Murray's Mills, Ancoats

by Ian Miller


Manchester is widely recognised as being the first industrial city in the world. During the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the city expanded at an incredible rate (between 1811 and 1831 the population of Manchester more than doubled) as the Industrial Revolution came of age. The phenomenal growth of the city during this period was directly attributable to the cotton industry, and the fact that Manchester was the first place to combine steam power with the mechanisation of spinning. The decline of the industry in the 20th century has caused the loss of many mills, but those that survive give the area its unique character.

At the beginning of the 18th century, the English cotton industry was comparatively small, and most cotton materials were imported from India. The English industry was limited by two main factors: the restricted supply of raw cotton, and the slowness of hand-spinning. Cotton spinning at this time was a cottage industry, undertaken in the home, often as a secondary occupation. Supplies of raw cotton, however, increased gradually during the course of the 18th century, and particularly after 1783 when trade with North America became firmly established.

The slowness of hand-spinning was addressed by the invention of several cotton spinning machines, which formed the basis of the powered textile industry. The first of these was the spinning jenny, introduced by James Hargreaves in 1764, which allowed a single worker to operate eight spindles simultaneously. Five years later, Richard Arkwright took out a patent for a water-driven spinning machine, called the water frame.

Arkwright’s invention was improved by Samuel Crompton, who invented the spinning mule in 1779. This machine combined the best features of the jenny, which made thin thread, with those of the water frame, which made strong thread. By using the water-powered spinning mule, English spinners were able to make thin, strong thread from which fine cotton goods such as muslin could be manufactured to compete with those made in India.

These inventions led to a dramatic increase in cotton spinning and the success of Arkwright’s water frame allowed him to establish England’s first cotton mill at Cromford, near Derby, in 1771. The mill has been seen as the birth of the factory system, and signalled the end of cotton spinning in the home. The new spinning machines were water-powered and the new mills were thus built close to fast-flowing streams and rivers in places such as Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire. During this period, Manchester emerged as an important textile trading centre, although its marginal water-power resources restricted the application of the new mills.

A major breakthrough came in 1786 when James Watt, after a series of inventions that culminated in the double acting rotative beam engine, successfully used steam to power at the Albion Corn Mill in London.

engineThe new technology was quickly applied to the cotton industry, which expanded at an incredible rate as a result. The number of cotton spinning spindles in operation in Lancashire, for instance, increased from an estimated 1.7 million in the early 1780s to 4-5 million by 1812, and between 1780 and 1800, imports of raw cotton into Lancashire increased from 5-6 million lb to 50 million lb a year. The oldest surviving mills of this important stage of the Industrial Revolution in Manchester are the Murray’s Mills, which were established in Ancoats by Adam and George Murray during 1798.

As with any cotton mill, those built by the Murrays were primarily functional buildings designed to accommodate a range of machinery as efficiently as possible. In the spinning mills, machines were used for three main stages of production. The first stage involved the opening and initial preparation of the bales of cotton. After c 1806, a machine known as a scutcher was widely used for this process. This comprised a spiked drum rotating at high speeds worked in conjunction with a fan to separate the impurities and mix the cotton fibres. The cotton was formed into a lap by rollers at the back of the machine. The cotton lap was then passed to the second stage of the process - carding. The carding engine was essentially a wide drum with a surface of wire spikes rotating within a close-fitting casing, which was also lined with spikes. The cotton lap was passed into the machine where the combing action of the wires made the fibres parallel. The resultant thin sheet of fibre was then formed into one or more untwisted slivers, as may be seen in the illustration below. The sliver was then passed through more rollers, stretched and given a slight twist to form a roving, a thick cord of cotton fibres. The third stage of the process was spinning, where the roving was stretched and twisted on a machine such as Crompton’s mule to produce the yarn.

The earliest part of the Murray’s complex is Old Mill (originally known as Union Mill), which was built to a record height of eight storeys in 1798 - this is Manchester’s only surviving 18th century mill. The mill was effectively doubled in size by the addition of Decker Mill in 1801, which was erected immediately adjacent to form a continuous building (see image below). Between 1804 and 1806, three other principal buildings were added to the site, arranged in a quadrangle enclosing a central yard. The building across the north end of the courtyard - New Mill - was the largest mill in Manchester when built. Old, Decker and New mills were dedicated to spinning, with the other two buildings acting as warehouses and offices. The central area contained a canal basin, which was linked to the Rochdale Canal via a tunnel beneath the mills. The canal was essential to the success of the mills as it was used for the transportation of raw cotton, coal and yarn, and provided a direct link to the port of Liverpool.


Boilers under excavation1831 engraving of the MillsMurrays MillsThe best-known view of Murray’s Mills is a steel engraving (shown above) that was first published in 1831, which has since become one of the classic images of the Industrial Revolution.

The mills were in operation for over 150 years, during which time there were great advances in the spinning machines and the engines that powered them. In order to keep pace with these developments the mills underwent frequent modifications. The steam engine installed in 1798, for instance, was replaced only four years later when more powerful models were available. A second engine was installed at the other end of the complex in 1805, and was intended to provide the power for spinning machinery within New Mill. A remodelling of the site during the late 19th century resulted in both steam engines being replaced, each served by a common boiler house. This contained four Lancashire-type boilers, the housings for three of which are shown in the photograph above. The large stone slabs at the top of the picture are the edge of the canal basin. This arrangement allowed for canal boats to discharge coal directly into the boiler house, which was open-fronted. The circular structure to the right is the foundations of a stair tower that provided access to one of the warehouse buildings, which was demolished in the 1990s after a disastrous fire.

Cotton production ceased on the site during the mid-1950s, although the mills were used by textile firms on a smaller scale until the 1990s. Since then, the mills have been vacant and were falling into serious disrepair. However, on account of the immeasurable historical significance of the mill complex, the Heritage Lottery Fund has awarded a major grant to convert them into viable buildings for modern uses whilst ensuring that their value as industrial monuments is maintained. Additional financial support was provided by the North West Development Agency, and the project is being co-ordinated by the Ancoats Buildings Preservation Trust. As part of the repair programme, OA North has been commissioned to undertake a programme of detailed historical research, survey and excavation in order to produce a comprehensive record of the mill complex.