Power and the National Trust

Chief engineer Eric Wilkins fitting the final bucket to the waterwheel at Quarry Bank

While Quarry Bank was gifted to the National Trust in 1939, it took many years for the estate to become the public treasure it is today. Space was let for engineering and manufacturing firms to take residence and power continued to flow through the mill. The industrial core of Quarry Bank never really left.

Though it was no longer in the hands of the Greg family, Quarry Bank continued to run as an industrial hub. Eric Wilkins MBE played a significant part in developing Quarry Bank with the National Trust and recorded his memories from the time. Eric recalls working for his uncle’s business, Styal Engineering Co in 1954, based in the mill. And they were not alone, with businesses such as Bollin Engineering and Todbrooks Screen Printers also taking up residency. The mill had begun to fall into disrepair and offering spaces for rent to local businesses allowed for the generation of income. And the real selling point? Power was free! The turbines were switched back on, feeding power along the line shafts.

Alf Bailey was groundsman of the estate and lived at Mill Cottage. He got up at 6am each day to rake out and stoke the boiler house as it supplied heat to the mill. By 8am he would start the water turbine and at 12pm he would switch it off until 1pm, replenishing a lot of the water that had been used. Eric Wilkins recollected that ‘when you turned the turbine on or off, the floor used to vibrate… quite tremendous this machine’.

Eric Wilkins installing the current water wheel
Eric working on waterwheel at Quarry Bank
Eric Wilkins installing the current water wheel

In 1976 the decision was made to create a display that could transport visitors through the various generations of power at Quarry Bank and the Quarry Bank Museum Trust, as it was then known, sought a waterwheel to power machines in the galleries and to produce cotton once more. The waterwheel now present in the Brain Power gallery was built by the renowned William Fairbairn, who we’ve already met, for Glasshouses Mill, Pateley Bridge, in 1850. Fairbairn had been trained by Thomas Hewes, the engineer responsible for installing the original water wheel at Quarry Bank and the high breastshot suspension design is very similar. The wheel came with its original penstock, governor and gearing but a new shaft had to be cast and positioned, along with new buckets. The wheel turned for the first time at Quarry Bank in 1986, where it now powers looms to weave cloth once more. 

The mill at Quarry Bank has now gone through a full circle of different forms of energy production starting with water power and ending with water power. A new hydroelectric scheme was commissioned in late 2014 and can generate some 55kW of electricity from water power. The Hydro scheme produces an average of 40kW 24 hours a day so that during the evening and night time any generation is exported which gives us an income to support present and future needs of Quarry Bank.