William Lawrence’s Mills, Lyons Lane, Chorley, Lancs.
by John Harrison.
(Oct 2011 update)

The closure and recent demolition of Wm. Lawrence’s mills (2010) on Lyons Lane has correctly been identified by the Chorley Guardian as the “end of an era.”
William Lawrence was one of the great figures of Victorian Chorley who “rose from the ranks”. His father was a handloom weaver and he worked as a spinner for the Smethursts for 12 years and then became a mill owner himself on a scale to rival the Smethursts, owning 2 large spinning mills as well as weaving sheds.

Initially he went into partnership with George Brown as Muslin Manufacturers. In 1852 the partners obtained land from the Grundy and Cunliffe families in the area of what we now know to be Friday, Brown and East Streets. This was land bequeathed by William Leigh to his daughters in his will of 1804.
Lawrence’s partnership with Brown was dissolved in 1852. It was perhaps part of that dissolution that William Lawrence agreed on 21 August to the assignment of a plot of land and buildings and premises to George Brown. This seems to have part of the property obtained from Cunliffe and grungy earlier in the year.

Lawrence’s first mill “in his own right” was built between 1856 and 1858, the second in 1866. The first mill is completely demolished, although the offices remained until demolition in 2010.
This area, south east of Chorley town centre had been largely undeveloped until the second half of the nineteenth century. The first edition of the Ordnance Survey (1849) shows the area to have been a brick field. This may well illustrate the demand for building materials as the town experienced urbanisation and industrialisation. The map shows a neighbouring mill, the Sherburn Mill in an area between the top of Steeley Lane and Lyons Lane. Further down Lyons Lane was Lightoller’s Mill, whilst the main group of mills was north of the town centre along Water Street.
The development of Lawrence’s first mill was reported in the Preston Chronicle . On 25 October 1856:-
“On Saturday last the workmen employed in erecting the new mill in Lyons Lane, Chorley, belonging to Mr. William Lawrence, were invited by that gentleman to partake of a substantial supper, provided by him at the Cotton Tree Inn, to celebrate the completion of the building. About seventy of the workmen, availing themselves of the gentleman’s hospitality, sat down to supper. The mill is a plain and substantial building, erected under the direction of Messrs. Watson and Allsup of Preston, and is calculated to hold from 23,000 to 24,000 spindles. The erection of the mill will cause a considerable number of hands to be employed, and will be found a great acquisition to that most thriving and populous part of Chorley.”

On 21 March 1857:-
“On Wednesday last, the steam engines connected with the new spinning mills belonging to Mr. William Lawrence, of Chorley, were started for the first time, in the presence of the proprietor and a number of friends. The engines, of 30 horse power, were made by Messrs. Watson and Allsup of Preston and reflect great credit on them.”

The following plan shows two parcels of land on the east and west sides of Townley Street that he leased from Robert Townley Parker in 1861. These were to the south of his original mills.

The following plan shows land he leased from Robert Townley Parker in 1861.

Although Lawrence’s lease of this additional site began in 1861, he did not immediately develop the site. This may well have been as a result of the Cotton Famine 1861-65 which caused such severe disruption to the Lancashire cotton industry that it was not possible to fully utilise existing mills and machinery, never mind any expanded capacity. However Lawrence does appear to have continued to expand his business.
In 1863 in the Chorley Valuation List, William Lawrence was listed as the owner and occupier of Lyons Lane Mill. The list shows a mill and weaving shed with a total rateable value of £546 15s. This probably refers to the buildings on the west side of Townley Street. The List also refers to his house and premises on Eaves Lane, a newsroom, office and nine houses in Townley Street, and a “new weaving shed” and a chimney with a rateable value of £140 15s. These may have been buildings on the east side of Townley Street. The 1861 plan shows the southern part of a building on the eastern side of Townley Street, annotated “Mr. Wm. Lawrence.” This was known at a later date to have been a weaving shed. In a Supplemental Valuation List of 1864 it would appear that during the past year Lawrence had added a newsroom and offices and 6 houses in Derby Street,
With the end of the Cotton Famine it was time for Lawrence to develop the land that he had leased from Robert Townley Parker. In 1866 he had a second spinning mill built on the large site to the west of Townley Street. It consisted of a four storey spinning block, with the engine room and boiler house situated at the north-western end, facing Derby Street, with the southern elevation overlooking Aldred Street. Adjoining the mill were offices and warehouses, with two lodges immediately to the west. In the Chorley Standard of 3 November 1866 it was reported “Mr. Lawrence is erecting a new spinning mill to the rear of Lyons Lane Mill which will contain about 40,000 spindles.”

