The first bank holiday of 2023 began gloriously sunny and dry as we headed to Quarry Bank Mill. Owned by the National Trust, the property occupies 400 acres of Cheshire countryside along the valley of the river Bollin; it is the second largest National Trust property in the north west of England. The website advertised the grounds as opening at 08:30 with the other parts of the estate following at 10:30. Rolling up at 10:45, we were amazed to find the car park already very busy, mainly given over to families wisely decked out in wellington boots, loading their rucksacks with thermos flasks and snacks before heading off on long walks, many with dogs, around the extensive woodland paths.
One of the defining businesses of the early Industrial Revolution, Quarry Bank Mill was opened in 1784 by industrialist Samuel Greg, whose vision was for a one-stop shop for spinning cotton on an industrial scale. His site incorporated all stages of the process from raw cotton to finished material. Eighteenth century mechanical innovations had transformed the cottage industries of weaving and spinning into big business on a massive scale, which created immense wealth for manufacturers. Richard Arkwright had invented the water frame, which revolutionised the speed of spinning, in his own mills in the 1770s. When Arkwright lost the patent in 1885, other industrialists like Greg were free to install their own frames.
The Quarry Bank complex developed over the decades to include the five-floor mill, apprentice house with kitchen gardens, cottages for adult workers and their families and chapels for them to attend for Sunday worship. In 1834, Greg’s engineers reshaped the river Bollin to power the huge waterwheel inside the mill which ran the machinery. Originally built as a country escape from their home in Manchester, the site included a house for the Greg family, which stands very close to the mill. Mrs. Greg, not keen on the noise and smoke of the city, decided that the family would live permanently on the estate, which resulted in the development of acres of woodland and pleasure gardens for the enjoyment of her children and herself. Unfortunately, the house was closed when we visited, due to staff shortages, but all of the garden areas, woodland and river walks were accessible. We didn’t stray too far as there was a lot to see, opting to explore the wider grounds on a return visit in the summer.
The Christmas theme extended into the orangery, where cute hand-crafted decorations were on display.
Some of the orangery was given over to more traditional occupants. In the 18thnand 19th centuries, gardeners would have grown pineapples and other exotic fruits to impress the family’s guests.
Records show that the Head Gardener in the Gregs’ day was one William Brough, who started life as an apprentice at the mill. He married and lived with his family in the gardener’s cottage which you can see in one of the above photos, situated behind the tropical greenhouse. Quarry Bank’s archives have evidence of some other former apprentices who made good and were elevated to positions of responsibility on the estate.
Styal, a tiny hamlet prior to the arrival of the mill, was extended several times by Greg, to provide cottages for his workers, two chapels, a school and a shop. As the still small village sits within the boundaries of the estate, it too is owned by the National Trust. All of the properties bar one – number 13 Oak Cottages – is let to tenants, with National Trust employees being prioritised. The waiting list of would-be tenants is long – unsurprisingly – and properties rarely become available. Number 13 is usually open to visitors, but staff shortages meant that, like the Gregs’ house, it was closed at the time of our visit. The village looks idyllic now, but in the mill workers’ day, each cottage could house up to 10 people, sometimes with more in the cellar.
The majority of the mill employees were child apprentices, 90 of whom were housed at any one time in the apprentice house. Being small, fast and nimble-fingered, children could move quickly beneath the spinning machines, keeping operations running smoothly, except for those occasions when, exhausted during their 12 hour shift, they lost concentration with sometimes horrific results. Like all mills in the years prior to child employment legislation, many children were maimed or even killed whilst at work. Quarry Bank archives holds records of a boy, Thomas Priestly, who lost a finger from his left hand in one of the machines. A court record gives a detailed account, based on Thomas’ testimony after his arrest for absconding from the mill and making his way, with another boy, to the London workhouse from where they had been personally selected by Greg and where their mothers remained. Following his injury, Thomas wanted to see his mum and, impressively, made his way back to the capital and got back into the workhouse where he stayed under the radar for several days before being discovered. He was charged with breaking the terms of his 10 year apprenticeship and returned to Quarry Bank. It says it all that young Thomas preferred the workhouse – the absolute last resort for those fallen on hard times.
After their 12 or 13 hour day in the mill, the children would undertake a range of domestic duties in the house, including tending the cottage garden for the boys and sewing and cleaning for the girls. Life was grim. The house supervisor, a much more severe lady than our tour guide, would have regarded the children as her personal servants, attending to her guests and being at the beck and call of her husband and herself.
…. or for learning
Children were recruited from workhouses all over the country or were found in other destitute circumstances. Hand-picked by Greg, they had only to be (or pass for) 10 years old and appear reasonably healthy, in order to be productive. Many did not know their own ages, but that wasn’t a problem as long as they looked right for the part. Indentures surviving from the time show the children’s crosses, signing away their lives for the next 10 years. Their payment: their food and board. A few did well out of it, learning a trade and staying on at Quarry Bank as adults; some of the less fortunate are buried in nearby St. Bartholomew’s church yard.
The mill is still operational today, run by volunteers, and produces cotton fabric which can be purchased from the gift shop by the metre for home sewing projects, and is used to make napkins, toiletry bags and other items which can be purchased.
Three of the mill’s five floors are open to visitors with volunteers on hand to demonstrate the processes and machinery
Floor 3 includes informative displays, highlighting the development and expansion of the textiles industry and acknowledging the human exploitation which contributed to its growth and the vast wealth it created for some.
The day passed so quickly, unfortunately with a substantial chunk wasted queueing for toilets and refreshments, about an hour and forty-five minutes in total spent standing in line. We twice joined the queue for the garden cafe, only to give up after about 20 minutes on each occasion, seeing that there were no seats, inside or out, anyway. Next, we tried the restaurant, eventually reaching the counter after queueing for another 25 minutes, only to find that everything had sold out except for pasties, at £4.50 each, and then waiting again for the food to arrive. My friend opted for the Cornish whilst I was lucky to get the last cheese & onion, or there would have been nothing for me to eat. They were good though, homemade and tasty, if not worth the price tag or the queue. A lady at the next table, who had been lucky enough to get the last bowl of spicy parsnip and apple soup, told us that when she arrived at 11:15, the car park had been full and new arrivals had had to wait for other cars to leave. According to one of the guides, the day’s 3,500 visitors had not been anticipated, perhaps fair enough considering it was January and the weather might well have been miserable. Staff sickness had also played a part. Considering that many are volunteers, I was impressed overall and will definitely be returning.
It was dusk when we left, not having seen everything but having filled the day. We just had time to pop very briefly into one of the little shops but again decided not to join another long queue to buy a drink for the drive home. The sun was sinking over the river, another area we hadn’t had time to explore. We’ll plan our return trip for sometime in the summer, when we’ll definitely be taking a picnic.