Take a northerly direction from Stockport and you will travel through Reddish, a typical district combining streets of terraced houses with more modern housing estates. Dominating the skyline of Reddish is the 110-foot tall chimney of Houldsworth Mill. The best view is from Rupert Street, the main approach, with the mill directly in the centre, displaying the magnificent Victorian frontage in all its architectural glory.
In the Past
Houldsworth Mill was built in 1865, at the height of the cotton production in the north-west of England. It was commissioned by William Houldsworth (1835 - 1917), a son of one of the region's wealthiest industrial families. As well as a mill, Reddish boasts a road, a large pub and the main town square all named in his honour. There is even a character in Coronation Street1, Reg Houldsworth, who bears Houldsworth's name.
The central section of Houldsworth Mill is dominated by the massive engine-room and boiler-house. Behind the mill was a dock and waterway connected to the former Stockport-Manchester canal, which was used to transport the vast amounts of coal needed to supply the boilers. The steam-driven engines would, in turn, power all the machinery in the building.
Why were there so many cotton mills in the north-west of England? The answer to this question is found in the climate of the region, which is naturally more humid than the rest of the UK2. The cotton industry relied on this damp climate because if the air is too dry then the threads would also dry out and would snap more easily. The damp air in the north-west made the cotton threads more resistant to breakage.
The Cotton-making Process
Bales of raw cotton (mostly imported from the US) arrived by canal and were taken into the ground floor of the mill where it was washed. On the next floor it was carded, a process which separates the fibres in preparation for spinning. The next stage was the spinning process, where the cotton was spun into thread and dyed if required, then spun onto bobbins. Next, the bobbins were taken to the weaving room, where the thread was woven into cloth. The final, and optional stage, was printing. If the fabric was to be patterned, this had to be printed on by hand using wooden print-blocks, and was the most highly skilled part of the whole process. Fully working examples of the kind of machinery used in Houldsworth Mill are on display at the Manchester Museum of Science and Industry.
William Houldsworth turned to politics and was elected a Member of Parliament in 1883, and as a delegate to the European Monetary Conference in 1892. He retired in 1906 at the age of 61.
The cotton industry in Britain began to decline following the Great War, but cotton production at Houldsworth Mill continued until the 1950s. At this point the mill was sold to a mail-order catalogue company and was used primarily as a warehouse. In the late 1960s the building was expanded with a five-storey extension to the rear of the north end of the mill. This hideous construction of glass and concrete is typical of the period, but quite out-of-keeping with the red-brick architecture of the previous century. Mail-order trading ceased in the 1970s, when the mill was sold off and divided into separate business units, however the vast majority of the building remained vacant and it fell into a state of disrepair.
In the Present
Since 1998, Houldsworth Mill has undergone substantial renovation and restoration; a process which at the time of writing (March 2001), is still ongoing. To date it has cost upwards of £7,000,000, financed by local business organisations, the local town council and by grants from English Heritage3, and similar organisations, such as the Prince's Trust.
The extension to the rear of the mill accommodates several businesses, and the second floor contains a Craft Village. This 'village' comprises over 40 units where local traders, artists and craftspeople can make and sell their products. There is also a café, a large hall which holds regular craft fairs, and another hall for weekly car-boot sales4.
The north end of the mill comprises a modern business centre aimed primarily at high-technology industries such as graphic design. It comprises modern, well-appointed individual office units with a centralised reception area and a large conference centre. One floor of the north end has also been acquired as a technology and study centre by a local college.
The south end of the mill, when finished, will comprise 68 modern loft-style apartments. There are proposals for this section to also include a restaurant, gymnasium and art gallery as well as workspace and studios for artists and creative professionals.
Into the Future
Houldsworth Mill is a fine example of how our industrial heritage can be preserved and yet also move on into the future. The needs of the 21st Century are very different from those of the 19th, but by adapting to the development of technology, beautiful buildings like Houldsworth Mill can continue to provide employment and leisure opportunities for the local community.