HISTORY 2018-08-20T15:26:30+00:00


The Woollen Industry

It is not known exactly when the woollen trade first began, however it is known that there was a wool industry as long ago as the Iron Age. Firstly with Roman occupation and again with the arrival of the Normans, England traded fleeces with Europe. By the 1300s, the main focus of trade changed from fleeces, to the spinning and weaving of woollen yarn to make a wide range of goods. From the fourteenth century, English woollen goods were in demand across the globe. The woollen industry attracted workers from overseas and this brought in new skills to produce a wider range of fabrics and goods.

The industry gained prominence in Lancashire in the seventeenth century. Trade was highly regulated to ensure that quality remained high. Over 300 laws were in place by the end of the eighteenth century, from how sheep should be clipped, to the length, breadth and weight of cloth. Woollen manufacturers were able to build both their wealth and influence over local communities, centred around new commercial empires.

Rapid developments in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, saw woollen manufacture begin to be challenged by the cheap and plentiful supplies of imported cotton. Manufacturers experimented by mixing cotton warps with woollen wefts, creating cheaper fabrics which quickly gained popularity. By 1850 the woollen industry had become most heavily centred in West Yorkshire, with cotton dominating Lancashire’s textile trade. That Higher Mill remained as a woollen fulling mill, therefore makes it a unique survivor of Lancashire’s woollen industry past.

The Building of Higher Mill

Prior to the building of Higher Mill the area of Musbury, now known as Helmshore, was sparsely populated, with a small number of cottages and farms. The landscape was well suited to sheep farming, with its population engaged in the domestic woollen industry. With its steep valleys and ample water supplies, it was therefore an ideal area to become home to water-powered woollen mills.

The land that Higher Mill was built on was a green field site purchased for £725 in February 1789 (this is equivalent to around £56,000 today). The land was bought by six members of the Turner family – Robert and his sons Alexander and Thomas, cotton manufacturers from Mill Hill in Blackburn and Robert’s three nephews William, James and Edward, woollen manufacturers from Martholme, Great Harwood.

It is not clear why, however, by 1792 the wider partnership had dissolved leaving William, James and Edward to run the operation in Helmshore.

Higher Mill was a purpose-built fulling mill. Fulling was the first process in cloth manufacture to become mechanised. It involved beating the woven cloth with large hammers to create a smooth, soft fabric.

Higher Mill was not the first fulling mill built in the valley, with records suggesting that fulling was taking place at least as early as the 17th century. However, the Turner family were ambitious and began to take control of woollen cloth production in the local area. The Turner’s paid domestic workers to spin carded wool into yarn and for weavers to turn the yarn into cloth.

The Turner empire began to grow in earnest during the 1820s with the building of a second mill adjoining Higher Mill (now referred to as Whitaker’s Mill) for carding and spinning, followed by Middle Mill, Tan Pits and Bridge End Mill by 1830, each incorporating spinning and weaving.

William Turner (1793-1852)

Unknown artist; Copyright Lancashire County Council

William Turner, son of one of the original brothers, James, is regarded as one of the most influential people in the development of Helmshore. Together with his three brothers Ralph, James and Edward he took control of Higher Mill in 1824.

William was a keen businessman who had an eye for an opportunity. Although he inherited wealth, he was also a merchant, owner of a cotton mill near Rochdale and farm lands throughout Rossendale; amassing a fortune of around £100,000. Mechanisation appealed to William’s business sense and he was one of the first in the area to use power-looms.

William is recorded in history as being an arrogant man, quick to take offence and a strict employer, enforcing fines for a range of relatively minor infractions. To his credit however, the money raised from fines was donated to Musbury Sunday School. In 1838 he was described as “a worthy good man, who does much for his people” by Leonard Horner, Chief Inspector of Factories. At this time he employed over 1000 people, 108 of which were children.  He qualified as a magistrate on 6 April 1842 at a General Quarter Sessions in Preston. It was as a Justice of the Peace that he was renowned as a man to be feared.

In his leisure time, William enjoyed growing tulips, with his collection worth several thousand pounds. In 1830 it was reported that at the Bolton Floral and Horticultural Society exhibition he was awarded the silver cup for the best pan of tulips, plus a further four prizes. He also enjoyed other pastimes typical of a man of his standing, including shooting and horse racing. He sat on many committees and supported events to fundraise for local good causes. He was also a member of the Freemasons and it was reported in 1830 that he was offered the position of Provincial Grand Master of the eastern division of Lancashire.

