Saving Oldham’s Textile Mills

Oldham Council published in March 2022 its Mills Strategy setting out how the area’s historic textile buildings can play an important part in the future of the borough. The study, one of the first of its kind in the country, was commissioned by Oldham Council and Historic England to explore the potential for the mills’ future use. It is seen as a key lever in reducing Oldham’s housing green belt allocations, with mill sites able to provide space for around 800 new homes.

Lees Brook Mill

The Oldham Mills Strategy identifies surviving textile mills across the borough and assesses how important each one is to the local heritage and landscape. It also establishes how they could be repurposed, such as conversion into new homes, for employment or other uses – minimising the area’s carbon footprint by reusing previously developed sites.

There have been two industrial archaeology surveys of Greater Manchester’s textile mills. The first was undertaken in the mid to late 1980s by the Greater Manchester Archaeological Unit. This provided a rapid survey of 1012 textile mills, designed to record what was standing in the landscape and use the buildings archaeology to provide a history of the cotton spinning industry. Detailed archaeological recording of a 39-mill sample was undertaken, spanning the period 1780 to 1926. This was published by Mike Williams with Douglas Farnie in 1992 (The Cotton Spinning Mills of Greater Manchester. Carnegie Press). Four of these detailed surveys were on Oldham mills: Anchor, Kent, Nile and Prince of Wales. These were all large block spinning mills of the 1875 to 1908 and spanned the period of Oldham ring spinning dominance. The second survey was undertaken in 2016-17 by the Greater Manchester Archaeological Advisory Service (successor to GMAU). It was a resurvey with the aims of both noting what was still standing and providing details on the potential re-use of those surviving sites. Undertaken by Rachael Reader with Ian Miller and Norman Redhead, the survey recorded just 540 mills surviving across Greater Manchester, of which 104 were in Oldham. This was a 66 mill loss since 1988.

So why are Oldham’s textile mills so important and worth saving for the future? Oldham has 504 textile mill sites (455 mainly cotton mills in Oldham and 49 mainly woollen mills in Saddleworth – see The Cotton Mills of Oldham by Duncan Gurr and Julian Hunt from 1998), built between the mid-18th century and the 1920s. Of these 104 survive as standing structures, 14 of which are listed buildings. It thus has over a fifth of the 2,400 textile manufacturing sites established in Greater Manchester between 1732 and 1926, and around a fifth of the surviving mill examples in the region. These high numbers reflect both the Lancashire cotton industry and Manchester’s role as the global centre of cotton spinning and merchandising from late 18th to the mid-20th century, and Oldham’s role as the chief cotton spinning town in the late 19th and early 20th century (Nevell M & McNeil R, 2000, A Guide to the Industrial Archaeology of Greater Manchester. AIA).

During the 19th century, Oldham emerged as one of the satellite cotton towns supplying Manchester in its role as the epicentre of the developing textile trade. The town expanded during this period, experiencing its greatest population growth between 1775 and 1821. The industry of the town and surrounding area was initially handloom weaving, particularly of woollen goods, but Oldham subsequently became a centre of coarse-spinning using American cotton. By the early 1820s, there were around 100 mills in production, a figure that increased steadily to approximately 150 mills by 1843.

Shaw woollen Mill, Saddleworth, late 18th century.

Oldham’s cotton firms were aided considerably during the 19th century by the emergence of a local engineering infrastructure, and a network of textile-machinery manufacturers expanded to become the greatest in the world. These included the Platt Brothers, who from the 1840s outstripped their rivals to become the largest textile-machinery makers in Lancashire, and subsequently the world.

By 1860, there were around 200 cotton mills in operation in Oldham. In contrast to many other textile-manufacturing centres in Lancashire, Oldham’s position was boosted during the Cotton Famine of the mid-1860s when the American Civil War caused supplies of raw cotton from the slave plantations of the southern states to dry up. During this period, the Platt Brothers worked with mills owners to adapt their mules to spin Indian yard instead of American. The result was that during this decade, Oldham surpassed Manchester and Bolton to become the metropolis of cotton spinning.

