Tuesday, 10 January 2017

A military cemetery in Suffolk

A walk on the Suffolk coast brought me face to face with a story of courage and tragedy from the Second World War

Where the Rivers Stour and Orwell meet

The photos are of a military cemetery in a quiet and peaceful spot on the Suffolk coast, overlooking the estuary of the River Orwell (you can see the container terminal at Felixstowe in the background of the second photo). Out of sight to the right is the town of Harwich on the far side of the estuary of the River Stour which joins the Orwell at this point.

A group of headstones

What caught my eye in particular was a group of headstones that were placed much closer together than most of the others. These all bore the inscription “HMS Worcester” and the date 12th February 1942 (some of them were a few days later, suggesting that the men in question had died from their wounds rather than been killed instantly). The name of the ship meant nothing to me, so I decided to investigate a bit further and discover the story behind these graves.

The story of HMS Worcester

HMS Worcester was a W-class destroyer that was launched in October 1919 and was brought out of the reserve fleet at the outbreak of World War II. At various times she was part of the 16th Destroyer Flotilla, based at Harwich, and would therefore have been visible from the site of the cemetery when at anchor in Harwich Harbour. The main function of the flotilla was to protect merchant shipping in the North Sea and to undertake patrols.

On 11th February 1942 three large German warships, namely the battleships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau and the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen, left the French port of Brest with the intention of sailing along the English Channel to return to Germany by the shortest possible route. This operation, officially named Operation Cerberus, has also become known as the “Channel Dash”. This was a daring move, given that the ships would have to pass within a few miles of the British coast and right under the nose of the Royal Navy.

HMS Worcester was part of the flotilla sent to intercept the German ships as they emerged through the Strait of Dover into the North Sea, on 12th February. In the exchange of fire HMS Worcester came off worse, with shells hitting her from all three German ships. Despite serious damage, HMS Worcester survived the encounter, but seventeen lives were lost on board the ship.

After repairs, HMS Worcester returned to active service but struck a mine in December 1943 which again put her out of action. The damage was so great that she was decommissioned and ended the war as an accommodation ship with a new name, HMS Yeoman. She was eventually scrapped in 1947.

The sailors who died in 1942 were buried close together where they lie to this day, in a small cemetery within sight of the sea.

© John Welford

Friday, 6 January 2017

The modern martyrs of Westminster Abbey

Visitors to London’s Westminster Abbey can see a very interesting set of statues just above the main doorway at the west end. These celebrate ten “modern martyrs”.

Empty niches

Cathedrals and other large churches are notable for many things, one them being the serried ranks of statues of saints and bishops that occupy niches on the exterior stonework, with the west front being a common place to find them. However, on many such buildings all one can see are the niches, because the statues have long since disappeared for one reason or other – often out of Protestant zeal to destroy the “graven images” that adorned previously Catholic buildings.

Leaving the niches empty, however, makes the building look incomplete. The impression is of something missing. Is there not a way of dealing with these niches that will cause no offence to anyone?

The modern martyrs of Westminster Abbey

London’s Westminster Abbey solved this problem in a novel and interesting way, namely by commissioning statues of ten “modern martyrs” to stand in a row of niches that had been empty since the Middle Ages. They are on the west front of the Abbey, immediately above the main doors through which monarchs walk to be crowned or married or carried to be buried. They were unveiled on 9th July 1998 by the then Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey.

The people chosen as “modern martyrs” had to meet the criterion of having been killed for their faith or for advancing the needs of others. They are all 20th century figures and they are from all over the world. The ten martyrs are:

Maximilian Kolbe – a Catholic priest who helped Jews in Poland and who died in Auschwitz in 1941 after offering to take the place of a condemned man.

Manche Masemola – a 16-year-old girl from South Africa who was killed by her parents in 1928 when she converted to Christianity.

Janani Luwum – the Archbishop of Uganda who was murdered on the orders of Idi Amin in 1977.

