Grace's Guide To British Industrial History

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Grace's Guide is the leading source of historical information on industry and manufacturing in Britain. This web publication contains 163,173 pages of information and 245,641 images on early companies, their products and the people who designed and built them.

Grace's Guide is the leading source of historical information on industry and manufacturing in Britain. This web publication contains 147,919 pages of information and 233,587 images on early companies, their products and the people who designed and built them.

Arkwright Mills, Manchester

From Graces Guide

of Miller Street, Manchester

Also known as Manchester Mills.


This was the first example of a large purpose-built mechanised cotton spinning mill in Manchester.

A good summary of the history of the mill, and of archaeological investigations undertaken in 2005, is provided by Michael Nevell, who was involved in the investigation[1]. We learn that the mill was built some time between 1780 and 1782, by Richard Arkwright and his partners William Brocklebank, John Whittenbury, John Simpson and Samuel Simpson. It had been intended to drive the mill using a Newcomen engine, but this proved unsuccessful and in 1783 two large water reservoirs (upper and a lower) were constructed to supply water for a 30ft diameter, 8ft wide waterwheel to drive the machinery. A steam engine pumped the water from the lower back to the upper pond. M. Nevell provides information (from the Boulton and Watt papers) that the first, unsuccessful, mill engine was made by Thomas Hunt. In 1784 Arkwright sold the mill to his son Richard, but in 1786 he withdrew from the partnership with John and Samuel Simpson. Engines from Boulton and Watt were installed. The mill was badly damaged by fire in 1854, and was rebuilt.

In October 1892 Baxendale and Co., engineers and plumbers' merchants, took over and redeveloped the site. The mill was destroyed in a German bombing raid in 1940. The findings of the archaeological investigation of the site in 2005 (featured in the TV series 'Time Team') were fully reported by Wessex Archaeology[2]

The Mills on Maps

Green's map of 1787-1794 shows a long building aligned more or less north-south, identified as 'Mr Simpson's Cotton Works'. This was close to the junction between Millers Street, Angel Street and Oxford Street (later called St. Georges Road, now Rochdale Road). A large reservoir is shown at the west side of the mill, and a smaller one at the north east corner.

Lewis's 1788 map and Laurent's 1793 map of Manchester show an additional reservoir near the southern corner. Rochdale Road is marked as 'Back Lane'.

Bancks and Co's Plan of Manchester, 1831 shows the mill as 'Norris and Hodges's Cotton Mill'.

These maps show the occupier's name alongside a single main mill building, the 'north-south' building. This might imply the presence of a single main mill building, but this was not the case. By the early 1820s there were several distinct mill buildings on the site, two of which had their own engine(s) and boiler(s). This will be discussed further in the context of the 1839 fire.

Adshead's 1851 Maps of Manchester show that manufacturing had ceased in the old buildings, and only the southern end of the reservoir remained. The eastern end of the site was now occupied by various businesses, including a foundry, R. Powell's 'various works', and Deaken's Brewery.

Goad's Insurance Plans, Sheet 28, dated 1888 identifies the long north-south-aligned building as 'Arkwright's Mill', occupied in whole or part by P. Frankenstein and Sons.

The 2005 Wessex Report states that historical documentation had suggested that the mill building aligned north-south was widened by 3m, from 9m to 12m following the rebuilding in 1854, but the evaluation was able to show that no widening had taken place and that the original 1780s mill had been 12m wide.[3]. However, scaling up the 1849 36-inch O.S. map[4] gives a width of approx 30 ft for most of the length, with an enlargement to 40 ft over a distance of 35 ft at mid length of the mill, the overall length scaling up at 225 ft. An 1854 newspaper report gave the width as 30 ft, and the length as upwards of 200 ft.

Water Supply

Given the importance of this factory as a harbinger of things to come in Manchester, surprisingly little information is available about its early days. Its arrival would surely have raised eyebrows. Mills (except windmills) were traditionally adjacent to good supplies of flowing water. Although this was a steam-powered mill, it needed water to condense the engine's steam. Ideally, the supply would come from a flowing river or stream or canal. Failing that, a reservoir might suffice, provided that it was large enough to allow the water to lose sufficient heat to remain cool enough to suit its role of condensing the steam.

This mill had no obvious supply of flowing water, but it did have reservoirs, used at some point to power the 'closed-cycle' waterwheel. Whether that was their original role is not known. It is supposed that the water for these reservoirs came from the nearby Shude Hill (Shudehill) Pits, fed by the River Tib. However, in preparing this entry, it has come to light that there was an abundance of condensing water of quality, arising from a spring on the premises. This comes from an 1841 advertisement:-

'TO BE SOLD or LET, all that COTTON MILL or FACTORY, situate in Miller's-street, in Manchester, called the Manchester Mill, with the reeling and making-up rooms, and other buildings, late in the occupation of Mr. John Atwood Beaver, together with the steam-engine of about 60 horse power, by Boulton and Watt, heavy gear shafting and appurtenances, and an abundance of condensing water of quality, arising from a spring on the premises.—The property, which is freehold of inheritance, is in excellent situation, and within a few minutes walk from the Exchange, and if sold, a great part of the purchase money may remain on mortgage.—For further particulars, and to view the premises, apply to Messrs. LILLIE and SONS, Store-street, -Manchester, where a plan of the property may be seen.' [5]

