, more of Oldham’s surviving mills were split into multiple business units. Instead of Courtaulds, they would be taken on by business start-ups. One of the two Marlborough Mills in Failsworth was occupied by Morrisons with a furniture shop on the first floor.

Demolition

In many cases, demolition was the fate of Oldham’s cotton mills. Sometimes, the mill would fall in to disuse and lie empty for several years. In its period of atrophy, its emptiness would attract the most curious of eyes, with some choosing to enter the premises. Fire would also be a factor leading to its partial or total demolition.

A substantial number of Oldham’s mills were demolished in the last thirty years of the 20th Century. Apart from falling into disuse and dereliction, some of the mills were attractive to property developers. Instead of regenerating the mills as mixed-use residential and retail units, demolition and its replacement with identikit houses were the norm.

At this time of writing, Hartford Mill off Block Lane, Freehold, is being demolished. No prizes for guessing what will be on the site of this iconic mill.

Demolition in progress: Hartford Mill, Freehold.

Mills still standing

There’s only a few mills that are still standing in and around Oldham; even fewer mills virtually look the same as they did on their opening shift. Here’s a selection of notable stalwarts.

  • Belgrave Mills (Nos. 1, 3 and 4, off Honeywell Lane, Hathershaw): at its height, the Belgrave Mills complex encompassed four mills between Fitton Hill Road and Honeywell Lane. From 1964 to 1978, No. 3 Mill had a giant illuminated ladybird when it was occupied by Ladybird Clothing.
  • Briar Mill (Beal Lane, Shaw): one of the last cotton mills in Shaw to spin cotton, doing so till 1989. It is now part of Yodel’s and Shop Direct’s complex beside Shaw and Crompton Metrolink station, south of Beal Lane since 2013.
  • Cairo Mill (Greenacres Road, Waterhead): the present base of Ferranti Technologies. The electronics giant had factories across North Manchester and Oldham with consumer products and early computer systems its main field of expertise. As Cairo House, Cairo Mill focuses on Ferranti Technologies’ main sector: aviation and defence electronics.
  • Chadderton Mill (off Fields New Road, Chadderton): the last mill to finish cotton spinning in Oldham Council boundaries, ceasing production in 2000. Grade II Listed Building.
  • Earl Mill (Dowry Street, Hathershaw): we have consumerism to thank for the mill’s continued existence. After the cessation of cotton spinning operations, it became a warehouse for the Burlington catalogue, and latterly Littlewoods. It is now known as the Earl Business Centre with serviced office space for business start-ups.
  • Lees Brook Mill (Lees Road, Lees): outlived many of the mills in Lees owing to its present use as Character Options’ premises.
  • Lion Mill (Fitton Street, Royton): after ceasing cotton spinning activities, it was later taken over by the Wellcome Foundation for their pharmaceutical products. Grade II Listed Building.
  • Nile Mill (Fields New Road, Chadderton): the last cotton mill to have been built with a beam engine. Split into two parts, this spacious mill is in multiple occupation.
  • Ram Mill (off Whitegate Lane, Chadderton): in multiple occupation, this mill is noted for its spherical dome which stands out from the other two mills (Gorse and Ace). The third sibling mill, Rugby, has since been demolished with a nondescript warehouse shed in its place.
  • Raven Mill (Raven Avenue, Chadderton): for many shoppers, Raven Mill is synonymous with catalogue shopping. In its post-cotton spinning use it was noted for being the White Arrow Depot and the returns department for the Family Album catalogue. In later years it became one of Yodel’s depots before rationalisation led to its closure. It is now operated by Clipper Logistics.

Gone but not forgotten

If any of the following names of these long demolished mills ring a bell, here’s what was built on their respective sites.

  • Dawn Mill (Dawn Street, Shaw): demolished in the early noughties; the ASDA superstore and car park stands on the site.
  • Gem Mill (Fields New Road, Chadderton): latterly used as Zetec Components’ PCB assembly plant, it was demolished in 2008. Houses stand on its site.
  • Honeywell Mill (Ashton Road, Hathershaw): destroyed by fire in 1943, you are (several times over) more likely to remember its present-day use. That of Park Cake Bakeries’ largest bakery and distribution depot.
  • Iris Mill (Hollins Road, Hathershaw): in its post-cotton guise, this was Thomas Glover Fire and Security’s works. When the Thorn EMI subsidiary ceased operations, the mill was demolished with (you’ve guessed it) a housing development.
  • Maple Mills 1 and 2 (Cardwell Street, Hathershaw): one of the last mills to finish cotton spinning in Oldham Council boundaries. Both mills were occupied by Maple Industries where Vance Miller‘s company made fitted kitchens. On the 21 April 2009, Maple Mill No.2 was consumed by fire with Mill No.1 suffering a similar fate in 2016. The site remains undeveloped.
  • Orb Mill (Huddersfield Road, Waterhead): at one time, this mill was the northerly terminus of Manchester Corporation/SELNEC/Greater Manchester Transport’s 82 route. In its post-cotton guise, it was a manufacturing base for Hestair Hope educational toys and games. Waterhead Academy, which opened in 2010, is on the same site.
  • Zenith Mill (Manchester Street, Werneth): demolished to make way for a Focus DIY superstore. Now a Wickes DIY superstore.

Further Reading

  • The Cotton Mills of Oldham, Duncan Gurr and Julian Hunt (Oldham Metropolitan Borough Council Leisure Services, 1985; reprinted 1989 and 1998).

Before I knock off and head to the pub…

Feel free to give us your memories of working in any of these mills and more besides. If, like the creator of this blog you were fascinated by the architectural styles, feel free to comment. Before I go, I shall leave you with this 2018 clip by the excellent Martin Zero.

S.V., 27 February 2020.

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