Who remembers going down t’Widdle?

Figure 1. Yates’ map of Lancashire, surveyed in about 1780. The old road from Woodhill to Holcombe is indicated in red. Note waterwheel symbol at Woodhill, on later site of ‘Rothwell’s Croft’. Before the Ordnance Survey was formed, early cartography tended to be schematic and fairly inaccurate.

After crossing Bury Bridge into Elton, the early traveller had three possible choices of route – due west, towards Ainsworth and Bolton; north-westwards towards Walshaw and Tottington; or due northwards, towards Holcombe.  This latter route hugged the Irwell briefly, before crossing the Kirklees Brook, and then forking at Woodhill Fold, to bear either left to Brandlesholme, or right to Burrs.

Figure 2. Post-1780 route of Croston’s Road to right; to left is causeway taking Brandlesholme Road over valley of Kirklees Brook, raised in about 1840. Top left can be seen chimney and water tower of Woodhill Mill.

Sometime between 1790 and 1819, Croston’s Road was extended northwards from the Dusty Miller (Point A) to Woodhill Fold (Point D), crossing the Kirklees Brook on a new bridge.  But the gradients and the obvious dog-leg were inconvenient to wheeled traffic, so in about 1840, a massive curving causeway was run across the valley carrying Brandlesholme Road, between the Help me Thro’ (Point B) and Woodhill Mill (Point C).  This now had the effect of reducing the old road to a series of local access trackways, and its final decline had begun.  

Figure 3. 1838 Tithe Plan of Elton Township. Blue line indicates route of the old ‘Widdle’ road; red line shows route of Brandlesholme Road, raised on a high causeway to cross the valley of the Kirklees Brook, in about 1840.

By the 1960s, from where we lived at Woodhill Street, you would follow this ancient routeway, to take a short cut to Bury Bridge, by going ‘down’t Widdle’, in the local  vernacular.  The ‘Widdle’ appears to have been the area around Woodhill House and Rothwell’s Croft, the old bleachworks which was by then a roofless ruin. 

Figure 4. The line of the old road passed from lower left, to middle right, with the later Brandlesholme Road being carried upon a substantial causeway to the right. The industrial building on the left comprises a re-used group of early C19 back-to-back houses, originally known as ‘Hutchinson’s Row’, built to house workers at Woodhill Mill, which is now long-demolished.

It was only decades later that I made the link between the ‘Widdle’, and the 17th century home of the Kay family at ‘The Widdel’ or ‘The Widdall’.  The later derivation of ‘Woodhill’ appears to be incorrect – the original etymology probably related to the ‘Wide Dale’ instead, i.e. the broad valley of the Kirklees Brook hereabouts.

Figure 5. Woodhill House, original home of the Kay family, before demolition in 1974. The central section was of 17th century date, with additions of 19th century date. In it’s last years, the house & grounds were used as a car-breaking yard by a Mrs Brooks. To the right can be seen the Council housing estate on Woodhill Road.

From our house, the routeway followed the front of the Woodhill council estate, before passing Woodhill House, the site of which is now occupied by the offices of Cheetham Hill Construction.  The Kay family had lived here since the 15th century, and the core of the house sadly demolished in 1974 was probably of 17th century date. 

Figure 6. Section of old road between Woodhill Fold and Rothwell’s Croft. To left is remains of garden wall of Woodhill House; to right is site of backfilled millpond. The pathway can still be followed to the right of the metal gates.

On the right, behind Dagnall’s shop, and running parallel to the Kirklees Brook, was the site of a tear-shaped millpond which powered the waterwheel of a Woolen Mill (Point E). After the latter was acquired by the Rothwell family, it was rebuilt as a large bleachworks, and in the 1960s the stone walls and the huge octagonal brick chimney still stood.  Thirty years ago, Bury MBC were considering creating a Country Park here, similar to Burrs, but nothing came of this plan.

Figure 7. Ruins of Rothwell’s Croft before demolition, 1987. Brandlesholme Road is beyond trees middle left; Kirklees Brook runs in a deep channel just to left of image.

The routeway followed the high mill wall on the right, to cross the Kirklees Brook on a footbridge, which had probably replaced an earlier ford.  From this point onwards, the track followed a narrow tongue of land between the river and the canal; and at the head of the canal was a building stood on iron columns (Point F) which carried a cast-iron plate bearing the legend ‘Irwell Forge 1846’, the date when Webb’s Foundry was established.  This plate was last seen on the gable of Fred Dibnah’s house in Bolton.   

Figure 8. Cast-iron plate from canal wharf at Webb’s Foundry, believed to have been sold off from Fred Dibnah’s house in 2018.

Once industry disappeared from the Bury Bridge area, Lower Woodhill Road was downgraded to a footpath, and just north of Bury Bridge, a series of sluice gates can still be seen near to the weir, which extracted water from the Irwell, to top up the canal. This source soon proved inadequate, and the construction of Elton Reservoir and the canal feeder through Elton from Burrs were to follow.

Figure 9. Canal sluice gates visible bottom right, weir and Bury Bridge visible top left. Dry land now forming in river channel middle left, as new river meander generates itself.

