Seasonal Archaeology: Union Flour Mill, Macclesfield

MacclessfieldHovisCornMill (18)Visitors to Macclesfield, on train, car or foot, may well note the tall red brick mill-like building and its even taller chimney that rises of from the hillside on the eastern side of the town. It’s a prominent landmark, even on a misty, rainy, day  – and there are plenty of those in Macclesfield, lying as it does on the western edge of the Peak District. This structure is the Union Flour Mill, built on the Macclesfield Canal around 1831, and a building of national significance in the development of one of the most prominent of the new national brands of foodstuffs in the early 20th century – Hovis bread.

The ‘Hovis’ brand owes its origin to Richard Smith, who developed a fortified flour in 1886 by extracting the wheatgerm from the wheat, lightly cooking it top preserve the nutrients and then putting it back in the flour. In 1887 this was patented as ‘Smith’s Patent Germ Flour’ and produced and marketed by Thomas Fitton’s company, S Fitton & Sons Ltd, a firm of millers on Macclesfield based at the Publicity Works Mill. This mill was built around 1831 as a flour mill on the western side of the newly-opened Macclesfield canal. In 1890 the flour was renamed ‘Hovis’. Smith joined the board of Fitton and & Sons and the company was renamed ‘The Hovis Bread Flour Company’ in 1898. By 1914 the firm had outgrown it Macclesfield base and flour production was transferred to Trafford Park near Manchester with the Union Mill being used by the firm to manufacture tins and bags for the company.

The mill ceased to be used after the Second World War, was converted into industrial units, and the eastern roof destroyed by fire in 1970. By the late 1980s the site was disused. Fortunately, it was listed as a grade two structure in 1989, and later was converted into apartments in the mid-1990s. Although there was no archaeological recording of the structure during the conversion, its listed status ensured that many original features were retained.

Union FlourMill2The mill is brick-built, with a Welsh slate roof and Queen Post trusses, and stands five storeys high, 17 bays facing the canal. The fourth bay (from the west) was formerly used for loading, and the loading openings on each floor still retain their massive cast-iron lintels. In the centre of the canal facade is a stone arch, formerly the entrance to an internal canal arm used for loading and unloading. The former boiler and engine house at the eastern end of the building is a tall, single-storeyed, structure with a round-headed window in the gable wall and still retains its tall circular-section chimney stack. The interior of the mill was originally divided laterally by a fire-proof wall on each floor, separating different aspects of processing.

Although nolonger in production the mill remains a dominant feature of the Macclesfield townscape.

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