Robin Longbottom examines one man’s hugely significant, but largely unrecognised, contribution to the early industrialisation of Keighley

GEORGE Henry Augustus Cavendish, born in 1754, was the third son of the 4th Duke of Devonshire and after his father’s death in 1764 he inherited the manor of Keighley, and the small manor of Lothersdale, together with two water corn mills.

He was a prominent Whig politician and Member of Parliament from 1775 to 1831, and belonged to one of the country’s leading aristocratic families. The British aristocracy’s wealth was based on land, and they were notorious for distancing themselves from any association with ‘trade’. However, they were practical men and keen to maximise revenue from their landholdings and consequently some were active in the development of industrial Britain.

George Cavendish’s part in the early industrialisation of Keighley has gone largely unrecognised and yet he was instrumental in its development. The first cotton mill in Yorkshire, Low Mill, was built on his land in 1779 and when the three-storey mill was completed it was the largest building in Keighley. It stood on the River Worth and had a mill pond covering an area of almost 1.5 acres. It is unlikely that the mill was purely speculative and most probable that his steward, Rowland Watson, a prominent Keighley lawyer, already had tenants in mind. The venture was so successful that within three years an extension, larger than the original mill, had been built.

In 1783 he approved the development of yet another cotton mill, Castle Mill, on the North Beck just off Fell Lane. This, like Low Mill, was a substantial three-storey, water-powered mill with a large mill pond.

Cavendish also improved and enlarged the Keighley corn mill, which also stood on the North Beck at the junction of Damside and Bridge Street. When a second smaller cotton mill was built below the corn mill, North Brook Mill, its waterwheel was powered by the water discharged from the corn mill tail goit, suggesting that it was also owned by Cavendish. The mill was first occupied by John Greenwood but in about 1793 he relocated to a new mill built a short distance downstream on land he owned at Cabbage Croft, now the site of Morrisons supermarket. George Cavendish was instrumental in facilitating the development of this mill, as it required a weir and goit across his land at Beckside to provide power to the mill. With three mills now dependent on water power, Cavendish built a new weir almost a quarter of a mile upstream from the corn mill and diverted water into a mill pond that covered an area of nearly two acres. A long goit then took water from the pond to the mills.

In 1792 his attention turned to Lothersdale and an agreement was reached with a consortium of gentlemen to build a cotton mill on the site of the corn mill at Dale End. The site was leased to them, a new mill was built, and they were in production a year later.

His last industrial enterprise was the construction of North Beck Mill in Becks Road. However, the site was very small and it was not built until 1828, after he had acquired additional land from John Brigg, of Guard House, who was the adjoining landowner.

During his lifetime, George Cavendish is known to have promoted the development of six water-powered cotton mills – Low Mill, Castle Mill, North Beck Mill, Dale End Mill, North Brook Mill and Cabbage Mill. Other land in his ownership was also developed for industrial use, such as that at Wagon Fold (now Market Street) on which William Smith, clockmaker turned machine maker, built his works which was powered by a steam engine.

In 1831 George Cavendish was raised to the peerage and granted the title the Earl of Burlington. He died in 1834.