You could still walk down t’Widdle from Woodhill Fold to Bury Bridge even after the great flood of Boxing Day 2015 extracted a wide bite out of this pathway.  And if you were able to follow this ancient routeway in January this year, you may well have been the last person to do so, as the second great flood of 9 February cut through this path permanently.

A forgotten water course and a failing dam

In recent months, visitors to Burrs have been faced by the unfamiliar spectacle of a new waterfall cascading off the northern buttress of the pipe bridge, and the area around the Lamppost Café being under enough water to result in wet feet and temporary closure of the café on two occasions.  Many major floods have occurred at Burrs over the last few decades, but nothing like this has arisen before.

It is now 30 years since the landscape around Calrows Mill was restored, at a cost somewhere well in excess of £200,000 of public money.  The centrepiece of this work was the massive masonry wheelpit which had contained a 100hp waterwheel, and the plan was to introduce a crashing cascade of water into the wheelpit, to demonstrate graphically how water power could drive a large textile mill.

New ‘pipe bridge’ over Irwell under construction in 1992, Stock Street visible in distance.

To this end, civil engineers Parkes-Winstanley and contractors Groundwork Landscapes were engaged by Bury MBC to carefully reinstate the industrial water system, which was last used in about 1920.  In 1992 a new footbridge was erected across the river by Morripon Bridges & Structures, containing a pair of large water pipes, to replace the original timber and masonry aquaduct.  The headrace through to the Calrows Mill site was carefully cleaned out and regraded, as was the adjacent millpond, requiring the use of a heavy RB32 dragline.

Newly-dredged fishing pond on left, newly-graded headrace on right, extending towards ‘Brown Cow’.

The wheelpit was re-excavated and consolidated, and the tailrace back to the river was in part replaced by a concrete pipe, to repair damage caused in 1984 by the construction of a manhole down to the North-South Sewer Interceptor Tunnel.  Finally, hundreds of tonnes of silt was removed from the open tailrace which runs parallel to the river.

Damaged tailrace tunnel near wheelpit, centre left is concrete manhole down to interceptor sewer, top left Stock Street is visible.

And the whole of this water system was carefully calculated and carefully balanced, so that if regularly maintained, water would continue to flow through the system, washing out any silt and organic matter, and ensuring that any flow would be contained within the system.

Almost three decades has elapsed since this restoration was completed, and I don’t believe that any maintenance or cleaning of the Higher Woodhill water system has occurred, and a sorry state of affairs has emerged.  The headrace is so badly silted and overgrown (even containing mature trees) that the flow has been reduced to no more than a sluggish trickle.

Graded headrace channel just right of centre, Stock Street visible upper left.


In addition to the sluice being damaged at the big weir, this was part of the cause of the recent waterfall at the pipe bridge, because most of the water reaching that point had nowhere else to go.  By the café, the flooding scoured out the bedding beneath the flags, requiring expensive repairs.   

And when water does reach the Higher Woodhill mill site, instead of cascading into the wheelpit, perhaps 50% of it spews through gaps in the northern wheelpit wall, indicating a deeply-buried engineering issue.  And you don’t have to look far to identify the origin of this water problem.

Wheelpit with water gushing through fissures in right-hand (northern) wall.

On the adjacent dam, a paved area surrounds an interpretation board.  Here, just behind the dam wall, is a deep open fissure, which is undermining the paved area.  It appears that the clay core of the dam is washing out, and the water forcing its way through underground channels, and then through the wheelpit wall.

Paved area between millpond and wheelpit. Arrow indicates location of fissures where dam has been voided by water pressure. Stock Street visible upper right.

It is only a matter of time before the dam slumps and all of the water is lost, and no amount of prevarication and long-winded consultation will cure that particular problem.  Professional engineering advice and works are well overdue, and if that doesn’t happen, then a substantial part of the Burrs water system may be irretrievably lost.           

The genius of Sir John Hawkshaw at Burrs and Elton

During the late Victorian period, the name of Sir John Hawkshaw (1811-91) blazed as brightly as that of any of any other great engineer who had become a household name; in an age when heroic status was rightly granted for human triumph over natural forces.  His many works included a section of the London Underground, the docks at Penarth and Holyhead, the Amsterdam Ship Canal, and the first Severn Tunnel.

Figure 1. Eminent Victorian engineer Sir John Hawkshaw.

But his speciality was railway and canal engineering, and from 1847 onwards, he was chief engineer to the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway (LYR).  In the 1880s, when a decision was taken to upgrade the LYR’s Manchester, Bolton & Bury Canal, he took a close look at the infrastructure, including the canal feeder from Burrs to Elton, and made a bold decision.  He wouldn’t mess about buying and cutting local stone at great cost; instead he bought in several million of the newly-developed Staffordshire blue engineering bricks from the Potteries, and applied these to the task in hand.

Figure 2. Aquaduct in form of gravity dam, carrying canal feeder across the valley of the Elton Brook.

Hawkshaw’s most massive work was at the heart of Elton, and this is so large that it is almost impossible to view the whole feature from any single point. It carries the canal feeder across the mouth of the valley of the Elton Brook, spanning between Wood Street and Ainsworth Road. It comprises an aquaduct in the form of a gravity dam; as a linear arcade of massive blind arches rising to a height of over 7m, behind the old gasworks site (now occupied by Wynsors and Lidl).  Although impressive when viewed close up, it is not possible to see the scale of the buried foundations, nor to view the reverse face, with its huge ‘counterforts’, concealed deeply after Mucklow’s Elton Fold Works was demolished and the valley here infilled.