Grand Duchess Elizabeth Feodorovna – a member of the Russian Imperial family (by marriage) who founded a convent but was murdered by the Bolsheviks during the Russian Revolution.

Martin Luther King – the American civil rights campaigner who was murdered in 1969.

Oscar Romero – the Archbishop of San Salvador, murdered by a death squad in 1980.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer – a Lutheran theologian who was implicated in the bomb plot against Adolf Hitler and executed in 1945.

Esther John – a Pakistani nurse and Christian evangelist who was murdered by a Muslim relative in 1960.

Lucian Tapledi – an Anglican in New Guinea who was killed by invading Japanese troops in 1942.

Wang Zhiming – a Christian pastor in China who was executed in 1973 during the Cultural Revolution.

Presumably, had there been more than ten niches available, there would have been other candidates available for inclusion. As it stands, this memorial makes a powerful statement about the fact that people are still dying for their beliefs in the present age. Although most cathedrals only seem to commemorate people who are long-dead and long-forgotten, Westminster Abbey has bucked the trend in a dramatic and highly effective way.

© John Welford

Monday, 19 December 2016

A first-time visitor's guide to Wales

A visitor to the United Kingdom should be encouraged to include Wales on their itinerary, because it is a very special part of the country and different in many ways from England or Scotland.

Visiting Wales for the first time

Anyone who is not a native or a resident of Wales, but has spent an appreciable amount of time there, whether as a student or a holidaymaker or both (like me), will testify that it is impossible to “do” Wales in a single visit, whether that lasts a week, a fortnight or a month.

Wales is relatively small, being about 8,000 square miles in total in a roughly rectangular shape some 160 miles from north to south and 60 miles from east to west. It is therefore not quite as big as New Jersey. However, it is usually best to think of Wales as having three distinct zones, namely North, South and Mid.

This is because of the mountainous territory of most of Wales that makes travel between north and south quite difficult, as most of the road and rail links run from east to west. The visitor is therefore best advised to aim for one of the three regions and to leave the others for another time. Whichever they choose, there will be plenty to see and do.

The first timer should also decide their priorities in terms of what they want to get from their visit. For example, are they most interested in Welsh culture, or its natural scenery, or its castles, or its beaches? Do they want to surf, or to climb mountains, to pony trek, to watch wildlife or travel on its “great little trains”? There is no reason to plump for just one option, but if you have a particular aim in mind, it might not be so easy to plan your visit in a way that incorporates certain others.

For example, Wales is noted for several heritage rail lines that were originally built to transport slate and other goods from the quarries to the coast. These are to be found in Mid and North Wales, and a certain degree of planning would be needed to fit them all into a short break. If the visitor is also interested in the cultural delights of Cardiff, with its first-rate venues for music, opera and theatre, then combining the two interests would be difficult.

It is impossible, in a short article, to describe all that Wales has to offer, so a short breakdown of the three main regions will have to suffice.

South Wales

This is where the majority of Wales’s population lives, particularly in the only two Welsh cities of any size, namely Cardiff and Swansea. The wealth of Wales in the 19th and 20th centuries came from coal-mining and steel, and it was in south-east Wales that these industries were based, although there is little sign of them now.

For the tourist, Cardiff has far more to offer than Swansea, especially since the development of Cardiff Bay that has taken place in recent years. Cardiff, the chief city of Wales, was always an attractive city, with its castle and the civic centre and university buildings around Cathays Park, but the waterside developments, including the new Welsh Assembly building, are generally agreed as being particularly impressive. The tourist could make Cardiff their sole destination with no trouble at all.

However, South Wales has much more to offer, including the magnificent coastal scenery of the Gower peninsular and Pembrokeshire, and the brooding mountainous territory of the Brecon Beacons and Black Mountain. Walkers are well served, whether the choice is hills or coast paths, as are families who seek safe beaches and rock pools.

Mid Wales

The heart of Wales is a land of lakes, forests, deep valleys and windswept moorlands. This is wild country with only a few villages and not many roads. It is therefore a region that will suit people who want to get away from it all, but they will also have to be largely self-reliant.

