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Saturday, January 26, 2002
TROUBLE AT T’MILL. 1895
How many of you have heard the term ‘Round Robin’? Do you know where the name comes from? For those of you who don’t, it was a way of sending a communication to someone without identifying who the ringleaders were. This was often important so as to avoid victimisation. A circle was drawn on a piece of paper, the message was written in the circle and then all the participants signed it, but the signatures radiated out from the circle like the spokes of a wheel indicating collective responsibility.
In the course of digging into local history you find some strange and sometimes exciting things. Years ago I was given a copy of a Round Robin which was sent to J Slater Edmondson on October 9th 1895. At the time he was a manufacturer at Long Ing Shed with about 420 looms. The message in the centre reads: ‘To Mr J Slater Edmondson, Long Ing Shed Barnoldswick. This is to give notice that it is our intention to leave your employ in seven days from today, October 9th 1895. Yours respectfully,’. This message is surrounded by 89 signatures, there are eight repetitions and at least one, Enoch Sockett, that looks like a false name. Now then, here’s your chance to do a bit of family history, look through the list of names and see if you can pick out any of your grandparents or great-grandparents and then I’ll tell you the story. The surname is the first name.
Anderson Ralph, Barnes Thomas, Berry ?, Brennand Mary, Broughton Jane, Broughton Maggie, Broughton Mary, Brown A M, Brown George, Brown Mr, Brown Mrs, Campbell C, Cook John, Demaine B, Duckworth Mrs, Eley George, Fort Annie, Fort Jonathan, Fort Lizzie, Fort Sarah Ellen, Gill Clara, Green Mary A, Green Thomas, Hacking ?, Hacking Alice, Hacking Grace, Hacking Lizzie, Hacking Stark, Heally Florence, Hill Agnes, Hill Charles, Hill Lavinia, Hill W, Hoskin Joseph, Hurst Arthur J, Hurst Joseph H, Hurst Mary J, Hurst Thomas, Ireland William, Marshall Abel, Nightingale W, Orange Elizabeth, Orange Mary A, Parker Mrs E, Peel Ada, Perrin Peter, Robinson Olive A, Roche Arthur, Sanderson John, Simpson J, Simpson James, Sockett Enoch, Stanley Bracewell, Stanley James, Suthers Mrs, Taylor David E, Taylor Edith, Taylor Helm, Thornber T , Townson J H, Townson John, Townson Richard, Townson Thomas, Turner Hartley, Waddington Henrietta, Waddington Miriam, Waddington Rebecca, Waddington Thomas, Warren Albert E, Watson J, Whipp Ada, Whipp Alfred, Whipp Annie, Whipp Carr, Whipp Emma, Whipp Fred, Whipp John, Whipp Stephen, Wilkinson James, Windle Elizabeth, Windle J Slater.
Right, that’s the list of names, have you picked anyone out? Now then, what was it all about? We haven’t got space here to go into the full story of how the employers and their workers were organised so this will be very brief. As the Industrial Revolution gathered pace in the late 18th century workers realised that in unity there was strength and started to combine in the early trade associations so that they could negotiate collectively with employers at the local level. This was seen by the government as restraint of trade and in 1799 the first of the Combination Acts was passed which made any form of organised collective bargaining illegal. These Acts were repealed in 1824 but there was still much opposition to combination and as late as March 1834, six agricultural labourers from Tolpuddle in Devon were sentenced to seven years transportation for organising a union, the sentence was remitted after two years of violent protest all over the country. By 1840 we begin to see the formation of trade associations in the cotton industry and in 1892 the Colne district association formed a branch in Earby.
One interesting result of the Combination Acts was the rise of the Friendly Societies like the Order of the Golden Fleece (became the Ivory Hall Club), the Foresters and other societies which ran mutual support schemes and paid sick pay and unemployment benefit. Loosely based on Masonic ritual, these organisations played a very important role in helping working people survive periods of hard times. The Salvation army wasn’t founded until 1865 and though I don’t know the exact date yet, probably arrived in Barlick very late in the 19th century. Remember that there was no such thing as social security, the only safety net was the Poor Law, Parish Relief. This didn’t kick in until you were absolutely destitute.
So, the advent of the unions was, as far as the workers were concerned, a timely event. From the very beginning, one of the main areas the unions concentrated on was the formation and adoption by agreement with the manufacturers of Uniform Lists of wages to be paid for every cloth type. Barnoldswick worked under the Burnley Weaving List for Plain Cloths. This list was first formulated in 1843 and was one of the first. A crucial element of the way the lists were used was that, by agreement between the trade associations and the manufacturers, Local Disadvantage could be applied. This was a reduction of 10% on list prices if the manufacturers could prove they were working under some form of disadvantage such as being in a remote location or at the end of a railway line. This was always a bone of contention and the Round Robin we started with was a direct result of a dispute between the manufacturers and the unions about how much should be deducted.
1895 wasn’t the first of these disputes. Spinners at Butts Mill came out on strike in November 1886 when the masters slowed the machines down, effectively cutting wages. They claimed it was because of bad cotton but there is some doubt about this. Whatever, the spinners went back after a fortnight without gaining any advantage. In 1887 the weavers in Barlick were out for 22 weeks in protest against underpayment on the Burnley List.
The dispute of 1895 was very serious for the town. It started at Long Ing Shed late in 1895 after a summer of discontent in the town as the manufacturers had combined to drop wages at every mill in the town. There is little doubt that our Round Robin was a direct result of this unrest. If you found any of your relations on the list of names you can be sure of two things: They were under pressure because of low pay and they were courageous enough to do something about it. By March 1896 1,200 weavers were on strike in the town. The union were paying ‘Loom Pay’ which was about two shillings a loom, eight shillings a week if you were on strike. This money was raised by a levy of up to £1 per hundred members in the other unions in the district.
Billy Brooks could remember this strike and he told me that the employers brought weavers into the town to run the mills. Extra police were drafted into the town to keep order and protect the ‘Knobsticks’ or strikebreakers many of whom never reached the town because Billy said the union hired bruisers to waylay the outsiders as they made their way over to Barlick. They were discouraged by being given a good hiding. These toughs were also encouraged to frighten anyone who was still weaving. Billy Tells how his mother and father and about a dozen other weavers were in the Fosters Arms one night having an informal meeting when some toughs burst in and started a fight. The police were called and locked the troublemakers up, Jim Brooks, Billy’s father, and another man at the meeting had to go to Skipton to stand witness against the union’s thugs.
The manufacturers were frightened of sabotage, they knew that the one sure way for the weavers to stop the mills was to sabotage them. Billy says that police slept in Long Ing engine house for two years while the disputes were on. The strike spread from Long Ing to Butts Mill and Billy says that someone got into the weaving shed during the night and slashed all the warps thus stopping the mill. The police over-reacted at times and the union complained to the Home Secretary about their conduct.
Billy was fourteen at the time and he says that him and his mates thought it was all very exciting. The strikers used to gather in Church Street and boo the strikebreakers as they came away from Butts. He said that people used to bring old kettles and pans to bang on them. He mentions a bloke called Bill Crew who used to sell boiled peas, Billy said he usually had a boiler or two about that were ‘buggered’ and the weavers used to borrow these to use as drums.
The end of the strike wasn’t necessarily the end of problems for some of the weavers. Billy said that in the end they had to go back for the same money they had struck against. Many weavers had come into the town as strikebreakers and some of them stayed to replace weavers who were ‘black listed’ and had to leave the town as they knew they would never get another job. Billy said he knew of whole families that had to leave. Of course, this wouldn’t be the end of it. We can’t know what bad blood was created between opposing parties during the strike. We’ve seen similar things in recent years in pit villages but unfortunately these things leave no written record so we can only guess at them.
Whether you found a name you knew in the list or not, I hope this small glimpse into the past has intrigued you. If you have found a relation just think what courage (or desperation!) it took to stand up against the manufacturers with no backstop beyond the charity of your neighbours and fellow workers. Those two years must have been grim times for many people and we can only wonder what debts were taken on and the length of time it took to get straight again. The main point I want to convey this week is that we have to be honest when we look at history. It wasn’t all ‘the good old days’, the social fabric of our town was built on bitter struggle just as much as on good times.
Don’t forget that if you have any questions or requests you can always get me on 813527 or email@example.com. I’ll be glad to help.
SCG/29 December 2000
Friday, January 25, 2002
CHILDHOOD AND WORK, 150 YEARS AGO.
It’s very tempting to look at the past through rose coloured spectacles. I was reminded of this recently when I was asked by a young lad what it was like being in the army. I found that I had to really force myself to tell him about the bad bits, what immediately sprang to mind was the good things, the laughs we had and the friends I made. It struck me that local history suffers from the same problem, it is more comfortable to address the ‘good old days’ than some of the realities of life. I promise I’ll try to avoid this trap and this week we’ll look at childhood in Barlick in the late 19th century.
There’s a phrase for you, ‘in the late 19th century’. How much does this convey to a ten year old child in the first days of 2001? Forgive me if I talk to my younger readers this week. I want you to try to imagine what it was like to be your age 150 years ago. The first thing you would notice would be the conditions at home. You would almost certainly be part of a large family. Let’s base this on someone who actually lived then, a man called Billy Brooks who was born on 26th September 1882 in Barlick. His father was called Jim and he used to weave at Wellhouse when Billycock Bracewell owned it. By 1880 Jim’s cousin Robinson Brooks had started in a small way at Clough Mill with 86 looms. He offered Jim a job as a tackler on £1.50 a week. At the time Jim was living in a small cottage in Newtown where the carpet shop is now, there were two cottages there. He was married to a lass called Anna who came from Herefordshire, she always got called Annie. Billy was the first of eleven children. That’s right, I haven’t made a mistake, eleven children and two adults lived in that tiny house with two rooms upstairs and two down.
There isn’t enough space here to describe everything in the house even though that wouldn’t really be a big job, there was so little in there. The only heating was an open coal fire in each of the two rooms downstairs. They had gas lighting downstairs, this was just a jet of burning gas like a fishtail, what used to be called a split burner. There was no light or heat upstairs at all. There were no carpets, just bare stone flag floors with a home made rug in the front room. The only curtains were lace curtains and for privacy at night there were roller blinds that could be pulled down. There was hardly any furniture apart from a table, a chest of drawers and a couple of chairs. No running hot water, no bathroom, the toilet was outside in the back yard and was simply a bucket under a wooden seat that was emptied once a week by the council scavenger who came round with a box cart and emptied the buckets into it. Your mother did all the cooking on the open fire in the kitchen and did the washing once a week, always on a Monday, in the back yard in a metal barrel by hand. There was no radio, no television, no computers, in fact nothing that you would use nowadays to amuse yourself apart from an odd book or two.
