Barnoldswick Local History Articles

Friday, December 12, 2003


Johnny Pickles never really retired, he just quietly withdrew from the business and left it to Newton and Walt Fisher who were perfectly capable of carrying on. Johnny did his engineering in the back yard, kept an eye on the shop and in 1969 he died aged 84 years. The description that Newton had cut on his gravestone in Kelbrook churchyard sums it all up, ‘John Albert Pickles, engineer and master craftsman.’

Henry Brown Sons and Pickles carried on and was a successful business but the glory days of the steam mills were over. One by one the mills closed and engines were scrapped. Newton once said to me “I was mother and father to that engine at Victoria Mill”, and he really meant it. In fact he ran it on the housewive’s shift the last time it drove the mill. Walt Fisher said “When they did away with steam engines they did away with a lot of hard work.” He was right too!

In the later years Newton was much in demand running engines while the regular engineer was off sick or had finished because they were weaving out. In the old days you could generally find an old engine tenter about who could help you out of a tight corner but as they died off there was only Newton left.

Mind you, HBSP never actually got to the point where they hadn’t a single engine left. Up to 1978 they had Bancroft, Queen Street, Wiseman Street at Burnley and one over at Holmfirth. Then there was the heritage market. Newton bored cylinders on locos at the Keighley and Worth Valley and the Haverthwaite Railway in the Lake District. He refurbished the engine at Stott Park and put it back in steam. They dismantled the Finsley Gate engine in Burnley and were going to re-erect it in the Science Museum at South Kensington until Newton found out it wasn’t going to run in steam. He said he didn’t want anything to do with clockwork engines and a firm called Riley’s from Heywood got the job.

Funnily enough, years later they did put the Finsley Gate engine in steam in the Science Museum. I had been asked to go down and look at the installation when Riley’s had put it in and had warned them in writing that they had their condensing arrangements wrong. Sure enough when they ran it it split the air pump and I was asked to go down again. I said I’d only come if Newton came with me and we had a glorious day out playing hell with the museum management about the mistakes they had made. They took our advice and got a new pump fabricated and asked if we wanted to be invited for the grand opening where it was to be steamed for Prince William. We both refused because we didn’t like the set-up.

During 1978 I was asked to advise Quarry Bank at Styal on the removal of a large water wheel from Glass Houses near Pately Bridge. I recommended HBSP for the job and they did it. Newton told me later that this was the job that persuaded them it was time to retire gracefully. When they hit trouble dismantling the old wheel they were refused any extra payments and lost money on the job. This wasn’t a financial disaster but it knocked the heart out of Walt and Newton. I always felt bad about having landed them in that one.

On the 10th of May 1981 Newton and Walt Fisher sold out to Gissing and Lonsdale who have kept the name of the firm alive. The Riley Street clock flit across the road to Gissing and Lonsdale’s offices on Wellhouse road and N&R Demolition from Portsmouth mill moved in and demolished the Wellhouse Machine Shop. It was very sad to see the old buildings come down. So much wonderful work had been done in that old building.

I watched the machines working on it and remembered tales that Newton had told me about milling gears for his dad when he was fourteen years old with snow blowing under the shop door and collecting round his feet. Him and Jim Fort having competitions to see whose swarf would go furthest down the yard without breaking. The lads waiting until the engine had been running for a while before going out to the tippler toilets in the yard in winter because the exhaust from the engine drains warmed them up. All that skill accumulated over the years, blown away by progress.

I never met Johnny, I was too busy driving all over the world and parts of Gateshead in the ten years from 1959 to 1969 when I had the chance. I first met Newton when I took over Bancroft engine in 1973 and he taught me all I know about engines and turning. I visited him the day he died to wish him and Beryl a happy new year in 2001. I’ve always said that there are two sorts of men in this world, the ones who know but won’t help you and the ones that know and will share their knowledge with you. Newton spent hours in the engine house and workshop with me answering questions and showing me what to do. That sort of skill can’t be found in books because nobody ever wrote it down. That’s one of the reasons why I have enjoyed writing this series of articles so much. It lets me share some of Newton with you.

Walt Fisher is still alive and well and when I have a query about the old days I just pick the ‘phone up and get the answer off him, long may it continue. Thanks for putting up with me over the last three months, I hope it hasn’t been too technical for you. Henry Brown Sons and Pickles were an integral part of the history of the steam driven textile industry in the district. The echoes of those early starts in the trade are still with us. Ouzledale Foundry was a large part of the story I have told and they are still a thriving business in the town so we still have a direct link back to 1890 when Henry Watts was making castings on Longfield Lane for Henry Brown. That pleases me.

