In 1792, the company of Howarth, Peel and Yates constructed Burrs Mill, a water-powered spinning factory on the banks of the Irwell. A weir was constructed a short distance upstream from the mill and a canal diverted water into the complex. Records show that a small self-contained community grew up there. The buildings included a manager’s house, smithy and workers’ cottages.
With no gardens in which to grow food, the workers bought provisions from the onsite shop. Records show that workers regularly purchased oatmeal, pulses and flour from it. In 1801, when there was a bad grain harvest, potatoes were sold instead. Clothing could be obtained from Mr. Darrell’s drapery store and boots from Mr. Crompton’s boot shop, both in Bury. These goods could be paid for in weekly instalments. The workers were also enrolled in a funeral club, paying towards it three times a year.
The workforce consisted mainly of women and children. There were a small number of men at the factory, employed to clean and repair the machinery. In the early days, the cotton was prepared by a carding process during the day (where the cotton fibres are separated, cleaned and re-laid parallel to each other). The spinning occurred on a night shift, illuminated by oil lamps and candles, and was carried out by teenage girls. The finished spun cotton was sent out to weavers who worked in their own homes. The woven cloth was then sent to Bury Ground where Howarth, Peel and Yates owned a bleaching works.
The most famous partner of the business was Robert Peel Snr, father to Robert Peel Jnr, the future prime minister and founder of the police force. In 1802, Peel Snr instigated an act in the Houses of Parliament to protect pauper apprentices. These were children who had been brought to work at mills either from orphanages or from workhouses. Peel himself employed over 1000 pauper apprentices in his Bury mills, some being brought in from as far away as London. The act required their working areas to be clean and properly ventilated. The children were to be provided with clothes. They would work a maximum of 12 hours, and were not allowed to work at night. The bill did not cover the employment of ‘free’ children i.e. those that had families close by.
Despite Peel’s efforts, he was not above criticism himself. An inspector of one of his mills gave a poor report of the apprentice house lodgings there. Records show that there were three boys to a bed, and these beds had very thin mattresses and insufficient blankets. Peel blamed the people he employed to oversee the children for any mistreatment, rather than take responsibility himself.
Burrs Mill is Sold to a Rival
In 1808, the mill was sold to Richard Calrow. He had constructed the neighbouring Higher Woodhill Mill at the same time that Burrs was first built. Under his stewardship, Burrs was expanded and converted to steam power. Within ten years, Richard’s sons had taken over the running of the two mills, along with Hinds Mill at Elton.
In the three Calrow family mills 400 people were employed, half of which were under the age of 14. In 1819, the Factory Act was passed. The main driving force behind the legislation was once again Burr’s former owner, Sir Robert Peel Snr. This time he intended the act to have more teeth than his previous one, which was barely enforced. The new act forbade the employment of all children under the age of 9. Up to the age of 16, they could only work for a maximum of 12 hours and those hours had to be between 5am and 9pm. Half an hour was allowed for breakfast and an hour for lunch.
The legislation met strong objections from factory owners, and once again it proved difficult to enforce. Inspections were only triggered if two witnesses saw that a mill was breaking the legislation. However, it did set the precedent of a whole series of Factory Acts to come, which would seek to improve the lot of the mill workers.
An official inspection at Burrs around this time revealed that the temperature was not too high inside the mill, and it was whitewashed each year. The children were said to be well fed and clothed. They also received reading lessons and religious instruction. An unannounced visit by a Manchester doctor gave a similarly favourable report of the conditions.
In 1829, a large fire broke out and much of the mill had to be rebuilt. Better times lay ahead though, and the 1850s saw a big growth period in the cotton industry. The chimney that still stands today was constructed then.
At the start of the 1860s, the Burrs cottages provided homes for 28 families, some 141 people in total. The cottages still stand (although much renovated), and in front of them the communal middens’ ruins can be seen. The rest of the decade was blighted by the Cotton Famine, when the Civil War in America disrupted supplies of raw cotton. The Calrow family were forced to sell both Burrs and Higher Woodhill Mill, and these are recorded as being owned by the Yates family in 1870. In the subsequent two decades, Burrs was converted for paper making and then became a bleach works.