You started school at five years old. In Billy’s case he went to the School on Rainhall Road, the Wesleyan School where the schoolmistress was Emma Brooks. How were you dressed? Let’s suppose you were a lad, you probably had a cap, a vest, a long sleeved shirt with no collar, a woolly jumper, short trousers, woollen stockings and clogs with wooden soles, shod with iron hoops. In case you were wondering, I haven’t forgotten the underpants, you didn’t have any, your trousers were lined with cotton if you were lucky and that was all. The lasses wore a vest, a frock, big knickers that were more like shorts and which showed below the hem of the dress, woollen stockings and clogs just like the lads. You only had a bath once a week, always on Friday night and this was done in a tin bath in front of the fire in the kitchen. First one in got the cleanest water! If you were lucky you had your own bath hung on a hook on the wall in the back yard, if not you had to wait until the neighbours had had their bath and then you borrowed theirs!
Until you started school when you were five years old, you were looked after by your mother who stayed at home while your dad worked. Occasionally a mother worked in the mill if she only had one or two children and in that case paid someone to look after her children while she wasn’t there. This cost four shillings a week (20p.), it doesn’t sound much but was a lot out of a wage of perhaps twenty four shillings (£1-20p.) School started at nine in the morning with prayers and usually a song to remind you that you were British. When I was at school in 1940 we used to sing ‘Jerusalem’. ‘Hearts of Oak’, ‘The British Grenadiers’ or something like that, things hadn’t changed much by then. The most important subjects were reading, writing and arithmetic with a bit of history and geography thrown in. The idea was to teach you enough to enable you to be a useful worker in the mills.
At ten years old you were given a test to find out how well you had learned and if you passed this you started work in the mill. That’s right, at ten years old. By the time Billy was ten, his father was working at Long Ing Shed where Robinson Brooks had moved with 421 looms. Jim Brooks was a taper now, this was an important job because he had to prepare the warps for the weavers to use in their looms and so he got more money. Mind you, he needed it, remember he had eleven children to support! Apart from the fact that the owner of the firm was his cousin, his uncle Willy Brooks was the manager at Robinson Brooks and he was looking after Jim because of the size of his family.
Billy was given his certificate of education at ten years old and had to go down to the mill at Long Ing to be examined by the doctor in the mill office. Billy says that this was only a formality because nobody was ever rejected on the grounds of ill health. If you could stand up you passed! The doctor knew very well that the child’s family needed the extra money.
Once you had passed the medical you started ‘half time’ helping an experienced weaver with six looms who taught you to weave in return. You didn’t get paid by the mill management, the weaver you were helping gave you money out of his own wage. Billy got two shillings and sixpence a week (12 ½ p) which he gave to his mother. He got one old penny for himself. (less than 1p.) He worked mornings in the mill and afternoons at school one week and then mornings in school and afternoons in the mill the following week. Billy preferred going to school in the morning as this meant he didn’t have to get up at 5am which was the case if he had work in the morning. This went on for three years until he reached thirteen years old when he left school for good and started work in the mill full time. If you had learned well you got two looms and could make perhaps £1 a week. You gave this to your mother and she gave you a penny in the shilling pocket money (8 ½ p) and kept you in food and clothes at home.
So what could you do in the way of entertainment with a shilling a week? The answer is not a lot. There was no cinema in Barlick then and you had to make your own entertainment. Because you were working so hard you were in the habit of going to bed early, usually when it got dark because even if there was something you could do in the house, there wasn’t enough light to see, remember that thirteen of you were making do with one gas lamp! Most of the time was spent playing about outside with your friends. One of Billy’s favourite occupations was going for long walks in the countryside. There was always the railway station which was where the Pioneer Store is now, you could go down there and watch what was going on in the railway yard. Even more exciting was the slaughterhouse in Newtown. This was in a barn which stood where the Occasion Gift shop is now. John and David Raw who farmed at Coates were the slaughter men and Billy says they used to watch the animals being killed and felt sorry for them. If the men were killing pigs Billy would beg a pigs bladder off the slaughter men, blow it up and use it for a football.
I’m sorry to say they sometimes got up to mischief as well, nothing that would harm anyone but usually something that made people look silly so they could have a good laugh. I daren’t tell you what these were in case it gives any of you ideas that will get you into trouble. Come to think, I can tell you one trick because you won’t be able to do it nowadays. This wasn’t Billy Brooks, it was another old friend of mine called Ernie Roberts who did this. He was near his home on John Street in Wapping one day and the scavengers were at work emptying the pails from the outside toilets into a ‘box cart’. This was drawn by a horse and was simply a large wooden box or tank with a hole in the top to empty the buckets into. There was a small door at the back worked by a lever which was how the cart was emptied on to the land when it was full. All the dirt out of the buckets was spread on farmland as manure.
When the scavengers had emptied a bucket they sprinkled the inside with some disinfectant powder before putting it back in the small door at the back of the toilet. While the men were doing this, Ernie got the idea that if he pushed down on the lever at the back of the cart, it might be interesting to see what the men would do. He thought for a minute and then did it and ran off. All the contents of the cart fell out into the road and ran off down the hill towards the Methodist Chapel! Can you imagine the mess and the smell! The men had to clear it up as best they could and scatter disinfectant powder all over the road. Ernie told me that at the time he thought this was great fun and he never got caught!
There’s lots more I could tell you but we’ve run out of space for this week. Next time you’re feeling bored or the batteries have run out on your computer game, think about Billy Brooks and Ernie. No matter how bad things look, you’ve a far easier life than they had in those days so look on the bright side. Your mother might ask you to tidy your room but she’s not going to make you go into the mill when you’re ten years old! Things could be worse. Next week we’ll have look at work in the mill and some of the troubles that arose from time to time. Remember that if you’ve anything you want to ask you can get hold of me at firstname.lastname@example.org. or 813527.
SCG/28 December 2000
Thursday, January 24, 2002
NEWTON PICKLES. ENGINEER AND MASTER CRAFTSMAN. BORN 10TH OF MARCH 1916, DIED 1ST OF JANUARY 2001.
Tuesday, 02 January 2001
Yesterday was a quiet day, everyone in Barlick seemed to be recovering from the New Year celebrations. I decided it would be a good day to call in on my old mate Newton and his wife Beryl to wish them a happy New year. I had a cup of tea with them, a good crack with Newton and he pulled my leg because he’d read my last piece about him and me testing the Bancroft engine one Christmas Eve long ago and he reminded me of something I’d forgotten to put in to the article. If you remember, Newton and I were sat in the darkened engine house listening to the engine running like a rice pudding and drinking whisky.
Young John, Newton’s grandson was with us and after a while he got a bit fidgety and said “When are you going to stop this engine?” I said “If it’s getting on your nerves, you stop the bloody thing, you know how!” Me and Newt had a good laugh and John went to stop the engine but he was too short to reach the stop valve and we had to break off from the serious matter of our Christmas drink while we found a buffet for John to stand on. He did it and the engine stopped.
This was typical Newton, he had a memory like a sharp knife and once you triggered him off, he would recount an incident as though it happened yesterday. Even better, as far as a historian is concerned, he would tell you the same story twenty years later in exactly the same detail, he was totally reliable as a witness.
When he’d finished saucing me, we had a good laugh and unusually, as I went out he gave me a big hug, unusual behaviour for him. They were getting ready for going out to have a meal and that was the last I saw of him. Beryl rang me this morning to say he had died during the night. I’ve only just remembered that hug, very strange but welcome.
The first thing I want to say about Newton is that knowing how I feel I can make a guess as to how his immediate family are feeling today. There is such a hole in so many people’s lives this morning and it can’t be filled. Time will heal I know, but nothing anyone can say can make it better. The only thing I have to offer is that the better the person, the bigger the loss, it’s almost as though it is part of the price we have to pay for having someone like Newton in our lives. He was like a father to me and I shall miss him so much.
I’d like to tell you something of the Newton I knew and how he affected my life. In 1973 when I took over Bancroft engine I knew I was in for a steep learning curve but comforted myself with the knowledge that it would all be written down somewhere and all I had to do was get the books and read them. I was in for a shock! I soon found out that there was nothing practical written down, plenty about the theory, written by blokes who had never run an engine in their lives but nothing about what you actually did to run an engine.
This was where I had a stroke of luck, I heard about this firm in the town, Henry Brown Son and Pickles and when I rang them a funny bloke came on the line and when he heard my problem said he’d come up to see me. Now, there are two sorts of people in this world, the ones who reckon they know but won’t tell you and the ones who really do know and will tell you all. Luckily for me, Newton was the latter. I told him my problem and he took me under his wing. From then on it was plain sailing, when I came up against a problem I rang Newt, he came up, sorted me out and pointed out what I ought to be looking into next. I think the proudest day of my life was when he came into the engine house one day, stood there listening to Mary Jane and James for a second or two and then turned round to me, “It’s running better than it ever has since it were put in. Tha wants to be careful, tha’ll mek an engineer yet!”
When Bancroft reached the end of its days Newton was with me in the engine house on the Wednesday afternoon of the week when we anticipated stopping on the Friday. We were making plans for what we would do to the engine to make sure it would be in good condition if anyone wanted to start it up again. We’d had a lot of visitors that week, the word had got round that Bancroft was stopping and people naturally wanted to see it running one last time. Professor Owen Ashmore from Manchester was there and he said he’d just watch the engine stop at dinnertime, he wanted a picture of me doing it. I told him that if I was right, when we stopped at dinnertime it would never run again because the weavers had been paid and I doubted whether they’d come back. That being the case, I wasn’t going to stop it, Newton could do it. I remember Newton protesting but I told him that the job was his. It was the last Barlick engine and he’d looked after all of them, he could kill the last one. He did, and I have a picture of him doing it. It seemed fitting that he should preside over the end of steam in Barlick. We cheated of course, we banked the boiler and the following day Newton and I ran the engine one last time while we flooded it with oil and I stopped it after that.