The mill measured approximately 40 yards long by 30 yards wide and contained 36,000 spindles and preparation machinery, producing medium to fine counts of yarn. The Chorley Standard reported on 28 December 1867 “On Saturday last, a splendid, 60 horse steam engine was started at the new mill of Mr. Lawrence, made by Mr. Allsup of Preston.” This was the same supplier of steam engines as Lawrence had used in 1857, but this latest engine seems to have been twice as powerful.
The extra capacity would have expanded Lawrence’s workforce. In 1884 it was approximately 700. (Manchester Times 13 September 1884) The 1871 Chorley Valuation shows William Lawrence as having a Weaving Shed and Mill, a new Weaving Shed, a new Mill and a new Warehouse, all in Lyons Lane. A Supplemental Valuation No.8 for 1871 listed a new warehouse in Townley Street.

Townley Street (2009)

William Lawrence’s business suffered its downs as well as its ups. He had a fire in 1860 that was caused by “cotton taking fire from the gas.” This was presumably a gas light. Fortunately the fire was quickly extinguished and the Improvement Commissioner’s fire engine, although summoned, was not required. Lawrence’s factory suffered only “trifling damage.” (PG 15.12.1860). A further fire in 1867 broke out in the Scutching Room. Again the fire-brigade was called “and in a short time the fire was extinguished. The fire originated by some hard substance coming into contact with the beaters. The loss is inconsiderable.”(CS 1.6.1867) However a major fire in October 1886 destroyed the mill. It started in the second floor mixing room and caused damage to the value of £32,000 (CS 9.10.1886). This was replaced by a weaving shed. The plans for this were drawn up and work to build started in 1887 and the new building was completed in 1888 (CS 19.5.1888). The shed was two storeys high with an attic to be used as a store room. The actual weaving shed was on the ground floor. This was nearly 6 feet higher than the engine and boiler houses which were at the northern end of the building, facing Derby Street. The narrow engine house occupied the north-western corner of the building, with a boiler house apparently intended for a single boiler adjacent to the east. It seems that the boiler was intended to utilise an existing chimney that, together with an economiser, abutted the eastern side of the boiler house. Situated to the east of the boiler house and the chimney were the mechanics’ shop, a narrow entrance, a loading place and, in the north-eastern corner of the building, a cloth warehouse. The second floor of the building was over the boiler house, mechanics’ shop and cloth warehouse; the weaving shed was a single-storey structure, with the exception of a small area in its north-eastern corner, which incorporated a block of toilets. The second floor over the boiler house was intended as a sizing room, with a winding room and small office occupying the space over the mechanics’ shop; this area also incorporated a hoist. The area over the north-eastern corner of the weaving shed was intended as a winding room. Construction of the weaving shed commenced shortly after the plans had been approved, and the new building was completed in 1888. The layout is shown on the Ordnance Survey first edition 1:2500 map. This was surveyed in 1889 and published in 1894:-

This shows in the northern part of the site a rectangular block adjacent and aligned parallel to Townley Street, presumably the spinning block, with a narrower rectangular building at right angles, probably representing the weaving shed. A small rectangular building situated between the spinning and weaving blocks is likely to be the original engine and boiler house, with a chimney to the south. A reservoir is immediately to the south of the weaving shed, with a row of cottages fronting Lyons Lane.
Further changes to Lawrence’s site were proposed in the following decade. Architect’s plans dated March 1898 propose the erection of a new warehouse above a yard on the east side of Townley Street. The yard was accessed by a gate from Townley Street. A narrow engine house was in the north west corner of this yard, parallel to Townley Street, with a boiler house, probably for a single boiler, immediately to the east. A row of closets were on the south-western corner of the yard (possibly servicing a row of cottages to the south of the yard), an iron store in the north-eastern corner and a smithy in the south-western corner. Beyond the iron store and smithy was a joiners shop, with weaving sheds to the north and south. This filled in the plot up to Charnock Street.
1898 also saw plans for a new steam engine and boiler house to be situated on the north side of Derby Street, following the demolition of a warehouse. The proposed two-storey engine house was fitted the two tall arched windows overlooking Derby Street. The boiler house would accommodate three boilers and was to be to the west of the engine house with a water tank on the roof. This can seen on the second edition Ordnance Survey map of 1910 (1:2500):-