Figure 3. Course of canal feeder between Wood Street and Ainsworth Road, 1890.

All visitors to Burrs will be familiar with the canal feeder aquaduct which stands just upstream from Burrs Bridge.  This was originally raised in stone during the 1790s, but was later rebuilt using Staffordshire blues under Hawkshaw’s control.  The visible brickwork conceals a thick, waterproof trough of puddled clay, which is itself sandwiched and supported by an outer U-shaped lining of Blue Lias lime cement.      

Figure 4. Burrs Aquaduct carrying canal feeder over river Irwell, in 1990.

And when Hawkshaw replaced the original rock-cut channel at Burrs Weir, he did so on the largest possible scale, again using blue Staffordshire brickwork.  No less than four sluice gates were installed here, which would provide guaranteed water regulation to the mills at Burrs and Calrows, and to Elton reservoir, even if two or three sluices were blocked or inoperative. This provision of ‘engineering redundancy’ was critical in an age when mercantile trade was always considered as a ‘life or death’ matter.

Figure 5. Bank of four sluice gates at Burrs Weir. Only the middle pair can be actively controlled, the other two have no mechanisms.

But Hawkshaw also built in a ‘fail safe’ device, in the event that one or more sluices could not be sealed, which is exactly what happened in March, August, and November 2019.  Within the feeder bank, about 60m downstream from the sluices, is a timber penstock paddle with a disused ‘rack & pinion’ mechanism.  This paddle seals a massive iron pipe, which leads straight back to the river, and if in good repair, could quickly be opened to discharge a great volume of water back to the river, to prevent any downstream flooding.

Figure 6. Sluice retaining wall at Burrs Weir. The redundant flooding discharge pipe is concealed within the vegetation on the wall face, to left of centre.

Unfortunately, this byewash sluice has been neglected and disused for decades, and for the sake of perhaps £100 worth of timber to form a new sliding paddle, footpaths have been washed away, the Lamppost café flooded, and the pipe bridge northern abutment voided of the bedding which underlies the flags.

Figure 7. ‘Rack & pinion’ mechanism and upper part of discharge penstock just visible (bottom left), in canal feeder bank, downstream from Burrs Weir sluice gates.

Now as global warming results in ever more frequent and ferocious flooding, it is more important than ever to maintain the water-control infrastructure at Burrs.  I wouldn’t expect that anyone presently charged with responsibility for Hawkshaw’s legacy would exhibit the sort of boldness and vision displayed by the great engineer, but it must surely at some point become blatantly obvious that if you choose not to maintain these critical structures, then it will cost far more in downstream flood-damage repairs when sluice gates begin to decay and collapse.  Hardly rocket science, is it?

Figure 8. Impressive but uncontrolled cascade at the pipe bridge, hydraulic pressure voided the bedding of the flags behind the abutment. November 2019.

(NOTE: A ‘counterfort’ is a buried buttress, usually located on the landward side of a dock wall or retaining wall, to prevent any rotational movement caused by lateral pressures.)

Did anyone in Bury benefit from slavery?

In 1833, slavery was abolished in Great Britain, and British subjects could be prosecuted if they were found to be in legal possession of slaves after 1 August, 1834.  Former slave-owners were compensated by taxpayer’s money to a total of £20 million, and the records from this compensation provide a snapshot as to which individuals had owned slaves at the point of abolition.  Predictably, this database revealed that the bulk of slave-owners were resident in the major port cities of London, Bristol, Lancaster and Liverpool; and that only one individual in the Bury area was compensated.

Figure 1. Bury’s Wellington Barracks, viewed from Bolton Road.

This was Captain Richard Straker Wickham (1794-1876), of the 1st West India Regiment, who was born in Barbados, probably of Irish stock.  Sometime after 1842, he moved to Lancashire, and the 1851 census return lists him as ‘Barrack Master’ at 211 Bolton Road, Elton, Bury.  This address can only be that of the Wellington Barracks.  By 1861, Wickham had relocated to Edinburgh, and his total compensation, related to his slaves on the islands of Antigua and Barbados, came to £175 (£14,500 equivalent today).      

It may appear that Wickham was just passing through, as an itinerant soldier, and that Bury’s permanent population may have been blameless of any such abuses.  But history is invariably far more complex and nuanced than we assume, and the compensation records represent only money generated after the Slavery Abolition Act took effect.  They tell us nothing about how income from slavery in the years before 1833 might have found its way into mercantile society, and about which few records may have survived.

Figure 2. Memorial to Richard Calrow in St Mary’s Church, Bury.

On 23 December 1843, the partnership between Richard Calrow (1815-50) and John Houghton Brancker (1817-93), based at Albion Mill, in Elton, Bury, was dissolved by mutual agreement.  Calrow was the son of William Calrow of Higher Woodhill; whilst Brancker was a Liverpool merchant and ship owner, who had married into the Grundy family of Bury.  He was also the grandson of Peter Whitfield Brancker (1750-1836), a slave ship captain who went on to own slave ships and sugar refining works, served as mayor of Liverpool, and in 1834, received £1,000 in compensation for his freed slaves (£83,000 equivalent today). 