Ten years later I rang Newton one day and asked him whether he’d like to play with the biggest Meccano set in the world. I had the job of assessing a very big engine at Ellenroad with a view to getting it going again as a heritage attraction. One of the things I had to do was run the engine to see whether there were any major faults. So Newton and I finished up in this engine house with a machine five times as big as Bancroft that hadn’t run for ten years. It was covered in rust and pigeon muck but I had been oiling it for a month and had a full head of steam on and everything thoroughly warmed up. Newton stood next to the governor ready to adjust it once we got it to move and I opened up the steam valve and put full steam on it.
For a moment or two nothing happened, steam poured out of the packings and filled the engine house but there was no movement. It had got to the stage where, being winter and a very cold day, we couldn’t see each other. Suddenly there was a grunt from somewhere and Newton shouted “It’s away!” and next minute there was a tremendous thud and the engine house shook, or seemed to. “What the hell was that Newt!” “Tha’rt all reight Stanley, it were only t’pigeon shit falling off the flywheel!” There was a big cake of pigeon muck about six inches to a foot deep on the top of the wheel and what we had heard was the sound of it falling 30 feet into the cellar below in one lump as it slid off the wheel! As the engine freed itself up the steam leaks stopped and we ran it for about 15 minutes, identifying where the loose bearings were and flooding oil into it.
We decided we’d had enough engineering for a while and so I decided to shut the steam off. We had already decided that we wanted to find out how dangerous it was, we wanted to see how long it would run on vacuum when the steam was off. I blocked the governor rod up to keep the valves open as Newton shut the stop valve down. The engine started to speed up and we stood there in awe as it ran faster and faster. Afterwards, we agreed it had got up to about 100 revs a minute, twice the speed it should run at and very, very dangerous. Eventually it slowed down and stopped and I turned to Newton and said “Why didn’t you get out when it started to overspeed?” He said, “I was waiting of thee!” Then we both burst out laughing.
A couple of years later Newton was in a poor way. He had nursed his second wife Olive through cancer and was very low. I went to a foundry I knew and got some castings made for a couple of steam engines. I took one set round to him at Vicarage road and told him I wanted him to make me into a turner. He had to make an engine out of the castings and I’d do the other set. Six months later he had an engine, I had made mine and had it passed by Pickles and shortly afterwards he met Beryl and started another very happy period of his life.
So there you are, that’s my version of Newton Pickles, a funny old bugger but the best teacher and friend a bloke could have. I owe everything I know about engines and machining to him and will never forget his generosity and support when I needed it most. There’s lots more to tell about him but I shall be telling the stories for many years yet. My thoughts go out to Beryl and the family, I have lost a friend, their loss is greater than mine. One last word, you may have wondered about the title of this piece. “Engineer and master craftsman” is what Newton had carved on his father’s gravestone in Kelbrook Churchyard. I reckon he deserves the same epitaph.
SCG/Tuesday, 02 January 2001
CHRISTMAS IN THE ENGINE HOUSE
Friday the 8th November 1974, Bancroft engine house. Not a bad morning, we started as usual at 8am with the shed lights on so this meant a nice bit of load on the engine because we made our own power with an alternator driven by the engine. My firebeater Ben Gregory was finishing this week and I had a new bloke, Bob Parkinson, starting on Monday so I wouldn’t have the place to run single–handed which was hard work. All was well and I sat in my armchair at the desk in the corner of the engine house with a pint of tea and a bacon butty. Christmas was coming, things could be worse! The only nagging thought was the thump in the air pump on the low pressure side which had been there ever since I started at Bancroft and which everybody assured me was water hammer in the body of the pump due to a design fault. It had always been there so I had to live with it.
Being engine tenter on a large steam engine was a responsible job. Apart from obvious things like safety and economy, everybody’s wage depended on how well the engine performed. Smooth uninterrupted power going down the shaft into the shed meant the weavers stood a chance of making a decent wage. The worst thing that could happen was a stoppage due to my neglect so you never left the engine alone and walked round at least every ten minutes checking on all your oil feeds and looking for potential faults. This morning was no exception and on one of my trips round the oils that morning I noticed that the crosshead cotter on the high pressure side was bleeding a bit. The red oil coming out of the slot it was fitted in was a sure sign it was slightly loose.
At dinnertime, when the engine was stopped I got the hand hammer and gave the cotter a clout to drive it up and tighten it. It went in a shade and then sounded solid, job done and problems averted. On the way back round the engine to put the hammer away I clouted the low pressure cotter as I was passing and got a shock, it went up a quarter of an inch! I hit it again and it went in another eighth of an inch and felt soft. A job for Newton Pickles, I’d ring him as soon as we’d started and got settled down after dinner. [Henry Brown Son and Pickles was the local engineering firm who specialised in steam engines and millwrighting. At one point they had over 100 large engines on their books. Newton Pickles was a partner and son of the founder of the firm, John Pickles.]
When I started after dinner the engine sounded strange and it took me a few seconds to realise that the famous Bancroft thump in the air pump had vanished. The low pressure crosshead cotter must have been loose for years! Newton came up that evening and measured up for two new cotters and we scheduled the job for Friday the 20th of December, the day we finished for the Christmas break. On that day, Bob and Jim Fort came up from Brown and Pickles’ after dinner and as soon as the weavers had gone to the pub, they started on the cotters while Bob Parkinson and myself blew the boiler down and got ready for flueing. We had to open up the boiler and flues and get them cool enough for Charlie Sutton and his gang from Weldone at Brierfield to get in the flues the following day and clear all the dust out that had accumulated since July. By Tuesday the 24th the cotters were in and fitted, the boiler was back together and fired up and I was ready at 3pm for Newton to call in on his way back from attending to an engine at Holmfirth, we were going to run the engine and check that all was OK.
As it happened, Newton was held up so Bob went home and I settled down in the warm engine house with my pipe and a pint of tea and the gentle hiss of steam passing into the engine to warm it. There was only one lamp lit and as it came dark the engine house gradually became a magic place. There was the wonderful smell of steam and hot oil, my pipe smoke drifting up into the roof and every now and again, a grunt as the metal of the engine expanded and Mary Jane and James, the two cylinders, settled down in a fresh position.
Just after 5:30, Newton came in accompanied by his grandson John who was a lad at the time and had been across to Holmfirth with his granddad for a trip out. We put the shed lights in and after barring the engine round a couple of times to make sure nothing was catching in the low pressure cylinder because we’d altered the stroke of the piston slightly by fitting the new cotter, I started up and we listened to the engine.
It was a wonderful improvement, there wasn’t a sound out of the low pressure side, the engine was running like a rice pudding! We left it running and sat down at the desk with a bottle of Johnnie Walker Red Label and had our Christmas drink! We’d earned it.
Now I realise that all my readers are not engineers and a lot of what I have told you here is double dutch but I can assure you that anyone who had been with us in that engine house would have enjoyed the experience. There was just one bulb lit on the far side of the house and Newton and I sat there sipping whisky and listening to a perfectly tuned steam engine ticking away at 68 revolutions a minute. After about ten minutes we stopped the engine, shut everything down and sat there in the semi darkness with the whisky, the engine talking to us as it cooled down and the ghosts of the old engineers listening approvingly as we talked about engines and the magic of steam. Young John couldn’t understand why we weren’t going home and it wasn’t until we had finished the whisky off that we decided Christmas had better start or our wives, Olive and Vera, might have had something to say about it.
By today’s standards I suppose Newton and I were victims, there we were, on Christmas Eve, having to work. It wasn’t like that to us, we were interested in the job and even though it was our living, were fascinated by the power of steam. It’s a happy bloke that can have an experience like that and when I look at the speed people are rushing about today chasing what they call quality time I can’t help feeling sorry for them. If you should happen to see Newton, ask him about the time him and Stanley ran Bancroft engine on Christmas Eve and he will recall it instantly. How many jobs give experiences like that which are fresh in the mind after 25 years?
One more Christmas story and I’ll leave you to mend! I was asked the other day whether I had a Christmas Tree and my reply was unprintable. I always liked Christmas Trees until I found out that I had been subjected to manipulation for years. I don’t like manipulation and so I turned against the dreaded Yuletide Tree. Why?
We have to start with St Boniface, this wasn’t his given name, he was born in 675 in Wessex, named Wynfrith and was educated by the Benedictines at Exeter and Nursling (between Winchester and Southampton) They must have done a good job because he became a Benedictine monk, and was ordained a priest by the time he reached 30. Between 716 and 722 he made two attempts to evangelise the Frisian Saxons but was repulsed by their king, Radbod. Frisia was an ancient region of Germany and the Netherlands that lay between the mouths of the Rhine and the Ems. He returned to England to find he had been elected abbot in his absence but declined the post as he wanted to pursue a career as a missionary. He travelled to Rome where Pope Gregory gave him the task of converting the pagans to the east of the Rhine and changed his name to Boniface. Radbod had died by this time so Boniface went to Frisia to help Bishop Willibrord convert the Frisians and in 722 he went to Hesse and founded a Benedictine monastery as a base camp.
He was called to Rome and the Pope made him a missionary bishop and introduced him to Charles Martel who’s protection was essential to his mission. Martel (The Hammer) was Mayor of the place of Austrasia and in effect became the ruler of the Frankish kingdom, roughly equating to modern France. The story goes that when Boniface arrived at Geismar he found the Pagans worshipping Thor under a sacred oak tree where they made human sacrifices. His solution to this was, to say the least, direct. He cut the oak down and replaced it with a fir tree which grew, miraculously at a great pace. He told the pagans that the triangular shape of the tree was to remind them of the three points of the Trinity. This symbol was gradually accepted by the pagans and eventually became a universal symbol of Christmas in what became Germany.
We move on rapidly to George IV in England, leaving Boniface to come to a sticky end at the hands of the Frisians and become a martyr of the church. George IV brought the Germanic symbol of Christmas to England but it never took hold outside the royal family and its sycophants because of the unpopularity of the monarchy. It wasn’t until Queen Victoria’s husband Prince Albert re-introduced the custom that it took hold in England. From then on it became the universal symbol of Christmas it is today. Some scholars have opined that it was Albert who introduced the concept of candles on the tree to represent the light of Christianity, others point out that the baubles are probably a vestigial representation of the human sacrifices made under the oak of Thor.
So, what have we got? A pagan symbol stolen by the church to reinforce the brainwashing of the Germanic pagans, used again by a German monarchy to cement its place in a foreign country. If you read the history and believe it, it reminds you of human sacrifice, religious domination and monarchical social engineering. So, sorry, no Christmas tree for me. Mind you, I’m not consistent, I wear the kilt and that’s a Victorian con trick as well. I have feet of clay………
A happy Christmas and a good New Year to all of you. Thanks for being so patient and reading my ramblings over the past year. There’s plenty more to come and I’m always open to requests or corrections on 813527 or, if you’re really adventurous email@example.com. See you in January and be nice to the crumblies!
