From the 5th to the 10th September 2014 the Association for Industrial Archaeology’s annual conference comes to Chester. Since the mid-1970s, the AIA has a been a major force in promoting the discipline of industrial archaeology and the understanding of the archaeology of industrial societies in the UK and beyond. One of the ways the Association has done this has been through its annual conference; a combination of themed seminar, regional talks, national awards, grant giving and regional study trips. Each conference is focussed upon a particular area providing an intensive study guide to a given region. Recent venues have included Cornwall, Cork, in the Irish republic, Essex, and Tayside in central Scotland. This year it’s the turn of Chester and the Cheshire region in an event hosted with the Council for British Archaeology North West Industrial Archaeology Panel. In the first of several linked blogs I want to explore the internationally important industrial archaeology of one of the UK’s most over-looked industrial regions.
Cheshire is not an obvious place for studying the origins of the Industrial Revolution, although fans of Channel 4’s ‘The Mill’ TV drama series will know that the factory in question is Quarry Bank in northern Cheshire, the best preserved water-powered cotton spinning mill in Britain. Indeed Cheshire has some of the earliest cotton and silk factory sites in the world. Which is why, perhaps, the first Cheshire industrial site to be consciously treated as heritage and thus saved for future generations was Quarry Bank Mill. In 1939 it, and the surrounding estate, was donated by Alexander Carlton Greg to the National Trust, although the mill remained in production until 1959. Nether Alderley Mill followed a few years later. This quaint water-powered corn mill with fabric from the 16th century had closed in 1939 but in 1950 it too was given to the National Trust, by the landowner Major J A Shelmerdine. Working around this time on the economic history of Cheshire was the noted economic historian and Crewe-born William Henry Chaloner. He published a number of articles and monographs on Cheshire industrial subjects including a 1950 monograph on the early industrial history of Crewe and an article on Cheshire’s iron masters during the late 17th and early 18th centuries.
However, proper study of Cheshire’s industrial archaeology had to await the 1960s. The first generation of North West industrial archaeologists included J Harold Norris, a champion of Cheshire’s industrial remains. A surveyor, auctioneer and valuer with a family firm in Manchester he joined the Lancashire and Cheshire Antiquarian Society in 1961. He served on the council alongside two other significant local pioneers of the discipline: Owen Ashmore and Victor Tomlinson. Norris was also a founder member of the Manchester Region Industrial Archaeology Society in 1965. He was the first to study the remains of the county’s extensive water-powered corn mills and the article he published in 1966, in the Transactions of the Lancashire and Cheshire Antiquarian Society, is the first serious archaeological study of Cheshire’s industrial remains. The first extensive list of industrial archaeology sites within Cheshire was undertaken by Rhys Williams, county archaeologist and Oliver Bott, conservation officer, in the 1970s. The 1980s saw an upsurge in interest in the county’s industrial archaeology, beginning with the publication in 1982 of Owen Ashmore’s guide to the industrial archaeology of the post-1974 county. Further awareness of the importance of the county’s industrial archaeology was raised by the closure of the Anderton Boat lift due to corrosion in 1983. More positive was the purchase by Vale Royal Borough Council in 1986 of the Lion Salt Works which had just closed, thus avoiding its demolition, whilst in 1989 the Anson Engine Museum opened in Poynton. Most importantly, the East Cheshire Textile Mill Survey was undertaken, although it would be 1993 before it was finally published.
The 1990s saw the emergence of developer-funded archaeological work and a gradual increase in the excavation of archaeological sites in the county. The detailed survey and excavation of the water- and steam-power systems at Quarry Bank Mill for the National Trust probably marked the first time such features had been systematically excavated in the Cheshire. It thus presaged the focus of developer-funded work on industrial sites in the North West in the 21st century. In the mid- to late 1990s Grosvenor Museum archaeologists excavated workers’ housing in Chester, the first time this had happed in Cheshire and again a foretaste of the way in which such houses would be dealt within in later years. Chester Archaeology Society also undertook the excavation, over several seasons, of the cheese warehouse on Sealand Road in Chester. Another pioneering survey in the 1990s was the Cheshire historic town survey, undertaken between 1997 and 2002. Controversially for the time this included studies of the towns in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries and thus their industrial archaeology.
Yet, the threats to Cheshire’s industrial archaeology are ably illustrated by the contrasting stories of two textile mills. Quarry Bank Mill, built in 1784 and the oldest working water-powered Arkwright-style mill in Britain, was donated to the National Trust as a working mill in 1939, thus retaining the integrity of the buildings. Although commercial production ceased in 1959 the mill is now a working museum. The Old Mill, Congleton, was one of the oldest textile mills in Britain and it was partially demolished in 1939. The remaining two storeys, heavily altered but including an intact 1830s beam engine house, remained in used until in 2003 planning permission was grant to demolish the remaining structures. The archaeological dig associated with this redevelopment recorded the wheelpit and water system built to the designs of James Brindley, in the process emphasising the archaeological importance of the site. This did not stop, however, apartments being built on the mill remains.