The chief town of mid Wales is Aberystwyth on the coast, home to the oldest university in Wales and the National Library. It is also well used to catering for tourists, with many small hotels and guest houses. The railway line from Shrewsbury (in England) ends here, as does the steam-powered narrow-gauge Vale of Rheidol line.

Aberystwyth is at the mid-point of Cardigan Bay, on which can be found many unspoilt and lonely beaches. Whether one goes inland or stays on the coast, this is excellent territory for wildlife enthusiasts, particularly birdwatchers.

North Wales

The region is dominated by Snowdonia, the mountainous area centred on Snowdon, the highest mountain in Wales. A mountain railway can take you to the summit, or there are a number of well-marked paths that are very popular in summer. The area is something of a tourist trap, so visitors would be well advised to explore other parts of the region if they do not wish to be where everyone else is.

Also popular are the large and well-preserved medieval castles of Harlech, Caernarvon and Conwy. These are reminders of Wales’s history and its eventual domination by England in the 14th century. Children love exploring castles, and North Wales has some fine examples.

The coast of North Wales, eastward from Llandudno, is popular with tourists from the cities of north-west England, so visitors might prefer to head further west, to the Lleyn peninsular and Ynys Mon (Anglesey). It is not difficult to get away from the crowds when one wants to.

Culture in Wales

The first-time visitor should make every effort to absorb some of the culture of Wales, which has a tradition of choral singing that goes back for centuries. If you can attend a concert given by a Welsh male-voice choir it will be an unforgettable experience. Even better is an “eisteddfod” (Welsh for “sitting”) which is a festival of music, dance and literature. The 8-day National Eisteddfod is an annual festival held in early August, but local eisteddfodau are also held at other times and places.

Food is part of a nation’s culture, and Wales has some culinary customs of its own, such as the use of seaweed to make “laver bread”. Welsh lamb is highly prized, with sheep rearing being the dominant agriculture in many parts of the country. Leeks are typical vegetables and are one of Wales’s national symbols. On the sweeter side, “bara brith” is a bread made with raisins, currants and fruit peel.

The national sport of Wales is rugby football, with most of the big clubs being in South Wales. National pride is very much to the fore when Wales play at Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium, especially if the opponents are England! Tickets are much more easily obtained for club matches, but the passion on display is always high.

The Welsh language

The first-time visitor, especially one from beyond the United Kingdom, may be surprised to find that a language other than English is spoken here. Welsh is an ancient Celtic language that was once spoken across most of England as well, before England was created by invading Angles and Saxons in the 5th and 6th centuries. The invasion never reached Wales, so the language was preserved.

The visitor will soon see that all road signs and many other public notices are in both Welsh and English, with Welsh usually given priority. Welsh is spoken as the first language by about 20% of the population, although the proportion is much higher in north and west Wales.

You will hear Welsh spoken in shops and whenever local people get together, but this should not worry the visitor, because every Welsh speaker is bi-lingual, having learned both languages from an early age. That said, Welsh people are justly proud of their language and appreciate it when visitors take the trouble to learn a few phrases, such as “bore da” (“good morning”).

The first-time visitor to Wales is unlikely to be an “only time” visitor, because a first visit can only be a taster of what Wales has to offer. There is so much variety, especially in outdoor activities, and Wales keeps many of its secrets well hidden, only to be prised out by the determined explorer.

© John Welford

Fowey, Cornwall

The southern coast of Cornwall has several river valleys that form wide estuaries as they meet the sea and offer a softer landscape than that of the rocky headlands of the far west and north Cornish coast. One of these estuaries is at Fowey, a few miles east of St Austell.

A relic of the Ice Age

The river valleys of Cornwall turned into tidal estuaries when sea levels rose after the end of the last Ice Age; the technical term for such a feature is “ria”. These have created deep water anchorages at the river mouths and stretches of water that are navigable much further inland than would otherwise have been the case.