SCG/Sunday, 17 December 2000
Wednesday, January 23, 2002
MORE WATERY MATTERS.
Last week I told you the story of how I think Billycock drove his cousins out of Barlick by manipulating the water in the Butts Beck and then took James Nuttall to court when he tried to revive Old Coates using the water from the Bowker Drain. Before we get on to what Nuttall did next, we’d better have a look at one of the biggest mysteries in Barlick, the Bowker Drain. William Atkinson says that the Bowker Drain was put in by Billycock Bracewell in order to supply water to his New Mill. Whilst this might be true I have a problem with it. If the drain was put in by Bracewell to supply his own mill, why did he site the take-off point in Eastwood Bottoms outside his land holding? We know from the 1887 sale document that Eastwood bottoms was owned by Mr A B Royd and I have evidence that when the Calf Hall Shed Company bought the mill they were paying the Roundell Estate an annual rent for use of the resource.
Over the years I have been fascinated by this drain, largely because most of the people who know about it won’t speak! I remember once asking Harold Duxbury about it and he smiled, laid his finger on the side of his nose and shut up like a clam. It says a lot about it that most of what I know is the result of anonymous tip offs! I have to tell you that even now I know very little about it. If any of you have any information I’d be delighted to hear it. Much of the information I have is privileged, I can’t disclose the source because I promised not to but I ask you to trust me, I do have rock solid evidence about the course of it.
The Bowker Drain, (and its name is another mystery, why is it called the Bowker drain?) runs along the north side of the Leeds and Liverpool canal from a spring in the east corner of the field to the south of Barnoldswick Park which is covered by a stone flag. I’ve looked but I haven’t been able to find the flag. From here it follows the canal side at a reasonable distance until it passes under the corner of Moss Shed reappearing in the boiler house yard where there is a manhole. It follows the canal side to Long Ing bridge where it strikes away and passes under Long Ing Mill and the foundry. The mill was built in 1888 so the drain is older. It goes down Eastwood bottoms and has no connection with Crow Nest Syke which used to called Foul Syke. In the field behind the garages there is a large tank with a by-pass round it, this is fed by the Bowker Drain and is where Wellhouse got its water from, this was in the ownership of the Roundell Estate in 1888. From there it goes under Skipton road, under the houses next to Crow Nest cottages, under the Drill Hall and emerges again in a manhole in Rolls Royce car park. At this point it is at a higher level than the site where the Old Coates dams were but is piped into the beck. All very interesting I hear you say, but so what!
You can’t run steam engines efficiently without a constant supply of cold water. Wellhouse Mill could just about make a do with 5,000 gallons an hour and they didn’t waste any, it was all recirculated back into the dams. The 5,000 gallons was needed for boiler feeding and to make up losses in the system. To give you some idea, when I ran Ellenroad Engine with no load, it was pulling about 5,000 gallons a minute out of the river Beal. A heavily loaded engine like Moss or Wellhouse would be circulating about the same amount. The bottom line is that you couldn’t have too much water.
This was where the Bowker Drain came in handy after Bracewell’s death. In it’s hey day it was a very valuable resource and was always regarded as ‘free’ water. Moss Shed could either run off the drain or the canal. Walt Fisher’s father, Stanley Fisher, was the engineer at Moss Shed and in July 1932 when the weaving shed at Moss was flooding due to the heavy rain, Stanley turned the engine pump on to the Bowker drain but discharged from the condensers into the canal. This dropped the level in the shed and allowed them to carry on. The Calf Hall Shed Company ran a test on the tank in Eastwood bottoms in about 1903 and calculated they were drawing almost 5,000 gallons an hour out of it. In later years it wasn’t such a good resource after the Canal Company spent a lot of money piling the sides of the canal thus cutting down on leakage. I also have a theory that the building of the New Road might have disturbed the flow of water to the spring below Barnoldswick Park and this wouldn’t have helped either.
That’s about all I can tell you apart from the fact that I believe the court case between Bracewell and Nuttall concerned the Bowker Drain. If Bracewell built the drain had he piped it straight into the beck instead of allowing it to feed a rival mill and had someone made an enterprising connection into it? Was the dispute over the Butts Beck and the fact that Bracewell was milking it there? Was Bracewell taking it all for Wellhouse? If so, where was any overflow going? I would have thought that even if he had dropped it into Crow Nest Syke, it would have finished up being available for Old Coates dam. Will someone please give me an answer! There is of course one other factor which might have had a bearing on the Bracewell Brother’s failure, the cotton famine and this would be a contributory cause, but here again I have a problem, William of Coates went bankrupt in 1860 and the Hard Times had only just started. Atkinson says that they were limited in business acumen and were hampered by being in old-fashioned mills. Mitchell was in the same position at Clough but survived until 1867 when he sold out to John Slater. However, there is another complication here, there is evidence that Mitchell experimented with different yarns, wool and linen, and we know that this strategy was adopted by many manufacturers when cotton supplies failed. This single factor could largely explain why some enterprises survived while others failed.
Four years after the court case with Bracewell, one report says that James Nuttall started to build New Coates on a green field site to the north east of Coates Bridge with the advantage of the canal water for condensing. This was the first mill to be built on the canal side in Barlick and I think that Nuttall’s experiences with Bracewell had taught him to look for the most reliable water resource, he found it in the canal.
New Coates was originally built for 300 looms, it was powered by a beam engine and William Atkinson says ‘It was built for those would-be manufacturers who had been thwarted at Old Coates Mill’. A shortage of capital delayed completion and there is some confusion as to the actual starting date because a sale document of 1870 mentions a ‘Warehouse on the canal side now used as a bobbin mill’. There is a warehouse marked on the 1853 OS map and this is where New Coates Mill was built. To compound the confusion, I’ve been given a date of 1869 when the mill was definitely weaving. No doubt all will become clear eventually but at the moment I favour the later date if for no other reason that in 1864 the industry was still reeling from the shock of the Hard Times.
In the Craven Herald of 8th of September 1888 there was a report that ‘Coates mill works on as usual during the depression caused by the collapse of the Bracewell interests’ (This was after Billycock’s death and refers to him and not the Bracewell Brothers of Coates who were out of the picture by then). I can’t help thinking this must have given one or two people much satisfaction. Billycocks hegemony in Barlick is often spoken of as something to admire. I think I share this view as regards his business success with his mills but when you dig deeper into the subject you begin to realise that he wasn’t encouraging any development in the town that wasn’t directly controlled by him. There is an unmistakeable linkage between the date of Bracewell’s death in 1885 and the rise of the shed companies with all the opportunities that they presented to the smaller entrepreneurs. William Atkinson makes some veiled comments to this effect and he was quite an astute observer of the scene.
New Coates started well and the names of the early tenants bears out Atkinson’s statement, James Nutter was in there with 56 looms in 1880. Bell and Russell in 1896. Coates Manufacturing Company, late Dewhurst and Harrison, is mentioned in 1905 with 400 looms.
By about 1912 the mill was owned by Ridings Mill Stores of Blackburn. It was run by the Coates Manufacturing Company which was a consortium of Earby men led by Walter Wilkinson who used to be the manager of the Co-operative Stores at Earby. Some of the names associated with him were Jack Myers, Nelson Duckworth, Elisha Harrison, ? Waddington and others. Walter Wilkinson had three sons, one of whom, Granville Wilkinson, went to Whitefield and started there. The Coates Manufacturing Company may have bought the mill off Ridings when they built the extension on the canal bank. This would probably be when Johnny Pickles put the Hick Hargreaves engine in. According to Newton Pickles this was round about 1925 or 1926. They bought the engine second hand from a mill in Bolton that was closing down. It was a gear drive but Johnny decided he would convert it to rope drive. They cast segments to bolt to the rim over the gearing and turned the rope grooves in situ in its own pit. Newton said it was the truest running flywheel in Barlick.
There’s some confusion about when New Coates closed down as a weaving shed but there is mention of it standing idle until it was bought in 1931 by Dobson’s Dairies of Manchester. Newton Pickles, at 15 years old, got the job of getting the engine going again and told me a good story about this. When they went down to light the boiler it wouldn’t draw, the smoke just puthered back into the boiler house in their faces. He said they were as black as the fire back. At this point Johnny walked in and burst out laughing when he saw the mess they were in. “Eh Newton” he said, “Tha’ll hev to larn t’chimney to smook again!” The problem was that the chimney was cold and damp and had developed a back draught. They had to get into the chimney bottom and light a fire to start an updraught. Once they had done this they could light the boiler fire and the heat soon dried the flue out and they were away. The engine ran almost 24 hours a day all through the war and shortly after WWII Brown and Pickles installed a new boiler. It ran until the late 60’s I think as a dairy and then went back to weaving velvet for a time but not on the engine. Later it became Carr’s Printers but when they moved out into Calf Hall Shed it became Hopes, light engineers who changed the name to Hope Mill.
SCG/04 December 2000
DIRTY WORK ON BUTTS BECK.
I had a request this week for some information about the Coates mills. As I am all in favour of cutting down on the work, I decided to kill two birds with one stone and write it as an article for the View. That’s right, some serious history this week, there will be questions afterwards!
The first thing to make clear is that as far as the historian is concerned, there are two Coates Mills. There was the original mill, long since demolished which stood at the bottom of what is now Rolls Royce car park next to Crow Nest, we’ll call this Old Coates, and the new mill just above Coates canal bridge which is now Hope Engineering.
Another source of possible confusion as regards Old Coates mill is the fact that one of the partners in the early 19th century was William Bracewell, together with his brothers, Thomas and Christopher. I refer to these as the Bracewells of Coates. They were sons of William Bracewell of Coates the brother of Christopher Bracewell of Green End at Earby who was born at Coates but moved to Earby in 1813. Christopher of Green End had a son called William who became William Bracewell of Newfield Edge in Barlick and was nicknamed ‘Billycock’ (because he always wore a bowler hat and ‘billycock’ was a nickname for one of these) possibly to distinguish him from the other Bracewells, who were of course his cousins. Billycock started to build Butts in 1846 and New Mill, later called Wellhouse in 1854. He also owned the Corn Mill and Ouzeldale Mill and was in the process of building the new gas works next to the Corn Mill and had many other interests in Barlick and further afield when he died in 1885. A further possible confusion arises here because he had a son called Christopher George.
