Wheelton - an Industrial History

Until the industrial revolution the Heapey and Wheelton area was mainly agricultural. With the advent of the cotton industry (initially hand loom weaving), there began a shift of small groups to the valleys where natural springs gathered to form continuous water courses, an essential requirement for the manufacture of cotton fabrics and indeed Wheelton Village is one such settlement. Handloom weaving was a thriving business in the village and many of the weaver's cottages can still be seen today.

However spinning became a factory process and the mill at Wheelton (or Lower Lane, Wheelton as it was known) was erected in 1859 by Peter Todd. Its subsequent expansion caused the demise of homeworking as by 1892 the mill contained not only 30,000 spindles but also 1,090 looms.

The expansion of the mill led to an expansion in population which rose from 1,041 in 1851 to 1,538 in 1891. Child labour was used extensively, with one hundred and seven children employed for a sixty hour week, six days per week starting at 6am. Wages at the lowest level were 5 shillings per week, with the most skilled adults earning 22-28 shillings per week. The wages were fixed with no pay increases.

The mill was powered by steam, using water from 'top lodge' and 'bottom lodge' situated by Albert Street. Coal was brought from the Wigan coalfields by barge and unloaded by the Top Lock, then transported along Kenyon Lane.

The building of this large cotton mill firmly established the Heapey/Wheelton community. The majority of the brick-built houses in the village were built between 1856 and 1880 by the mill founder Peter Todd, and his successors. The homes of the mill operatives were mostly situated a few yards from the factory gates in Mill Street, Meadow Street, and Victoria Street. The rents charged in the 1890's were from 2 shillings and 9 pence up to 3 shillings and 6 pence. Four larger houses in West View were occupied by senior staff such as cashiers and salesmen.

Peter Todd was also responsible for building the village reading rooms on Victoria Street (which were converted to homes in the 1980's), St Paul's Church (now demolished and the site of three dwellings) and St Paul's School (now the Village Hall). The church and school were built following a bitter row in 1868 between Peter Todd (at that time church warden of Heapey Church and the Vicar. Unable to resolve their differences Peter Todd and his followers (mainly his employee's!) broke away from the established church and set up their own 'Free Church of England' and school.

The mill owner or 'master', Peter Todd, lived in Prospect House, built in 1864 and situated at the top of Rye Bank, a dignified distance from the mill. Todd pursued a lavish lifestyle with hunting, banquets and balls famous throughout the country. An east wing was added to provide a ballroom 52 feet long by 27 feet wide with a billiards room above.

Victoria Mill (or Todd's Mill as it was known locally) dominated the skyline of the village however the Mill closed in the 1960's and was demolished in the early 1970's with the site now being occupied by Millbrook Close residential estate.

Higher Wheelton

In the 19 th Century Higher Wheelton was known as 'Wheelton Stocks', this being the appointed place for the public exposure of minor offenders. At this time, this was Wheelton, with what is now Wheelton Village known as 'Scotson's Forge'.

One of the earliest cotton spinning mills in the area (Sitch Mill) was located in Higher Wheelton just behind the Golden Lion pub. The mill was almost completely destroyed by a fire in 1885. A carding engine for the processing of raw cotton operated further down on the river Lostock and the ruins of old engine houses can be found just over Brown House Bridge . The final woven cloth was finished at the Heapey Bleachworks and the railway at Heapey was used for the transportation of cloth to warehouses in Manchester and London.

Trouble 't Mill

Well actually it was trouble at the Church!

Peter Todd, the mill owner, wielded much power in the village and exercised control over people's lives. In 1870 there was an 'altercation' between Peter Todd and the Vicar of Heapey, the Rev. John Fisher, who was in his seventy second year and in failing health. The dispute arose when the vicar refused to allow the curate, Todd's nephew, to take over his duties. As a result, Todd removed all support from Heapey Parish Church, not just financially but also the congregation composed of his workers who for a short time had no choice but to worship in a room in the mill.

Todd then built a school-chapel at the top of Meadow St. by voluntary subscription, and the workforce again had no choice but to subscribe. In 1871 the school-chapel was used exclusively as a chapel and was known as St. Paul's Free Church of England with seating for four hundred.

The Rev. John Fisher resigned after forty six years in the ministry and soon died. He was buried at Heapey church and a monument was raised by public subscription and erected in the church yard. Peter Todd's nephew became vicar in 1871 and the chapel reverted to being a school again.

St. Paul's Free Church of England School became Wheelton Council School in 1905.

Leeds Liverpool Canal

The Leeds Liverpool Canal forms the boundary between Wheelton and Brindle. This corridor provides a wonderful opportunity for leisure activities. It is a popular stretch of water for fishermen. It is much used by leisure craft both based at Wheelton Boat Club www.wheeltonboatclub.co.uk and travelling through the area to Blackburn, East Lancashire and beyond. The towpath provides a great walkway suitable for families especially those with young children who enjoy feeding ducks! There a number of welcome pub stops along the route as well - but don't overdo it, parts of the path are isolated and if you fall in there could be no-one for miles to help you out.

Johnson's Hillock Locks

The Johnson's Hillock Locks are a flight of 7 locks, no's 58 to 64, stretching from the Whittle Springs basin to the Top Lock public house. The Top Lock attracts a good crowd of walkers and day trippers, who enjoy the real ale and range of good food (traditional pub fayre and authentic Indian dishes). Just above Whittle Springs basin is a picnic area and the spot is very popular with fishermen and families as well as boatmen.

Wheelton Plantation & the West Pennine Moors

Wheelton Plantation & the West Pennine Moors are accessible from the neighbouring village of Brinscall. A great area for walking, fell-running or just pottering. Can get muddy so wear appropriate footwear.