The Weaver Refining Co Ltd

Riparian Manufactory, Acton Bridge & Witton Brook


NB caution !! ... I only keep these 'notes' on my website so I don't lose them ! 

This is an initial draft of a story about the history of my great grandfather's refining company ... there are still many errors, omissions and inaccuracies ... perhaps someone will make some welcome corrections ... ?



A summary of the pages may help you find your way around ... the story goes back into the deep history of Cheshire salt & cows and then to the industrial revolution and a riparian factory site at Acton Bridge ...


     Acton Bridge Mill 


Acton Mill, view taken from the hill on Acton Lane, about 1910? ex the Weaverham History Society.

During the 18th & 19th centuries the ancient crafts of rural Cheshire were slowly industrialised. Innovative products, technologies & organisation were introduced exploiting the synergies of specialisation & scale which made mass production in factories possible & profitable.

As enterprising folk wrestled with the new fangled problems of production, new factory locations were discovered wherever & whenever opportunities arose to cope with problems of -

raw material availability?

proximity to markets & customers?

and the quality & costs of financial & human capital, land, energy, labour & transport? 

There was always a competitive struggle to secure the synergies, lots of folk were having a go ... that was the only way Darwin's natural selection worked and there was no known alternative; natural selection was the only game in town ... but the economics of these factory systems was also bound up with the recovery & disposal of waste ... waste & trouble were inevitable, the 2nd law of thermodynamics saw to that!

Wearver Refining Co LtdFor entrepreneurs, like Edward Hindley, who was one of a gang of three proprietors of The Weaver Refining Company at Acton Bridge, filthy waste & trouble seemed to load the dice against him ... formidable risks & escalating costs were everywhere ... bills had to be paid and he felt compelled to try to put a crumb on the table for his growing family ... they all had a voracious appetite for cash ... Edward had nowt but nous & wit -

entrepreneurs progressed by trial & error which always involved an inevitable profusion of expensive failures

success had to be discovered by hard work, honesty & thrift

... and, if an experimental innovation eventually worked, it seemed other folk became obsessed, not with admiration, but with envy & greed -

'profit' was a dirty word, any profits were 'unfair' & 'obscene', the murky result of 'a casino of exploitation and con tricks' ... and inevitably amongst the 'unlucky' bystanders crowd trouble erupted ...

But the risk takers knew it wasn't luck ... Edward Hindley knew the harder he worked the luckier he got ... he knew how business ethics worked; 'hard work, honesty & thrift' ... and he knew all about his mantra 'education & compound interest' ...

Trying to make a go of it was hard work; Edward's factory at Acton Bridge processed rotting cows ... wot? .... what could be harder than that?

Little Leigh EstatesSo why a manufactory at Acton Bridge?

The history of the riparian factory site at Acton Bridge goes back a long long way ...

The old spelling of Acton was Actun; Ac (Saxon) meaning 'oak', and tun meaning 'farm or place' - so there was an 'Oak Place' or 'a place in the oak forest'.

The Acton area was described by George Ormerod (1785-1873) in his History of Cheshire as -

'a district consisting principally of fine meadow ground sloping to the banks of the Weever and not destitute of pleasing undulations of surface or fine timber which here, receiving protection from the sea breezes, begins to attain its wonted luzuriancy where deer range from the forest to the banks of the Weever'.

After the conquest Acton was part of the Weaverham parish and at Domesday the Earl of Chester and his cohorts owned most of the land and later Edward I passed some of the land to the Abbots of Vale Royal.

Relentlessly land ownership chopped & changed and ebbed & flowed as title depended on the vagaries of successful warfare, patronage, inheritance, contrived marriage and, above all, tax raising capacity ... there was no point in owning unproductive land ... and almost inevitably there were constant disputes between rival Lords and Abbots over access to the taxes.

In the reign of Henry VIII the Abbots lost some of their influence as monasteries were dissolved and lands were redistributed. At this time Ormerod writes -

'Sir Peter Dutton held the Manor of Acton from the King as part of his manor of Weaverham by military service and the tithes of geese, pigs, hemp & flax in Acton were paid to the Lord of Dutton'.

During the Civil War in the 17th century it was the turn of the Lords to lose influence. The king's supporters were responsible for treacherous rape & pillage -

'all manor of outrages and intolerable taxes. They plundered Weaverham and the country about, carried off old men out of their houses, bound them together, tied them to a cart and drove them through mire and water to that dungeon, where they lie without fire or light and now through extremities so diseased, they are ready to give up the ghost'.

Dissolutions and wars meant hanging onto land was fraught with difficulty, but for sure, to survive the land had to be productive. Many people had a go at productivity and a string of landowner names were recorded around Acton Bridge. There was never any fun or reward in ploughing through the mesmerising mass of imperfectly recorded ownership titles in search of some meaningful pattern. As decades flashed by, owners flashed by. The owners often had the same forenames generation after generation, often male lines became extinct and always interbreeding and propitious marriages as incumbents frantically tried to keep their land holdings together ... and then there was the ignominy of forced sales to upstarts with no pedigree ...

Ormerod told of the sequence of land titles at Acton which went from Sir Peter Thornton, to Vale Royal, to the Duttons of Dutton, passed to the Gerards, to the Fleetwoods, sold to Scrace ... and after such turmoil Nicholas Ashton emerged as a considerable landowner ... but other names were around - the Warburtons, Leycesters & Smith-Barrys, then the Parrs, Lyons & Gandys ... and in 1640 some of the lands at Acton Bridge became part of the Milner Estate and remained so until 1918 when the properties were sold off to individual householders & businesses.

But the names didn't matter. Ownership title told little about the economic activities on the land, and with the animals ... and it was the cultivation & husbandry which generated the wealth for folk to scrape out a living and pay their taxes.

For centuries Cheshire folk had farmed. The damp climate and the hills & hollows of the topography tended to favour pasturing over arable farming so inevitably Cheshire specialised in animal husbandry ... not sheep, which were favoured in other counties, but cows ...

Cheshire was full of cows but also Cheshire was full of salt and the salt fields were drained by the River Weaver ...

Recording the history of the riparian site at Acton Bridge was impossible without understanding cows, salt and the river ...

At the start of the 18th century Acton Bridge village was a small rural farming community but change was in the air, populations were rising, there were many mouths to feed and many feet to be shod; more food, more salt & more shoes were required but farming, brine pits & shoemaking were not immune from change. The animals, the salt & associated crafts were always important but things had meandered slowly ... until industrialisation ...

Industrialisation was a complex process but rural Cheshire and the Weaver led the 18th century effort to supply food to the new cities & salt to the new manufactories.

Folk in the exploding cities of nearby Liverpool, Manchester, Warrington, St Helens & Widnes needed cheese for sustenance and the new manufactories needed salt for making alkali, glass, soap & bleaching powder ... salt seemed to be involved in everything ... and later the calicos from the mills around Manchester had to be washed, bleached & printed before they were sold to eager customers ...

Things began to move around 1700, there were new opportunities and the youngsters started looking for jobs in new manufactories ... they paid better ... salt refineries, then manure factories, shoe factories and chemical factories sprang up everywhere.

A flavour of the old Acton village was recorded by the Women's Institute in 1952. Stories were told of the Acton folks, their sayings, their pastimes and their fairs ... and also mentioned were Hugh Dyer's brewery, wharfs on the river, a flour mill, a saw mill, a zinc manufactory and a saltpetre works ... now what was all that activity about? The old industries in Acton Bridge were referenced again in 2000 in 'Snapshots in Time'.

Edward Hindley, a local Barnton shoemaker, arrived on the scene around 1900, but long before that restless folk had started to abandon their traditional crafts and venture into manufacturing on the banks of the Weaver at Acton Bridge.

Acton BridgeThe River Weaver - access to cheap bulk transport and water power.

Adam Smith noted in 'The Wealth of Nations' in 1776 -

'by means of water carriage, a more extensive market is opened to every sort of industry than what land carriage alone can afford it, so it is upon the sea coast and along the banks of navigable rivers that industry of every kind naturally begins to subdivide and improve itself ...'

The Merchants of Liverpool made several attempts to open up the river Weaver for trade; there were no ruts, mud nor broken axles on the canals. Thwarted by the Cheshire gentry and land carriers, who anticipated revenue loss to the new Navigation, the necessary Act of Parliament was not secured until 1721. The initial work was completed in 1734 and The Weaver Navigation started to provide cheap bulk transport for cargoes from the salt mines in Northwich & Winsford to the Mersey estuary and the port of Liverpool. Pack horses to the Mersey used to carry 200lbs, the payload of a 'Weaver flat', a sailing or horse drawn barge, was now 35 tons.

But it was not only salt; other commercial activities began to exploit the facilities available at Acton Bridge.

Since forever riparian sites were favoured for transport but the new wooden lock and associated weir on the Navigation at Acton Bridge provided another welcome benefit; not only better transport for bigger boats but also a usable head of water for water power.

 River Weaver at Acton BridgeIn 1734 the initial Navigation project involved constructing 11 wooded locks & weirs along the natural course of the river. A water head of about 4 feet would have been available at the coveted Acton Bridge site.

150 years later, in 1882, the new Dutton locks replaced the Acton locks and secured another big improvement to a busy waterway, but at a stroke the new project raised the water level and removed the head at Acton Bridge.

Weaver Navigation Records and local trade directories, researched by local historian Colin Edmondson, confirmed that the loss of water power at the Acton Bridge factory site ended a fascinating series of altercations which involved the conflicting interests of the site tenants and the River Weaver Navigation Trustees -

1781 September 6th - the minute books of the trustees noted an agreement for water to be taken from the weir for a proposed cotton mill belonging to Daniel Whittaker & Co of Manchester. But who was Daniel Whittaker?
1800 locks report - the name forge appeared for the first time. But how old was the forge?
1804 October - a complaint was recorded about water being drawn from the weir at Acton Forge and at Frodsham Mills.
1806 November - a sill was to be provided at the head of the Acton Bridge Forge cut to prevent the water level being drawn down below the weir head.
1807 locks report - confirmed a forge at the weir site.
1817 October - notice was given to Acton Forge stating that unless the sluice was kept in repair, the water course leading to it would be shut up. But who was operating the forge, who was disrupting the navigation activities?
1843 - the tithe maps of Cheshire indicated that John Budd was the tenant of the mill site and had his 'zinc works and yard' there. Budd was also the tenant of a second site a few dozen yards up river, consisting of 'yards, gardens & buildings', the land was owned by Mr Dennis Milner. So who was John Budd and what was he doing with zinc?
1844 June - Mr Ewbank, occupier of Acton Forge, drew off water from the Acton pond so low that several down flats missed the tide and up river flats were delayed several hours ... engineers were instructed to erect a dam across the water course leading to the wheel of the forge, the same height as the weir so as to prevent drawing water from below the weir cap. A new name appears in the Navigation records. Who was Mr Ewbank?
1850 Bagshaws Directory of Cheshire - the river Weaver at Acton Bridge was crossed by a bridge of two arches, near to the Acton Zinc Works & Saw Mills of Messrs Richard Lloyd & Company. Who was Richard Lloyd?
1857 Post Office Directory of Cheshire - Maude W E & Co, Zinc Rolling Mill, Acton Bridge. Who was W E Maude?
1864 January - Acton Forge was using water required for navigation ... they were to be reminded that they used water under sufferance.
1864 October - Acton Forge ... unless Mr Milner gave permission to put a clow on his land between the river and the works which was to be under Navigation control, the trustees would take proceedings to protect their interests. If permission was not given within two weeks, a stone dam was to be constructed to stop the flow of water to the wheel clough. Was the land owner or the tenant responsible for denuding the navigation? Mr Milner again, who was Mr Milner?
1864 Morris & Co's Directory of Cheshire - W E Maude & Co, Zinc Rolling Mill, Acton Bridge. Was W E Maude owner or tenant?
1865 January - the clerk reported that the dam had been made.
1865 May - Milner consented to a clow on his land. Was Dennis Milner improving his land?
1875 - the new Anderton Boat Lift provided access for narrow boats to the Trent and Mersey canal and to the heart of industrial England and London.
1876 July 1st - an article in the Northwich Guardian reported the launch of the Lowwood coaster ‘Leven’ by the Wincham Company, to be followed by trials in October & November and at sea in December.
1877 OS map - showed the Acton Mill site as a manure works and the second site a few yards upstream as a saltpetre works.  The map showed the paired locks and the weir stream by the island and just above the locks the weir site adjacent to Island Cottage. Why did the zinc operation pack up? Why was zinc replaced by 'manure' and 'saltpetre'?
1880 November - the clerk was to write to Messrs Milner & Maude, owner & lessee of Acton Mills, to inform them that the level of the water will be raised in the next few months when Dutton Locks were commissioned. Was water power still being used at Acton Bridge?
1881 June - water power at Acton Mills was to be independently valued.
1881 July - water now flowed through Dutton sluices but the level had not yet been raised due to the arrangements with Acton Mills not being finalised. Mr Leader Williams was appointed arbitrator. Edward Leader Williams (1828-1910) was a civil engineer who worked on many North West canals but was remembered as the architect of the Manchester Ship Canal. 
1881 October - Acton Mills were still delaying the appointment of an arbitrator. They were to be given notice to do so within 14 days or the Engineer was to proceed with the works.
1881 December - it was agreed to pay £1,680 compensation to Acton Mills including costs. (£1.95 million in today's money). Was the compensation based on replacement steam power?
1881 - Acton Mill machinery was removed for Mr Maude, a shed and boiler were raised. Was this part of the old rolling mill?
1881 General Accounts Books, Weaver Navigation - the Lowwood Gunpowder Co were using Winnington Wharf, 76tons a quarter of coal, also 170 tons of coal was recorded in the Northwich tonnage records. What was the Lowwood Gunpowder Company?
1882 February - Northwich tonnage records confirm 60 tons saltpetre refuse using the dock.
1882 - £1,680 was paid to Acton Mill as compensation for the loss of water power.
1882 - Engineering reported parts of Acton Mills were raised. Was this the final demise of water power at Acton Bridge?

