Making History in Makin Mill

James Holmes, manager of Makin Mill, ca. 1825.
Painting by Sir Thomas Lawrence.
Sometimes the history of just one building can tell the story of the surrounding area, and for over 350 years Makin Mill, later renamed Roach Mill, reflected the history of Heywood, dating from the days of the agricultural villages, through the rise and decline of the textiles boom, and then the modern decay and renewal of the town.

The first mill in Heywood to process cotton was probably the Wrigley Brook Mill, in 1777. The next was Makin Mill, on the banks of the Roch by the Back o’th’ Moss farmland. There had been a corn mill at that spot since at least 1637, when it was owned by Roger Makon, whose family also owned nearby farmland. This would have been a secluded locale at the time the original mill was built, when the small population around Heywood lived in scattered folds near woods and waterways, working mostly as farmers or weavers.

By 1762 Makin Mill was being used for fulling, a step in the production of woollen cloths which involves washing out the natural oils in the wool and then matting the fibres together to make them thicker. After washing, the cloths were stretched over wooden frames in fields so they would dry straight. These were called tenter frames, to which the cloths were attached by tenterhooks. The frames were erected in fields known as tenter grounds or tenterfields, and there were some of these on the Back o’th’ Moss near Makin Mill well into the 19th century.

Left: Makin Mill, 1825. Right: Roach Mill from the same perspective, post-WW2. Abbey Crescent sits on the crest of the hill. (H. Haynes).

Tenter frames (Otterburn Mill)

The large firm of Peel, Yates & Co. took over the water-powered mill in 1780, converting it to the first major commercial cotton-producing venture in the town. At the time Heywood had a population of about 2,000 people and cotton production was limited to less than one hundred handloom fustian weavers. Fustian is a kind of coarse, cheap cloth, and the weavers were independent artisans who worked from home, either owning or renting their own looms and earning good money.

The new owner was Robert Peel of Bury (later Sir Robert Peel, 1st Baronet), whose son went on to become a Prime Minister. Peel was one of the richest textile manufacturers of the early Industrial Revolution, owning several large mills around the Bury area. As his business boomed, Peel procured boys and girls from London workhouses to meet the demand for labour, a move that also helped the company keep down wages. These children were kept in ‘Apprentice Houses’ attached to the mills - the one at Makin Mill housed 50 girls - and were made to work hard under harsh conditions. A 1795 report into the living and working conditions of children in some of Peel’s mills found the food and lodgings to be basic and minimal:
‘Food.- Breakfast, milk porridge; dinner, potatoes and sometimes meat; supper, milk porridge. Four o'clock, bread and butter. N.B.- Oat bread and no other.

Lodging.- Very indifferent; very poor chaff beds on cording only (the beds so thin as not to prevent the nets of the cording appearing through), with one blanket each, and a very dirty sheet. Three boys sleep in one bed.

Work.- From five o'clock in the morning till eight in the evening; have sometimes twopence per week allowed them an account of working extra hour.’
Inspectors of these houses would find themselves surrounded by young children, some as young as seven, crying to be allowed to go home again. Unsurprisingly, the records show that many such indentured child labourers ran away from the mills. John Ainsworth, a Bury hatter very much opposed to the negative social effects of increasing industrialisation, wrote rather caustically in the 1840s about the Peel establishments:
‘The late Mr. Collinge told me that he locked up fifty girls at one time every night, and unlocked them in the morning, from Peel's Apprentice House at Meakin Mill, and, said he, ‘This was hard work.’… The children, called apprentices, were detained and worked by hard taskmasters, under the direction of Peel, Yates, and Company. How many have Peel, Yates, and Company brought from poverty to affluence? I should think where they have made one gentleman they have sunk ninety-nine in the lowest depths of poverty... The apprentice system must have helped the first Sir Robert Peel to amass not a little of his three or four million pounds.’
William Hogarth, 'Industry and Idleness' (1747), 'The fellow 'prentices at their looms.' © Trustees of the British Museum.
Back o'th' Moss and Makeant Mill, 1851. The community of mill workers lived around 'Peel Square' at the top of Peel Lane.

