Hebden Water mills

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Map drawn by Mike Barrett

Hebden Valley Mills

In the 14th century people in this area were using water power and by the 16th century there were already many water powered mill sites in and around Hebden Bridge. This project looks at the story of the mills along the course of the river Hebden, and some of the streams that fed into it.

All these mills were later to become textile mills, but the sites were often much older, and two were recorded in use in 1314. These were manorial corn mills located somewhere on or close to the sites of what are now known as Bridge Mill and Hangingroyd Mill in the centre of Hebden Bridge. Manorial corn mills originate from the Norman feudal system whereby all grain grown on the lord of the manor’s estate had to be ground at the lord’s corn mill and ownership of querns and hand mills was forbidden. This system was called ‘milling soke’. NB the corn grown and ground was not necessarily wheat but could be any grain, most likely oats in this area.

Many of the future cotton mills originated much earlier, either as corn mills or as fulling mills, used in finishing woollen cloth.

Medieval corn mills

The mills for the townships of Heptonstall and Wadsworth were both in use in 1314 and stood quite close to each other but on opposite banks of the river in the centre of Hebden Bridge. These are the earliest known mill sites on the Hebden, and from these sites it is possible to trace some of the very early history of the area.

In the early 1300s Heptonstall township was held by the Priory of Lewes in Sussex, and Wadsworth by Sir John de Thornhill. The first mention of these mills occurs in a deed sealed by the Prior John Montmartin, at Lewes in Sussex in 1314.  The river formed the border between the two townships and this agreement was for an exchange of rights allowing each of them to construct weirs across the river and have the abutments of them on each others lands. 

Sir John de Thornhill held 8 oxgangs of land in Wadsworth and Stansfield, had fought in Scotland and Gascgony and died in 1322.  He was buried at Thornhill near Wakefield, where an effigy in the chapel shows him in chain mail, and Wadsworth became part of the dower of his widow, Beatrice de Thornhill. Crusader

The usual practice was farming the mill out, in other words mills were held for an annual rental, the person leasing the mill taking a proportion of the grain (mulcture). The Lord of the manor derived income from unfree tenants who owed suit of mill, and were not free to take their corn to an independent mill. In 1326 there was a charge of failing to perform suit of Wadsworth mill, John de Holgat was ordered to pay compensation as he ‘had millstones’, probably a hand quern.

In the years from 1326 to 1336 the ‘Waddsworth’ mill was let at frequent intervals to ‘Stephen the Miller’ and Henry Nellson, when they took the mill they each found two people as pledges. It is unlikely that they would have operated the mill themselves but probably paid someone of low status to do the work, although real skill was involved in dressing millstones and running a corn mill.  Mills were timber framed and were liable to damage caused by floods, if these were heavy, mills could be destroyed altogether. In May 1335 the court of the Lady Beatrice found that ‘the miller could not prevent the mill from going away on account of the flood water’.

Medieval Fulling Mills

Some of the textile mills originated much earlier than is often thought – apart from corn mills, there were also fulling mills. Fulling was necessary to strengthen the cloth and prevent it tearing. It was done by using a mixture of water and urine combined with the pressure produced by the fulling stocks was used to shrink and interlock the woollen fibres. In the early development of textiles this was done by trampling the cloth underfoot but by the 14th century it was being carried out at mills by ‘fullers’.

The earliest reference to Hebden Bridge itself is in 1347 in a reference to Adam le Walker of Hepton Brigge. The name Walker comes from early medieval practise of treading or walking the fabric, but by the 14th century the process of cloth making had been radically changed, especially by the use of fulling mills.

Richard Nelleson was leasing a fulling mill in the township of Heptonstall (Hangingroyd Mill) which belonged to the wealthy Priory of Lewes, his tenancy in 1382 was 11s for 15 years. The Proctor or agent Roger de Fryston recorded in the account roll that his tenancy involved keeping the mill in good repair but an allowance of 3s 4d was made toward his expenses.