During this period of available water power from around 1734 to 1882 the Acton Mill site was owned by the Milner Estate and a series of tenants enjoyed the facilities. The Weaver Navigation records and the trade directories posed many many questions which guided the historical research into the factory site at Acton Bridge ... the bits could now begin to be pieced together ...

The Flintshire Connection - Daniel Whittaker & Co.

It was 1781 before there was any mention of activity at the weir site in the Weaver Navigation records. On September 6th Daniel Whittaker's aborted plan for a cotton mill was recorded.

Daniel Whittaker (1720-92) was a Manchester cotton magnate who was inspired by Richard Arkwright's success in exploiting  water power for the mechanisation of cotton spinning. He followed William Cockshott & Peter Drinkwater, the proprietors of the 'Northwich Cotton Works', just up the river, and sought a suitable riparian site for a new mill investment. Acton Bridge was one possibility ... but it turned out there were better opportunities in the Greenfield Valley in Flintshire ...

Multiple Occupancy of Riparian Sites at Acton Bridge.

It was not only the river Weaver and the useful head of water that made Acton Bridge an attractive location. In 1775 The Scots Magazine commented on 'Affairs in England' and noted that the Bridgewater Canal now had access to Action Bridge via the Grand Trunk Canal as 50 ton vessels laden with coal used a newly opened tunnel at Preston on the Hill. The villagers recalled that the single most influential thing to happen in the history of Preston on the Hill was the opening of the Bridgewater Canal in 1776. The canal linked with the Trent & Mersey Canal at a point actually inside the Preston Brook tunnel. The spot was marked by a milepost on the path over the tunnel which was used to walk the boat horses to the other end near Dutton Locks. In January 1776 the final mile of the canal through the Norton Priory estate was cut and the canal opened for through traffic. Trans shipment warehouses sprang up and Preston Brook became a busy transport centre ... and Acton Bridge was close by.

Although the Acton Bridge cotton mill project fell through, from around 1800 there were multiple occupancies of the sites on the Weaver. As at Preston Brook there were opportunities at the Acton wharf for bulk cargoes to be discharged and stored before distribution. Many other activities prospered and were recorded - a forge, a corn mill, a saw mill, a zinc works, a manure works, a saltpetre works, wharfs & warehouses, packet services and riverside inns ...

In 1808 Henry Holland's book 'General View of the Agriculture of Cheshire' confirmed that 'Good lime, brought by the Staffordshire canal in iron boats from the neighbourhood of Leek, may be purchased at the wharf at Acton Bridge at sixpence the bushel'. And 'The Agricultural History of Cheshire 1750-1850' by Clarice Stella Spencer Davies recalled that 'Lime could be purchased at the Acton Bridge wharf, near Northwich for 6d a bushel, but a four mile land carriage would increase the cost to 8d'. This confirms the dramatic cost advantages of bulk transport by the waterways. The riparian site at Acton Bridge was a valuable property! 

Acton Quay on the Trent & Mersey Canal.

The North Staffordshire Canal Company operated the Acton Quay wharf on the Trent & Mersey Canal which was only a stones throw from Acton Bridge on the Weaver ... the two facilities were easily confused. In 1863 Mr Robert Hargreaves was the company agent at the canal quay.

In 1829 the Acton Quay was used for Cheshire cheese shipments to London? (another possible confusion as there was an Acton Quay near Nantwich?) In 1846 Acton Quay was in the news again as William Gothard Tharme (1816-64), a lad from Daresbury, was in the court of bankruptcy. William was not only an agent for the Trent & Mersey Canal Company but also an ale & porter dealer ... Hugh Dyer down the road at Acton Bridge had local competition!

Acton Quay was marked on Andrew Bryant's map of 1831.

Andrew Bryant's map also marked the 'Acton Forge' and 'Gibsons Warf' ... and a little further up stream the 'coal wharf' and the coal wharf would be 'Wilbrahams Quay'.

Who were the Gibsons and the Wilbrahams?

Wilbraham's QuayGibsons Wharf and Wilbrahams Quay.

The Northwich to Liverpool link had been important since way back to 1670 when the Marbury rock salt was shipped to Liverpool and refined there from 1696. The Weaver Navigation opened in 1734 and by 1810 new service was inaugurated involving the fine vessel, 'The Lady Stanley'.

The Northwich to Liverpool packet service called to collect Acton Bridge passengers at Gibsons Wharf and close by Nicholas Bower ran his packet hostelry, The Bridge Inn.

In 1831 The Chester Courant announced the sale James Gibson's estate at auction in Northwich. The lots included; the Crown & Anchor Tavern, wharf & warehouse in Northwich; a couple of shops in Northwich; a slate & tile yard with wharf; a warehouse in Sheath Street, Northwich; a one third share in a rock salt mine, an engine house & nine cottages in Wincham going under the firm 'James Gibson & Co'; a coal wharf, warehouse and dwelling house at Acton Bridge lately in the possession of James Gibson; a one sixth share in a rock salt mine & erections at Wincham going under the name of 'Charles Broady & Co'; one half share of Baron's Quay Salt Works, an iron foundry, workshops, cottages, a stonemason's yard and wharf at Witton; and six flats or vessels and one half of another, all very lately built and employed on the River Weaver ... all this lot confirmed Gibson's extensive interests in the Weaver and his presence at Acton Bridge.

The 1846 tithe maps of Northwich show the interests of James Gibson at Baron's Quay.

George WilbrahamThe Wilbrahams were originally a Nantwich salt owning family who were remembered because of the chance survival of an early account book from 1629. But which of the Wilbrahams had a wharf at Acton Bridge? The Wilbraham family owned the manor of Delamere Park from 1784-1939. In 1784 the wealthy Wilbrahams moved from Nantwich to Cuddington where they built Delamere Lodge, which was enlarged and re-titled Delamere House in the 1820s. George Wilbraham (-1815), the head of the family, favoured Cuddington because it was in the midst of excellent hunting country and close to the famous Tarporley Hunt where he was a founder member of the Hunt Club. Delamere Lodge was surrounded by 100 acres of parkland, and was built of Devon granite and became a symbol of the Wilbraham riches. During almost two centuries the family owned thousands of acres of land around Cuddington and neighbouring villages. They employed an army of staff and built numerous cottages and farmhouses, most of which survive. Delamere House survived until just before the Second World War when the last George Wilbraham built Delamere Manor nearby. During the late 1990s Delamere Manor was occupied by the pop star Gary Barlow. During World War II, Delamere Park became an army transit camp.

In 1815 George Wilbraham (-1815) left a will and 5 codicils which ran to 38 pages!

Son George Wilbraham (1779-1853) was a lifelong star of the Cheshire Whig gang and a potent MP. He eventually lost his seat in 1841, probably because he saw the light and voted for Corn Law reform?

Writing in 1915 Calvert confirmed that Wilbraham's Quay didn't handle salt; salt didn't reach Acton Bridge; although it was not for want of trying -

 'Some of the earliest attempts to find salt were made in the Weaver Valley, below the Northwich salt district and near to Acton Bridge. Mr Otto Pohl put a boring down some 500 or more feet, and though he occasionally met with traces of weak brine, and some rock-salt in a very thin layer, he met with nothing indicating any body of salt. The same was the case with a shaft put down on the Aston Estate, near the Dutton Viaduct of the L & N W Railway Co. At Acton Bridge, in a field a short distance to the NW, belonging to a Mr Rawlands, a borehole was put down over 200 feet but no salt found. Another boring was undertaken by a Mr Allen, who professed to have detected a stream of brine in the same field, and whose faith was strong in the 'divining rod'. Farther north, at Crewood Rough, Mr Otto Pohl discovered traces of a weak brine spring. At Anderton, Brunner, Mond & Co, in their latest shaft alongside the canal, proved that the top bed of salt had run out. Lower down the river this had been proved many years since, and Mr Pohl's boring at or opposite to Wilbraham's Quay showed no salt. The probability is that none exists in this part of the district'.

In 1800 The Chester Chronicle did advertise a discovery of rock salt near Acton Bridge ... but it came to nought. Wilbraham's Quay didn't handle salt.

The Anderton Carrying Company.

The Anderton Carrying Company owned a fleet of flats and regularly called at Wilbraham's Quay as they plied their carrying trade up & down the Weaver ... and from their base at the Anderton Lift the company were up for anything & everything between Liverpool and the potteries. The Quay was used to load the flats with local produce outbound and latterly mainly coal inbound ... almost everything could be traded and cheaply transported on the canal ... even bug ridden manure!

Vitriolic correspondence in The Chester Chronicle in 1844 between The Anderton Carrying Company and The River Weaver Trustees revealed that carrying on the canal was never easy ... there were desperate attempts to manage bureaucratic complexity, the problems were legion -

manifest misprints on dark foggy nights; mileage estimates when tidal parts of the Navigation were toll free and the Navigation and Weston Canal were differently constituted; tonnage estimates for 30 cwt tons and 20 cwt tons when gauge, weights & guesses were reconciled between Liverpool and Anderton; different tolls for different goods; invidious comparisons with competitive canals with different maintenance & improvement costs; marginal cost confusion with fixed cost; horrendous bureaucracy & inspection costs; the relevance or not of contracts inherited from Alex Reid & Co from 1836; reporting accuracy & false declarations; reliance on trust & honour or the threat of competition; the power to arbitrarily & intolerably delay including the Sunday by-law costs and more ...

The Anderton Carrying Company was clear, they had no monopoly and hard economic facts would rule in the end and, if the dispute went to a higher tribunal, the Navigation 'would not come off quite unscathed' as 'Manufacturing interests from Liverpool to Staffordshire were alive to the necessity of keeping open and free from obstructions the River Weaver Navigation' ...

In 1863 the old corn mill at Acton was up for sale and the notice confirmed the valuable location close to the Weaver, the Trent & Mersey Canal and the railway station ...

However, we get ahead of ourselves, a most interesting part of the early history of the Acton Bridge site was the mention of a forge. In the Weaver Navigation Locks Report of 1800 the name 'forge' appeared for the first time. And the Christopher Greenwood Map of Cheshire from 1819 clearly identified a forge at Acton Bridge. Peter Burdett's map of 1777, forty years earlier, showed nothing? 

How long had the forge been there at the side of the river? 

Lunar Forge Joseph WriteThe Acton Bridge Forge.

Joseph Wright (1734-97) of Derby was a member of the Lunar Society in Birmingham and he painted the scenes of production emerging during the fledgling industrial revolution. Two of his most important patrons were Josiah Wedgwood who industrialised the production of pottery, and Richard Arkwright, who introduced the factory system into the cotton industry. Wright's 'The Iron Forge' of 1772 could have depicted a similar set up at the early forge at Acton Bridge ... hard work into the night, hot furnaces, help from the river, the water wheel and the trip hammers ...

