A NEW CHALLENGE
I keep mentioning the Important Phone Call. You’ll be pleased to know that we’ve arrived at it at last! I was sat in King Street minding my own business one night in late October 1984 when the phone rang. The bloke on the phone was called Gavin Bone and he was the executive in charge of special projects for a company called Coates Brothers who manufactured high quality printing inks. They had bought a mill near Rochdale on junction 21 on the M62 at Newhey. The reason they had gone for the site was that in terms of transporting their products it was the best site in the North of England. They intended to demolish the mill and build a new factory which was to replace all of their small branches in the North. They had a problem, there was a steam engine in the mill and they wanted to know what, if anything, they could do with it. Could I meet him and a colleague at the mill to discuss the matter? The answer was yes and we set a date. I was interested because I knew the mill he was talking about, it was Ellenroad Spinning Mill and contained one of the most famous mill engines in Lancashire. It was the largest remaining textile mill engine in the world and was, to the best of my knowledge, still in working condition.
Over the next few months I pieced together the story of what had brought Gavin to the point where he picked up the phone and rang me. We have to go back a year and take note of a surprising connection but before I do that I’d like to do my thing about the Random Improbability Factor.
After almost 65 years of bouncing around in this world of ours I am convinced there is something in Chaos Theory. Further, it doesn’t only affect systems like the weather, it is at work in every sphere of life. Douglas Adams in his four part trilogy (Yes, that’s right, four parts) which is usually known as ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’ posits a theory in the first book in which he says that there is a force at work in the universe which he calls ‘The Random Improbability Factor’. His theory is that there is a set of odds against any event in the universe happening. For instance, the chances of me being run down by a defective bus driven by a man called Fortescue must be extremely remote. If somebody had the resources and time they could put a figure on the odds. The actual odds don’t matter, we all know that such an event is possible. If it did happen, Adams’ theory says that for some reason the odds suddenly dropped from whatever to 1 to evens. He says that this happens because the Random Improbability Factor has come into play. We have all seen instances of this. In our lives the result is that by ‘chance’ or ‘luck’ extraordinary conjunctions sometimes happen and they almost always carry an opportunity. Whether we grasp the opportunity or not depends on us.
Back to how this all came about. Remember my mate Robert Aram, the collector of chimneys, mill dams and almost any industrial archaeological artefact? One of the ways Robert kept his finger on the pulse of what was available was to tread the ground. He used to allocate time each week to travelling round the region and visiting little known and out of the way sites. Of late he had got more time for this, he had taken my advice when I told him he had to make up his mind whether he was a property developer or a teacher. He couldn’t be both. He had given up teaching and was developing some of the sites he had bought to finance his lifestyle and his activities as the most active private collector of artefacts pertaining to the Industrial Revolution in Britain.
Sometime during 1983 he called in at Ellenroad. The mill had closed in 1982 and Robert knew it was empty but guarded by a local security firm. He had a cup of tea with the guard and during the course of the conversation the man said the mill contained 2,500,000 square feet of space. Robert told him he was wrong but the man insisted. He said he would bet Robert a tenner that he was right, Robert said “Righto!” and they went round to the side of the mill that faced the motorway and the guard directed Robert’s attention to the sign advertising the property for sale. Sure enough, the sign said 2,500,000 square feet! It was a signwriter’s mistake and should have been 250,000 square feet but Robert told the guard he was right and gave him a tenner! The guard was surprised, he had only been using a figure of speech. He took the tenner and when Robert gave him his card and asked him to remember his name if there was anything he should know, the guard took notice and pinned it on the wall in his cabin.
During 1984 Gavin Bone was a regular visitor to the site as Coates made up their mind whether to buy it or not. He was sat having a cup of tea with the security guard one day, this was of course the only place where this was possible on site, everything else was shut down, and voiced a problem he had out loud, “Where the hell do I find someone who knows about steam engines?” The guard pricked his ears up, grabbed Robert’s card off the wall and said to Gavin “Try him, he knows all about them.” Robert’s tenner was beginning to pay off!
Gavin rang Robert and asked him about the engine. Robert told him he had the wrong man and gave Gavin two names, one was John Robinson at the Science Museum and the other was me. Gavin rang John who told him the bloke he wanted was Stanley Graham. Gavin said “That’s funny, you’re the second person to tell me that this week!” So Gavin rang me and this whole connection fell into place. What happened next was up to me.
Bear in mind that at this point I knew nothing about the engine or Coates plans. I had heard about Ellenroad but had never seen it, I was always too busy with my own engine, going to see another would have been like a busman’s holiday! To this day people are always surprised by the fact that I have visited so few of the engines left in preservation. All I knew was that they were talking about demolishing the mill so I did no preparation as I had no facts to start from.
Years later I got an inkling, never voiced to me but there were clues along the way, that Coates had been offered a deal by Rochdale Council. The Council knew about the engine of course and it was seen as a liability. Heritage and the preservation movement had taken firm hold and Ellenroad was definitely a candidate for some sort of scheme. The problem was that it was so big that it frightened everyone to death. They all knew what should be done but nobody had actually addressed how to do it. When Coates bought the mill I think the Council saw a possible opportunity to get this problem off their backs and so they offered Coates a deal whereby if they could do something positive about the engine, the Council would back their application for a grant to build a new access road to the site from the main road. I heard seven figure sums being bandied about at one time. I have to stress that I have no direct evidence for this but it would certainly explain why Coates Brothers were so keen to do something.
