Looking Back at Gnat Bank

The following article about Gnat Bank, near the north-eastern boundary of Heywood, first appeared in the Heywood Advertiser in 1886. One of the earliest mentions of the area was of 'Natfield', perhaps near Gnat Bank, in documents of 1534.

‘Another small village, situated near the boundary line of the Heywood corporate borough, in a direction opposite to the village of Birch, and about the same distance from the town, presents in its silence and ruin a melancholy contrast to, and pleads for some of the revivifying influence that has been brought to bear upon, Birch. Dullness, deadness, and decay have, in this once flourishing romantically situated village, overtaken and reduced to ruin here all human effort. Desolation and decay appear to have taken possession of the mills, and in them hold their high carnival of ruin. In the romantic dell in which they are mouldering the busy hum of labour is no more heard, and the silence of the place is disturbed only by the cawing of the rooks and the murmuring of the river, as once utilised in working the mills it now rushes idly by.

Map of area around Gnat Bank, 1893.

In almost its infancy cotton spinning made itself a local habitation at Gnat Bank, the waters of the Roach furnishing the necessary motive power. In the early days of the cotton and woollen industry of this country water was the principal motive power, and sites for the erection of mills and workshops were sought for by the streams and rivers where a sufficient flow of water and a sufficient fall would, by a combination of ingenuity and capital, furnish the necessary water power. The flow and fall of the Roach at Gnat Bank was utilised and a mill was built, which contributed to the spread of the cotton trade before any of the mills now existing in Heywood were erected. When steam, a steadier power, came into general use as a motive force, it became less necessary to select the banks of a stream for the building of mills, and those erected by streams in places remote from towns, or in places difficult of approach, began to lose favour with the manufacturers, and to be abandoned and to fall into ruin. The mills at Gnat Bank combined steam power with their water power, and this, for a time, enabled them to hold their position.

For many years the mills furnished employment for a large number of the inhabitants of the neighbourhood. The houses were occupied by a seemingly well-to-do population. Gas was in general use, and the appearance and habits of the people betokened a degree of comfort and prosperity which the stoppage of the mills had caused to vanish. There have been several occupiers who have tried to make their way by investing their capital in working the mills. They have made real improvements and additions to the place, but the fate that has overtaken most of the mills situated in secluded out-of-the-way places has overtaken those at Gnat Bank. When the firm of J. and J.J. Mellor occupied the place a gleam of prosperity was thrown over the neighbourhood. The cottages were fully occupied, the Fleece Inn, at War Office, had a weekly patronage it has since rarely known, and all in the neighbourhood went as merrily as a marriage bell. The Mellors, however, for some cause or other, ceased to occupy the mills. They left the place, and carried with them their capital and business abilities, and with them went the gleam of prosperity which during their term of occupancy had shone upon the village. No other occupiers since the Mellors left have found it expedient to work the mills, and they have been abandoned to ruin and decay, sure followers of inattenton and neglect. The cottages, too, erected for the accommodation of the workpeople, and situated upon a commanding situation, on the right bank of the river, are many of them dilapidated and falling. Adversity, with a lavish hand, has scattered the seeds of ruin over the neighbourhood, causing misfortune to take root in mansion, mill, and cottage, and banishing from their old haunts both gentle opulency and sturdy labour.

The site of Gnat Bank, though denuded of much of the stately timber it once possessed, is yet fairly wooded. The high and precipitous banks are adorned with trees and underwood, which give to this, the most magnificent gorge through which the waters of the Roach force their way, a sublimity and grandeur the equal of which we shall have to go far to see. A little higher up the river than the mill, and close by a footpath leading from Gnat Bank to Meadowcroft Mill, are three dilapidated cottages, the place being called Tyrone's Bed, and, by local corruption, Yels-o'th'Throne. Tradition makes this the hiding place of the great Earl of Tyrone, who, when after his rebellion and defeat in Ireland, sought safety by flight from the vengeance of Queen Elizabeth, whose authority he had defied, and in this, then solitary place, he found a safe retreat until more peaceful times, when he returned to Ireland, and, through the intercesssion of Mountjoy, the Queen's Lord Deputy of Ireland, obtained her pardon. Upon this tradition a fine ballad was written by a Mr. Nuttall of Rochdale, called "Tyrone and Constance, or the Outlaw in the Dell of Grizelhurst," on which, too, Mr. Roby has based a fictitious love story [This story is set circa 1603]. The old hall at Grizelhurst has disappeared, but at the time of Tyrone's flight it was the home of the Holt family, a daughter of which the Constance of the ballad and the love story was said to be.

'Tyrone's Bed Near Rochdale', drawn by G. Pickering, engraved by Edward Finden
(from The Traditions of Lancashire, John Roby, 1829).

The road by the ruined cottages leads to the fulling mill at Meadowcroft. This long-established fulling mill is approached from the highway at Wood Top, through a weird-like gorge of overhanging rocks, through which the stream, which has for long supplied the mill with power, tosses and tumbles down the valley until it passes into the Roach over one of the loftiest water wheels in the neighbourhood. This old fulling mill has lately undergone renovation and improvement, and is now worked by the enterprising firm of Samuel Porritt and Sons, woollen manufacturers, who have large works near, and are the principal employers of labour in the woollen trade in the locality. 

On the high ground just above the mills at Gnat Bank is Crimble Hall. John Fenton, who resided here, was the first member of Parliament for Rochdale after that town was made a Parliamentary borough by the passing of the Reform Bill of 1832. Here he was visited by his friend, Mr. Cobden, who for many years represented Rochdale. In those days plenty was in full possession at Crimble Hall. Long years of successful business as bankers and manufacturers had built up for the Fentons of Crimble and Bamford Halls a position of opulence and influence. They basked in the sunshine of wealthy independence. Large employers of labour, a numerous population planted themselves around them. Everything betokened wealth and prosperity, and the heads of the halls at Crimble and Bamford passed away, knowing nothing of the cankerworm that has eaten away the very vitals of their prosperity.

War Office, a small village on the Bury and Rochdale old highway, is an adjunct of Gnat Bank. Here was established an office, called the War Office, for the enrolment of recruits and allotted men for the army during the time of the agitation in this country caused by the threatened invasion by the French under the first Napoleon. The martial spirit of Lancashire was fired, and, as the name indicates, it did not smoulder at the War Office. The sign of the Fleece over the inn door is a facsimile of the imprint of the one on the notes issued by the Rochdale bank of the Messrs. Fenton. Many of these one-pound notes were changed at the Fleece, and often the change had grown wonderfully reduced before its owner had landed safely at home from the Fleece.
TIMON.’

Note
An article looking at the myth of the Earl in Tyrone in Heywood can be read on this 'History Ireland' website. The story from Roby's Traditions of Lancashire can be read here.

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