From 1640 the land by the Weaver at Acton Bridge was owned by the Milner Estate and around this time the occupant of any 'forge' was likely to have been a local blacksmith who set up shop to take advantage of the water to power his hammers and bellows. For sure the blacksmith trade would have been practised somewhere in the village ... and where better than the riparian site by the old bridge over the Weaver ... but there was no evidence?

'Forge' was the generic name for a local work place for iron fabrication ... horse shoes, nails, pikels, spades, scythes, sickles, gate irons, chains, plough 'sucks', wheel 'strokes', fire grates, knives and tools  ... perhaps power came from a small 10hp breast shot wheel.

In 1700 England's trading wealth depended on wool but by 1800 the industrial revolution was well underway and iron was dominant; smelting, refining and the manufacture of big finished products - engines & guns ...

Was the forge at Acton Bridge involved the three of the great eras of iron? -

traditional trade - the bloomery furnaces produced spongy blooms and malleable iron was forged; charcoal was the fuel and hammers the tool ... 

Vale Royal Company - around 1700 the blast furnaces produced cast, pig iron and malleable iron was forged from a finery (for oxidising impurities) and chafery (producing high temperatures for drawing and shaping); charcoal (coke from 1709) was the fuel and hammers the tool ... the sheer hard work of the forge became separated from the production of pig iron as the blacksmiths searched for water power to help with their toil ... .

Marston Forge - around 1800 the blast furnaces produced cast, pig iron and malleable iron was forged by puddling and rolling ... Henry Cort’s patented puddling process used reverberatory furnaces, coal and rolling mills ... a giant leap ... the Acton Bridge forge took off as the famous iron masters from Marston Forge up the river expanded their facilities onto a new site ...

Following these three great eras from around 1850 steelmaking by the Bessemer process took over but this process didn't reach Acton Bridge, by then things had changed and activities at the forge changed as quickly and as rapidly as the profitability changed ...

The evolution of the Acton Bridge forge probably followed the Shropshire pattern outlined by Richard Hayman -

'In the first phase forges emerge in early seventeenth centuries to serve specific blast furnaces in an integrated approach to production. The second phase saw the separation of iron making into two processes, and their consequent geographical separation necessitated by the availability of water power. This created a flexible structure in the refining and manufacture of iron, and led eventually to an independent forge sector able to purchase pig iron on the open market. Despite adopting the 'stamping and potting process' (granulating partially refined iron and reheating it in clay pots), the forges were unable to keep pace with the output of pig iron from the blast furnaces, and forges retained their independent viability. A key development of the early 1780s was the rotative motion of the steam engine which enabled replacement of the waterwheel altogether. The sheer complexity of the industry meant technological change could only be explained as a continuum rather than a sequence of forward leaps and there was no norm to which the forges adhered. Iron masters did not appear to be in a headlong pursuit of economies of scale'.

So after 1700 there was an increasingly open market for pig iron which included the output from the Vale Royal & Lawton blast furnaces in Cheshire ... and, of course, there was competition from elsewhere, notably foreign imports of raw pigs as and when the terms of trade changed.

After 1800, investment at the forge at Acton Bridge probably involved the new technology of coal fired reverberatory furnaces & rolling mills producing 'puddled' wrought iron from pig iron.

These were the halcyon days at the forge ... it was possible that the Liverpool merchants supplied the forge with open market pig iron obtained from John Wilkinson's blast furnace at Bersham? Another Flintshire connection? Or was there some alternative source closer at hand ... Vale Royal or Lawton?

Certainly in 1718 The Vale Royal Company was associated with a forge at Acton Bridge.    

So who were these iron masters of Acton Bridge?

The Vale Royal Company

 Abraham Darby and his Quaker mates from Baptist Mills grew the industrial revolution in England ...

Thomas Baylies (1687–1756) was Abraham Darby's brother-in-law. After Abraham Darby's death in 1717, Thomas, together with the iron technology, left Coalbrookdale and exercised a right to purchase the existing Vale Royal furnace in Cheshire from the Cheshire partnership. In 1718 he formed the Vale Royal Company to operate the furnace ... and this company built an associated forge at Acton Bridge ... 'on some waste land by the side of the Weaver' ... this suggested there was no prior activity at the site? ... and there was probably also a slitting mill on the site?

For sure this was a big time development for Acton Bridge, an indispensible role in the forging of wrought bars and an important development for the famous Coalbrookdale innovations which had previously been confined to casting ... this was an interesting divergence between the foundry and the forge technologies. The other important specialisation emerging from Coalbrookdale was the production of cannon and steam engine cylinders at Bersham ...

1737 was a bad time for the English iron trade ... foreign imports were around and there was a record in E W Hume's 'Statistical History of the iron trade of England and Wales, 1717-1750' that the Acton Forge was idle at this time?

But idle for how long? Activity at the forge was confirmed in 1806 ...

Thomas Ryder & Co

From around 1768 Nicholas Ryder from Scotland Bridge forge in Salford and the Cranage forge in Cheshire was involved in the forge at Marston, Northwich.  And at some stage son Thomas moved the forge at Acton ...

Thomas Ryder (1766-1831) was the son of Nicholas Ryder of Marston Forge, Northwich. In 1779 Nicholas was big & important in iron ... he supplied quality boiler plates for James Watt's revolutionary steam engine which powered the industrial revolution ...

In 1806 the 'Mersey Wire Works' at Bank Quay, Warrington was up for sale in the Chester Chronicle. The sale involved Messrs Thomas Ryder & Co, Iron Masters of Acton Bridge. This followed the bankruptcy of 'The Mersey Wire Mill Co' and proprietors George Ainsworth & John Stevens. Although in 1810 George Ainsworth & Philip Stevens were still trying ... but what was the connection to Acton Bridge?

In 1815 the Acton Forge was offered for sale or let on application to Mr Ryder at Acton Bridge or Mr Wm Sherratt of the Salford Iron Works ...

The Salford Iron WorksThe Acton Forge Company

William Sherratt (1754-1822) was an engineer of considerable renown who developed The Salford Iron Works in Salford.

In 1822 The Manchester Mercury offered a good description of premises offered for lease by Thomas Ryder of Moseley Hill, Manchester. William Sherratt died in 1922.

The next record of activities at the Acton Forge came in 1832 when the proprietor reported in the Manchester Courier the completion of 'a thorough repair of the forge which was now ready for work to be carried on as a Scrap Forge' - The Acton Forge Company - owned by Messrs J & T Sherratt, Salford Iron Works was up for sale ...

There was no lasting legacy at Acton Bridge ... in 1833 the forge was sold to William Swift & son of Bolton.

William Swift & Son

William Swift (1771-1837) was an engineer and iron founder from Bolton who moved to Acton Bridge in 1833 to develop the forge.

However William died 3 years later in 1837 by 1843 the tithe maps of Cheshire showed a 'zinc works' at Acton Bridge owned by a Mr John Budd?

Why a 'Zinc Works' in the middle of rural Cheshire?

Around 1781 Daniel Whittaker forged a connection between Acton Bridge and the early industrialists in Flintshire. But a later connection may have involved zinc. The early pioneers in Flintshire were primarily interested in lead ores but the processing of zinc became profitable around the turn of the 19th century when technology became available to extract zinc from the waste ores from the lead mines. William Champion patented his zinc smelting technology in 1738 and ventured into processing in  The Greenfield Valley in 1758. Furthermore zinc attracted the interest of Vivian & Sons in 1835 in Hafod, Swansea. 

It was the availability of cheap zinc that inspired a young Liverpool metal merchant to invest at Acton Bridge.

John Budd (1810-53) knew about metals; he was from Truro in Cornwall. In 1835 he developed a patent which involved the use of a zinc alloy (zinc 100/tin 10) for the manufacture of printing cylinders for cotton, calico, silk and other fabrics. This alloy was considerably cheaper in material and manufacturing costs than the established copper alternative.

The facilities at Acton Bridge were ideal for the production of the zinc/tin alloy and the rolling into cylinders for the printing trade in and around Manchester.

Tithe Maps John BuddThe tithe maps of Cheshire indicated that John Budd was still operating his zinc works in 1843-50 ... plot 219 was the site of the original mill and plots 223-227 were warehousing and offices.

In 1844 John Budd's zinc works had started selling bone dust? Bone dust?  It appeared water power at the Acton Bridge Mill was not only exploiting the economics of waste associated with lead spoils but also waste from the cow carcase. As early as 1844 The Chester Chronicle was advertising 'bone dust, raw and boiled' from Acton Bridge.

John Budd's zinc works involved a partnership with Cooper Ewbank who was living in Acton in 1845 when his daughter Mary was born. Evidently in 1846 Cooper Ewbank was still involved at the mill; a presence confirmed by an unlikely story about a stray monster sturgeon found at 'Mr Ewbank's Zinc Mills' published in The North Wales Chronicle. The Weaver was renowned for its fish, but this was ridiculous!

The partnership floundered in acrimony and legal tangles. It was unclear when John Budd and Cooper Ewbank left Acton Bridge but by 1849 the Manchester Courier was advertising zinc products from The Acton Zinc Works made by R Lloyd & Co.

In 1849 zinc production at Acton Mills continued and sales through brokers Savage & Chamberlane in Bristol were advertised.

1851 census - detailed the activities on the riparian site at Acton Bridge - @ the bridge was 60 year old John Beecroft a Smith from Halton with his 52 year old wife Sarah Beecroft née Bramall and 19 year old daughter Sarah Brainall from Weaverham. At the Bridge Works was Millwright Edward P Morris aged above 40 from Dartford, Kent, Widower with his 23 year old daughter Ann born in Wapping, London. Then Zinc Roller Thomas Prisley and family also from Dartford, Kent ... with Carpenter lodger Robert Knowles from Yorkshire. John Fryer from Hapsford was in the yard labouring. Jonathan Denning from Middlesex was a Shopkeeper labourer at the Bridge Works who married a local girl Ann from Little Leigh.    

Richard Lloyd & Co

Richard Lloyd (1809-) was a blacksmith from Cardiganshire, who left his welsh roots for a hot job at Acton Bridge.

In 1850 Bagshaws Directory of Cheshire named Richard Lloyd & Co as the zinc works proprietor, which now included a saw mill. Had John Budd left the operations at Acton Bridge to his leading hand a blacksmith from Cardiganshire?

In 1850 The Chester Chronicle was advertising sheet zinc, saw mills and bone crushing facilities at Acton Bridge. The company address No 3 Harrington Street. This was the Liverpool office of a merchant, William Edward Maude. Had John Budd sold out to a fellow Liverpool merchant?

The 1853 Gore's Directory of Liverpool indicated Richard Lloyd was in partnership with W E Maude, a Liverpool merchant and commission agent. Maude & Lloyd had offices in Peel Buildings at 3 Harrington Street. Although John Budd was still in the metal broking business at this time, he probably sold the Acton Bridge Rolling Mills sometime between 1843 and 1850.

It appeared that William Edward Maude (see below) was the new owner of the factory and he teamed up with managing technical partner Richard Lloyd.

There was a well known Richard Lloyd & Company, mill furnishers from Birmingham. Their expertise was in the equipment and facilities associated with water power and rolling mills. They could use their expertise for many different applications ... but this was not the company involved in the Acton Mill. The Richard Lloyd of Acton was a metal worker; a blacksmith from Cardiganshire!

On Dec 7th 1852, The Liverpool Mercury reported that The Philosophical Society had noted 'a pamphlet describing the efficiency of superphosphate of lime as a manure for turnips and root crops and referring to Mr Lloyd of Acton Bridge zinc works and bone mills' ... this confirmed a diversification into one of the multitude of profitable by products associated with waste from the animal carcase ... chemical bone manures.

The mill by the weir was cashing in on the water head and hot rolling zinc alloys for printing cylinders and grinding bones for chemical manures.

The law times reported the William Maude & Richard Lloyd partnership was dissolved in 1854. William Maude continued with the business but what happened to Richard Lloyd?

W E Maude & Co

In 1846 W E Maude & Co, Liverpool Merchants were advertising imported Peruvian guano at 4 Harrington Street, Liverpool.

In 1850 W E Maude, No 3 Harrington Street, Liverpool was advertising a tripe whammy at Acton Bridge ... zinc, saws and bones ... and the profitable business was moving away from zinc towards higher value manures and superphosphate derivatives. By 1853 the new business was highly competitive and on the same page in the Chester Chronicle there was a Rookery Bridge Bone Mills advert and an Acton Bridge advert ... for superphosphate of lime ... what was the source of the sulphuric acid?