1839 Fire, and Matters Arising

A fire broke out, about half-past nine, on Tuesday morning, at one of the mills, in Miller-street, occupied by Mr. J. A. Beaver, cotton spinner. Both mills, which are very extensive, were in Mr. Beaver's occupation : but one, standing a little within the yard, had not been worked for some time past. The mill where the fire occurred is a building of five stories, and 21 windows in length, standing on the north side of Miller's-street.
The fire, which originated in the blowing-room, is supposed to have been caused by the friction of the machinery. The hands were at work at the time, but they all escaped without injury.
Information being conveyed to the police-yard, Mr. Rose, with the Niagara engine, and party of firemen, was on the spot in about ten minutes. At that time, the westerly end of the mill was a complete prey to the flames, which, originating on the ground floor, had made their way through all the upper floors to the roof, — a portion of which had actually fallen in before Mr. Rose's arrival; and the flames were rapidly spreading on every floor towards the upper or eastern end of the building. Nothing was left but to attempt to arrest their progress midway, and thereby save that portion which had not been reached by the fire. To every body but Mr. Rose himself, this seemed an utter impossibility; for the rooms were open from end to end, without any division-wall, or other means of cutting off the progress of the flames, other than by the exertions of the firemen. The result, however, showed what may be effected by judicious plans, courageously and skillfully worked out. Three other engines, the Water Witch, Neptune, and Thetis, having arrived, with their complement of firemen, branches were immediately introduced through windows in each of the five stories at the same point, so that the water from the uppermost stories, pouring down, aided the efforts made in the lower ones in the same line, and thus a very powerful and concentrated action was maintained. The Niagara engine was stationed in Miller's-street, where also a branch and hose were attached direct to a fire-plug. The other three police engines were stationed in the yard, on the north side of the premises, where a plentiful supply of water was obtained from the large reservoir. Six pipes were laid,— two from the Water Witch, two from the Neptune, and one each from the Niagara and the fireplug in Miller's-street; and, in this way, the progress of the flames was completely intercepted by half-past eleven o'clock. By twelve, the firemen had subdued the flames at the westerly end of the building, which had continued to rage with great fury; a great quantity of cotton, to the value of between £300 and £400, which was deposited in one of the cellars at this end of the building, having ignited, and contributed to the conflagration.
Notwithstanding the great attention necessary to preserve the easterly end of the building, the engine-house, and boiler-house, which, together with large warping-room, adjoined the westerly or lower end of the mill, were not neglected. The flames penetrated through the roof of the engine-house, and were then extinguished; and every practical effort was made to save the cotton in the cellars, but with little success, the flames having spread so much before the arrival of the engines. The exertions of the firemen were most praiseworthy. It was astonishing how the progress of the flames was stayed, for the windows in the whole of the building were black with smoke and heat, and in many cases the glass was shattered. The fire encroached most in the upper stories. But little of the roof remains; of the fifth story, the length of six windows on a side has been preserved, with all the machinery, which however is old and not of much value. In the next lower story there remains a length of flooring of nine windows, beyond which there is a chasm open to the sky and to the ground. Indeed, the preservation this portion of the premises seems very wonderful. The engines remained playing on the embers for some hours afterwards.
The building, engine, &c., we understand, were not insured.
The owner is Richard Simpson, a son of Sir R. Arkwright's partner. - Mr. J. A. Beaver, the occupier of the mill, we have heard, had fully insured the machinery in the York and London and the West of England fire offices ; but we could not ascertain whether the stock is sufficiently insured. We are sorry to add, that probably three hundred hands will be thrown out of employment for some time by this unfortunate occurrence.
These mills, which were known by the name of the Manchester cotton mills, one left standing is said to have been erected by Sir Richard Arkwright, about the year 1780; the other were, as the name imports, the oldest in the town. The [missing word(s)] was erected by the late Mr. Simpson, after the dissolution of his partnership with Arkwright.'[6]

Note: This is not the same building as that which was damaged in 1854: there were two five storey buildings on the site. The evidence for this is discussed below.

The long, narrow mill building whose remains were excavated in 2005 had its axis aligned more or less north-south (actually NNE-SSW, or at about the 'five past seven' position in clock terms). The report of the 1839 fire is consistent with a building aligned east-west. It was reported that the fire affected one of two mills at the site, standing on the north side of Miller Street, that the fire was concentrated at the western end, fire engines were stationed in the yard on the north side of the premises and in Miller Street. It was also stated that the engine house and boiler house adjoined the westerly or lower end of the mill.