Outside this area both corn and fulling mills were held by the Lord of the Manor but here several factors encouraged the setting up of independent fulling mills. Keldyz (Callis) was built as a manorial fulling mill by the Saviles in 1498, but there were already quite a large number of fulling mills in operation in the area.

In the Low Countries (Netherlands) cloth makers were not using fulling mills and found it difficult to compete with English water powered mills, and an export trade developed in the 15th century.

Tudor and Stuart Mills

The area was noted for its woollens long before Daniel Defoe toured the area in the 1720s.  The Upper Calder valley concentrated on kerseys, and there was a growing demand for these hard wearing woollens that were cheaper than superfine broadcloths. There was an expanding market in London and a growing export trade being the most important

By the 16th and 17th centuries this area contained one of the highest concentrations of fulling mills in the country. These mills were producing kerseys, a kind of narrow cloth, which was not as expensive as the superfine broadcloth, but was brought to perfection over time. The growing number of mills resulted in pressure on water resources and sometimes led to disputes. Relations between two fullers became so bad that the case ended up in the court of the Duchy of Lancaster. According to Michael Foxcroft his fulling mill was fulling 160 kerseys per week.

One advantage of this area was the good supply of sites for water power, another advantage was the growing network of causeys throughout the Pennines. These paved tracks provided good going in all weather, and were used to both to supply raw material and dispatch cloth.  Much of the output went by pack horse to London and there were close links with London merchants. There are references in 1579 to Richard Brigge described as a chapman in London, and to Michael Boys or Bois, merchant of the Staple at Holborn, in a document referring to Midge Hole dated 1579. the importance of London as a market is reflected in ??

From the fulling mill the cloth was taken to the tenter fields and hung on tenter posts till dry.

At some stage gig mills began to be used in cloth raising – teasels were fitted to a revolving cylinder, there were fears that gig mills reduced the quality of the finest sorts of cloth and they were in fact banned but here, may have continued in use.

18th and 19th centuries

In the early 18th century people in the area were beginning to experiment with making a completely different type of cloth, and were producing both woollens and worsteds by the mid 18th century. Kersey production had been on a fairly small scale but people had to sink more money into worsted, and manufacture was taking place on a larger scale.  

Worsteds were still made in this area in the 19th century but with the improvements first in machines for preparing cotton and then for spinning cotton and with a good water supply worsteds became much less important. The Sutcliffe family of Lee and Stoneseygate had been involved in the old staple of kersey making for generations had become worsted manufacturers by the mid 18th century, but by the 1790s they were branching out into a new cotton spinning venture, and together with others launched one of the first new cotton spinning mills in the 1790s.

Fulling mills continued to play a role throughout the 18th century. In 1783 Christopher Rawson, a Halifax merchant, leased a fulling and raising mill and had 5 bay tenters. Midgehole also continued to be used as a fulling mill, although it soon began to be used for spinning cotton and flax, and it seems that a number of different processes were going on side by side in the early 1800s. At the sale of machinery at the mill Thomas Lee had falling stock s and heckling implements,

The expanding cotton industry meant that manufacturers were increasingly turning to the plentiful supplies of water …after 1800 cotton was established as the main material cloth making material.

The future of Hebden Bridge lay in the use of cotton. 

The introduction of cotton power looms from the 1830s and 40s was followed by the rapid expansion of dyeing and finishing in the fustian trade. This was closely followed by the rise of the ready made garment making industry. Although some of the mills had fallen out of use by the early 1900s, many of the buildings remained in active use for textiles until the 1950s or 60s.

The Hebden valley mills still played an important part in the story of the area, not just through individual businesses but through reaction to and shaping of broader trends in society. Of the buildings that can still be seen today, some date from the mid 19th century but remains of earlier structures are probably hidden amongst later buildings.

Fulling mills are largely forgotten, but the use of water power in cloth making dates from the earliest documented times. Bridge Mill, Nutclough and Gibson Mill are the three buildings that have survived, but the remains of dams weirs and goits are to be found all along the stream.