The most important industry in Ashton's history has been the cotton industry. Its massive growth was responsible for the rapid spread of the town during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The damp climate in the area to the west of the Pennines made the area suitable for the spinning of cotton and the whole area to the north and east of Manchester became the world centre for the manufacture of cotton goods.
Before the eighteenth century, textile production in the area was confined to domestic production, with small-scale weaving taking place in weavers' cottages, some of which were built with a top floor providing a large airy room especially for this purpose. In the hillier areas of Mossley, Hartshead, etc. woollen cloth was produced, whereas around the town itself, domestic production of linen cloth developed.
The office block of Egret Mill, Old Street - built in 1864, the oldest part of a mill complex that dated from 1823. An adjoining 5-storey spinning block was destroyed by fire in 1881 and replaced by weaving sheds, the last part of which were demolished in 2013.
This early linen industry consisted of the production of fustian - a mixture of cotton and flax. Cloth merchants would transport the cotton and flax to the houses of the workers, who would spin and weave the cloth in their homes. The merchants would then collect the finished cloth to be taken to markets and sold.
In the eighteenth century, inventions such as the flying shuttle and spinning jenny increased the speed of production. Hargreave's water frame and carding machine were large, heavy machines which required flowing water to provide power, so that it was necessary for the first time to construct purpose-built mills to house them.
In the 1780s small carding mills were built alongside Hurst Brook, Cock Brook and the River Tame. Several small warping mills, which wound the stronger warp threads for use in looms, were built next to smaller streams around Hazlehurst and Hartshead. There were also some small mills constructed closer to the town which were powered by horses walking round and round, turning a vertical shaft. Some of the earliest carding mills were converted corn mills, such as Ashton Mill, which was on the banks of the river near the present Portland Basin.
Possibly the oldest surviving building associated with the cotton industry in Ashton is a former loomshop, built around the 1790s, in Wellington Street. It had three floors where weaving was carried out on hand looms. The building has now been converted into a row of shops and flats.
The coming of steam
Around this time, steam began to be used. At first, early steam engines were used to back-pump water into mill ponds so that there was always a good flow of water to power water wheels. Then Watt invented a rotary steam engine which could be used to power mill machinery directly. This meant that mills could be built in more convenient locations away from rivers and several mills in Ashton were using steam power by 1800.
Good Hope Mill, off Cavendish Street - built in 1824, the oldest spinning mill in Ashton to survive intact.
Portland Mill, Brook Street - spinning block built in 1850 as an extension to the original 1824 mill.
The use of steam power required coal as a source of fuel. Ashton, in common with other towns around the north and east of Manchester, was well-situated for this, with plenty of coal being available from pits around the town.
Although the carding, spinning and warping processes were being carried out in mills, the weaving of the cotton fabric was still taking place on hand looms in weavers' cottages. There were around 3,000 hand-loom weavers in Ashton in the early eighteenth century. The development of powered weaving looms had a big impact and new factories were built to accommodate them. By the mid 1830s, there were around 4000 power looms in Ashton, while the number of hand-loom weavers in the town had dropped to around 300.
Rycroft Mill, built in 1837. This is the second of a series of four mills built on the site. The first was built in 1834.
In 1843, over 10,000 people were employed in Ashton's cotton mills. There were 6,700 power looms and more than half a million spindles in the town at that time. Single-storey weaving sheds, often alongside the spinning mills, were built to house the looms.
The Cotton Famine
The town was affected by a period of severe depression, following the "Cotton Famine" of the early 1860s, caused by the American Civil War disrupting imports of cotton from America. This was made worse by stockpiling of cloth following overproduction during the 1850s. Some mills were forced to close and soup kitchens were set up to feed redundant workers faced with starvation. The situation was repeated throughout Lancashire and many public work schemes were established to provide some form of employment on such things as road construction and park landscaping.
Oxford Mills, West End, alongside the Ashton Canal. Built in 1845 by Thomas Mason. During the Cotton Famine of the 1860s, his son, Hugh Mason, kept the workforce employed at his own expense.
Wellington Mill, Whitelands, built in 1857, alongside the Huddersfield Narrow Canal.
Duncan Mill, or Oxford Street Mill, built in 1860. Nearby Kershaw Street was originally named Duncan Street. Another mill on the site was built in 1850 and demolished in the 1980s. In the distance is Guide Mill, built in 1842, the upper floors of which have since been removed.
Guidebridge Mill, South Street - built in 1884. This was the second mill built at the Guide Bridge site - the first, built in 1876 was demolished around 1938. It will be noticed that these later mills were built with flat roofs, which could be used as reservoirs for the sprinkler systems.
In the second half of the nineteenth century, the towns in north-east Lancashire began to concentrate on cotton weaving, while the towns in south-east Lancashire, including Ashton, specialised in cotton spinning, although some mills continued to carry out both processes.
By the early twentieth century there were around 2 million spindles in Ashton, although the number of cotton workers was around 9,000, which was fewer than in 1843. In the early twentieth century, several mills in Ashton were converted to run on electrical power.
Harper Mill, now converted to apartments. The original mill on this site was built in 1855 but was re-built and enlarged in 1873 followinga serious fire.
Whitelands Mill, alongside the Huddersfield Narrow Canal, built in 1883. An adjacent mill, built in 1875, was demolished in the 1930s.
Competition from overseas
After the First World War, competition from Japan and India began to affect demand for local cotton products. During the 1920s and 30s, 16 mills closed in Ashton. Several mills were closed during the Second World War, although most re-opened afterwards. By around 1950, the number of spindles in Ashton had dropped to three quarters of a million and the number of cotton workers to about 3,500.
Cavendish Mill, alongside the Ashton Canal, built in 1885 on the site of the former Bankfield Mill, which had been built in 1820.
The competition from far-east countries, where the wages were much lower than in Britain, proved too great and more and more mills were closed or converted to other uses. In the 1970s, the last cotton spinning mill, Cedar Mill, closed, ending cotton production in Ashton. Atlas Mill, which had been converted to the production of man-made fibre, closed in the 1990s, ending the manufacture of textiles in the town.
Cavendish Mill, near Asda, built in 1885 (pictured right), is the most recently-built mill in Ashton that still survives, but is now converted to apartments. Of interest is the octagonal staircase tower surrounding the lower part of the chimney.
There were a number of mills built after that date - Minerva Mill, Whitelands in 1891; Rock Mill, Waterloo, in 1893; Atlas Mill, Waterloo, in 1898; Curzon Mill, Hurst, in 1902; Tudor Mill, Portland Basin, in 1903; Cedar Mill, Hurst, in 1905 and Texas Mill, Whitelands, in 1907.
These later mills were grand in their appearance, often with ornate brickwork, contrasting stonework and copper domes or pyramids on their towers. Sadly, all these later mills have now gone - their sites being more valuable than the buildings, with Tudor and Texas being destroyed by fires in the 1970s.
Mills in Ashton
Bridge End (Spring Grove)
Bridge End (Whitelands)
Wood & Harrops
See archive photos of the Bygone Cotton Mills of Ashton.
Acknowledgement: Many of the details on this page were found in Ian Haynes' book, Cotton in Ashton, in which much more information about each of Ashton's mills can be found.
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