Quarry Bank Mill
A fascinating relic of England's Industrial Revolution
Quarry Bank Mill is a remarkable survivor from the Industrial Revolution, namely a virtually complete cotton mill that opened for business in 1784 and can be seen today – in many though not all respects – just as its original owners and workers would have seen it.
It is located near the Cheshire village of Styal, which is on the southern fringe of Manchester, close to the airport. Indeed, the modern visitor gets an interesting perspective from seeing planes take off just a few hundred yards from a building that is more than 230 years old.
That is the name that was given to Manchester in the 19th century as a result of the city’s phenomenal growth during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, due almost entirely to a single industry, namely the spinning and weaving of cotton thread and cloth. It is estimated that the population of Manchester almost quadrupled between 1773 and 1801, and many previously insignificant communities in Lancashire and northern Cheshire also grew into substantial towns that bristled with cotton mills.
A number of factors contributed to this growth, not all of which are matters for national or regional self-congratulation. The cotton trade grew on the back of the slave trade, and the factories that processed cotton relied on child labour in conditions that that were dangerous and unhealthy.
Visitors to Quarry Bank are given plenty of reminders of these facts.
The founder of Quarry Bank was Samuel Greg (born in 1758), who had the good fortune to inherit a substantial amount of money when still in his twenties, and who was already involved in the linen trade as a textile merchant.
Part of Samuel’s inheritance included a small weaving business – using hand looms – at Eyam in Derbyshire, but he became interested in the opportunities presented by the invention by Richard Arkwright of the waterframe, which was a water-powered machine for spinning cotton. This had been patented in 1775, but Greg saw that this was a machine that could be put to good use in providing a steady supply of cotton thread for his weavers.
The ending of the American War of Independence in 1783 promised a ready supply of raw cotton, coinciding with the expiry of Arkwright’s patent. Samuel Greg wasted no time in finding a good site for a new building that could be powered by a reliable source of water, namely the River Bollin that flowed off the nearby Peak District. He leased the land he needed and started work, with the building being ready for operation in 1784. The original mill was later extended in the same architectural style.
A family business
One reason for the survival of Quarry Bank Mill is that the business was continued and expanded through five generations of the Greg family. In 1939 the Mill was given to the National Trust by the last Greg owner, Alexander Carlton Greg, and it closed as a going concern in 1959. However, that meant that the building and its contents were safe from the demolitions and depredations suffered by most of the region’s cotton mills as the industry declined in face of changing economic conditions.
Samuel Greg died in 1834, so it was his son, Robert Hyde Greg, who made the major change of introducing weaving to the factory as well as spinning. It was now possible for Quarry Bank to take in raw cotton and produce finished cloth, all within the same building.
Power from water and steam
Although the Mill was originally solely dependent on water power, it was not long before Samuel Greg realised that an additional source of power was necessary, so in 1810 he bought his first steam engine, this being a 10-horsepower beam engine that was only intended to provide additional power when the river was low during dry periods.
However, the expansion of the factory in the 1830s, such that it now held more than 300 looms as well as the spinning machines, meant that a larger steam engine was needed. This was a 20-horsepower machine.
A further supplement was added in 1871, this being a horizontal condensing engine that was itself replaced by a similar model in 1906.
However, the fascinating aspect from a visitor’s point of view is that the water turbines installed in 1905, the second beam engine and the second horizontal engine are all still in working order and can be seen in operation today, although the steam engines no longer rely on the massive coal-fuelled boiler that is still in place. Visitors can even crawl through a narrow passage and look straight up the now unused chimney.
What can you see?
You enter the Mill building at the top (via a modern walkway from an adjoining building) and work your way down. You therefore see a number of historical displays, with people in period costumes showing visitors how operations such as carding raw cotton were performed. There are lots of old photographs and documents on display, such as the contract that a new child apprentice would sign that committed him or her to working a 12-hour day (six days a week) for the next seven years.
On a lower floor you can see a room full of looms, one of which (dating from the 1870s) will be set going on request. It is fascinating to see the shuttle being thrown backwards and forwards as the warp threads are raised and lowered. The noise of one machine is substantial – it is hardly surprising that the original workers had to devise sign language to communicate with each other when 300 such machines were clattering away at the same time.
