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Saturday, February 09, 2002
BANCROFT SHED (8)
Right, this is where the steam engine freaks get their thrills! This week we’ll have a look in the engine house. If anyone thinks this is going to be the idiot’s guide to running steam engines, forget it. It’s no exaggeration to say that I could write several volumes on steam engines and who knows, I might get round to it one of these days. For today, we’ll look at what it was like working in there.
There’s no doubt in my mind that tenting a big steam engine is the best job God ever invented. You were warm and dry, you had control of everything in your domain and everyone looked up to you because they knew that you were absolutely indispensable. This was always true to some extent but by the time I was running Bancroft it was even more so because the craft of running engines had died, there was nobody left. There was only one other bloke in the town who could be trusted with it and that was the man who taught me everything I knew, Newton Pickles. There was another factor, as Jim told me when I had been running the engine for a short time. I was a popular bloke because I’d put all the weaver’s wages up by thirty shillings a week because the engine was running so well.
Another thing that suited me was the contrast with my previous life as a long-distance driver. I could walk down through the fields every morning and be in my place of work in ten minutes and I knew what time I’d get home at night! After all those years on the tramp it was a delight, like permanent holidays.
I always made sure I got to work in good time, especially in winter. Actually, my day used to start at the time I knew my firebeater was due to start to get the shed warmed up. If I got up and stood on the lavatory seat at Hey Farm I could see the light in the boiler house. If that was on, I knew all was well and went back to bed. If it wasn’t, I’d get dressed and get over there because anyone can slip up and oversleep, especially when working hours as long as those in winter.
Assuming all had gone well, I’d get into the engine house at seven, ready for an eight o’clock start. The warmer had been on all night, this was a small by-pass valve that let a trickle of steam into the engine and kept the cylinders and the beds warm. This was essential for a safe start but also meant that the whole of the engine house was warm and welcoming. There is nothing to compare with the smell of a warm engine house first thing of a morning. It’s a mixture of oil, leather and warm metal and you could almost smell if anything was amiss as soon as you opened the door.
The first job was to open the warmer a crack more and put the kettle on. While that was boiling, off into the mill and check round for break-ins, leaks, anything that might have happened during the night. Then back to the engine house, brew up, have a word with the firebeater and have a look round the engine.
People often comment about how clean well-run steam engines were kept. There was a very good reason for this but not many people realise what it is. Apart from the fact that it makes life a lot more pleasant if everything is clean and tidy, wiping a piece of machinery over with a handful of oily waste is the best way of inspecting it. A word here for the young ones about waste. Manufacturing cotton cloth produces waste yarn and a handful of this is the best thing for soaking oil up and wiping down. Funnily enough, it’s no good for polishing as there is a certain amount of natural oil in it and you can’t get a good shine on brass with it. You can use it for putting the polish on but you need a freshly laundered piece of cotton cloth for getting the best shine. A tip here for you housewives who still polish the brasses. Get some light oil, like WD40 or sewing machine oil, put a minute amount on a clean rag and when you’ve finished polishing, wipe the article over with the oily rag. You’ll only have to polish once or twice a year!
The next job was to make sure all the oil tins were full. I used to have a can of oil next to all the lubricators I had to attend to during the day. If you need oil, you sometimes need it quickly so it’s far better if you have it to hand. Actually I very seldom had to fill any of them because Newton always taught me to fill all the tins and lubricators the night before. If you overslept and were late in to work you could have the engine running in five minutes if you’d done your homework. A good firebeater would have opened the warmer for you anyway. There was usually an odd job that needed doing and some oiling to do on the linkages in the cellar. Not all bearings had drip feed lubricators on, some only got oiled twice a day, once in a morning and once at dinnertime.
It was always a good idea to go out and have look at the mill lodge. I have known kids to open the clough during the night and let all the water out. On the other hand, if it was raining very hard it was a good plan to crack the clough open a bit and let some water out at the bottom as well as what was going over the cill. This got rid of a lot of sediment and helped to keep the lodge clean. Another little job was to unlock all the doors and I also used to run the tea urn and make sure it was boiling in case any of the weavers wanted an early morning cuppa.
By about twenty to eight everything was ready and the firebeater had opened his fires up and was building up to a start. It took about quarter of an hour for the boiler to respond to a change in firing rate and his target was to hit about 150 pounds pressure at exactly eight o’clock with full fires and hoppers. Mills like Victoria at Earby that were very heavily loaded had to start with all the boilers blowing off. Walt Fisher’s father, Stanley, who ran Moss Shed was so heavily loaded that even with all his boilers blowing off he couldn’t get the engine up to speed until breakfast-time. At Bancroft, we only had about 600 looms running and so we never had any trouble like that. Mind you, in winter we started with the shed lights on and this loaded another 150 horse power onto the engine so you knew you were driving something.
At ten to eight I went round and turned all the lubricators on, a last check on the governor and regulator to make sure they were set right for the load and then, at two minutes to the hour, open the stop valve and quietly start up. There was no need to bang all the steam on, this was very dangerous and wasn’t needed because the weavers wouldn’t start knocking looms on until you had got up to speed. At eight o’clock you were on speed and watching the regulator as the looms came on. Sometimes the governor needed a bit of help to cope but by five past the hour you were settled into the collar and could walk round and check the oils again.
In a well run engine house, this was the time for a walk round the shed to say good morning to your friends and do a quick check on the shafting and other little matters. Have a look at the tapers, say good morning to Jim Pollard the weaving manager and then a look down in the boiler house and a crack with the firebeater. All being well, another brew and sit back and congratulate yourself on having the best job in the mill.
Basically, all you had to do for the rest of the day was keep going round the oils every ten minutes or so and do any odd jobs around the engine house that needed attention. It was a condition of the insurance that the engine tenter was always in the house while the engine was running. In practice you could afford a five minute walkabout with no problems but it was a brave or foolish man who left the engine for any longer than this, it was asking for trouble.
I had a comfortable armchair in the corner of the house and have been known to fall asleep while the engine was running. Funny thing was that if anything went even slightly amiss you woke up immediately. I used to have regular visitors and one was John Wilfred Pickard. He always took my pulse when he came in and I once asked him why he did it. He said that he checked mine and then his own. He reckoned that mine was always running at the same speed as the engine, 68 revs a minute and that his settled down to the same beat after he had been sat with me for about ten minutes. He said the engine was very good for you in this respect! I checked it myself after he told me and he was right. He gave me his old stethoscope to use on the engine and it was very useful, you could hear the rings clicking in the grooves at each end of the stroke. I still have it in the house now, a fond memory of an interesting bloke.
Of course there were times when things went wrong. That’s a subject for another day, however, the great thing that was in your favour when this happened was that one phone call to Brown and Pickles brought an instant response in the shape of Newton. He would drop everything to come to an engine and I don’t think he ever charged us. If I wanted some time off I just called Newton and he would come up and run for me for a day or half a day. Again, no charge, he enjoyed doing it so much. As far as the management was concerned, it was a private arrangement between me and Newton but he never took any money off me.