The enlarged valley of the Rover Fowey (pronounced “Foy”) has been used commercially since Roman times, when tin mining was carried out further inland. The trade in later centuries was in china clay, large quantities of which are still extracted from the quarries near St Austell.

The port of Fowey was also important in past centuries as a military base. In 1346 the town supplied 700 men and 47 vessels for the siege of Calais, as against only 25 that sailed from London. In later years the seamen of Fowey turned their hand to piracy.

Fowey town

The houses and other buildings of Fowey crowd closely together around a jumble of narrow streets (including a “Trafalgar Square”). The waterfront, with its tall buildings, is best seen from the other side of the harbour and makes a very attractive sight at night when lit up.

Just south of the town is St Catherine’s Castle on a rocky promontory above the sea. This was built on the orders of King Henry VIII as one the chain of castles intended to defend ports all along the English south coast at a time of threat from France. It was a small artillery fort that was never as well developed as other Cornish defences such as St Mawes and Pendennis castles (although it was extended during the 19th century Crimean War), but a visit is worthwhile If only for the views to be had from its walls.
Getting away from the crowds

The small towns and villages that dot the Cornish coast are notable for being tourist traps in summer, and the town of Fowey, with its narrow streets, is not immune from the effect of its attractiveness. It is, however, less commercialised than some other places such as Polperro, which is eight miles to the east. It is therefore advisable to explore Fowey on foot, having left your car at the car park on the edge of town.

It is, however, perfectly possible to get away from the crowds if one is prepared to forget the car and walk along the river and cliff paths on either side of the harbour.

East of the river

Access from Fowey is made possible by the ferries that cross the short distance from Fowey to Polruan (foot passengers and bicycles only) and Boddinick (cars and foot passengers).

A popular walk is the four-mile “Hall Walk” that uses both ferries and skirts the Pont Pill tributary estuary of the Fowey River. There are excellent views of the harbour and only two steep climbs.

Other walks can take in part of the Southwest Coast Path along the cliff tops.

West of the river

You are bound to escape the crowds if you take a walk on the peninsula to the west of Fowey Harbour, because much of this area is not accessible by road.

Not far along the coast is the secluded small bay of Polridmouth (pronounced Pridmouth) which is half a mile from the nearest road. A dam across the small river that empties into the bay has created a freshwater ornamental lake.

Another walk can take you to Gribbin Head, with its red and white “day mark” (a sort of unlit lighthouse) and the small harbour at Polkerris (which has a pub!). This walk affords magnificent views out to sea and along the Cornish coast to the west.


This is an area that is rich in plant, animal and bird life. Sea spurge and edible rock samphire grow along the shoreline, and the cliff tops abound with cornflowers, field pansies, speedwell and tormentil. The Pont Pill estuary is wooded, with oak, ash, chestnut, beech and sycamore being the prominent tree species.

Among the birds to be seen are kestrels, skylarks, meadow pipits, wheatears and stonechats.

A famous former resident

Fowey was the home for many years of the writer Daphne du Maurier (1907-89). One of her homes, Menabilly, was the model for “Manderley” in her best-known novel “Rebecca”. It has been suggested that Pont Pill was the original “Frenchman’s Creek”, although it is generally believed that she had in mind the Helford River much further west.

Fowey hosts an annual Festival of Arts and Literature in her honour.

All-in-all, this is a very pleasant corner of Cornwall to visit, especially for people who like their towns picturesque and their countryside unspoilt and uncrowded.

© John Welford

Saturday, 17 December 2016

Exploring Leicester

The best way to explore the centre of Leicester is on foot, and this has become a lot easier, and more pleasant, thanks to the efforts made during recent years to pedestrianize several main streets and extend the central shopping mall.


