BYGONE INDUSTRIES OF THE PEAK, Derbyshire

This is one of a series of articles published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 13th July 1998 (p.9), and reproduced by kind permission of its author, Julie Bunting.

The series is now available as a fully-illustrated paperback, published in 2006 by Wildtrack Publishing of Sheffield (ISBN 1-904098-01-0)

BYGONE INDUSTRIES OF THE PEAK: THE BLEACHWORKS

Bleaching, often in preparation for dying, was an important process in the production of wool, cotton and linen. Before the introduction of chemical bleaching, the strong powers of sunlight did the job simply and cheaply, in much the same way that laundered clothes and linens were kept white by putting them out in the sun. On the Upper Tean at Cheadle, where tape was manufactured from the mid-18th century, linen tapes were spread out on open ground for this purpose until the 1930s.

Generally, however, the so-called bleachfields had been no match for the vast increases in textile production brought about by the Industrial Revolution and in any case must have seemed distinctly old-fashioned. One early advance in bleaching cotton, linen and hemp still saw thread or cloth spread out on grass but only after it had first been subject to alternate soaking in an alkaline solution of potash and lime, washing, then souring in buttermilk or bran and water. Unfortunately the whole process was lengthy and expensive.

Change came about with the cheap production of sulphuric acid, which found one of its numerous uses in making a liquid bleach for fabrics although both in manufacture and use it was injurious to workers' health. It was recognition of the bleaching properties of chlorine by French chemist, Berthollet, in 1785, which led Charles Tennant of Glasgow to patent a bleaching powder made from a solid compound of chlorine and lime. A process which had formerly taken weeks could now be accomplished within a few hours and gave far superior results. In 1800 Tennant's factory price for the powder was £140 per ton but improved techniques meant that seventy years later it cost only £8.50 per ton. By this time chlorine was being recovered from the waste hydrochloric acid of soda works and this was to become the main means of bleach production.

None of these technological advances were suitable for animal fibres, notably wool, for which ancient bleaching methods continued well into the 19th century. Before being spun, wool was de-greased in a solution of stale urine and water, generally in stone troughs known as lants (the name Lant Lane survives at Tansley). This process also lightened the colour of the wool sufficiently for dyeing but in order to obtain a white finish, largely preferred for flannel, blankets and hose, the wool subsequently had to be stoved or sulphured. Damp wool, either yarn or fabric, was laid out in a well sealed chamber or 'stove' together with containers of burning brimstone. Moisture from the wool was an essential component of the resulting sulphurous vapour, which effected a bleaching process within 12 to 24 hours. Softness was restored to the wool by a final wash, sometimes followed by a dip in a very weak solution of indigo dye.

This bleaching method was not without problems, one being that potent condensation tended to drip from the roof and make holes in the cloth, as did sparks from the burning brimstone. At time went by, woollen goods were faced with increasing competition from cheaper - and whiter - cotton and stoving began to die out, although the famous Witney blankets made by the Early family continued to be stoved until the 1940s.

A VERY PROPER OPERATION

From documentary sources we learn that Brassington had a bleachworks for woollen blankets and that around 1770 a Mr. Gardom operated a bleaching yard or whitening croft at Bakewell. Sited down Combs Road near Spencer Flatt, its water supply came from Ball Cross and Wicksop springs. Yet the journals of White Watson of Bakewell reveal that in 1816 he sent cloth to Mr. Tarrand of Tansley to be bleached and in 1817 yarn to Mr. Cawood of Ashover for the same purpose.

Farey in General View of the Agriculture & Minerals of Derbyshire (1811-17) made reference to a bleachworks on the Bentley Brook at Lumsdale near Matlock, where the remains of two bleachworks, one with its smithy, still stand at either side of the road. A description and photograph of Lumsdale Bleaching Works appeared in 1893 in The Matlocks and Bakewell, a book reprinted by the Arkwright Society in 1984. The bleaching process began by boiling the cotton in lime and soda followed by a thorough pummelling with immense steam-driven beaters in soap and water ('a very proper operation', remarked the author, 'either for cotton, or little boys and girls even, who have dirty faces'!) This was all merely a preliminary to further washing, beating and boiling before the goods were transferred to the Patent Vacuum Bleaching Kiers in which steam-operated air pumps created a vacuum so that the bleach could penetrate every fibre of the material.

Large quantities of cotton were sent here from Manchester in spite of the fact that there were closer bleachworks in the northern Peak including those of Fernilee, Chinley, Charlesworth and Glossop. Batches also arrived regularly from Nottingham, Leicester, Loughborough, Coventry and Derby. It was noted in The Matlocks and Bakewell that the works had been in the Farnsworth family for 80 years, 'well calculated to uphold the prestige that these works have borne for more than 200 years'. Trade directories at the turn of the century list two other bleachers at Lumsdale, Edward Garton and F.H. Drabble of Tansley Wood Mills. At that time Messrs. Drabble were also dyers and it is this side of their business which they still conduct there today; their bleachworks, like all the rest, have been abandoned to progress.

© Julie Bunting
From "The Peak Advertiser", 13th July 1998.

Articles by Julie Bunting are reproduced with her kind permission.

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