If you’re sat there thinking I’ve painted an over-rosy picture of life in the engine house, you’re wrong. This was exactly how it was. As I said at the beginning of this piece, it was the best job God ever made. It was certainly the best job I ever had and I have very fond memories of Bancroft. How many people think like that about their place of work today? As I’ve said before, when the mills closed we didn’t just lose employment, we lost a way of life. Today’s youngsters have many advantages but they are certainly the losers as far as work is concerned. I know it was hard at times but on the whole, Bancroft was the happiest working place I have ever been in in my life and I’m not ashamed to say that I miss it.
Thanks again for listening to me. Usual number and email address for any comments, 813527 and email@example.com
SCG/Wednesday, 11 April 2001
BANCROFT SHED (7)
I promised last week that we’d finish the boiler house this week by looking at the maintenance we had to do during the holidays. As I was saying, steam boilers are terribly dangerous things unless they are maintained meticulously throughout the year. In the early days of the industry there was no regulation and boilers exploded with monotonous regularity. Things reached the stage where in 1854, Mr William Fairbairn of Manchester (later to become Sir William), the inventor in 1844 of the two-flued or Lancashire boiler, attended a meeting chaired by the Mayor of Manchester to discuss what could be done to render steam boilers more safe. As a result of this meeting, The Association for the Prevention of Steam Boiler Explosions was formed. In 1859 the Steam Boiler Assurance Company was formed to inspect and insure steam boilers and engines. This later became the Vulcan Insurance Company and was the first of many such companies in the field.
There was never any government regulation of these matters. It was left to the insurance companies. The individual manufacturer was liable in law for any injury or damage caused by operating a boiler or steam engine and was required to have an inspection carried out at least every 14 months by a ‘competent person’. In effect, this meant taking insurance out with a recognised insurer and submitting to their inspection on an annual basis. This was how Bancroft operated in common with every other steam boiler user in Barlick.
You will remember that last week I was saying that there was no formal qualification for running a land-based boiler or engine but that marine practice was quite different. Marine engineers were certificated by the old Board of Trade and these men, when they retired from the sea, could find ready employment with the insurance companies as boiler surveyors. This meant that when you had an inspection you were dealing with practical and competent men who knew all there was to know about boilers. Once you gained their confidence and they got to know your boiler they didn’t stick slavishly to the rules but used their judgement and it was a very good arrangement.
The boiler inspector was within his rights to demand a complete strip-down of the boiler and all its fittings each year but they never did this as they knew it would be uneconomical and actually did more harm than good. My inspector would consult with me and we would decide between us what was sensible and he trusted my judgement as much as I trusted him. In fact, on one occasion I suspected a problem with part of the boiler he hadn’t even considered. We stripped the offending part off, a piece called the ‘swan neck’ and found that I was right, the bolts were corroded and needed replacement. This was the way the system worked and it was efficient.
In practical terms, what this meant was that when the mill shut down for the summer holidays, the firebeater and I had to set to work. On the day we stopped, we blew the steam off the boiler and emptied all the water out as soon as the weavers had left. I’m sure a lot of you can remember the noise of Bancroft blowing off on the Friday afternoon when the holidays started. One lady told me her cat always left home that day and didn’t return for a couple of days!
Once the steam and water were away we opened up all the flues to let cold air roar through the flues and up the chimney. This was to get the boiler and the brickwork cooled down as much as possible for the fluers to come in on the Saturday morning. These were the men who went into the hot flues and cleaned out all the ash that the draught had carried over while the boiler was running. We always used ‘Weldone’ from Brierfield, Charlie Sutton and his men. They used to arrive at about nine in the morning and by one o’clock you could have eaten your dinner off the flue bottoms. After lunch they went into the boiler itself and cleaned off any scale that had accumulated. This was where attention to water treatment paid off. If the engineer had done his job properly there was very little scale and what there was was soft and easily removed.
On the Monday the boiler surveyor arrived to do his inspection. By the time he got there the firebeater and myself had stripped down whatever we had decided needed closer inspection, one year it might be the feed valves, the next the safety valve, whatever we had decided between us. The surveyor went into the boiler and the flues and did a hammer test of the rivets. This was rather like the old-fashioned wheel tapper on the railway. He used to tap each wheel with a long handled hammer and could tell by the sound it made whether it was cracked or not. The boiler surveyor did the same with the rivets, he could tell from experience if there was any problem.
If he found any problems or anything that we agreed needed attention I rang my boiler repairers. I always used Rochdale Electric Welding because their holidays were different than ours and we didn’t have to pay holiday rates of pay. For the same reason I used a bricky from Gisburn if any of the brickwork needed repairing. The boiler makers would turn up as soon as they could and usually by the end of the first week of the holidays we were ready to start putting everything together again. The surveyor might come to see what we were doing but usually he left it until the first Monday we were running after the holidays when we would fire the boiler hard until the safety valve lifted. This was called the ‘Steaming Test’ and was the last phase of the inspection.
You’ll notice that I haven’t said anything about inspecting the engine. This was because we never did it. The surveyor trusted me and never asked for anything to be stripped down. He simply listened to it running and called in at odd times during the year as he was passing. I suppose he made his judgements based on these visits, if he had any qualms at all he could take them up on the next annual inspection but as I say, we never did anything at Bancroft.
The system I have described was very good and remarkably cheap in those days, both in terms of the fee the insurance company charged and the cost of the repairs that were needed and all this without any government intervention. I’ve always thought that if a similar system was applied to cars and commercial vehicles we would have much safer transport.
So, with a bit of luck, the firebeater and I could have a day or two off the second week of the holidays. The problem was that we could never arrange anything in advance because we could never be sure what problems we would hit and when we would be finished. All the time I ran Bancroft we never had a family holiday, we just grabbed days off when we could manage.
There were some traps for the unwary. One year, the managing director, Peter Birtles, came down to the engine house and told me he had saved us some money on the annual inspection by setting on a new insurance company, Ajax Insurance. I told him this was a mistake, his fee might be less for the inspection but seeing as they didn’t know the boiler or myself, they would want everything doing by the book and it would cost us a fortune. It all came to pass and in less time than you could say Jack Robinson we had sacked Ajax and I was back with my old boiler surveyor, thank God!
In later years, when I was doing Ellenroad Engine at Rochdale I came across the modern boiler inspectors. These were young men who were full of theory but had no practical experience at all. They came on the scene because the supply of ex-marine men had dried up as our merchant fleet declined. I have to say that they were usually a pain in the bum. Many of them had never seen a riveted boiler before and had no idea of what was all right and what was a problem. The insurance company, National Vulcan, admitted in the end that I was part of their training programme! They sent young engineers down to me so that I could guide them through the procedures for surveying obsolete boilers!
Well, you’ve probably realised by now that I like boilers! Treated properly they are wonderful things and I always enjoy being with a boiler that’s working hard. There’s something very satisfying about being in charge of something that is potentially so dangerous but knowing that you’ve done everything right and all is under control and safe. In later years I worked for Rochdale Electric Welding and was never happier than when I was commissioning a boiler that we had done major repairs on. The best part was always the steaming test, especially if you had stripped the safety valves and rebuilt them. It was very satisfying to see a valve lift at exactly the right pressure without any dribbling or feathering. I remember standing with an inspector with a boiler once and it blew exactly at 180psi with a roar that frightened even me! He turned to me and said “You got that one right didn’t you!”. Now that’s satisfaction.