Alterations and extensions continued into the new century. In 1902 plans were drawn up for new offices. The office block replaced a terrace of six cottages and fronted onto Lyons Lane. It was two-storeys high with a basement. This is the frontage so familiar to people passing along Lyons Lane and demolished in 2010. The basement plan shows a single room used a store with rolled steel joists supporting the ground floor. Mr. Lawrence’s office was at the eastern end of the building. It had a fireplace in the gable wall, and a washroom at the rear. Adjacent was a single-bay hall and beyond that was the clerk’s office. The manager’s office was at the western end of the block. As part of the plans, against the eastern end of the office block, was a small warehouse, aligned north/south.
At the same time it was proposed to erect a two-bay extension to the weaving shed to the east of the office block, replacing a row of cottages and fronting onto Lyons Lane. These plans also showed Denham Street, which had formerly given narrow access to the rear of the cottages along the south side of Lyons Lane. With their demolition, it now gave access to the yard of the old mill. Another thoroughfare, Derby Street, seen on the first edition OS map disappeared around this time and a new building erected, as seen on the second edition OS map.
Most mills also had experience of workers strikes, and we know of a “turn-out” of “hands” from his mill in 1861. (PG 16.3.1861).
Like the Smethursts, his was a family business and in 1876 he took his three sons into the business as partners.
William was an attender of Hollinshead Independent Chapel and lived at Moss Cottage on Eaves Lane, roughly where the Volvo dealer is currently situated.
As a Liberal in his politics he “always exhibited a marked candour in the expression of his opinions” and actively supported the Chorley Improvement Act which brought huge changes to the governance, sewerage, drainage and life of the town. He even travelled to Westminster to support the Act before a Parliamentary Committee. In 1868 he was one of the representatives of the Improvement Commission who met with Liverpool Waterworks and successfully argued the case for the renewal of the town’s water mains. Lawrence was quoted as saying “We want larger mains and a better supply.” This would of course be paid for by the water company. (The Liberal views that he and his son James brought to the government of Chorley meant that they were notorious for voting against any public expenditure which would directly lead to an increase in rates.)
He favoured widening the franchise to working men and took at the chair at major public meetings in support of the National Reform Union. (CS 29.9,1866 and 10.11.1866). He was elected President of the Chorley Branch of the National Reform Union. (CS 24.11.1866). In 1867 he supported the enfranchisement of Chorley, although it seems as if most of the town’s leaders, including Lawrence were slow to seize this opportunity. Nevertheless he was one of two representatives of the town chosen by the ratepayers to travel to London to lobby on the town’s behalf. He may well have had ambitions of being Chorley’s first MP as “he was confident that it would also be an honour for some native gentleman to represent Chorley in parliament. (CS 15.6.1867) “It would be an honour to belong to such an assembly.” (CS 29.6.1867)
He also involved himself in wider issues of Chorley, including the Dispensary (CS 12.1.1867) and the Board of Guardians (CS 30.3.1867).
He died in 1878 and on the day of his funeral his mills were closed from 11am to 2pm to allow his workers to attend the funeral. His memorial in Chorley Cemetery in the sunken area facing the entrance is at the opposite side to the Smethursts, as in death as in life (North Mills v Lyons Lane). His estate was valued at about £90,000.
The 1882 Barrett General and Commercial Directory of Preston, Chorley, Kirkham and Garstang showed one of the sons, Edward, living in Lytham, whilst James and John still lived in Chorley at Highfield and Eaves Lane respectively. (although, somewhat confusingly James Lawrence, cotton spinner at Chorley is shown in the same directory to be living at South Hill House, Whittle le Woods!). James Lawrence remained at the head of the family firm until his death in 1920. In 1928 the firm was taken over by the Heaton family and further alterations to buildings took place in the 1940s.In particular, in 1945 plans were drawn up for a new weaving shed and footbridge. The new weaving shed was to be erected in the northern part of the site, to the rear of the office block fronting onto Lyons Lane. The shed was on a north/south alignment with the northern end abutting the south elevation of the office block at its western end. To the south of the new building was a large chimney with a boiler house to the south of the chimney.
In the inter-war years, Lawrence’s experienced the depression common to all parts of the Lancashire cotton industry. This reflected the national and world economic crisis, as well as over-provision by Lancashire manufacturers and the impact of cheaper production abroad. In 1932 the Cotton Manufacturer’s Association and the Northern Counties Federation agreed a reduction in weaver’s pay of 6.25%. Elsewhere employers wanted a 12.5% cut. On August 11th the Weavers Amalgamation unanimously called for a general stoppage and restoration of pay rates. This did not go down well in Chorley where weavers and employers had agreed the 6.25% pay cut. 6,000 workers were called out in sympathy strikes. The “storm centre was at Lawrences, which was non-federated firm. After breakfast on the day the strike started, 24th August, all but half a dozen weavers were at work. Crowds gathered to watch the weavers at Lawrences enter and leave work, but there were no demonstrations. At first there was some work continuing at a few other local mills but within two days, only Lawrences was working. An angry crowd of 2,000 people gathered outside, filling Lyons Lane and Brooke Street, and each end of Townley Street. Police had difficulty keeping the route clear for traffic and two mounted police were called for. This caused great indignation in the crowd. The dispute lasted three weeks and was finally settled in September 1932.
The business continued to trade as W Lawrence and Sons, but in 2008 it was bought by J H Birtwistle and Co. of Haslingden. The Lyons Lane Mill closed shortly after this.

John Harrison
October 2011

CS Chorley Standard
PC Preston Chronicle
PG Preston Guardian
Chorley Rating Valuations
Ordnance Survey First and Second Edition 1:2500
The Changing Years: Chorley and District between two World Wars by George Birtill
Conveyance Documents for sale of land by Mr. Grundy and others to Messrs Brown and Lawrence dated 1st April 1852 (courtesy of Ian Bagshaw)
Assignment of a share in a plot of land, buildings and premises from William Lawrence to George Brown dated 21st August 1852 (courtesy of Ian Bagshaw).