Secrets of pioneering mill trickle out during flood work

Archaeologist Jennifer Richards chats to Todmorden Civic Society chairman Paul Clarke about the findings at the old mill. Picture:Tony Johnson
Archaeologist Jennifer Richards chats to Todmorden Civic Society chairman Paul Clarke about the findings at the old mill. Picture:Tony Johnson
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BURIED secrets of Todmorden’s industrial past are being exposed to the light of day for the first time in more than 200 years.

The foundations of the town’s first textile mill, started in 1782, will be uncovered before new flood defences are built over them.

Preparation for the £13m spending on flood defences has already exposed the lower walls and floors of the old mill’s second phase of life, starting in the 1820s.

And the law requires the builders to stand back while archaeologists find out and record all they can.

The West Yorkshire Archaeology Service, a Leeds-based team of specialist contractors, is being paid by the site developers to work in among the builders.

The team has been at work for a week on a first section of the site and has one more to go before it moves on to another.

Yesterday was an open day for the public to see what was happening and ask questions about it.

At first glance, there was not a lot to see.

But Jennifer Richards, who looks after the regional archaeological obligations of the Environment Agency, which is in charge of the flood works, said: “When we remove the flagstones here, we will be getting down to the early mill, which could have a different layout. We want to try to work out which rooms were used for what. In what is already exposed, we have found an iron bar relating to the mounting for machinery used to make parts for the looms. The job is to record and map all that kind of thing.

“This is an exciting opportunity to add to our understanding of the various phases of development in this locally significant area of the town.”

The dig is taking place on a site known locally as the Morrison’s waste ground, just off Rochdale Road, opposite Daleside.

The mill was originally water-powered but moved through coal-fired steam power to electricity. It was originally a woollens mill but started switching to cotton in 1787, following the Lancashire trend in response to imports of American cotton.

By 1829, it was known a Waterside Mill and said to be the largest weaving shed in the world, housing 800 looms and powered by a water wheel housed in a three-storey building.

It was central to the development of Todmorden. But it also embroiled the town in suffering from the disaster known as the Lancashire Cotton Famine – a four-year depression, 1861-1865, caused by the American Civil War interrupting raw cotton supplies.

Some of the most prosperous workers in Britain suddenly became the most impoverished. Many moved east, to the woollen districts of Yorkshire, or emigrated altogether. Some rioted and some died in despair.

Todmorden escaped relatively lightly because the Fielden Brothers, who ran Waterside Mill, kept their 2,000 workers employed throughout.

Even when they had to close operations down altogether, for nine months, they kept everyone on, on half pay, to do various jobs. The men were put onto machinery repairs, land reclamation and road repairs, and the women were employed on sewing.

When the crisis was over, so was the height of the cotton boom.

But Waterside Mill still got bigger.

By 1912 it had 100,000 spindles and 1,600 looms and was the heart of a self-contained community known as Lane End but the mill eventually ceased production, in 1961, and the site was cleared in the 1980s.

Archaeologists recorded the remains of the later mill after its demolition but this is the first opportunity to get at the 18th-century foundations.

The digging team will report to the West Yorkshire Archaeological Advisory Service, a joint service, based in Wakefield and funded by a federation of local authorities to protect and record the history of Calderdale, Bradford, Kirklees, Leeds and Wakefield.

Anybody with records or memories of relevance to the Todmorden investigation is invited to drop into the site office on Salford Way, Todmorden, and talk to Donald Murray, representing construction contractors Volker Stevin, or any Environment Agency staff.