The History of Black Dyke Mills

This text is reproduced (with small amendments) from the booklet THE BLACK DYKE MILLS: A RECORD OF NOTABLE ACHIEVEMENT (originally produced in Wool Record and Textile World, May 1923).

John Foster was one of the great pioneers of the wool textile industry and founder of the world-renowned Black Dyke Mills. Born in the year 1798 he entered the worsted business at the age of twenty-one. At that period the factory system, which was to revolutionise the textile industry, had not been established, but already, for many generations the inhabitants of Queensbury and the surrounding villages had won something more than local fame in the production of cloth, and when in the fullness of time the great changeover was made from the hand-loom to the power-loom, the work people brought into the mills that inherent but indefinable skill that became an asset of incalculable value to the British textile industry.

When John Foster entered business the country as a whole was fast recovering from the period of acute trade depression resulting from the Napoleonic wars and the commercial world was ripe for new enterprise. Mr Foster “was one of the first to take advantage of this improved state of things; in hundreds of cottages on the remote hill top in and around Queensbury there was to be heard from morn to night the sound of busy looms, engaged in making the worsted pieces for which Mr Foster found a ready market in Bradford and Halifax.

“In course of time Mr Foster became the largest employer of hand-loom labour in the district, the good chiefly being lastings and damasks. The former were, as their name implies, textiles of a very strong description, hardy, stout and sturdy, like the people who were engaged in producing them.”

The business continued to expand and in the year 1832 a large factory at Great Horton was taken over in which, for some considerable time, the main portion of the spinning business was conducted. Three year later (1835) John Foster erected a mill at Black Dyke, Queensbury, the site of a farmstead owned by his wife’s family.

Although difficulties were encountered during the period of transition between the hand-loom and the power-loom, John Foster clung tenaciously to his ideas and ideals. Power-looms were introduced in 1836. The mill had between 3,000 and 4,000 spindles turning out yarn at the rate of about 5,000 lbs. per week, “ … a quantity which, at that day and in that locality, was looked upon as something prodigious”.

“Over the next ten years simultaneously with the invention of new machines the invention of new fabrics went on, new fibres were discovered and a variety of combinations of old materials was hit upon.”

John Foster experimented with alpaca as early as 1837, and in the manufacturing of both alpaca wool and mohair, the hair of the Angora goat. Mr Foster’s sons joined the firm over the following years and the reputation of the firm has been upheld as science has been applied to industry in succeeding generations.

The total floor area of the mills exceeds 15 acres and its isolated position at 1,100 ft above sea level has compelled the management to develop many subsidiary services to become practically self-contained. Not only are all the processes of manufacture carried out, from sorting to dyeing and, in the case of some fabrics, finishing, but special facilities are in hand for dealing with all cases of emergency and urgent repairs. A well-trained staff of mechanics, joiners, tinners, plumbers, basket makers, cobblers renders the establishment independent of outside aid.

There are about 60,000 spindles and 500 power looms and all the cotton, alpaca, mohair and silk are dyed on the premises. The raw materials, received from all the markets of the world, are sorted, combed, spun, woven and dyed by about 1,400 working people. The central boiler house contains six boilers, immense steam turbines and generators for electrically driven machinery. The water supply is pumped from a deep well. Special arrangements have been made to deal with any outbreak of fire. The mills have a fully equipped fire brigade, with two steam fire engines, large stationary steam fire pumps and an installation of automatic fire sprinklers. Gas works were erected in 1836 to supply the mills and the village. Eleven thousand tons of coal are consumed annually in the boilers and the gasworks.

One of the most significant features of the trade in textiles during the past few years has been the increasing demand for hosiery goods and soft-handling fabrics and novelties. When Mr John Foster started in business at the beginning of the 19th century he was fully occupied in the production of lastings and damasks; today Messrs John Foster and Sons Ltd. are engaged in the production of an almost endless variety of yarns and fabrics. Their mohair, alpaca, and hosiery yarns are recognised as standard lines in both the home and export trade. Among the fabrics for which the firm is noted are mohair brilliantines, Sicilians, grenadas, alpaca linings, Botany dress goods, mohair velvets, silk seals and others.

Buildings have been erected to meet every requirement as regards cleanliness, good light, and economy of labour in handling materials. The plant has been installed with a view to getting the most perfect production at every stage of manufacture, and the workpeople have been trained and encouraged to take a real interest in the work entrusted to them.

It is indicative of the enterprise of Messrs. John Foster & Sons Ltd. that in these days when it is frequently difficult to obtain an adequate supply of skilled labour for certain purposes, they have solved the problem by making special provision for the accommodation of girls and young women who may come to the mills from distant places. In recent years there has been increasing difficulty in finding sufficient spinners in the village of Queensbury, and the directors have provided a well-equipped hostel of 231 beds. There is a large dining room, comfortably furnished public rooms, and a kitchen fitted up with all modern conveniences. A well-arranged laundry is included and the whole establishment compares favourably with a modern hotel. At present tennis courts are being constructed, and there is every reason to believe that the practical interest which the firm shows in the well-being of their workpeople is very sincerely appreciated.

Written in 1923

Find out more…

A vastly more detailed history of the Black Dyke Mills is provided by Eric M. Sigsworth Black Dyke Mills: A History. Publ. Liverpool University Press 1958.

The present owners of the Mills are the Lowry Partnership Ltd., based in Macclesfield. An increasing number of businesses and industrial companies occupy units of varying sizes. Contact the Lowry Partnership for information.

To find out much, much more about the history of Queensbury, please contact the Queensbury History Society who have a fantastic collection of material and who have been a huge help in getting us up and running.

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