Edward Chadwick built Birkacre Mill in 1777 and leased it to Richard Arkwright, the Preston cotton spinning entrepreneur. Arkwright had patented the water spinning frame, a water powered device that could spin 96 cotton threads at a time. It would make him a wealthy man.
Arkwright filled Birkacre Mill with devices to mechanise as much as possible of the process of spinning cotton. These included carding engines (machines that take raw cotton, untangles it and lines up the fibres); roving engines (machines to draw out and twist cotton fibres before they are spun); and spinning frames (to turn the previously prepared cotton into thread). This was at a time when spinning was mostly a cottage industry, or carried out in very small mills which would perhaps have only one machine of each type within them. Arkwright was the inventor of what we now recognise as the ‘factory system’, and Birkacre Mill was at the forefront of it.
Trouble at the Mill
Two years after he had taken on Birkacre Mill, the home spinners were struggling to sell their cotton amidst a slump in trade. Many of them blamed the mills and unrest grew in Lancashire. Mobs gathered, and mills were attacked at Aspull, Bolton and Chorley.
Soldiers were put on standby. Two forces are known to have been ready to respond. Sir George Saville and his 1st Regiment West Riding Militia were in Liverpool, guarding French prisoners of war. Sir Richard Clayton had a militia force waiting in Wigan.
On Friday 1st October a crowd started to gather outside Birkacre Mill. Sir Richard met and spoke with them and then left a small force there, satisfied that there was not a major threat to the mill. He then took the rest of his soldiers towards Preston.
The next day a large mob had gathered, estimated at 2000 people strong, with another 400 on lookers swelling the numbers. The owner Edward Chadwick tried to reason with them, but to no avail. When the mob attacked the mill he was able to repel them with the help of neighbours and workers from the mill, defending it with guns. The mob was not armed, and had not expected to meet with much resistance. Two of them were killed, one drowned, and several were wounded. The attack had failed.
As Sunday dawned the mob had retreated, but only tactically. They went to find whatever weapons they could lay their hands on. There are reports of some of them melting pewter plates to make bullets.
Sir George Saville sent 200 of his soldiers to Wigan, and a further 100 to Prescott, two tactical places he thought that could be struck out from if needed. More direct help came from Sir Richard Clayton. He brought 40 army pensioners from Preston to Birkacre. Each were given six rounds of ball and powder, a bag of swan shot and six rounds of battle powder. Whether these men would be affective against the mob when it returned remained to be seen.
On Monday Josiah Wedgwood, the pottery magnate, reported that the crowd “marched by the beat of drum and with colours flying to the mill”. It had now swollen to 4000 people, and amongst them they had 65 guns as well as axes and hatchets. Sir Richard, accompanied by two magistrates, met with the mob. It was obvious that the small contingent of army pensioners would be able to do little against them. Sir Richard and the magistrates had to conclude that the mob would not disperse.
At two o’clock the protestors entered Birkacre Mill. They destroyed all the machinery and the large mill wheel. They then took the wooden frames from the machines, piled them up in the yard against the sides of the mill and set fire to them in an effort to burn the building down. There seems to have been little fighting, although one mill worker tried to reason with the crowd and was shot dead.
Just two hours later it was all over. Sir George Saville’s soldiers arrived from Wigan, exhausted from the march, to see the mill alight and everything destroyed.
The next day the mob moved on passing through Bolton, Manchester and Stockport. Unrest also continued in Preston and Blackburn and a further nine mills were wrecked over the next few weeks.
We know of only a few of the participants at the riot of Birkacre who were prosecuted. A woman from Chorley, two men from Aspull, one man from Haigh and one man from Whittle-le-Woods all faced trial.
Richard Arkwright had lost a considerable amount machinery, around £4,400 worth. This included “20 spinning frames, 20 spinning engines, 20 carding machines and 20 roving engines, along with twisting wheels, cotton wheels and cotton reels”.
Arkwright left Birkacre for good. He surrendered his lease back to Edward Chadwick, paying him £200. He then petitioned Parliament to try to recoup his losses, but without success. From then on he concentrated his effort on his Cromford mills in Derbyshire, remote and far away from any towns that could supply mobs.
