How Blantyre Mills nearly failed

1904 Blantyre Works Mills (PV)

1904 Blantyre Works Mills (PV)

I’ve been looking at Blantyre Village Works Mills in some detail this week. A subject that is well covered in other publications, but one which I’ve not posted often about. What I read both surprised me and educated me. Pictured first is a previously unpublished photo of Blantyre Works Mills taken allegedly in 1904 (though may actually i suspect be slightly earlier). I hope you find this article interesting.

Arround 1775, David Dale and his partner James Monteith bought the lands of Millhaugh on the Blantyre Braes, at Blantyre near the River Clyde. These were essentially only fields, but the river was even then known to be dammed with some sort of small mill activity ongoing. Dale may have bought the mill from the Miller family, who also owned mills and land at Millheugh elsewhere in Blantyre. The also purchased the land on the opposite bank of the River Clyde which extended up to the top of Blantyre Mill Road, Bothwell, directly across from where the David Livingstone Centre is now. An old Bothwell meal mill stood on the Bothwell Bank of the Clyde between the present David Livingstone Centre Memorial Bridge and the weir.

With the Blantyre land secured he commenced in 1778, a 7 year plan of construction to create Blantyre Mills. During this time, his interests were also being attended to at the successful New Lanark Mills. He called upon the assistance of Richard Arkwright, creator of the worlds first successful water-powered spinning mill in Cromford, England. The project placed Blantyre at the centre of a period of history called “The Scottish Enlightenment”, an awakening of long term industrial age. Dale selected the site for the River Clyde was deep at this point, wide and fast flowing. Considerable expense must have been borne in constructing the wells, dams, machinery, subterranean passages, as well as the weir on the Clyde and the various buildings and offices.

David Dale and Montieth had the mills up and running for 1785.  On the banks of the River Clyde at an older mill location, Dale and Monteith intended also to create a village for the workers on the basis of looking after their housing, education and welfare, something quite revolutionary at the time.

The mill proved to be a fantastic success and in 1791, a second mill was added. However, in 1792, Dale decided to retire and he sold his share of Blantyre Mills fully over to his partners son, James Monteith. Dale took his retirement and his cash payout from the profitable business and the Monteith family looked forward to becoming very, very rich through a planned expansion of the mill. However, the timing was just terrible as events on the European continent were about to intervene and you have to wonder if Dale was really the brains behind this whole operation, knowing fine well what was about to come.

One of the largest markets for cotton products were the export to German and French citizens, who craved for British cotton, “as much as they did for hot meals”.  However, just 8 months after the Monteith family found themselves the sole owners, Britain entered a war with France and the Napoleonic War started. One of the first things to happen was the French put an embargo on all imports, denying Britain positive influence on their economy. In short, Europe stopped buying British cotton.

The events on the continent in 1793 had a disastrous effect on Blantyre and other cotton mills as suddenly cotton yarn was unsaleable. James Monteith fearing utter ruin, appealed to Dale to recind the contract of sale. Dale absolutely refused. Perhaps he had a strict belief on the sanctity of contracts or maybe he was now set in his elderly ways. Monteith pressed on and had his yarn woven into cloth and decided to try to sell it at London markets. This proved a great decision, for as exports were banned, supply from Britain had exploded and there was a huge market at home. Indeed, so advantageous was the market, in 5 years he made a fortune of £80,000. (About £30 million in today’s money!) Those 5 years proved important for Monteith. His business was secure and investment could begin on expanding the workers village. In 1795 a Turkey Red dying mill was added to the Blantyre Works Mills. James Monteith was unstoppable, until his death in 1802, at which point the undertaking passed to his younger brother Henry Monteith. Henry inherited the most lucrative business Blantyre has ever seen.

The work in the mill consisted of cotton spinning, steam-room weaving and cotton-yard dying. Blantyre Mill was the first cotton-spinning factory on the River Clyde producing water-twist yarn. A large dam/weir was constructed across the river and sluice gates built to control the water required to drive the machinery. The first expansion by Monteith was in 1791 when he added another mill for the spinning of mule-twist, which contained 30,000 spindles. In 1800, when a dye-works was constructed, Blantyre Mills together with a sister mill in Bridgeton, Glasgow became the first establishment in Scotland capable of producing Turkey Red cotton yarn. Prior to this, the popular Turkey Red had be be imported from the Far East.

In 1813 (the year David Livingstone was born) Monteith added a further weaving mill on the river banks.This was to be later extended in 1841 to contain almost 600 looms. By this time there were more than 1,000 employees, of whom almost two thirds were female. A large self contained village around the Mills had been constructed by that time, and was to become known as Blantyre Works Village. The Village gates at the entrance of the compound straddled Station Road, between toll houses, or gate houses that would later stand on the corners of Knightswood Terrace and Rosebank Avenue. The gates closed to traffic at 10pm every evening.Today, the area beyond the Railway Station, is still known as “The Village.”

Shortly after 1815, workers homes were established at Blantyre Works, added to over the decades. Waterloo Row was a double storey set of tenemental terraced homes, named after the famous battle. The Blantyre Works Village School and Chapel was erected in 1828. The population of the Village in 1835, was 1,921 people and 915 of them were mill workers. Shortly before that time, an expansion of Mill workers homes was undertaken to house the incoming families seeking employment. These homes were named Fore Row, Mid Row and the smaller Cross Row.

In 1834, the working day from Monday to Friday was reduced to 13.75hours. It commenced with the ringing of the works Bell at 6am, and the ringing of the bell at 7.45pm which brought the working day to an end. This bell is currently on the north face of Shuttle Row, salvaged from the old mill bell tower. Saturday work was 9 hours. A 45 minute break for breakfast was taken at 9am and one hour for lunch at midday. The total hours worked per week was 69 hours, almost double the average working week today. It is hard to believe that even longer hours were worked before 1834. Wages in the early days of the company were partly paid in bronze coins called “Store order for Goods” with values of 5s, 1s, 6d and 0.5d, which could only be spent in the shops within the Works Village. This was known as the Truck Token System, which later in the mid 1800s would be deemed illegal by law. The company would later reimburse the shopkeepers in sterling to the value of the bronze coins spent in their premises.

Henry Monteith & Co are found within Blantyre Business directories well into the 1850s with a yarn warehouse in Glasgow. In 1852, they built and owned the suspension bridge crossing the River Clyde. By 1860 they are only described as dyers but the Glasgow Warehouse continued as a supply warehouse for Blantyre. It is possible that those who took over the mill adopted the name “Blantyre Weaving company” as found in 1884. The decline of the mill really took off in earnest from that date and by 1903 the works were condemned as unsafe and for abandonment.

In 1904, Henry Monteith & Company went into liquidation in 1904 and the majority of the works fell into disrepair, being demolished. The employees houses were deemed unfit to live in and those were condemned in 1913. However, it did not stop miners renting them from new owners William Baird & Co (coalmasters). A fire destroyed Waterloo Row in 1928, following which many of the workers homes were demolished.

All that remains of Blantyre Works Village today is Shuttle Row, the birthplace of David Livingstone, protected as a listed building and National Memorial. A section of the Wages Building also still stands, as does a Mill house near the riverbank.

On Social Media, Graeme Walker added, I think that this view is from the bottom of the lade looking back up towards the dam. The railings would be above the screen in front of the main water wheel. The windows are broken and debris has been thrown onto the mud at the bottom of the lade. The sluices would be shut to prevent water getting any where the wheel.

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