Atherton, like many towns of the Greater Manchester region and the North, has been built upon the industrial revolution. From the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries nail making was the main industry in Atherton, or Chowbent as it was commonly known back then. However in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the discovery of coal beneath the land made Atherton and nearby towns a hub for coal mining. The damp climate also made the town ideal for cotton spinning. By the dawn of the twentieth century, the majority of the population was employed in the towns five mills or numerous collieries. Today, all that remains of these great industries are two mills. This post is going to focus on the Howe Bridge Mills, knocked down only three years ago.

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A map of Howe Bridge Mills in 1928. By this point the mill consisted of the large buildings shaded in bounded by Mealhouse Lane, Flapper Fold Lane, Gloucester Street and Bag Lane. (Source: http://digimap.edina.ac.uk/roam/historic)

The Fletcher Burrows Company

The decision to form a spinning company and build a cotton mill was the brainchild of the Fletcher Mining Company in 1868 (later in 1872 Abraham Burrows entered into the partnership). The Fletcher family had access to the mining rights under Atherton since the eighteenth century and their company controlled the Atherton Collieries with several pits in the area at Howe Bridge, Chanters and Gibfield.

The company was well-regarded for treating their workers kindly and their philanthropic legacy is still visible today in the model village they built for their workers as Howe Bridge. The cottages, bath house, club house, church and school were built in the 1870s and further houses were built in Hindsford.

James Pearson Fletcher and Abraham Burrows acted as Chairman and Vice-Chairman of the Howe Bridge Cotton Spinning Company, along with five other directors. It must be noted that Howe Bridge Mills was not located in the area of Howe Bridge. It was named after this location as Howe Bridge itself was the epicentre of the Fletcher Burrows Company.The first part of the mill was built in 1868 and it intended to provide employment to the wives and daughters of men employed within Fletcher’s collieries. The opportunities of new employment and housing in Atherton in the late 1860s and 1870s resulted in a rise in population; from 5,907 in 1861 to 12,602 in 1881. As early as 1869 John Skelton of Atherton Post Office complained the influx of new people to the area made delivering post difficult and that all houses in the district ought to be numbered.

Disaster

The first Howe Bridge Mill was a described as a fine building, being four storeys high, 200 feet long and 105 feet in width and supposedly made up of a million bricks. Although not designed as a ‘fire-proof’ mill, there were enough precautions to try and prevent it. There was a water cistern on the roof of the building, on every landing there was two pipes with taps and hoses. These pipes led across every floor where there were yet more hoses. Likewise each floor also contained forty-two buckets, which were always kept filled with water. The Mill was running successfully, it closed as normal on a Friday evening and was inspected by the manager, James S. Kearton on Saturday and the secretary, Duncan Willis on Sunday. However early in the morning of Monday 3 January 1876, a mysterious fire broke out and burnt the mill to the ground.

The fire was first spotted in the mule room, located over the engine house on the top floor of the mill. Duncan Willis and James S. Kearton rushed to the scene and Kearton ran to top floor to turn on the water but the smoke meant “he was compelled to beat a hasty retreat.” At that time, Atherton did not have its own fire station and precious time was lost as units from Bedford and Tyldesley made their way to the site. The firemen, using water from the mill pond and pipes laid by Atherton Urban District Council were able to save the exterior walls of the rooms over the engine house but somehow the fire spread beyond a thick partition wall into the main part of the mill, destroying it completely. The damage was estimated to cost £40,000 (£3,393,000 in modern terms) and all the machinery and around 90 bales of cotton were lost, although some yarn was saved. Worst still 250 people lost their jobs.

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An aerial photo of Howe Bridge Mills, 20th century. The many different buildings and chimneys can be seen here, including the reservoirs. The athletics and football ground can be seen on the top right of the photo. The top left is Ena Mill. (Source: Wigan Archives & Leigh Local Studies – copright)

A New Mill & a Familiar Scene

Within a year of the fire of 1876 the new Howe Bridge Mill was completed. It was designed by the architects J.J. Bradshaw & Glass and was described by the Leigh Journal upon its opening as “the handsomest and most substantial erection in Lancashire”. The new mill quickly established itself within the local cotton industry.

Productivity was so great that in June 1884, a new engine was installed in yet another addition to the mill which was 170 feet long and 137 feet wide. A purpose built reservoir had been dug out the year before. The new engine was christened by Mrs Jackson and Mrs Burrows with a celebration of lemonade, as both women were active supporters of the temperance movement.

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Two men working at machinery in Howe Bridge Mill, early 20th century. (Source: Wigan Archives & Leigh Local Studies – copyright)

However on 20 May 1887 disaster struck the Howe Bridge Mills again when another fire broke out. The fire occurred in the ‘old’ mill so we can deduce this was the building constructed in 1877 (Belong Residential Home now sits on the site of this mill). It contained 60,000 spindles and unlike its predecessor this mill was built in a ‘fire-proof’ method meaning the fabric of the building would withstand any damage. In fact the majority of the damage in this incident was caused by water damage to the machines.

