Robin Longbottom looks at how the worsted industry became a dominant force across the area

IN 2002, after over 200 years, Greenroyd Mill in Sutton-in-Craven finally closed its doors and ceased spinning.

The original mill had been built in 1788 by Robert Walters Harper, whose family had been prominent landowners in the village since the early 17th century.

Harper was a worsted manufacturer, an occupation which then entailed putting hand-spun yarn out to handloom weavers and selling the finished cloth to merchants. When machinery that would spin worsted yarn was developed, he took the decision to build a mill.

At this time the mills in Keighley and Craven area were all spinning cotton on machines invented by such men as Richard Arkwright, James Hargreaves and Samuel Crompton. Developing a machine that would spin worsted yarn proved to be more problematical. As early as 1781 Thomas Lawson, a Keighley clockmaker, together with John Greenwood and his son-in-law, Brookes Priestley, both of Haworth, had entered into an agreement to develop a worsted spinning frame. They do not appear to have been successful. However, within a few years a cotton spinning machine known as a throstle (a combination of Arkwright’s water frame and Hargreaves' spinning jenny) had been modified to spin worsted yarn. The names of the men who achieved this remain unknown and no patents appear to have been submitted. By 1788 a mill at Bedworth in Warwickshire was spinning worsted yarn on six machines, each of which had 48 spindles. A year later an advertisement was placed in a Leeds newspaper for “a middle-aged man to superintend a worsted spinning manufactory”, indicating that worsted spinning mills were already being established in the district.

A handful of mills now began to spin worsted yarn in the Keighley and Craven area. They included Low Mill at Addingham, Hewenden Mill at Cullingworth and Greenroyd Mill in Sutton. However, these early worsted spinners experienced difficulties from the start. Robert Walters Harper at Greenroyd got into financial difficulties and went bankrupt in 1792 (he assigned his assets over to administrators but eventually recovered the mill after paying off his creditors). A major problem was finding enough woolcombers to keep the machines supplied with wool. Between 1789 and 1792 only six combers are recorded in Addingham, but the shortage was eventually resolved by attracting men from other areas. By 1796 the number in the village had risen to almost 20, with combers coming from Kildwick, Haworth, Ovenden, Carleton in Craven and as far away as Bainbridge in Wensleydale.

After Robert Walters Harper went bankrupt, Greenroyd Mill was leased to a young man called Robert Hodgson. At that time the mill was running six worsted frames, each with 48 spindles, together with a drawing frame and a roving frame to prepare the wool for spinning. When he died at the early age of 35 in 1807 the mill reverted to Harper, who then leased it to a partnership called Spencer & Sons.

After Spencers left Greenroyd Mill in the early 1820s it was then leased to Peter Hartley. Born in Haworth in 1767 he was one of the many woolcombers who had moved to Addingham in the 1790s. After ten years or so, he left Addingham, moved to Sutton and took the lease on a small mill in Sutton Clough known as High Mill. However, this mill was very small, had poor access and no room for expansion and so when the opportunity arose, he relocated to Greenroyd.

The worsted industry now replaced cotton and from a handful of small mills in the late 18th century was to become the area's dominant industry until recent times. Today worsted spinning mills are a thing of the past and Greenroyd Mill, Low Mill and Hewenden Mill have been converted into dwellings.