Walking through Kirklees Valley Local Nature Reserve today, you would be excused for thinking you had come across the remants of some ancient civilization, now reclaimed by nature. Extensive ruins in amongst the trees run for some considerable distance alongside Kirklees Brook. What you see here are the remains of Tottington Print Works, known locally as ‘Tottington Mill’.
The first mill on the site of the brook was a Medieval corn mill, recorded in 1296. A corn mill was still in use by 1790 when a new cotton mill was added alongside. Cotton spinning, weaving and bleaching all occurred here. As cotton production quickly shifted to the flatter, larger sites of Manchester and became powered by large steam engines, Tottington mill could have become obsolete.
In 1820 Joshua Knowles bought the mill and converted it to a calico print works. Machines were used to print patterns onto sheets of cotton, and the process required copious amounts of water in preparation and treatment of the printed cloth. Joshua had learnt the calico process (printing coloured designs onto textiles) by serving his apprenticeship with the well known Grant brothers of Tottington. Together with his step brother Samuel he continued to improve and expand the site over the years, making the print works one of most cutting edge in the country. One of their machines could print a grand total of twelve colours- the most advanced technology of the time. In the 1820s over 300 people worked at the site, and by the 1840s almost 400 , a third of which were children. (Joshua was also a member of the committee behind the erection of Peel Monument on Holcombe Hill, and gave a speech there on its opening day. See our page on it here).
In 1881 the site had a private railway siding built that lead to the line operated by the Bury and Tottington District Railway Company. The line allowed coal to be directly delivered to the print works, to power the many small steam engines. Throughout this period the site continued to expand with new engines, boilers, a dye house, a drying room, a bleach croft and a print shop added. A gas works was also constructed and the company bought the neighbouring Kirklees print works which was downstream by a mere 500 metres.
The industry went into decline in the early 20th century and in 1921 the print works was closed. The site would have rapidly become derelict, and its reclamation by the woodlands inevitable. During the second world war it was used for training by the Home Guard and sharp eyed visitors today can still spot cylindrical anti-tank blocks near the area of the site. (For more on how these were used, and other locations where they can be seen, go to the Lancashire at War website here).
In 2011 an initiative by Bury Ranger Service and Oxford Archaeology North set up an archaeological dig. With help from the British Trust for Conservation Volunteers and many local residents, parts of the bleach croft and dye house were uncovered. Many of the residents continue their interest in local archaeology today and are members of Bury Archaeology group (click here) or Holcombe Moor Heritage group (click here).
On visiting the site today, as well seeing the substantial walls, other interesting features have been unearthed. For example, you can see the stone arched culvert that carried the brook through the site, many rectangular stone cisterns and the large stone beds of the steam engines. The original flagstone floor has been uncovered as have two large circular cisterns sunk into the floor of the bleach croft.
Further downstream from the site are the huge ash pile remains of a boiler house waste tip, lying in the woods like large craggy rocks (see picture below).
Overall, Tottington Print Works site is extensive and the walls of the buildings, particularly at the sides of the brook are large and impressive. Today the reservoir that supplied the works is a popular local destination for walkers.
On visiting the site do take care. Much of the site can be viewed without straying from the well used paths that cut through it. However, if you venture off the paths BE AWARE as there are steep drops towards the brook and the ground around and inside the buildings is uneven in parts. The site is historically important and it is to be hoped that some visitor interpretation (such as information boards on the layout and history) will be added in the future.
Site visited by A. and R. Bowden 2014
Opening Times: The site is free to view as part of Kirklees Valley Local Nature Reserve, at any reasonable time.
Parking and Directions:
Park at the Bull’s Head/Toby Carvery. The far end of the car park has permitted parking for village use. Walk back to the entrance to the car park on Brandlesholme Road and turn immediate right to go down “the lines” – the route of the old railway from Bury to Holcombe Brook.
Walk along the route for a few hundred metres until you come to a road crossing it. This is Shepherd Street. Turn left onto Shepherd Street and walk along the tree lined road until you reach Tower Farm (on your right).
Turn right immediately after Tower Farm apartments to take the road downhill into the woods where the mill is – it becomes a partly cobbled/partly unmade road. Tower Farm was built just over a decade after another local landmark tower, also built by mill owners- the Grant family of Ramsbottom. See our page on Grants Tower and its history here
It is only a short way before the ruins of the mill appear
Nearby, just a short drive away
An Industrial Art: The Archaeology of Calico Printing in the Irwell Valley: (Greater Manchester’s Past Revealed, No. 6): Oxford Archaeology North (2012)
History of Tottington, C. B. Taylor (1984) printed by BTL Print, Market St, Bury
Websites of associated local interest
If you are interested in practical archaeology in the Bury area have a look at these two groups:
Holcombe Moor Heritage Group engage in both the written history and the archaeology of the local area. Their website is www.holcombemoor.org
Bury Archaeological Group have a long history of working in the Bury area . Their website is www.buryarchaeologicalgroup.co.uk