Mill country – from Hebden Bridge to Stroud

[The first paragraphs of this blog originally appeared as the blog, ‘One cheer for enterprise and two for poor’. I’d taken my cue from EM Forster’s short book from 1950, Two Cheers for Democracy. I’ve decided rather late that both title and allusion are too obscure – but there still is a story to tell.]

Back in 1907 there was a creditors’ meeting in Manchester. A low-key winding-up. Not such an unusual occurrence. In this case it was ‘Mr Joseph Spencer, carrying on business… as tailor and outfitter’. He was my great-grandfather.

You saw an opportunity, you seized it, ‘set up shop’, a mill maybe – or literally a shop. That’s what Joseph Spencer did, in Hebden Bridge in Upper Calderdale, that hybrid seriously-Yorkshire but edging-Lancashire area which, with the Rochdale Canal sneaking through the Pennines, linked to Manchester as much as Halifax, and manufactured cotton goods (especially fustian) which traded on the Manchester Exchange.

In the 1890s he looked west, across the border, and opened further shops in Burnley, Accrington and Oldham, and in 1901 transferred his main business to Deansgate Arcade in Manchester. His son, my grandfather, Thomas, aged 22, stayed behind to run the Hebden Bridge business.

I will need to research further whether Joseph simply over-traded and ran out of money, or whether there was a wider slump. Either way, it’s in the nature of enterprise. Our lives run on enterprise, our own, or that of others. Small traders live on the edge, big businesses ossify. Get taken over, or in extremis, they collapse. Shipbuilding and steel. Coal. BHS, Arcadia, Debenhams.

My house in Stroud, in Gloucestershire, is next to the old Severn-Thames canal. An abundance of Cotswold wool, fast-flowing rivers in the ‘five valleys’ and, later, coal brought up the Severn, drove a multitude of mills, many of which, re-purposed, still survive.  It seems I can’t escape from mills, though it was wool in Stroud, and cotton (and especially fustian) in Hebden Bridge.

Across the canal from my house a mill turned out military uniforms, and a few yards to the west two mills co-existed with the railway viaduct which sweeps over both the canal and the river Frome. To the north, up on the hill, was the workhouse, a substantial structure, an ever-present reminder of how the wheel of fortune goes up, and also comes down.

It’s a peaceful landscape now. As indeed is Hebden Bridge. Both places, as I’m finding, have remarkable stories to tell. Once upon a time they were all energy, and noise, the endless working out of success and failure. All has leaked away downriver. (In Hebden Bridge’s case with an occasional big flood. The Frome in Stroud runs a deeper channel.) Downriver – and overseas.

There are many remarkable personal stories to tell. My great-grandfather’s being one. He was fortunate. He wasn’t brought low by his bankruptcy. But it’s a useful reminder to me (if Covid wasn’t enough!) how fickle fortune can be.

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