Thanks for being so patient. Next week we’ll look at the engine. If there are any comments or questions, 813527 will get me or Stanley@barnoldswick.freeserve.co.uk
SCG/Wednesday, 11 April 2001
Friday, February 08, 2002
BANCROFT SHED (6)
This week we’ll have a look at the place all the power came from, the boiler house. I suppose you were expecting me to say the engine house. This is the mistake everyone used to make who visited the mill. All they wanted to see was the engine but the place that makes or breaks and engine house is the boiler house. A good firebeater is a pearl beyond price and I was lucky, I had two good ones while I was at Bancroft, Bob Parkinson and John Plummer.
First, for the benefit of the young ones, I suppose I’d better explain just exactly what was happening in the boiler house. We have to step back a bit here and remind ourselves that there was no public electricity supply in Barnoldswick until 1929 and even then it was on a very small scale. The Craven Herald reported that by November, 230 applicants out of a total of 291 had been connected to the mains. It should be recognised that this was a very low power supply suitable for lighting only. This meant that until the mid thirties any commercial premises had to have its own independent power supply. In many cases, this was a gas engine driving a generator. Newton Pickles told me he used to go and look after the gas engine and generator under the Majestic Building when it was running late at night for the cinema or dances. I even have an example of a man who made toys at home from scrap wood and had a gas engine in the front room!
The mills had only one choice, a steam boiler and an engine driving shafting, all the machinery was run off leather belts from the overhead shafting. The key to this converting the energy locked up in coal into rotative motion in the shafts. The way we did this was to burn the coal in a furnace inside a closed metal vessel containing water. As the water boiled in the enclosed space, the pressure rose and eventually you reached the point where you could bleed off steam to the engine at about 150 pounds to the square inch pressure and use this to turn the shafting.
The first thing to say about this technology is that you will often hear people talk about ‘Steam Age Technology’ in a disparaging way. It is used as a pejorative term for anything that is old-fashioned and out-of-date. Anyone who does this is simply demonstrating their ignorance because 95% of the electricity we use today is produced by steam turbines. Even an atomic power station is simply a very complicated boiler, the energy from the nuclear reaction is converted into steam and used just as we did at Bancroft.
The next thing to realise is that storing up 25,000 litres of superheated water and live steam in a closed metal vessel is potentially a very dangerous thing to do. The only way it can be kept safe is by impeccable operation, regular maintenance and very strict inspection. The surprising thing about this is that there is no proper qualification for operating land boilers and engines. At sea, the qualifications are very strict and a Marine Engineer’s Certificate is a very valuable qualification. There was a Bill in Parliament to apply the same regulations to land based plant in 1897 but it was withdrawn on July 12th because the session had run out of time. So, we have this situation where two unqualified blokes are working in the boiler house and engine house producing vast quantities of power to run the mill! This applied to all the mills in Barlick, the only qualification was ability and experience and this explains why so many of these jobs passed from father to son, the new firebeaters and engineers were quite literally born into the job.
Back to the boiler house. The first impression you would have got if you climbed down on to the firing floor at Bancroft would have been the contrast between the polished brass of the gauges and water glasses on the boiler and the filthy condition of just about everything else as it was covered with a layer of coal dust. The second impression would come as a surprise, particularly in winter. It was freezing cold! The reason for this is that the boiler is drawing in immense volumes of air into the furnaces and this all has to come in through the open door. The firing floor in front of the boiler is the same temperature as the outside air, colder even because of the draught.
In the old days, boilers were fired by hand. The stoker, or firebeater as we called him, had to open the firebox door on the front of the boiler and shovel coal in. This in itself was a skilled operation because it was essential to keep the coal level over the whole of the furnace bed. This wasn’t easy and the rule with a six foot bed was four down each side and a couple in the middle. A rake could be used to level the bed out but a good firebeater didn’t need this and could get the door closed in the shortest possible time. The reason for this was that the longer the door was open, the more cold air got in over the fire and the less efficient the boiler was. On a hard day in winter the firebeater had at least six tons of coal to throw in during the day and the arrival of automatic stokers was the best thing since sliced bread.
At Bancroft we had automatic wide ram coking stokers. These were very efficient as long as you had a good load on. They were supplied by hoppers which were filled using an electric auger from the bunker so most of the time the firebeater simply pushed a button to fill his hoppers.
The most important task was to make sure that the water level in the boiler was correct. Almost every case of accidents with boilers could be traced back to low water. As steam is made and passed out to the engine, heating circuits and processes in the mill, the water level falls and has to be made up by powerful pumps forcing water in against the pressure in the boiler. The rate at which this water is passed in depends on the load on the boiler and so the firebeater had to be sure he knew what was going on in the mill. Every now and again he used to go for a walk round, check the shed temperature and visit the tapes to find out what they were doing as they were our biggest steam users.
The trick was to start firing for the load 15 minutes before it happened as it took that long to increase steam production because of the large mass of water in the boiler. A good firebeater could hold steam at 140 pounds to the square inch all day no matter what happened in the mill. This meant that the engineer could keep his engine running at exactly the right speed for the weavers and this in turn meant greater production.
Winter was a bad time for the firebeater because an important part of his job was to make sure the mill was warm enough when the weavers came in for work. We had to have the shed at 55F on starting and 60F by eight o’clock. On a very cold night this meant that the firebeater had to be in at midnight putting steam into the mill at full pressure. Even then, there were occasional days when we missed and I used to get terrible stick from the weavers as I walked round doing my inspections. My only defence was to tell them to remember to put their thick knickers and vests on the following day! I’m sure they thought we were trying to save coal but they were wrong, this was one job we never skimped on and we really did our best to get the shed warm.
Maintenance on the boiler never stopped. I used to test the water every day for total dissolved solids. This was very important for safe and efficient running and I used to control the quality by varying the amount of chemicals we injected into the boiler each day and blowing down a certain amount of sediment first thing in the morning before the boiler was started up. Once a month my water treatment bloke, Charlie Southwell, used to come and do more extensive tests for me. He owned the firm which supplied the chemicals but always came out to do my test himself because he enjoyed visiting the engine house so much.
The firebeater’s biggest enemy was the Council ‘Nuisance Man’, the Environmental Health Inspector. He used to come down on us every time he saw us making excessive smoke. The firebeater had to keep an eye on the chimney top and adjust the draught through the fires by raising or lowering his side flue dampers. These were large steel sliding shutters that could be slid down or up to regulate the flow of gas through the flues. He could see the chimney top from the firing floor through a mirror mounted on the side of the engine house porch. Our problem was that in later days, when the number of looms fell and the load decreased our fires were shorter and there was no way we could avoid making excessive smoke because of air leakage through the firebed. In the end, this was the excuse used to close the mill.
