Cheesden Lumb Mill was built in 1786, the first of some 20 mills that would populate the valley. Located just a little way down from Ashworth Moor Reservoir, it is a popular site to walk to, with its crumbling but impressive remains in a picturesque setting.
Built in 1786, it was run by John Kay initially as a fulling mill. This is the procedure where woollen cloth is mechanically beaten by large wooden mallets, driven by a water wheel. This enables the wool fibres to become locked together, while at the same time driving out excess hair and fat from the fabric.
By 1809, we know that the mill was being used to perform a whole range of textile procedures. An advert in the Manchester Mercury has the mill placed up for auction and details its contents. These include a carding engine (used to prepare a woollen fleece for spinning), a ‘billy’ (an improved form of a Spinning Jenny), a ‘teaser’ (a circular drum covered with heads from the spiky teasel flower to improve the texture of the cloth by raising its nap) and a blueing house (where the cloth was hung and sulphur dioxide fumes from a brimstone stove would bleach it). The advert also mentions ‘tenters’ (hooks on which the bleached fabric would be stretched to prevent it from shrinking as it dried).
When John Kay died, the mill was bought by John Haworth of Croston Close. He enlarged and converted it, removing the above-mentioned machinery. Instead, he installed machines for breaking up cotton waste, known as ‘devils’. The cotton waste industry became very profitable during the 1860s when the American Civil War meant an end to importing raw cotton into Britain. A number of mills in the valley profited from this enterprise.
John Howarth’s daughter Alice married Richard Ashworth. When her father died in 1875, she inherited Cheesden Lumb Mill, and it was her rather than her husband that had the business acumen to run it. They lived close by, in a house above Croston Close Upper Mill.
Times were becoming difficult for the small mills that clustered within the valleys by the 1880s, as they really felt the pressure of competition from the large steam-powered factories of the industrial towns clustered around Manchester. Records show that in 1887 Cheesden Lumb Mill had 750 spindles and was reduced to eking out a living making lampwicks (cotton fabric for oil lamps).
However, there was a far more serious threat to the existence of the mill, and that was the building of Ashworth Moor Reservoir (see our page on it here). Plans were drawn up for this in the 1890s and all the local mills surrounding it were to be closed. Despite a valiant effort, Alice lost her battle to keep the mill open. When it closed in 1898 she left the valley, moving to Tor Hey in Greenmount where she remained until the time of her death in 1928.
Over time the mill fell into ruin, although its impressive façade remained intact for many years. When severe gales struck in February 1990, a large part of this was damaged. However, Greater Manchester Archaeology Unit were able to restore some of it, with funding from North West Water (now United Utilities, who still own the land) and English Heritage.
During the course of the restoration, it was noted that the hub and axle of the waterwheel remained. The original wheel would have been 30 feet in diameter and 6 feet wide. It would have had wooden spokes and rim, and an iron frame to take the fall of the water.
If you visit on a sunny day, expect to see many people around this honeypot of a site, marvelling at the mill ruins and its impressive waterfall.
Site visited by A. Bowden and A. Shepherd 2020
The mill is open access. Park on Ashworth Road (free off-road parking available). Then head southwards down the right-hand side of the reservoir to the clearly marked footpath.
Very nearby on foot
A little further afield
The Forgotten Valley, A.V. Sandiford & T.E. Ashworth (1981) Bury and District Local Historical Society. This book offers a huge amount of information on the many mills that once existed within the Cheesden Valley. Much of the information for this page was sourced from this publication. It is still in print and available to be bought. See here