You might wonder why I am digressing into Billycock history; the reason is that knowledge of him is essential to following the Old Coates story. Bracewell of Newfield edge was a combative business man. His aim was as near total control; of the town as he could get. One of his main weapons was control of land and water supplies and I have much work to do on this subject before it will become completely clear. However, I have enough hard evidence now to make some reasonable assumptions about the areas where I have no firm evidence. Let’s concentrate on two instances of this effort to control water. First and least tangible at the moment is the fact that at some time after 1846 he bought Ouzledale Mill on Forty Steps which was, I think, a saw mill at the time. Logic says that Ouzeldale predates Mitchell’s Mill (Clough) because I find it impossible to believe that if Clough had been the first build, Mitchell wouldn’t have made sure that he controlled the Ouzledale resource. The fact that he didn’t suggests that it existed before he built his mill. Ouzledale dam was at a higher level than Butts Mill and I suspect that Billycock’s intention was to divert the water to enable expansion of Butts Mill which had a limited water resource and was short of water. This would of course have had an impact on Mitchell’s business.
For some reason he never pursued this possibility. I don’t know why, perhaps he couldn’t get enough land to expand at Butts, perhaps Mitchell put up opposition because I have no doubt that he would see the danger. Billycock concentrated his efforts on improving Calf Hall Beck by building Springs Dam below Dark Hill. I have recently found evidence that in 1871 he bought The Calf Hall and Damhead estates which control the headwaters of Butts Beck.
There is a possible clue also in the fact that Bancroft Mill couldn’t be built using Gillians Beck as a water resource until an alliance by marriage between the Nutter and Slater families early in the 20th century, Slater owned Clough at the time and crucially, he appears to have controlled the riparian rights back to what was effectively the source of Gillians Beck. There is further evidence that might support this, Gillians Mill, higher up on the beck, never used the main beck as its power resource when it was built in the mid 1780s, it used a small beck coming down behind Bancroft Farm. The inference from this is that Mitchell got the rights up to the source when he built his mill and Slater inherited them when he bought what was then Clough. One last piece of evidence about Gillians Beck is that when I was engineer at Bancroft I was always puzzled by the fact that there was a by-pass round the dam and provision to send all the water in the beck directly down to Clough. Sydney Nutter once told me that he thought this dated back to the building of the mill when there was an agreement with Slaters that in hot weather, if Clough was struggling for vacuum, Bancroft was obliged to send the cooler water above Bancroft dam direct to Clough instead of warming it in the lodge after use for condensing. This was a very pressing problem when there was a succession of steam mills on a watercourse. I have plenty of hard evidence for this in respect of other mills in the town. The bottom line is that there is enough evidence to suspect that Bracewell appears to have bought Ouzledale to put pressure on Mitchell.
The second instance of this use of water as a weapon against business rivals concerns the water resource at the Corn Mill which relates directly to the fate of Old Coates. The Corn Mill is probably the oldest established use of water power in Barnoldswick. The earliest reference I have so far is November 1640 when it changed hands. Therefore it certainly predated the water powered textile industry and almost certainly any use of water power for sawing wood. It is certainly the best water site in the town as it controls Butts Beck which is formed by the combination of Gillians and Calf Hall (or Springs) becks, the major resources in the town. It had a very large dam stretching all the way back to Dam Head on Gisburn Road, which is now a garage site, and a good flow.
Whatever the problems Billycock had with expansion at Butts, what is certain is that shortly after 1850 he made the decision to build New Mill, now known as Wellhouse. There is evidence that this decision puzzled many people in the town because the site he chose for the New Mill had no significant water resource. Many of the legends in the town about underground tunnels connected the ancient monastic site at Calf Hall with Gill Church date from this time. Nothing certain has surfaced yet about watercourses installed by Billycock originating at Butts but I have been told that they did exist. Personally I can’t understand why because he controlled the beck by ownership of the Corn Mill. However, what is certain, and I have hard evidence for this, is that he put a six inch cast iron pipe in from the Corn Mill dam to the New Mill. His intention all along had been to run the mill from Butts Beck water. This pipe was in place as late as July 1890 when the Calf Hall Shed Company approached the Barnoldswick Gas and Light Company to explore the using it to get water from them.
So, we have a situation where we know that Bracewell had the capability to divert water from the Butts Beck to what is now Wellhouse. We need to look at Old Coates now to see what Billycock did and what were its consequences.
Information about Old Coates is thin on the ground but grows gradually. There is absolutely no reason to suppose that there was a mill on the site before the water-powered textile era. So, until I get evidence to the contrary, I am assuming that it started as a water-powered twist mill shortly after 1785 when the Arkwright patents were overturned and the technology became widely available. I have evidence that there was water powered weaving in the mill around 1840. Johnny Pickles told his son Newton that there was a beam engine in there before it finished and the Historical Society has a photograph of it which shows a chimney so we know it became steam powered. William Atkinson in his History of Old Barlick says that illegal whisky was distilled in the ‘gas house’. This must mean that a gas plant had been installed for lighting the mill, an 1871 sale document confirms this. The 1892 OS map shows a round structure to the east of the mill next to the access road which could have been the gasholder.
I have no record of who built the mill but as the Bracewell Brothers were the local landowners in Coates it looks as though it might be them, crucially, before Billycock Bracewell moved into the town from Earby. At that time they had no problems with water, they were getting the full flow of the Butts Beck and were in as good a position as the Corn Mill. They ran the mill until 1860 and had looms in Clough Mill as well. In fact, in the 1851 census, Christopher and Thomas are recorded as living together at Clough House next to Clough mill and are noted as being in partnership with William, who lived at Coates, in an enterprise which employed 60 men, 44 women, 15 boys and 9 girls. In 1860 there is a record of William Bracewell’s bankruptcy and the other brothers abandoned all their interests in the town. There is a record in Slater’s Directory of 1871 of Christopher Bracewell and Brothers at Waterloo Mill, Clitheroe. The question is of course, what happened?
This is where I have to fly a kite because I haven’t got enough hard evidence yet. Remember that Billycock had put the pipe in to supply his New Mill from Corn Mill dam. This meant that he could divert a considerable quantity of water from the Butts Beck with a consequent reduction in flow to Old Coates. I don’t think this would have been a serious matter when the beck had a full flow but would certainly have had serious consequences in drought conditions. We know that by this time Billycock had a steam engine in the Corn Mill so there was no imperative for him to put water over his wheel which would obviously have fed Old Coates. In low flow conditions, as long as he had enough water in the dam to condense his engine and provide boiler feed, he could let all the rest go down to Wellhouse. I think this was enough to make Old Coates unviable. The circumstantial evidence that this was so is the fact that six years after the New Mill started, the Bracewell Brothers moved their interests out of the town. The Cotton Famine caused by the American Civil War was just starting then and this may also have been a factor but can’t have been the only reason, whatever the difficulty was, it must have started before the ‘Hard Times’.
It looks as though a man called James Nuttall bought the mill then. I think he had the idea that he could make the mill viable again by using the water from the Foul Syke, also known as Crow Nest Syke, in Eastwood Bottoms which brings the water down from below Wellhouse mill. This didn’t carry a lot of water but could have been augmented by the Bowker drain which had been put in by Bracewell to collect all the water from the North side of the canal plus any leakage from the canal. One thing is certain, in later years, after Bracewell died, it was regarded as free water. Later on, under the Calf Hall Shed Company, Wellhouse ran exclusively off this water. But had to pay the Roundell Estate for the privilege as the take off point for the water was in Eastwood Bottoms on land owned by the Roundell Estate at West Marton.
Whatever his intentions the next thing we hear is that in 1860 there is a case in the Chancery Court of the Duchy of Lancaster between Billycock Bracewell and James Nuttall over the rights to the water from the Bowker Drain and we have to surmise that Nuttall lost because the mill stayed empty and the local farmer, John Raw of Coates Farm, stored his hay in it. I think we can make another assumption here, that Billycock bought the mill once he had convinced Nuttall that he couldn’t run it, there is a sale notice dated 1871 that mentions the old mill. The reason I say this is that there is a mention in the diary of William Dugdale of Barlick that on the 20th August 1874 the boiler was removed from Old Coates Mill and taken to the Ingleton Coal Pits. The crucial thing about this is that in July of the same year, Billycock bought the Ingleton coal field. Billycock died in 1885 and Billy Brooks told me that he remembered the mill being demolished when he was about ten years old, this would make it about 1892.
The thing that fascinates me about this story is the picture of cut-throat competition it paints. There’s more, but I’ve run out of space this week, next week we’ll see what James Nuttall did next. Thanks for the feedback I’m getting, the number is 813527 if you’ve any information or requests.
SCG/04 December 2000
TALES FROM THE ENGINE HOUSE. 2
I’ve just finished writing the first Tales From the Engine House and I find that my mind is full of Ernie Roberts and I don’t want to stop so I’m going to crash straight into another.
Ernie had a hard life. He was reared in a two up two down back to back on John Street up Wapping and his father was an invalid. He’d been gassed very badly in the Great War, couldn’t work and only lived a few years after. I once asked Ernie what his religion was and he said Salvation Army and Pawnbrokers. He told me about one Christmas when they had nothing in the house to eat and the Sally Army turned up with a box of vegetables and an old hen for them. He said that you never forgot things like that.
As for the pawnbrokers or ‘Pop Shop’, this was George Wraws on Church street. For the benefit of the younger end, I’d better explain what a pawnbroker was. If you were hard up you could go to the pawnbrokers with something like a gold watch or your best suit, anything that had a resale value. You handed the article to ‘Uncle’ as many people called him and he would make you an offer of a loan against it which was known as a ‘pledge’. Say it was five shillings for a suit, that’s 25pence in today’s funny money. He would deduct 6d (2 ½ p) for his fee, give you the 4 shillings and sixpence and off you went to spend it. Next pay day you went and ‘redeemed your pledge’ by paying Uncle five shillings and off you went with your suit which you needed to go to church or chapel on Sunday. Monday morning you’d happen be down there again with the suit and so it went on.
