The ruins of Kem Mill are all that remains of a Victorian print works that also incorporated its own bleach croft. Visitors today can make out the footprints of many of the main buildings in the complex that sits beside the River Lostock.
The first record of bleaching and dyeing on the site is in 1784. The mill continued in use until the early 1900s, when it reached a dramatic and sudden end. In the early days, it was run by Messrs. John Clayton and Company and there is a report of theft of superfine calico from the works in 1799.
By 1850, the mill was expanded with new buildings added along with an additional lodge (mill pond). In 1871, records show that it was being rented by a Joseph Cunliffe for the annual sum of £90. Fourteen years later, more buildings were constructed and filter beds and settling tanks were added. The final changes took place nine years later with a new boiler and brick chimney put in place, along with further building extensions.
Much of what remains in place today is concerned with the bleaching process, which lies alongside the large lodge and the River Lostock. Below we will outline how this worked at Kem Mill, which was a similar process throughout Lancashire bleachworks and their associated print works.
The Bleaching Process
Bleaching was a complex, multi-step task that used huge amounts of water between each of the main processes to wash the cloth.
The first step was in the Grey Room: The unbleached fabric was called grey cloth. This was stamped and stitched together in the Grey Room.
From there it passed to the Singe House: The cloth was singed over a gas flame to remove fluff, fibres and stray filaments from it. This created a smooth surface on the material. Then it was taken for its first wash in large washing machines, after which mangles removed excess water.
It passed next to the Grey Sour Cistern: This was for the Grey Wash. The cloth was impregnated with souring liquid of hydrochloric acid to break down oils, fats, waxes and grease. Then it was washed in machines to get rid of the residue of the impurities.
Next, the Boiling Kier: Here the cloth was boiled in a kier (a very large metal vat) while circulating lime solution continuously passed through it. The process was done at 100c for several hours. The material was then again washed in machines to remove the lime.
Then it passed to the Chemic Cisterns: Now it was finally ready for the actual bleaching process. Chemicing or bleaching was done with a clear solution of chloride of lime or some similar type of bleaching powder. After this it was washed again.
The bleached cloth passed to the White Sour Cistern: Here, the cloth passed through a dilute solution of sulphuric acid. This removed any of the bleaching chemicals that had been left over. Its final wash then took place.
Next, into the Squeeze Rollers: Pairs of cylindrical rollers, sometimes heated to speed up the drying process. Some factories used spinning centrifugal dryers.
Once dry, the cloth was moved to the White Pile Cisterns: It was stored in these cisterns ready for printing.
It probable that even after the invention of machine printing, there would have still been some hand printing being carried out at Kem Mill. This was done by stretching the cloth over tables and then printing onto it using wooden blocks, 30 cm by 18 cm in size. A girl or boy assistant would spread coloured dye onto the block, which was then taken by the printer and applied directly to the cloth.
Machine printing was invented in the 1870s. This made use of copper rollers which were engraved with the required patterns. The bottom of the roller was dipped into the colour dye, with unwanted excess being removed with a knife. For an idea of how the machines looked, see the picture on Wikipedia here. (Interestingly, the man on the right of the picture is using a wooden block to hand-finish the machine printed roll).
The End of Kem Mill
On an October day in 1914, the owner Mr A. J. Cunliffe was in his office at around 6.30pm when he heard what he described as a cracking sound. Fire had broken out above the machine room, which was midway along a large range of buildings. As it was well past the end of the working day, the mill was deserted apart from Cunliffe and the night watchman Mr Blackedge. The two men tried to put out the fire with buckets, but to no avail. They raised the alarm and three of the works brigade pumping engines were put to work.
A telephone call from nearby Kays cotton mill alerted Chorley fire fighters, who sent horse-drawn appliances, but not their motor engine as it was not allowed to leave Chorley borough. Superintendent Greenhalgh was in charge and he had visited the premises a few months previously, in preparation for such an event. However, a strong wind was blowing and this aided greatly in the spreading of the fire.
The fire had now spread to other parts of the premises. The roller room, with the white and grey rooms above it were all on fire and could not be saved. In the opposite direction flames had reached the offices and dye house. Of most concern was a machine room which had nine printing machines inside, as well as a large amount of cloth. It soon became clear that these could not be saved either and the roof and walls of the building collapsed in.
The fire brigade saved the offices, but these were badly damaged. They also preserved the dye house, finishing room, warehouse stables, boilers, chimney and machine shop.
By two o’clock in the morning, the fire fighters had done all they could. The local works brigade remained behind to damp down the smouldering remains, but it must have been clear to all that a huge amount of damage had been done. The Chorley Guardian reported that only 60 of the 6000 expensive copper rollers had been saved, meaning that £20,000 worth had been lost (in 1914 money). A further £20,000 worth of cloth had also been burnt.
In all, about three-quarters of the site, with much of the machinery, had been destroyed and the decision was made to close the business with 170 people losing their jobs. What could be salvaged was sold and then Mr. Waring, a sheep farmer, rented the site from the Bleachers’ Association. He adapted the remaining intact buildings to rear his sheep. In 1957, the Waring family bought the site and continued to farm it until 1972. It was then taken over by the Central Lancashire Development Corporation who demolished the buildings. Their archaeological unit did some excavations, and further ones were carried out in 1998 shortly after Cuerden Valley Trust took over ownership.
Today the ruins of Kem Mill can be visited and there is on-site interpretation, athough the boards are fading with age and could do with replacing. Below we give a short guide as to what is to be seen.
Visiting the Ruins Today
Approaching from the south car park entrance, you will first see a large lodge on your right and a narrow one on your left. Enter into the site on your right to see the ruins.
First, head north with the ruins on your left. These contained the stables and carts sheds along with cisterns; all this was saved from the fire. Walk to the end of these, and look over to your right. This area was the settling tanks and filter beds and, if you turn around and go back the way you came, you can see these in more detail (keeping them on your left). As you reach a fenced-off area that is very overgrown – this is the boiler house, chimney base, logwood store, dye house and mechanics store. This range was mostly saved from the fire.
The remaining long wing contained what was the bleach croft. Excavation has determined the grey room, calendar room and making up room, but there are many rooms in this range and their functions are not easy to determine. Many have metal grills in their floors and are close to the water supply. If you follow the range along you pass into buildings constructed not of stone, but of red brick.
Site visited by A. and S. Bowden 2019
The site is open access.
There is a free car park at the start of Factory Lane close to Whittle-le-Woods Primary School. Follow the signposts to Cuerden Valley up to the mill. It’s a short and pleasant walk.
Further down Factory Lane is the Kem Mill Car Park which is run by Cuerden Valley Trust. This is a pay and display car park. For more on this see here.
Nearby just a short drive away
Kem Mill on site interpretation boards
boydharris.co.uk/kem007.html This site gives the contemporary account from the Chorley Guardian of the fire