Robin Longbottom on how Keighley was once at the centre of the country’s washing machine industry

IT used to be said that in the early 1900s you couldn’t stir down Cavendish Street in Keighley on Fridays for washing machines.

Keighley was then one of the biggest manufacturers in the country and waggons loaded with them caused congestion as they made their way to the goods yards of the Midland and the Great Northern railways.

Both yards were at the bottom of Cavendish Street, and those going to the Great Northern’s yard accessed it from what is now Gresley Road. The Great Northern line once ran up the Worth Valley and then to Cullingworth and on to Queensbury from where it connected through to Manchester and Liverpool. Many of the machines were exported out of Liverpool to destinations as far away as New Zealand and Australia.

By 1900 there were nearly a dozen factories in the town making washing machines, wringing machines and a host of other laundry appliances for household and commercial use.

The industry had its beginnings in the 1850s. One of the earliest manufacturers was Samuel Briggs & Company. Briggs was a textile machine mechanic and together with his brother, William, had been making spindles and flyers for spinning machines. Seeing an opportunity, they joined forces with a Lancashire man called Abraham Banks and by 1855 were employing some 30 men and boys making washing machines. Their patent washing and wringing machines were separate free-standing appliances.

The washing machine was a simple upright cooper-made tub on legs with an internal paddle that could be turned by a hand crank. The paddle vigorously beat the washing as it soaked in soapy water. The tub had to be filled by hand and was emptied from a tap at the bottom. Once washing had been completed it was then wrung out by passing it through the wringing machine, commonly known as a mangle. The mangle consisted of two rollers that were again turned by a crank, the rollers were raised on legs so that a tub could be placed below to catch the water as it was squeezed out. Briggs & Company was only moderately successful and despite boasting that its machines had received thousands of testimonials and were used throughout the country, the firm was out of business by the end of the decade.

The most successful manufacturer was Wm Summerscales & Son. William Summerscales was born in Haworth in 1803, he had moved briefly to Silsden and then to Keighley. He had worked as a dyer, weaver and warp dresser before going into business with his second son, John, in the 1850s. John, like Samuel Briggs, had been a spindle and flyer maker but together with his father turned his hand to making washing machines. They occupied premises in Coney Lane and within a few years were advertising their washing machines and mangles and had agents selling them throughout the north.

When John died suddenly in 1864 his eldest brother William and younger brother, Joseph, joined the business. The Summerscales had their own foundry and works and went on to become one of the biggest manufacturers of laundry machinery in the country. In 1893 they produced a lavishly illustrated sales book advertising everything from flat irons to large industrial laundry machines. By the end of the century, they were said to be producing between 700 and 800 machines a week.

During the First World War the company supplied laundry equipment to the army including the 'Thresh Current Steam Disinfector'. It was described by the company as portable and designed to “kill undesirable organisms, and prevent the spread of epidemic diseases”.

In 1919 Summerscales sold out to a London company called Aublet, Harry & Co and production continued under the original name into the 1950s and 1960s at the Parkside Works in Pitt Street, Keighley.