Saltaire main mill
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4 Towns That Grew From the Mills

The Industrial Revolution shaped much of the north of England.

The textile industry boomed during the Industrial Revolution and shaped much of England’s north. It allowed established towns and cities to flourish as well as create entirely new ones.

Here, Thomas Williams (Engagement Assistant: Mills Regeneration) at Historic England, takes us through some examples of places that thrived thanks to the mills.

1. Saltaire, the model village.

Side view of the main mill
Saltaire Mill and Chimney. © Historic England.

Built in 1851, the name is a combination of the founder’s name, Sir Titus Salt, and the Aire River. Salt moved his five separate mills from Bradford to create the current site, a larger mill with access to the Leeds and Liverpool Canal as well as the railway.

Along with the new mill, Salt built a model village for his workers containing neat stone houses, washhouses with tap water bathhouses, a hospital, and an institute for recreation and education, which included a library, reading room, concert hall, billiard room, science laboratory and gymnasium.

The village contained a school for children, almshouses, allotments, a park and a boathouse. Recreational activities were also actively encouraged such as drum and fife band for schoolboys and a brass band, the precursor to today’s Hammonds Saltaire Band, for the men of the village.

With this combination of quality housing, employment, recreation, education facilities and social services, Saltaire was a landmark example of enlightened 19th-century urban planning. In 1872, Saltaire along with Dean Clough mill in Halifax were featured highlights of the Japanese government’s Iwakura Mission tour of modern industrial Britain.

Saltaire is a UNESCO world heritage site. All the buildings belonging to the model village are individually listed: the main mill building is Grade II* listed and the Grade I listed Congregational church has the highest level of protection.

Aerial photo of Salt's Mill, Saltaire, 1937
Salt’s Mill, Saltaire, 1937. © Historic England.

2. Nelson, from young town to weaving centre.

A small mill with a large courtyard area
Pendle Village Mill. © Historic England.

Not recognised as an urban entity until 1864 with the formation of the Local Board, Nelson consisted of a small number of hamlets, notably Little and Great Marsden. A poll in 1660 showed only 154 households in the whole of Marsden, with the population subsisting mostly on marginal farming and the domestic production of woollen textiles. However, by the 19th century, Nelson had the highest rate of growth in all of Lancashire, eventually becoming the fourth-largest weaving centre in north east Lancashire by 1891.

Other than the Ecroyd family with the woollen mill Lomeshaye where ‘model’ housing for workers had been built, Nelson had no prominent individuals to oversee the development of the town. Manufacturing, therefore, was grown from the ‘room and power’ system where small business owners paid rent for space and access to power from the mill engine. This suited the economic situation of the town, with 70% of manufacturers operating between 100 and 500 looms, and only three operating more than 1000 in the 1880s.

The Local Board was established in 1864 to control the fragmented approach to the town’s growth, giving them the power to control it as well as provide and manage services such as gas, water and sanitation. This proved successful, as by 1896, the population had grown from 3,500 to 33,000.

By the time of the First World War, the textile industry employed 75% of the workforce in Nelson, Brierfield and Barrowford. The lack of other employment resulted in both men and women being employed almost equally, with both earning more or less equal amounts.

Though not a particularly high wage for men, it was comparatively high in national terms for women allowing the combined household income, particularly after adding sons and daughters’ wages, to be relatively high. This gave working-class families the chance to occupy, or even own, reasonably good quality housing in comparison to other parts of the country, especially compared to those in major cities.

Aerial photo of the town centre including cotton mills, Nelson, 1925
 The town centre including cotton mills, Nelson, 1925. © Historic England.

3. Oldham, the town that boomed.

A large red brick mill. General view of works, view from north east.
Hartford Mill. © Historic England.

