The Deserted Village: Hooley Bridge in 1869

The surviving heritage-listed mills at Hooley Bridge are a reminder of what was once a successful business and thriving local community.

The first mill was established by Joseph Fenton in the quiet valley of Hooley Clough in 1826. It soon had two mills, one large shed occupied by 900 fustian looms constituted the factory, the machinery of which was driven by an 80 h.p. steam engine and a water wheel.

A little village grew around the new mill, becoming home to about 160 cottagers. Their homes were among the best provided for workers in Heywood. The Fentons were determined to create an 'upstanding' community and so no beerhouses or public houses allowed in the area, and the company also set up a day school. The people who lived there were clearly expected to live sober, industrious lives.

Sam Bamford wrote of his visit there in the 1840s:
'On a sudden we come upon the edge of a deep bank of the Roch. Immediately below are the gas works; on the other side of the river arises the huge pile of building which the Messrs. Fenton have constructed for a manufactory. Numerous cottages extend in rows along the valley and beside the highway. One row in particular, below the mill, and above the stream, are fronted with spacious and neat gardens, and the whole together looks like a pretty new village, with a large workshop in the middle. I descended the bank and over the bridge, and observed that the houses were in decent and respectable condition, and judging from the appearance of the habitations, we might suppose that the inmates were all of the better class of work-people.' (Bamford, Walks in South Lancashire, 1844)
Hooley Bridge area, Ordnance Survey map 1851.

The writer Edwin Waugh visited the place in the 1850s and also wrote admiringly of it:
'We were not quite half-an-hour's walk from Grizlehurst when we started from Heywood, and the sun was still up in the heavens. Half a mile brought us into Hooley Clough, where the road leads through the village of Hooley Bridge. This village lines the opposite banks of the Roch at that place. Its situation is retired and picturesque. The vale in which it lies is agreeably adorned with plantations and the remains of old woods, and the whole scenery is green and pleasant. The village itself has a more orderly and wholesome appearance than any other manufacturing hamlet which I remember. The houses were clean and comfortable-looking, and the roads in fair condition. I noticed that nearly every cottage had its stock of coals piled up under the front window, and open to the street; the "cobs" nearly built up into a square wall, and the centre filled up with the "sleck an' naplins." The whole population of the place was employed in the cotton-mills which stand close to the margin of the river, in the hollow of the clough.' (Waugh, Lancashire Sketches, 1855)
Despite these positive portrayals of the Hooley community, disaster hit when the factory was closed in the early 1860s due to a dispute within the Fenton family. The trouble began in 1860 when new machinery was installed at the mill, and the manager (Joseph Fenton of Crimble, grandson of the Joseph Fenton of Bamford) wanted to put in a new steam engine, but this required changing the freehold titles and the consent the consent of Joseph Fenton of Bamford, who refused. Fenton of Crimble claimed that without the new engines, the mills would not work, a threat that he carried through even though the mills were making £30,000 per year in profit. No more cotton was purchased by management and the mill stopped entirely in 1861 and was sold off for a small sum the following year.

By this time there were three generations of the same families working at the mills. Even after the closures, some of these people continued to live in the Hooley village in the hope that the mills would again be in full production.

In May 1869, members of the Oldham Co-operative Society enjoyed a day out in the Heywood area.The following account appeared in the Society newsletter a few weeks later:
“We are often greatly surprised to hear of strange things in ancient times and in far distant countries; while at the present time, and in the very neighbourhood of our homes and workshops, there are equally - yea, far more - strange occurrences, which we seem not to know of. About three miles from Bury, on the old road to Rochdale, past the house that Jack built[1] - of which Waugh tells his wonderful tale of Joe going up the chimney - there is situated a village called Hooley Bridge.

The founder's name was Joseph Fenton. In his early days he was a working man; but by his sober, patient, and toiling habits he became the founder of a family whose wealth and fame are known throughout the nation. One of the sons of such a worthy father for many years held the high honour of being member of Parliament for Rochdale. Hooley Bridge village is now falling to ruins. The mill is stopped, the houses are empty, the whole once valuable property is decaying so fast that in a few years it will not be marketable.

