The Lancashire Evening Post, Friday, 7th March 2003
Cotton tales By Phil Widdows
Collin's book recalls a time fast fading from memory
The days when “dark satanic mills” dominated the skyline and working life of Preston have been revisited in a new book which has taken three decades to research and write.

Cotton Mills of Preston by former engineer turned teacher Colin Dickinson aims to be a permanent record of a slice of the cities history which is fast fading into the mists of time. Begun in the early 70s, the project has been a mission for the author.

Aquaduct Mill, circa 1904
  The weaving shed, Aqueduct Mill, Preston, circa 1904
Mr Dickson, 64 said: ”I found that there was a gap that needed to be filled. I felt that this book just had to be published. “It is also the result of a lifelong passion for steam engines and engineering which began with a visit to a mill as a small boy.

He added: “It is said that childhood experiences can make a lasting impression, and this was true of my first, and sadly my only, visit to see a Preston mill-engine. I remember quiet clearly that Sunday morning just after the Second World War being invited by a neighbour who was a “tackler” at the Brookhouse Mills of J & A Leigh in Old Lancaster Lane. “Entering the mill yard we passed a boiler house to the right of us with boilers on the simmer in readiness for a Monday morning start, then onto a weaving shed were a sea of cloth upon loom stretched far into the distance.

”Eventually we arrive in the engine room of the firm’s adjacent Progress Mill of 1906 in Shelley Road, and there in all it’s trappings of Edwardian elegance was the engine, spotless and motionless: a sight indeed to remember.” However another visit to a mill years later refined his interest in mills and the powerful steam engines which powered them and the Industrial Revolution itself.

“At the beginning of the 1970s, I visited the cotton mill of Paul Catterall & Sons Ltd in Maitland Street to take photographs. The mill had recently closed, and a chance look around the two derelict engine rooms brought to mind that memorable Sunday morning visit to Progress Mill.

Horrockses Mill, circa 1913
  Inside Preston's Horrockses Mill, circa 1913
“Shortly after the Maitland Street visit, I became aware that no definitive had been presented on the history and development of Preston’s textile mill steam technology. Indeed, throughout the 50s and 60s, when the few remaining engines were at work, no attempt was made by any appropriate body to investigate and record this particular aspect of Preston’s industrial history.

“Just before the end of the 60s, the town’s last surviving engine was scrapped at the Tulketh Spinning Mill in Balcarres Road , leaving behind a very small section of disused engine houses, boiler houses, condenser ponds and chimneys; all redundant representatives of the steam driven mill era.

”Therefore it was with some urgency that I began primary research in 1971, visiting all the remaining mills, and by the end of the decade I was in a position to submit my Masters thesis, Preston Mill Engines, to the Department of History of Science and Technology at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology.”

A section of that thesis appeared in print in 1983 as part of a book called Lancashire Under Steam, but Mr Dickinson hoped that the rest of his work would also see the light of day, and in 1990 he started writing a book of his own.

Whelling the beams, Horrockses Mill in the 1930s
  Workers at Horrockses Mill, wheeling the beams carrying the spun cotton in the 1930s
Mr Dickinson, who lives in Plungington, worked for nine years for BAC at Warton as an engineer before training to be a teacher in the 60s. He retired in 1993, and is now a part-time lecturer in industrial architecture at Alston Hall, Longridge, at Lancaster University.

He adds:” In retrospect, if research had begun at the start of the 90s, this record as it stands today would not have been possible. Mill demolition, the tidying-up bonfire, and the call of the grave would have denied me the opportunity I had in the 70s. Meeting engine men and mill managers alike, I was able to piece together what must remain a fragmented account of a lost heritage."

Cotton Mills of Preston: The Power Behind the Thread, is published by Carnegie, price £12.00.

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© The Lancashire Evening Post, March 2003