During the years 2013-2017, Holcombe Moor Heritage Group carried out an extensive archaeological dig to discover the true nature of a ruin known only as ‘Bottoms’. Using the archaeological finds and historical research, they discovered that the structure was actually an early Industrial Revolution engine house. They also found that the building had later phases of use as well.
The project was an excellent example of what community heritage groups can achieve. Today the ruins have been preserved for anyone to see, and the society have produced a detailed report that can be purchased from their website. Before the project started, very little was known about this important site but, by their careful historical detection work, a very clear picture of the three phases of different activity during the building’s lifetime has been uncovered.
The Engine House is Constructed
Cinder Hill Engine House was constructed sometime between the late 1780s and early 1790s. Laurence Brandwood built it and his son John ran it. Laurence and John lived variously at nearby Holcombe Hey Farm and Cinder Hill Farm.
Initially, the engine house was a small building and it may well have carried out all the processes of textile production. A typical arrangement might have carding, spinning and weaving, each process occurring on a separate floor. The spinning was powered by a 16- foot diameter water wheel. The archaeology showed that this was fed by a ‘breast shot’, meaning water was fed in level with the axle of the wheel, and then flowed down and under the wheel to turn it. A reservoir at the back of the building fed the water to the wheel. In turn, the reservoir was supplied by a leat (an artificial watercourse) from a weir a 100 metres upstream of Red Brook.
Machine parts recovered in the excavation could be pieces of spinning machines, possibly showing they were using technology such as Richard Arkwright’s Water Frame or Samuel Crompton’s Spinning Mule. The dig revealed that the water wheel had to be repositioned at some point. This could be because it had become twisted or the machinery it powered had been modified. An unusual feature in the ruin is the large fireplace. This may have contained a large cauldron of boiling water. The water vapour produced could have kept the humid air in the room damp to facilitate spinning.
The Engine House is Converted
In 1825, the Cinder Hill estate was taken over by John Parker, a very wealthy cotton spinner. Two hundred metres down stream from the Cinder Hill Engine House he had a new building constructed. This was Cinder Hill Factory – a cotton spinning mill. The engine house was then put to a different use.
The archaeology shows that the conversion involved the wheel pit being filled in. An interesting snapshot in time shows that the workmen were eating mussels and cockles as they did this, throwing the shells into the backfill as they worked. Evidence for what the former engine house was used for comes in the form of shards of long-necked glass bottles, probably used to store bleach or acid. It is likely that the building was now being used for bleaching or some kind of finishing process for the textiles produced in the new factory downstream.
A stone plinth was placed over where the wheel pit stood. It may have been used to support machinery that used a lot of water, evidence coming from a channel from the eastern bay which fed hot water to this central part of the ruin.
Another Change of Use
In 1837, John Parker placed adverts in local newspapers selling off his spinning machines, although his Cinder Hill Factory continued to operate. However, he no longer had need of the bleaching/finishing process at the former engine house. It did not fall into disuse though, but was converted into accommodation for some of his workers.
The building was divided into three cottages, all with their backs to the reservoir behind them. The westernmost cottage was where the original engine house had stood. This must have suffered from damp as the excavations uncovered a poorly made drain that allowed water from the old reservoir to soak into the ground halfway down its east wall.
The central cottage was made from reused large flagstones from the former building. These were found to be very uneven due to subsidence from the former wheel pit. The eastern cottage seemed better constructed with smaller flagstones laid tightly together to form a level floor. The excavators found evidence of gardens in front of the cottages in the form of a loamy soil.
In 1842, the Manchester Mercury reported the story of Thomas Nuttall, aged eight years old, who lived at one of the cottages. One snowy February morning, Thomas decided he’d rather play in the snow than go to work at Cinder Hill Factory. He hatched a plan to jam the factory water wheel, which he managed to do using stone, wood and metal work. Later that morning when the workers found the wheel would not start, it did not need much sleuthing to follow the line of Thomas’s clogs in the snow back to his cottage.
