The Crookedest Chimney in England

'While we were in Heywood, Mr Smith showed me what may almost be termed the English ‘Pisa tower’ - the leaning chimney. It certainly is the most crooked chimney in England, and when viewed in the same manner as shown in our illustration the effect is decidedly striking. It looks as if it must inevitably topple over, but Mr Smith assured me that it is as safe as the straightest stacks. The proprietor exhibits a keen pride in this building freak, and spares no money upon its continual repair, so that the neighbouring inhabitants shall have no cause to doubt its stability.' (Windsor Magazine, March 1902)
The chimney referred to here was on Brook Mills, owned by Colonel JJ Mellor, and the steeplejack was Joseph Smith. Known far and wide as ‘The Lancashire Steeplejack’, Smith lived in Rochdale and worked on some of the most important structural alterations to chimneys and spires around the country, including what he described as ‘the crookedest chimney in England.’

Mellor’s octagonal chimney was 190 feet (63 metres) high and weighed about 2,000 tons. The walls of chimneys like this were, as a rule, about three feet in thickness at the base, tapering away to nine inches at the top. Taking a straight vertical line from the base, the chimney leaned 6ft. 6in. (some reports had it 4ft. 6in.), but Smith made regular inspections to make sure it was safe.

A Sunday Chronicle article on the chimney in March 1893 prompted defensive remarks from the editor of the Heywood Advertiser and a long letter from Colonel Mellor himself. Mellor claimed that the chimney was quite safe, and that ‘Crooked as it is… therefore, there are few chimneys in Lancashire which can compare with it either in strength or solidity.’ He said it had been bent by ‘a violent gate of wind, which exerted its full force upon it just as it was approaching completion.’ This halted further progress on the chimney and the coping was put on top. The structure was allowed to settle and Mellor claimed that it had never moved in the 40 years since it first come into his possession, as proved by recorded observations made with a plumb-line. This was also attributed to the hard-as-flint bricks and a foundation of ‘exceptional firmness and solidity’. He also noted the ‘service which this chimney has done to the town of Heywood.’

John James Mellor (Wikimedia Commons)

The Brook Mills chimney is in the background of this photo from Bury Street. (Hudson)
'It may not satisfy the requirements of a ‘fin de siecle’ aestheticism. But you cannot have everything in this world. It may not be beautiful to look upon, but for forty years it has helped to keep down the rates by keeping the people gathered around it in constant employment. During that long period it has never been stopped for short time, nor by a 'strike,' and during that long period of distress in Lancashire known as the 'cotton famine' - a period scarcely remembered by the present generation of factory operatives - when all the chimneys around were smokeless and the mills silent, this one kept smoking away, helping to find food and clothing and shelter for those gathered under its shadow when their neighbours were subsisting on the bread of charity, enduring their privations, let me add, with admirable fortitude. I think you will agree with me, sir, that the good old chimney can show a good record.’
Brook Mills on a 1907 map.

Joseph Smith carried out work for numerous other companies and public bodies across Lancashire, including the following locals:

  • Albert Spinning Co. Heywood
  • Bridge Mill Spinning and Manufacturing Company Ltd. Norden
  • Balsgate Spinning and manufacturing Co. Norden
  • Blackitts Cotton spinning and manufacturing Co. Norden
  • Burn’s Ring Spinning Co Ltd, Heywood
  • Castleton Spinning Co, Heywood
  • Derby Mills Cotton Spinning Co. Heywood
  • Hargreaves and Son, Hey Mill, Heywood
  • Heywood Spinning Company, Heywood
  • J Howarth, Red Lumb Mill, Norden
  • Hooley Bridge Mill, Heywood
  • Mr Kay, Mill, Heywood
  • Lee and Hargreaves, Hooley Bridge
  • Lord Brothers, Rainshore Mills, Norden
  • Lord Brothers, John Street, Heywood.
  • Colonel Mellor, Crooked Chimney, Heywood
  • Mutual Spinning Co. Heywood
  • Norreys brothers, Heywood
  • Phoenix Brewery, Heywood
  • Perseverance Mill Company, Heywood
  • Park Street Spinning Company, Heywood
  • Smith and Sons, Phoenix Mill, Heywood
  • Smith and Sons, machinists, Heywood
  • Whitaker and Wild, Heywood
  • Wham Bar Spinning Co, Heywood
  • Mr Woods, Birch Mills, Birch
  • Wolstenholme and Wild, Bamford Road, Heywood
  • Yew Mill Co, Heywood
  • St Luke’s Church, Heywood
  • Linfitt’s church, Heywood
  • St Paul’s church, Norden

Smith died in 1903, and his obituary appeared in numerous newspapers:
‘He was wont to ascend to the giddy heights of the air as another man might go to his desk. His nerves were adamant, and his precision in felling a chimney marvellous. It was these feats that captured the imagination as it was his cheery, hearty ways that captivated the heart… He revolutionized the steeplejack's profession by substituting for the kites by which communication with the tops of chimneys was formerly established ladders fastened to iron ‘dogs’ driven into the fabric of the chimney…
Binding shaky chimneys, lengthening chimneys that were too short, fixing lightning conductors, repairing steeples all were one to Mr Smith. At one time he used to travel round the country in a caravan in the pursuit of his craft. He grew to be a man of means, and in later years varied the felling of chimneys with the duties of a theatrical manager in Rochdale and Bolton. Heart failure following pneumonia was the cause of death.’

It is likely that Brook Mills were built on the site of the Wrigley Brook Mill, the first cotton mill in Heywood (1780). In later years the Brook Mills were owned by Pearson, Morton & Co. and were demolished in 1962, although the chimney itself had been taken down years earlier.

A closer view of the chimney, this one from Bridge Street in about 1910. (Haynes)

  • George Falconer, ‘A life of peril: The Lancashire steeplejack and his work’, The Windsor Magazine, March 1902. 
  • Hannah Haynes, Heywood, 1997. 
  • John Hudson, Heywood in Old Photographs, 1994. 
  • Colin Logan, Steeplejack Origins, 2011. 
  • ‘Outsider’, The Lancashire Steeplejack: A sketch of his career and work by an outsider, Bolton, W & TR Morris, 1898. 
  • Sunday Chronicle, 12 March 1893. 
  • Wikipedia ‘John James Mellor’