For the shopper, Leicester has a lot to offer. From the Clock Tower, you can go east along Humberstone Gate, south along Gallowtree Gate, or west along High Street, and find many of the stores that are familiar in an English city centre, but without the traffic that usually separates one side of the street from the other. However, Leicester has a few surprises as well. For one thing, you may come across street musicians and other entertainers in this area, or fairground rides and stalls at certain times of the year. The various festivals celebrated by many different religious groups make their mark on these streets, which are decorated accordingly.

Just off Gallowtree Gate is Leicester Market, the largest covered market in Europe. There has been a market on this site for 700 years, and there is a huge number of stalls, many of them selling fresh fruit and vegetables but a variety of other goods besides.

From the market, you can easily wander into “The Lanes”. These are some of the oldest streets in Leicester, as narrow as they were when laid out in medieval times, with a multitude of small shops and places to eat. There are arcades and alleyways that are just asking to be explored.

Cross from the Lanes over High St and you will enter the completely different world of the Highcross Centre. This two-level shopping mall boasts around 120 retail premises, including many top names such as John Lewis, Top Shop and River Island, plus a 12-screen cinema and a variety of eateries.

With its combination of new and old, Leicester is now regarded as one of the top ten shopping centres in the UK. However, there is much more to Leicester than just its shops.

Historical Leicester

Leicester’s history goes back to Roman times, and there are still a few vestiges of its origins to be seen. Walk along High St to its end and you will not be far from the Jewry Wall which, despite its name, was built as part of the baths complex of the original settlement, in about 160 AD. At 18 feet high and 70 feet long, it is the second largest piece of Roam civil (as opposed to military) masonry to be found in the country. The adjoining Jewry Wall Museum tells the story of Leicester from the Iron Age to the present day.

If you walk back towards the city centre along Guildhall Lane, you will pass by the Guildhall, which is one of the best-preserved timber framed halls in the country, dating back to 1390. It is believed by many that Shakespeare himself performed in a play here, and the building is still used as a performance venue today. It is also reputed to be Leicester’s most haunted building, with five different ghosts having been reported.

Next to the Guildhall is Leicester Cathedral. This is not a graceful, soaring building along the lines of many famous English cathedrals, but a former parish church that was transformed into a cathedral when Leicester was designated as a city in 1927. It is well worth a visit, not least as an oasis of calm at the heart of a busy city.

The cathedral contains the tomb of King Richard III, whose body was brought to Leicester after his death at the Battle of Bosworth. However, the burial only took place in 2015 after Richard’s remains had been excavated from a site very close to the cathedral but not known about for more than 500 years.

The first burial site can be visited as it is now part of the King Richard III Visitor Centre, built on the site of the chapel of Grey Friars.

Walking on

An alternative route from Jewry Wall is along the towpath of the River Soar, which forms part of the Grand Union Canal as it passes through Leicester. Apart from admiring the swans, rowers and canoeists, you can look across to Castle Park, which is the site of Leicester Castle, of which nothing remains except the motte on which the Norman castle was built.

If you cross at the first bridge, you can walk up The Newarke and visit the Newarke Houses Museum, which tells the story of 20th century Leicester and the Royal Leicestershire Regiment. On a fine day, be sure to visit the gardens, which are themselves an historical exhibit of gardening through the centuries.

If you cross at the second bridge, you can walk between the buildings of De Montfort University. At the top of the road, where Bonner’s Lane meets Oxford St, is a Jain temple, the only one in Europe. This is a truly remarkable building, with a marble frontage covered in intricate carvings, many more of which can be found inside. This is a reminder of the cosmopolitan nature of Leicester, which is home to people whose origins are from all over the world. People of all the world’s major religions live here in peaceful harmony.

To your left you can see The Magazine, which was a gateway to the Castle site, with an attached three-storey building, built around 1410. It was through this gateway that Richard III rode on the way to his last battle in 1485.