The fire was caused by friction on the spinning mule of William Pemberton, who was working on the four floor of the mill. The fire broke out at 10:45am but thanks to the efforts of local firemen from Atherton, Leigh and Tyldesley, it was subdued in half an hour. In the mean time a large crowd had gathered to watch the scene and Inspector Charnley and the police force held them back. Mr Abraham Burrows and Mr J.S. Burrows also arrived at the scene, the latter man “working most assiduously“. Doctors Sephton, Martin and Evans were also there to treat the injured.

Fortunately there were no casualties, although there was a great deal of panic among the workers in the mill. Most on the lowers floors were able to escape by the ordinary staircases and exits. However those on the top floor (above the fire) were prevented from using the stairs by smoke so they took to breaking the windows to use ladders and ropes. It must have been a terrifying situation to be trapped on the floor above the fire, when dense smoke filling the room. A number of people were treated for rope burns and women especially seemed to suffer from shock:

“Elizabeth Ann Brain, a piecer, living on Water Street, besides cuts received a serious shock to the system. She was sliding down a rope from the top room, and had reached the third storey safely, when she fainted and, leaving hold of the rope, she fell to the ground. Her hands in consequence of the friction were very much lacerated and burnt. She was removed into a house near the mill, and afterwards taken home in  cab where she was attended by Dr. Evans.

Frank Brown, 14 years of age, a scavanger and son of George Brown, 7 Hesketh Street, was badly injured. He was in the top room and hearing an alarm of fire he ran to one of the windows and smashed it. Getting outside he clung to the window sill for a few moments, and then let go of his hold and fell onto the engine shed. His back and ankles were severely sprained by the fall. His father, hearing of the accident went to the mill, and obtaining a cab, took the poor fellow home. Mrs. Brown, on seeing her son, fainted and for a considerable time had to be attended to by the neighbours. The boy’s sister, Ada, who works at the same mill, was greatly shocked at his misfortune, and altogether the scene in the house was a very affecting one. Dr. Martin was called in and after examining the lad expressed the opinion no bones were broken.

William Pemberton, Westleigh, at whose carriage the fire broke out was scorched on the right arm. As the flames spread very rapidly, he was obliged to make his escape through one of the windows. Some of the work people in the mill yard seeing him standing on the window ledge, held out a sheet for him to jump into. He did so and with the exception of being somewhat shaken and a bruise to the right knee, appeared to be none the worse for his leap. He walked into his brother’s house in Mealhouse Lane, and was afterwards visited by Dr. Martin. His wife arrived shortly before one o’clock from Westleigh, and the poor fellow, who was laid on the sofa, on seeing her burst into tears and sobbed violently.”   

Around 250 employees were temporarily out of work, although the newspaper noted that some of those injured had recovered enough to do light duties at the mill. Frank Brown was very fortunate to recover for his injuries and continued to work at cotton mills, he later married and had a son.

Expansion

In January 1890 a new mill was constructed on the site and at the time it was the largest in the district. By 1891 the Howe Bridge Spinning Company was the fourth largest company in Lancashire. However this rapid expansion came at a cost. Sadly one worker, 20 year old James Kinsley, died during the construction of the new mill in 1890 when he accidentally fell from the fifth storey. In 1893 another terrible accidental death occurred at the mill. Forty-seven year old Richard Brown was caught in the carriage of his cotton mule machine. His leg was trapped and deeply cut by the machinery and he died half an hour after the accident of exhaustion and blood loss. A similar accident took place in 1907 when Richard Pennington died after being caught in the strap of his machine. In June 1898 there was a fire at No. 3 mill in one of the rooms filled with waste. The workers were able to escape down the fire ladder and there was minimal damage.

In 1908 there was an economic slump within the Lancastrian cotton industry and this had an direct impact on the towns of Atherton, Tyldesley, Leigh and Wigan. Some of the mills had to close for a few days. In Atherton it meant that the newly built Ena Mill did not open until 1913 when the economy was stronger. However this was a fortunate from Howe Bridge Mills as it reduced competition and they continued to prosper. By 1911 they were entirely lit by electricity and in 1919 the Howe Bridge Spinning Company built the last of their mills on the site. This was No. 6 and it worked as part of unit with the other five existing buildings, although unlike the other buildings this new mill was powered by electricity. New office blocks were built on Gloucester Street about this time too.

A Community

There was a real sense of community among the workers of Howe Bridge Mills and it is something which the company also aim to inspire. In the 1890s and 1900s there are notices in the Leigh Chronicle of meetings and tea parties at The Wheatsheaf and the Railway Inn. In 1921 a memorial plaque to the fallen soldiers of World War One, who had also worked in the mill was erected on the site.