As in other textile-manufacturing districts, Oldham’s earliest mills were generally plain, utilitarian structures, of hand-made brick, rectangular in plan, narrow in width and with small windows. Ceiling heights were generally 1.8 to 2m, and stair towers were incorporated within the building rather than outside. By the middle of the 19th century, mills were being built higher, longer and wider, an L-shaped plan evolving where the engine house projected from the building at one end.

The years 1873-75 brought unprecedented growth and, by 1878, Oldham consumed one-third of the cotton, by this stage being increasingly imported from Eqypt and India, used in British textile mills. This was coupled with a boom of mill-building, so that 318 mills were in production by 1875, which transformed the townscape. By 1890, Oldham cotton had reached its zenith, and its spindles accounted for 12.4 percent of the global total. During this period, the design of mills became increasingly more sophisticated, mirroring advances in technology and construction and the need for increased output and efficiency. This period also saw advances in preventing fire. The flammable nature of cotton dust combined with machinery, friction and timber floor construction meant early mills were high fire-risk buildings. In the 1820s and 1830s, brick-vaulted ceilings supported by cast-iron beams and columns were introduced, a technique developed further and subsequently patented by renowned Oldham architect Abraham Henthorn Stott in 1871. By the end of the 19th century, concrete floor joists were being used instead of brick arches. Despite the application of fireproof construction techniques, however, blazes were still common and from the 1880s, and sprinkler systems, invented in the USA in 1881, began to be introduced, with reservoirs in the towers on the flat roof.

Roger Holden has shown that in the hands of the joint-stock companies, mills began to be more decorative and ambitious, turning them into landmark structures. Architects such as the Oldham-based Stott and Sons designed eye-catching features such a multi-functional tower, which incorporated not only the staircase but toilets and often a water tank for a sprinkler system (Roger Holden, 1997, Stott & Sons: Architects of the Lancashire Cotton Mill). The name of the mill was often displayed across the top, ensuring it was visible from afar. Other architectural flourished included details in the Italianate style, which had a strong commercial following as it was used in many of the Manchester textile warehouses, often found on the engine house. The remainder of the building usually consisted of vast flat expanses of wall punctuated by windows. The windows themselves became larger as the n19th century progressed, responding to a need for more light and better ventilation as faster machinery generated higher temperatures.

A further boom in 1904-8 generated another phase of mill-building, and by 1911 there were 335 mills in Oldham so that in 1916, 30 percent of Lancashire’s spindles were in Oldham. In 1926, the zenith year when the Lancashire Cotton industry reached its maximum productive capacity, Oldham’s spindleage stood at its all-time high of 17,700,000. However, a combination of trade depression, coal shortages, the General Strike and over-stretched finances meant that from 1927, mills began reducing their spindleage as companies started to fail and overseas markets disappeared. Despite boycotts from India in the 1930s and overseas competition during the late 1940s and 1950s, Oldham remained until 1964 the largest single centre of cotton spinning. However, by the 1990s the rise of artificial fibre production and the collapse of overseas markets meant that only a handful of cotton spinning mills were working in the town. The last mill to spin cotton, Elk Mill, closed in 1998.

Elk Mill, Oldham’s last function cotton mill, around 2000.

Across Oldham the 2017 survey noted that the average loss rate of mills between 1988 and 2017 is 38.8%. The highest numbers of demolition since the 1980s have occurred in the wards of Coldhurst, Shaw and Chadderton Central, whilst two wards, Chadderton South and Crompton, have no textile mills surviving as a result of demolition since the 1990s. Even so, it is clear from the GMAAS assessment that the borough has an important stock of textile mills still standing, making a significant contribution to the character of the historic industrial environment. The national importance of several of these mills, representing 14% of the total stock, is reflected in their designation as listed buildings, although the borough also contains numerous very significant but non-designated mills.

The GMAAS survey concluded that most of Oldham’s extant mills (76 out of 104) were at ‘Low Risk’ or ‘No Risk’ based on their current condition and levels of occupancy/commercial use. How many of these might be standing in another 40 years thus depends upon local communities recognising the value of the embedded carbon in these structures as opposed to new builds, and the promotion of these industrial structures as buildings for converting to new apartments. That’s the challenge and aim of the new mill strategy.

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