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Early Bleaching Methods

Extracts from "Horrobin Mill....Bleachworks in the Jumbles"
by J.J.Francis (1992)
A Publication of Turton Local History Society.

and "The Ainsworth Family of Smithills Hall Bleachers from the 18th to the 20th Century"
by Bill Jones (1993)
A publication of The Friends of Smithills Hall

The local domestic production of woollen textiles was originally based on spinning and weaving within the family and the finishing and fulling carried out on a pay-ment basis to the local fulling mill. The fulling mill was usually owned by the Lord of the Manor, who, through his tenant's lease arrangements was able to maintain a monopoly control. The changeover tocotton and cotton/wool fabrics meant that the waterpowered mechanical fulling hammers would no longer be required and the finishing processes could be undertaken independently by anyone having the necessary space and water supply.

The finishing of cotton goods consists of removing the dirt and grease inherent in the raw material as well as the dressing applied to warp during weaving. The cloth then needs all the original colouring removed and made 'market white', so that the finished goods may be presented properly for sale, or made ready for dyeing or printing.

The bleaching process, as performed in the 18th Century, occupied from six to eight months.
It started by boiling the cloth in hot alkaline lyes, made from clean water and burnt plant ashes. This was known as "bowking" or "bucking", and was necessary to remove the natural waxes and starch which had been added to the cloth during the weaving process. The vessels or kiers in which the cloth was steeped in this alkaline solution would be of stone, brick or copper, heated underneath by a hearth. The fuel was readily available in the Turton district, coal having been mined in the locality from the 17th Century and probably earlier.
Then the cloth was washed in clean water and any residual alkali neutralised by "souring" (soaking in a weak acid liquid made from butter milk and human urine, which was collected from local households !).
After more washing the cloth was spread out on the grass for exposure to the sunlight and air for some weeks (crofting). This bucking and crofting was repeated alternately five or six times. The cloth was then steeped for some days in sour milk, washed clean and again crofted. These processes were repeated, reducing the strength of the alkaline ley each time, until the cloth had acquired the requisite whiteness.

It can be seen that the bleacher or whitster required a supply of alkali, a means of heating the vessels or 'kiers', some grassland open to the sun, and a supply of sour milk. Above all, he required a good supply of clean water. It was the water supply that proved a decisive factor in the location of the bleaching industry, as can be seen by the growth of bleaching in the Bolton area in the 18th and 19th Centuries, where works were concentrated on the Dean, Eagley, Tonge and Bradshaw brooks. Before the alkali and soda ash manufacturers set up as specialists the alkaline leys would be produced by the whitsters themselves.

The fields used for crofting would be generally those adjacent to a water supply and with an open aspect. Horrobin Mill in the survey of 1801 had several suitable meadows including Mill Field, Holme and Calf Croft, suggesting its suitability and likely use for crofting.

Cloth spread out on the open fields for weeks was an obvious temptation for thieves and the stealing of cloth from the crofts, known as "Croftbreaking" was punishable by transportation or death.

On Monday, 18th September 1786, a youth named James Holland was publicly hanged on Bolton Moor for stealing 30 yards of cotton cloth worth £3 ....despite efforts made to secure his pardon on the grounds of insufficient evidence. His body was handed over to the medical profession for surgical research.

Following the discovery of the properties of chlorine for bleaching purposes and its use in a "bleaching powder", together with other chemical discoveries, the bleaching industry changed in the first half of the 19th Century from a semi-crofting industry to a factory based one.

The new facories required lots of clean water and power, provided by large water wheels. The Bleaching process was now taking days rather than months.

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