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Local Industries. Halton Mills.

Lancaster Gazette 22 July 1876:-

The suburban village of Halton has for more than a century been the centre of some particular industry, varying according to the circumstances of demand and supply.  Motive power is always close at hand in the natural “subsidency” of the River Lune; and the capacity to transmit this power through useful channels and enlist it in the service of economical production, is therefore alone required in order to establish a business worthy of ranking among the flourishing concerns of Lancaster and the neighbourhood.  No industries with which we are acquainted, have sprung up in the midst of more picturesque and pleasing associations than those of Halton Mills.  The pedestrian who takes the course of the Lune banks from Lancaster for the sake of admiring the scenery around Halton water, or perhaps wetting a line in the rapids above, finds himself by the side of a series of deep pools, — the resort of the trout and salmon, between wooded slopes that seem at first to cut him off from the sounds and recollections of the busy world.  Presently the rattle of a passing train breaks upon the stillness of the scene, and on the right bank above Halton bridge the observer perceives the white-washed walls and rising chimneys of several mills, which were erected more than a quarter of a century ago by Mr. Swainson of Halton for the purpose of cotton spinning.  An iron forge had previously existed on the site of one of these mills, and pig iron was conveyed to Halton from Hestbank, where the remains of a jetty still testify to the former existence of a small port.  The business of forging was carried on at Halton until increased competition and improved appliances elsewhere rendered it inadvisable to continue the fusing and hammering on the banks of the Lune.  The frequent presence of iron slags in the bed of the roads and among the stones of the walls around Halton proves that the amount of waste material thrown out at the forge must have been considerable, and that it was preferred to the stone of the district on the score of durability. “King Cotton” was unable to maintain a footing in Halton during the commercial depression consequent upon the American war, and on this account the mills that had risen on an iron foundation, remained empty until in the course of the past seven years enterprise and capital were found to establish the manufacture of oil baize on the scene of the old forge, and the weaving of cocoa-nut matting at the lower mill near Halton bridge.  The different processes in connection with the manufacture of cocoa-nut matting have already been described under “local industries;” and so, in passing up the lane by the side of the dam that supplies the lower mills, we can only remark that there is every outward appearance of prosperity around Mr. Watson’s stores and works.

 A pleasant walk of about a quarter of a mile brings us to the mills of Messrs. J. Helme and Co., which are situated close to the upper weir, at the head of the dams that are set apart for local industries. So secluded is the nook in which the mills stand, and so irregular is the surface of the surrounding ground, that the place might be selected as a store-house of botanical curiosities as well as a centre of the grand staple commodity of Lancaster manufacture.  It has often been said, and apparently with truth, that Lancaster is less likely to be affected by any commercial crisis than any other manufacturing town in the county, because it is less dependent upon the uncertain favours of “King Cotton.” The independent position which the town occupies and the improved future prospects that it possesses, are due in a great measure to the certain returns that accrue from the manufacture of the Lancaster specialty, “oil-baize.” So large a field has been opened out by the discovery of this new fabric, that sagacity and skill find ample scope in other departments of manufacture, which originated from the former, and specially include the preparation of varnish, and the superfine finishing of “leather-cloth.” The different stages of oil-baize manufacture and varnish making may be seen in the works of Messrs. Helme and Co., just as in these of the older local firms.  A variety of new sheds and drying rooms have been added to the premises of the mills since Helme and Co. began business at Halton.  Further extensions are required at present and it is not improbable that another year may see the operations of manufacture extended to the other side of the dam, and even to the opposite bank of the river.  The dam that feeds these mills, runs parallel to the other for a short distance, and is then conveyed beneath it by an arch-way into the main stream. Motive power is transmitted to the machinery through the intervention of shafting, from a large breast-wheel, of remarkable breadth and weight, which is capable of imparting the force equivalent to about one hundred horse. A descent is made from the building around the water wheel to the sluice behind, over a set of wrought iron slabs, which carry evidence, besides the remains of slags on all sides, of the former existence of a forge on this site.

First among the operations of oil-baize manufacture is the production of the twilled cloth.  After the warps have been duly prepared by winding, sizing, &c.. they are then placed in the looms, for which several rooms are set apart, and the cloth woven, the speed of which is regulated according to the thickness of the cloth which is required.  Each loom is furnished with three or four shafts, corresponding to the work to be executed, and can turn out about 250 yards of material in the week.  From the noisy department of the looms we pass on to the quieter atmosphere of the “raising” room, where a set of ingeniously constructed machines, presenting plenty of rollers and teeth, and in some respects resembling “carders”, were imparting a downy wool-like surface to one side of the calico. The twilled cloth, when “raised”, is taken to the sheds or painting rooms, where it is carefully stretched on frames in lengths of twelve yards each, and six, seven, or eight quarters in breadth.    