By the 1920s the Company has purchased land off Flapper Fold Lane to use for sporting activities for their workers. The money raised supporting the Welfare Association. There was a football and athletic ground, a tennis court, putting green and a bowling green. The mill even had its own hockey team. Every August the Howe Bridge Spinning Company hosted a gala and sports day, complete with trophies and medals for winners. There was event such as wheelbarrow races, sack races, tug of war and hurdle jumping. Other recreational events included a fancy dress dance in February 1919. Even in the 1950s there was still trips to Blackpool taking place for the workers.

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Jumping the hurdles at the Sports Day, August 1923. (Source: Wigan Archives & Leigh Local Studies – copyright)

Mid-Twentieth Century: Decline

By the end of the 1920s the cotton boom in Lancashire was coming to an end. In 1929 the Howe Bridge Spinning Company, along with many other local mills, merged with the Combined Egyptian Mills to cut costs. Howe Bridge Mills subsequently becoming the company’s headquarters. In the post- Second World War period the cotton industry faced further decline; in 1953 the name was changed to Combined English Mills. The company was subsequently taken over by Carrington Viyella in the 1960s.

In March 1956, No. 3 mill closed and this was followed by the closure of No. 4 mill a few years later. When No.4 closed there was a loss of 500 jobs and no redundancy pay for the workers. In January 1960 the remaining mill units underwent some refurbishment and the mill was changed from mule-spinning to ring frames. No.2 and No.5 mills were eventually demolished in 1964/65. The residents of Mealhouse Lane had to be evacuated from their homes for safety reasons during the demolition of the 211ft high chimney. The site was later redeveloped for social housing. More development of the mill’s land too place at the corner of Flapper Fold Lane and Gloucester Street, which was home to Atherton Fire Station from c.1950-1970s.

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A view of Howe Bridge Mill’s Chimney on Mealhouse Lane, Atherton c.1960 The dominance of the chimney and its close proximity to local houses makes it easier to understand why residents were evacuated during its demolition in 1964! (Source: https://leigh.life/index.php?action=media;sa=item;in=29897 – Leigh Life, posted by Sav 20 June 2012)

There were further fires at the Mill in 1965 which caused £2000 worth of damage and in 1973 but they did not cause as much damage, or sensation as the fires a century earlier. A modern building, Unit 1 was constructed in 1978 and in 1987/88 there was a £6 million reinvestment in No.6 Mill and it became known at Howe Bridge Mill DORMA. By 1999 this too had closed and the new millennium saw the disappearance of the cotton industry in Atherton.

Howe Bridge Mills Today

As early as September 2000 there was news the site was going to be purchased by a supermarket chain and turned into a new supermarket complex and car park. These rumors persisted for the next decade or so but nothing ever came of it. The only surviving buildings were Nos. 3 & 6 mills (built 1890 & 1919), Unit 1 and the former offices. They were used for a variety of retail and other uses. The offices on Gloucester Street are used by the probationary service, there was an indoor go-karting track, plumbing and bathroom merchants and children’s play area (Cheeky Chimps) in the former industrial buildings. Belong residential home and community village was built on the site of the former No.2 Mill in 2011.

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The remains of No.3 Mill taken from Gloucester Street, July 2014. (Source: Own Photograph, 2014)

By 2014 these buildings too were empty. They were considered and eye-sore and to be unsafe, although once the units had moved out of the spaces, the windows were taken out leaving the building deliberately exposed to both the elements and vandals. The final nail in the coffin occurred in May 2014, when a small fire was started in the disused buildings. In summer 2014 No.6, No. 3 and Unit 1 were demolished leaving just a vast open space and piles of rubble.

The site was used briefly to host a travelling fun fair but this in turn caused too much anti-social disruption to local residents. The site was recently purchased and will be redeveloped by Countryside Properties; who plan to build  c.200 homes on the site of Howe Bridge Mills, which will be called Hamilton Square.

As one of the oldest and long-lasting mills in the town, Howe Bridge Mills played a great part in the lives of Athertonians; hundreds of people were employed there generation after generation.My mum worked as a cleaner at Unit 1 in the early 1990s. The memories associated with Howe Bridge Mills will fortunately last a lot longer beyond the bricks and mortar.

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All that remains of Howe Bridge Mills, the rear doors and wall of No.6 Mill. (Source: Own Photograph 2017)

Extra Materials

 Unfortunately I don’t have space here to display the vast number of historical photographs that exist of Howe Bridge Mills:

This is link to the rest of the wonderful collection at Wigan Archives and Leigh Local Studies, they have many more free to view at the archives themselves

A wonderful video of Howe Bridge Mills from the mid-1990s, showing how the mill looked when it was still operational. Well worth a watch. It sounds like a loud place to work, I can’t imagine how noisy it must have been in the 1890s!

Sources:

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