If someone pledged an article and never redeemed it, after a certain period of time it became the property of Uncle and he could sell it as an ‘unredeemed pledge’. So Jimmy Wraws was a good place to go for second-hand goods of all descriptions. He also sold new working clothes. When I was a lad in Stockport all my school clothes came from a pop shop called Lekermans and like Jimmy Wraws it had a back door which could be used by people who didn’t want to advertise the fact that they were paying a visit to Uncle. Ernie had nothing but praise for the system because he said it was fair and it meant you could always get a few bob when you needed it. Have you ever heard the song ‘Pop Goes the Weasel’? Hatters used to use a tool called a weasel in their trade and popping the weasel means pawning your tools for booze or food at the end of the week.
The family had to be quite enterprising in getting free food. His brother had an old muzzle loading shotgun and used to go out and see what he could knock off for the pot. Ernie said they were sat in the house one night wondering what they could have to eat. The problem was that Fred had a charge of powder for the gun but no shot. Ernie thought for a bit and then went off into the town. He found a bike parked at the back of the Commercial so he whipped the front wheel out and pinched the ball bearings out of it. He went back home with them, Fred loaded the gun and went out. Twenty minutes later he came back with a rabbit and they all had a good tea!
Youngsters nowadays aren’t going to believe what I’m going to tell you now but I swear it’s true. I once asked Ernie what his favourite food was and he said roast starlings! He said they used to catch starlings under a net and then roast them on the back bar of the fire, he said you didn’t pluck them or anything, just cooked them and picked the flesh off them. He said they were ‘Reight sweet and juicy!’ Bit of a contrast to these days isn’t it, instead of going into the Co-op for two bags of monster munch you catch a few birds and roast them!
Another source of food was country walks, they used to collect whatever was in season, hips and haws, blackberries, bilberries, watercress and a particular favourite was earth nuts. I’ll bet a lot of you don’t know what these are. It was Ted Waite that showed me. Sometimes in a meadow you’ll see a small plant that’s just like a couple of very slim daffodil leaves sticking up. If you dig down there’s a bulb on the end and this is the earth nut. If you want to try this, find someone who knows what they are first or you might make a mistake and poison yourself!
If there were no berries in season there was another kind of fruit that made a useful addition to the diet, hen fruit! This is what some of used to call eggs. Ernie said that all the farmers kept their hen huts locked up because they knew these were hard times. When Ernie and Fred went for a walk they would take a baby with them that could crawl. They had it trained so that when they popped it through the bob hole into the hen hut it would rob the hens and pass the eggs out to them. I raised my eyebrows a bit at this but he swore it was true and I believe him. Another port of call was the railway goods yard. They used to slip over the fence and pinch a bucket of coal for the fire.
Ernie was a tackler all his life and the early part of his career coincided with the hard times in the 1930s and the run down of the industry after the war. He had his share of hard times and was ‘woven out’ four times. Weaving out is the process of closing a mill. The warps in the looms don’t all run out at once, some last longer than others. The way it worked was that the weavers just carried on until they had perhaps only a couple of warps left and these were moved into another weaver’s set. As your looms emptied you got your cards. Eventually all the warps had been consolidated in one tackler’s set and shortly after that there was only one loom running, when that warp finished the mill was closed. This was the process we went through at Bancroft in 1978 and I can tell you it’s a thoroughly depressing exercise. Ill talk more about that at a later date.
During the war Ernie was a signaller. He said he never fired a shot in anger. He was in Burma and saw some terrible things but when he talked about them he always leavened the tale with humour. He said they were all called out on parade one day and asked to volunteer for service with a special group in the jungle. His mate got quite fired up by the speech and when the time came to step forward he was definitely up for it. Ernie grabbed the scruff of his jacket, “Stay where you are, this bugger’s mad!” Was he ever right, the speaker was Orde Wingate and the unit was the Chindits! If you read your history you’ll find they marched off into the jungle and most of them were never seen again.
Another day him and his mate were cowering in a slit trench and they were under heavy fire. During a lull in the action has mate said “Ernie, what does blood smell like? Ernie said “I don’t know, why?” His mate said “If it smells like shit tha’rt wounded!” This was Ernie’s way of lightening the end of this story because, five minutes after he left the trench to deliver a message his mate was killed by a direct hit. A friend of mine once asked me why, when things get bad, I start telling jokes. It’s the same syndrome as Ernie, if you have to confront something that’s really bad, a joke can soften the blow.
Later in his army career Ernie got a bad dose of Black Water Fever. This is a nasty disease and stays with you for the rest of your life. It’s hard to imagine but as you walk round the streets in your daily life you can quite easily be passing someone on the street who is still suffering from the consequences of having fought in the war and it needn’t be something as simple as an arm shot off. As Ernie said, the worst thing about Black Water Fever was that you had what he graphically described as ‘Bootlace Diarrhoea’ for the rest of your life.
When he got it he was sent back to a casualty clearing station and one of the things he had to do was provide a sample for testing. He said there were two other blokes in the latrine tent on the same mission and when they saw his sample they asked what it was. Ernie said “This is what you call a Blighty Ticket! If you get this you go straight home.” Five minutes later they all came out of the tent, each carrying a sample provided by Ernie at 5/- a throw! They all came home on the boat together.
Ernie’s luck didn’t improve when Bancroft closed. He retired and shortly afterwards developed a brain tumour and died a horrible death, he wouldn’t even let us visit him he was in such a bad state. I still miss Ernie and I reckon that someone somewhere must have a funny sense of humour, if anyone deserved a long and enjoyable retirement it was Ernie but this was not to be.
You might think we have moved away from the engine house but this isn’t so. Ernie used to tell me these tales at dinnertime or if he had a spare few minutes he’d come in and have a smoke with me while I was running the engine. Frank Bleasdale, the winding master would come down as well and give me a haircut and weavers would come to tell me their troubles, usually because the shed was too warm or too cold! As I’ve already said, running the engine at Bancroft was the best job I ever had.
Let’s end with another of Ernie’s tales. A tackler moved into Barlick with his wife and after they’d got settled in he asked her one day how she liked Barlick. She said “Oh, it’s nice and the neighbours are really friendly!” “Is there anything you need, are we short of anything for the house?” he asked. She said “Well, I’ve noticed that everyone here has a lavatory brush hung on the toilet door. Can we have one?” “How much are they?” “”6d down at Elmers.” He said, “Thee go out and get one Love, I’m not having you going short of anything you want!” So she got one and a few weeks later they were sat having their tea and the tackler asked his wife how she was going on with the new brush. She told him it was a great improvement. He said, “Well, I’m glad tha thinks so but if you don’t mind Love I’m bahn to ‘ave to go back to t’paper, that brush is playing hell with me piles!”
Sorry about that! That’s it for this week. Don’t forget. If there’s anything you want to know about or any comments you want to make, you can always get me on 813527.
SCG/22 November 2000
TALES FROM THE ENGINE HOUSE.1.
We’ve dealt with some fairly solemn matters in the last few weeks so I thought it was time for a bit of light relief! If you remember, when we were walking up Gillians Lane I said I’d come back to Bancroft Mill at a later date and talk more about my time there as mill engineer. To tell you the truth, I could write an article a week for a year on Bancroft and still have plenty of material left over but this week I’ll just tell you some of the funny stories that happened there.
I suppose that when you mention the words ‘funny’ and ‘mill’ in the same sentence, anybody who knows anything about mills will expect tackler’s tales. Well, there are plenty of them and I’ll include a few but tacklers weren’t the only ones who raised a laugh, engineers could do it as well. Right, let’s see what we can come up with!
I’ll start with a story against myself. I’ve always said that you should never underestimate the capacity of the human race to do stupid things and I’m afraid that every now and again, I managed to prove my own theory. I was sat in the engine house minding my own business one day when the fire alarm went off. I used to test it once a week so I knew exactly what it was. What I should have done was sprung to my station, stopped the engine, informed the firebeater and got him to slow the fires in the boiler and then investigated. Text book stuff. What I actually did, and I still can’t believe it, is that I immediately assumed that someone had accidentally broken the glass on one of the alarms so I got a spare glass out of the drawer in the desk and the special key for opening the alarm casing, cancelled the alarm and strolled into the shed to replace the glass.
When I walked into the shed I noticed three things, Billy Two Rivers was stood next to the engine stop button with a hammer in his hand just about to break the glass and stop the engine, there was a faint haze of smoke and a smell of burning and Ernie, the clothlooker was dashing up the broad alley with a teapot in his hand!
Billy said to “Have I to break it Stanley?” I said “You’d better not, I haven’t any spare glasses for them!” He was obviously disappointed, he’d worked in the mill all his life and he’d always wanted to stop the engine. Moving faster now, I headed towards the source of the smoke and just got there in time to find out what Ernie was doing with the teapot. He was extinguishing a small piece of smouldering cotton dust on the floor under a loom! I know it sounds stupid but this was very effective, it got right to the seat of the trouble and put it out immediately. Evidently what had happened was that the rocking rail under the loom was touching the floor and it had caused a spark which had fired the dust.
I found the broken alarm, replaced the glass, went back to the engine house and then reflected on how stupid we had all been. Perhaps a bit of explanation is needed. The dust or down that floats round in a weaving shed and settles on everything is finely divided cotton and is very dangerous. Apart from the fact that breathing it in can cause Byssinosis, a deadly lung complaint, it is so flammable as to be nearly explosive. I’ve heard the old weavers say that in the days when the sheds were lit by gas, the flame of the taper on the end of a pole which was used to light the gas often set fire to the down up in the roof and it used to burn right across the shed just like a sheet of lightning but moved that fast that it didn’t fire anything. How we had avoided the fire spreading and getting hold I don’t know. The other thing was that as soon as the weavers heard the alarm they should have stopped their looms and walked out of the mill, nobody left their post. They just carried on weaving as though nothing had ever happened. If the Factory Inspector could have seen the way we reacted to the fire he would have had a fit and to this day I can’t tell you why I didn’t stop the engine.
The tacklers were a constant source of jokes and funny stories. Part of my job was to keep my eye on what was going on in the mill, keeping my eye on bearings and steam traps and trying to forecast when the tapers would boil up next because we had to allow for this by firing the boiler harder. One of my ports of call was always the tacklers cabins, they lived here when there was nothing for them to do. There were two cabins in the warehouse and I have to admit I spent most of my time in the big one with Ernie Roberts, Roy Wellock and Fred Inman. However I usually popped my head in the other and just wished them good morning. I did this one day just before the summer holidays and Stephen Clark and Albert Gornall were sat having a cup of tea. Albert asked me if I’d look after his tomatoes during the holidays. He had some tomato plants in grow bags on the widow cill and he knew that I’d be there during the holidays because that was when we did all our maintenance on the boiler and engine. Of course I said yes.