Owner John Parker demanded the boy be punished by his father, but when his father refused to do this Parker had Thomas taken to court. The crime was serious enough to mean that Thomas could spend a lengthy time in prison, or even face deportation. Parker then came to the defence of the boy saying his father was to blame for the case being brought to court by refusing to punish him in the first place. The judge sentenced Thomas to one month’s detention in New Bailey Prison in Salford.
Around 1856, John Parker sold his factory to Thomas Ogden, who sold it on again within a year or two. Cinder Hill Factory seems to have been shut down soon after that, but briefly reopened as a bleach works in 1870. By the end of the 1870s, both the factory and ‘Bottoms’ cottages had become unoccupied.
In the years just before the First World War, the Army took over this part of Holcombe Moor. They have stayed there for the rest of the 20th Century and continuing up to the present day. During the 1970s, all the remaining farm buildings and ruins in the valley were demolished under the orders of the Ministry of Defence.
When Holcombe Moor Heritage Group first formed, one of their first tasks was to identify and survey the ruined ‘lost farms’ of Holcombe, including Cinder Hill Farm and Holcombe Hey Farm. Interest grew around the property called ‘Bottoms’ that had been identified as an ‘Engine House’ on an early map. The group then spent five years excavating and researching the site, coming up with the definitive picture in the document they published on it (see the reference section below).
They made many interesting discoveries in their dig. Three pearlware vessels were found in good condition, two of which were hand painted. One of these, a dish featuring a pineapple, has been identified as coming from Sir James Duke & Nephews of Burslem and was made around 1860-5. Halfpennies from the reign of George III were discovered from the late 1700s to early 1800s. Five hundred and twenty-three clay pipe fragments dating from 1700s to mid 1800s were unearthed. Machinery parts included gear wheels and iron rod knurled rollers (knurled meaning ‘ridged’ to improve grip), perhaps from a spinning frame.
A Tantalising Find Sets up a Whole New Archaeological Excavation
One find was completely unexpected. Underneath the flagstone footpath in front of the building was a deposit of iron slag. This seemed completely out of place for the kind of industrial work the engine house and later finishing house was doing. The deposit also contained small pieces of orange-coloured pottery and charcoal. The charcoal was dated by the Scottish Universities Environmental Research Centre to being between 1027-1182. The pottery was found to be Medieval and has now been classed as Holcombe Orange Gritty Ware and Holcombe Buff Gritty Ware, both two types of previously unknown pottery.
The team’s research showed that Roger Montbegon gave the Holcombe land he owned to the monks of Monkbretton monastery near Barnsley. It is very probable that the slag came from what was a monastic Medieval iron bloomery, a very rare kind of site to find. The team concluded that the slag deposit was not in situ, meaning it had been brought from elsewhere in Holcombe and deposited there to firm up the flagstones.
From this the next project of the archaeological team was decided: to find the original site of this Medieval bloomery. That is what they have been pursuing ever since, and you can read about their progress on their website here.
Site visited by A. and R. Bowden 2020
There is a public footpath very close to the site, from where it can be easily viewed. The grid reference for the site is (767 169). As parts of Holcombe Moor are used by the Ministry of Defence, see the warning in red below.
Approaching the site from Hawkshaw Village: Park on the lower part of Hawkshaw Lane. Then follow the lane on foot northwards. Turn right at the T junction (again onto Hawkshaw Lane) and head down to Holcombe Hey Farm. There is a public footpath through the converted farm (look for the sign posts) and follow this path eastwards. The map reference for the site is (767 169). The site of Cinder Hill Engine House excavation can be seen close to the footbridge over Red Brook. Holcombe Moor Heritage Group and the MOD have built a stone seating area overlooking the site.
Be aware that parts of Holcombe Moor is used by the MOD for live firing. Do not go into areas when the red flags are flying as this indicates that live firing is occurring. See the government website for firing times here
Cinder Hill Engine House, Holcombe Valley: An investigation into early textile activity in a remote rural valley, Neil Coldrick (2019), Holcombe Moor Heritage Group. You can buy a copy of this excellent publication here.
Holcombe Moor Heritage Group meeting – Talk on Cinder Hill Engine House, 2016 dig report given by Neil Coldrick, Greenmount Cricket Club
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