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We’re still down at Victoria Mill looking for the problem on the engine. By the time both bearing caps were off and nothing had been found Newton was getting a bit worried. They had stopped 2,400 looms and found nothing. He told Tommy Almond to bar it round again and as he did Charlie Bateman who was stood at the other side told Newton that he was sure one crank moved before the other. This cheered Newton up no end and he set the men on taking the big 3ft 6inches diameter eccentrics off at the low pressure side. About half an hour later Harry Crabtree shouted to Newton, “Hey, should it do this?” and with that he shoved his two foot rule right through the 14” shaft!

Newton said he’d never been as happy in his life. He really thought he had got it wrong, worst of all, Johnny and Tommy Almond might have been right! They set to then to do a full strip down to get the broken shaft out. Johnny came down with Teddy Woods from Proctors and they started to plan how to get the shaft out. A weaving shed had been built behind the engine house since it was installed. In the end they had to move some looms, take a bay of the shed roof off and lower the broken shaft through the hole.

They measured the shaft and ordered a forging from Webb’s at Bury. Newton set up to bore the shaft out of the cranks because they would use them again. The forging arrived from Bury on Saturday morning. Newton said it was drizzling with rain and there was steam coming off it, it was still red hot from the forge. They had to wait until Sunday before they could start working it. The flywheel at Victoria was a plug fit with six keys on each side. Newton made a plug gauge for the flywheel to make sure they got a good fit and they planed six flats on the shaft centre. The ends of the shaft had to be turned so that the cranks would be a good shrink fit. The shaft was 15” diameter so Newton made the shaft 15 thousandths of an inch bigger than to holes in the two ton cranks. They had to be fitted by heating them to almost white heat until they expanded and then sliding them on the shaft. As the crank cooled, the shrinkage of the metal gripped the shaft and they’d never move again.

In order to make sure the crank was hot enough and the hole had expanded enough Newton had made a gauge to try the bore. This was a piece of steel rod with a point on either end made to exactly the same length as the diameter of the shaft. The way it worked was that you put the gauge in the hole in the crank and as soon as it would fall an inch either way before it touched the bore the crank was hot enough. Just to make sure, Newton gave it another half hours heat and wire brushed the bore before they slipped it on. There was a key way cut in the shaft and the crank which was used with a dummy key to make sure the crank was at the right angle. When you see a key in a shrunk crank it is only a dummy to fill the hole. Newton said the crank shrank on to the shaft in less than three minutes.

They put both cranks on that night, they’d worked 48 hours non-stop. Then all the rest of the engine had to be built up again. The mill was running again the following Monday and had been stopped for a fortnight. There will still be readers in Earby who can remember being laid off while it was done.

A year later the same thing happened at Wellhouse. The double tandem engine had been designed to give 850hp but in 1926 the boilers were put on superheat, new cylinders fitted and the output at peak was about 1200hp. Johnny told Newton that he should keep away from the engine while it was loaded, he said the shaft would break.

One morning Newton and Johnny had an appointment at Penrith to see a tower clock that Hindleys at Gisburn Park had bought. Just before they set off Tom Marshall who was the engineer at Wellhouse sent for Newton and when he got there the shaft neck on the flyshaft on the new side (away from the windows) was smoking hot. They got water on it, cooled it down and Newton set off for Penrith leaving Harry Crabtree on guard.

When they arrived back just before five o’clock Newton noticed that the engine was stopped. He went into the engine house and Harry was there with a couple of the lads and they had started stripping the engine down. The bearing had heated again and when they stopped at breakfast time Harry had taken the cap off the bearing and the shaft was broken. Being a good fitter he had marked the position of all the eccentrics before he started.

The procedure was exactly the same as the repair at Victoria Mill the year before. A forging was ordered from Webb’s at Bury and machined before fitting. The only difference was that the flywheel at Wellhouse wasn’t plug fit, it was the normal design, the bore in the boss was about 3” bigger than the shaft and the stakes or keys were used to true it up. The biggest problem they had was the ropes hung all round the wheel while they fitted the shaft. They had to be taken off to get the tension off the flywheel. I think the mill was stopped for ten days.

Right, you’ve been very patient but we had to look at at least two big jobs in detail. Henry Brown Sons and Pickles were skilled engineers doing big jobs and it’s as well to record them.

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There was one unforeseen consequence of the big job at Whitemoor on the deep well pump and Newton’s narrow escape. That winter he was very ill with a bad chest and had pneumonia a couple of times. He was to be troubled by chest complaints for the rest of his life. 30 years later he had a new doctor who had read all his medical notes and he told Newton that he was almost certain that it was Legionnaire’s Disease that had laid him low in the winter of 1939 but of course the disease was unknown then.