Came the holidays and I popped in each day to water the tomatoes and half way through the second week I realised that they were looking a bit ropey so I got hold of my mate Ted Lawson and brought him over to have a look at them. He just took one glance and said “You can forget them, they’ve got Blossom End Rot!” I said “Oh my God! Albert’ll kill me, he’s father and mother to these buggers! What can I do?” Ted said “Nowt, just leave ‘em alone and you might as well stop watering ‘em, you’re doing no good at all here”.
Came the Monday when we started work I kept away from Albert’s cabin as long as I could but in the end I had to go in and face the music. It was a painful interview! To put it mildly, Albert wasn’t impressed, as far as he was concerned I was personally responsible for the death of all six of his children and I don’t think he spoke to me for six months after that. I can’t think why but everyone was asking me for tips on the cultivation of tomatoes!
My favourite tackler and a good mate was Ernie Roberts, I’ve no doubt that you’ll hear more about him in the months to come but this week I’ll tell you a story he told me. Before I start I have to apologise to my more refined readers, in order to tell this tale I have to mention dog muck several times. The story concerns a new landlord who took over at the Cross Keys many years ago. On his first day he got all ready and opened the doors at 11am for the dinnertime trade. There was one bloke waiting on the doorstep and he came straight up to the bar and ordered a pint of bitter. As the landlord was pulling the pint the bloke says, “Wheer’s t’snuff? The landlord said “You what?” He said, “Weer’s t’snuff? Landlord says “What snuff?” Customer says, “There’s allus some snuff on the counter for’t customers!” Landlord says “Eh, I’m sorry, I didn’t know that! I’ll mek certain we have some toneet when you come in”.
So, come three o’clock the landlord sets off into the town to get some snuff but it were early closing day and all the shops were shut. As he walked home in pensive mood he happened to step on some dog muck which crumbled under his boot. (Now at this point I should explain to my younger readers that in the days when dogs were fed proper food instead of marrowbone jelly their muck was hard.) Anyway, the landlord looks at this dog muck and he thought, “Bloody hell, it looks just like snuff!” So he swept it up onto a piece of paper he had about him, took it home and ground it up fine before putting it in a saucer on the bar.
At half past five the landlord opened for early doors and the same bloke was stood on the doorstep. In he comes, straight up to the bar, orders a pint of mild and says “Eh, I see you got some snuff!” and takes a big pinch and sniffed it up each nostril. The landlord watched him, fascinated. The bloke sneezed, blew his nose and said “By hell, that’s some good stuff, it’s cleared me head. There’s a strong smell of dog muck and I couldn’t smell it afore!”
Oh dear, I wonder if anyone else thinks that’s as funny as me and Ernie did! Sorry about that but it does make me laugh. Ernie was a lovely bloke and wouldn’t harm a fly. One day I asked him to empty his pockets out on the table, tacklers carried most of their tools about their person. There was a piece of string, a knife, some spanners, a steel rule that was used for tea stirring, back scratching and tucking the cloth in on the front roller when you were gaiting a loom but never for measuring, all sorts of small tools and right in the middle was a Fox’s Glacier mint.
I asked him what the mint was for. He said that if a weaver was a bit depressed for any reason he always gave them a mint to cheer ‘em up. Ernie reckoned that the odd Glacier mint passed out during the day did wonders for production. He was never afraid to tell stories against himself or his calling, he told me once that tacklers were ‘weavers wi’ their brains taken out’.
I don’t know why there was this legend about tacklers being stupid. It was a highly skilled job and an experienced tackler made all the difference to a set of weavers. It paid him to look after them because each tackler had a set of looms and he was paid a bonus on top of his basic wage which depended on the production from his set, the more cloth, the more his wage was.
One more tale from Ernie, triggered off by the glacier mint he carried for the weavers. He said that he knew some blokes in Colne who were tarmac layers. They’d do your drive for you for a reasonable sum and if you wanted a really special job you paid extra to have small lumps of white quartz embedded in a pattern down the sides. These blokes did a drive in Barlick and a few days later the householder rang them up to say that he was having a bit of trouble, every dog in the district was coming up his drive and licking the lumps of quartz set in the sides. He wanted to know what he could do. “Nowt”. Said the tarmac man, “They’ll give up in a day or two”. They did and all when they’d finished licking out the glacier mints that had been used to make up the number when they ran out of quartz lumps!
SCG/20 November 2000
Tuesday, January 22, 2002
ONE MAN’S VIEW.
LETTER FROM AMERICA
The editor is a nice man but once you’ve promised him you will do a piece every week for him he gets a little short fused if you let him down. It’s late May and I’m still in Northfield Minnesota and even though I could do a long range home-based piece I thought another letter from America might keep me out of trouble. It’s the first day of Memorial Day weekend in America. Memorial Day itself falls on the last Monday in May and commemorates the American war dead. Unlike Remembrance Day it is a public holiday and to my mind this takes the focus off the commemorative aspect of the weekend because most people just treat it as a holiday. There are of course official celebrations but these tend to get lost in Memorial Weekend sales at the shops and everyone who can getting away for a long weekend. I listen a lot to a Twin Cities radio station that plays nothing but 50’s and 60’s hits. They mark this weekend by playing their top 500 tunes and there hasn’t been a mention of the real purpose of the weekend.
Minneapolis radio was where Garrison Keelor started his career as a broadcaster. Many of us in Britain are familiar with his ‘Lake Woebegon’ stories, which are regularly broadcast by the BBC. His regular programme in Minneapolis is called ‘Prairie Home Companion’ and the advertisement for it is a picture of 4th Street in Northfield. Lake Woebegon is fictional but there is little doubt that Northfield is part of his compilation. This is reinforced by some local intelligence; a lady I know called Grace who is a contemporary of Keelor’s tells me he used to date some of the girls at the local college so there’s definitely a connection. Judy Garland, Terry Gilliam of Monty Python fame and Bob Dylan are also natives of Minnesota.
We had an event yesterday in the house where I am staying which, as far as I am aware, is totally unknown in England. The lady of the house had a ‘shower’ for the daughter of a friend of hers who is shortly to be married. Showers are also held for mothers-to-be. What happens is that a party is declared for ladies only and every guest brings a present. The event usually involves a nicely prepared meal and is also an occasion to show the best china and most delicate catering off to your friends. The men are relegated to the kitchen and do all the serving and washing up.
Another typically American event is the ‘garage sale’. I’ve seen a similar thing in Australia but again, as far as I know they just don’t happen in England. What happens is that a family gets together all the items it wants to get rid of and lays them all out in the garage and, if it’s fine, on the drive outside. At weekend, it’s quite common for prospective buyers to set off in the car and cruise the streets looking for garage sales. Some quite remarkable bargains are to be found particularly if the neighbourhood is a wealthy one. I know a lady in Northfield who goes round the garage sales buying children’s clothing that she washes and repairs where necessary and then sells in her shop in the town. To give you an idea of the savings, I outfitted three of my grandchildren in Australia for a skiing trip last year at her shop and it just cost £60 for everything including the boots! Another good idea is a shop called the ‘Clothes Rack’. It is run by volunteers and takes in second-hand clothes that it sells on to the public cheaply. All the profits go to charitable causes and once a month they have what they call a ‘brown bag’ sale. You are given a paper grocery sack that is about the size of a large shopping bag and you can have as many clothes as you can get into it for £3.50. This is a godsend to the lower income families in the town and also raises money for worthy causes. Another similar thing that I like is the fact that there is only one off-licence allowed in the town; this is run by the municipality, the body that gives out the liquor licences. The profits go back into municipal funds and this makes a lot of sense to me. I suppose there is some law in England that stops the council from trading.
There has been a lot of discussion at home of late on the subject of prices and competition. If the American price levels are anything to go by, we are getting ripped off. Normal prices for clothing are about a third less than similar prices in England but if you shop around there are plenty of places selling at ‘factory prices’ or selling end of stock items where much greater savings can be made. I saw a branded jacket on sale today in a store for £60 that I know would cost £220 in England. My advice is that if you have a house fire and the insurance pays out for all of your new wardrobe, book a holiday over here and do your shopping. You’ll save money on the deal even if you include the hotel bills and the fare! Another thing I have noticed is that all stores, without exception, run a money-back return scheme. If you change your mind about something you have bought, you simply take it back with the receipt and your money is refunded without any questions at all.
American food and people’s attitude towards it is a different matter. The biggest single problem connected with food in this country is the number of people who are clinically obese. Much research has been done on this and it would seem that the biggest single cause is dieting which upsets the body’s ability to regulate its own weight. A secondary, but important cause surprisingly is that people aren’t eating enough saturated fat! The theory is that a modest amount of old fashioned beef, pork or mutton fat satisfies hunger far better and people find it easier to eat less. I have to add to this that attitudes towards serving sizes might have something to do with it. I was in a restaurant the other day and the waitress apologised for the fact that the 16 and 32-ounce steaks were off the menu. I told her not to worry, the 8-ounce sirloin would do me fine. I’m not saying that a hungry man, after a hard days work, shouldn’t be allowed to eat a two-pound steak. What I am saying is that it’s a bad thing to eat this quantity as a habit and I’m afraid that for some people, this is what it has become.
Having criticised people’s attitudes to food, I have to say that on the whole, the quality of food is very high. Meat is always good, and yes, I know that some of it has been treated with growth hormones, but the fact remains that they grow it to a good age and feed it well. The result is steak with taste and some of the best pork tenderloin you have ever had. Funny thing is that all the eggs seem to be white; I haven’t seen a brown one yet. The big mystery as far as I am concerned is the fact that to the best of my knowledge, there is no such thing as a good American cheese. I was talking to the man on the cheese counter in Byerley’s, one of the better-class supermarkets and he agreed with me. He said that they hadn’t a cheese to match Stilton and Roquefort. I told him about the wonders of Cheddar and Granny Singleton’s tasty Lancashire and he promised to look into them. Funnily enough, the single most important influence on cheese purchasing in America recently has been Wallace and Grommit! They tell me that sales of Wensleydale have doubled since the deadly duo hit the screens over here.
