Industrial Past

Visiting Styal and Quarry Bank Mill – the picture postcard setting on the doorstep of Manchester Airport

If you can blot out the din from planes landing and taking off at nearby Manchester Airport, Styal is the picture perfect postcard Cheshire commuter village. Surrounded by acres of green space, the attractive 19th century red brick terraced cottages are connected by cobbled roads and alleys.

Dog walkers are well catered for, with a series woodland walks that wind passed fast flowing rivers available right on their doorsteps. The village has a primary school, two churches, allotments and a football club. There is no longer a shop, but just as I arrive in Styal for a visit some residents are taking advantage of a deliveries from Asda.

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But perhaps Styal’s biggest attraction – and a place that’s now known to millions of TV viewers – is the towering brick structure of the adjoining Quarry Bank Mill, which turned out cotton (and later other textiles) from 1794 to 1959. The setting for Channel Four drama series the Mill, the complex is now in the hands of the National Trust. Styal village itself also featured heavily in the programmes (particularly in series two) as it was largely built to provide purpose-built accommodation for mill workers.

Quarry Bank Mill was founded by Samuel Greg, who had moved from Belfast to Manchester at the age of eight. He lived with his uncle Robert Hyde, a successful textile merchant who imported cotton, and after attending school at Harrow he joined the family business. And he soon became a partner in the firm.

At the age of just 26, Greg inherited the entire family business which had grown to be one of the largest Manchester merchant-manufacturers. It was the 1780s and his city – which became known as Cottonopolis – was undergoing rapid growth thanks to its position at the centre of the global cotton industry.

Greg wanted to join the growing band of mill Manchester owners and had the capital required to make the business a success. But rather than the congested city centre, he chose the site at Styal in the Cheshire countryside to establish his operations. The lease was cheaper than offered Manchester and he could benefit from the power of the River Bollin.

Today, Quarry Bank is one of the most important museums to the cotton industry, with displays showing how it shifted from a trade that was largely undertaken in workers’ cottages (where middlemen like the Hydes made their money in what was known as the ‘putting out’ system) to one which operated in towering mills. There is of course plenty of information about working conditions at Styal and the Greg family themselves.

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Quarry Bank Mill


Workers cottages have been mocked up to demonstrate (thanks to help of informative volunteers) the process of spinning and weaving cotton pre Quarry Bank. But the most exciting bit is seeing staff spinning cotton at the mill using the same (noisy) techniques practiced here before it closed in 1959. Sometime after its opening weaving rooms were also added at Quarry Bank and this process is also demonstrated on another floor.

The water frames in the mill – based on Richard Arkwright’s patent (see my blog on Cromford for more details) had just expired – were powered by giant water wheels. There have been four of these in the mill’s history; bigger and better ones were needed as production grew. Later (1810) a steam engine was added as a back-up source of power. There are a number of different engines on show at Quarry Bank today.

Quarry Bank, as with mills elsewhere, would have been a hot and unpleasant place to work, with poor ventilation and where labourers inhaled a considerable amount of dust during there long shifts. Accidents were common and it was particularly vulnerable to injuries as one of their roles was to crawl under machinery to repair blockages.

When the mill first opened, Greg found enough workers from those already living in the local area, but as operations increased he needed to look further for labour. While some farm buildings and cottages were built, he soon starting constructing purpose-built homes for those working in the mill.

Oak Cottages, today lived in by commuters with their fancy cars, were built from 1819 as two up, two down back-to-back homes that housed up to 14 people. The cellars were rented out separately to single people or couples. Yet with allotments and individual privies and allotments, contemporary writers said living conditions were better than those in the centre of Manchester. P Gaskell commented in 1836:

“The houses in Styal are commodious, clean, whitewashed and in every respect superior to the habitations for a similar class of labourers in the town…. (which) are filthy.”

Most of the children who worked at Quarry Bank came from workhouses. As apprentices, they weren’t paid but were given their accommodation, food and clothing. They worked long hours – from 6am until often 7pm at night.

