Reviewing the Condition of Historic Textile Mills in the North West

Charles Smith, Assistant Planning Director for the North West at Historic England introduces an article by Ian Miller of Salford Archaeology on textile mill surveys in Lancashire and Greater Manchester.

Mills and Boom

Textile mills are fundamental to the history, culture and landscape of much of the North of England.  They were the powerhouses behind the industrial revolution, triggering technological innovation, stimulating new trade and transforming the transport network.  Yet the University of Salford’s research tells us that nearly 500 of Greater Manchester’s textile mills have been lost in the last 30 years. Many of those that survive stand underused or vacant.  The same story rings true for the mills of Lancashire and West Yorkshire.

 In response, Historic England has worked collaboratively with property consultants Cushman and Wakefield to produce Engines of Prosperity: new uses for old mills. This document sets out how mill buildings can be powerhouses for growth in the 21st century. It cites evidence of their capacity to accommodate new and exciting uses, attracting investment in area-wide regeneration. For example, if you took all the vacant space in textile mills across Greater Manchester and Lancashire, you could accommodate 25,000 new homes or host 133,000 new jobs.

We know that people care about mills. Results from a recent YouGov poll show that 90% of people believe that mills are an important part of England’s heritage, story and character and 85% are against their demolition and replacement.  This is no surprise as there are many examples of repurposes mills which are playing a positive role in forging local community identity, providing inspiring places in which people can live, work and relax.

Having generated a public debate about the plight of textile mills, Historic England is now working closely at regional and local authority levels to develop effective mill investment strategies, which we hope will result in a brighter future for these important emblems of northern identity.

Charles Smith, Assistant Planning Director for the North West at Historic England 


The commanding utilitarian architecture of historic textile mills has become a key characteristic of numerous industrial towns and rural river valleys across north-west England, imparting a powerful sense of place, although the number of mills that survive in the region had not been quantified until recently.

The urgency for an assessment of the region’s former textile-manufacturing buildings, particularly the stock condition and erosion of historic mills through redevelopment, has been recognised for some time, reflecting a growing concern at the rate of loss of this iconic industrial monument type due to economic pressures.

Highlighting the economic and social benefits of repurposing redundant mills is an increasingly important aspect of developing management strategies for historic industrial townscapes, yet much of the baseline data available to gain an informed understanding of the significance of individual sites have for some time been inadequate.

The urgency for an assessment of the region’s former textile-manufacturing buildings has been recognised for some time, reflecting a growing concern at the rate of loss of this iconic industrial monument type


Lancashire Textile Mill Survey

In 2008, English Heritage funded an initial quantitative assessment of the textile-manufacturing sites in the modern county of Lancashire, where the number of surviving (and demolished) textile mills was unknown, and the relative significance of individual sites was in many cases poorly understood.

This comprehensive desk-based study identified a total of 1661 sites in the county that had been built for the spinning, weaving or finishing of textile goods, including cotton, wool, silk, flax, jute and oilcloth, together with ancillary works that had been established primarily to produce machinery for the textile industry. Of the total number of sites identified, 619 were found to survive in some built form, and included examples from all branches of the textile-manufacturing industry, although in some cases, such as textile-finishing works and flax mills, very few buildings survive.

The majority of the sites were concentrated in the southern and eastern parts of the county, within the boroughs of Blackburn with Darwen, Hyndburn, Rossendale, Burnley and Pendle, corresponding essentially to Pennine Lancashire, although important concentrations of mills persist in Preston, Chorley, Clitheroe and Lancaster, with notable rural examples existing on the periphery of these centres.

 Further funding from English Heritage in 2011 enabled a second stage to the project to be implemented, which aimed to provide a qualitative assessment of the surviving textile-mill sites in the county.

This entailed a rapid external examination of each surviving mill site to enable a ‘Buildings at risk’-type assessment to be completed. This was intended to provide information on the size, condition, occupancy, completeness and relative significance of each site. This was coupled with a rough calculation of available floor space within each site to inform an understanding of their economic potential for re-use. This concluded that the total floor space in historic textile mills across Lancashire in 2012-13 was approximately 4,295,307 square metres (46,234,300 square feet), of which some 77% lay within the Pennine Lancashire boroughs.

The interior of a mill with rows of iron columns.
Vacant commercial floor space in the impressive Tulketh Mill in Preston in 2008. © Ian Miller

Several mills were identified during the site visits as being of special historic and architectural interest, and were put forward for assessment for statutory designation. Examples included the early nineteenth-century Holmes Mill in Clitheroe, mid nineteenth-century integrated spinning and weaving mills near Bacup and Chorley, and the late nineteenth-century Queen Street Mill and King’s Mill in Harle Syke, Burnley.

The project provided information on the size, condition, occupancy, completeness and relative significance of each site

Exterior photograph of a textile mill in snow.
Britannia Mill at New Line near Bacup in 2009, prior to Grade II listing in 2016. © Oxford Archaeology.
An aerial photograph of a textile mill complex.
Aerial view of the recently designated Grade I listed Queen Street Mill and the Grade II listed King’s Mill in Harle Syke, Burnley. © Historic England

The study also concluded that just over 10% of the total stock of historic textile mills in the county were ‘At Risk’ in 2012-13, with a further 17% deemed to be ‘Vulnerable’ in view of their deteriorating condition and low level of occupancy.