In 1855  W E Maude & Co were still advertising their zinc products, but with zinc from Silesia ... no mention of Richard Lloyd that partnership had been dissolved a year earlier ... and in the same year Acton Bridge zinc was selling well up north and advertised in the Glasgow Herald!

By 1857 the Post Office Directory listed W E Maude, at the Acton Bridge site.

In 1857 Mere Bank, Weaverham was 'to be Let' ...what was all this about?

Francis White & Co, History, Gazetteer &  Directory of Cheshire in 1860 describes W E Maude's zinc works adjacent to the stone bridge as 'extensive' and names their local representative as Thomas Priestly.

William Edward Maude was busy, he was actively patenting technology associated with carriages, ships and steam engines from 1853 to 1864. In 1860/61 the Weaver tonnage records also indicate that W E Maude & Co were shipping both zinc and bones in the Weaver flats 'John & Mary', 'Croydon', 'William', 'Sarah' and 'Garside' up the river to the Acton Bridge wharf.

In 1861 The Liverpool Daily Post confirmed the presence of W E Maude & Co at 5 Harrington Street, Liverpool as the company searched for suitable dry cellars and warehouses. Was there any significance to the search for a 'dry cellar'? Could it have been for the storage of hydroscopic sodium nitrate?

Morris & Co's Directory of Cheshire in 1864 lists Maude W E still operating his zinc rolling mill at Acton Bridge. The same directory referenced - '*Maude Mr William Edw, 'Warwick Villa', New Brighton, Wirral. Those marked thus (*) have their places of business in Liverpool'.

In 1864 the Weaver Navigation Minute Books also confirmed W E Maude was still leasing the mill site from Milner. But was he still rolling zinc and grinding bones? When did zinc rolling cease?

In 1864 the Northwich Guardian reported a new use for saltpetre in Cheshire milk? Was the ever resourceful William Maude in cahoots with his gunpowder mates in Ulverston now into saltpetre for Cheshire farmers to remove the taste of turnips in Cheshire Cheese?!!

In 1865 William Parks in the Northwich Guardian advertised Salpetre for farmers from the Lowwood factory at Acton Bridge. And the same year business was so good that William E Maude, Managing Director, was entertaining staff at a lavish party ... Mr J E Harrison, Manager and Mr W S Briggs, Company Secretary were in attendance.

In 1870 on the 13th of May the Liverpool Courier announced that William Maude was seeking a new tenant for his zinc, saw and bone mill, complete with steam boilers and two water wheels.

In 1871 an advert in Birmingham Gazette confirmed the sale of zinc rolling equipment and the conversion of the Acton Mill to manure manufacture.

And in 1871 the Liverpool Mercury informed us that Mr Maude was care of the Lowwood Gunpowder Company, Orange Court, Liverpool.

1874 Morris & Co Directory of Cheshire identified the presence of two works at the Acton Bridge site - Astles, Thomas & John, and The Lowwood Gunpowder Company. How did the Astles brothers and the Lowwood company become involved in the site?

Worrall's Directory of 1876 confirmed William Maude was the owner of the manure business and John Astles was the manager. And the Lowwood Gunpowder Co Ltd was listed as the proprietor of the saltpetre works under the management of John Edwards Harrison.

Clearly John, the brother of local engineer Tommy Astles, was managing the Maude manure business. And as we will learn William Maude also had close connections with the Lowwood company in Ulverston ...

In 1882 the Minute Books of the Weaver Navigation recorded that it was W E Maude who received compensation of £1,680 from the Trustees for the loss of water power at Acton Bridge when Dutton Locks were commissioned. This would have financed a coal fired steam driven mill or retirement?

Acton Bridge 1910The old swing bridge over the River Weaver at Acton Bridge was recorded for posterity around 1910.

A beautiful photo from around the time Edward Hindley and Oswald Neill became embroiled in local history!

 In 1900 Edward Hindley purchased the freehold of the land occupied by the Lowwood Saltpetre Works from W E Maude.

It appeared W E Maude was everywhere! When or how did he become involved in John Budd's the zinc works? When did Maude purchase the freehold of the saltpetre site from Milner?

Who was this guy, William Edward Maude?

Why a Manure Works?

Astles BonemealEstablished in antiquity, the cows gave their posthumous gift of leather to the shoe makers and Cheshire cows had long been linked with Cheshire salt to produce scrumptious Cheshire cheese ... and then at the start of the 19th century the ubiquitous cow made another contribution to the farming revolution ... their bones. 

In 1813 'Elements of Agricultural Chemistry' by Sir Humphrey Davy recommended the use of bones as a form of manure. Chemistry was beginning to be applied to farming. The importance of a balance of nitrogen, phosphate & potassium in the soil to increase yields was being pinned down and bone meals, acid phosphates and sulphate of ammonia began to appear as chemical manures.

Manock Bone WorksIn 1865 The Tarporley Agricultural Society were treated to a treatise on manures by Thomas Manock of Acton, Nantwich; one of Cheshire's great cheese makers. This fascinating economics lecture confirmed that there was money to be made out of filth - 

 'There were no less than 60,000 horses in London and the value of their dung was £1,012-10s a year. At present we make large sewers and channels through our streets to get rid of this continual spring and everlasting supply of liquid gold for the farmer. We do more; and we poison millions of fish which would of themselves supply another great supply of gold. We also blot out one of the most beautiful ornaments of nature by ruining our streams and rivers. If we could only turn these mines of gold to account!

The Times of London reported on the crisis of 1894 'The Wisdom of Horse Manure' -

'In 50 years time every street in London will be buried under nine feet of horse manure'.

... there was competition around!

By 1871 it was clear that the burgeoning manure business was more profitable than zinc rolling. The Liverpool Mercury reported on the 11th of May 1871 the sale of the old zinc rolling plant and the conversion by Thomas Astles of the Acton Bridge Mills into a manure works. A year later in 1872 John Astles was advertising his manures for sale. John Astles (1845-) was the younger brother of Tommy Astles. It appeared the partnership of the Astles Brothers was dissolved in 1874, when John Astles retired.

Tommy Astles (1833-1918) was a smart guy ... Tommy engineered the conversion of the zinc works into a manure works in 1871 and then in 1882 engineered the introduction of steam power to replace water power ... he obviously made a major impact on the fortunes of the old mill site.

In 1875 Thomas Astles was advertising in the Northwich Guardian Indian Meal from the best American corn.

The 1877 O  S map showed the land at Acton Bridge was occupied by a 'manure works' and a 'saltpetre works'.

1878 Post Office Directory confirmed the 'manure works' as the business of Thomas Astles, Acton, Northwich - Bone Grinders.

In 1879 the Farmer & Gardeners Almanack advertised - Acton Bridge FFF bone meal - 'Full Particulars of Analysis Supplied to Intending Purchasers. Prices and Terms on application. Thomas Astles, Acton Bridge Bone Mills, Weaverham'.

1883 Slater's Directory of Cheshire & Liverpool noted Mr Thomas Astles, Winnington under 'Nobility, Gentry & Clergy'. And Thomas Astles as a 'Salt Manufacturer' - 'Astles, Thomas (brine agent), Anderton'.

By 1882 Tommy Astles had completed his work at Acton Bridge and the mill was advertised for sale ... Tommy was ready for greater things in the Antipodes ...

The chemical manure trade had rapidly modernised. The industry pioneered the chemical analysis of its products and helped mobilise chemists and the Royal Institute of Chemistry in 1877. Why should farmers trust the manure manufacturers? No one could 'see' the potash, nitrogen or phosphate in the meal and the results in the fields could not be evaluated until next season. Fraud and adulteration were always suspected, and some inevitably succumbed to temptation. But reputations for quality & reliability had to be earned and jealously protected if customers were to be loyal and premium prices secured. The industry led the way in establishing British Standard methods of analysis.

Later Edward Hindley recognised the relationship between quality and price when he sent his son Edward junior away to Manchester to study analytical chemistry before he was put in charge of the laboratory at The Weaver Refining Co Ltd and entrusted with the task of maintaining product quality.

Roger Duncalfe, a founder of British Glues & Chemicals, became President of the British Standards Institute in 192?. But we get ahead of ourselves ...

Why a Saltpetre Works?

The 1877 O S map showed the land at Acton Bridge was occupied by a 'manure works' and a 'saltpetre works'.

There seemed no end to the versatility of the cow as these prolific beasts contributed raw materials to the chemical manufactories and the explosives industry through the production of saltpetre from nitre beds?

For sure, there were saltpetre connections to folk in our story ... William Edward Maude inherited the considerable Maude estates around Kendal in 1857, close to Lowwood and the gunpowder Wakefields who made the 'black powder' from saltpetre ... and Tommy Astles' daughter, Mary Adelaide, married John Edward Harrison's nephew, a local William Wakefield, supervisor of the Saltpetre Works ... but this local family were not gunpowder Wakefields?

The Lowwood Gunpowder Company invested in saltpetre production at Acton Bridge around 1871. Saltpetre was needed for the production of sulphuric acid ... and for gunpowder.

It was unlikely that this process was a continuation of the ancient nitre bed methods but more likely by 1877, the extraction of potassium nitrate from material imported by Maude via the conversion process?

The Lowwood venture at Acton Bridge was relatively short lived. Cheap imported sources of saltpetre were always a threat to local production and the main supplies came from India. But it was the invention of dynamite and nitro-glycerine based smokeless propellants in 1887 that made the Acton Bridge production of saltpetre uneconomic. Alfred Nobel (1833-96), a founder of ICI in 1926, was a pioneer of this technology. Gunpowder had severe disadvantages. Black powder, as it was known, produced 55% solids as 'smoke' in addition to the gases powering the explosion. Smoke was not only a visual clue to gun location but it was also hydroscopic and corrosive and gummed up the works when fast reloading could be the difference between life & death ... and black powder was also ruined by water, 'keeping your powder dry' was a perpetual problem on the battlefield.

Although black powder operations were maintained at Ulverston until 1935, W H Wakefield & Co closed the Acton Bridge unit around 1896?

As a wartime expedient all gunpowder producers in the country, including W H Wakefield & Co, were merged into Nobel Industries Ltd in 1918. In 1926 Imperial Chemical Industries was formed from an amalgamation of Nobel Industries, Brunner Mond, United Alkali Co and British Dyestuffs. Although ICI modernised the Lowwood plant in 1928 this proved to be a last gasp of obsolete technology and the mills finally closed in 1935.

However nitre beds and saltpetre were not only needed for explosives. Saltpetre was used for the manufacture of sulphuric acid ... and sulphuric acid and salt produced alkali ...  

What was the salt connection?


     Witton Brook Works


'Witton Flashes - Anderton Hill on the left, Marbury Pumping Station on the right. View taken from waste land on Warrington Road showing buildings occupied by the Weaver Refining Company'. (1907 CRO DIC-BM-16-51)

Everything in the Northwich district was connected to salt!

When Edward Hindley & Joseph Neill put together their business partnership in 1900 their assets included the lease of land and buildings at Witton Brook.

The factory site at Witton Brook was bang in the middle of the Northwich salt operations.

From the start the chemical industry was a prodigious user of salt as a raw material and coal as a source of energy. Coal was shipped up the River Weaver and salt was shipped down, no vessels were empty.

It was salt & coal that energised the Northwich industrial revolution.

By 1900 the chemical industry was thriving. Alkalis and acids were fundamental to the chemical industry. Wood ashes had been used as a source of alkali until soda ash and potash became commercially available from kelp. But it was salt and sulphuric acid that led to industrialised alkali production in the 19th century via the Leblanc process. The Leblanc method required nitre from agricultural waste for the production of sulphuric acid via the Lead Chamber process together with salt from the Northwich mines. 

Thus sulphuric acid became an important chemical for the manufacture of alkali, but clearly the Lowwood investment at Acton Bridge did not involve sales to sulphuric acid manufacturers, their priorities were elsewhere at Ulverston ... furthermore from 1835 Joseph Gay-Lussac had developed new technology which replaced saltpetre as the oxidising source in sulphuric acid manufacture.