Figure 3. Peter Whitfield Brancker of Liverpool, slave ship captain and owner; grandfather of John Houghton Brancker, of Albion Mill, Elton.

Given this background, it is difficult to see how John Houghton Brancker’s finances could not be independent of the vast fortune generated by his grandfather’s involvement in the slave trade; quite irrespective of the fact that anyone trading in the cotton business in Lancashire was de facto involving themselves in slavery in the Southern States of America. 

Figure 4. Plan showing stowage of slaves on slave ship. Any slaves who became ill during the voyage were simply thrown overboard.

Albion Mill is the last survivor of a local group of mills either built or operated by the Calrow family, the others being at Burrs, Higher Woodhill, and Hinds.  Was Albion Mill erected on the blood-tainted profits extracted from men, women, and children dragged from their native African homeland and forcibly compelled to graft, so that men from the Deep South of America and Lancashire could become fabulously wealthy?

Figure 5. ‘Perfidious Albion’ – Albion Mill: was this Bury mill built using funds derived from the slave trade?


Slavery compensation records can be seen at the University College London’s Department of History website https://www.ucl.ac.uk/lbs/project/details/

Thanks to Laurence Westgaph and others who provided information on the Brancker family (Fb page ‘Liverpool and Slavery’).

An Elegy to Bury’s Industry

In 1988, while working at the site of Burrs Mill, I was approached by an elderly gentleman, polite and self-effacing, who offered me a letter which was addressed to himself.  It was a notice of redundancy from his employers, the Star Bleaching Company, of Burrs Mill, dated 19th September 1933.  Only years later, long after Jack Pike had died, did I come to realise the simple significance of his redundancy notice; in that it heralded the wholesale death of our industrial base over the decades which were to follow. 

In 1931, in the midst of the ‘Great Depression’, when the Mandela-like Mahatma Gandhi visited the Lancashire mill town of Darwen, to see for himself the effect of India’s boycott on our cotton goods, he was to find that the poor but generous people bore him no malice.  Instead, unemployed textile workers flocked in their thousands to see a man whose simple peasant persona, combined with his reputation as spiritual leader of millions of Indians, made him into a well-loved celebrity.  The memory of his visit was to live on for decades within the consciousness of members of my own family who had worked in the textile industry.

On his visit to the Lancashire mill town of Darwen in 1931, Mahatma Gandhi received an enthusiastic welcome.

Anyone who may have sought to blame Gandhi for subsequent economic events had not seen the writing on the wall, for it was just five years earlier, in 1926, that Britain had reached the high-water mark of our cotton production, and our economy was now on a relentless downward track.  The Great Depression bit deeply into the industrial infrastructure of the north-west, and any periods of ‘recovery’ from now on would only be spasmodic, and could not relieve the adverse trend.

Even so, by the 1960s, our industry still seemed omnipotent.  I can still remember a school trip to see ring spinning at Peel Mills; and on quiet summer evenings, I could hear the dull thump of the steam hammer at Webb’s Forge, all the way from our house in Woodhill Street.  This activity was reassuring to a boy who was surrounded by adults who did a skilled job of work with their hands.

The steam hammer at Webb’s Forge must have been audible right across Elton before the business closed in 1974.

But now, if you visit Manchester’s Exchange Theatre you can still see, high on a wall in what was once the UKs biggest permanent room space, the exact time and prices at which the Cotton Exchange finally ceased to trade – 31 December 1968.  Without really knowing it, we were rapidly becoming irrelevant.

Manchester’s magnificent Exchange Theatre still exhibits the international cotton prices from the day when the Exchange finally closed in 1968.

And in about 1972, my brother and myself were walking to school across Elton’s King George V playing fields when we encountered a milling mass of Walmsley’s men who were out on strike.  A sharp wit in their midst provoked raucous laughter from his peers by shouting out to us “Hey lads – don’t become engineers like us – become footballers instead!”.  And predictably, both of us found our way into heavy industry as engineers, only to be made redundant just a few years later…

I know that there are still many people in Bury who made livelihoods from household names, such as Walmsley’s, Holgate Fishwick & Leather, Bobby Hall’s, the East Lancs Paper Mill, Transparent Paper, and Olives, to name just a few, but who will now look back with lots of nostalgia (and not a little puzzlement), and ask themselves ‘Where did it all go to?’

J. H. Riley & Co, off Croston’s Road, were a household name in Bury. They specialised in machinery for textile finishing.

And if anyone were now to build a new cotton or paper mill in Bury, I have no doubt that they could still find enough (now admittedly ageing) people in this town who would be able to run and manage it very effectively.  There are still skilled people in our home town who could operate a Jacquard Loom or a Fourdrinier or a forging hammer with their eyes shut.  These individuals contain a huge amount of technical and inherent knowledge within themselves, and yet they will never again be called upon to put any of this to practical use.

A Jacquard Loom, with it’s ‘chain of cards’, made by Bobby Hall’s foundry, in Bury. The principles of this machine were to contribute towards the development of computer programming in the mid. 20th century.

