Hebden Bridge Mill History

First the Bridge

This was a vital link in the ancient Halifax to Burnley packhorse way. Built of timber the original bridge probably stood very close to where this mill is now situated, possibly in the location now occupied by the much later Victorian (1892) structure next door. In medieval times most inhabitants of this area avoided the low lying, swampy valley floor and chose to live on the ‘tops’, descending only where necessary to cross the fast flowing tributary streams, such as the Hebden, by fords or simple timber bridges.

Heptonstall and Wadsworth were already developing as populous and prosperous settlements, known as Townships rather than villages on account of their mixed economy based on the domestic manufacture of woolen cloth in addition to their small scale family farming.

The very steep packhorse ways linking these two townships remain in evidence today and may be explored on foot by those with sufficient stamina! That descending the Wadsworth hillside is much narrowed but remains as a set-paved footpath down the Birchcliffe hillside adjacent to the arched bulk of Stubbings School. Its counterpart, the extremely steep ‘Buttress’, probably steeper today at the lower part than when first built, climbs from the second Hebden Bridge, now referred to as the ‘Old Bridge’.

Then there was The Mill:

Following the Norman invasion and subsequent ‘Harrying of the North’ (1087), Saxon landlords were dispossessed and lands distributed to Norman noblemen. Steep-sided, densely forested, with only barren moorland above, the Calder valley had little practical value and remained largely undeveloped apart from the Erringden Deer Park to the south of where the town stands today. Homesteaders later moved in and hamlets grew up on more favorable south facing sites such as at Heptonstall, Wadsworth and Midgely.

The swampy valley floor remained virtually unoccupied until 1314 when the Prior of Lewes, acting on behalf of the Lord of the Manor of Heptonstall, gave consent to Sir John de Thornhill (Knight) Lord of the Manor of Wadsworth, to impound the river and construct a mill on the Wadsworth bank of the river between Wadsworth and Heptonstall.

Records suggest that this mill was built as close as possible to the pre-existing timber bridge to enhance its potential trade. Two copies of the actual written agreement survive to this day in the archives at Leeds and Lewes. The weir, goit system and remnants of the original walls of the old mill also remain today, encapsulated within the present structure. The 1314 mill occupied much of the area now used as the Innovation Café-Bar, with the waterwheel and goit system, at that time, being entirely external.

On Sir John’s untimely death, a few years after the mill was built, his widow passed the tenancy to ‘Stephen the Miller’, who figures prominently in the court rolls of the day, suing others for ‘setting up their own stones’ i.e., grinding their own corn (oats) or for letting their sheep trample his land. He even had a dispute with the Lord of the Manor over who should pay for the substantial damage to the mill following the great flood of 1336. Nothing changes!

With the advent of the Great Plague in 1348/9 (and several re-occurrences throughout the remainder of the century) there is a 150 year gap in the Hebden Bridge Mill story, until 1514, when records show that the mill was leased by the Draper family of Broadbottom Farm (between Hebden Bridge and Mythomroyd) from Lord Savile, the new Lord of the Manor following the demise of the Thornhills.

After the terrors of the Black Death passed, the area experienced a period of unprecedented prosperity as family enterprises combined domestic textile production and small scale farming. Merchant Clothiers, who organized the new industry, became extremely wealthy and occupation (by leasehold) of Hebden Bridge Mill transferred from family to family throughout this time.

Whilst in London to sell his cloth Henry Draper of Broadbottom was killed in a brawl, but the mill remained with his family until leased briefly by the Radcliffes of Todmorden Old Hall in 1604 and then Paul Greenwood of Wadsworth in 1607, who passed it to his cousin the Revd Charles Greenwood, originally of Heptonstall. He became extremely wealthy and in 1642 endowed the ‘Free Grammar School’ in Heptonstall, just a year before the township fell to the Royalists following the Civil War skirmish for the old stone bridge over the River Hebden.

In 1695, the Cockrofts of Mayroyd leased the mill for over a century, followed by the Sutcliffes from1805 until the arrival of Champion Murgatroyd in1823. Murgatroyd was clearly a man of enterprise and vision as he renewed his lease many times, each time negotiating improvements to the building but also investing much of his own money to enhance the waterpower system and the capacity of his milling machinery. However his major project in 1860 extended both the mill and his activities significantly with a cotton spinning shed and ancillary power in the form of a steam engine, engine house and chimney ( now occupied by the Innovation shop).

This did not last long, for in 1871, Hebden Bridge received Urban District status and the new council demolished Murgatroyd’s spinning shed to build a new bridge for access to their new Town Hall, the remainder of the mill being used by a succession of small firms for cloth manufacture, including fustian cloth.

Freehold of the mill remained with the Lords of the Manor until 1895, when purchased by Messrs Greenwood and Pickles, clothing manufacturers of Hebden Bridge. They operated mainly on the upper floors, sub-letting the bulk of the ground floor to a variety of other uses — a smithy where the Innovation shop is today, with a sweet shop next to the bridge, and a Tripe shop occupying the position of the present toy shop, much patronized during the 1939-45 war when almost all food was rationed apart from such tasty items as tripe, elder, cowheel and other offal.

