Robin Longbottom examines how a watercourse was dug over two-plus miles to power a community’s mills

THE village of Oakworth, like many villages in the area, is a product of the industrial revolution.

Historically it was a manorial estate consisting of a scattering of farmsteads and cottages. By the end of the 18th century, three small communities had developed at Lane Ends, Oakworth Hall and Lidget.

Like most medieval manors, Oakworth had a corn mill. It stood on Mill Lane, near what is now Waterwheel Close, and ground the corn grown by farmers and tenants in the manor.

Power to drive the waterwheel came from a small beck that rose from springs near Turnshaw Slack, about half a mile due west of the mill. The slack was a boggy depression and water would have drained from it into the beck, providing additional flow to power the wheel. There was a small pond to the rear of the mill that fed directly onto the waterwheel that turned the grind stones. A pair of grind stones, one on top of the other, constituted a ‘mill’ and therefore when a second mill is recorded in the 1600s it is referring to another set of stones working alongside the original pair. The requirement for a second set of stones suggests that the population of the manor had greatly increased.

However, the small beck had a limited catchment area and must have been hopelessly inadequate to power two sets of stones, particularly during periods of drought. As there were no other watercourses to supplement the supply, the villagers looked for an alternative source. They found it two miles away on Oakworth Moor in an area known as Flask. The Flask was a large moorland bog, and as its name suggests, contained substantial reserves of water. It drained naturally into Will Clough and then down the valley side to the River Worth. To resolve their problem, the villagers diverted the water from the top of Will Clough into a narrow canal that they dug from Hill Top, on the road to Colne, for over two miles to Turnshaw Slack. Except for a small section, it runs along the low side of the road as far as the present Grouse Inn where it crosses and then continues through the fields to the head of the beck feeding the mill. The canal, known as Will Gutter, runs along the valley side and has a gradual fall of 150 feet between the 1,100ft contour at Hill Top and the 950ft contour at Turnshaw.

The date that Will Gutter was built is unknown but there was clearly a need for it if the corn mill was to keep the stones turning. Its construction would have needed the agreement of all the Oakworth freeholders, who owned the moor, and required a huge community effort to complete. It is therefore most probable that it was conceived and built during the 17th century.

Regardless of when it was built, Will Gutter was to play an important role in the prosperity of the village and following the onset of the industrial revolution it was to provide water to power five mills. The old village corn mill was replaced by Oakworth Mill, that spun worsted yarn, and a new corn mill was built downstream on Providence Lane. Below the corn mill a large mill pond covering some three-and-a-half acres was constructed to provide power for Higher Providence Mill, Lower Providence Mill and lastly to Mytholmes Mill, via an underground conduit and aqueduct.

As late as the 1930s men from Mytholmes Mill were sent once a year to clear debris from Will Gutter and undertake general maintenance. Today water continues to run and the flow from Flask remained unaffected during the droughts in recent years.