One good thing about having to react 15 minutes before an event happened in the mill was that the firebeater could always finish first. Half an hour before stopping time he would stop feeding coal, shut his pumps down and start burning his fires off. As he did this the pressure rose. Once the fires were off he cleaned his bars, ashed out and raked a small amount of fire to the front of the furnace. Then he threw in 25 shovels full of coal into each furnace, closed the doors and just opened his dampers a crack. We called this ‘banking up’ and this coal smouldered away all night keeping the boiler up to pressure. As soon as he had finished this he could lock the boiler house doors and go home.
The pressure would drop back a bit as I was running out to a finish but by the following morning, when the firebeater came in to start work, he would have the same pressure on the boiler that he had when he started to burn off the night before. The only time the boilers ever went cold was during the holidays. I’ll tell you what happened then next week. As usual, the number is 813527 and the email address Stanley@barnoldswick.freeserve.co.uk. Thanks to all of you who have contacted me, you are always welcome.
SCG/Wednesday, 11 April 2001
Thursday, February 07, 2002
BANCROFT SHED (5)
In previous weeks, we’ve looked at the preparation departments and the weaving. The next stage in the production and delivery of cloth took place in the warehouse.
The warehouse at Bancroft served more than one purpose but as far as cloth production was concerned, this was where the clothlookers operated. When the cloth came off the loom it was as a roll of cloth on a wooden roller. The cloth carrier took this into the warehouse and it was loaded on a plaiting machine which did three jobs, it wound the cloth off the roll, over a table and passed it through the plaiter at the back of the machine which folded the cloth into a neat pile, as it passed over the table it was measured for length and at the same time the clothlooker examined it for faults.
In the old days, the clothlooker was a powerful man, it was always a man. He could fine weavers for faults and short lengths and if he took a dislike to a weaver, could make their lives a misery. Each cloth length was marked with the weaver’s number so he knew who had made it. Wednesday was usually ‘making up’ day. This was the day when, under the old piece work system, the number of ‘cuts’ woven that week was reckoned up for each weaver. Suppose there was a lot of cloth to plait, it was quite possible for the clothlooker to make sure that a certain weaver’s cut didn’t go through that day and so they lost that part of their wage for the week. True, it would be made up the week after, but this was little consolation to a weaver who was short of cash.
The clothlookers had another hold over the weavers. The process of weaving produces a certain amount of waste thread. In my day the weavers simply brought that into the warehouse and tipped it into sacks. In the old days, the waste had to be inspected by the clothlooker to make sure the weaver wasn’t being careless and making too much waste. This was particularly prevalent in the days when ‘paste bottom cops’ were used straight from the mule. It was very easy when skewering these on to the shuttle peg to ‘stab’ them, that is get them out of line and they wouldn’t weave. Stabbed cops were always seen as a sign of careless weaving. Again, weavers could be fined for careless waste and this resulted in some interesting consequences.
Ernie Roberts told me that when he was weaving before he rose through the ranks and became a tackler, he always used to stuff his stabbed cops inside his shirt and take them home with him to burn on the fire. Other weavers adopted a different strategy. If you look at the accounts for mills during the early part of the century you might be surprised to find the number of times the local plumber was called in to rod the mill drains to clear them of obstructions. This was almost always cotton waste. The weavers used to flush the bad waste down the toilets and eventually there was a blockage!
Most of the space in the warehouse was used for storage of weft boxes and cloth waiting for return to the spinning mills or transport to the cloth merchants. However, one corner was definitely the workers territory. There was a row a washbasins under one of the windows and on the window cill next to it was the water boiler for brewing tea. The entrances to the toilets were near here and in full sight of the clothlookers. They could count how many times you went during the day and this could be a cause of trouble in the old days. I have to say that the toilets at Bancroft wouldn’t pass any sort of test today. Both ladies and gents had a window opening covered not with glass but with a cast iron grill. This ensured good ventilation but also made sure that in winter, they were freezing cold and didn’t encourage anyone to hang about and have a chat or a smoke.
The hot water boiler was a big steam heated tea urn. Again, going back to the old days, it was the most profitable piece of machinery in the mill. The workers were docked a penny a week off their wage for use of the urn and I worked it out once how much it made for the management in a year! This calculation was made even more unfair when you realised that all the heat that went into running the urn eventually finished up heating the mill and so saved the mill owners money on the heating costs!
One nice little touch at Bancroft was the fact that Collin Macro, the cloth-carrier, had a cactus garden on the window cill where the washbasins were and this gave the corner a bit of interest.
We had a bit of an emergency one day when one of the weavers collapsed in great pain. She was carried into the warehouse and laid out on a low pile of cloth. When Dr Love turned up to see to her he commented on the fact that it was an ideal casualty bed!
The tackler’s cabins were in the warehouse and these were always a good place for a crack, a joke or a bit of a discussion about any subject under the sun. There was some horticulture here as well. Albert Gornall, who lived in the little cabin, cultivated tomatoes on grow bags on the window cill. He asked me to water them for him during the holidays as he knew I would be in each day doing maintenance on the engine and boiler. I saw to them religiously but by the end of the first week I could see they were looking poorly. I got my mate Ted, who was an expert on tomatoes, to come across and have a look and he told me they had ‘Blossom End Rot’ and it was terminal. He also told me it wasn’t my fault but this didn’t do me any good when Albert came back after the holidays and found his children were dying! He didn’t speak to me for six months afterwards.
Ernie told me a good warehouse story one day. He was working for B&M Holdens at the time and was walking down the warehouse with one of the brothers one morning and one of his shoe soles was flapping from the toe, his shoe was coming to pieces. His boss noticed this and said, “Eh Ernie, we can’t have thee walking about like that, you might trip and fall!” Ernie said he reached into his pocket and pulled out a roll of notes. Ernie immediately perked up, he thought he was going to get a sub for a pair of shoes. Holden pulled the rubber band of the roll of notes and gave it to him, “Put that on lad, it’ll stop it flapping!” Ernie said he was reight disappointed!
In the old days the warehouse was the scene where another little ceremony took place. In those days there were a lot of ‘tramp weavers’ moving about Lancashire. These were day labourers, mostly men and almost always good weavers. For whatever reason, drink, family troubles or whatever, they didn’t want a regular job. The way they operated was that they would come and stand in the warehouse first thing in the morning as the mill started. The tacklers would go into the shed and if any of their weavers had missed coming to work they would set a tramp weaver on the looms to keep them going. If the regular weaver turned up they had lost that days work. This was hard but all the mill owners were interested in was keeping the looms running. The other weavers accepted this and there was very seldom ill-will between the regular weavers and the tramps, they were seen as an unpleasant necessity but they had a living to earn as well.
The warehouse was where you met other people as they went about their work, it was warm and smelt nicely of linseed oil and leather and cotton. Ask any worker in the mill towards the end of the industry when the sanctions for faults and bad waste had died a natural death and they will all have happy memories of conversations and good times with their mates in there. During the course of my working day I had to walk through there frequently and I don’t think I ever went in there without a talk with one of the weavers, a joke with the tacklers or a little bit of interest.. Perhaps I’m getting old but I’d like to walk through there again and have a crack with my mates.
Nest week I’ll look at the engine house and even more important, the boiler house. Thanks for reading the articles, if you want me I’m on 813527 or firstname.lastname@example.org .
