Tracing the history of a cotton mill

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When Cotton was King, mills sprang up to process local cloth. One was the bleaching and dyeing works at Lower Kem Mill, Whittle-le-Woods, located in what is now the southern end of Cuerden Valley Park. Historian Steve Williams, park development officer, looks at the history of the mill, the remains of which are still visible today.

Bleaching was first started on the site from the late 1700s probably as an enterprise run by the farm community or as a cottage industry.

Before the advent of chemicals, the dyeing process used many natural materials and it was not uncommon for gall nuts or even urine to be used.

The mill at Lower Kem was started around 1784, and an auction notice of 1788 refers to nine acres of land for printing ground and also several fixtures, wheels, coppers, tables, blocks and utensils necessary for the printing trade.

The mill complex changed hands several times until 1874 when it was leased by Joseph Cunliffe.

The lease describes the property as consisting of cottages, dwelling house, workshops, printing shops, dye rooms, shed and other buildings.

Between 1881 and 1896 further development took place, including the erection of a 150 foot chimney for the mill.

The demise of the company came when the mill burnt down in 1914.

The Chorley Guardian reported on the October 17 of that year: "What proved to be the largest fire that has ever been witnessed in the Whittle-le-Woods district occurred on Wednesday evening when the extensive printworks belonging to Messers J Cunliffe and Son Ltd. were practically destroyed."

The premises were known as Kem Mill Printworks and employed a workforce of about 170 people.

However the works had been running short time, and on the day previous to the fire only about 80 persons had been working. The fire started at 7.10pm and the efforts of the mill's own brigade were supplemented 45 minutes later with the arrival of Chorley Fire Brigade.

The latter arrived with horse drawn pumps, as it was reported that the motor engine was not allowed to go outside Chorley Borough.

The Guardian reporter on the scene wrote: "The cloud in the sky could be seen for miles around and thousands of people from outlying districts flocked to the scene. All this time the fire had been moving to the opposite end of the building and to the thousands of spectators in the field nearby presented a fine, though sad spectacle."

More than three-quarters of the works were destroyed and only the mill chimney was saved along with a few walls in adjoining buildings from which twisted ironwork hung.

The whole scene was one of utter destruction. The impact on the fire to the village of Whittle-le-Woods was devastating, it being a major employer locally and reeling from a slump in trade - World War One had begun less than two months previously.

The cause of the fire is unknown. After the fire, the mill was cleared for salvage and the site lay unused until leased by the Waring family.

They adapted the buildings for rearing sheep and drained the adjacent lodge.

In 1957 the Waring family purchased the site and continued to farm it until 1972 when it was bought by the Central Lancashire Development Corporation. They demolished all the buildings and the chimney a year later.

The Central Lancashire Archaeology Research Unit carried out a number of digs between 1983 and 1987, with assistance from the park ranger and local schools.

The site was officially handed over to the fledgling Cuerden Valley Park Trust in 1992.

Six years later, in 1998, some 68,000 of funding was forthcoming from the National Heritage Memorial Fund for a three year project to investigate the site.

Work was carried out by park staff and volunteers and it ran on until 2004, throwing up many interesting items and artefacts.

Nature has now reclaimed parts of the site with greater crested newts living in new ponds close to the site of the old mill lodge.

Today a small flock of sheep belonging to the Park graze close-by, whilst the outline of some of the mill buildings are clearly visible. Interpretation boards have been placed around the site to assist visitors and further restoration work is planned for later in the year.

Steve Williams will be giving an illustrated talk on the history of Cuerden Valley Park on Tuesday, March 13 at 7.30pm in The Barn on Berkeley Drive, Bamber Bridge.

Further information can be obtained from the park office on 01772 324436 or visit Park staff also give talks out in the local community to schools and groups.