Mearns Bleachfields and Printworks

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A Scheduled Ancient Monument

In September 2014, a historical site in Mearns Parish was designated as a Scheduled Ancient Monument, recognising it as a place of national importance.

A scheduled monument is one which has been given legal protection by Scottish Ministers under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979. Unlike the listing of upstanding buildings, ‘Scheduling’ is applied to sites which have some visible features on the ground, but are often partly buried and may have future archaeological potential. One of the best known examples is Skara Brae in Orkney. Traditionally, scheduled sites were confined mostly to ancient mounds and cairns. However, in recent years, the importance of sites of more recent periods has been recognized.

Over a period of  30 years, the writer, who grew up in Netherlee, had known this site and had followed a path of discovery leading to the recognition of it as a scheduled monument. Initially, the early industrial remains along the riverbank, including dams, lades and tunnels, were a playground and source of curiosity. This developed in adulthood to a deeper interest, leading to in depth study of the site, along with similar remains further up the White Cart in Busby.

The newly scheduled site, originally on Cartsbridge Farm, and known as Newmill, boasts the highest waterfall on the Cart. It is not well known, but can be viewed from Busby Glen Park.

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Waterfall

Below the spectacular waterfall is a large man-made terrace. This was the site of  Newmill Cotton Mill (c.1778), one of the earliest mills, which started the industrial revolution in Scotland. The arrival of the cotton mill led to the growth of a new village on the Mearns side of the Cart. Once a bridge was built across the Cart in the 1790s, the village became part of the older settlement of Busby, on the East Kilbride side of the river.

The mill captured the power of the waterfall to spin cotton yarn using Richard Arkwright’s pioneering inventions. Although the mill was demolished and the rubble removed more than a century ago, a number of features remain, including walls, dams, a storage pond and wheel pit, all finely built. The site also supported earlier grain and lint mills and dates back to the medieval period.

The upper weir and the present Busby bridge
The upper weir and the present Busby bridge
The wheel pit
The wheel pit
The sluice
The sluice

 

The most tantalising feature on the site is a brick and stone-built arched tunnel which heads downstream to the second cotton mill on the site, Busby Lower Mill (1790). Repeated visits to the site in the 1980s uncovered other features and increased a determination to find out more. The tunnel was deep in silt and water, and proved too dangerous to enter. However a raft was devised, allowing a camera to be floated down, taking pictures of the interior, unseen for 200 years. This resulted in the writer's first publications “Newmill - an early Scottish Cotton Mill”, Scottish Industrial History, Vols. 11-13 (1988); and “Busby Cotton Mill”, Scottish Archaeological Gazette, No.19, (1989).

Newmills upper tunnel interior
Newmills upper tunnel interior
Newmills mid tunnel
Newmills mid tunnel
 Newmills upper tunnel interior
Newmills lower tunnel

 

Although interest was spurred by what could be seen on the ground, the history of the site was also researched. Little written evidence could be found for the mill, and although the writer had no formal historical training, visits to archives in Edinburgh gradually unearthed its history and purpose. Advice from Tom Welsh helped greatly and early findings were incorporated into his book on the district, ‘Eastwood District History and Heritage’,1989 at page 163.

Searches of the Glasgow press revealed early adverts for the mill, with detailed descriptions of the buildings. These searches also uncovered the history and locations of numerous other early water powered cotton mills in Renfrewshire, whose sites were also explored. Through this research, the writer appreciated the importance of Renfrewshire in the early Scottish cotton industry. When an opportunity arose to carry out doctorate research, he chose to focus on the early water powered cotton mills. This work was published as ‘The Rise of the Cotton Factory in 18th C Renfrewshire’, (Archaeopress, 2009), an extensive study which had begun many years previously with a boy exploring a corner of Mearns parish. This illustrates how we can all play a part in discovering and understanding local history and that it can be exciting and rewarding.

Over the years the writer has taken many groups who were interested to visit the site and it is featured in Tom Marchant’s film ‘Busby, the Story of a Village’, 2007. In 2008, Historic Scotland undertook a review of scheduled sites in Renfrewshire. The writer contacted Historic Scotland about the Newmill site and further visits were made. Following a formal legal process, the site was formally scheduled in September 2014.

Stuart Nisbet (November 2014)
www.glasgowandcaribbean.co.uk

 

 


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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. Hazelden Mill was established about 1820 and by 1846, it was carrying out calico printing with a work force of about three hundred.

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Around 1900, it changed to silk printing  but keen competition from the far east destroyed the local trade and the works closed.

Many of the workforce lived in cottages which were built on the site of the mill. These were sited on the road leading down to the mill where a modern house stands today.

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The only building associated with the mill which remains is the managers house:

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Netherplace opened around 1795, originally as a bleachfield.  It combined later with the Tofts works, specialising in bleaching, dying and printing. Tofts works was demolished in 1930. By 1861,  Netherplace employed 400 people. The works pond dates from 1850 - 1860. It can still be seen, often with swans, today.

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Netherplace was owned by John Wallace who lived in Netherplace Cottage which sits near by. It is pictured below as it is today . His sister Agnes lived in Netherplace House which is across the road. John Wallace died in 1891 but Wallace and Company  was to last for almost a hundred years after his death as part of the large Manchester based calico printers association.

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The growth of the lace factories of the Irvine valley helped Wallace and Company  to flourish as lace finishing became a major part of their business.

Companies such as Morton, Young and Borland of Newmilns supplied the raw lace or grey material for finishing. At the end of the 19th century production was booming at Netherplace and a small community was established.

In later years a modern terylene processing plant was installed to handle finishing of the new synthetic products. This picture shows Jim Carvel at Wallace & Company, Netherplace with a 250 yard bale of terylene. This picture was taken in the 1950s.

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The majority of the work force came from the Mearns area but a significant number came from the Highlands and Ireland to work in the mills. Many of them were women and accommodation was provided for them in the “woman house”. In 1861 there were sixty nine boarders. The woman house is the three storey building. And the other houses were known as the low row. These were homes for workers with families. Netherplace House is in the background.

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The High Row at Netherplace was home to some of the workers and their families.

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The works closed in 1980 and lay empty for several years. In 1986, they were re-opened by the English Sewing Company Limited as a modern dye works.  In 1993, there was another change of ownership when Coats Barbour Limited took over and used the works as the base for their UK operations division engaged in processing industrial sewing thread. This work was relocated to another of their mills around ten years later and for the first time in over two hundred years, Netherplace no longer processes cloth or thread. At present, part of the site is used as a storage facility and the rest is for sale.

 

 

 


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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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