SCG/Tuesday, 10 April 2001
BANCROFT SHED (4) THE WEAVING SHED.
The weaving shed was the heart of the mill. You could have the best plant and the best preparation staff in Lancashire but if your weaving shed wasn’t running well, there was no profit. Every job in the mill was geared to making the weavers as efficient as possible. Put it another way, if you didn’t look after the weavers you weren’t going to be in a job for long.
The picture of the shed you can see is only a small part of the whole, it was one enormous room that originally held 1250 looms. A forest of leather belts drives the looms from the shafting overhead which is connected directly to the steam engine in the engine house. Once the engine started in a morning, all the shafting turned and individual looms could be set on and shut off by a lever on each loom which threw the belt on to a loose pulley so that it just idled.
The weaver had to stop the loom to insert a fresh shuttle when the one in use ran out of yarn. Each loom had two shuttles, one was always sat on a tray on the end of the loom, loaded with a full pirn and waiting to go in. When the thread in the shuttle ran out the loom stopped automatically and a good weaver would be hovering there ready to whip the empty one out, bang a fresh shuttle in, restart the loom and then load the shuttle again ready for the next changeover. The length of time a shuttle lasted depended on the weight of weft being woven. If the yarn was heavy the pirn held less than if it was light. A medium yarn would last about ten minutes and a light one up to twenty but we didn’t use much of this.
Each weaver in the main part of the shed had ten looms and so you can see that on average, a shuttle needed to be changed and reloaded every minute throughout the day. This was hard enough but if an ‘end went down’, that is, one of the warp threads broke, the weaver had to stop the loom and repair the break. While she or he was doing this, the other looms couldn’t be attended to and if it was a bad break, after ten minutes all the looms were stopped. Sometimes there was a really bad problem and a shuttle might take out thirty or forty ends. This was called a smash and in this case the tackler would come and repair the breaks while the weaver kept the other nine looms running.
In addition to running the looms the weavers carried all their own weft from skips at the front of the shed so you can see that they were kept busy.
Another instance that stopped the loom was when the ‘cut mark’ came up. If you remember, when I was talking about taping I said that the tape machine automatically put a blue mark on the warp to show when the cut length had been reached, When this happened she went for the tackler and he came and cut that length out of the loom and gaited it up again ready for weaving. The roll of cloth that resulted was carried away by the cloth carrier into the warehouse for inspection and packing.
The weavers were paid on ‘piece work’, the more they wove, the higher the wage. This is the origin of the phrase which is now used for any job where people are paid on production. Right up to the post WWII years, this was all they got. A weaver was only paid for the cut lengths that went into the warehouse during the week. If there were some bad warps in it was quite possible to weave a week and get no wage. Now suppose a weaver was in this position and come ‘making up day’, usually Wednesday, when the week’s production was totted up and the wages calculated, she or he hadn’t got any cuts off but could see that a cut mark was almost ready to come up on the beam at the back of the loom. The solution was to get a piece of damp cloth and wet the warp to draw up the dye a few layers and when that came through, send a short length into the warehouse. This was frowned on but usually overlooked as everyone knew the consequences if attention was drawn to it.
After the war the wage structure changed and the weavers went on to a basic wage plus a bonus calculated from the number of ‘picks’ they had put in that week. A ‘pick’ was one passage of the shuttle across the loom and they were counted by a pick clock mounted on each loom. On making up day, instead of counting rolls of cloth, the pick clocks were read and the wage calculated from those figures.
The first thing that would strike you if you went into a weaving shed would be the noise. A thousand Lancashire looms in one shed in full cry was a fearsome thing. It was impossible to hear anyone speak and the weavers perfected a technique known as ‘mee-mawing’. They would speak with exaggerated movements of the lips but no sound and lip-read each other. This was wonderfully effective, if I was going to stop the engine early for some reason, say at holiday time, all I had to do was go to the shed door and mee-maw at the first weaver I saw and in a couple of minutes the word was all over the shed. It had its disadvantages though, if a weaver wanted to say something private she had to make sure that only the person she was speaking to could see her lips!
I’m often asked if this level of noise made the weavers deaf. It might have damaged their hearing slightly but nowhere near as much as you would imagine. Courtaulds did a big research programme on finding ways to cut down on the noise from Lancashire looms but gave up in the end because it couldn’t be done. In any case, they concluded that it was mostly mid-frequency noise and not particularly damaging.
The most damaging thing in the shed was the fine cotton fibres floating around, we called it ‘dawn’. This was bad for you and caused ‘Weaver’s Lung’ (byssinosis), a lung disease, after long exposure. Even this wasn’t too bad in a weaving shed as the fibres were quite large, the risk was much higher in the carding room of a spinning mill.. On the whole, even though you would think it was a hell-hole, the shed was quite a healthy place to work in.
As engineer, my responsibility for the shed was to look after the shafting, make sure it was always at least 55degrees F when the weavers came in and 60 degrees by an hour later, switch the lights on when it came dark during the day and keep the speed of the shafting as steady as possible. All the lights were controlled from the engine house as this was a considerable load on the engine and I had to know when it was going on.
As for the speed, there was one weaver on what we called ‘The Pensioner’s Side’ under the lineshaft called Billy Lambert. He always got called ‘Billy Two Rivers’ for some reason. He was an ex-tackler and worked on one of the eight sets of looms up that side. I used to go in of a morning and just stand at the end of Billy’s looms. He would make a little gesture to me, either speed up a bit or slow down or leave it as it was. I would go back to the engine house, make an adjustment to the governor, leave it about ten minutes and then go back in and check with Billy.
The reason for this need to adjust the speed was because of the leather belts. Humidity affected how well they drove the looms. If it was damp they stretched a bit, if dry they tightened up. Attention to detail like this and careful valve setting on the engine made a lot of difference to the weavers. After I had been there about there months Jim Pollard told me I was a popular bloke because I’d put the weavers wages up thirty shillings apiece! (£1.50) This on a top wage of £40 a week.
To modern eyes, the weaving shed was a fearsome sight but in fact, once you got used to it, it was a lovely place to work. Ask any weaver and they will tell you that hard as it was, they enjoyed the work. They could see what they were producing. The cloth was rolling off the loom on to their side and they could see it growing as they wove. Their was a lovely atmosphere in the place and it was always a joy to go in the shed and walk round inspecting the shafting. That is unless I was in bad odour because we hadn’t managed to get the shed warm enough at starting time.
Another thing that would strike you about the shed was the quality of the light. A weaving shed has a saw tooth roof with slates on one side and glass on the other. In a well designed shed the glass faces due North and sunlight never enters, it is all reflected light. This is the best light to work in as there are no shadows. It was a very even light and perfect, on a good day, for weaving.
Each June, I used to gather a couple of tacklers up and together with the firebeater, we would go on the shed roof and whitewash the windows to keep the heat down in the shed. This was quite effective but even so, the sheds were hard to keep cool in summer and even worse to warm in the winter. In winter, in hard weather, John Plummer and I were often in at midnight firing the boiler and putting steam through the pipes in the shed at 140 pounds to the square inch. Even so, we sometimes missed the target!