19th century chemistry had been concerned with optimising the Leblanc Process, William Losh on Tyneside, Charles tenant in Glasgow, James Muspratt at Newton-le-Willows and William Gossage at Widnes led the way with attempts to solve the problems of inhuman working conditions due to the horrific effects of hydrochloric acid fumes and obnoxious, though valuable, sulphur being sprayed all over town. The industry was partially resuscitated by Deacon's chlorine recovery work which led to profitable production of bleaching powder and the Chance-Clause process helped with sulphur recovery ... but problems and inefficiencies persisted. The sparkling Tyne became a stinking ditch and the foul stench of rotten eggs pervaded Widnes. From all this intolerable complexity the interests of the Leblanc producers were merged into The United Alkali Company in 1891 as they watched helplessly as the new technology of Brunner Mond's ammonia soda process triumphed in Northwich from 1873.

Edward Hindley was in the middle of all this trauma, change and development. But he operated the only way he knew ... chasing profits and cutting losses ... wherever and when ever they were spotted ... and he spotted something at Witton Brook ...

Witton BrookThe history of the Witton Brook site was a fascinating central feature of the history of salt in Northwich ...

No doubt there were wild brine pumpers around Witton Brook from early days, using their lead pans and charcoal fuel. Then around 1650 irons pans and coal firing raised production just before the discovery of rock salt at Marbury in 1670 ... thereafter activity increased and things began to change.

The Witton Brook area in the 18th century was the province of the rock salt miners, who shipped their rock down the Weaver to the new salt water refineries at Frodsham Bridge (1690), Liverpool (1696) and Dungeon (1697). This trade was dramatically enhanced by the opening of the Weaver Navigation in 1732. And improved again as Lancashire coal was shipped down the Sankey Canal from 1755.

 Charles Foster classified the rock salt miners into what he described as 'grander' families - Venables, Barrons, Warburtons, Lyons, Blackburnes and Pattens and also some significant lesser families - Antrobus, Claridges, Jeffreys, Vernons and Barrows. And many of these families were involved in some way with Witton Brook.

Rock salt pits were everywhere and, Heywoods Meadow & Yates Field, the land on the banks of Witton Brook which, much later, was occupied by The Weaver Refining Company was part of the Venables Estate.

Here in 1721 we see the evidence of the industrial revolution underway, Stella Davies described the scene ... note her words ... industry was 'invading' and the agricultural community had been 'distorted' ... salt was needed for the Mersey refineries ...

The Venables-Vernon family had owned the Witton Manor for centuries. The Witton Brook site was typical of the many commercial salt extraction operations throughout Northwich ... dig around here and you were sure to find salt, but only if the putrid waters of 'Roaring Meg' didn't bring things to a premature halt at about 22 yards down. The job was never easy and the rock pits were constantly abandoned as they fell in or flooded. But the Witton Brook cut & locks from 1789 greatly improved the river transport for the rock pits on the banks of the brook.

In 1758 the Venables estate was sold to the Leycesters of Tabley. By 1765 another of Calvert's maps showed the land owned by Sir Peter Leycester & John Jervis Esq. Swynfen Jervis Esq now owned the 'Witton Hall Estate' and Sir Peter owned the land known as Yates Field where John Jeffreys, an innkeeper and merchant from a Northwich butchering family, had his rock pit. Charles Foster suggests John purchased the lease from Benjamin Claridge, a Frandley Quaker, who rented from Hugh Wade. Benjamin ceased trading in 1735 and John and his family took over and were regularly shipping salt down the Weaver until 1767 when his rock pit fell in.

In 1828 the Tabley Estate sold 500 acres of land in the heart of the Northwich salt fields, including the salt works by the brook, which were by now a 'brine pits'. The sitting tenants Firth, Stock & Co purchased the freehold of an 18 acre site where Occupation Road ran through Yates Fields at the foot of Tivis Hill. This purchase was confirmed on the 1840 tithe maps of Cheshire where the site was described as Jeffreys Field owned by Thomas Firth, a rock salt merchant.

The 1828 Tabley sale also recorded an interesting sale of some Lime Kilns to William Worthington, however, by the time of the 1843 tithe maps this plot was also owned by Thomas Firth. 

Thomas Firth (1786-1860) was a gentleman and a power in the Northwich community.

A Bryant's Map of Cheshire in 1831 does not name the buildings or salt works around Witton Brook, although the larger works elsewhere are named ... but the map clearly shows the flashes were about to engulf the dockyard!

Witton Brook Salt WorksThe OS map of 1875 identified the salt works which were operated on Jeffreys Field. These were the salt works which can now be positively identified as Thomas Firth's works on 'Occupation Road' and the Lovett's 'Lime Kiln Salt Works', see below. Calvert's 1873 map marked 'Occupation Road' and Colin Edmondson's OS map of 1910 marked 'Lime Kiln Lane'. Calvert identified the two salt works as belonging to The Cheshire Amalgamated Salt Works Ltd?

The maps also showed that although Tivis Hill survived the subsidence which started slowly in 1798, Heywoods Meadow had all but disappeared and Jeffreys Field was rapidly sinking into the cavernous holes that were left after the mining of salt and the pumping of brine ... Witton Brook was being transmogrified into an expanse of water ... Witton Flashes! Calvert documented the sorry saga of subsidence around Witton Brook and included the alarming story of the day in 1881 when the River Weaver flowed the wrong way up Witton Brook and into a void!?

Perhaps Edward Hindley thought he was lucky in 1905 when he acquired one of the few old salt works sites to have survived ...

In 1876 the White Salt Association was to try again to organise some profit 'in the face of the very dismal prospects of the trade'. This time the membership included a Mr James Lovett (1841-88), who with his father, James senior (1813-86), and his brother George (1839-74) were established salt boilers, salt merchants & salt proprietors operating 10 pans in the Northwich area. It is likely that James purchased the Witton Brook salt works from Thomas Firth. According to The Inspector of Mines, Joseph Dickinson, in his 1873 report to The House of Commons re subsidence, in Witton-cum-Twambrooks brine was being pumped by the Cheshire Amalgamated Salt Works for George Lovett. Was Lovett's brine being supplied to Amalgamated or more likely, was Amalgamated supplying brine to the Lovetts for evaporation? The Amalgamated prospectus from 1865 clearly anticipates an 'inexhaustible' supply of brine and 'extra revenue of £2,000 pa was to be derived from selling brine to other salt manufacturers'. The Dickinson report confirms Lovetts were producing salt from brine in 1877.

In 1882 the Witton Brook salt works was identified as James Lovett's Lime Kiln Salt Works in the House of Commons papers: Volume 57, Great Britain, Parliament, House of Commons, under The Alkali & Co Works Regulation Act 1881 ... the salt works at the end of 'Lime Kiln Lane' ... extracting salt from brine ...

The Lovetts had been in salt since at least the 1841 census when they were all living on London Road, Davenham. Although in 1861 it appears James senior was farmer of a couple of acres and George & James junior were ships carpenters. George had moved to Runcorn by 1871 but remained in the salt business. All three men died soon after each other, George in 1874, James senior in 1886, James junior in 1888, this left Catherine, James junior's, wife owning the business which was sold to The Salt Union, see below.

More and more salt ... it was all too easy ... dig a hole anywhere in Northwich and brine would start to flow ... no wonder prospects for trade were variable and usually dismal! Salt was a commodity, all salt was a 'me too', product differentiation difficult, and over the years there was almost no technological innovation. Sure there were productivity improvements with iron pans and coal, and a spurt of production once the salt tax was removed ... but little else ... Calvert summarised the problem ... there was more money to be made from monopoly trading and legal & political shenanigans than technology ... William Funival's 'Narrative of the very extraordinary case of Mr William Furnival' written in 1829 describes his efforts to exploit his patent for increasing the efficiency of the open pan process by utilising the heat of the steam from the boiling brine. Tenacity against all the odds succeeded in establishing operational 'patent salt works' employing
the new technology at Anderton & Wharton. But Furnival earned the opprobrium of the other salt makers by undercutting their controlled prices. According to his 'narrative' he was framed by the salt coalition and was last heard of in a debtor’s prison!

In 1888 the Salt Union was formed in yet another tragic attempt to solve the profitability problems of the industry by creating a monopoly from the multitude of small firms in the industry.  Some 64 businesses, 90% of the salt works in the country were bought up at inflated prices in an attempt to exploit greater competitive strength and expand exports of salt which had boomed following the abolition of the salt tax in 1825. Two businesses, the Anderton Salt Works and the Witton Brook Salt Works, were owned by James Lovett's wife, Catherine, when they were purchased by The Salt Union in 1888. James and Catherine Jones had married in 1864, James died at a young age in 1888. The Salt Union paid £6,750 for the business and then closed them down.

In 1899 after cutting capacity The Salt Union were leasing out their acquired lands for alternative use and they leased the land at Witton Brook to Martin Collins, a horse slaughterer from Seath Street.

Witton Brook: salt or horse slaughtering?

Martin Collins (1855-) was born in Northwich in 1855. The 1861 census reveals the Collins family in Derby, James & his wife Ann recently over from Ireland, with daughter Mary born in Ireland in 1853 but Martin (1855-), Thomas (1858-) & John (1860-) all born in Northwich, Cheshire. No doubt James had come over after the great potato famine (1845-52) to seek his fortune on the Cheshire farms as a labourer.

Martin is nowhere to be found in 1871 and there is no record of any marriage? But the 1881 census was illuminating; Martin Collins, married, bricklayer, was being entertained by His Majesty at Gorton Prison in Manchester!

The 1891 census shows Mr Collins as a 'Marine Store Dealer', single, and a lodger at Market Court, Tarporley.

By 1895 Martin Collins had established his 'Marine Store Dealership' in Northwich and contrived to lose his suit. This time the Northwich Petty Sessions concluded he had been robbed.

In 1896 at the Northwich Police Court, the Sheath Street junk yard was again in the news for buying stolen goods

In the 1901 census confirmed the occupation as a 'Marine Store Dealer', but now a widower in Northwich at Sheath Street. So what was a 'Marine Store Dealer'? Chambers's Encyclopaedia to the rescue, and a quick scan of Google reveals all ... Martin Collins was a dealer in scrap & junk !

In 1901 The Manchester Evening News confirmed Martin Collins, horse slaughterer, was still going strong and recruiting assistance for his business.

Kelly's Directory of 1902 listed Martin Collins as a Marine Store Dealer at Sheath Street.

This was the business that aroused the interest of Edward Hindley and Joseph Neill in 1905. They were both well aware of the folly of the Salt Union monopoly ... it looked like they were more interested in dead horses than salt.

In 1905 Northwich Guardian advertised the fact that the Martin Collins horse slaughtering business by Witton Brook had been taken over by The Weaver Refining Company and was now managed by Sam Hindley, Edward Hindley's eldest son.

But was 'horse slaughtering' a better bet? And was Martin Collins of Gorton Prison to be trusted? Who on earth were Edward & Joseph doing business with?

By August 1906 Sam Hindley was advertising in Crewe and developing the dead horse business at Witton Brook and Sam complete with horse and cart could be seen driving round Northwich and afar collecting the sundry dead for his manures ...

By 1911 one Martin Collins was in Shropshire, 14 Lower Bar, Newport, apparently married again and still occupying himself as a 'rag gatherer' ... but this was not our Martin who in 1905 was described as the Late M Collins.

It seemed future of the Witton Brook site had been taken over by Edward Hindley & Joseph Neill. Could they develop a suitably profitable alternative to salt?

By 1913 the Witton Brook lease had been terminated and The Salt Union sold the site to Brunner Mond. And in 1937 Brunner Mond (then ICI) completed the inevitable and took over The Salt Union ... Jeffreys Field became a sump for ICI's calcium chloride waste, then a refuse dump for the local Council and finally a country leisure park, the Northwich Woodlands!

Industrial economics didn't stand still. In the late 19th century Brunner Mond had transformed the salt industry. Clearly there was more money to be made from dead horses than trying to compete with Brunner Mond! And Edward Hindley considered that the better site to develop was Acton Bridge not Witton Brook ...

A Daily News correspondent described a trip up the River Weaver 'Rhineland' in 1897 ... ?

Complex economic interactions & synergies at Acton Bridge and Witton Brook?

Water power for milling provided opportunities for zinc rolling (from lead mining waste) and bone grinding (from animal waste).

Animal waste processing provided opportunities for manures and saltpetre and a host of valuable by products. The value progression, which required technical innovations and capital investment, was from manure to glue to edible gelatine ... the economics of refining and value added ...

Saltpetre from the nitre beds provided raw material for the manufacture of gunpowder and sulphuric acid.