No doubt it will interest your readers to know a few things about this deserted village of Hooley Bridge. The village was founded in the early part of the present century. The mill proper is five stories high and 27 windows long. There is also another mill adjoining, six stories high, with a large shed that used to be occupied with 900 fustian looms; also winding, warping, and sizing, all complete, so as to work raw cotton through to finished cloth. These works were employed full time for 25 years at one period of their existence. The works were driven with an eighty-horse steam engine and a water wheel. There are from 100 to 200 houses.

To the honour of Fenton's family no beerhouses or spirit-sellers were allowed at Hooley Bridge. A day school was carried on by the order of the worthy firm. There was abundance of spare land about the mill and the houses, so that the cottager had his garden to grow vegetables for his family table, and flowers, so precious for their perfume and refining influence. The workpeople of this once happy village were noted as the best housed, best fed, clothed, and educated of any villagers in Lancashire.

When the mill ceased work about seven years since the workers in the mill were composed of three generations of the same families. When the works first stopped the people of the place could not think of seeking work elsewhere; they hoped and waited, believing the mill would commence work again, until almost every penny of the little family fund had been spent. There are a few families still living on the spot, in fond remembrance of the past, with the hope of seeing the mill once again in full work.

The cause of the mill standing is said to be owing to a family dispute. May the time soon come when the grandchildren of such a worthy forefather will meet together in love, with past differences for ever healed: 
‘And, children of one family,
Like birds in their nest, agree.’ 
In passing down the river Roach, from Gnat Bank Mill to Radcliffe Bridge, many mills may be pointed out that once belonged to the most wealthy families in England of the present day. They, by the compounding of their wealth, have become so rich that they will not have the cares of a commercial life, and prefer to live on the interest arising from investments in land and other property. We often talk of trade leaving this country. Trade is no respecter of nations or peoples. Active, speculative, ambitious men will be the leading traders, be they Germans, Frenchmen, or Americans.

Starting at Rochdale, on the banks of the river Roach, there are many things worthy to be recorded. There is Pilling's cotton mill, stopped seven years[2]; Gnat Bank cotton mill, stopped at various times from seven to fourteen years; Crimble cotton mill, stopped twenty years; Hooley Bridge cotton mill, seven years; Maken mill (link), or Back-o'th'-moss cotton mill, from seven to twenty years, at several stoppages; Gigg mill has had many stoppages, from two to five years at a time. At Radcliffe there is the old mill, once owned by the Peel family. Only a few years since there could be seen the ruins of the old water mill wheel that drove the mill-the machinery half buried in the sand on the river's bank. All these stoppages and waste of wealth have generally occurred through family disputes, or by their owners becoming so rich that they preferred pleasure-seeking and travelling. The business man must locate, like a tree, with its roots in one spot, and gather around him every help possible. The firm, like the tree, then grows, and the fruit increases a thousand fold. Changes such as I have named must have caused great loss and misery to the workpeople. To prevent such calamities to the wealthy as well as the labour party is a consideration worthy the attention of every wellmeaning man."
The mills remained closed and without an owner for a number of years. They were then acquired by the Hooley Bridge Property Co., and after various changes were made, William Rufus Lee took over in 1896 the works and much of the village was restored, with Victoria Terrace replacing Hall Street. The mill complex was enlarged with additional buildings during 1902-54.

  A Hooley Bridge Timeline  
  • First mill built 1826
  • Shed built 1837
  • Chimney built 1840
  • Boiler-house built 1846
  • Old Joseph Fenton, originator of the firm, died in June 1840
  • James Schofield sold his third share to John Fenton of Crimble Hall for £60,000 in 1857
  • John Fenton died 1863
  • Mills ceased working 1861
  • Bought by William Rufus Lee 1896
  • More buildings erected 1902-54
  • Five-storey spinning mill in northeast of the site badly damaged by fire, December 2006

   Related pages   

  • The Co-operator, edited by Henry Pitman, Manchester, No. 200, vol. 9, 29 May 1869,
  • pp. 361-2.
  • Heywood Advertiser 6 November 1896.
  • 'History of Industry in Heywood', Heywood Town Guides, c.1950s.
  • Hooley Bridge Mills, Heywood, Rochdale, Greater Manchester, Archaeological Watching Briefs, Oxford Archaeology North, February 2007 - April 2009.
[1] ‘The House That Jack Built’ was a public house near Birtle on the Bury to Rochdale road.
[2] Stoppages occurred mainly to lack of business, and this was particularly severe during the American Civil War when Union naval forces blockaded Confederate ports and crippled the cotton industry.