JUST a few minutes drive north of Bury lies the verdant Burrs Country Park, nestled in the serene Irwell Valley.

Today the area is popular with day trippers, ramblers and other visitors in search of outdoor pursuits along its beautiful trails and waterways.   

But this tranquility and lush natural allure secretes a far less pristine heritage and a history stretching back through the centuries.

Burrs was home to some of Bury’s earliest industrial communities and oldest cotton spinning mills.

And although it came of age in the age of industry, this part of the borough has been inhabited for millennia.

Overlooking Burrs is Castleheads, a raised area where a settlement had existed since before the Romans arrived in Britain.

The surrounding river valley remained a bucolic backwater until the latter 18th century when Bury and Lancashire were engulfed by the industrial revolution.

Testimony to this past is found in The Brown Cow Inn — the earliest surviving building at Burrs, and originally a farmhouse, dating from 1752.

Bury Times: The Brown Cow Inn, at Burrs Country Park, which dates back to 1752The Brown Cow Inn, at Burrs Country Park, which dates back to 1752 

In 1792 all this began to change when the entrepreneur Sir Robert Peel, father of the politician and later Prime Minister of the same name, together with his business partners, Howarth and Yates built a water powered spinning mill at Burrs. 

At the same time Richard Calrow built another cotton processing mill at Higher Woodhill. 

Initially the mills were powered by water from the river Irwell, and a weir and canal were constructed to carry water to them. Later on, as technology advanced, the mills converted to steam power.

Alongside the mills, a canal feeder was created in 1803 to supply water to the header reservoir at Elton and connect to the Manchester, Bolton and Bury Canal.

To house the mill workers a series of cottages were erected containing back-to-back houses with earthen floors and a ladder-like staircase.

The mill complex also featured a manager’s house, smithy and ash pit.

Astonishingly one of the Peel wage books survived meaning we still know the names of some of the families who lived there two centuries ago, and what they earned and how they spent it.

Bury Times: The wier at Burrs Country Park by Tony Rostron.The wier at Burrs Country Park by Tony Rostron.

Mostly women and children were employed at Burrs, preparing and spinning cotton yarn. 

This would be ‘put out’ to weavers and then returned to Bury Ground for bleaching and printing.

Only a handful of boys and men were needed, but families of six or seven children or young people were contracted for around a year at a time.

Mill hands worked 12 hour shifts to keep the machines in never-ceasing operation. 

‘Day work’ involved the highly inflammable carding process. 
Spinning was then done at night by oil lamps and candles. 

Only on Sundays was the mill silent.

Spinners, who were mostly teenage girls, could earn 11 shillings a week. 

The few men who were employed looked after the machinery and worked an extra half day on Sundays cleaning and tending the equipment.

Bury Times: Remains of the mill complex at Burrs. The base of the cotton mill is on the left, workers cottages are on the right, and just visible at the top left is the The Brown Cow Inn. Photo: Google MapsRemains of the mill complex at Burrs. The base of the cotton mill is on the left, workers cottages are on the right, and just visible at the top left is the The Brown Cow Inn. Photo: Google Maps
As well as providing accommodation to contracted workers, Peel also had to provide facilities for purchasing food.

With the nearest shops located two miles away, and without gardens for the cottages, the industrialist favoured the later controversial ‘truck system’.

At Burrs they sold oatmeal, pulses, flour to workers — although, following bad harvests in 1801, potatoes were sold as a substitute.

‘Notes’ for credit could also be given and families ordered their clothes and boots in Burrs, which were then brought up from Mr Crompton’s boot shop in Bury or Mr

Daniel Grant’s drapery stores, and paid for them weekly.

Deductions for the funeral club were taken three times a year, and with goods taken ‘on the slate’ workers would have had very little actual cash to take home each fortnight.

Some distance back towards Bury and over the river from Burrs stood Mr Calrow’s cottages and mill, at Higher Woodhill.

These formed a similar ‘L’ shape of a cottages backed by the side of the mill, but here at least there were gardens for workers to grow some of their own food. 

Richard Calrow had been a contemporary of the first Baronet Peel and established himself in Bury as a logwood grinder.

Logs were obtained from Jamaica and then chipped or powdered in a mill to form a valuable dye.

According to local historian Jean Bannister: “The black shade was extensively used for woollen cloth, hats and leather gloves and with a mordant fixing agent, red violet and navies could be produced, making it very versatile for cotton printing.

