Engineering in the Spen Valley

The legendary prosperity of the Spen Valley was dependent upon the diversity of the trades attracted to the area in the wake of the industrial-revolution. From the mid-1700s our Valley was host to many card, chemical, leather and wire makers bit it wasn’t until the 1790’s that foundries and machine-makers appeared on the scene.

Who were and what remains of some of those early engineers?

George Crossley Ltd

Arguably, the first local millwright was Joseph Crossley who in 1795 was designing, making and installing the labyrinths of shafts and pulleys required to transmit water- or steam-generated power from source to individual machines. The 1841 census records that Joseph Crossley lived on Albion Street ,Cleckheaton, hence, no doubt, the name “Albion Works” adopted by Joseph’s grandson, George Crossley, to name the large brick mill he built on Serpentine Road in the 1860s to house his expanding enterprise. George Crossley was the first to make a wrought-iron pulley on a cast-iron boss and the company diversified into making machinery for the wire trade. Albion Works was subsequently home to Vaughan Crossley, Wean Vaughan and Crawfords before being demolished by Tesco in February 2014.

Hearl Heaton & Sons

In 1809 Samuel Standring started as a millwright in Littletown and by 1822 had specialised in making “Doffing Plates” (long serrated combs for removing fibre from a carding machine).

On Samuel’s death in 1858 the business passed to his innovative, 24-year-old son-in-law, Hearl Heaton, who by 1866 had the business to the Crown Steel Works in Millbridge. On Hearl Heaton’s death at Duxbury Hall in 1892 his sons Herbert and Arthur inherited the business .Arthur’s involvement was short lived but Herbert Heaton, his mother Rhoda, and sons Leonard and Ernest expanded the company’s product range by making cable-drums.

In the 1920s Leonard Heaton acquired the long established Heckmondwike doffing-plate maker, George Smith.

In 1989 Hearl Heaton & Sons Ltd. was acquired by the Pentre Group which quickly vacated the Millbridge premises and moved to Frost Hill in Heckmondwike: within a few years the assets of both Hearl Heaton & Sons and Arthur Heaton Ltd. were bought by the Dewsbury-based Textronix company.

The foundations of the Crown Steel Works now lie buried beneath Adrenaline International’s trampoline park in Millbridge but the steam engine installed at Crown Steel Works in 1906 can still be seen at the Bradford Industrial Museum.

Thornton Brothers

In 1809 John Thornton purchased land for a mill at “The Bottom Little Marsh” in Cleckheaton to start a woollen machinery business which passed to his son, Isaac in 1815. 

Isaac died in 1844 leaving five of his seven sons in the business. The brothers started to squabble: the three eldest set-up a competing business in Cleckheaton, another moved away and the youngest, Joshua Thornton was not prepared to manage the company. Isaac’s sexagenarian widow, Judith, dutifully lead the business for fifteen very successful years.

Judith eventually coaxed her eldest son, John, into partnership with Joshua: the pair traded as Thornton Brothers which by 1893 had become one of the three largest makers of spinning and weaving machinery in Europe employing 300 men.

In 1890 the business passed to Joshua’s sons, Rawden and Randell who, like their uncles, were involved in incessant feuding: a message-boy was hired to relay communications between the brothers’ adjacent offices at Marsh Foundry! Thornton Brothers was placed in liquidation in December 1899.

The company’s collapse had been foreseen by a local businessman who had prepared a shell company to bid for the Thornton assets. A successful bid saw the company renamed as the Chadwick Machine Co. Ltd.

For most of WW2 Marsh Mills was requisitioned for General Motors whose Southampton factory had been bombed. When trading as William Tateham (Cleckheaton) Ltd., the business closed in 1998.

P. & C. Garnett Ltd

The Otley paper-maker Peter Garnett, visiting the Great Exhibition in 1851 was intrigued by a machine for opening textile wastes being exhibited by one Francis Alton Calvert.

Within a few weeks of their meeting, Mr. Garnett had purchased Calvert’s patent, set-up a partnership for his son Peter and Mr. Calvert and secured land on Stone Street, Cleckheaton to build Wharfe Works to house “Calvert & Garnett”.

The business-plan was successful! Modestly priced machines attracted customers who then had no alternative but to clothe their machines with Garnett’s unique, patented saw-tooth wire – which came at a price!

Francis Calvert withdrew in 1854 leaving the renamed business of P. & C. Garnett with the Garnett family until acquired by the Leathers in 1897. Garnetts became part of the Spooner Industries Group in 1968 and finally closed in 1984.
Robert Thompson, the “Mouseman of Kilburn” learned his woodworking skills as an apprentice pattern-maker at Wharfe Works in the 1890s.

Over the years Garnetts expanded and acquired subsidiaries For most of its 117 years, exports accounted for over 50% of turnover and in the 1970s produced some of the largest textile machinery ever built. 

Little remains of Wharfe Works but the result of Peter Garnett’s visit to Hyde Park is well recorded in good dictionaries – Garnetting (noun), Garnett (verb) and Garnetted (adjective).

Pitt Brothers

In March 1851 Isaac Singer patented the world’s first commercially viable sewing machine. Four Cleckheaton brothers, James, Joseph, Edward and William Pitt immediately set-up in business at the new Brookhouse Iron Works on Balme Road to make a British-made version!

The Pitt Brothers sold their first sewing machine in 1852: no known example survives but the London Sewing Machine Museum think it probable that the attached woodcut depicts an early Pitts’ machine. Pitts claimed that their machines could sew anything from “…. the finest fabrics to the thickest leather”. Whether or not the spiel was justified, the Pitts opted to concentrate on heavy sewing machines for the boot and shoe trade. By 1870 Pitts’ sales to the US shoe-trade justified their employing a local salesman.

A family rift was revealed in a terse, May 1873 London Gazette announcement: the youngest Pitt was to retain the sewing machine business in Cleckheaton leaving his siblings to manufacture machine tools at Alma Foundry in Millbridge.

The sewing machine business waned and eventually collapsed in 1887: the machine tools started off well enough with some spectacular Government contracts but the oft’ repeated change of company names soon suggested financial problems: there is little evidence of trading after 1908 but it wasn’t until 1927 that the business was finally struck off.

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