Last year, in the Museums Journal, I noticed an article outlining proposed closures to several local museums in Lancashire due to funding cuts. One of them was Queen Street Mill Textile Museum, the ‘last working steam-powered weaving mill in the world’. Built in 1894 by Queen Street Mill Manufacturing Company for weaving plain cotton fabric, it was operational until 1982 when it finally closed before reopening in 1986 as a working textile museum. Located in a suburb of Burnley, the museum is perhaps one of a few remaining sites that remind us just how important this large market town used to be as the epicentre of textile production and coal mining during the rapid industrialisation period of the late 19th century.
My father was born and raised in a small town called Colne, not far from Burnley. His mother and sister both worked in textile mills in the area, the former as a loom sweeper and the latter as a weaver. With increasing overseas competition for cheaper textile production, many people who worked in mills and mines across Lancashire successively lost their jobs from the 1950s onwards. From the early 1980s, mills like Queen Street were losing money and had no choice but to close down. By then, both my grandmother and aunt had moved into care professions that still enabled them to look after their respective families.
When I heard that Queen Street Mill Textile Museum was closing, I realised that what would also be going was fourfold: personal history; local history; national history and global history. The story of Queen Street Mill links me not only to my family tree but it also links my family to an important historical area of the UK and the nation to the rest of the world in an international history of textile production. It felt as if this small but unique museum, by allowing me access to the past, would open doors to present and future states within the textile and fashion industry. A huge expectation for somewhere I had never set eyes upon. Yet, when I visited the museum over Easter, with my father in tow, my hopes were not just met but exceeded in so many ways. I cannot recommend a visit to this museum strongly enough before its possible closure later on in the year. It is a wonderful place that both educates and delights.
On arrival, you enter a large open space that would have historically housed looms but now instead is where the shop, information desk, cafe and temporary exhibition space are located. From there, you are invited to explore the mill by foot, covering ten physical spaces from the boiler house to the shuttle workshop that provide insights into a place that at its peak housed 1,000 Lancashire looms all powered by a single 500 hp steam engine. This engine is called ‘Peace’ and is operated several times a day when the museum is opened. It is powered by two large Lancashire boilers, whose 30 feet long bellies are fed each morning with tons of coal. By lunchtime, there is enough steam to fed ‘Peace’ so it can start to power the 300 looms in the weaving shed. This is not a quiet museum! The sound of the engine and the looms are certainly noisy but these are spectacular sounds, as you step back in time to watch Victorian engineering achieve such feats of material production.
I was especially enthralled by the weaving shed where you could watch a member of staff weaving cloth that was then used to create souvenirs sold in the mill’s shop. Yet, over a hundred years, this room would have been occupied by many more people, weavers, each operating six looms or so, and tacklers, who were responsible for keeping the loom mechanics in good working order. Most weavers then were women, who were paid by the amount of cloth they produced each week, and so were self-employed so to speak. Tacklers were always men and always employed by the mill. Due to the noise of the looms, it was impossible to be heard so the weavers developed their own form of sign language, known as mee-maw, to communicate with one another.
In the other spaces in the museum where there are no working parts in operation, there are instead static recreations that illustrate important aspects of textile production within the mill. For example, it is possible to walk around the ‘warehouse’ and the ‘tape sizing area’, where weavers would have to prepare their threads or present their woven cloth for inspection before it could be packaged. There is also a ‘shuttle workshop’, where the visitor can see how these components were made although this was never done on the Queen Street Mill site. One room is given over to a chronological display of loom technology, which is fascinating.
What the museum does really well is to encourage visitors to explore its contents at a variety of paces and levels of understanding. While there, we encountered many different demographics engaging with the displays from schoolchildren to families to more maturer audiences. This is definitely helped by attention to details such as the cafe, the shop, the information provided and staff manner. All of these things were done very well, in keeping with the mill’s emphasis on being a ‘working’ museum. From the shop selling products made in the museum to illustrations from the information leaflet printed on banners of cotton woven on the looms to having very friendly and knowledgeable staff happy to talk to visitors, all of which made the whole experience quite magical.
I was told by the museum staff that Queen Street Mill will remain open until September. In the meantime, they are hopeful that new governance will be found, especially as the contents, such as Peace the steam engine, have designated status and therefore should be preserved in situ. Sarah Hardy, who heads a national campaign to challenge the proposed closures of these museums, has suggested that the cost of closing down and looking after these original machines will be higher than keeping them open.
The potential closing of Queen Street Mill and its sister museum Helmshore Mills (where the focus is cotton spinning) is a cultural hot potato at the moment, with broadsheets such as the Guardian and the Independent both covering the topic. Just last week, in the Guardian, there was a piece about cuts to regional heritage sites across the UK with a specific focus on Lancaster and museums such as Queen Street Mill. Whether its the result of a geographical divide between the north and south of the UK or an urban divide between the city and the country, people are concerned that these closures represent an unfair distribution of cultural funding across the nation. While I have no doubt that this is the case, and that is definitely disheartening, I am even more disappointed by the notion that some would have us believe that the story of a small suburb of Burnley has nothing to do with the stories we tell in London or any other important capital of the world. Closing Queen Street Mill Textile Museum would not just be a loss to local history but it would be a loss to national history, urban history and no doubt the global history of material culture, textile production and industrialisation. You only have to spend two minutes in the weaving shed at Queen Street Mill to get a sense of how the production of fabrics, clothes and ultimately fashion is simultaneously a local and global phenomenon. This museum is critical viewing not just for primary and secondary students but also all those in higher and further education with an interest in design and history. Fingers crossed that Queen Street Mill Textile Museum is still here for many more years to come.