Power at Quarry Bank

Image of the waterwheel at Quarry Bank

The history of power at Quarry Bank encompasses the harnessing of a mighty river, a series of steam engines, a leap of faith in water turbines and, above all, the hard work of skilled labourers. The mill itself was moulded to suit each new development, and as the reins passed along the different generations of Greg family men, each had to decide whether to move in time with the technological innovations of their contemporaries, or to tread carefully and cautiously.

The first of these men was Samuel Greg, born in Belfast in 1758 and sent to England as a young boy to live with his uncle, linen manufacturer Robert Hyde, from whom he would learn the secrets of the cotton trade.

By 1791, everything had fallen into place for the young, entrepreneurial Samuel Greg. His position as purchasing agent for his cotton trading uncles, Robert and Nathaniel Hyde, had introduced him to key contacts. The American War of Independence had come to an end, reopening trade opportunities, and the patent for the water frame created by Richard Arkwright in 1769 had expired, allowing for the design to be freely used. 

When Robert Hyde passed away, he left a substantial inheritance to his nephew Samuel, who immediately sought a patch of land near to water which could supply his new cotton warp spinning business. Steam power was at an experimental stage and was not yet a reliable source for powering a mill. Engineers such as Thomas Newcomen and James Watt had been developing steam powered engines, but Samuel Greg went in search of a power source he could trust. Even as steam became more common, engines were incapable of generating as much power as the latest water wheel designs and they certainly couldn’t claim to be as cheap, efficient or effective. 

It is said that Samuel Greg used to tell stories of riding around the country in search of a suitable body of water. Styal provided the ideal site for this new venture, and in addition to the mill itself, all that was required was a weir to control the flow of the river, a headrace to deliver the water to the wheel, a tailrace to return used water from the wheel to the river, and of course a wheel whose water powered motion would drive the production of spun cotton.

In 1783 Greg’s surveyor, Hugh Oldham, confirmed that there was sufficient water fall from the River Bollin to Styal to power a mill, and Quarry Bank came into existence.

The following century would see rises and falls in production and profits and the Greg family would have to decide when and how to keep up with increased demand and competing markets. Would they keep faith in established water power, or would they take risks experimenting with the latest technologies?  

Below is an introduction to the history of Power at Quarry Bank. Follow the links to find out more about how things worked and to read stories about the people who provided the essential mind and muscle power.

The weir at Quarry Bank

Harnessing the river Bollin 

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. But how did the weir work? And what is a sluice gate? Find out here.

Image of Isaac Sherratt's name appearing in the day book as a debtor

Who Would Provide the Muscle Power? 

From the very beginning of his enterprise, Samuel Greg needed skilled workers to support the development of the mill and to maintain the water wheel and the supply lines. In a typically business-like fashion, he sought the cheapest possible labour and paid for the release of several skilled clockmakers from the Manchester House of Correction. These men worked as mechanics at the mill and repaid their debts in weekly pay deductions.

Engine design plan from 1802

Powerful Partnership: Greg, Ewart and the First Engine 

In 1796, Samuel Greg found a compatible business partner in Peter Ewart. While it is said that he brought no capital or experience in cotton spinning, Ewart had extensive mechanical knowledge and he used this to expand Quarry Bank, increasing the potential for power from the river and installing the very first steam engine by 1810. Find out more about Peter Ewart and read about our hunt for the first steam engine here.

Image of a danger sign from the Quarry Bank collection

DANGER! Trouble at mill 

While the clockmakers and their mechanic successors were employed for their skill and mechanical experience, safety was not always guaranteed. The mill was full of dangers and the increase in power brought with it a rise in potential hazards…

Plan of the beam engine from 1836

The introduction of weaving and the Beam Engine 

By 1825, Samuel’s son Robert Hyde Greg had joined the firm as a junior partner. Times were hard as a result of the economic crash and competitive markets, and the young Robert Hyde had big plans to combat these threats with innovation in machinery and power. However, his plans conflicted with the increasingly cautious Samuel – could they put their differences aside to secure the future of the mill?

Image of Quarry Bank workers sitting for photograph

Mill mechanics of the mid-nineteenth century 

By 1868, our knowledge of the daily tasks of mechanics at the mill becomes much clearer. A wage book in our archives allows us to follow the 13 mechanics through their working week as it notes the room or engine worked by each man on any given day. Our understanding of the personal lives of these men is also much richer, allowing us to paint a more vivid picture of life as a mechanic at Quarry Bank.

Plan of the foudnations for the horizontal steam engine

In search of stability: the horizontal engine  

The mill pond was regularly affected and blocked by silting, which repeatedly caused problems for the flow of water to the mill and put a great deal of pressure onto the water wheel. By 1871, the power of the beam engine had reached capacity and Robert Hyde Greg sought an additional, reliable source of power. The decision was made to purchase a horizontal engine.

Workers at the weir

Flooding and repairs 

Quarry Bank utilised water power far longer than most other mills who favoured the reliability of steam. Exploiting a raw, cheap power source in this way should save a huge amount of money compared with the price of coal and cartage, but what about the cost of repairs?

Records from 1904 relating to the double vortex turbine

Plummeting profits, increased innovation: turning to turbines 

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.

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

Power and the National Trust 

While Quarry Bank was gifted to the National Trust in 1939, it took many years for the estate to become the visitor attraction 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.