Mearns Bleachfields and Printworks

Mearns Bleachfields and Printworks

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The Capelrig Burn is one of a series of parallel watercourses falling from the high land on Mearns Muir, north towards the White Cart water. It rises in the Brother Loch, flowing through the heart of Mearns to Capelrig where it is joined by the Broom Burn. Thereafter its name changes to the Auldhouse Burn, falling through Rouken Glen and Thornliebank to join the White Cart water at Pollokshaws.

This is a minor watercourse, yet in its heyday it gave direct employment to thousands of local people. This was due firstly, to the fall in the burn, which provided water power. Secondly, due to the soft lime-free water, which was ideal for textile processing.

Bleachfields carried out various stages in the final processing of woven cloth, to raise it to a condition ready for sale. The cloth bleached in Mearns was high quality linen, cotton or silk. Up to the 1790’s the process involved repeated stages, including boiling in chemicals, washing in a network of canals, exposing the cloth to the sun in fields, wringing, calendering (pressing), drying and packing for sale. Bleachfields are also closely related to printfields, which carried out most of the same stages, with the addition of printing and dyeing.

From the 1780’s chemical bleaching processes were developed, including the use of chlorine. This was pioneered by Charles Tennant. He started at Wellmeadow in Mearns, before moving to Darnley Bleachfield, then to St. Rollox chemical works in Glasgow. By the early 1800’s the process had moved indoors to a range of buildings strung out along the lade. The processes were powered by water and steam, and heated by coal or gas.

The earliest bleachfields in the wider area included Pollokshaws from the 1730’s, several on the Levern near Neilston from the 1750’s, and at Netherlee and Cathcart from the 1760’s. In the 1770’s a number of bleachfields were established on the Auldhouse Burn at Newfield and Thornliebank in Eastwood Parish.

The earliest bleachfield in Mearns Parish was at Hazelden on the Earn Water. It originated on the Eaglesham side of the Earn, at a small bleachwork called Gardenfield before 1789.

The 1790’s saw several more, including Balgray on the Brock  Burn, Busby on the White Cart, and Wellmeadow, Broom, and Netherplace, all on the Capelrig Burn. By the early 1800’s Tofts and Greenfield were also added, by which time the county of Renfrew had at least a hundred such bleach and printfields, more than half the Scottish total.

The fortunes of the bleach and print fields continually rose and fell. The records of Alan Pollok, bleacher at Wellmeadowfield (1799-1804) provide details of the process and materials, including coal from Williamwood colliery, lime from Thorntonhall, and the bleaching and dyeing of high quality goods for the big Paisley-based textile merchants.

The process was complex and specialised. Further down the burn, at Newfield in the 1780’s, Robert Osburn used an array of valuable and exotic dyes from around the world. These included American Bark, Ground Brazil, Senegal Gum and Sugar of Leadgrass. Broom bleachfield had various buildings, including a water powered wash house, and by 1813 added a steam engine to power machinery, and a boiler for heating and drying. The layout gradually changed from a widely spread outdoor process in fields covered by canals, to the standard later pattern of a lade and pond serving a long range of buildings strung out along the burn. The buildings held a production line of washing, processing, dyeing, printing and calendering. Some works, including Tofts, also had their own gasworks, which was still operating in the early twentieth century.

In the early days the work was outdoor and seasonal, with only a core workforce retained through the full year. Gradually steadier employment ensued, but was marred by frequent bankruptcies. In the early nineteenth century the workforce at both Wellmeadow and Netherplace exceeded the entire population of Mearns village.

The employees included locals, some from the wider area, plus a traditional seasonal element of girls from the Highlands or Ireland. The seasonal workforce lived in ‘woman houses’ at the works.

In the mid-1800’s the bleach and printfields on this modest burn passing though Mearns, Thornliebank and Pollokshaws employed over 3,000 people. Fortunes continued to fluctuate and fields such as Wellmeadow went through a cycle of boom and closure, sometimes reverting to a farm, or a laundry, in which much of the machinery was similar.

From the 1780’s very large water powered cotton mills were also built, the first on the White Cart at Busby in Mearns Parish. Busby Upper Mill or Newmill,  was the earliest cotton mill in the west of Scotland. Further cotton mills followed including another mill on the White Cart, the  Busby Lower Mill, and mills on the Auldhouse Burn at Newfield, Thornliebank and Pollokshaws. From the 1780’s the Capelrig Burn became more strictly controlled by the construction of dams and sluices at Brother Loch. These were co-owned by the main cotton mill and bleachfield owners at Thornliebank and Pollokshaws.

Today we may think of Mearns as originating as a traditional rural farming parish. However the livelihood of just as many people depended on the water-driven textile industry.

Stuart Nisbet (August 2009)

Location of Bleachfields
Location of Bleachfields

 

 


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