Edward Chadwick was undeterred by the incident. Despite the loss of his £10,000 mill he decided to rebuild. Just two years later it was complete and in 1780 he was advertising it for rent, along with the forge. ? qoute here?
In later years the mill site expanded and was converted to be a calico printing, dyeing and bleaching works. It became very successful under the firm of Mc Naughton and Thom. John Thom, a chemist, was able to buy the Burgh and Birkacre estates off the Anderton family in 1852, such was the prosperity of his business. A private coal mine opened on the site in 1880 to supply coal to the mill complex.
In 1930 the Thom family sold everything to a larger company. Perhaps they had seen how the market was moving, because just nine years later the bleach and dye works was closed down. The buildings were demolished in the 1950s and the whole site became derelict.
In the 1980s Chorley Council obtained a direct land grant and with this money they created Yarrow Country Park on the site. The mill lodges became the central restoration part of the project and today large numbers of people coming to enjoy the nature that has recolonised the site.
What Can be Seen Today
Today the most obvious remnants of Birkacre’s industrial past are the large bodies of water and the interconnecting water channels. The dominant feature is the large lodge. There were originally three lodges in Arkwright’s time, but over the years they have been merged into one. Smaller lodges are situated around it, and these are managed in different ways to maximise their wildlife value. Some are open bodies of water and others have been deliberately allowed to silt up and become marshes. The River Yarrow, wide, clear and clean, flows through the heart of the park.
Of the mill buildings, forges and mines, little remains. However, you can still visit the sites of these, as the country park has a dedicated history walk leaflet. You can download a pdf map of the site and the guided walk from Chorley Council here.
Arkwright’s Mill is now covered by the main car park. Later the site became Birkacre Printworks. It had five printing machines for printing patterns onto textiles in 1846. The small lodges close to the car park were part of the settling tanks for the works.
The sites of both Higher? and Lower Forges are also marked on the trail, although again little remains. However, Higher Forge Cottages which stood close by the Higher Forge can be identified from their ruined walls. These can be seen amongst the trees at the top end of Big lodge. The trees are rapidly colonising the area, and in time the ruins will be hidden.
At the top end of the site is Dry Bones Colliery with its capped mineshaft and winding engine block. The mine shaft is fenced off for obvious safety reasons, but the winding engine block next to it can be inspected at close quarters. The block is the bed that the engine sat on. The winding engine was used to raise and lower the cage that carried the men and coal in the shaft.
The Birkacre bleach works is now the site of the picnic tables and adventure playground, while the Birkacre colliery is lost nearby in the trees.
The most impressive piece of engineering is the Birkacre Weir, with its spectacular cascade of water. This was put in place to raise the level of the River Yarrow and create a faster flowing river downstream to turn the mill wheel. Alongside it is the fish ladder, installed in 2002 for Salmon and Sea Trout to leap up. Sea Trout pass this way in some numbers in October. Both species spawn in the foothills of the Pennines. A fish ladder has also been installed at Duxbury Weir, their next obstacle.
From Industry To Nature
Geography made this an attractive industrial site from early on. The River Yarrow was able to power to mills from as far back as 1423, as records show both a fulling mill and corn mill were situated on it at Birkacre. In the 1500s and 1600s coal mines were being dug as the coal was so close to the surface. The addition of a large scale factory could be added in the 1700s because the power of the river, and coal continued to be got out of the ground into the 1800s.
Now it is nature that is the driving force. The rapid forestation of the area in so short a time is impressive. Year on year the trees grow and the woodlands thicken. Big Lodge has become an important habitat for Goosander, Golden Eye Duck and Great Crested Grebe. With a little help, nature has returned to Yarrow Valley and is there for all to see.
Site visited by A. and S. Bowden 2020
A History of Chorley, Jim Heyes (1994) Lancashire County Books
From Romans to Roundabouts: 50 Years of Chorley and District Historical and Archaeological Society (1954-2004), Various Authors (2005), Newbury Printers (NW) Ltd
Yarrow Valley Country Park Birkacre History Trail, Jack Smith (undated), Chorley Council. This leaflet is available from Birkacre Visitor Centre and online here
Yarrow Valley Country Park General Information, (undated). Leaflet available from Birkacre Visitor Centre.