Since coming back from our holiday we have been catching up on some of the shows that we enjoy watching on TV. Not your usual soap kind of people, we have been enjoying the Great Canal Journeys (we are cool as!) The week we caught up on featured the Queen Street Mill in Burnley as they were exploring Skipton on the Liverpool to Leeds Canal and it immediately sparked our interest.
As complete geeks with a curiosity for absolutely everything we were google-ing how to get to the mill before the programme had even ended (great thing about hard drive recorders, you can rewind as many times as you need to!) and found that it was under an hour away from Manchester, in the car.
Having visited the Manchester Museum of Science and Industry many times, we have come to know quite a bit about steam-powered engines, but not in the textile mill setting. The whole part of the combustion engine is really fascinating and so incredibly important to the way we live today (think cars!) that knowing about their history is pretty valuable information. (my teenage self didn’t know that the first time round though!)
Queen Street Mill is quite unassuming when you arrive, except for the extraordinarily tall chimney (it is actually Grade 1 listed!). The building is set into part of a housing estate, near to some business premises and a park which leads onto a way marked walk. You park on the road just outside so it is free. There was little parking available when we arrived as there seemed to be something going on in the local nursery, but we managed to get a spot just outside. If the part near the entrance is full, there s loads of parking around the other side too.
Although there is a tiny patch of grass bordering the Mill Pond where people were picnicking, I would recommend the park for more space and a much easier to see view (from the ground, anyway). I would advise you to watch the floor though as there is some poop around.
We picnicked before going in as we had already done a 7 mile walk in the morning and wanted to leave our bag in the car for ease of exploring. After our swift lunch we headed back to the Mill Pond and the entrance to the museum.
As we entered the door, we noticed that there was a sign saying that they would be closing from the 30th September 2016. This came as a shock to us as the website had said that they will be shut on Saturday from the 3oth, which was what inspired our speedy visit. When we got to the counter to pay our £3 each (free if you live in Burnley or accompanied child and £2 if are a concession) I asked what was happening. Unfortunately, due to Council cuts, the Queen Street Mill and their sister mill were to close along with a few others in the area. There was mixed views from the staff, some optimistic, some reluctant to say and those who really thought it was all over. It was sad to see having worked in the struggling third sector myself.
Feeling lucky that we were able to visit before we had missed it, we set out to visit the engine room and chat to the engineer.
The Engine called ‘Peace’
To see a 19th century steam engine running so smoothly and well is absolutely amazing! To meet people who maintain her and keep her running through their own skills is even more amazing!
The engineer working on Saturday was retired and comes into the museum to give the staff engineer some time off. He said it was ‘excellent to be able to play with big toys as a hobby’ and I would have to agree. He gave us a kind of private tour of the machine and let us wander around the back side to take a closer look. It is amazing how anyone could come up with such intricacies that work together with steam to drive 300 looms today (there would have been 1000 in the past which powered the engine with four boilers)
We have an engine in MOSI as I mentioned earlier, but being able to get so close to a working one is a great opportunity.
As the engine only runs fr intervals of around 15 minutes in intervals throughout the day we headed back down to the boiler room to see the making of the steam to power the engine.
The Boiler Room
Down in the basement boiler room, you’re met by coal dusted walls and the heat from the two working boilers. The engineer, a positive and friendly man, introduces himself and begins the story of the boilers. It turns out that he is a gas engineer by trade so also enjoys the fun of the ‘big toys and history’ too. He also tells us how he has researched information about other steam engines, such as the Titanic, after visitors asking. This kind of enthusiasm and drive is what makes the Queen Street Mill experience so special and unique.
Although warm in there with two boilers on the go, in the past there would have been all four burning away with only one man fueling and taking care of them over 12 hour shifts, six days a week. It goes to show how cushty our jobs are these days!
It is in the boiler room where we discover why the chimney is so tall. The Victorians were definitely into making the most of their money. The tall chimney gives a really good pull on the fire meaning that it heats up the 16′ boiler to steam the engine. This heated steam does not go to waste though, the chimney helps draw the hot air back around and underneath the boiler keeping more of the heat in and then eventually being recycled back into the boiler. This meant that the boiler worked at 70% efficiency. Of course it was all about the money and not about the staff.
The Weaving Room
Heading back inside we headed to the weaving room where there was a demonstration starting. The lady giving the demonstration had worked in Burnley textile mills growing up so the anecdotal information really brought everything to life. She was also perfect for answering any questions and for also making the whole presentation entertaining.
The belts on all of the looms were spinning thanks to the boiler and the steam engine and the lady demonstrating put two into action. Even with none of the machines weaving the noise was incredible! There are ear defenders for you to wear and you can still experience the noise through them (only safer!)
Check out my cheeky videos to show you the sights and sounds of the mill (an experiment, so please let me know what you think in the comments)
To get to this point is not as easy as grabbing a couple of bobbins and shuttles. The guide took us around the process, explaining and demonstrating every step. This is certainly not something you get in most museums, so a special experience. Especially being able to get so close to the equipment without barriers holding you back.
Where does the time go?
Browsing through the final exhibitions and returning to the boiler room for a less crowded look and chat o the engineer we suddenly realised the time when he began sorting things out to close. With only minutes to spare we headed into the shop so that I could buy some of the fabric that was made in the mill so that I can make a top.
Wishing the staff well (and being laughed at by the engineer for still being there!) we headed out to go home. Sad at the thought that such an important place is in a tough situation but positive that English Heritage or National Trust or someone must take it. Besides, every day that the engine is not running is an extra cost on getting it back again in the future!
Fingers crossed that it remains open as I would love to return and also buy some more fabric! I love that my top will have such a lovely story to accompany it.
The sun going down, shining over the mill pond and chimney we had a final tea and headed homeward.
Feeling all nostalgic over historic textiles,
Do you like learning about where your textiles come from?
Have you ever visited a mill? This mill?
What did you think about my little video?
Let me know in the comments below 🙂