So who then was to blame for these losses?  Intransigent unions, or malignant management, or grasping shareholders, or disinterested governments, or just market conditions?  It was probably a combination of some or all of these factors.  In reality, by about 1870, American and German industry was already beginning to challenge our self-perceived superiority.  Barely a century after our industrial ascent started, our ending had already been ordained.

It is now almost 90 years since Burrs Mill closed for good, and now, long ago stripped of our vast manufacturing power, we are about to enter a brave new world, which will see us finding our own way in unpredictable markets where concrete certainties about ourselves and our skills are quickly being forgotten.

Did the Royal Lancashire Militia practice their deadly craft at Burrs?

Remains of one of the two targets at Burrs. Just beyond can be seen the Caravan Site and Burrs Mill chimney.

Some of the older Bury residents who know Burrs will recall collecting spent rifle bullets from the ‘targets’ to the north of the ‘Brown Cow’, at the foot of the Castle Steads bluff.  But how did the ‘targets’ originate, and who was using them?

The threat of armed rebellion within the industrial heartlands of South Lancashire had been present ever since the Peterloo massacre in 1819.  In 1826 a machine-breaking mob advanced on Bury, and were only stopped by the Yeomanry after they had smashed fifty new power looms at Hutchinson’s Woodhill Mill on Brandlesholme Road (later ‘Boot & Shoe Works’).

Peter Sharples’ painting of Bury from Bolton Road, painted in 1893, but intended to represent the view about four decades earlier. Men of the Militia and the 20th Foot would have been a common sight in the area at the time.

Then the rise of Chartism in Lancashire in the late 1830s frightened the government so badly that they authorised the construction of permanent military barracks at Preston, Ashton-under-Lyne, and at Bury; where the Wellington Barracks was constructed for the 20th Regiment of Foot on Bolton Road, just beyond the western edge of the town.  Although the enlisted men were recruited locally, the officers were invariably from far-distant places, which avoided the risk of units sympathising with any rioting workers.       

O.S. plan of 1890, Bolton Road area. The earlier and larger Wellington Barracks (bottom left) had been expanded, probably after 1881, when the smaller and later Militia Barracks (top right) became disused.

But by the mid. 19th century, new threats to British hegemony abroad were met by the formation of new ‘Militia’ units, which contained part-time volunteers with regular army instructors.  The 7th Regiment of the Royal Lancashire Militia, formed in 1853 in the lead up to the Crimean War, were based at the Militia Barracks on Bolton Road, which was opened in 1859, very near to the older and larger Wellington Barracks.

The Militia Barracks was opened in 1859, but closed in 1881. It then survived for another 90 years, being demolished in about 1970.

And according to the 1871 census return, four members of the Royal Lancashire Militia had taken up residence in the village at Calrows.  Three of these were ‘Staff Sergeants’, all of whom had families with them, whilst the fourth, and most senior, was Irishman Gershom Herrick, Adjutant, who with his wife Fanny, lived in the mansion ‘Woodlands’, recently vacated by the Calrow family.  And one Robert W. Jackson, also from Ireland, Surgeon in the 100th Regiment of Foot, occupied No.7 Derby Cottage, Calrows, with his family.

In 1881, when the 20th Foot became the Lancashire Fusiliers, the 7th Regiment Militia was absorbed into the LFs, as the 3rd (Militia) Battalion, and the Militia Barracks now became redundant after barely 20 years’ use.  Meanwhile, the Wellington Barracks was expanded westwards beyond the protective limits of its original curtain wall, probably to cope with the increase in manpower.

O.S. plan of 1890, showing area at Burrs, between Brown Cow and Castle Steads (top left), where rifle ranges were laid out to fire on a pair of masonry and clay butts, which supported targets.

Although in the 1920s, the targets at Burrs were then in regular use by the Bury Rifle Club, it seems most likely that these two massive masonry and clay structures were built decades before then, for musketry practice by the Royal Lancashire Militia.  Now difficult to find and partially bulldozed away, these shooting butts are one of our last links to a time when the military were a common presence within northern towns, and when civil insurrection was still considered as a potent threat to the established order.    


(1) The late Major John Hallam (1937-2003), of Wellington Barracks, kindly assisted me with research into this topic.

(2) Before 1890, another rifle range existed at Lowercroft, utilising the dams of the middle and upper reservoirs as shooting butts. I can only assume that this was in use by the 20th Foot from Wellington Barracks and by the Militia too.

In the shadow of The Rock

St John’s Chapel-of-Ease, The Rock, Bury; demolished in 1967.

In the decades after 1770, when St John’s Chapel-of-Ease was constructed, it quickly became a place of rendezvous for the new industrial entrepreneurs. Perhaps feeling excluded by the older landed gentry, who attended St Mary’s parish church, the textile magnates, led by the elder Robert Peel and his partner William Yates, made this church their own.

And no doubt after Sunday services, they would gather in St John’s churchyard in small cliques, to discuss the textile trade, and to spread gossip about their rivals.  And for some years, by cruel episodes, a heart-breaking tragedy was played out right before their eyes, and compounded for the suffering family by the arcane and patriarchal laws of business.