Right, over the last few weeks you should have got a fair idea of what we used to do in the mills. There’s much more to tell but if you want to know more, find an old weaver and talk to them. I miss the weaving shed, I made a lot of friends at Bancroft but I have to admit that next to the engine house and the boiler, my favourite place was the shed and the weavers. You could always have a laugh, even if things were going badly. Everyone helped one another, nobody was into ‘office politics’ to get promotion. They were weavers and proud of it and I don’t think that most of them ever wanted to be anything else. I don’t blame them, I know it sounds sentimental but in lots of ways it was a family and when the sheds fell silent, I think we lost a very important part of Barlick life.
As usual Stanley@barnoldswick.freeserve.co.uk or 813527 will find me. I’m always pleased to hear from you.
SCG/Saturday, 24 March 2001
Monday, February 04, 2002
Last week we’d got our cloth order, decided on the construction of the cloth and now we have to actually get down to making it.
The first stage in making cloth is to prepare the weaver’s beams. These are the large bobbins of warp thread that are fitted into the loom. The first stage of making these is the taping department. There are several names for the process of warp-sizing, the most common are ‘taping’ or ‘slashing’. Call it what you may, the process is the same. Large beams of warp thread are delivered at the mill and installed in the back of the taping machine. Suppose the cloth construction calls for 3,000 warp ends in each beam. The tapers beams will be a set of ten beams, each with 300 ends and enough length to make say ten weavers beams. All these ends are fed through the taping machine in such a way that they are first immersed in a ‘sow box’ containing a boiling mixture of flour, tallow and gum, the actual constituents vary from mill to mill and sometimes even for different cloths.
From the sow box the sheet of yarn passes through two squeeze rollers and round two large copper drums which are heated by live steam. These drums are highly polished and the yarn will dry on them without sticking if they are properly looked after. When they come off the last drum, the threads are stuck together in a solid sheet and have to be split down into separate threads by a number of rods inserted through the web in such a way that as the sheet passes over them the threads separate. At the front of the machine, these warp threads are wound on to the weavers beam and a complicated set of gears measures the thread as it passes through the machine and marks the warp with blue ink at the end of every cut length. When the weaver sees this blue mark come through the loom she or he knows it is time to stop and get the tackler to come and cut the piece out and set the loom up again for weaving.
Once the weaver’s beam has the required number of ‘cut lengths’ wound on to it the taper slows the machine right down, inserts a striking comb to keep the ends straight and cuts the warp out and removes it. He replaces it with an empty beam, starts the winding process off and then puts the tape back on to full speed.
The weavers beam is now full of warp yarn which has been soaked with size and dried and is ready to go to the next stage in the process which is the warp preparation department. Before it goes, let’s ask a question; why size the yarn in the first place?
In the old days when cloth was sold by weight, one of the reasons for sizing the yarn was to get a lot of china clay incorporated in the yarn. This was called ‘sizing for weight’. The buyers of the finished cloth attached great value to weight and so the manufacturers gave them what they wanted. A skilled taper using the right mix of size could double the weight of a piece of cloth.
Modern sizing had a different purpose. As the warp yarn goes through the weaving process it tends to shed loose fibres and these can clog up in the reeds and healds and cause warp thread breakages which leads to faults in the cloth. If the yarn is sized it makes it stronger and less likely to ‘pen up’ and break in the loom.
One tape machine or slasher can deal with the warps for 400 looms. Bancroft was built for 1250 looms and had three machines but in the 70’s when I was there we were running fewer looms and just had two machines. The tapers were Norman Grey and Joe Nutter and they could make all the warps needed for the looms we were running.
Our warp is now ready for the next stage, before it can be ‘gaited’ into the loom by the tackler it has to have its healds and reed and reed fitted to it with the correct ends in the correct order threaded through the correct reed dents and heald eyes. If the cloth is a type that has been woven before it can be knotted onto the threads already arranged in the healds and reed cut off the old warp using the Barber Coleman automatic warp knotting machine. If it is a new sort, each end has to be ‘drawn in’ individually by hand. Jim Pollard used to do the drawing at Bancroft in addition to his job as weaving manager. A top class man can do about 12,000 ends a day. I’ve seen Jim do almost 20,000 when pushed if he did some overtime. I always reckoned he was the Cassius Clay of loomers!
Once the healds and reed were fitted, the warp was ready for the tackler to take it down to the shed and gait it into the loom but there’s not much point having a warp if you haven’t got the weft to weave into it. It’s just struck me that I keep talking about warp and weft and the younger ones mightn’t know the difference. Warp ends are the threads which come through the loom towards you. Weft is the thread on the shuttle which weaves its way across the loom through the warp threads when the shuttle is knocked across. Get hold of an old fashioned tea towel and look very carefully at how the threads cross each other and you’ll get the idea. Don’t do it with a tee shirt, these aren’t woven, they are knitted which is an entirely different process.
The weft is being prepared in the winding department at the other end of the top floor of the mill. Here Frank Bleasdale presided over his kingdom but all the work was done by Judy Northage and her mate Jean Smith. Another lady, Mrs Iveson used to help out occasionally when they were busy, I have an idea she was a weaver as well. The weft came in on cones but was rewound on to wooden or paper pirns that fitted into the shuttle. At one time, weft used to come in ready wound but re-winding the weft was always seen as a better way to do the job as if there were going to be any breakages due to weak shops in the yarn it was better if it happened during winding as this didn’t fault the cloth.
As the pirns were wound, Frank used to put them in wheeled boxes and take them down into the shed. Each box was labelled with the type and count of yarn and weavers used to get it as they needed it in weft tins.
So we’ve reached the stage where we’ve got a warp sized and gaited ready for the loom, we’ve got weft wound on to pirn and installed in the shed. All we need is a tackler to set the loom up and we can get weaving.
As a weaver wove a warp out in the loom, that is she or he got to the end of the thread on the weaver’s beam. The tackler would take it out and the loomsweeper would give the loom a good sweeping and oiling. The tackler then brought the new warp down on a two-wheeled bogey, fitted it into the loom. He made any adjustments needed for that type of cloth and wove the first shuttle for the weaver. I’m not going to attempt to describe the process of gaiting a warp, for one thing I don’t understand it all and for another it’s far too complicated for light reading! Next week we’ll concentrate on the most important job of all, weaving.
SCG/Friday, 23 March 2001
BANCROFT SHED (2)
It’s been pointed out to me that it might be a good thing to describe what actually happened in the cotton mills in Barlick as there are so many people nowadays who never worked in a mill.
It must be hard for young people nowadays to realise how important cotton was to Barlick at the beginning of the twentieth century. By 1920, Barlick had 14 mills, almost 25,000 looms and about 12,000 inhabitants. Allowing for the old and the young and those not engaged in the cotton industry, there was a permanent shortage of weavers which was made up by people who lived in lodgings in the town during the week but went home at weekend. Agriculture and Cotton were the bedrock of the local economy, everything else depended on them for cash flow.