1939 brought further troubles, in September war was declared with Germany. This had an immediate effect on Henry Brown Sons and Pickles (HBSP), many mills closed down or were requisitioned for war production and so normal maintenance, even of the engines that were still running, stopped. Wellhouse works went over almost entirely to war production. Strangely enough this led to some new machinery being brought in for shell production.

The shop had never been busier. The machines ran virtually day and night. One big job they got was boring the large castings needed for the buffer recoil system on 5.5 anti-aircraft guns. The big break lathe came in handy again for machining large castings for gun bases and turntables for tank turrets. There was no question of the key men being called up, they were far to valuable where they were and so the work force was preserved almost intact.

When the war finished in 1945 there was plenty of work, not only catching up on essential maintenance on engines which had been neglected during the hostilities but, in the case of Wellhouse, getting the engine running again after it had stood for six years. The mill had been used as a bonded warehouse for tobacco during the war years and it fell to Newton to re-start it. He said that it was an interesting experience and the worst thing about it was the smell from the air pumps as they unloaded six years worth of stagnant water and urine, the workers had been using them for purposes they were never intended for.

Strangely enough, Newton repeated this experience forty years later with me when I started Ellenroad engine after a ten year shut down. Nobody had been using the air pumps as a urinal but the smell was still terrible.

Nobody at HBSP knew it but the circumstance that produced some of the biggest and most interesting jobs couldn’t have been foreseen. During the 1920s, in the boom after the First World War many mills installed extra looms and loaded their engines beyond what they were designed for. When Calf Hall hit this problem all they did was install a new boiler and raise the steam pressure. Some owners fitted new cylinders as well as raising pressures. At the time this seemed like an economical way of solving the problem. However, over the years the extra stresses took their toll and invisible stress cracks started deep in the forgings of the engines and grew slowly. After WW2 when ‘Britain’s Bread hung on Lancashire’s thread.’ the engines were once more overloaded and for some of them this was the last straw.

Now isn’t the time to give a list of jobs, I’ll just pick two which the older end might remember.

The first one will please the Earbiers! Let’s have a look at the beam engine at Victoria Mill. This is actually a very good example of what Newton was saying about taking more power out of the engines. The engine was installed in 1856 by Yates of Blackburn and was a very big engine for those days. It was a double beam engine and ran like this with very little trouble. In 1896 more power was needed and the engine was compounded to increase power by about 50%. When Johnny Pickles was working as an apprentice for Browns he was called on regularly at weekends to help with re-staking the trunnions in the beams. He asked Willy Brown one week why they bothered. Willy looked at him and said “What do you mean? We’ve got to do it to keep the mill going.” Johnny said “Well, we’re wasting our time, it’s cracked through the boss!” He was right, nobody had noticed and Saxons were called in to replace the original cast iron beams with two new steel ones in 1905. At the same time they renewed all the gearing.

50 years later Newton found himself in the same position, his dad was sending him down every weekend to check on the gear segments on the flywheel which kept coming loose. In the end Newton fell out with his dad and one Monday morning, after a weekend at Victoria tightening cotters he told his dad he wasn’t going any more. When Johnny asked why Newton told him the flywheel shaft was breaking. Johnny told him he was daft and they left it at that.

On Tuesday morning a taxi pulled up outside Newton’s house in Vicarage Road and Tommy Almond’s son got out, Tommy was the engineer at Victoria, he told Newton his dad wanted him down at Earby immediately as there was something wrong with the engine. When they got down there Newton saw two things, the flywheel was vibrating as it turned and the outside bearing nearest the shed was smoking hot. Newton told Tommy to stop it straight away but he said he’d have to tell the tenants first. Newton said alreight, you go, but as soon as he was out of the house he knocked the peg out of the governor and stopped the engine. Newton sent up to Barlick for a gang of men, it was going to be a big job. To be continued in our next as they say…..

The main picture this week is the broken shaft at Victoria. Johnny Pickles is on the right and the man stood in front of him in the pin stripe suit is Teddy Woods from Procter and Procter at Burnley. I think the man behind Johnny in the trilby is Tommy Almond.

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We’ll start with a report from the Craven Herald dated the 3rd of October 1930. Peter Heaton (65) the engineer at Moss Shed since it opened in 1903 retired. His successor was Stanley Fisher, he left his employment at J A Pickles and Son and was engineer at Moss until it closed in 1958. His son Walt however started at Pickles’ and was there until the closure in 1981. Johnny had lost one good man but gained another.

