Mill closure devastates Lancashire community

Fifty years ago this week hundreds of workers were reeling at the announcement of the closure of a Lancashire mill. Former worker Mike Malley looks back at its life and times

Friday, 16th April 2021, 3:45 pm
Oakenclough Mill in winter 1960, workers were often stranded at the mill following heavy snow
Oakenclough Mill in winter 1960, workers were often stranded at the mill following heavy snow

Paper making in the Garstang area started at Bannister Hey Mill, Bleasdale sometime before 1745 and the remains of the mill can be seen at Brock Bottoms, two miles from Oakenclough.

It is likely its paper making equipment was moved to Oakenclough following its closure around 1791. The mill at Oakenclough had previously been a corn mill before its owners, the Curtis family, allowed its conversion to produce hand-made paper, which they later they ran themselves.

Due to either family disagreements or their failure to pay duty on the paper they produced, the mill and a substantial amount of land was sold to pay debts. The mill was auctioned in November 1826 and a prominent local Quaker, John Jackson paid £2,990 and took possession a year later. At this time new machinery was replacing hand-made paper and Jackson invested in the new equipment. The mill was soon making profits and with his Quaker business acumen, it was successful.

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The 120 inch wide, high speed paper making machine at Oakenclough Mill

However, with a growth in the number of paper mills in England, and with more and larger paper making machines being installed, it was necessary for constant investment in all areas of the business.

In the early days, paper was transported as far afield as London, before railways this meant regular journeys to Derby by horse drawn waggon, to be transported on by a London carrier.

It was also said the largest water wheel in the country was installed at Oakenclough, it was 50ft in diameter and 12ft wide and ran until the early 12th century. The water wheel-house, although now full of debris, is still standing.

A period of uncertainty followed Jackson’s death in 1845, but by the 1890s it was his innovative grandson Harold Jackson, who had taken the reins and his innovative paper making skills and investment in new equipment brought about an era of prosperity. In its early days Oakenclough produced a wide range of wrapping papers. Some of its paper sheet was used in factories, for example to wrap cotton cloth, other sheets were used in shops as wrapping paper and other sheets were shaped by hand to form paper bags.

Long service awards being presented to workers at Oakenclough Mill shortly after its closure in June 1971

Sheets varied by colour, size and weight and were made from recycled linen and linen waste, cotton rags, cotton waste from the numerous mills in Lancashire and recycled ropes and cordage. Towards the end of the 19th century Oakenclough also specialised in machine-made paper bags, in particular when it supplied numerous Co-Operative Society shops.

As competition in wrapping paper manufacture increased, the mill developed a range of specialist papers, including filter paper, insulating and greaseproof cookery paper and electrical insulating papers.

The mill also played its part in the First World War when its ‘Oakencork’ and ‘Oakenstrong’ automotive gasket material was in demand for the war effort, it also manufactured paper towels from at least the 1920s. When many larger and better equipped mills fell by the wayside Oakenclough survived, but by the early 1950s it again needed investment, but this time it was beyond the Jackson family ability.

The owners had offers from other parties, but it was the Scottish papermaker Inveresk Ltd , which became its partner, it was quick to invest and retained the company name as Harold Jackson Ltd.

Paper being transported from Oakenclough Paper Mill in the 19th century

The next phase was an investment by Inveresk of £1m – more than £21m in today’s money – for a new 120 inch wide paper making machine to manufacture paper towels and tissue paper for toilet rolls and handkerchief tissue. The machine was commissioned in 1963 and the workforce was greatly expanded. In order to convert the towelling and tissue a new factory, known locally as Cresco’s, had been built at Ray Lane, near Garstang Railway Station on a site called ‘the Bag Shop’, which was a small building formerly used to manufacture paper bags and later the special papers developed by Harold Jackson.

At the time of its construction Cresco’s was said to be the largest building ever built without support pillars. I joined the company in August 1964 and with such a major investment I thought I had secure employment, but things were to change as a result of Inveresk forming an alliance in 1969 with two other tissue manufacturing companies which had larger paper mills at Bridgend, in Wales, and Oughtibridge, in Yorkshire, becoming British Tissues Ltd.

It soon became apparent Oakenclough was the junior partner, and with a major investment at Bridgend, it was at risk of closure. Then followed a 12-month period of evaluation for the partners to decide which mill was to close, but to the credit of the workers at Oakenclough they gave it their best shot and production increased to a record high.

As a worker at Oakenclough I was aware of an incident of industrial vandalism when a worker from outside the area was seen damaging sensitive and expensive equipment, losing valuable production on numerous occasions and which may have contributed to its demise.

The factory at Ray Lane – called locally ‘Cresco’s’ – which closed in 1971, shortly before the Oakenclough Mill

But being so small in comparison to its partners, Oakenclough’s closure was probably a foregone conclusion and on March 12, 1971 the inevitable closure was announced only five years short of the 150th anniversary in the ownership in the Jackson family.

A statement from British Tissues said, “Under intense competition conditions, which had coincided with large increases in raw materials, manufacturing and distribution costs over the last three years, the limited operation at the Oakenclough Mill had proved to be uneconomic’. Ray Lane employing 165 persons closed first in May and the paper mill employing 220 was to stop production in June.

At the age of 22 I received a £300 redundancy payment and headed to Cornwall on holiday. While I was away James Burke, then star of BBC’s Tomorrow’s World, hosted a Granada TV programme examining the implications of unemployment and his production team selected Oakenclough as a case study.

A skeleton staff was employed at the mill while the site was being cleared and the equipment sold. A Garstang scrap merchant took much of the machinery, some of it very old, I remember one machine with a cast iron plate dating it to 1888. The almost new 120 inch machine found its way to Lebanon by sea, apart from one large cylinder that was lost overboard in heavy seas.

The Jackson family was model employers, besides setting up a very successful business, they also cared for their workforce and their Oakenclough paper mill provided secure employment to its workforce for almost 150 years.

It was said in the 1920s that from its foundation their employees at Oakenclough had not lost a day’s work and the same could have been said up to its closure in 1971 and not many employers in that period could have said the same.