Sulphuric acid and Northwich salt provided raw materials for the chemical industry and the Le Blanc Process.

Problems with the economics of the Le Blanc process opened up the opportunity for the ammonia soda process and the runaway success of Brunner Mond and the Northwich chemical industry ...

... and whatever the raw material and whatever the product cheap water transport to the factory and to the customer made the economics buzz. The rule of thumb carrying capacity figures had settled down - pack horse 250 lbs, wagons on poor roads 1400 lbs, wagons on metal roads 2 tons, river flats 35 tons and canal barges & flats 50tons ...

And after the demise of water power in 1882 the site by the Weaver was powered by coal fired steam raising boilers ... it was the triangular trade of the cheap water transport on the Sankey Brook Canal and the River Weaver Navigation that maintained the economic buzz!  -

for the coal from the pits in St Helens,

salt from the Northwich fields and

the international port of Liverpool ...

The Gelatine Handbook summarised the requirements for the location of gelatine plants in the early days -

nearby raw material supply, mainly tanneries ... long transport routes for material comprising 80% water was expensive, especially as the raw material degraded rapidly

adequate availability of fresh water wells or good quality river water

location away from housing areas because of the odour of the raw materials and the plant

close to a river or the sea shore, primarily for disposal of the effluent, but also to transport raw materials and final products

the availability of wood or coal for fuel for firing the boilers

a  location close to forests was also an advantage because of the requirements for the drying of the gelatine ... a forest cleans the air of dust and also has a moderating effect on the climate ... this was important because in the early days no air conditioning for drying the air was available ... because of this the gelatine quality in winter months was superior of that of summer months ... some companies even manufactured only during winter.

Gordon Rintoul described in his 1984 article, 'Chemical Manufacture in Runcorn & Weston 1800 - 1930' - on the 4th of February 1860 an advertisement had appeared in the Warrington Guardian for a large piece of land to be let on a long term lease -

'To Manufacturing Chemists and others. To be let on the bank of the Weaver ... the land is admirably adapted for manufacturing purposes ... lying on the banks of the Weaver Canal, it communicates with the salt districts of Cheshire, being within a short distance of the St Helens Canal and Railway, it communicates with the coal districts of Lancashire. The Weaver Canal, opening into the Mersey affords communications to Liverpool. The local rates are very low. Articles conveyed to and from the land along the canal are free from tolls'.

Tommy Astles was advertising his Bone Manures in the Northwich Guardian up until Sept 1882 when an advert appeared offering Acton Bridge Mills for sale.

On September 30 1893 the advert also appeared in the Manchester Courier ... but this was 10 years after Tommy Astles first put the business up for sale ... what had happened in the meantime?

The two sale adverts in 1883 and 1893 both stress the flexibility inherent in the premises & plant, and the history of activity on the site confirmed a variety of opportunities had been exploited ... no  wonder Edward Hindley & Joseph Neill were excited in 1900 about the potential of the manufactories at Acton Bridge & Witton Brook ...

Then on Wednesday 14 Dec 1898 a advert for KONTELO appeared in the Northwich Guardian and again od Wednesday 25 Jan 1899 KONTELO ... manufactured by S B Neill, Acton Bridge Mills ... Sidney B Neill (1873-) was Joseph Oswald Neill's younger brother ... wot was going on?

This was the factory and river on which the fortunes of The Weaver Refining Company were built ...

The Weaver Refining Co LtdThe Weaver Refining CompanyThe Weaver Refining Co Ltd.

The land by the side of the River Weaver just before the old swing bridge was owned by the Milner family and had seen a variety of successful enterprises before Edward Hindley expressed his interest. Edward's shoemaking trade in Barnton was under pressure, mass production in the Northamptonshire factories was taking over. Sick of the toil of hand made shoes & cheap competition and with a flourishing wife and exploding family to support, it was time to move on. There was real money to be made from the muck left over after the slaughterhouses had taken their prime cuts of meat from the cows for the hungry folk in the towns.

But processing rotting animals? What a stench of death! The appalling conditions would have deterred all but the most ambitious. But out of the piles of putrefying filth, flies, festering flesh and fat emerged vital products to satisfy the diverse desires of discriminating customers ...

No wonder Edward called his manure works 'The Weaver Refining Co' ... the craftsmanship of the Cordwainer had been swapped for the technology of waste management and the production of valuable by products, a recycling factory! ... 'waste not want not' ... it was a goldmine!

On August 11th 1900 The Northwich Guardian advertised the auction sale of two plots of land and buildings on the River Weaver at Acton Bridge ... was this the start of the fateful project which spawned The Weaver Refining Company? Interestingly ... the solicitors involved in this auction were Moser and Sons of Kendal ... ? Some of the Maude family papers, 1609-1827, are held by Cumbria Archive Centre, Kendal, deposited there by Messrs Milne, Moser and Sons, Solicitors, Kendal.

Looked like Moser and Sons were W E Maude's solicitors and William Edward was finally to sell his interests at Acton Bridge to Edward Hindley and Joseph Neill.

The site contained a substatial two story brick built warhouse and another warehouse and a cottage in the occupation of Miss Burston ... who was this lady? Martha Burston (1842-) aged 59 and sister Eliza aged 58 (1843-) two spinsters from Bunbury in the 1901 census at 95 Acton Bridge ... next door was Arthur Shawcross and family, a joiner from Acton Bridge and Joseph Vaughan and family, a chemical worker alkali from Tipton, Staffs ... 1901 Acton Bridge census mentions cottages at the bottom of Station Hill and all flats, boats and barges moored on the Acton side of the river Weaver ... but no 'works' ...

The 1911 census, gave us lots of clues about Acton Bridge folk ... amongst all the farmers and railway workers and 2 pubs were lots of 'chemical workers' .... surnames: Allen (Bone Works), Anderson, Bean (Bone Works), Belcher (Bone Works), Burrows, Clarke (Glue & Powder), Corbishley, Davy (clerk), Dutton (WRC), England (Carpenter, Mill Bone Works), Harrison, Hind, Lightfoot, Joinson, Johnson (stoker, WRC Bone Works), Jones, McHugh (with Baker a boarder), Roberts (Refinery Bone), Sumner, Stewart (Bone Works), Stock, Taylor, Ward (clerk) ... lots of welcome rural wages for familes in Acton Bridge ... and even George Foster got in on the act ... 

Around 1900 Edward Hindley and Joseph Neill, a local barge owner from a respected banking and building family, were involved in business together in partnership as 'Chemical Manufacturers', 'Manure Manufacturers' and 'General Dealers in Animal Products' at Acton Bridge, Witton Brook and St Helens.

In September 1901 The Weaver Refining Company were angling for fat in the Staffordshire Advertiser. Edward Hindley & James Neill were into the more general butchers waste refining business and not exclusively bone grinding for agricultural manures.  

And in 1904 they were after bones in the Welsh Evening Express ...

Business life was tough and in 1905 Edward fell foul of the law ... employment of child labour ... the Chester Courant reported.

In 1908 agreements between Edward Hindley, J O Neill and The Anglo American Cattle Company were formalised. The details of their assets were summarised in an agreement dated November 13th 1908 which formed the basis for the incorporation of The Weaver Refining Co Ltd on November 28th 1908 -  

on July 20th 1903 the duo purchased the freehold of 1241 square yards of land with warehouse, cottage and buildings from William Edward Maude. This was the land that hosted the saltpetre works of The Lowwood Gunpowder Co. It appears some 20 years after Maude lost the water power and converted his zinc rolling mill to manure and saltpetre, he finally sold out and opened up opportunities for Edward Hindley's new enterprise.
But when did W H Wakefield & Co close down the Saltpetre Works?
And what happened to the manure works after Tommy Astles left?

Edward Hindley's eldest son Samuel operated an offshoot 'animal products' business from properties at Nos. 42, 44 & 46 Waterloo Street, St Helens. These properties were subleased from a James Galway, and covered by an agreement dated April 30th 1908. A dwelling house was at No 42 and adjacent were stables, yards & outbuildings.

a more distant investment in Westhoughton in Lancashire was leased by Edward and Joseph Neill from John Haworth and covered by an indenture dated August 27th 1903, comprised 2904 square yards together with messuages and buildings.

the lease on 1600 square yards of land at Acton Bridge including the old Mill chimney, cottage buildings and premises. This was the land that hosted Tommy Astles' Manure Works. But what happened to the business when Tommy emigrated in 1886? Edward & Joseph also leased the corner of the field opposite, some 339, on the road to Acton Bridge including piped water rights. And also 656 square yards hosting two further cottages. All were leased from the owners, the Milner family from September 29th 1903 for 99 years by an agreement dated September 29th 1903 with William Milner, Reginald Ernest Milner, Frances Milner, Arthur Godley & Mary Milner.

on the 14th of February 1905 a lease on 1 acre 20 perches of land at Witton Brook in Northwich, adjoining the Witton Flashes, was purchased from The Salt Union via a Mr Martin Collins with the option of taking a further lease on the same premises. 

All these properties and were injected into The Weaver Refining Co Ltd in 1908.

Pharmaceutical JournalPharmaceutical Journal: A Weekly Record of Pharmacy and Allied Sciences J Churchill, 1909' reported the incorporation of The Weaver Refining Company involving the existing agreements between James Neill & Edward Hindley and the Anglo American Company. James Evans Grimditch, the third partner was a supplier of bones and founder of the Anglo American Company of Liverpool. 

When the Memorandum of Association was drawn up it was clear the directors were keeping all options open and all opportunities on the boil, including salt processing -

animal products of every conceivable type

food products for human beings and animals of every conceivable type

salt processing of every conceivable type

metal processing of every conceivable type

electricity & gas generation, distribution and supply

'manufacturers & merchants of all articles & things made or capable of being made from the waste products & refuse of such businesses and of or from the by products thereof'

including patenting inventions, property development, mining rights, licensing, transportation, storage, insurance, subcontracting, trading, dealing, merchanting, brokering, advertising, importing & exporting ... anywhere in the world ...

Although it was normal practice for the 'Memorandum' to avoid unnecessary restrictions on future business opportunities, the activities mentioned do tell us something of Edward's thinking. He certainly didn't want to get stuck again in obsolete hand crafts, he also knew all about the successful history of the Acton Bridge & the Witton Book sites and he certainly knew about change. Living in Northwich he was acutely aware of the River Weaver, salt & the success of Brunner Mond ... there was money to be made in the chemical industry ... so from the start he described himself quite generally as a 'Chemical Manufacturer' ...

Chemical Manufacturing at Acton Bridge.

At Acton Bridge the company concentrated on the  most profitable products from the Cheshire cows & bones which were collected in profusion from local farmers, butchers and even some imports found their way up the Weaver to the riverside boilers.

In 1902 Kelly's Directory of Cheshire lists Edward Hindley - rate collector, assistant overseer and clerk to the Parish Council. But the 1902 Kelly's also indicated The Weaver Refining Co was a manure, size and tallow manufacturer occupying the site at Acton Bridge Mills.

Kelly's Directory records the Weaver Refining enterprise at Acton Bridge in 1902, 1906, 1910 & 1914.

Acton Parish CouncilInevitably the 'refining' company was soon emitting their trade mark stench and the locals were complaining. Although I guess the workers, suppliers and customers were not involved, by 1902 The Acton Parish Council went into action as a note in the minute book reveals. 

No doubt the Company response was similar to that proffered via Tommy Astles to the Royal Sanitary Commission some years before in 1869 ... hard work was going into the technology and organisation required to reduce the degradation of the organic matter which was the source of the odour. The company's efforts were doubly focused because the degradation was a significant cost which reduced product quality and subsequent revenue and profits.

Of course the battle was never ending ... however fast technology progressed a residual nuisance remained ... after all was said and done some 'waste' resulted from the laws of chemistry which were beyond the reach of even the most successful companies ...

The Parish Council minuted more pressure again in 1916 ... this time it was smoke from the furnaces ... some were no doubt wishing for a return to the idyllic waterwheels ...

An idea of the idyllic River Weaver at Acton Bridge and the intrusive nature of the 'Bone Works' could be gleaned from a report of a bike ride enjoyed by the cycling correspondent of the Manchester Courier in summer of 1907. So enticing was the description of this journey through the Cheshire countryside that I knew so well ... I vowed someday to repeat the experience for my own account ...