William was married twice, firstly to Sarah Edge in 1814. Unfortunately Sarah died in March 1816 aged just 23 leaving two children one year old Matilda and new baby Sarah. With two young daughters to raise, William remarried in 1819. His second wife, Ellen Ormerod was only 15 years old at the time, and the marriage took place with parental consent. Together they had a further nine daughters, though only seven survived William. The family lived in Flaxmoss House which was positioned close to William’s mill empire in Helmshore.

William died in 1852, aged just 59 after suffering from a long illness. Having no sons, his will ordered the sale of his mill estates and other properties, together with other Turner family holdings, all of which were put up for auction in September 1852. In his will he specified that his remaining farms and money raised through the sales of his properties would enable an annual payment of £600 to his wife Ellen and to provide for his six younger daughters. He ensured that each of his daughters was to receive an equal share. His three eldest daughters, he notes in his will, had already been well taken care of – his daughters to his first wife had inherited good sums of money from their grandfather and his third daughter had received £7000 on the occasion of her marriage. Ellen did not remarry and as permitted by William’s will, she continued to live at Flaxmoss House until her death in 1871.

William was the first person buried in the churchyard of the newly built St Thomas church, which he largely funded the building of. His memorial reads:

In Memory of William Turner Esquire
Of Flaxmoss House, one of Her Majesty’s Justices’s of the Peace for the Couty of Lancaster, who departed this life on XXIII (23) of March A.D. MDCCCLII (1852) in the LIXth (59) year of his age.
This tomb is erected as a token of affectionate remembrance by his bereaved and disconsolate widow.
Not content with watching over the temporal interests of a numerous body of tenantry and workpeople he became a munificent contributor to the furtherance of their spiritual welfare in the erection of St Thomas Church in the new parish of Musbury and had seen his active exertions on the verge of being brought to a successful issue when it pleased a mysterious providence to afflict him with protracted sickness and finally to remove him from the home circle of a devoted family.His remains were the first deposited in the burial ground adjoining the church only the day after its consecration.
In the midst of life we are in death

Turner Family Influences and the Development of Helmshore

Helmshore came a long way from its beginnings as scattered dwellings, to the thriving industrial mill community of 1852. The Turner family had great influence and standing in the area, not just as employers, but also playing key roles in creating the local infrastructure linked to education, transport, water supplies and religion.

At the outset of their enterprise, rather than using local workers as might be expected, the Turner’s worked with weavers in Rochdale where wages were considerably lower than in Helmshore. Around this time the Turner’s were employing around 2,000 people. However, following wage riots, by 1824 the Turner’s were no longer permitted to give out work in Rochdale.

The government migration schemes of 1835-7 benefitted the enterprise, by bringing unemployed agricultural labourers from the south to Pennine Lancashire. 96 people (10 families largely from Suffolk) came to Helmshore and were housed at Tan Pits. This was by no means cheap labour and records of the time demonstrate that the wages that these migrants were offered, were above average.

With a growing workforce came the need for new housing. William built good quality housing for his workers at Gregory Fold, St. Thomas Street, Piccadilly, Tan Pits and Station Road. He built the Turner’s Arms Inn next to Helmshore station on the East Lancashire Railway line (now the Station Hotel).

There was also an increasing need for education, and from the age of 22 William was involved in the establishment of a school at Hollin Bank. Following the 1833 Factory Act which made education for child workers compulsory, he financed the school himself, later funding building works to double its size.

In order to protect the water supply necessary to power his mills in times of drought, William was one of a group of local manufacturers who put together plans to build reservoirs on the river Irwell. In 1840 he, together with fellow manufacturer John Bowker, built Holden Wood reservoir to supply additional water to the valley. As Higher Mill was the first mill in the Valley to receive water from this reservoir, it was never at risk of running short of supply.

Transport was another area which William actively involved himself in. With the growth of the East Lancashire Railway, William recognised the importance of being connected to Manchester, Liverpool and beyond to take advantage of distribution networks. He owned shares and sat on the committee for the Blackburn, Burnley and Accrington Extension Railway announced in 1844. The following year came the announcement of the Clitheroe Junction Railway of which William was also a shareholder. This enabled Helmshore to connect to the wider network which reached Scotland in the north and London in the south, via Manchester. The same year he also appears on a list of shareholders of the Blackburn, Chorley and North Union Junction Railway which would link Yorkshire through to Liverpool.

In return for a railway siding and £5,000 compensation for losing 30 feet of Higher Mill, William consented to the creation of a viaduct adjoining Higher Mill – laying the foundation stone in June 1847. Higher Mill was reconfigured at this time to the building that can still be seen today, powered by one waterwheel, rather than two that had preceded the building of the viaduct.