When Richard Calrow first came to Higher Woodhill in about 1790 to set up his mill, he had technical know-how from working as a manager in cotton mills, but he lacked the money.  He got around this problem by finding a business partner, Henry Topping.  Topping was from Upholland, in Lancashire, and had married his wealthy cousin, Margaret Leigh in 1781.  It seems likely that her dowry provided the capital for the new enterprise at Higher Woodhill.

Both Calrow and Topping had two sons each, and it must have seemed that that these four young men could inherit the partnership, and work together to expand the fledgling textile business.  In 1800 Henry Topping died, leaving the vast sum of £30,000 to his wife and children.  But a double tragedy then ensued, as Henry’s adult sons, William and Richard, followed him to the family grave at St. John’s in 1805 and 1807 respectively. Neither of these two had any children, and the male line of the Topping family had now become extinct.

According to the conditions of the original business partnership, from which the females were excluded, in 1807 the partnership was thereby dissolved, and Richard Calrow now took sole control.  In the following year, he bought Burrs Mill from Peel, Yates & Co, and just a few years later, he handed the entire business over to his own sons, William and Thomas.

And for the remaining decade of her life, with only her surviving daughter for companionship, Margaret Topping lived on at Higher Woodhill, and witnessed how the Calrow family business was thriving; and how her own family, who had financed all of this, were now legally excluded, adding irony to heartbreak.

And if you visit the small memorial garden at The Rock now, you can still see, cut in letters of stone, the cold and hard evidence for this long-forgotten tragedy.

Topping family gravestone at The Rock, Bury

Springside House and Goose Ford, Burrs: Part 2

Plan drawn of Springside estate, dated 1812

Following the incarceration of Bury’s Rector, Sir William Henry Clerke, in the Fleet Prison, William Yates moved into Clerke’s former home, Springside, to live out his remaining days, in mourning for his daughter Ellen, the mother of the future Prime Minister. His business partner and son-in-law, the elder Sir Robert Peel, had by then moved to Drayton Manor, to live the life of a landed gentleman.

Yates outlived his daughter by ten years, dying in 1813, aged 74; and in the previous year, he had commissioned the Bolton surveyor John Albinson to make a plan of his land and buildings at Springside. This plan has survived, and shows the site in some detail. To the north of the house was a courtyard, which included a stable block and coach house. A further north again was a walled garden, with a glasshouse across the north end. To the south of the house were a pair of ornamental ponds, formed by damming the stream here, one of these still survives.

In 1806, the Grant brothers had bought the old Peel printworks at Ramsbottom, this was followed by Nuttall Mill in 1812, then Springside in 1818. William and Daniel had previously resided in Manchester town houses, but now both moved to live at Springside, living together like an old married couple (the Barclay brothers of Sark, proprietors of The Telegraph newspaper, spring to mind).

Much has been written about the Grant brothers, but it is difficult to see beyond the blatant hagiography presented by both Charles Dickens and William Hulme Elliot; it is as if a convenient smokescreen had been drawn across the means by which they generated their vast wealth. 

William Grant, who moved from Manchester to Springside, in 1818.

William died at Springside in 1842, and by the time Daniel followed him, in 1855, the East Lancs Railway had driven their new line up the valley, and by erecting an embankment to the west of the house, very effectively ruined the rural tranquillity which had originally made the location so desirable.  

Next in residence at Springside was the highly ambitious Richard Olive. Before 1851, Richard’s father John had set up a railway wagon building business at Woolfold, and before 1850 John had established the adjacent Woolfold Paper Mills, on the Kirklees Brook. This was subsequently run by John’s younger sons, William and Thomas (later known as Olive’s Paper Mill, demolished in 2007).

After John Olive died in 1867, Richard took over the Woolfold wagon works, where he employed my own great-grandfather, Franklin, then 14 years old, as a labourer. Not to be outdone by his brothers, Richard acquired a lease to Burrs Mill in about 1880, and converted this to paper manufacture. He added a three-storey warehouse, and the existing 40-yard octagonal brick chimneystack.

As if that wasn’t enough, Richard also constructed a new wagon-building works at Springside, on a narrow slip of land between the East Lancs Railway and the river Irwell. A branch line was constructed through the works, and a large new reservoir to the east probably provided steam-engine condenser water. By 1881, Richard was employing 500 men and boys, at his three businesses.    

Richard was one of four main promoters behind construction of the Tottington Branch Line, constructed wholly by hand between 1878 and 1882; this was linked to the Woolfold Works by a spur line which passed beneath Tottington Road, but the works may never have benefitted from this link to the railway system, as it closed down in about 1881, possibly as a consequence of the ‘Great Depression’ of 1873-96. The paper-making business at Burrs was also closed before 1884.

However, the Springside Wagon Works continued to run; and to house some of his workers, Richard erected a row of 18 terraced houses above the Irwell valley to the west, named ‘Springside View’. He also constructed a new footbridge (‘Olive Bridge’) on the site of the old Goose Ford, to enable his workers to cross the Irwell to get to work.

Springside House stood on the site of the shed, far right. Beneath the copper beech can be seen the remains of the ha-ha, which prevented livestock from entering the gardens.