Those of you who have good memories will remember that from 1903 to 1906 John Pickles was an apprentice at the Earby works of Henry Brown and Sons. The man he served his apprenticeship under was Willy Brown, son of Henry because old Henry died in 1903. This is the same Willy Brown who lived at Horton and came into the office of J A Pickles and Son at Wellhouse in 1930 when Johnny started in business on his own account.

By the late 1930s Johnny’s firm was well established and very busy. They were maintaining all the mills in the area and doing many jobs further afield. Despite all the pressure on him, Johnny was active in his workshop at home during the lunch hour and in the evenings and was turning out some wonderful examples of precision engineering. In 1937 he completed another tower clock for the Riley Street Methodist Chapel in Earby but this one was rather special. When the chapel was bought by George Preston in July 1960 the clock moved back to Barlick and for twenty years told the time to anybody passing the Wellhouse Machine works. When the firm finished and was taken over by Gissing and Lonsdale’s the clock was moved to their office on Wellhouse Road and can be seen in the foyer to this day.

The interesting thing to me is that there is an inscription on the clock which reads: ‘IN MEMORIAM. LAUS DEO. To Henry Brown of this parish, master mechanic, 1848-1903 and Elizabeth his wife, 1847-1924. This clock was installed by their family. Made by his apprentice John Pickles and given to his memory in appreciation of a good master and an able craftsman.’ At the time when the clock was installed Johnny was in negotiation with the County Brook Mill and in 1938 started on his biggest job to date, the millwrighting of the new extension at the mill.

It’s fairly clear that at this time Johnny was aware that some re-adjustments had to be made in the structure of his company as the rewards were high but so were the risks. He had seen his old master’s firm pay the price in 1929. The fact that he made the clock in memory of Henry Brown the preceding year indicates that he had not forgotten how he started in business on his own account and was aware of how much he owed to the Brown family. Bearing this in mind might help us to understand what happened next.

It would seem that, apart from new plant and machinery added by J A Pickles and Son, the Wellhouse Machine Shop was still being rented off the Calf Hall Shed Company on the terms that it had been taken over in October 1929. In July 1938 the Calf Hall directors received a request from Johnny to buy the plant, machinery and stock that they had taken over in 1929. The Calf Hall Company had paid the liquidators £425 for Henry Brown’s machinery at the sale. The Directors agreed to sell the machinery to J A Pickles and Son for £450 and stock at valuation. Newton told me that the total was £940 and that included everything in the buildings. This sale was finalised on the 18th August 1938. At the same time Johnny floated a new company, Henry Brown Sons and Pickles Limited. I have no evidence as to who were the partners in this new firm. All I know for certain is that when they finished in 1981 Newton Pickles and Walt Fisher were partners. Whatever the case, Johnny had made sure that the name of Henry Brown was commemorated in the new firm and I believe this was as much to do with sentiment as business considerations.

During 1939 Newton had what he described as his first big outside job where he was in charge. There was a big smash on the 96ft borehole at Whitemoor waterworks. There was a 300ft bore as well and both deep well pumps were driven by steam engines at that time, A Timkins on the 96ft and a Burnley Ironworks on the 300ft bore. What happened was that the bucket in the 96ft pump jammed and the engine kept going, smashing the headgear and the seven foot diameter spur gear. Wilfred Dixon the engineer sent for help and Newton and Bob Fort were despatched to put it right.

The first job was to get the bits of the two ton spur gear out and down to the shop where they were measured up and Johnny ordered a new casting from Roberts at Nelson. It took Newton and Bob five weeks to get the jammed bucket out of the pump and six months all told to get the job finished and the bore operating again. Newton said that machining the spur gear was the biggest turning job he had ever doe up to then. It was a big job for two young men but they accomplished it. There was just one noteworthy event that happened whilst they were doing it, and Newton never forgot what happened.

The well they were working in was eight feet in diameter. Newton was down there one day replacing the 4ft by 2ft cast iron lid on the pump after re-installing the new bucket. The well was dry because they were running the 300ft bore 24 hours a day to keep the water table below the pumps in the 96ft well. Newton had got out of his bosun’s chair and was stood on the rocks in the bottom. He needed a spanner and when he shouted up for it they stopped the other pump so they could hear him. Newton’s well started to fill immediately, water bubbling up through the rocks. Up at the top they realised the danger, restarted the pump and hauled a very frightened Newton out. He told me it was the worse moment of his life and he dreamed about it for years.

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