One of William’s most significant legacies was the building of St. Thomas Church. The need for a new church was due to the population growth created by the Turner enterprise. To ensure that the spiritual needs of his workers were met, William provided the land and the bulk of funds to build the church, which was to seat 500 people. The foundation stone was laid by Ellen, William’s wife on 28 March 1850, William already suffering from illness at this time.

He donated eight bells which he purchased for a further £400. They are inscribed with the names of his seven surviving daughters with Ellen (Mary Ann, Ellen, Adelaide, Martha, Eliza, Margaret and Wilhelmina) and the eighth was donated on behalf of himself and his wife. On Thursday 20 November 1851 it was reported in the Morning Post that the bells had rung for the first time, the previous Monday for William’s birthday. The report continued that William had also presented the church with an organ and that Ellen and her family were making a communion table cloth and carpet.

Having dominated the area for almost 30 years, the Turner’s dominance in Helmshore came to an end within the space of a few short years. On 22 January 1850, Ralph, William’s eldest brother died. Mary, William’s mother, died in early September 1851 aged 87, followed just a few days later by her third son James on 18 September. It was noted that the Turner mills were stopped for the day of the funeral.

William himself after suffering a long illness died 6 months later on 23 March 1852. Being shortly before completion of St Thomas’ Church, consecration by the Bishop of Manchester was brought forward to the 25 March to allow him to be buried in the churchyard. His will specified that with no male heirs, his property should be sold. As he was by now the sole proprietor of the mills, they were closed, putting over 1,500 people out of work. Despite being put up for auction on 9 September 1852, the mills were advertised for sale again at the end of the year. It is not clear just how long the mills were closed, however local historian Chris Aspin notes the impact in his book, Haslingden 1800-1900. Aspin states that the population dropped from 2,859 in 1851 to 1,602 in 1860. This was a boom time for the textile industry and it can be assumed that many Turner workers would have sought work elsewhere.

Whilst the Turners were not the only employer in the village, and the Turner Mills were later taken over by new operators, it was not until 1866, that the Porritt family began to revive the woollen industry in the village with Sunnybank Mill.

New Owners

By the mid 1850s, Higher Mill was being leased by John Cunliffe, Hargraves Warburton, James Ingham and Lawrence Whittaker, trading as John Cunliffe & Company. The company underwent various dissolutions in 1858, 1866 and 1870 leaving Lawrence Whittaker as sole proprietor.

Lawrence died in 1880 and the business passed to his sons Rawstron, Lawrence, Jeremiah and William. By the early 20th century the family also had interests in cotton mills. During the 1930s the mill passed to Rossall Whittaker, son of William Whittaker and the firm was later registered as L & W Whittaker Ltd. The Whittaker’s kept the building much as it had been in William Turner’s day. In later years the waterwheel failed and was retired in favour of an electric generator, however all of the old machinery was retained, making it a unique survivor.

In November 1954 it was reported in the national press that the Ministry of Works historic buildings Department had taken an interest in Higher Mill and that a visit was to take place regarding scheduling it as an ancient monument. The scheduling took place and once the mill closed as a commercial operation in 1967, a successful campaign by the Helmshore Local History Society saw the mill purchased by the newly formed Higher Mill Museum Trust. Lancashire County Council took over a lease for the maintenance and operational aspects of Higher Mill with effect from 1st November 1975.

LCC bought the adjacent Turner built mill, now referred to as Whitaker’s Mill in September 1979. This mill and its associated remote chimney and two mill ponds were accorded Scheduled Ancient Monument status by English Heritage at the time of purchase. The two-mill complex was once again reunited and opened as a joint museum in 1983.


A research project is currently underway to uncover the history of the people who owned and worked at Higher Mill. With thanks to former Trustee and local historian Chris Aspin, a wage book belonging to William Turner, owner of Higher Mill during the first half of the 19 Century, has been digitised. Research is under way into two lists of workers names that appear relating to 1850-52 and then a second following Turner’s death in 1874-8.

More detail will be added to the lists below as research progresses. If you have any information relating to any of the names on the list, we would be very interested to hear from you, so please get in touch via our Contact Us page.

Higher Mills Workers 1850-52

Higher Mills Workers 1874-78

“The mill is great the staff are so informative, some of the staff either use to work there or had relatives that worked at the mill there are loads of hands-on stuff you can try from weaving to bailing ”

Margaret Bradshaw

“Excellent day out, guides are knowledgeable and great with kids, letting them experience the sights and sounds of the old mill are wonderful!”

James Goulding

“This old mill tells the story of wool and cotton production in the area. Water-powered wool processing and spinning, plus cotton spinning mill with all machinery working well. Only closed in the 1970s as a working mill, so very well preserved. Friendly and knowledgeable guides. All the usual tourist trail add-ons – shop, cafe, toilets….”

Doug Neilson