Carry on down either York Road or Newarke St, cross Welford Place, and you will reach the start of New Walk. This article began with a description of Leicester’s latest pedestrianization, but here is proof that the idea goes back a long way. New Walk, despite its name, was laid out as long ago as 1785, with the stipulation that no wheeled vehicles were to be allowed along it, and the rule still stands to this day. It forms a pleasant, tree-lined route of some 1,100 metres, with substantial town houses built on either side, although many of these have since been converted into offices.

New Walk connects several open spaces, and eventually leads to the much larger Victoria Park, but you might like to stop at the New Walk Museum, and spend some time here. This is Leicester’s oldest museum, and its collection is very wide-ranging, specialising in the natural world and anthropology. Children will probably be most interested in the dinosaurs, including two skeletons that were discovered in Leicestershire, and the “Wild Space” exhibit which is an interactive exploration of biodiversity with many hands-on features.

The museum is also an art gallery, with artists represented including Durer, Pissarro, Hogarth and Lowry. The gallery possesses the largest collection of German expressionist art outside Germany.

When you’ve had enough, make your back to the city centre and gain refreshment at one of the dozens of pubs, cafes and restaurants on offer in Leicester. The cultural diversity of Leicester means that there is something to suit every taste, either in the centre or a short journey away along Belgrave Road, which is at the heart of the Asian community.

And if you still want more, there’s the National Space Centre only a few miles up the road by bus. Exploring Leicester is a very worthwhile activity, but you’ll need more than one day to do it!

© John Welford 

Thursday, 8 December 2016

You can't see the Eiffel Tower from the London Eye!

The number of people who have “flown” in the London Eye since it was set up as part of London’s millennium celebrations now runs into the tens of millions. They have gazed out at the view of London and its surroundings and pointed out in excitement at everything they can see – Buckingham Palace, the Tower of London, Windsor Castle, the Eiffel Tower

What was that? The Eiffel Tower? You mean the one in Paris?

That’s what they say – on a clear day, from the top of the London Eye, you can see the Eiffel Tower!

This claim is made so often that it must be true, surely? As we all know, that many American tourists can’t possibly be wrong!

Sorry, folks, but the view isn’t quite that good! Let’s just think about it for a minute. Paris is about 200 miles to the south of London. If you could see that far, then you would also be able to see 200 miles in every other direction, giving you a view of Plymouth, Bristol, Swansea, Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds, Hull … assuming that there were no hills in the way!

But of course you can’t see that far, simply because we all live on a ball, not a plate. The curvature of the Earth comes into play, such that the view from a height of 443 feet (the top of the London Eye) is limited to about 25 miles on a clear day, which means that you can just about see Windsor Castle (looking west), but not much further than that.

Looking south, in the direction of the Eiffel Tower, your view is blocked by the hills of the south London suburbs. The maximum height above sea level of this rim of higher land is 367 feet, at Crystal Palace, so your line of sight is not far from horizontal. If you could see anything on the other side of this obstacle it would have to be incredibly tall! To see anything 200 miles on the other side it would have to be astronomically tall!

However, there is a clue here as to where people make their mistake. Crystal Palace (so named because this was the place to which the original Crystal Palace was moved after the Great Exhibition of 1851), is the site of a massive television transmitter, standing 719 feet tall. It was built in 1956 and is still used as the main transmitter for the London region, relaying many TV and radio stations.

Being the height it is, it needed to be built on a solid foundation, with four sturdy steel pillars curving upwards to support the business end thrusting skywards. Indeed, it could almost be mistaken for another famous landmark of similar shape and size, but 200 miles distant!

Hm! I wonder if, by any chance, that could be why all those tourists go home thinking they have seen a lot further than they really have? !!!

© John Welford

Tuesday, 6 December 2016

Quarry Bank Mill, Cheshire

Quarry Bank Mill is a remarkable survivor from the Industrial Revolution, namely a virtually complete cotton mill that opened for business in 1784 and can be seen today – in many though not all respects – just as its original owners and workers would have seen it.

It is located near the Cheshire village of Styal, which is on the southern fringe of Manchester, close to the airport. Indeed, the modern visitor gets an interesting perspective from seeing planes take off just a few hundred yards from a building that is more than 230 years old.