Much of Oldham’s history is centred around textile manufacturing during the Industrial Revolution; before this, the land was used primarily for grazing sheep to provide raw material for local woollen weaving trade. In fact, it wasn’t until the last quarter of the 18th century that saw Oldham shift to a sprawling industrial metropolis of textile factories. Due to its lack of access to the sea, major rivers or an abundance of natural resources, it was initially overlooked by early investors. However, it was eventually recognised for its convenient access to both the Manchester and Yorkshire workforce.

Lees Hall Mill was the first to be built in 1778 and within a year 11 other mills had been constructed and by 1818 there were 19, though still not a high number in comparison to other parts of the country. However, the population saw a massive increase due to the mass migration of workers from surrounding villages: increasing from 12,000 in 1801, to 137,000 in 1901. The speed of growth it experienced ensured its transformation to a factory town.

By the second half of the 19th century, Oldham was the cotton spinning centre of the world. With the mill boom in the 1860s and 70s, Oldham overtook Manchester and Bolton. By 1871 Oldham alone had more spindles than any other country in the world, except the USA, and by 1909 it was spinning more cotton than France and Germany combined. In 1928 with the construction of the UK’s largest textile factory Oldham reached its zenith, at its peak, there were over 360 mills working both day and night.

Werneth Cotton Mill, Featherstall Road South and environs, Oldham, from the south, 1936
Werneth Cotton Mill, Featherstall Road South and environs, Oldham, from the south, 1936. © Historic England.

4. Leeds, the town that became a city.

Leeds initially grew as a market town in the middle ages, eventually becoming a centre for the coordination of woollen cloth and white broadcloth, which meant by 1770 Leeds handled a sixth of all England’s export trade.

By the time of the Industrial Revolution Leeds was already an established centre in the textile market, however, it saw continued growth accelerated by the Aire and Calder Navigation in 1699, with additional work being completed in the 18th century, and the Leeds and Liverpool Canal in 1816.

Railways connected Leeds to national markets, it also had an east-west connection to Manchester and access to international markets through Hull and Liverpool. Marshalls Mill was one of the first of many mills constructed from around 1790, with most being focused on woollen finishing and flax. The industry quickly diversified however with mechanical engineering supplying tools and machinery to the growing textile sector, and by 1914 manufacturing had diversified further with printing, chemical and clothing manufacturing.

Aerial photo of Alfred Cooke's New Crown Point Printing Works
Alfred Cooke’s New Crown Point Printing Works, Leeds, 1930. © Historic England.

Further reading

Mills continue to shape the northern landscape today, with exciting and innovative new uses bringing life back into these buildings and their areas. If you would like to learn more, check our Mills of the North pages and our latest report: ‘Driving Northern growth through repurposing historic mills’.

5 comments on “4 Towns That Grew From the Mills

  1. maggiemoo2015

    A good selection of Yorkshire and border towns like Oldham. Love to see one based in Lancashire. Perhaps one showing the beauty of the buildings themselves with all colours of terracotta brickwork perhaps. I know most have gone but some like Leigh Spinners and Butts Mill in Leigh. The history and the beauty not the horrors. My aunts x4 worked in the mill at Bromley Cross and my Gt Aunt was a carder all her life which contrary to popular belief she lived a decent length of life 65

  2. Nitpicking, I know, but Pendle Village Mill (formerly Hollin Bank Mill) is actually in Brierfield and not Nelson. Although all the information about the town growing from nothing on the back of the cotton mills is equally applicable.

  3. Lord Andrew Clinterty

    wonderful article and photos

  4. A Jennings

    Really interesting read, as a Yorkshire person, from a family who worked in the West Yorkshire Mills and as a former employee of Coats Viyella who had weaving Mills at Barrowford Nelson. Now part of Homes England and passionate about place making.


    My paternal great-grandparents were born in Oldham in the late 1800’s and immigrated to Canada in the early 1900’s, eventually settling in the West Kootenay region of British Columbia. I am enjoying learning about the milling history of the north of England and imagining their lives as mill workers. The family name at that time was Lees, and I see reference to Lees in some of the geographical features of the area. Fascinating stuff!

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