Sometime after 1907 The Weaver Refining Company abandoned the Witton Brook site. Maybe there was trouble with the lease, maybe they feared the site would sink into the great flash that had relentlessly appeared? More likely they simply pursued the good cost savings to be had from rationalising their production facilities at the Acton Bridge site.

In 1910 Kelly's indicated the prominent position of The Weaver Refining Co Ltd in Acton - The Weaver Refining Co Ltd - pure bone manures, tallow, cut bones, glues, gelatines, sizes, acid phosphate - Acton Bridge Mills. The production of acid phosphate was described by Rev William Clift of the Norwich Examiner in The New York Times of December 21st 1853. 

Brithis PatentsBritish Patent GB 191021268.

The industrial revolution was driven by a system for funding & investing in technological innovation. Central to the revolution was the patent system which rewarded successful innovations, by protecting the fruits of hard work, honesty and thrift from theft. The whole idea of intellectual property was pregnant with economic significance. The importance of innovative technology to The Weaver Refining Company was best understood in the context of the evolution of property rights and the patent system - 

In Medieval times the powers that be would grant an exclusive right to a 'monopoly' to favoured people. In England such rights took the form of 'letters patent', issued by the sovereign to inventors. The earliest recorded instance of a royal grant made with the avowed purpose of 'instructing the English' was a grant in 1331 to John Kempe & his company. However the letters patent were more often an attempt to raise funds without taxing ... although taxes on success were invariably imposed ... it was difficult to tax failures ... ?
In 1474 the first known patent law that granted inventors exclusive rights to their inventions was passed in Venice as a result of an enlightened economic policy. It included a requirement of novelty, a proof of usefulness and a requirement that the patentee describe & explain the invention. Thus focused on economic growth.
In 1624, in England, a 'Statute of Monopolies' was passed primarily to restrict the power of the sovereign to grant monopolies to cronies or as a revenue enhancing device. This reinforced the advantages to society of new inventions through exclusive rights for a fixed number of years.
The US Constitution included an item - Congress shall have Power ... To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries'.
The 1790/3 US Patent Acts defined & simplified the process - 'any new & useful art, machine, manufacture or composition of matter and any new and useful improvement on any art, machine, manufacture or composition of matter'. Simple criteria - is it useful? - is it new?
In 1836 the US established a specialised Patent Office, promoting public information, a time extension and open to all foreigners.
In 1852 The Patent Law Amendment Act, overhauled the British patent system and laid down a simplified procedures. Legal fees were reduced and just a single United Kingdom patent was required.
In 1890 The Sherman Anti Trust Act addressed the concern that patents were perceived as a method of perpetuating monopolies, particularly during recessions. Rather like the current World Trade initiatives, innovative technology tended to be squeezed out of the system when it was most needed; during recessions? Enterprise suffered as protectionism became rife  ...

Clearly April 13th 1911 was a great day for the Weaver Refining Company, Joseph Neill published a patent for improvements in the manufacture of acid phosphates. The company was making good progress with their quest to apply science to the upgrading and refining of added value products from animal waste.

1912 The Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain reported, 'Design - acid phosphates of calcium for manufactures. The Weaver Refining Co Ltd, Acton Mill, Acton Bridge, Northwich, Cheshire. Chemical Manufacturers'.

10 September 1912 - Crewe Guardian - Crewe, Cheshire, England reported on a disaster for The Weaver Refining Company as a gang of Oughtringham Amateurs scored five goals and the Weaver Refining Co nil in an exciting footy match. For the Amateurs the pick undoubtedly were the goals and Kay & Woods who gave a first class exhibition. Although beaten by five goals to nil, the Weaver Refining Co gave indications of being enterprising. Two days later 12 Sept 1912 The Northwich Guardian reported on the same epic association football match in the 2nd Division of the North Cheshire League at Heatley where the home Oughtringham Amateurs entertained an enterprising eleven from The Weaver Refining Company -

Bean (goal), Woodward & Goodier (full backs), Thurston, Gordon & Lewis (half backs), Evans, Phipps, Wilkinson, Clarke & Allman (forwards)

- the unlikely, and this time different?, score was 5-1 against the visitors. All was not lost as two weeks later on 27 September 1912 the Northwich Guardian reported on a Weaver Refining Company win. The Weaver Refining Company 'accomplished a smart performance in the Second Division of the North Cheshire league on Saturday'. The team were still trying on 20 March 1920 - St Helens Examiner - Ellesmere Street Juniors v. Weaver Refining Co. Both teams showed good form, and when Morris scored for Ellesmere Street play became fast and keen. Just before the interval Weaver Refining Co were awarded a penalty, but were unsuccessful ... but it was good fun!
26 May 1962 - Winsford Chronicle? This guy? was known in his younger days as a footballer, retired on Friday after 43 years. He has turned out at various times for Weaver Refining, ICI Alkali Ltd, an upgraded Lostock, Marston Old Boys and titter, he is seen in our picture with Wilton Albion.
05 November 1921 - Cheshire Observer - Weaver Refining Co v Weston, bad weather kept people away, but the team were still playing in 1921.

In 1936 the Staffordshire Evening Sentinel had an interesting review of football in Acton Bridge

'Football in Acton Bridge has been in existence for many years. First there was Acton Robins F C who played in the Warrington League from 1906 to 1914 and many of whose players are still living. In 1919 another team was formed called the Weaver Refining Co, Acton Bridge who played in the old Mid Cheshire League until disbanded in 1925. Three years later the present Acton Villa F C was formed and joined the Cuddington & District League ... '


Edward Hindley was always keen on educating the youngsters and kept his employees up to bone crushing speed with a company soccer team ... these out of work activities also included sponsorship of the Barnton Silver Band. In 1912 son Peter Hindley was 35 and not playing; by 1912 he had left The Weaver Refining Company and learned his coopering skills. In any case, no doubt with Edward's encouragement, Peter had honed his soccer skills much earlier and by 1899 he was skipper of Barnton AFC who won the Warrington Observer Cup in 1899-1900. In October 1919 the draw & referees for the 1st qualifying round of the Cheshire Amateur Cup was announced in the Runcorn Guardian ... the big news was the appetising draw - Weaver Refining Co v. Northwich Victoria!

Weaver Refining CompanyCheshire Image Bank has preserved a fine image of the Weaver Refinging Co

In 1913 the Bridlington Free Press reported on a sad death, running a factory on the Weaver was never plain sailing for Edward Hindley. The Runcorn Guardian reported this tragic drowning inquest at great length ... the story of 14 year old George Harrison's death reveals much about life and folk around Acton Bridge at this time ... Coroners Courts and coroner Mr J C Hale, foreman of the jury Mr Bebbington, George's father Thomas was at living in Weaverham and labouring at Winnington with Brunner Mond, extended family employment; uncle John was working at Weaver Refining with George, young boys at work in dangerous factories, good reputations were built on Sunday school and not smoking, cake treats for the boys, pennies to help Mum out, Mrs Hannah Sumner ran a local village shop, tobacco on weekly credit, errand boys, Peter Brocklehurst enjoyed social custom and practice, perks of the job, valuable scrap iron was recovered, factory rules, cakes for the boys, tobacco twist for the men, William Sharpe Department head where work started at 6am with a dinner hour, Harry Hancock worked at WRC and found the floating cap and fellow worker John Powell helped the Barnton Grappling Corps with the irons ... steamer Alice Capper was backing up by the Baking Powder shed at the time ... a picture of frightened youngsters learning to cope with honesty, bullying and discipline?

Further cameos of life in a village bone works can be gleaned from the Runcorn Guardian ... in 1910 factory accidents were often horrific but helped by Managing Director Mr E Hindley with a telephone and car and horse drawn ambulances to the Victoria Infirmary, Northwich ... 

In 1914 WRC were advertising in Nantwich -  Mr A Silvester was the agent ... and the Nantwich Guardian reported WRC was now into Calcium Sulphate ...

In 1914 The Weaver Refining Company were recruiting in The Manchester Evening News for 'steady men' to operate the chemical disintegrators. And in the same year in The Liverpool Echo the company advertised for 'Lady bookeepers for a country chemical works' ....

Electrical ReviewElectricity & the modern era.

In 1915 electricity came to the Weaver Refining Company's factory at Acton Bridge! The Electrical Review: Volume 76, 1915 -

 'The Weaverham Electric Supply Co Ltd has entered into a contract with the Weaver Refining Co Ltd for a minimum supply of 50,000 units per annum for three years'.

There was talk at the Acton Parish Council about generating electricity at the Dutton falls in 1897, and an indignant letter was sent to The Liverpool Mercury around the same time. But electricity didn't start to reach the Acton Bridge factory until 1915 and subsidence arrived at Witton Brook before electricity!

The water wheel had started it all way back; then the steam engine was around to help after Watt's triumph in 1776 and then, in Newcastle, in 1884, Charles Algernon Parsons (1854-1931) developed his steam turbine and the generation of electricity to small grids took off.

The 'on tap' electrical power gave a massive fillip to economic growth through instant flexibility and by extending the working day through Joseph Swan's incandescent light bulb which had been developed in Sunderland in 1878.

The electrical review published a review of the Weaverham and District Electricity Supply on July 2nd 1915 ... which included confirmation of a new supply - 'A second feeder is run from the generating station to supply The Weaver Refining Company's works at Acton Bridge' ... The Weaverham Electric Supply Company was formed in 1910 but by 1915 when the feeder to the works was installed, the technology employed had been upsized & upgraded. 

Things were powering ahead at Acton Bridge!

In 1916 The Weaver Refining Company appeared to be employing some dubious characters. On Saturday January 1st 1916 the Chester Chronicle reported on the trial of prisoner Wakefield. This remarkable report rambled over the Northwich landscape from Hartford Church, Hartford & Greenbank Station, Castle, Darwin Street, the Northwich locks, Leftwich, Leicester Street to the Chester Races ... and the slaughter house at The Weaver Refining Company ... !

In 1916 Mr J E Hind was the agent for Nantwich ... who was this hard working guy? A Sylvester was also an agent around this time?

By 1916 The Weaver Refining Co Ltd boasted a London office in Holborn.

In 1917 the Board of Trade Journal noted - Phosphates - Weaver Refining Co Ltd, Manufacturers, Acton Bridge.

In 1917 The Manchester Evening News carried adverts for additional office staff at The Weaver Refining Company ...

In 1917 The Chester Chronicle reported on road damage at Acton Hill caused by the company wagons and Mr Neill's offer to repair the road and modify the wagons to prevent further damage ... if possible! The same year the Chronicle also reported fines for two workers at the factory for obstructing the road; Alfred Tittle, labourer of Davenham and John James Anderson, carter of Acton Bridge

In 1918 The Manchester Evening News was advertising for two 'good' fitters for The Weaver Refining Company ...

There were other interesting diversions at the factory. In 1918 The Royal Entomological Society reported the finding of two specimens of 'Apterygida Albipennis' (a short-winged or hop-garden earwig!) at the Acton Bridge Bone Works. Mr J R Le B Tomlin was a bug collector, entomologist and regular visitor, visiting on 19th Oct 1916 & 16th Oct 1917 as he attempted to track down these little beasts.

The 1918 Department of Employment Gazette on page 10 mentioned The Weaver Refining Co Ltd.

The Weaver Refining Company purchased the freehold of the remaining 2.827 acres of the riverside site for £2,300 from the Milner Estates at auction on Wednesday 13th November 1918. Interestingly in the 1918 sale of The Leigh Estate Mr O Neill purchased 'Friars Rough' a potential building plot opposite to The Weaver Refining Company!

Problems required solutions and the factory's greatest asset, the River Weaver, also caused a major problem - erosion of the river bank. Cheap bulk transport on the river was critical to profitability but who was responsible for erosion, The River Weaver Navigation Trustees or the factory owners?

In 1919 an exchange of letters records the efforts of Edward Hindley to secure the river bank (BWWN14/15 1920). Initially he located a supply of tongue & groove piling timber offered at a good price by James Webster & Co of Liverpool. Expertise in gelatine production did not stretch to pitch pine specifications and the necessary dredger & piling and Edward called in the Trustees who quoted £2,855-18-0 for the job. A significant amount in those days, £751,368 in today's money. The matter became urgent following a complaint from the Northwich Carrying Co concerning safety of their steamers accessing the jetty.

The competitive advantage of the riparian site on the Weaver at Acton Bridge depended on the river but it was the carrying companies who made it all possible. The Weaver Refining Company and the Northwich Carrying Co were inextricably linked in an interdependent business network.