That is the name that was given to Manchester in the 19th century as a result of the city’s phenomenal growth during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, due almost entirely to a single industry, namely the spinning and weaving of cotton thread and cloth. It is estimated that the population of Manchester almost quadrupled between 1773 and 1801, and many previously insignificant communities in Lancashire and northern Cheshire also grew into substantial towns that bristled with cotton mills.

A number of factors contributed to this growth, not all of which are matters for national or regional self-congratulation. The cotton trade grew on the back of the slave trade, and the factories that processed cotton relied on child labour in conditions that that were dangerous and unhealthy.
Visitors to Quarry Bank are given plenty of reminders of these facts.

Samuel Greg

The founder of Quarry Bank was Samuel Greg (born in 1758), who had the good fortune to inherit a substantial amount of money when still in his twenties, and who was already involved in the linen trade as a textile merchant.

Part of Samuel’s inheritance included a small weaving business – using hand looms – at Eyam in Derbyshire, but he became interested in the opportunities presented by the invention by Richard Arkwright of the waterframe, which was a water-powered machine for spinning cotton. This had been patented in 1775, but Greg saw that this was a machine that could be put to good use in providing a steady supply of cotton thread for his weavers.

The ending of the American War of Independence in 1783 promised a ready supply of raw cotton, coinciding with the expiry of Arkwright’s patent. Samuel Greg wasted no time in finding a good site for a new building that could be powered by a reliable source of water, namely the River Bollin that flowed off the nearby Peak District. He leased the land he needed and started work, with the building being ready for operation in 1784. The original mill was later extended in the same architectural style.

A family business

One reason for the survival of Quarry Bank Mill is that the business was continued and expanded through five generations of the Greg family. In 1939 the Mill was given to the National Trust by the last Greg owner, Alexander Carlton Greg, and it closed as a going concern in 1959. However, that meant that the building and its contents were safe from the demolitions and depredations suffered by most of the region’s cotton mills as the industry declined in face of changing economic conditions.

Samuel Greg died in 1834, so it was his son, Robert Hyde Greg, who made the major change of introducing weaving to the factory as well as spinning. It was now possible for Quarry Bank to take in raw cotton and produce finished cloth, all within the same building.

Power from water and steam

Although the Mill was originally solely dependent on water power, it was not long before Samuel Greg realised that an additional source of power was necessary, so in 1810 he bought his first steam engine, this being a 10-horsepower beam engine that was only intended to provide additional power when the river was low during dry periods.

However, the expansion of the factory in the 1830s, such that it now held more than 300 looms as well as the spinning machines, meant that a larger steam engine was needed. This was a 20-horsepower machine.

A further supplement was added in 1871, this being a horizontal condensing engine that was itself replaced by a similar model in 1906.

However, the fascinating aspect from a visitor’s point of view is that the water turbines installed in 1905, the second beam engine and the second horizontal engine are all still in working order and can be seen in operation today, although the steam engines no longer rely on the massive coal-fuelled boiler that is still in place. Visitors can even crawl through a narrow passage and look straight up the now unused chimney.

What can you see?

You enter the Mill building at the top (via a modern walkway from an adjoining building) and work your way down. You therefore see a number of historical displays, with people in period costumes showing visitors how operations such as carding raw cotton were performed. There are lots of old photographs and documents on display, such as the contract that a new child apprentice would sign that committed him or her to working a 12-hour day (six days a week) for the next seven years.

On a lower floor you can see a room full of looms, one of which (dating from the 1870s) will be set going on request. It is fascinating to see the shuttle being thrown backwards and forwards as the warp threads are raised and lowered. The noise of one machine is substantial – it is hardly surprising that the original workers had to devise sign language to communicate with each other when 300 such machines were clattering away at the same time.