 These figures varied between Lancashire’s component boroughs, with higher proportions of mills ‘At Risk’ or ‘Vulnerable’ being recorded in Blackburn with Darwen, Burnley and Rossendale.

The majority of mills in the county at that date were considered to be at ‘Low Risk’ / ‘No Risk’, although this did not take into account the increasing economic pressures for redevelopment, and several large mill complexes in this category have been cleared subsequently.

Conversely, there are some impressive examples of redundant mills that have been adapted sympathetically for new uses. Hollins Bank Mill in Brierfield, for instance, has been repurposed successfully as the Pendle Village Mill Outlet, whilst Centenary Mill in Preston provides a fine example of adaptation for residential use, and the eighteenth-century Kirk Mill in Chipping is being repaired and refurbished as a boutique hotel.

A former mill complex now in use as a retail outlet.
The former Hollins Bank Mill in Brierfield, now the Pendle Village Mill Outlet © Historic England, DP196334

Greater Manchester Textile Mill Survey Review, 2015-18

Following on from the Lancashire Textile Mill Survey, Historic England funded the Greater Manchester Archaeological Advisory Service within the University of Salford to undertake a similar assessment of textile mills in Greater Manchester. These had been surveyed previously during a comprehensive study that was carried out by the Royal Commission on Historic Monuments in England in the late 1980s, although a review was urgently required in response to nearly three decades of change and erosion to the county’s textile mills. Taking the 972 extant mills recorded in the 1980s survey, the review aimed to provide an understanding of the loss rates of historic textile mills across Greater Manchester and provide an up-to-date audit of the number of surviving mills, noting their location, condition, and completeness. This was achieved by employing a similar ‘Buildings at risk’ methodology to that used during the Lancashire survey.

Whilst it was concluded that 432 textile mills in Greater Manchester have been demolished since the 1980s, 540 survive extant (representing an average loss rate of 44%).


Exterior of a red brick mill.
Facit Ring Mill near Whitworth in 2009, shortly before its demolition. © Oxford Archaeology Ltd

Of the total number of surviving mill complexes, however, only 6% retain all the structural elements of their steam-power system, comprising engine and boiler houses and a chimney. A very small number of these mills also retain their steam engine intact, with fine examples at Trencherfield Mill in Wigan and Leigh Spinners Mill in Leigh.

A steam engine inside a textile mill.
The horizontal cross-compound steam engine that survives in-situ at Leigh Spinners Mill within the recently repaired engine house. © University of Salford.

Just over half of the former textile mills in the county were considered to be at ‘Low Risk’ / ‘No Risk’, based on their current condition and levels of occupancy and commercial use. This large group included some significant examples of historic mills in urban areas that are currently in sustainable use, including the celebrated group of late eighteenth and early nineteenth-century cotton spinning mills that flank the Rochdale Canal in Ancoats, and the tastefully repurposed mills in Chorlton-upon-Medlock.

Approximately 28% of the total stock in Greater Manchester was considered to be ‘Vulnerable’ to change or loss, whilst another 20% were assessed as ‘At Risk’

 Approximately 28% of the total stock was considered to be ‘Vulnerable’ to change or loss, whilst another 20%, equating to one in five mills in Greater Manchester, were assessed as ‘At Risk’. Many of the mills in the more concerning categories lie in the urban centres of Bolton, Salford, Stockport, Dukinfield and Oldham, although small clusters also exist in the Pennine valleys in the boroughs of Rochdale and Tameside.

Exterior of a derelict red-brick textile mill.
The derelict Hartford Mill in Oldham, a Grade II listed building beyond economic repair after being subject to a series of fires and vandalism. © University of Salford

The total floor space in the county’s mills was calculated to be approximately 3,759,800 square metres (40,473,164 square feet), of which nearly a third appeared to be vacant or under-used. The occupancy rates varied between boroughs, with approximately 82% of the floor space in mills in Oldham in economic use, compared with 47% in the borough of Wigan.

The repurposing of historic mills in the Ancoats area provides a model for the regeneration of Manchester’s satellite towns

 However, several empty mills with large floor plates are in the process of refurbishment for residential use, with a particular focus in Central Manchester. The repurposing of historic mills in the Ancoats area of the city, as an example, has enabled a thriving new community of residents to become established in this depopulated district, providing a model for the regeneration of Manchester’s satellite towns.

Informing the future of the region’s mills

It is hoped that the dataset generated from the studies in Lancashire and Greater Manchester has provided an invaluable baseline for the creation of a mills strategy for the North West, which has considerable potential to inform and support spatial and economic planning frameworks.

About the Author

Ian Miller

Ian Miller FSA

Assistant Director of Salford Archaeology, University of Salford.

Ian has specialist knowledge of the historic textile industry and its buildings in north-west England. He led the Lancashire Textile Mills Survey in 2008-15, and was closely involved in the subsequent county-wide review of the historic textile mills in Greater Manchester. He is currently leading a similar review of textile mills in West Yorkshire on behalf of Historic England.

Further reading

Miller, I 2018: Lancashire Textile Mills Stage 2 Survey 'Buildings at Risk Assessment', Oxford Archaeology North

Phleps A, Gregory, Miller A, Wild C, 2018: The Textile Mills of Lancashire: The Legacy,  Oxford Archaeology North.

University of Salford’s Greater Manchester Archaeological Advisory Service 2017: Historic Textile Mills of Greater Manchester: Survey Review and Heritage Audit.



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