Richard Calrow came to the Higher Woodhill area of Bury looking to establish a new cotton spinning mill. He already owned Hinds Mill at nearby Elton.  Here, he took imported logs from Jamaica and ground them up. The chips produced were used to make a black dye for colouring woollen cloth, felt hats and leather gloves.

Higher Woodhill Mill wheel pit

He had worked as a manager in a cotton mill and so had the technical knowledge of how to run one. What he lacked was capital. His solution was to befriend the wealthy Henry Topping, who had gained a large amount of money from his marriage to his cousin Margaret Leigh. It was her funds that provided the capital for the construction of Higher Woodhill Mill.

In 1790, Higher Woodhill Mill was built, a water-powered cotton-spinning factory close to the bank of the River Irwell. An advert appearing in the Manchester Chronicle, just six years later, reminds us how these premises were staffed. It stated that there was a reward for the recovery of two ‘lads’. Thomas Warbuton, aged 19, and William Kelly, aged 12, had absconded and were on the run. They were ‘indentured servants’, legally bound to the owners of the mill until the age of 21, and had probably been bought from an orphanage.

The reservoir that once fed the mill’s waterwheel

Just ten years on from the inception of the mill, in 1800, Henry Topping died. His wife and two sons received his fortune of £30,000 in his will. It is more than likely that his sons would have carried on in the business, but within seven years they were both dead too. There was no provision in the business for Margaret or her daughter and, in 1807, the Calrow and Topping partnership was dissolved, leaving Richard Calrow in sole charge of the company.

The next year he bought neighbouring Burrs Mill from Peel, Yates and Company. Margaret remained living in the area, and it must have been galling to watch how her family money had been used to create a flourishing business, which she and her daughter were locked out of. By 1818, Richard Calrow’s own sons William and Thomas had taken over the mills of Higher Woodhill, Burrs and Hinds.

In 1830, an inspector was sent to the mill. Mr Horner commented favourably on the mill. He noted that children were taken off their work in ‘relays’ to receive two hour lessons from a scheme called ‘Reading Made Easy’. They also studied the Bible and a church catechism.  For this privilege they were made to pay two or three pence a week. The mill clerk, Mr Broadbent commentated that there had been improvement in the children’s behaviour, but their parents showed no great interest in their learning.

higher woodhill
An OS map published based on survey work done in the 1840s shows the buildings of Higher Woodhill Mill. It also shows the mill’s reservoir and possibly allotments where the workers could grow food. The river and railway line bound the site on the eastern side. Map excerpt from Lancashire LXXXVIII 1851, Creative Commons licence, National Library of Scotland.

The original mill was greatly enlarged into a five-storey building, incorporating a cast iron frame for strength. In 1850, one of the largest waterwheels in the North West was put into place. This wheel was a breast shot design, meaning the water came in level with the axle and then dropped down to turn the wheel. It was one of the last waterwheels to be built in our region.

Soon after it was put in place, an engine house was built which contained a steam-powered beam engine capable of 100 horse power. This clever combination of two power sources meant that when there was insufficient water in the reservoir to turn the wheel, the steam engine could still be used to power the mill.

Higher Woodhill Mill steam engine bed

In the early 1860s, the Cotton Famine hit the North West, caused by the Civil War in America preventing the export of raw cotton to Britain. The downturn in business was a devastating blow to the Calrows and, by 1870, they had been forced to sell both Higher Woodhill and Burrs to the Yates family. A decade later, the Higher Woodhill mill had been converted to manufacture paper. A change of use again happened in 1893 when it was taken over by Samuel Rothwell Ltd, and used as a bleach and dyeing works. By 1923, both Higher Woodhill and Burrs were owned by the Star Bleaching Company.

Cotton made a brief comeback in World War I, but in the form of gun cotton. This was produced for the war effort, being an explosive propellant for weapons (and an unstable and dangerous one at that). After the war, the mill reverted back to bleaching, before closing in 1928. The buildings were demolished soon afterwards.

The remnants of a chimney

What Can be Seen Today

In 1991, the site was surveyed, excavated and the archaeology put on display for the public. Today you can see the reservoir that fed the waterwheel, the wheel pit and the massive millstone grit rocks of the engine bed.

The gasometer pit

An interesting feature is the circular pit that was the site of a gasometer, used to store coal gas that was produced on site, which has now been reclaimed by reeds. The base of a chimney, perched by the edge of the river, also remains.

The site has clear and informative interpretation boards. These are looking a little old now, as years of Lancashire weather have taken their toll. However, there are plans afoot to renew them, along with building a new visitors’ centre for the whole of Burrs Country Park.

The viaduct that carries the East Lancashire Railway past the site

The East Lancashire Railway line, built in 1846, still runs past the mill on a viaduct. There’s a good chance you’ll see a steam train going over it on the weekends, as the mill workers themselves must have witnessed too, many years ago.

Site visited by A. and S. Bowden 2013 and 2020. This page updated 2020

Parking: Burrs Country Park has a free car park, and the site is also free to visit.

Nearby, just a few moments walk away

Burrs Mill

Castlesteads Iron Age Fort

A short drive away

Bury Castle


Burrs Country Park leaflet (2006). Available online as a pdf

Burrs Country Park Strategy 2015-2029. Published 2015, available online as a pdf.

On site interpretation boards, Bury Metro Development Services Department Mark Fletcher a local archaeologist has written a number of interesting articles centred around the history of Burrs. It is well worth a visit, offering a wealth of knowledge on the area. Page on Higher Woodhill  Mill