Downstairs there is a 1920s spinning mule in working order. This spins more than 500 bobbins at the same time on a machine that is of virtually the same design as ones pictured in 19th century drawings that were used to draw public attention to the evils of child labour. As the machine operates you can see the carriage extending forward so that the threads are stretched, thinned and twisted before being bound on to bobbins. Pieces of cotton fall to the floor – these had to be picked up by child workers who were small enough to crawl under the machines but were in constant danger should they stand up too early.

Then there are the steam engines working away in the basement, and the boilers that would have had to be continually stoked with coal.

What you see is, of course, a sanitised version of what the original workers would have experienced. Apart from the noise and the dirt, there was the cotton dust that got in the lungs and caused incurable diseases. There was also the fact that cotton could only be worked efficiently in a humid atmosphere, so the windows were never opened and the temperature was always kept high.

One should also not forget that the raw cotton – in the early days – only reached the Lancashire mills as a result of the labour of slaves in the West Indies and the southern states of the USA. Another thing that is often forgotten is that the trade was stolen from India, where it became uneconomic to continue it after industrialisation took hold in England. Some 60% of the finished cloth was exported – largely to India.


Child labour was cheaper than adult labour, and women were paid less than men. It is therefore not surprising that the Gregs took advantage of this by employing as many apprentices as they could, with more girls than boys. The reason for the gender disparity was partly because many apprentices would become adult workers but also because girls tended to be more docile than boys.

Most of these children were taken from workhouses, often at around nine years old. At Quarry Bank you can visit the Apprentice House where up to 90 apprentices were housed at a time, sleeping in box beds that look very small to us until one remembers how small the occupants would have been.

There is some evidence that the Gregs were relatively enlightened employers for their time. Punishments were limited, the food was reasonable, including fresh vegetables from the cottage garden, and medical facilities were provided. The apprentices were also given a rudimentary education. The number of apprentices who stayed on at Quarry Bank as adults is some sort of testament to the fact that working conditions were probably considerably worse elsewhere.

More evidence of enlightenment?

When reading history it is important to do so without imposing too many standards that belong to our own age. We may therefore judge someone who lived centuries ago as being cruel and heartless whereas their contemporaries would have seen them as being recklessly liberal. The Gregs are a case in point.

It cannot be overlooked that Samuel Greg’s chief purpose was to make lots of money for himself and his family, and he certainly achieved that aim by cramming a huge number of spinning and weaving machines into his factory and forcing people to operate them for many hours a day while paying them wages that were not notably generous. As mentioned earlier, factory conditions were unpleasant and unhealthy and accidents – some of them fatal – did happen.

However, the Gregs were relatively enlightened by the standards of their day. One piece of evidence is the house they built for themselves right next door to the Mill. Quarry Bank House is substantial but not palatial. It was a family home, designed to house twelve children and their parents and servants, but the rooms are modestly sized. Samuel Greg could have afforded something much grander but chose not to, as he preferred to be as much a part of the Mill’s community as he could.

The Gregs also built much of Styal village, with Samuel’s wife Hannah being particularly active in developing housing and community facilities for the workers. The cottages were well-built and enjoyed a rural location that was far removed from the slum conditions suffered by many Lancashire mill workers. Although Manchester wages were higher, Styal rents were cheaper.

One notable feature was the sanitation provided by the privies, one to each cottage instead of one being shared by a whole street, as was typical elsewhere. Every cottage had its own allotment so workers could grow their own vegetables.

The Gregs also provided a village shop, a school and a Unitarian chapel. Later developments included a Methodist chapel, a village hall and a library.

A blast from the past

A visit to Quarry Bank Mill is therefore a step back in time to see how people lived and worked some 200 years ago. It does not take a great deal of imagination to picture their lives and experiences, even from walking through the woods of the Quarry Bank Estate – as the Gregs and their guests would have done to view the river in its steep-sided valley – or walking gingerly down a narrow cobbled alleyway as the workers would have done on their way to the Mill early in the morning.

You could spend a long time at Quarry Bank Mill and come away with a whole new perspective on life in the past.

© John Welford