By 1900 Barlick was purely a weaving town. In the early days of the industry the mills spun raw cotton as well and produced their own yarn but as the South Lancashire industry grew more efficient it became cheaper to buy in yarn than produce it. The local mills concentrated on what they knew best, weaving cloth. This specialisation increased output and profits and it was on this base that the shed companies prospered and spawned the profits that paid for the great expansion in Barlick between 1900 and 1920.
These weaving sheds are what people remember nowadays. There is nobody alive who can remember when Barlick was a spinning town as well. One small point here, you might have noticed that some cotton factories are called mills and some are called sheds. This is a hangover from the days of spinning. Generally, any factory that is old enough to have been in spinning is called a mill, the ones that were purely weaving are called sheds. So Clough, Butts, Wellhouse and Old Coates were always called mill. The later factories were called sheds. This has got eroded a bit nowadays, I have heard Bankfield and Long Ing called mills, but originally they were all weaving sheds.
Right, we’ve got a town full of weaving sheds and I suppose even the youngsters will know that they took in cotton yarn and turned out cloth. Two questions, what sort of cloth and how did they do it?
There are more different sorts of cloth than you can poke a stick at. Everything from the flimsy gauze that Johnson and Johnson wove for their surgical dressing business to heavy, complicated, patterned brocades used in furnishings and curtains. These latter cloths were never woven in Barlick, Blackburn used to specialise in them. The great proportion of Barlick cloth was plain cotton which was intended for bleaching and printing outside the town. When it came off the loom it was always described as ‘grey cloth’ or ‘loomstate’ because it was unbleached. In actual fact it wasn’t grey, it was the colour of the natural cotton that had been used to weave it. This could vary from almost white to a lovely warm cream for some of the higher quality Egyptian yarns.
Just because this cloth was plain, it shouldn’t be assumed it was rubbish. It could go for anything from fine shirtings to interlinings and funnily enough, one of the best cloths I ever saw at Bancroft was for industrial use. We used to weave a lot of it, it was a heavy twill woven from the best Egyptian super combed yarn and was made into industrial polishing mops. It had to be the finest material or it wouldn’t have stood up to the job demanded of it.
One thing that often surprises people is that some of the cheapest cloths had gold wire woven in. This was intended for the Indian trade and was for saris and turbans. It was actually a very cheap construction but every so many rows of weaving, a band of gold had to be put in. Very little of this was done in Barlick but I have a gold wire shuttle which held a spool of the precious wire in the middle instead of the usual cotton yarn package. As far as I can make out, to avoid temptation, the weaver had to buy the gold wire and look after it but was paid an enhanced price for the cloth to make up for the cost. Once woven, the cloth could be finished and dyed in the usual way, the gold wasn’t affected by any of the processes.
So, we know what they were weaving, the next question is how did they actually do it and what was it like working on the different processes. How did the industry actually work?
The first stage of the business was getting the cloth orders. Every mill had a ‘Manchester Man’, usually a partner in the business, and his job was to go to Manchester each day and stand on the Cotton Exchange where he received orders, bought yarn to make the cloth and haggled over prices. In those days the first post was delivered to the mills just after seven in the morning and after sorting any orders out, the office boy was sent down to the station where the Pioneer store is now to hand the orders to the Manchester Man before he got on the train for Earby, Colne and Manchester. He would be on the ‘Change shortly after nine in the morning and be doing business.
One curious thing about the word ‘Manchester’. I was surprised when I first went into a big department store in New York to find that the drapery department was called ‘The Manchester Department’. This was a recognised term in the States but I was never sure whether it was called after Manchester in Lancashire or Manchester in New England which was also a cotton town. As Manchester New England was named after our Manchester I don’t suppose it makes much difference!
Once on the ‘Change, our Manchester Man would talk to his contacts and by the end of the day would have received orders for cloth and would also have worked out what yarn they needed to weave it and ordered that off the spinners. This was a very efficient system. In later days, when road transport was taking over from rail, it wasn’t uncommon for the yarn ordered that day to be delivered to the mill before the Manchester Man got home that night.
It was very efficient in another way. All the trading on the floor of the exchange was done verbally and sealed with a handshake. The paperwork followed by post later. All cloth and yarn orders were done using standard contracts. These contracts contained coal and labour clauses which ensured that if, during the term of the contract, coal or labour charges increased, so did the price of the yarn or the cloth in proportion. This security enabled the spinners and manufacturers to work to very small margins of profit and be very competitive. This was very good in the hey day of the trade when there was an abundance of orders but in later years, between the wars, when overseas competition reduced output and there was over-capacity in the industry these small profit margins spelt out the end of the industry because they couldn’t make a profit unless the mill was full of work. More about this later.
Once the Manchester Man had delivered the order at the mill, the weaving manager had to look at the specification of the cloth and work out the most economical way to weave it. This was one of the most important jobs in the mill. The trick was to weave a cloth that satisfied the customer using the cheapest yarn and the smallest quantities possible.
One of the most important qualities of cotton fibre is staple length. Cotton plants don’t grow thread, they grow short fibres (the staple) which have to be twisted together in the course of spinning to make a strong thread. The longer the staple, the better the yarn and the more expensive it is. So, one of the first decisions to be made was what was the lowest quality yarn that could be used.
Two factors came into play here, the skill of the operatives and the humidity of the shed. The skills go without saying in a town like Barlick but the humidity was another matter. Ideally, a weaving shed would be built into a hillside like Bancroft was. This ensured that the flags and walls were permanently damp. In winter the natural moisture was enough but in summer when the air was drier you would often see weavers cover the warps in their looms with damp cloths or fents (imperfect pieces of cloth cut out of good lengths) before they went home at night or for the weekend. This helped to keep the yarn on the beam supple and made for better weaving. I’ve heard of sheds in Barlick that were flooded with water at weekend to get the humidity up.
Another consideration was shrinkage during weaving. As the loom weaves it tends to pull the warp in and make the finished cloth narrower. There were little devices on each side of the cloth in the loom called ‘temples’ which stretched the cloth out sideways and counteracted this but even so, the count of threads in each side of the finished cloth was denser than the specification. The cure for this was a ‘Bastard Reed’, this was the large heavy comb in the loom that all the warp threads went through and normally had so many spaces or ‘dents’ to the inch across it. A bastard reed had fewer dents for about four inches in on each side so that when the cloth contracted there was exactly the right number of threads per inch in the construction. In other words, the ‘count’ was right. Sorry for getting technical with you but I want to be sure I leave you in no doubt as to the levels of skill involved in the processes.
So, we’ve got an order for cloth. We’ve decided how we’re going to make it, all we have to now is get on with it. I’ll start on the different processes next week and we’ll follow the cloth right through to the warehouse. I promise I won’t get too technical but I want to leave you young ones looking at your grandma or granddad with a fresh eye if they worked in the mill. We tend to lose sight of the fact that just because someone is old, it doesn’t mean they are stupid and unskilled. If you’ve got a relation who worked in the mill, ask them about what they did. I promise you’ll get a surprise.
As usual, any comments or questions to email@example.com or 813527. I’ll be glad to hear from you.