“Perhaps through this, the Calrows had a trade connection with Peels which gave them to the opportunity to buy up Peel Spinning mills when the Peels left the area for Burton-on-Trent.”

Bury Times: A typical cotton mill in 1844. Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty A typical cotton mill in 1844. Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty

Whatever the case, Burrs Mill was sold to Richard Calrow in 1808, and these interests were then expanded and converted to steam power.

By 1818 it was Richard’s sons, Thomas and William, who owned the Burrs, Woodhill and Hinds mills.

According to numerous inspection reports from before the 1819 Factory Act — when children’s hours were limited to day work only — they appeared to have been reasonable employers.

Some 400 people were employed in these three mills, of whom nearly half were under 14.

The temperatures were said to not have been too high and the mills were whitewashed yearly.

Inspectors commented on how well clothed and fed the children were, and reported that they were properly instructed in reading and religion.

Although some argued that mill owners were forewarned of inspection visits and had time to hide the truth, findings from a Manchester doctor visiting unannounced in 1818 tallied closely with previous reports.

Ms Bannister further noted: “No proper Factory Inspectors were appointed until after 1833 and an isolated mill community had very little chance of being visited by a JP.”

Disaster struck, however, in 1829, when a large fire broke out and the mill had to be rebuilt.

New inspectors of the 1830s were concerned with conditions and education, per contra to their predecessors, and Mr Horner, the unpopular Lancashire inspector, commented favourably on Woodhill.

He found that children were taken off work in relays to receive two-hour lessons from ‘Reading Made Easy’, the Bible and a church catechism; for which they paid 2 or 3d a week.

Mr Broadbent, the mill clerk, thought there was an improvement in their behaviour, although no real interest was said to have been shown by the parents.

In the following decades, Thomas Calrow’s sons entered the business and one James Richardson was given the separated logwood grinding house at Hinds.

A family mansion was built behind an old farmhouse, later becoming known as Stanley Cottage or Calrow’s farm.

But as the years went by the gatehouse along Bury Road became all that was left to give a hint of the Higher Woodhill estate’s former grandeur.

The area is now an estate of a different kind, and is made up of a large housing development. 

Back at Burrs, by the 1850’s cotton manufacturing was booming, and it is thought that the surviving chimney dates from this time.

Bury Times: Burrs Country Park with the surviving cotton mill chimney on the right. Photo: Google MapsBurrs Country Park with the surviving cotton mill chimney on the right. Photo: Google Maps 

Records from 1861 reveal that Burrs cottages — now an activity Centre — comprised 28 homes, housing 141 people, facing a midden.

But alas the years of plenty did not last and the Lancashire Cotton Famine, precipitated by the American Civil War, marked the beginning of the end for the cotton mills at Burrs. 

As they faced mounting financial difficulties, the Calrow family sold Burrs Mill and Higher Woodhill Mill to the Yates family in 1870.

They were converted for paper making by 1880 and by 1893, following a building project, they were being used for bleaching and dyeing by Samuel Rothwell Ltd.

In 1920 the complex was taken over by the Star Bleaching Company.

By 1925 Woodhill Road had been constructed along the side of the canal feeder and a manager’s house was built, which is now the Garsdale Public House.

However, the mid 20th century saw the industrial activity at Burrs finally come to an end.

Bury Times: Opening of the new East Lancashire Railway station at Burrs Country ParkOpening of the new East Lancashire Railway station at Burrs Country Park

In 1930 Higher Woodhill Mill was demolished and in 1933 the remaining mills closed amid the Great Depression .

During the Second World War the Burrs Mill complex was used as a billet and later as an internment camp for Italian prisoners of war.

Demolition of the oldest parts of Burrs Mill started in 1952, and in 1982 the rest of the mill followed, leaving only the workers cottages and the chimney.

Burrs was given a second lease of life in 1986 when it was taken over by Bury Metro.

The local authority started work on redeveloping the once industrial area into a country park and one of Bury’s most scenic countryside attractions.

Burrs Country Park now covers 36 hectares of different wildlife habitats — including woodland, open space, wetland, ponds and waterways — and has been awarded a Green Flag.

It is popular with walkers, anglers, birdwatchers and picnickers, and even boasts a caravan park.

Thankfully remnants of its industrial heritage are still visible and in 2016 an icon of the age of steam was added to the park when the East Lancashire Railway heritage attraction built a new station — making Burrs the seventh stop on its beautiful line.