The end of more than one era

| October 22, 2012 | 0 Comments
Birkshead Mill, Wilsden

Birkshead Mill, Wilsden

Astrid Hansen shares her memories of Tom Whiteoak, managing director of Wilsden’s last working textile mill, who died in July.

At the end of July, st Saviour’s Church in Harden was full for the funeral of Tom Whiteoak. Tom’s connections throughout the area were many and often complex, from his birth, early life and schooling in Harden to his retirement years in Eldwick. Tom’s mother’s family were Thornton people and Tom traced that side of his family tree back to 1611. Great-grandfather Smith Whiteoak was Wilsden’s police constable in the 1860s and later became landlord of the Malt Shovel.

However, it was Tom’s own working life, spent entirely with the textile firm of HF Hartley, that was closely linked with the more recent history of Wilsden. Tom, by this time a director of HF Hartley, came to take charge of Birkshead Mill when the company bought it in 1964, and became Managing Director.

Like others in Wilsden, Birkshead Mill developed from the use of farm buildings as warehousing for hand-woven pieces. When Richard Fawcett erected the first mill building at Birkshead Farm in 1820 the site was ideal for industrial expansion. Abundant springs supplied the mill dam and coal came from Fawcett’s own mineshaft sunk nearby. The mill was used by a variety of tenants until SP Myers bought the whole site in 1860 and added two large new sheds. After the First World War, SH Rawnsley took over and were in turn bought by Hartleys, who had other mills around the district, with headquarters at Crossflatts. Gradually all work was consolidated onto the Birkshead site, with HF Hartley, SH Rawnsley and Redman & Smith functioning as a group. Rawnsley’s had specialised in very high-quality worsted cloth for the home market and export. The business now expanded to produce cloth for well-known chains of high-street tailors, then as that market began to decline they concentrated on cloth for uniforms and other more specialised needs. These cloths were exported to, among others, Hong Kong and the Middle East and the company was the only one outside France to supply the French Government and armed forces. Highly specialised fabrics were made to government requirements in the UK and USA to provide camouflage cloths and uniforms resistant to chemical, biological or radiation hazards. Part of the company also produced upholstery fabrics for the automobile industry, including Ford, Austin Rover and Mini. It is amazing to think what came out of Wilsden and where it might have been found in use.

After the death of Mr Hartley, the company became part of the Allied Textiles group and continued to operate at Birkshead until the parent company decided to transfer all its manufacturing to Bulmer and Lumb at Buttershaw in 2002.

Constant willingness to update the premises and machinery and to adapt to changing needs made Birkshead not only Wilsden’s longest surviving working textile mill, but the last to close in the whole of the former Bingley Urban District.

With the site now occupied by a mixture of housing and a block of individual small industrial units, it’s easy to forget how just big and important Birkshead Mill was in the not so distant past. At its height it provided employment for nearly 300 people, many from Wilsden itself, some brought from surrounding places by special buses.

I was much saddened by Tom’s death and remain indebted to him for a great deal of information about the textile business, Birkshead Mill and other aspects of local history.

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