The site was expanded, in 1893, by Samuel Rothwell Ltd as a bleach and dye works. By 1920, it was in the hands of the Star Bleaching Company. Just five years later, a new manager’s house was built on Woodhill Road. This still stands today, and is the Garsdale public house. Despite such optimistic building, Burrs Mill did not last much longer, and the Great Depression saw it close in 1933.
During the Second World War, the mill was used as an internment camp, as described on our companion website Lancashire at War here. Demolition of the oldest parts of the site occurred in the 1950s, and much of the rest was done in the early 1980s.
A New Beginning, and A New Use
The derelict site was then bought by the Greater Manchester Council. They sought to improve land within river valleys in the county. When the council was abolished, Bury Metropolitan Borough Council took over ownership. In 1986, they converted it into a country park, coinciding with the reopening of the East Lancashire Railway line that ran from Bury to Ramsbottom.
Archaeological excavations were carried out at the mill and at the nearby Iron Age hillfort of Castlesteads. Old Burrs Bridge was rebuilt, and the undergrowth on the site was cleared by the Manpower Services Commission. The vegetation and wood was burned in the old Burrs chimney, producing 30 foot high flames. An interesting account of the transformation is given on the Burrs and Calrows website here.
The 1990s saw the rebuilding of the workers’ cottages and their conversion into an activity centre. Interpretation boards were put in place, as was a series of public arts including the Waterwheel, Stone Cycle, and Picnic Area (a large mousetrap). The 2000s saw the country park awarded the coveted Green Flag status, and the Caravan Club moving onto part of the site. The latter generates a large amount of money for tourism for Bury.
The site now benefits from an excellent dog-friendly café called The Lamppost. There is a desire by the council to have a designated visitors centre too, and the barn on Stock Street has been put forward as a possible site.
What to See Today
The 1850s chimney dominates the site. Around it, you can see the watercourses and engineering that ensured a constant supply of water to Burrs Mill. The restored workers’ cottages are in excellent condition, and the midden ruins lie just in front of them. Between the chimney and the cottages lies the footprint of the mill floor, and parts of a restored wall. The stone-flagged area shows the extent of the early water-powered mill. The chimney, brick-paved area and car park demonstrate its later extension.
The reservoir that stands a little higher up on the site was originally used to store water to turn the waterwheel. To see the impressive weir, follow the River Irwell upstream on a short walk.
The Brown Cow pub which stands close by the cottages dates from 1752 and so predates the site. It was a farmhouse for many years and must have stood as an isolated and secluded dwelling before the coming of the mill and all its activity.
The Garsdale pub was the former mill manager’s house and stands on Woodhill Road at the opposite end of the site, close to Higher Woodhill Mill ruins.
See the website for the Lamppost Cafe here
Site visited by A. and S. Bowden 2020
Park at one of the two car parks on site at Burrs Country Park. Head for the large chimney to see the mill ruins.
Nearby, just a short walk away
A Short Drive Away
Burrs Country Park leaflet (2006). Available online as a pdf
Burrs Country Park Strategy 2015-2029. Published 2015, available online as a pdf.
On site interpretation boards, Bury Metro Development Services Department
burrsandcalrows.com. Mark Fletcher a local archaeologist has written a number of interesting articles centred around the history of Burrs. It is well worth a visit, offering a wealth of knowledge on the area. See his website here
Bury Ground, Bury, Greater Manchester. Archeaological Desktop Assessment. (2008)Archaeo-Environment Ltd. Available online as a pdf document.
Lancashire at War Burrs Mill, POW Camp, Bury. lancashiratwar.co.uk here
wikipedia.org Early Factory Legislation
heywoodhistory.com Making History in Makin Mill