I have another big problem over here with food and I’d better come clean about it now. I hate Coca Cola! I also hate their marketing attitude. If you ask Coca Cola what their share of the world’s drinks market is they will tell you about 2 ½ %. By this they mean that this is the share of the total drinks market including water! Their aim is to have everyone in the world drink Coke and nothing else. Company policy is that everyone should always be within an arms-length of a can of Coke. My daughter was walking in the high hills of Northern India a few years ago and as she slogged up a mountain pass she saw something in the distance but couldn’t make out what it was. When she got close enough she realised with horror that it was a kiosk selling Coke at the summit! I have similar feelings about MacDonald’s. My son-in-laws father used to work for a bakery in Australia that made burger buns for both MacDonald’s and Wimpey’s. He said that the MacDonald’s buns had twice the amount of sugar in that Wimpey’s did. This was to make them more attractive to children. I can understand the need for marketing but surely our kids deserve better than being exploited and manipulated like this.
Right, I think that’s enough whinging and criticism for one week! I shall be home in less than a fortnight, which is good; I’m missing the Weets and Barlick something shocking. Travel is good stuff but there’s nothing beats being in your own neck of the woods. The bad news as far as you lot are concerned is that I have to go into Germany and Belgium for ten days to have another forced holiday. I have no doubt you’ll get a letter from there and the Editor will start worrying whether he has a foreign correspondent doing One Man’s View! One of the things I will be doing is going to have a look at Ypres and the battlefields. My maternal granddad was killed there and my father was gassed and bayoneted in the neck while fighting with the Anzacs. I don’t doubt I shall get emotional about it but you’ll just have to put up with that. This reminds me that I have just read a book by a man who was ground crew with the 100th Bomber Group in Norfolk during the war. He tells the story of seeing the B17’s going out on bombing missions and never coming back. It reminds me of the fact that not everyone is as enthusiastic about America as I am. That’s allowed, but don’t let us ever forget that when the chips were down 60 years ago, a lot of brave young men gave their lives to help us win the war. I like this country, I like the people and I hope that these two Letters from America have helped you to understand a bit more about the place. See you in Germany! Love to all from Northfield.
SCG/Monday, 29 May 2000
Musing away merrily at my desk, my mind started to wander around the imminent pet’s hell which we call Bonfire Night and Remembrance Day the week after and I was reminded of a reference to explosives I came across while researching Barlick. Also on my mind was a request I had last week from a bloke called Raoul Saesen who is a schoolteacher and battlefield guide in Ieper in Flanders who asked me to give him a short history of World War One explosives. It all seemed pretty topical at this time of year so this week we have a look at explosive matters.
The Barlick reference came in April 1890 when the Calf Hall Shed Company were in the process of buying Bracewell’s Wellhouse Mill for £8,000 off the Craven Bank who were evidently the owners because they had taken it in lieu of cash for debts owed to them by Billycock when he died in 1887. For some reason, and I haven’t bottomed this one yet, the Craven Bank had imposed conditions on the sale which meant that the bank scrapped the old engines and the Shed Company installed a new engine large enough to drive the mill and any subsequent extensions. I suspect that this may have been because the bank were financing the sale to the Shed Company and wanted to make sure that if they had to repossess, they would have a large mill with a modern power plant.
£8,000 plus approximately £3,000 further in new plant and repairs was a lot of money in those days. An average weekly wage for a skilled labourer would be about £1, relate that to about £300 for the same hours today and you get a figure of somewhere between two and three million pounds! So you can understand the Shed Company Director’s consternation when they found out that George Rushworth, the Colne scrap merchant who was taking the engines out of the mill, was using dynamite to break up the castings! The Shed Company immediately fired off a letter to George Robinson, manager of the Craven Bank at Skipton, to ask him whether he was aware of this circumstance and whether the bank would pay for any damage caused by this dangerous practice. History so far hasn’t divulged what transpired but as there is no further mention of the matter I assume that George was reined in and no further damage was caused.
I wasn’t surprised by the use of explosives, black powder had been used for years in the quarries to fracture large faces, what did surprise me was the use of the trade name ‘Dynamite’ so I had to do a bit of research. I already knew a bit about explosives from my army career but when I started digging into the subject I found some fascinating stories.
Here’s where we get our link with Guy Fawkes and Bonfire Night. We think that black powder was first discovered by the Chinese in the 9th century. They discovered that a mixture of ground charcoal, sulphur and the white crystals that gathered on the walls near well-rotted manure (saltpetre or potassium nitrate) made an explosive mixture and the first use for it was in fireworks for ceremonial occasions. They soon found that the shock value was useful in battle as large explosions caused panic in troops who had never seen them before and assumed they were fire devils on their opponent’s side. As this effect wore off when the knowledge spread, the Chinese started to experiment with hollow bamboo tubes loaded with stones and arrows, the first recorded guns. The Arabs got into the technology towards the end of the 12th century and it is generally reckoned that when the English scholar Roger Bacon gave explicit instructions for making gunpowder in 1242 he did so because, being a scholar of the Arabic language he had picked up the formula during his researches. By 1314 there is a firm record of a shipment of iron guns from Ghent to England and the arms trade was born.
Black powder was the universal explosive for the next 500 years but in the early 19th century, the modern science of chemistry threw up some interesting and extremely dangerous new compounds. In 1845 a man called Christian Friedrich Schonbein spilt some nitric and sulphuric acid and wiped it up with his apron. He hung it to dry by the stove and was surprised when, shortly afterwards, it exploded! The combination of the acids with the cellulose in the cotton apron had produced nitro-cellulose, the basis of guncotton or cordite as it later became known. Other chemists were working on the same lines and in 1847 an Italian chemist called Ascani Sobrero formulated nitro glycerine which was so unstable it exploded if a drop hit the floor!
Many chemists worked on nitro glycerine and a depressing number were killed as their experiments exploded. One such unfortunate was Emil Oskar Nobel, brother of Alfred Nobel, who died when the family’s nitro factory blew up in. Alfred redoubled his efforts and by 1865 had made the process reasonably safe, he invented the blasting cap in 1866 and in 1867 patented a solid explosive made by absorbing nitro glycerine into a special clay called kieslguhr and named it Dynamite.
So, I had solved my problem, George Rushworth could have been using dynamite in 1890, and the name was evidently well known.
Raoul’s question to me was whether dynamite was used in warfare in World War One and the answer was no. The main reason, apart from cost, was the fact that dynamite was very difficult to store. If it got too hot it started weeping nitro with obvious dangers, too cold (below 11 degrees C) and it froze and gave unpredictable results and on top of this it attracted water which damaged it further. One of the reasons why gunpowder had been so popular was the fact that if you kept it dry, say in a small keg or barrel, it had a virtually unlimited shelf life and normal ranges of temperature didn’t affect it.
By 1914 other explosives had been developed which were cheaper, more stable and could be modified to give different burning speeds. This is very important because you need different characteristics for different jobs. If you want to propel a bullet or shell out of a gun barrel you need a very progressive rate of burn to push the projectile rather than blast it out. At the other end of the scale, a torpedo needs the most powerful and highest speed explosive you can find. Another quality that was needed was castability, if you were filling a shell or a bomb it was an advantage if you could melt the explosive and pour it into the cavity of the shell. This is the reason why the standard method of extracting the explosive from a dud bomb or shell is to steam it out, a technique commonly used by bomb disposal squads.
Picric acid was a very common explosive used for shell filling but had the distressing side effect that anyone in contact with the fumes from it gradually acquired a yellow tint to their skin. The girls who worked on shell-filling at Woolwich Arsenal were nicknamed ‘The Canaries’ because of this.
In my wagon driving days I used to have regular run taking barites, which is powdered, calcined marble, from the Arran Barites Company in Glasgow down to Cooke’s Explosives at Penryndydreuth in Wales. It was used as an inert filler in the manufacture of gelignite. Cooke’s always interested me, they used to take the battery off the wagon and you were towed around the place by a little propane fuelled tractor that was specially constructed to be flame proof. If you had hobnails in your boots you weren’t allowed through the gate. I was sat in the only place you could smoke in the factory one day, a glass box with a naked gas flame, in the middle of the canteen watching a sign writer working on a big sign behind the counter. I noticed that it celebrated the safety record of the works and the bloke was drawing a red line under the entries. I asked him what he was doing and he said they had had an accident. He took me to the window and pointed to a large crater in the field next to the works. This had been a hut where three ladies did some operation on the product. I don’t know what went wrong but there had been an explosion and they were all killed. I was a bit more wary about that place afterwards!
Right, you’ve got the history, now you can go out on Bonfire Night and let your squib off knowing some of the background. Funnily enough, the vast majority of fireworks sold in this country now are Chinese! They should be good, they’ve been making them for over a thousand years! But be careful, think about explosives in war which are used to kill and maim, the fireworks you are letting off in your back yard are equally destructive and dangerous if used in the wrong way. I’ll tell you a little Barlick story that I’ve told you before, but in this context it’s worth repeating. 70 years ago a little lad called Jack Platt was walking down Salterforth Drag. As he walked he was playing about with a small piece of copper pipe he had found in the quarry. He had worked out it was just the right size for slipping over the end of his pencil when it had worn down too far to be easily held. All he had to do was pick out the filling with a piece of wire he just happened to have about him. Half way down the hill he got into the filling with the wire and the innocent piece of pipe exploded and blew off the side of his hand. His ‘copper pipe’ was a detonator and he carried the scars for the rest of his life.
Think about Jack when you are on with your fireworks, don’t do anything stupid and never go back to one that hasn’t gone off, a ‘hang fire’, as we used to call them in the army, is the most dangerous thing there is. Leave it well alone and keep everybody away from it, the chances are it will go off by itself if you leave it alone.
Having given this advice I want to confess that in my time I’ve done some pretty stupid things with explosives. I think it must run in the family, my dad had an operation late in life for a traumatic cataract caused by an explosion in his youth in Australia. He wanted to find out what happened if you put a small piece of dynamite on an anvil and hit it with a hammer! He found out all right, it blew the hammer right through the roof of the smithy and he was blinded for a fortnight. In the army, familiarity bred contempt and we used to use 808 which is a plastic explosive, as a firelighter in our stoves. A knob of 808 and a shovelful of coal will give you a hot stove faster than anything else I know! Another trick we perfected….. on second thoughts, I’d better not tell you that one, it might give some of you ideas!
Have a good, safe time with your fireworks, think of the history of them and think also of the men who died in the wars because we got so good at using explosives. If you’ve got a dog or a cat, even if they don’t show signs of distress, give plenty of TLC and cuddles when fireworks are going off. Their ears are far more sensitive than ours and they go through hell at this time of the year. Stroking them is good for your heart rate as well so do each other some good.
SCG/30 October 2000