Richard Olive died in 1917, and Springside was demolished before 1920. But the cellars survived intact, and for some years now, a new country house has been under construction here, which will be the third house to be erected on this site. But the bridge and the ford have long disappeared, and no evidence survives to indicate this historic river crossing.

A forgotten mansion and a lost river crossing: Springside House and Goose Ford, Burrs: Part 1

1844 O.S. plan, showing Springside area. Goose Ford was located just to the east (right) of Ramsley Bank.

In 1749, diarist Dr Richard Kay suffered a nasty accident in the Irwell just north of Burrs. In his own words:

… in crossing the River at Gooseford which is much swelled by the late Rains my Horse stumbled in the deep Stream and tho’ he was mostly covered with Water yet Blesed be God I got out safe; I drawed my Boots at the next House and exchanged my wet Stockings for a Pair of dry Ones that I borrowed”.

If you walk for less than ten minutes upstream from Burrs Weir, you come to Springside, where the river gorge abruptly widens out. Just down to your left, and no longer obvious, was the ‘Goose Ford’, where Dr Kay almost came to grief.  It was so named because in times past flocks of geese, with clipped wings and fitted with leather shoes, had been marched through here to market, honking noisily in protest.

As you turn right to pass beneath the railway bridge here, you will see a large barn-like structure just ahead.  This was the site of Gooseford Farmhouse, one of the homes of the Kay family, and then later of Springside House, which was home to a number of prominent local industrialists.

In 1802, Sir William Henry Clerke (1751-1818), Eighth Baronet, and Rector of Bury, looked out northwards from his Rectory, down towards Bury Ground and Chamber Hall, then the home of Sir Robert Peel, and he was filled with envy.  He then penned a letter to his aristocratic patron at Knowsley, Lord Stanley, the Earl of Derby, in which he lambasted those rich manufacturers ‘whose weight in this County seems to tread fast on the Heels of your Lordships Ancestors’.  His words were ironic: the events which followed could have come straight from the pages of the Bible itself, and led to the utter undoing of Sir William Clerke and his family.

He had obtained his living at Bury from Stanley in 1778 as a result of a deathbed plea by his older brother, Lieutenant James Clerke, 7th Baronet, who had died of wounds at the battle of Saratoga, in the War of American Independence. In the years which followed his appointment, William was well placed to witness how quickly entrepreneurs, such as Peel & Yates, applied themselves to the textile business, and went on to make great fortunes. Catching the ‘spirit of the age’, and despite his status as a minor aristocrat, he set himself up to trade locally in meal and flour, and acquired limekilns at Clitheroe, but he clearly lacked the necessary business acumen.

Springside House viewed from south-west, it was hardly an attractive dwelling. Note tall spire over stables & carriage house, just visible in trees to left.

Meanwhile, he bought the freehold of the old Gooseford Farmhouse, which he then demolished, and erecting a grand new country house on the site, known as ‘Springside’. The setting could not have been bettered.  As a large natural amphitheatre, it was floored by broad water meadows, on the far side of which curved the Irwell, below an attractively wooded hillside, and a trackway passed the house to cross the river at Goose Ford, via which one could travel to Brandlesholme or Tottington.

But in an age which gave birth to an astonishing number of attractive country houses, with classical features derived from the villas of 16th century northern Italy, William Clerke’s new house at Springside looked more like a County Asylum!  It is tempting to believe that Clerke’s own hand lay heavily upon his architect’s blueprints.

Initially, Clerke’s corn dealing business seems to have been successful, but he was probably too trusting of human nature, and whilst his own employees defrauded him, he then extended credit to his customers, who failed to repay him.  Eventually, as his business collapsed and his capital was exhausted, his creditors had him committed as a ‘bankrupt’ to the Fleet Prison for Debtors in London, which had an appalling reputation.   

Exercise yard at Fleet Prison for Debtors, on bank of river Fleet in London. Debtors dreaded the possibility of incarceration here. Sir William Henry Clerke died here, as his debts remained unpaid.

Meanwhile, Clerke was to find that Robert Peel and William Yates were ‘treading upon his own heels’, as they now acquired (at a knock-down price, no doubt) both the Rectory and Springside House.  And Peel went a step further: in 1803, he had lost his first wife Ellen, and just two years later, he remarried.  His new wife was none other than Clerke’s sister, Susannah, and her own family seem to have believed that this marriage might have resulted in Peel paying off the Rector’s debts, so that he could be released from the Fleet Prison.

However, Peel’s daughter from his first marriage did not get on with her new stepmother, Susannah, Lady Peel; and this resulted in a vexatious separation, with the older woman leaving the Peel household, impoverished, to live with friends elsewhere.  Meanwhile, all but forgotten, Sir William Henry Clerke languished at the Fleet, still nominally the Rector of Bury, until 1818, when he died there, his debts remaining unpaid.

(NOTE: The late 18th century development of Bury’s Glebe fields resulted in three streets being named after the unfortunate Rector – William Street, Henry Street, and Clerke Street. Only the easternmost part of the latter street has survived, following the clearance of the Union Square area in the late 1960s).



