Cotton Mills in the North East

Netherwhitton Mill in 1972.  Drawing by John Buxton from a Photograph by Stafford Lindsey

Netherwhitton Mill in 1972. Drawing by John Buxton from a Photograph by Stafford Lindsey

Stafford Linsley looks at the cotton industry in our region.

Rather surprisingly, in some ways, a number of cotton mills were built in the north east of England, and sometimes in seemingly unlikely places, such as Netherwitton, and Stannington, both in rural Northumberland, where the necessary raw materials would have to be brought in, and the finished products carried out. A national, but short-lived cotton boom in the period 1780-88, may well have spurred on some unwise cotton mill speculations in the North East and, indeed, most of the north-eastern cotton mills were established towards the end of the eighteenth century; clearly some entrepreneurs believed that sizeable profits could be made out of the production of cotton goods. Although a very desirable asset in this period of expansion was a reliable source of water-power, that decade also coincided with the birth of the rotative steam engine, and whilst it would be many decades before that device superseded the waterwheel, it was used at one ill-fated cotton mill in Durham City.

The following notes on some cotton mills in north east England have been gathered from a variety of primary and (mainly) secondary sources.

Stannington, Northumberland, NZ215784

Stannington MillA cotton mill was built at Stannington on the site of a previous corn mill and brewery, perhaps to capitalise on the available water power – but see below. The factory, apparently designed to make printed cottons, was established at no precisely known date, allegedly with labour imported from Bradford (Oral History).

But by 1825, it was being described as an unsuccessful attempt, made ‘some years ago’, and indeed, it had by then been converted to a manufactory for spinning linen yarns by Messrs Proctor of Newcastle, who had1:
… procured new improved machinery and carry on the business to a considerable extent.

This capital investment seems to have proved attractive to Matthew White Ridley who seemingly bought the concern, in 1828, for £20,500. What then happened remains of a mystery, but by 1855, only a corn mill was listed in local directories; a mill house still remains.

The rather crude and undated drawing of the Stannington cotton mill shown here (NRO ZAN M13 p.30) seems to show a tall smoking chimney, which might suggest that the mill was steam powered.

Burdon’s Cotton Mill at Castle Eden, c.NZ 418 383, and Salvin’s Cotton Mill at Durham City, c.NZ 277 418, 1796-1804

Another short lived cotton enterprise was established at Castle Eden, but then moved to Durham City. In 1792, Messrs Burdon and Salvin2, began the manufacture of corduroys and cotton goods, at Castle Eden, in which about 200 boys and girls were employed in spinning, besides a number of men weaving, cutting, etc3. The enterprise was, however, moved to near the centre of Durham City, in 17964, where it occupied a quite splendid building. The new mill was built as a steam-powered spinning mill, six stories high, of wood and stone construction, and with a total of 365 windows. The heavy cotton preparation machinery was located on the ground floor, as was the steam engine, while the somewhat lighter spinning machinery was placed on the upper floors. The steam engine, as well as powering the mill machinery, also hauled coal for its boilers from the nearby Elvet Pit. There was a large reservoir on the top of the building, with water pipes leading from it to the floors below in case of fire.

Seemingly the works were an initial success, and looms were added for the weaving of muslin in 1803. But at 2 o’clock in the morning of 7 January 1804, a fire broke out in the upper floors of the mill. The reservoir and water pipes failed to operate as the roof fell in an hour later, and the manual carriage of buckets of water from the River Wear failed to prevent the near-total destruction of the mill, only the steam engine and some machinery being saved5. The building was a mere shell as daylight broke, and its front wall fell completely at 8 o’clock.

After the mill remains had sufficiently cooled, the good people of Durham helped out, or rather helped themselves:
… even with this distressing and awful scene before their eyes, many evil disposed persons were detected pilfering anything that they could secretly carry away.

There had been three separate fire insurances on the property, but all were 12 days overdue at the time of the fire. One of the Fire Insurance companies allowed 14 days grace and paid up £3,000, very much less than the loss sustained, while the other two gave nothing. The firm was dissolved, and no attempt was ever made to reinstate the mill.

Meanwhile, back at Castle Eden, the cotton mill had been converted into a sail cloth manufactory, but this also failed, and in 1809, the buildings were taken down, and the materials sold. However, a row of houses called The Factories, where the overseers of the works had lived, still remain, and they give some idea of the extensive nature of the enterprise. All traces of the square where the factory was located had disappeared before 1906, but in the coal-house of a cottage, still called the Bleacheries, the ovens of a bleaching ground remained in 19076.

For further information on the Durham cotton mill see Atkinson, I. & Norris, R., ‘The Account of the Messrs Salvin’s Cotton Mill’, Trans Archit & Archaeol Soc of Durham & Northumberland, New Series, Vol 6, (1982) 1-3.

Bishop Auckland (exact location unknown)

Another failed cotton works in County Durham was at Bishop Auckland, but not much is known about it apart from the information given in an advertisement in the Newcastle Courant of 8 January 1820:
West Mill near Bishop Auckland to be let, lately used as manufactury for printing Calicoes on an extensive scale, with Drying and Dyeing Houses, Dwelling House [and land] not exceeding 37 acres.


The main source of information for the textile industries of Berwick at the end of the eighteenth century is Fuller’s Berwick, (1799)7. Fuller noted that textile manufactures were a fairly recent development in Berwick – ‘[The] various manufactures are still in their infancy.’

A cotton and muslin8 works was established by a Mr McCay in 1788, the first such in the area. He had started with 4 looms, but had increased these to 26 by 1792, with 20 journeymen and 6 apprentices employed, chiefly making checks and stripes for sailors’ shirts. But the outbreak of the Napoleonic war had affected his business considerably, and in 1793, the number of active looms was reduced. However, he had extended his business by Tambouring (embroidering?) muslins, employing 34 people in that line, such that by 1799, he was employing 91 people.

Netherwitton Cotton Mill, NZ101903

Netherwitton Mill, now converted to luxury homes

Netherwitton Mill, now converted to luxury homes

This cotton mill was established by Walter Trevelyan and others, planned for the spinning and weaving of cotton and the production of plain cotton cloths such as calicos and muslins; it came into full production during 1787. The mill was built alongside the Netherwitton Manor Corn Mill and was powered by water from the river Font, a new dam, head race, and tail race, being deemed necessary, as the cotton mill would require a much greater supply of water than the small water-corn mill adjacent. But a crisis of confidence had descended upon the cotton industry by 1788, and the cotton mill boom was soon over. Although the Netherwitton factory was up and running by then, it only survived for a few more years. The exact date of its closure is unknown, but it was around 1795. Seemingly, the mill stood idle for a number of years before being re-opened as a woollen mill for flannel, blankets, and yarns, by Messrs Dixon, Walker, & Co. of Morpeth in 1823. Neither is it known how long this enterprise lasted, but in 1930 the mill building was converted to an estate saw mill. This sawmill was moved into a new shed in 1972, and the mill building was then used for minimal storage until it was converted to domestic accommodation in 1989.

1 Mackenzie (1825). Parson & White list Stannington Cotton Mill in 1827, Messrs Proctor
2 Bailey’s Durham (1810) 293.
3 Bailey’s Durham (1810) 293.
4 Near St. Oswald’s Church.
5 Some details from Sykes Local Records
6 VCH II (1907) 315.
7 Pages 361-72.
8 A lightweight plain cotton cloth, of open texture.

First appeared in Northumbrian Mills No 48, February 2009


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