A foundation of  “kiver” is then imparted to the smooth surface of the cloth by means of a special trowel, and the material is thus prepared for the subsequent stages of painting, varnishing, and graining.  The aforesaid “kiver” is a mixture of oil and solid ingredients, which is prepared in fixed proportions in a shed set apart for the purpose.

After a satisfactory coat of “kiver” has been laid upon the cloth, it is smoothed or scraped with a special knife, which takes off the little unevenesses, then polishes, and gives the painter or varnisher a plain surface on which to work.  All the different processes might be seen going on at the same time in the numerous sheds around the Halton Mills, where the cloth is finished off in each department before being sent to the stoves.  On the same frame where the cloth is originally stretched and in the same shed, it remains till the preliminary manufacture is complete, i.e., till it has been put through the “kivering”, scraping, painting, and drying, after which it is varnished and had dried finally.  In one room we saw a polishing frame on which the cloth had been placed.  Close at hand there were lengths of material drying after the application of the first coat; and in an adjoining room the painters were busy with their brushes, while the grain, that might be oak or walnut, was being skilfully rolled over the cloth already painted, so as to trace out a uniform pattern.  Some care is required in moving among these frames laden with their strong-scented and glutinous material, for patches of oily colour are more easily contracted than got rid by clothes in such exposed situations.  

After stepping gingerly among the paint-pots and vessels of “kiver”, by the side of a long row of frames that were waiting to be shut up for the drying process, we came to the chamber, not of horrors, but of odours. The effect that the scents of the White Cross or Quay works have on delicate olfactory nerves, is well known when the wind is in certain directions. But what is a whiff of oil vapour in the midst of the surrounding fresh air, to the atmosphere of a room of oil -baize reeking with varnish, and drying at a temperature of – say 120 degrees? One attempt to breathe in such a cloud of strong vapours will almost suffice for a life-time.

After a brief visit to the trimming-room, where the coils of oil-baize of various widths and colours are shorn at the edges and prepared for the market, we proceeded to the scene of varnish manufacture, which takes place on a plateau of the Lune bank below the basement of the chimney.  The materials of the varnish are here melted over the furnace in a copper, and the volatile impurities all expelled at a high temperature.  As soon as the gummy matter gives signs of  being mixed with oil and turpentine, &c., and thoroughly fused, the oil is added, and the drying properties and turpentine introduced, after which the varnish in the pure diaphanous condition is passed on to the storing cisterns, having taps at convenient points, which were to be seen awaiting the transit to the market, where it is dispatched either in casks or tins according to the nature of the orders received.  Varnish will keep for an almost unlimited period without undergoing any change, except, perhaps the formation of a slight scum on the surface. It will be readily understood that we cannot enter into an exact enumeration of all the elements that enter into the composition of the varnish, or of the temperatures at which the various operations are conducted.  Among the gum varieties we were shown was “copal” from Sierra Leone, “kowrie” from New Zealand, and “Animi” from Zanzibar and India, along with other kinds. There are few departments of manufacture over which so much energy has been expended in original research as in varnish making.  So important was the possession of a clear, well-standing varnish considered to be that many firms and many private individuals evinced the utmost anxiety to purchase the best that could be obtained in the market.  Lancaster varnish and Lancaster oil-baize are now celebrated the world over, and so satisfied are customers both at home and abroad with our local wares, that the field is quite extensive enough for all who are engaged in the manufacture, and who continue to turn out high class articles of industry. 

In a general way we have now touched upon the superficial aspects of oil-baize and vanish manufacture.   Enterprise, and the sagacity to take the tide at the flood, deserve success in the commercial world, and as experience proves, they generally do succeed.  Many years elapsed before oil-baize could be produced in Lancaster which was entirely free from an objectionable stickiness when subjected to heat.    This difficulty is now overcome, and the quality of Lancaster cloth continues to improve year by year.  The firm, whose works we have just visited, is the youngest, but not on that account the least vigorous, of the Lancaster oil baize manufacturers; and since “no proof like matter of fact is,” we may mention that the management in the works of Helme and Co. is of a thoroughly practical character.  That we were met on the occasion with the utmost courtesy, and due attention paid to all our interrogations, is only what was to be expected of their straightforwardness and energy, but nevertheless merits a hearty acknowledgement at our hand in conclusion.