SCG/Friday, 23 March 2001
BANCROFT SHED. (1)
You’ve probably realised by now that I don’t have any grand plan about what order I write about things in the View. I tend to write about what is at the top of my mind or have been asked to do a piece on. For various reasons I have been looking through a lot of images form 1978 in the last couple of weeks and one of the things that bore in on me was the misery of weaving a shed out. We knew at the end of September 1978 that the mill was to close and so we had three months of depressing work. So this week I’ll tell you how it was done.
As with so many of my stories, I have to step back a bit and explain what happened before we got the news. I was in trouble with the Council ‘Nuisance Man’. We were making too much smoke and he was a constant visitor. This problem was a technical one, it was caused by the type of stokers we had and the fact we were on light load, only 350 looms were running. I looked into the matter and went to the management with a scheme whereby we could cure the problem at no cost over 18 months by installing new stokers and taking advantage of government grants and improved efficiency. A key element of this scheme was to stop paying coal bills and burn the coal stock in the yard.
Peter Birtles, the managing director, listened to my ideas, took the paperwork and I went back to the engine house. As I sat there with John Plummer, my firebeater, having a cup of tea, the awful truth dawned on me. I said to John, “You’re looking at the daftest bugger in Barlick! I’ve just closed the mill!” I had realised that the management had forgotten they had £7,500 up the yard in coal stock and that what they were going to do was burn the stock, take the money, and close us down. There were other factors involved and K.O.Boardman, the owner of the mill, was looking for any cash flow he could find. Our welfare would be the last consideration. Shortly afterwards a notice went up announcing the closure and blaming it on the fact we were producing black smoke.
One of these days I’ll explain exactly how a weaving shed worked but for the moment all you need to know is that it was a continuous process of yarn coming in one end and cloth going out the other. The looms had varying amounts of yarn on the beams and so stopping the mill by weaving out the contracts we had wasn’t an exact science. All the looms wouldn’t run out on the same day. What happened was that as a warp was woven out, that loom stopped and gradually the weaver’s wages fell as more and more looms emptied. When a weaver only had three or four warps left, he or she was sacked and those warps were given to another weaver. Gradually, the number of looms dropped as did the number of weavers.
The processes at the beginning of the production chain suffered first. As soon as the last warps were sized, the tape machines stopped. Shortly after that the warp preparation department ran out of work. Next were the winders, when they had wound all the yarn in stock on to pirn package for the shuttles, they went down the road. In the end, the only people left working were the weavers, the warehouse staff who dealt with the cloth from the loom, Jim Pollard, the weaving manager and of course, me and John in the engine and boiler house. They couldn’t do without us until the last loom stopped.
The tackler’s work load dropped as did their wages. Tackler’s wages depended on the number of looms they serviced and so they started to feel the effects very soon after the notice went up. Some of them decided to get out before the end, even though this meant losing redundancy pay.
In the engine room and boiler house we had our own problems. So many of the maintenance jobs like oiling the main shaft in the mill, maintaining the water courses and the boiler were long term, they were done every month or so. I found myself doing jobs and thinking, well, that’s the last time I’ll have to do that! This got to be very depressing and was made worse by familiar faces disappearing from the shed.
There was also the problem of managing the engine on light load. Funnily enough, an engine is far more unpredictable and dangerous on light load than heavy. We were lucky in this respect, the engine at Bancroft was in good condition and I had it tuned to perfection. Newton Pickles used to come up and have a look at us frequently, he knew what the problems were. I remember him sitting there one day when we had fairly high steam pressure and about 50 looms running and he said that unless you knew you’d never have guessed it was running so light.
The projected date of closure was Friday 22nd of December 1978 but by Wednesday of that week it was obvious to me that the weavers weren’t going to stay the course. I had a word with Jim and he agreed with me that it was doubtful whether we’d weave after dinnertime. The weavers had had enough.
I remember that on that day we had a visit from Professor Owen Ashmore from Manchester University. I told him that if he hung on until dinnertime he’d see Bancroft stop for the last time. I’d already rung Newton up, I wanted him to be in at the death. Come dinnertime, I was sat in my chair and Newton asked me whether I was going to stop it as it was after time. I told him I wasn’t going to, he had better do it himself, he was better qualified. He didn’t argue much and in the end he stopped it while I did the pictures.
Several of the weavers came down into the engine house to have a look at the engine. It was almost as though they were saying goodbye to an old friend. John Plummer asked whether he should draw the fires but I said no, I told him to bank them up as usual and come in at 9am on Thursday morning. There were two reasons for this; the weavers were coming in for their wages the following day and I wanted the shed to be reasonably warm and Newton and I wanted to run the engine once more so we could flood it with oil in case anyone wanted to start it again.
The following day this was just what we did. We ran the engine for about an hour and made sure that the cylinders were flooded with oil. Then we oiled up every surface on the engine. I stopped it and we blew the boiler down and opened it up to ventilate and dry out. The water board came and turned the water off and we drained everything in the mill down to protect it against frost. Anything we couldn’t drain like the air pump, we dosed with anti-freeze. In short we did everything we could to minimise the damage that would be caused by leaving the plant idle and untended. Newton told me that later on, when he went to restart the engine for the Bancroft Trust, all our work paid off. He said the rods came out of the cylinders as shiny as the day it had stopped.
How significant was the closure of Bancroft? At the time, I had no perspective on this, I was too hurt and angry. All I wanted to do was walk away from the bloody place, it was a relief. Twenty years later, I can get some sort of a handle on it. Bancroft wasn’t any more important than any of the other mills in Barlick apart from the fact that it was the last one left running in the old-fashioned way. True, there were still some looms left in Barlick, about 96 at Bendems in Wellhouse Mill and I think there were some at Fernbank but the glory days were over. Nobody would ever weave cloth in Barlick again in a purpose built shed driven by a steam engine.
With this, a whole way of life died out. There are still many people in the town who worked in the mills and if you ask them they will nearly always tell you what a good and happy job it was. There was something very satisfying about being part of an enterprise which took in raw material at one end and turned out a finished product at the other. Everybody knew exactly what their part in the process was and even though there were minor disputes from time to time, they were always with someone you knew personally, like Jim Pollard, and we always found a solution.
Personally, I always thought that running the engine at Bancroft was one of the best jobs I ever had. It was full of interest, brought me into contact with all sorts of people and was a joy to learn. It triggered me off into my pursuit of history because I realised that what I was looking at was something unique, it was one of the last manifestations of the first industrial revolution and was part of the foundation of everything we rely on today.
It’s all gone now but the legacy lives on. It was the fact that there were good mills in Barlick standing empty that brought Rover and Rolls Royce in during the 1940s. Other firms followed after the war, look at the number of mills that are still being used as production units for other trades. Without the mills Barlick would have stayed an insignificant backwater between two main roads and would never have made the leap into being a thriving, self-contained manufacturing town.
I was lucky enough to be in on the end of this process and as long as you do me the favour of reading my pieces about this history, I shall continue writing them. A bloke told me a few months ago that “Nobody reads nowadays.” If the feedback I get from these articles is any indication, he was totally wrong and was simply dumbing down the public because they didn’t go to Oxbridge like he did. Thanks for listening to me and remember that you can get me any time on 813527 or firstname.lastname@example.org I’m always pleased to hear from you.