Harnessing the river Bollin

The weir at Quarry Bank

Controlling the flow of the river to power the mill machinery was no small feat. Considerations had to be made regarding how much water would be required and what would happen in times of heavy rain or drought. Developments to key elements such as the wheel, the weir and the head and tailraces occurred over the years but the river would continue to power the mill throughout its history and even continues to power looms for weaving today. But how did the weir work? And what is a sluice gate? Find out here.

Weir – A weir works as a dam to divert the flow of a river. 

Headrace – The weir diverts the water to the headrace, a channel leading to the water wheel.

Tailrace – A channel to carry used water back to the river.

Mill pond – A reserve body of water for times of drought.

Sluice gate – Used to control the flow of water between the river and the mill pond.

Transmission system – The system of transferring power from the water wheel to machinery.

The wheel would move toothed bevel gears, which would turn a rotating vertical shaft, taking the power up through the mill and off to line shafting on each floor. Pulleys, wheels and leather drive bands were in place to transmit the motion into smaller shafts and then to the machines.

The earliest water system at Quarry Bank had limited power. Surveyor Hugh Oldham had calculated a 14ft head of water. To utilise this, a weir was built to control the water, diverting it along a headrace to a wooden water wheel which was capable of generating 10 horsepower. The water was then carried back to the river along a tailrace. In 1796, this system powered 2,425 water frame spindles transmitting water power along line shafts, the remnants of which can still be seen today.

Hewes' survey from 1818 to look for the appropriate place for the tailrace
Map of river Bollin
Hewes' survey from 1818 to look for the appropriate place for the tailrace

In 1796 Samuel Greg partnered with a skilled mechanical engineer and millwright, Peter Ewart, who by 1801 had innovated a more powerful system that made full use of the potential of the river by installing a second water wheel and a new weir which increased the fall of water to 17ft. The two wheels were joined by iron pillars and the joint power provided could drive 3,452 spindles plus preparatory machinery. In 1807 Ewart replaced the original wheel with one made of wood and iron.

The increase in machinery and production put a strain on the water powered infrastructure, and if you were a neighbour trying to utilise the power of the same river, you may not have been too pleased. One such neighbour was Mr Nield, a millwright whose mill was downstream of Quarry Bank.  In 1815 he filed a complaint for the selfish impounding of water taking place at Quarry Bank, making it near impossible for his mill to continue running. ‘Mr Greg has for years past so impeded the water that in dry seasons Mr Nield’s mill has stopped everyday until noon’. It was clear that something had to be done to find more power.

Thomas Hewes was a great mechanical engineer and was responsible for developing the suspension wheel in 1805. This featured a small gear or pinion wheel, which was turned by teeth inside the water wheel, transmitting power at high speed. In 1818, Samuel Greg contracted Thomas Hewes to build and install a larger water wheel to further manipulate the power of the river. Hewes realised that he could not improve on Ewart’s designs for water volume and hence deepened the wheel chamber to increase the fall, digging several feet below the river. Here you can see Hewes’ survey from 1818 from which he sought a point which was lower than the wheel chamber for the tail race to flow.

This was the first mill wheel to be made solely from iron and could generate 100hp. An entry in the Mill Memorandum from this time stated: ‘It had few equals in the country in point of size and efficiency whose slow and stately revolutions seemed the very embodiment of power and dignity.’ 

This replaced Ewart’s two-wheel system, meaning water was now directed over this single wheel, which would act alone or in conjunction with steam.