The Radical activist and author Sam Bamford made a visit to what he called ‘Makeant Mill’ in the 1840s. He walked up Peel Lane, which was then a cindered road, ‘away from the gloom and smoke, and right out into the open fields’. To his left were what he described as ‘beautiful and verdant slopes, each with its rill of clear water hurrying to join the stream of the Roch’, while ahead he could see a fold of houses ‘built somewhat in the form of a triangle’ and the top of the mill chimney. There were also some tenter grounds, which were fields with long wooden frames on which large sheets of textiles from the mill were dried after washing.
‘The place where the houses we have mentioned are situated is called ‘Back-o'-th'-Moss,’ and the houses themselves were the habitations of persons working at Makeant mill. A house of superior appearance marks the residence of the manager of the works. The houses of the workers seemed to have been built a considerable time; they were probably erected when the mill was enlarged, and first became a cotton factory. The interior appearance of some which I entered hardly bespoke so much of comfort, nor so good a system of housewifery, as many I had noticed in Heywood. But much allowance must, in such cases, be made for circumstances - for poverty, and mental and bodily depression. These poor people, I understood, had, during several previous years, been, sadly distressed for want of work, and had also much to complain of with respect to the absence of moral and social comforts. They were now differently circumstanced, and were beginning to reap the advantages of improved management. A little further than these houses is a row of good-looking modern cottages, including a provision shop and a public house.’
The St Luke’s burial records from 1832-36 for people living in the cluster of houses near Makin Mill shows just how hard this life must have been. The mortality rate for infants was awful:
Makin Mill residents (adults) buried in St Luke’s churchyard, 1832-36

1832: Nancy Scholfield, aged 25; Thomas Tetlow, 35; John Whitehead, 41; Mary Berry, 31; Mary Robinson, 25
1833: James Greenhalgh, 44; Mary Greenhalgh, 54; Alice Hamer, 23
1834: Mary Scholfield, 50; Ann Ingham, 68; Richard Holden, 54

Makin Mill residents (children) buried in St Luke’s churchyard, 1832-36 
1832: Betty Greenhalgh, 8 months; Samuel Wood, 3 years; Alice Thorpe, 10 weeks
1833: Emma Jacques, 15 weeks, Thomas Ashworth, 7 months, Patience Simpson, 5 years; Henry Rushton, 7 weeks, John Rothwell; 3 days; Betty Bond, 14 months; Richard Horrox, 8 months
1834: Salleni Dawson, 12 months; Rachel Turner, 6 months; George Bond, 4 months
1835: Margaret Lord, 3 months
1836: John Smith, 11 months; Nancy Partington, 21 months
Bamford stopped to admire the ‘fine, deep, and silent valley’ below the field that is now the site of Abbey Crescent, and walked down a cindered cart-road to visit the mill there.

There were about 180 people employed at the mill at that time, each earning an average of about nine shillings per week. Despite the squalor of the homes he had just visited, Bamford was impressed by the conditions inside the mill, claiming that ‘for cleanliness, good air, and the comfortable appearance of the worker, I never saw anything that exceeded it’. He noted that most of the workers seemed decently clothed and fed, although, ‘several of the married, child-bearing women and women in years seemed weakly and emaciated; some of the elder ones also were deformed as if from weakness’. Bamford wrote of his departure:
‘As I ascended the road again, I could not but turn and enjoy another look of the valley; and I left the place with a wish that none of God's human creatures were worse off than those I had just seen in the old quiet-looking mill below.’
Throstle frame (Encyclopedia Britannica, 1893).

The valley so admired by Bamford had actually undergone significant change because of the mill. A weir had been constructed several hundred metres upstream so that a mill race could be created. A mill race is an artificially-created channel that directs water to a mill. he water level was controlled by a sluice gate near the weir. This weir could have been built during the 1780 conversion to cotton, but could possibly predate that as the earlier mills were also water-powered. There was also a short tramway next to the mill race.

