Backbarrow's Industrial History

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The Long History of Mills in Backbarrow and how the Blue Mills started

By Ronald Mein

The location of the Backbarrow mill had been an important industrial site for several hundred years each industry in turn using water power from the river Leven to drive its machinery. A corn mill was on the site in Tudor times controlled by the monks of Cartmel Priory, a fulling mill and later a paper mill also occupied the site at one time, these disappeared when the notorious cotton mill was constructed.
 
All of these industries were attracted to the site because of the reliable water power of the fast flowing river Leven which runs from the southern end of Windermere to its estuary in Morecambe Bay. The cotton mill and the Blue Mill achieved the most fame or notoriety; the cotton mill because it was investigated by a parliamentary commission set up in 1816 to inquire on the conditions under which pauper apprentices lived and worked and the Blue Mill because of the impact of the vivid colour on passers by and the legends that already obscure the truth most notably "Dolly Blue" which in fact was nothing to do with the Backbarrow works.
 
A disastrous fire gutted the Ainsworth's cotton mill in 1868 the same year that the Furness Railway branch line from Ulverston to Lakeside was opened. Although the cotton mill was refitted with new machinery it was never reopened, the company having spare capacity in its other mills in Lancashire.
 
(N.B. In the photo below you can see the Mill in full production around 1977, the photo was taken and supplied by Ron Mein and possibly gives an indication of what earlier working mills may have looked like, although they had by this time been cleaned up by "Clean Air Act's" and other environmental and health & safety legislation.)

Photo of the Blue Mills in production circa 1977 by Ron MeinIn 1880 a woollen mill was in operation in one of the former cotton mill buildings but the proprietors decided they could make enough material in the mills they owned elsewhere and closed the Backbarrow woollen mill down. A group of businessmen came up with what must have seemed a very strange idea at the time by proposing to manufacture Ultramarine pigment. The businessmen involved came from a local firm of industrial chemists, a wholesale dealer in chemical products and an Ultramarine expert named Johannes Eggestorff, a German who had learned the process of manufacturing Ultramarine in his own country. Eggestorff had first moved to Hull showing James Reckitt & Son, wholesale grocers, how to make blue pigment whilst living in Hull and now the Backbarrow team had secured his services.
 
A prospectus was published inviting investors and the scheme took off. The old cotton mill premises were acquired and in 1890 attempts were made to produce ultramarine blue. The first attempts were unsuccessful, some pigment was more black than blue, some was green but the bulk was a whitish shade of blue. After many unsuccessful attempts and a lot of wasted money some of the investors began to despair at the failures and tradition has it that one of them named King from Finsthwaite said "come on, we'll give it one more go" - this time they did it.
photo of the Blue Mills Drying Sheds taken from the Wier

Whilst the above picture does not portray the actual Ironworks it helps to create an image of how the village may have looked in those days, and to some extent sets an atmosphere. The photograph is of much later and will be seen again as we work through the history of the village and its mills.
 
Looking closely on the left of the picture you can see "The Square" tenements which are referred to on other pages. These buildings were knocked down in the early 1920's after the inhabitants were moved into the newly built council houses on Levens Garth Haverthwaite.

A mill worker takes a well earned break circa 1965

photo of a worker at the Blue Mills circa 1970's
   
 




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