In 1796, an advert appeared in the Manchester Chronicle, containing within a single sentence both a tempting offer, and a palpable threat:

RUNAWAY. Two hired servants from Messrs Calrows Cotton Mill, near Bury, on Wednesday the sixth of June. Thomas Warburton, aged 19. Had on when he went off a blue jacket and striped trowsers: is short made, has brown short hair, and wants a joint of the little finger on the right hand. William Kelly, 12 years of age. Had on when he went off a blue jacket and linen trowsers, is short made, and has brown hair. Whoever will give intelligence of the above lads, so that they can be found, shall be handsomely rewarded; and anyone employing them after this public notice will be prosecuted as the law directs.

Higher Widdle, near Bury, Aug. 1”

The context of this ‘manhunt’ becomes clear to anyone availing themselves of John Waller’s excellent book, ‘The real Oliver Twist: Robert Blincoe: A life that illuminates an age’. Waller’s contention was that Charles Dickens based his character ‘Oliver Twist’ upon Robert Blincoe, a seven-year old orphan who was taken from the workhouse at St Pancras, to work at Litton Mill in Derbyshire, in 1799. 

Oliver Twist as represented within Charles Dickens’ narrative.

In later life, Blincoe was to relate his narrative to the prolific Bolton journalist and author John Brown, who published this to a horrified public. Blincoe’s ill treatment at Litton Mill had been nothing short of barbaric, and it was only now that the middle classes became aware of the fate of any child unlucky enough to be passed from the parish overseers to northern millowners.

Such a child was legally bound, or ‘indentured’, to his or her employer, until the age of 21. The youngest such children were just seven! For just bed and board, they were required to work for up to 15 hours per day, six days per week. And just like Warburton and Kelly, you too would be ‘short made’ if you were fed watery gruel every day, and you too would lose fingers (or even limbs) if you were worked continually in an exhausted state in very close proximity to unguarded mill machinery.

Sir Robert Peel, 1st Baronet, who built much of
his £2m fortune upon the labour of unpaid parish apprentices.

But why were children brought all the way from Staffordshire or Birmingham or even London? Lancashire’s old landed gentry were not impressed by the activities of the newly jumped-up industrialists. As the gentry controlled the magistracy, the abuse of local children might be less easy to conceal, and would facilitate attacks on men such as Robert Peel, as indeed happened when Dr Thomas Percival launched his tirade against conditions at Peel’s Radcliffe Mill in 1784.

But no-one would make any fuss about orphans brought from far-away places such as Birmingham or even London, and captured absconders were frequently sent to prison for several months, before being returned to the millowner whose conduct had caused them to run away in thefirst place.

Between the 1790s and the 1830s, many tens of thousands of such child apprentices were brutally worked to exhaustion (and sometimes to death) in textile mills across the north of England. The older Robert Peel, when as an MP introduced his ‘Health & Morals of Apprentices Act’, claimed that he had used 1,000 such pauper children within his Bury mills, but that he had had no control over how his overseers had mistreated them.

James Holmes was Peel, Yates & Co’s manager at Makin Mill, near Heywood, visible in background. Fifty female apprentices worked and lived at the mill.

Historian John Ainsworth related how a new batch of apprentices had arrived at Burrs Mill, and mistakenly used tough oat-cakes to light a fire, disbelieving that this ‘bread’ might in fact represent part of their diet from then onwards.

More reliable evidence for the existence of an apprentice house at Burrs has come to light. In about 1801, poor law records state that fifteen year old Elizabeth Powell, from Staffordshire, worked for Sir Robert Peel “in Elton [probably Bury Ground], and slept in the apprentice house in Walmersly (sic) until she was 21” (Aspin, 207).

And in 1796, two Birmingham Poor Law Guardians visited Peel’s Hinds Mill, in Elton, to investigate reports of physical abuse of their former charges (Aspin, 203). Such a journey would not have been made unless the Guardians had good cause to visit Hinds, and there is no reason to believe that apprentices employed at Burrs were treated any better, as hinted at by Ainsworth.

By 1800, Robert Peel senior was the seventh wealthiest individual in Britain, with a fortune of £2 million, much of that generated by the free labour of indentured children. He had outstripped most of the old aristocracy, including his own landlord, the Earl of Derby. From the printing works at Bury Ground alone, Peel was taking £70,000 per year, and probably as much again from all of the other mills and printworks.

We are shocked today to hear of the scale of abuses perpetrated against vulnerable children in our northern towns; but the scale of what happened to children across the north during the first decades of the 19th century would have made today’s abuses seem insignificant by comparison.

Then as now, wherever vulnerable adolescents were to be found, there too would have been found opportunistic abusers. And although cases of sexual abuse within the apprentice system have been only rarely recorded, they were much more easily concealed, and may well have been widespread.

The immediate fate of the boys Warburton and Kelly is nowhere recorded, but it is not likely to have had a happy ending, especially if they were returned to the ‘care’ of Calrow’s overseers at Higher Woodhill. We take a walk through Burrs Country Park for pleasure now, but it is difficult to conceive just how these ‘slave children’ might have viewed this same location just two centuries ago.


The Real Oliver Twist’, John Waller, 2005, Icon Books Ltd

The Water Spinners: A new look at the early cotton trade’, Chris Aspin, 2003, Helmshore Local History Society