Downstairs there is a 1920s spinning mule in working order. This spins more than 500 bobbins at the same time on a machine that is of virtually the same design as ones pictured in 19th century drawings that were used to draw public attention to the evils of child labour. As the machine operates you can see the carriage extending forward so that the threads are stretched, thinned and twisted before being bound on to bobbins. Pieces of cotton fall to the floor – these had to be picked up by child workers who were small enough to crawl under the machines but were in constant danger should they stand up too early.
Then there are the steam engines working away in the basement, and the boilers that would have had to be continually stoked with coal.
What you see is, of course, a sanitised version of what the original workers would have experienced. Apart from the noise and the dirt, there was the cotton dust that got in the lungs and caused incurable diseases. There was also the fact that cotton could only be worked efficiently in a humid atmosphere, so the windows were never opened and the temperature was always kept high.
One should also not forget that the raw cotton – in the early days – only reached the Lancashire mills as a result of the labour of slaves in the West Indies and the southern states of the USA. Another thing that is often forgotten is that the trade was stolen from India, where it became uneconomic to continue it after industrialisation took hold in England. Some 60% of the finished cloth was exported – largely to India.
Child labour was cheaper than adult labour, and women were paid less than men. It is therefore not surprising that the Gregs took advantage of this by employing as many apprentices as they could, with more girls than boys. The reason for the gender disparity was partly because many apprentices would become adult workers but also because girls tended to be more docile than boys.
Most of these children were taken from workhouses, often at around nine years old. At Quarry Bank you can visit the Apprentice House where up to 90 apprentices were housed at a time, sleeping in box beds that look very small to us until one remembers how small the occupants would have been.
There is some evidence that the Gregs were relatively enlightened employers for their time. Punishments were limited, the food was reasonable, including fresh vegetables from the cottage garden, and medical facilities were provided. The apprentices were also given a rudimentary education. The number of apprentices who stayed on at Quarry Bank as adults is some sort of testament to the fact that working conditions were probably considerably worse elsewhere.
More evidence of enlightenment?
When reading history it is important to do so without imposing too many standards that belong to our own age. We may therefore judge someone who lived centuries ago as being cruel and heartless whereas their contemporaries would have seen them as being recklessly liberal. The Gregs are a case in point.
It cannot be overlooked that Samuel Greg’s chief purpose was to make lots of money for himself and his family, and he certainly achieved that aim by cramming a huge number of spinning and weaving machines into his factory and forcing people to operate them for many hours a day while paying them wages that were not notably generous. As mentioned earlier, factory conditions were unpleasant and unhealthy and accidents – some of them fatal – did happen.
However, the Gregs were relatively enlightened by the standards of their day. One piece of evidence is the house they built for themselves right next door to the Mill. Quarry Bank House is substantial but not palatial. It was a family home, designed to house twelve children and their parents and servants, but the rooms are modestly sized. Samuel Greg could have afforded something much grander but chose not to, as he preferred to be as much a part of the Mill’s community as he could.
The Gregs also built much of Styal village, with Samuel’s wife Hannah being particularly active in developing housing and community facilities for the workers. The cottages were well-built and enjoyed a rural location that was far removed from the slum conditions suffered by many Lancashire mill workers. Although Manchester wages were higher, Styal rents were cheaper.
One notable feature was the sanitation provided by the privies, one to each cottage instead of one being shared by a whole street, as was typical elsewhere. Every cottage had its own allotment so workers could grow their own vegetables.
The Gregs also provided a village shop, a school and a Unitarian chapel. Later developments included a Methodist chapel, a village hall and a library.
A blast from the past
A visit to Quarry Bank Mill is therefore a step back in time to see how people lived and worked some 200 years ago. It does not take a great deal of imagination to picture their lives and experiences, even from walking through the woods of the Quarry Bank Estate – as the Gregs and their guests would have done to view the river in its steep-sided valley – or walking gingerly down a narrow cobbled alleyway as the workers would have done on their way to the Mill early in the morning.
You could spend a long time at Quarry Bank Mill and come away with a whole new perspective on life in the past.