Power at Quarry Bank: Introduction to the Project

We have been busy in the archive piecing together a full history of Power at Quarry Bank while the mill has been closed for the installation of a passenger lift. Here is an introduction to the project which seeks to build on the stories we share with you…

The Industrial Revolution had a huge impact on the cotton industry, moving spinning and weaving out of front rooms and into dedicated cotton mills. The earliest of these mills relied on wind or water to provide power to their basic machinery.

In 1784, Samuel Greg, an ambitious businessman who had just come into money from an inheritance, scoured the country in search of a suitable location for a new mill and settled on Styal due to its proximity to the river Bollin. And so Quarry Bank was born!

Plan by Peter Ewart, 1796-1801, location of 1801 weir arrowed

The river was manipulated to drive the first water wheel and to power spinning frames – common practice for cotton mills at the time. However, as demand increased and the mill expanded, water alone would no longer suffice. What followed was a journey through various power systems from steam-assisted water to turbines working alone. And it is this journey which will form the basis of a new online exhibition set to launch in March.

Plan of 20hp engine for Quarry Bank by Boulton & Watt

Working with the fantastic Quarry Bank Technical Volunteers, we have been searching through the archives both here and at external archives in various libraries to dig out objects and documents which are helping us to build an accurate timeline of developments in water, steam and engineering at the mill. Ledgers, memoranda, maps, plans and diagrams have provided the clues we needed to understand this history. Setting this timeline into a broader context of inventions and developments of similar mills has shaped our understanding of why Quarry Bank stayed successful for so long, surviving the Cotton Famine and other international threats when so many could not.

We are excited to share not just the facts of change in engineering, but also the fascinating social histories of the inventors, managers and mechanics whose mind and muscle power drove the mill each day. In a later blog we will talk about the lives of some of the skilled mechanics who were well-respected in the mill, earning the highest wages of all workers.


One significant social history which underlines the story of Power at Quarry Bank is that of the Greg family. The varying attitudes of the men in charge explain why certain decisions were made at certain times regarding innovation and development.

Cautious Samuel Greg

Samuel Greg

Samuel Greg founded Quarry Bank in 1784 and though he started out as an enthusiastic innovator, installing the latest designs in water power, his later years were far more cautious. While power looms and modern engineering were developing elsewhere, Samuel was wary of keeping up with the trends. On many occasions he disagreed with his son Robert Hyde Greg, Junior Partner at the firm, over modernising the mill, and he maintained this cautious attitude until his death in 1834.

Innovative Robert Hyde Greg

robert hyde

Upon his father’s death, when he inherited the firm, Robert Hyde Greg wasted no time in making the developments Samuel would not. Within a year he had installed power looms at the mill, and soon after introduced weaving as another output. To power these new innovations, Robert purchased a new beam engine in 1836 from the Birmingham firm Boulton & Watt, costing £1,158 7s and providing an extra 20 Horse Power. During his time in charge, Robert built a new boiler house, new buildings for looms and a weaving shed. Profits rose considerably.

Robert was a keen politician and considered the rights of his workers carefully. He wrote a book entitled The Factory Question which looked at the effects of factory labour on the health of workers, and in the 1860s with the arrival of the Cotton Famine, he kept the business stable and ensured that workers did not lose out on pay, finding work for them around the estate when the mill was unable to open.

Distracted Edward Hyde Greg

miniature railway
Miniature Railway built by Edward Hyde Greg and Robert Alexander Greg

The period in which Edward took charge was turbulent due to competition from international markets and between 1880-1899 there were stark annual losses. Edward had a keen interest in steam and did strive to modernise the mill with new machinery that other mills were reluctant to try, but his trouble was in managing finances. His interest in steam was not always focused on the mill, with his hobbies distracting him from business. He built his own miniature railway in the grounds of Quarry Bank with his son Robert Alexander. The family also built a steam boat, which was driven around the pool above the weir! By the end of his tenure, Edward had been forced to mortgage and let the Gregs’ Norcliffe Estate to support the depleting finances.

Endgame Robert Alexander Greg

robert Alexander

In 1900, Robert was left with drained finances and an aged water wheel on its last legs. His last push for Quarry Bank was to scrap the water wheel and focus on modernising the mill through the power of turbines, a 220 HP system to be exact. With other priorities, Robert relinquished sole power, forming Quarry Bank Mills co. in 1923 with multiple directors.

Then, in 1939, when threats such as airport expansion were drawing in, the difficult decision was made to gift the estate to the National Trust to ensure its protection and preservation.

Next time we will be introducing you to some of the volunteers working on this project who will present some of their research and tell you about some of the challenges they’ve faced when trying to build the timeline.

Written by Kate Turner

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Tom Gould says:

    It is a pity that Channel 4 axed it. I really enjoyed it.

  2. d says:

    Brilliant well written Kate and very interesting ,loved it when we visited it great place to see,

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