Muck and Masonry: the Burrs Pioneers

Burrs Mill aerial photo.
Burrs Mill site viewed from the air, June 1987

Over thirty years ago, on a warm day in August 1987, a small group of young people carrying axes and saws made their way along Woodhill Road, crossed old Burrs Bridge, and began to cut and hack their way back into the dense canopy of self-seeded woodland which had obscured the remains of Burrs Mill for over three decades. Inauspiciously, and without ceremony, and certainly with no concept of the final scale and massive cost of the reclamation project, which on that day they were pathfinding…

In the early 1980s, concerned at the scale of job losses as the UKs old industrial base was disappearing, and shaken by the resistance which the miners had brought against them, the Thatcher government developed ways in which to ‘massage’ the rising unemployment figures. One of these was the Manpower Services Commission (MSC) scheme. The basic premise was that an employer could engage a number of unemployed people; they would work for three days a week, for £20 per day. It doesn’t sound like much now, but for some it would have been the first wage they had.

Burrs Mill chimney area, 1987.
Tree clearance at Burrs Mill, August 1987.

And for some, it may have been the first structure in their lives after leaving school. Anyone not present at Bury Interchange at 8AM to catch the van would be left to walk to Burrs. It certainly got them out of bed. And many made good friends, and learned skills which they would otherwise have remained ignorant of. And all worked hard, and demonstrated to observers that unemployed did not mean unemployable.

Some of these people may have felt as if they had been thrown onto the scrapheap. But none of these people were wastrels. Some had been employed, but had been laid off. Some had been in the Forces; some older ones had taken early retirement, and some had done little since leaving school. A few of the team even had degrees, and another was studying for one in his own time. I suspect that most went on to have useful careers, and some will have done really well for themselves.

The clearance of hundreds of mature and near-mature trees quickly presented us with a problem of where to put the stuff – until someone suggested burning it all in the chimney. We then had a visceral demonstration as to why such chimneys were erected, as the atmospheric draw created an inferno of 30ft high flames, which threatened to suck inside anyone who foolishly stood too close to the chimney flue! For the first time in decades, a pall of black smoke issued forth from the chimney top, and concerned local residents put a stop to our conflagration, although we had depleted most of our trees by then.

North-western part of Burrs Mill, August 1987.
North-western part of Burrs Mill, August 1987, following tree clearance.

After this, it became clear that the sunken areas of the mill had been infilled with great depths of demolition debris in 1952, including the massive square slabs of local flagstone which had originally formed bleaching tanks. Most of this could never have been moved by hand, so for two weeks we engaged a 30 tonne hydraulic excavator and a 20 tonne dumper. The demolition of old Burrs Bridge, with its 2 tonne weight limit, required the construction of an ex-army ‘Bailey Bridge’ just downstream, and our heavy plant used this for access. Within no time at all, we were creating a veritable mountain of spoil on the site of the present car park. At the end of each day, to clean his tyres, the dumper driver charged upriver through deep water, throwing up a bow wave like a tug boat!

20-tonne dumper in river Irwell.
20-tonne dumper in river Irwell.

But there were limits as to what could be done by machinery, and what then followed was months of hard manual graft, by men and women using shovel and mattock, to clear masonry gulleys, pits and channels, to expose fabric which had been buried for up to a century or more.

Burrs Midden under excavation.
Burrs Midden under excavation, October 1987.

The spoil mountain had grown ever larger, and there was no way it could be taken away from Burrs. The solution lay close at hand. To the west of the Feeder Canal was a vast dump of cinders, generated by the mill boilers, and between this and the canal embankment was a narrow but capacious little valley. A little later, an antiquated but powerful Ruston Bacyrus 22 crane creaked onto the site, equipped with a dragline bucket the size of a mini car.

And what then followed was utterly mesmerising to the viewer, as the expert operator performed a slow-motion balletic repetition by which he drew back the drag bucket, heaping it with spoil, and then released it to let gravity draw it away in a great arcing pendulum; and as he slewed the great machine sideways, the bucket unerringly flew across the canal, before releasing it’s great load into the little valley. And he did this every day for three weeks, and the mountain gradually disappeared.

Byewash weir under excavation, north-west corner of mill site.
MSC team members cleaning up byewash weir at north-western corner of Burrs Mill, November 1987.

I reckoned that by the end of the scheme, we had shifted somewhere around 5,000 tonnes of spoil across the canal. And perhaps 500 tonnes of this was dug out by hand. And then there was all of the tree-felling, dam building, and conservation work, with cement and concrete, and all of the drawing and recording work. To say nothing of the excavation of the midden at Burrs Cottages, and the big wheelpit at Higher Woodhill. And the many public tours and lectures, and the many visits by councillors and sponsors and local residents…

But it didn’t last. Within 18 months, MSC became Employment Training (ET), and it became unworkable. Our scheme at Burrs closed down then, but the remains of Burrs Mill were now exposed for all to see, and the grand design fostered by Bury MBC was now flying along at breakneck speed, as other grant-aid and contractors came on board.

Hand-excavation of Smithy area, October 1987.
Hand-excavation of Smithy at Burrs Mill, October 1987.

For restoration schemes, like Burrs Country Park, MSC projects were far more than just cheap labour. They were a lifeline to much-needed government funding. But there was something else as well, less obviously tangible, which ran deep into human perceptions. The East Lancashire Railway had a large MSC team out on the tracks in all weathers, and the Ellenroad Engine House had one too, performing tasks nothing short of miraculous. None of these success stories could have been progressed without their MSC teams. They provided the muscle and the impetus around which everything else was constructed. So that when Local Authority planning officers brought potential grant-givers to these reclamation schemes, no amount of clever talk or piles of paperwork could inspire beneficiaries more than the sight of 30-odd young people shifting tonnes of muck and masonry with their bare hands.

And several decades on, the spearheading role of the MSC team in the creation of the Burrs Country Park is all but forgotten. But I look back over all of the years which have since expired, and I remember you. And I marvel at all that we achieved together, and I thank you for all your hard graft and cheerfulness, despite your own personal adversity. And for initiating what was to become a marvellous venture.


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