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.