To further explore the arrangement of buildings, reference is made to a plan dating from c.1822 [7]. This shows a number of buildings on the site, large and small. The largest ('d') is the one aligned more or less north-south and labelled as 'Simpson's cotton factory' on Green’s and Laurent's maps, and was the subject of the 2005 investigation. The other one of interest in this context (marked 'a') is shown slightly shorter, has about the same width (although this plan is probably not drawn to an accurate scale), and it is aligned at about 90 degrees to its longer counterpart, in other words aligned more or less east to west, and it would have fronted on to Miller Street. This alignment would be consistent with the mill which caught fire in 1839. Both these buildings were five storeys high. The engine house is shown attached to the north side of mill 'a', but it is just west of the centre, and the detached boiler house is slightly east of that. The report of the fire refers to the engine house and boiler house being at the westerly end, so there may be an inconsistency here.

A curious feature is that the boiler house for mill 'a' was built at an angle to the axis of the mill which it served. The 1849 O.S. map shows that the building 'a' had been shortened and extended northwards, but the angled feature still remained. It was still labelled as part of Manchester Mills, and building 'a' is identified as a warehouse.

These observations beg the question of when mill 'a' was built. Repeating the closing sentences of the 1839 report: 'These mills, which were known by the name of the Manchester cotton mills, one left standing is said to have been erected by Sir Richard Arkwright, about the year 1780; the other were, as the name imports, the oldest in the town. The [?] was erected by the late Mr. Simpson, after the dissolution of his partnership with Arkwright.' This supports the belief that the 'north-south' mill (the 'one left standing') is indeed the original Arkwright mill, and, if the missing words referred to the fire-damaged mill, that that mill was built later.

Other points arising from the c.1822 plan: A building at the south east corner of the site is identified as a 3 storey building formerly used for spinning; a relatively large 3 storey building near the southern corner of the site identified as a mule factory and picking room; the chimney for the largest ('north-south') mill was some distance from the mill, not attached to the building.

Recollections from 1856

A correspondent writes:- "I have always understood from my father that it was the first chimney built in Manchester for a factory, and that it was built for the first steam-engine put here by Boulton and Watt. The factory near it is of older date, and, when first built, was worked by water power, the lodge or reservoir being still visible in the yard. The engine was put down to pump back the water, so as to make it do double or perhaps more frequent duty. I have understood that there was, in connection with the reservoir, a large number of pits, from which the water was collected, and which were called Shudehill pits. I should think the chimney has been built seventy years.
Strange as it may seem, there is no authority for assigning a date for the first cotton-spinning mill erected in Manchester. It was in December, 1775, that Arkwright's second patent for a series of machines for preparing cotton, &c., for spinning was taken out and when by them yarns were produced far superior in quality and lower in price, a great impulse was communicated to the cotton manufacture ; and spinning-mills were erected to supply the requisite quantity of yarn. Arkwright sold his machines, or permission to use them, to persons in Lancashire and various other counties of England, and it is stated that the money expended in consequence of these grants, before 1782, amounted at least to £60,000. In his "case" it was stated that "Mr. Arkwright also erected a very large and extensive building in Manchester, at the expense of upwards of £4,000."
This is believed to be the first cotton-spinning mill erected in Manchester, and it was on the site of the 'old factory" in Miller-street, formerly called Mill-lane.
Arkwright's first mill was built at Cromford in 1771; the trial as to the validity of his patent was in 1785, and between these years must be placed the date of the erection of Manchester's oldest cotton mill in Miller-street. In 1787 there were only 41 cotton mills in Lancashire.
In a plan of Manchester in 1751, the site of " the old factory" was all fields. In Green's plan and Laurent's map (the former dated 1794, from an actual survey, the latter said to have been surreptitiously copied from the former, and published first in 1793), " the old factory" appears for the first time, being called in Green's plan " Simpson's cotton works," and in Laurent's " Simpson's factory." The first steam engine for spinning cotton, erected in Manchester was in the year 1789, and this would probably be the period about which the chimney would be erected. The "Shudehill pits" were old marl or daub pits, excavated for centuries, and being on a much higher level than the mill in Miller-street, viz., at the top of the Shudehill, along the north side of Swan-street - (that pit nearest Miller-street having an islet in its centre) - it is possible that, although 150 yards from the mill reservoir, they might be used as feeders for it. The pinfold then stood at the top of Shudehill."'[8]

See Also


Sources of Information

  1. 'Manchester - The Hidden History' by Michael Nevell, The History Press, 2008
  2. [1] 'Arkwright's Mill, NCP Car Park, Miller Street, Manchester - Archaeological Evaluation and Assessment of Results' by Wessex Archaeology Ltd: Report reference: 59471.01
  3. [2] 'Arkwright's Mill, NCP Car Park, Miller Street, Manchester - Archaeological Evaluation and Assessment of Results' by Wessex Archaeology Ltd: Report reference: 59471.01
  4. The Godfrey Edition Old Ordnance Survey Maps: Manchester Sheet 24: 'Manchester (New Cross) 1849': [3]
  5. Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser, 23 January 1841
  6. Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser, 23 February 1839
  7. [4]Plans of all the Spinning Factories within the township of Manchester, pages 40-41, showing the mill of the Executors of the late John Simpson. Note: North is at approx the 9 o'clock position
  8. Morning Chronicle, 20 August 1856