Initially apprentices were housed in converted buildings in the village, but as numbers grew purpose-built accommodation needed to be built. The Apprentice House, which was home to some 90 children aged nine and above, solved that problem. Just a few minutes walk from the main mill, the white printed building is still standing and can be visited on a 45 minute tour.

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Apprentice House

Costumed guides take you to the girls’ dorm, where 60 youngsters would have been crammed in – two to a bed – and one of the smaller dorms for boys (there were more girls in the house as they were deemed less “truculent”). With limited heating, it must have been cold at night (it was cold when I visited and it was not even frosty outside) as the children slept on straw mattresses. They were locked in at night and used chamber pots inside the room, so the stench must have been extremely unpleasant.

Downstairs there was a school room where the children (particularly the boys) were taught, often by the Greg family themselves on a Sunday afternoon. And in the kitchen the apprentices’ meals were prepared using hot produce from the property’s kitchen garden. Thanks to the court records of trial of an apprentice, Joseph Sefton, who ran away in 1806 we have a good idea of what the menu was like:

“On a Sunday we had for dinner boiled pork and potatoes. We also had peas, beans, turnips and cabbages in their season. Monday we had dinner for milk and bread and sometimes thick porridge. We always had as much as we could eat. Tuesday we had milk and potatoes. Wednesday sometimes bacon and potatoes, sometimes milk and bread. Thursday if we had bacon on Wednesday we had milk and bread. Friday we used to have Lob Scouse (stew). Saturday we used to dine on thick porridge.”

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Inside the girls’ dorm in the Apprentice House


The 1830s saw the Factory Acts introduced and, with a forced reduction of hours, it became less economical to employ children. And in 1847 the apprenticeship scheme at Quarry Bank was stopped. In series two of the Mill on many of the youngsters are sad at the news that they will have to leave the Apprentice House.

And if you’ve seen the Channel Four programme you’ll know have notice the tension with management over industrial relations, with striking workers and complaints about harsh disciplinary action. The records for Quarry Bank tell a different story however with Greg showing concern for his workers – even during the slump in trade during the 1840s. Yes, he wanted them to be on time to work and made them work long days, but in comparison to other mills he was a much better boss.

The fact that education was arranged for apprentices and they had access to a doctor, Dr Holland (whose records survive in Manchester archives), was ahead of others at the time. Corporal punishment was said to be a less harsh than elsewhere – Greg didn’t use the can for example. Much of this came from his wife, Hannah, being a Unitarian and someone who took a personal interest in the welfare of workers.

Styal village grew to become a bustling community, which included a shop selling household goods and groceries. Founded by the Greg family, it was under the control of the workers themselves from 1831, given over to the Co-operative Society in 1873 before closing in 1968. The National Trust is currently raising to open the shop to the public, but in the meantime you can enjoy a fascinating window displaying talking about some of the things it sold over the years.

The Gregs founded two churches – the Unitarian Northcliffe Chapel (built in 1822) and the Methodist Chapel (opened in a converted wagon house in 1837). Both organised a considerable programme of social activities such as Christmas plays, bands, cricket teams, gardening clubs and outings.

There was also a village club with billiards, dances and concerts taking place. This all complemented Oak School which was built in 1823 using funds donated by Hannah Greg. Younger children were educated during the day and older ones in the evening, after they had finished their shifts in the mill.

Samuel’s son (also called Samuel) had this to say about how to get the best out of workers:

“Fair wages; comfortable houses; gardens for their vegetables and flowers; schools and other means of improvement for the children; sundry little accommodations and conveniences in the mill, and interest in their general welfare.”

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Styal shop

While some mill owners lived off site, Samuel Greg (senior) decided to build his home right next to Quarry Bank. On the one hand this provided an element of control over the workers but on the other it meant that he and his wife were very much part of the community. They created a colourful private garden, but also enjoyed woodland walks through dramatic gorges in the wider estate. Today, these paths are enjoyed by visitors and residents alike.

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