After the town rebounded from the hard days of the 1860s cotton famine, the mill was rebuilt and enlarged by new owner Joseph Jameson, of the Roach Mill Spinning Company Limited, who renamed it as ‘Roach Mill’. This seven-storey factory contained up to 43,000 ring spindles, helping the spinning capacity of Heywood to become the 15th largest in Britain by 1915.

Female workers inside Roach Mill, 1919 (H. Haynes)

1937. The 'filter beds' on the left bank of the river were part of the council sewerage works on that side. Abbey Crescent would be built in the open space on the hill a few years later.

The Back o’th’ Moss council estate was built next to the mill in the 1930s, but after this time the local cotton industry declined dramatically. Roach Mill gradually fell into disuse. By the 1980s it was empty and derelict, and the once-beautiful valley to the east had become a massive industrial dump that overran and destroyed remnants of the old millrace, sluice gate and tramway. This sorry state of affairs reflected the decline of post-war Heywood as the once-thriving town struggled with the collapse of the cotton and manufacturing industries. Roach Mill met the fate of most other mills in town when it was finally demolished in 1983.

Roach Mill ca.1980 (Michael Cain).

The neighbouring dump was closed around the same time and covered with soil, and within a short space of time the natural beauty of the surrounding valley re-emerged.

This meadow now covers the site of the former Makin and Roach mills. (Friends of Roch Valley)

The valley here has defied 350 years of industrial history by returning to its former natural beauty. Apart from the upstream weir, there is no obvious sign that there were ever any buildings in the valley, but these newly-green spaces are part of the story of the rise and fall of cotton in Heywood.

   Related pages   

  • John Ainsworth, Walks Around Bury for Sixty Years & Upwards, 1842; Heywood Advertiser, 26 April 1907.
  • Samuel Bamford, Walks in South Lancashire and its Borders, Blackley, S. Bamford, 1844. 
  • Finch & Co., Antiques and Works of Art 
  • Hannah Haynes, The Archive Photograph Series: Heywood, Stroud, Chalford Publishing Co., 1997. 
  • Heywood Advertiser, 26 April 1907.
  • Katrina Honeyman, Child Workers in England, 1780–1820: Parish Apprentices and the Making of the Early Industrial Labour Force, London: Routledge, 2016, p.253.
  • OnLine Parish Clerks project for the County of Lancashire, ‘The Church of St Luke, Heywood’,
  • Edwin Waugh, Sketches of Lancashire Life and Localities, London, Simpkin, Marshall & Co., 1855.


Anonymous said…
my perents worked at the roach in the 1950,s
Lapinbizarre said…
Notwithstanding the importation of London workhouse children, the surnames in the parish register are largely local ones with which I grew up more than a century later.

The Holmes portrait may be attributed to Lawrence, but I will be very surprised, given the painting's pedestrian execution and composition, if the attribution is correct. In addition, Lawrence was a top-of-the-line, internationally sought-after, portrait painter - his huge portraits of the victorious monarchs and statesmen of the Napoleonic wars fill the walls of Windsor's Waterloo chamber - hardly a man to be commissioned to paint a person of Holmes's status.
Chris Dawson said…
Thanks. You raise a very good point and I'll look into the attribution re. the artist.

Yes, the surnames are very familiar, at least half-a-dozen recognisable from the street I grew up on, which was next to the mill.
Unknown said…
Was surprised to not see any Lomax surnames in this list. ;-)
Chris Dawson said…
I grew up on a street next to this mill and there was a Lomax family there then.
Helen R said…
My 3x great-grandfather Daniel Postlethwaite was born at Makin Mill, where his father was a 'factory man'. Thomas, Daniel and his family later moved to Low Moor near Clitheroe where they worked at the cotton mills there.