Despite the sturdy stone chimney adjacent to the mill, the introduction of steam power was but a brief interlude in the history of the mill, outlasted by the original power source! Greenwood and Pickles operated throughout the war years, running their sewing machines on direct current electricity powered by the waterwheel, to overcome power shortages on the national grid and to help the war effort — and continued to do so until closure in 1956 when the mill was abandoned to its fate — vandalism, wet and dry rot.

Then there was the Town:

For almost 350 years after the construction of Hebden Bridge Mill, through the Great Plague, its lengthy aftermath and up to the Civil War of 1645-51 little, if any, further building took place on the floodplain. The mill stood alone, visited by farmers from the hillsides, seeking to have their crops of oats dried and ground for the production of oatmeal and havercakes (oatcakes), staple diet of the local population at this time.

As traffic increased, the old timber bridge suffered increasing wear. A fund was set up to raise finance for a new and more substantial replacement, built in 1510 and remaining intact today, known incorrectly as the ‘Old Bridge’, a little further downstream. This required a small extension of the Wadsworth packhorse trail and a realignment of the lower part of the ‘Buttress’. It was built with three arches, two to span the river and a third apparently on dry land today, occupied by the riverside walk, but originally built to span the tail goit from Hebden Bridge Mill, now built over and obscured.

With improved drainage techniques in the 17th century, farming began to spread onto the flatter land. Kings Farm was built immediately adjacent to the mill in 1657 and, due to the potential of growing passing trade, soon also began to serve as an Inn, surviving successfully today as the White Lion Hotel. Soon after, other hostelries opened — the Shoulder of Mutton, White Swan, and Hole in the Wall.

The town now grew rapidly as a centre of the textile industry, eventually taking its name from the bridges and mill at its core. Packhorse ways were superseded by turnpikes, one of the earliest of which ran along the valley to the newly named Commercial Street and directly to the door of the White Lion, thence via the ‘Old’ Bridge to the Buttress, Heptonstall and Burnley or via Hebble End and Horsehold to Todmorden and Rochdale — until in 1776, New Road was constructed to cross the river by yet another new bridge at West End. Turnpike trusts were followed by the Canal Trusts and the Railways, respectively in 1795 and 1840, keeping the town at the forefront of new technology and communications as a major manufacturing centre for the production of fustian cloth (see the monument in St Georges Square) and ready-made clothing. Because of this, Hebden Bridge gained the nick-names of Fustionopolis or Trouser-town.

Industry in the town peaked in the early 1890’s with a slow decline, accelerating in the 1950/60’s when the local textile industry was almost wiped out. People left to seek work elsewhere. Dereliction, depopulation and despair left a ghost town in its wake, abandoned by governments of all colours. But those who prematurely wrote off this area overlooked one very important asset which remained — the tenacity, determination and energy of those local people who stayed behind and strove to reinvent the town and prepare it for a new future.

Revival and Relaunch of the Town

The 12th May 1965 saw the start of a new fightback by local residents against the neglect, dereliction and disorder brought about by the town’s sudden economic collapse. A programme of voluntary work was agreed to enhance the image of the town and generate increased local pride of place. Thousands of new trees were planted in and around the town; buildings cleaned to expose the golden stonework beneath the years of accumulated industrial grime; and decades of accumulated rubbish removed from the river.

Events brought much press and TV coverage. Visitor numbers began to build and, increasingly, they sought to take advantage of low property prices to buy into the area. The first to arrive became known as the Hebden Bridge hippies; interesting and creative people, they brought added value to the area. And where the hippies pioneered, larger numbers of young professionals from Manchester and Leeds began to follow, bringing their own cultural contributions, helping to build the image of Hebden Bridge as a somewhat offbeat artistic and creative centre. Its annual Arts Festival, Gallery Trail, music venues and opportunities for participation in all manner of activities are now widely known and appreciated.

The town won many awards and recent collaboration between Calderdale Council and the Town Partnership to pedestrianise and landscape a large part of the central area has given a boost to this regeneration initiative.

Safeguarding former large industrial buildings and attracting new employment activities proved to be more challenging but also had its successes. A new conservation group, Pennine Heritage Ltd, launched in 1979, took up the challenge and set about the rescue of the largest redundant mill in town, the five storey Nutclough Mill, a monument to the early producer-cooperative movement. Over £1M was raised to rescue and adapt this building to industrial re-use, not only saving an important historic building, but now housing over 150 hi-tech jobs for local people exemplifying the purpose of the Pennine Heritage Trust and those volunteers who continue to manage its activities. (www.pennineheritage.org.uk)

Using Renewable, Sustainable Energy

Just remember that it doesn’t cost the earth to shop,
eat or drink at Innovation.

Hydro power electricity from the river.