Plummeting profits, increased innovation: turning to turbines

Plan of turbine gearing

Upon his death, Robert Hyde was succeeded by his son, Edward Hyde Greg, who faced threats from global economic downturn, falling profit margins and international competition. The following three decades would see a push to save the business, installing the most up to date models in mill machinery and ultimately turning to turbines for power.

The period in which Edward Hyde Greg took charge was turbulent due to global economic downturn with falling prices and profit margins. Then, between 1880 and 1899, when competition from international markets rose, the export industry upon which Quarry Bank had been working fell under further threat, resulting in stark annual losses with the number of orders continually falling. 

To make matters worse, the strength of the water wheel was faltering as it struggled to continue to power the mill. From as early as 1899, enquiries had been made to Gilbert Gilkes & Co, renowned manufacturers of turbines, and the following document shows an early design of a proposed turbine for Quarry Bank.

Edward Hyde Greg had a great interest in steam, though he often focused this through his hobbies, building a steam boat for himself and his son to enjoy. Some of the best photographs of these were taken by John Tongue – coincidentally the son of one of the mill mechanics, Joseph Tongue – and gifted to Edward.

Edward Hyde Greg indulged his love of steam by having a steam boat made for him and his family
The Greg family in their steam boat
Edward Hyde Greg indulged his love of steam by having a steam boat made for him and his family

On the 28 December 1903, in a letter to an acquaintance, Mr Robinson, Edward Hyde wrote: ‘This old year ends for many of us with bad weather and bad business, no prospect for better business, though of course we may have finer weather.’ This combination of poor business and poor prospects led his son Robert Alexander Greg to step up and give Quarry Bank one final powerful push. His cousin, Henry Philips Greg had visited America to look at the innovative, automatic Northrop Loom and signed up to have 500 imported to England where he chaired the newly formed British Northrop Loom Co. Northrop looms were installed at Quarry Bank and an eventual agreement was made with renowned turbine manufacturers Gilbert Gilkes & Co of Kendal to install two turbines, a small one for independent driving of areas such as the mechanics shop and the other, with a potential output of 200 horsepower, for the main drive line. Letters between Robert and Gilbert Gilkes & Co time show the increasing urgency as the water wheel continued to show signs of failing. 

Letter from Gilkes and Co about the purchase of the turbine in 1904
Records from 1904 relating to the double vortex turbine
Letter from Gilkes and Co about the purchase of the turbine in 1904

The Mill Memoranda provides the following statement from 1906: ‘On Sept 20th about 9am the pinion stripped – the shock being felt through all that portion of the Mill driven by the upper pinion. The weavers became alarmed and threw out their looms, which caused a terrific “rally” which took some time to check as the water was low. On examination it was found that a large piece had broken out of one of the segments and fallen to the bottom of the wheel race. Also a piece was broken out of the shrouding. So ended the life of the water wheel which had worked continuously since 1847.

The mill was running on more power than ever before, but it was not to be saved. Local threats such as the development of Manchester Airport and competition from international markets led Greg Bros & Co to gift the estate to the National Trust in 1939 in the hope that it would be preserved and protected for years to come.