 Alternative facilities for loading/unloading at the Acton Bridge wharf were expensive in time, labour & transport. Furthermore coal contracts for 1920 involved heavy demurrage charges if turnaround exceeded 24 hours, and the installation of a new crane and grab could not be finalised until the piling was completed. And there was more, the piling required the elimination of red hot cinders from the boilers which were still smouldering many feet below the ground. How was this to be done? The problems queued up! Disputes over the line of the piling were of little consequence when the Trustee foreman, Mr J Elson, insisted completion using the timber was impossible and expensive concrete was now necessary. The return of excess timber had to be negotiated with Websters and there were further cost negotiations with Colonel Saner, the Trustees Chief Engineer. Saner had a formidable reputation, he had built the 'pontoon' swing bridges at Northwich in 1898/9 and also redesigned The Anderton Boat Lift in 1908, and questioning the engineering details of the new jetty and controlling the escalating costs was an awesome task for Edward ...

Lots of minor projects were a feature of everyday factory life as investment in new and replacement facilities was essential. An engineering design drawing for a new pier at the Acton Bridge factory has survived the ravages of time ... and from The Canal & River Trust dated 6/10/1908.

Shareholders in The Weaver Refining Co Ltd.

Edward Hindley (1858-1935) - 6,000 shares allotted by agreement. Edward was my maternal great grandfather, an inspirational man ...

Joseph Oswald Neill (1871-1934) - 6,000 shares allotted by agreement. Joseph Neill was Edward Hindley's partner from the start in 1900. Born in Manchester in 1871, he lived with his wife Chris and two servants in a big house, Willow Green, Little Leigh, across the Weaver and just across the Trent & Mersey canal at the top of the hill near to 'blue bell wood' and overlooking the Weaver Valley and The Weaver Refining Co Ltd. Joseph built this house around 1900, a splendid home similar to The Poplars and where, later, the Howards and Joyce & Graeme Andrews used to live.

Joseph came from a remarkable family of business men ...

'The Times' of London reported that Joseph Oswald Neill died in Llandudno on November 19th 1934, just five months before the death of his old partner Edward Hindley, he was only 63 ...

James Evans Grimditch (1872-1958) - 4,025 shares allotted payable in cash. Grimditch lived at Hersham Green, Walton-on-Thames, Surrey and joined the two partners as a Director in the Weaver Refining Co Ltd. when it was incorporated as a private limited company 28th of November 1908, with an investment of £4,025.

The third partner in Edward's venture into chemical manufacturing also came from a successful business background ... the Grimditches were butchers and James founded the Anglo American Cattle Products Company of Liverpool ...

James Evans Grimditch died at Putney Heath in 1958 at the ripe old age of 86. In 1961 The Times of London reported he left an estate of £314,058 some £16 million in today's money as a share of GDP. His investments in cows had proved to be propitious!

Harold Moreton Moss (1880-1954) was the Company solicitor with 1 share. Milling & Moss, Bull Ring Chambers, Northwich, handled the incorporation of the company in 1908. From 1906 to 1916 Harold Moss was in partnership with William Milling, after 1916 Harold continued trading as H M Moss. Moss & Haselhurst was formed in 1946 when John Shand Haselhurst joined. The business continues today and has traded as mosshaselhurst since 2005.

Harold Moreton Moss drew up Edward's will in 1929 and filed for probate on Edward's death in 1935.

Harold died in 1954 at the age of 74. Admitted a solicitor in 1906, and in the Honours Examination of that year he was placed First in the First Class and awarded the Scott scholarship. He was the senior partner in Messrs Moss and Haselhurst, Northwich, Cheshire; formerly Chairman of the Northwich Urban District Council, he had for some years been Deputy Registrar of the Northwich County Court.

William Moss (1851-??) was the Company bank manager with 1 share. He lived at Westfield, 158 Chester Road, Northwich. William was Harold Moreton's father. He had a second son William Herbert, born in 1882, who also went into banking.

William Sharp Galloway (1863-1920) was a nail manufacturer and appeared on the murky share register of The Weaver Refining Company in 1914 with 350 shares. A nail manufacturer in a chemical works! Who was this chap? Was he following in the footsteps of Cooper Ewbank who occupied the same Acton Bridge factory site in the 1840s? Remember the Memorandum of Association for The Weaver Refining Company included - 'metal processing of every conceivable type' ... ?

The 1901 census records - William S Galloway, born in Timperley  aged 38, married to Maud Constance from Salford, aged 31, 3 servants but no children, living at Oakleigh, Dunham Road, Dunham Massey. A wholesale hardware merchant.

The 1911 census confirms William was at the same address and in the same condition.

The mystery was not easily solved. William Sharp was unrelated to another William Galloway who manufactured nails in Sunderland Road, Gateshead, established in the late 1850s. In 1900 this firm employed about 25 to 50 people, many of them women, but, nevertheless, it took business from the local giants, Hawks & Abbot. Specialist manufacturers were more successful than general engineering firms such as Hawks who tried to make everything. One interesting aspect of this business was the fact that it had an agency for French and American steam cars ...  Galloways moved to Blaydon in 1952 and were taken over by the industrial giant GKN in 1965 ... but no, this was the wrong Galloway family ...

In 1897 William Sharp's father, William Lewis Galloway (1832-), closed down his sugar refinery which was in trouble due to 'bounty fed competition from the continent' and William was looking for a new opportunity ... he eventually went into ironmongery ... but he also made an investment at Acton Bridge ...

This was not a surprise unconnected move ... from 1842 to 1847 the Galloways were in partnership, as Galloways & Company, with Joseph Haley, in Manchester & Paris, as 'Patentees of Machines for cutting, punching & compressing Metals; and Rivets and other articles constructed by the said last-mentioned Machines' ... this was the period when John Budd & Cooper Ewbank were having a spat over their success as partners at Acton Bridge! For certain the Ewbank nail and the Acton Bridge factory would have been well known to the Galloways ...

... and there was more, perhaps, old William Galloway (1768-1836), the millwright, supplied equipment to the original water mill on the Weaver at Acton Bridge ...

... William Sharp Galloway was continuing his family tradition and seeking good investment opportunities in the water mills and steam driven manufactories of the industrial revolution?

People - Happy & healthy workers were productive and Edward insisted on discipline in the work place, tippling, fisticuffs, night rambling, mischief, immoral idleness and bad language were all forbidden ... Friendly Societies were encouraged like The Independent Order of Rechabites and The Ancient Order of Foresters, both had 'tents' and branches in Barnton and these self help organisations proved remarkably successful as a means of securing some health and death insurance ... some said all this was fruitless paternalism but Edward promoted health & safety at work ... but, of course, the Acton Bridge folk all had independent minds of their own ...

No 9 Warrington Road was one of a group of cottages along the river where some of the workers had their homes ... the company office block was on the site of the 'Rheingold Restaurant', now renamed the Riverside Inn ... but who were these folk who worked or had connections with The Weaver Refining Company? ... we know a little about some of them and their stories ... Jack Barker, a man of substance ... Bernard Pickering, the Factory Chemist ... George Foster, barge master ... the Phipps brothers who came all the way up from Surrey to roll zinc ... and Nicholas Bower who supplied copious beers and accommodation ...

The Weaver Refining Co Ltd moves on to greater things ...

1919 was The Weaver Refining Company's most successful year, a good business had been built up over 20 years in the face of fierce competition.

The business strategy involved processing & refining the cow carcase to add value by minimising the inputs & operating costs at the factory and maximising the value of the product delivered to the customer. Superior logistics & technology minimised quality degradation & waste and the marketing efforts were focused on those products with the highest margin. The jewels in the crown of The Weaver Refining Co were glue & gelatine.

 But ominous clouds were gathering. The animal reprocessing industry had continuously modernised and moved into higher value added products. But now increased technological innovation & capital investment were required as more sophisticated refining took the business into better quality manures to glues to gelatines. Investment in R&D and plant & equipment made larger scale units and pooling of resources essential. Ever present threats from foreign imports and much tighter regulation of abattoirs, odours and effluents eroded margins and suggested the industry had few friends ... by 1920 the logic of amalgamation was irresistible ... and just in time ... just before the 1921 slump ...

The Weaver Refining Co Ltd, Acton Bridge was merged into British Glues & Chemicals on the 7th of May 1920. The company was valued at £102,500 including £27,408 goodwill (£24.7 million in today's money). Edward Hindley, Joseph Neill & James Grimditch held 6,850, 6,350 & 6,900 shares in the Weaver Refining Co Ltd at the time of the merger.  There was a public offering for £2,000,000 of British Glues & Chemicals stock. The three directors took £61,842 in cash, £13,553 in preference shares & £277,105 in ordinary shares to the value of £102,500 from the sale. 

The Directory of Directors published by Thomas Skinner & Co listed Mr Edward Hindley, The Poplars, Barnton, near Northwich, as a director of British Glues & Chemicals, Limited.

The final winding up of the Weaver Refining Company occurred in 1926 when the Gazette announced a meeting to present the final accounts.

Edward Hindley would have been pleased with the price he got when he sold the business in 1920 but he had no inkling that the income from his ordinary shares in BG&C was to be delayed ... it was only after the depression in 1936 that BG&C started the payment of ordinary dividends ... a year after Edward's death ...

Acton Bridge Mill TodayAfter the British Glues & Chemicals merger the attractiveness of the Acton Bridge site was further questioned -

- cheap water power had long ago disappeared in 1882 with the Dutton Locks

- cheap river transport proved less flexible and much slower than the railways which now ran between population centres direct from raw materials to customers

- other British Glues & Chemicals factory sites were now in more favourable locations

- the Acton Bridge site was closed for production in 1923 when further erosion of the wharf threatened additional reclamation costs only three years after the 1919 trauma. Liability for remedial work was an issue. Edward maintained the erosion was due to the wash of Weaver traffic. Colonel Saner had other ideas, explaining 'the Trustees liability was confined to keeping water from overflowing the land. The river, when in flood, was causing the erosion of the banks, especially on the concave sides of the bends, and the total amount could not be nearly as great in a canalised river as it would have been had the river been in its natural state'. The Weaver Trustees desperate to maintain their tolls offered to pay for the renovation work if the Refining Works were reopened and all materials were shipped via the Navigation ... Edward brought in the big guns from British Glues & Chemicals, Mr Clarke, the Chief Engineer visited the site and a letter was sent from the Company Secretary in London ... to no avail the Acton Bridge site was uneconomic and remained closed ...

... but Edward was ahead of the game, British Glues & Chemicals were focussing their R&D and capital investment on new technology in glues and gelatines ... under threat from foreign imports, BG&C were not inclined to waste resources repairing unused river banks ... remember Edward would have been well aware of the tragic history of the shoemaking craft and the Salt Union as he wrestled with the amalgamation of glue makers & tallow renderers to form British Glues & Chemicals in 1920 ...

Subsequently British Glues & Chemicals proved to be a very successful company and was acquired by Sir Freddie Wood and Croda on September 18th 1968.

In 1942 there was an intriguing report that the old Acton Bridge Mill was in production again ... thanks to The Cheshire Shropshire & North Wales Farmers' Supply Association Ltd established in 1871 ... and then North West Farmers in 1958 ... what was that all about ... ?

Acton Bridge Industry!n 2019 a fascinating article written by Paul Hurley appeared in The Northwich Guardian - 'Acton Bridge Industry'.

The article gave a flavour of some of our very own research as it delved into the social history of an ancient riparian manufactory on the banks of the River Weaver in Cheshire ... thus helping the understanding of how some apparently insignificant happenings in rural Cheshire associated with salt, cows and a small tributary of the great River Mersey of the North West ... contributed to the industrial revolution which spread inexorably into a global tsunami of evolutionary change.  

The interesting thing was that all family history was and still is shambolic & messy, it is the way of the world.
All our research into The Weaver Refining Company raised more questions than it answered ... nevertheless it was always fun to try and find answers. At Acton Bridge, as at Guest Slack in Kingsley, happenings & structures surely existed ... most have disappeared without trace ... but there remained smidgens of evidence from the past which were persistently interesting & compelling
... fascinating?



measuring worth - a website that makes sense of money

some significant dates

some indispensible sources

The picture of Acton Bridge Mills available courtesy of the Weaverham History Society

The picture of Witton Brook Works available courtesy of Cheshire archives and local studies


Any corrections and additional information gratefully received contact john p birchall