Came the appointed day and I went to the mill and met Gavin Bone with his colleague Tony Welton. Gavin was good but Tony was really impressive, he was as sharp as a knife and every question he asked went straight to the point. He was definitely slit trench material in my book! At first the questioning was general and aimed at ascertaining just how much experience I had with these things. All this happened in the engine room and I can still remember being awe-struck when I walked in. It was dirty, rusty and there were pigeons flying in through the broken windows but even in this state it was magnificent. The flywheel was gigantic, I later found it weighed 85 tons and was 28 feet in diameter. The whole thing was awesome. They started to get to the point when Tony asked me if they could do anything with it. I asked them a question, ”What’s your core business?” When Tony said ink manufacturing I said “Here’s my first piece of advice and it’s free. You’re looking at £3,000,000 minimum here if you want it to run again. My advice is to scrap the bugger and get on with making ink. It’s not scheduled yet and I can get the lads in this weekend and we’ll shift it in a week.” They looked at each other and then Gavin said, “That may not be the preferred option. Assuming we gave you the job of saving it how would you go about it?”
This was the crunch point, I had to think on my feet and produce an answer. Straight off the top of my head I gave them the following plan. Even now I am amazed because in the end, with one exception and one hold-up, neither of which were foreseeable, it was exactly what we did. Tony Welton never forgot it and when he finished at Coates he said it was the one thing he always remembered about that first meeting, the fact that I got it right first time without any preparation. That has always pleased me.
“The first thing we have to do is to assess what we have, decide whether it can ever run again, steam it to make certain and then get out a costed plan of what actually has to be done to the buildings and the artefacts. Next we have to get the local council on board and involve them, we will need a steering committee in the first place and the seats should be equally divided between the council, Coates and English Heritage as major funders. Then we have to set up a charitable trust as a company limited by guarantee and sort out a management structure. Once we have these elements in place and ownership of the site settled we have to start a programme of works, all arms of which have to proceed in parallel. We make the place safe and secure, we re-furbish the whole of the machinery and the buildings, we form a Friends Organisation and train them to run the engine, we build an external facility which will hold all the services necessary to run the engine house as a visitor attraction and finally, we recognise that the engine house will always lose money and therefore eventually we need a facility which includes fifty bedrooms, and all the necessary facilities to hold weekend study conferences primarily aimed at steam technology but doing anything else which will bring money in and visitors to the site. This last can wait on the back burner until we have all the rest in place, however, we need to set up an interpretative team straight away to start to gather the materials we will need to interpret and teach on the site.”
Tony pulled me up at this point and I can remember that at the time we were in the old board room of the mill, “Correction Stanley, the study facility is, in the final analysis, the key to the whole operation. It goes on in parallel with the rest.” He was the only person apart from myself who ever saw the importance of that element. Apart from me nobody else ever mentioned it again.
They withdrew for a moment and then came back. “How much do you need to make this work?”. I said that before I answered that question I’d want a couple of months to assess the place, then I’d have enough information to give some concrete opinions and blue sky figures. They agreed to pay me while I assessed the project, we decided that this had to be done before the end of February 1985. They also asked for some references so I went home with a job and a lot to think about. I got on to my friends and asked them to put a word in, DJ, David Sekers, John Robinson and Robert, they all sent letters of recommendation to Coates and eventually Coates informed me that subject to the results of the assessment of the site they would like to have me on board. Yippee! I went home, rang Robert and had a good drink!
You may be puzzled as to why I advised scrapping the engine. Looking back, I am convinced that my mind was in overdrive that day, it was exactly the right thing to say at the time. I had been asked to go down to Ellenroad and advise them as to what they should do. In terms of their business, scrapping the engine was the most economical, effective and certain way of dealing with the problem. Remember that I didn’t know anything about possible linkages with the council at that time, all I knew was that we were looking at the biggest single heritage problem in Britain at the time. Therefore, my advice was sound and absolutely in line with what I had been asked. In addition, there’s nothing like disarming criticism! If the project was to go ahead, I wanted to be able to say to them at some time in the future when things got sticky, “Remember what I told you in the engine house?” The occasion did arise a couple of times and my reminding them of this was always a show stopper! In case you’re wondering what I would have done if they’d said yes, even I don’t know the answer to that one, I suspect I’d have gone into salesman mode and sold them the project. However, as you’ll see later, I was quite capable of scrapping artefacts as big as this but the Dee Mill saga belongs to a later chapter!
This is as good a place as any to divulge one of my favourite and most effective weapons in the constant fight to get my own way! The morning after my meeting with Coates at the mill I wrote both Tony and Gavin a letter. This was something I had learned from David Moore. When you have had a verbal exchange with some party, either a meeting, a telephone conversation or any circumstance in which the details of the transaction weren’t recorded at the time, send them one of these letters. You always start by thanking them for the time they gave to have the meeting or call, specify the date and time. The next paragraph always starts; ‘My understanding of what we agreed is……..’ Then give a list of points, you can cheat a bit here and insert anything you wanted or delete anything you didn’t like. Also you can word the description of the point to give it the emphasis you want. After the list the final paragraph always says; ‘If your understanding varies from my own, please let me know by return of post.’ What you have done is put the ball squarely in their court. You have told them exactly what you are going to do and unless they get their act together and write back immediately they haven’t got a leg to stand on in any dispute. The reason why so many people conduct important business by telephone is because they don’t want any evidence that can pin them down. Another point is that most people’s comprehension of the written word is so bad that they won’t recognise that what you are doing is modify the agreement to suit yourself and in any case, in nine cases out of ten a beaurocrat won’t bother to do anything other than acknowledge the letter. I promise you, this works like a charm. Another associated ploy is that whenever you have a telephone conversation, keep a file note of the time, date, person’s name and a brief account of what was said. This can be invaluable when the shit hits the fan.
Associated with this subject is the concept of the ‘Pearl Harbour File’. Susi told me about this one and it’s a cracker. Always keep copies of memoranda and letters in a personal file of your own. This is your property and you keep it at home. Always plan for worst case and if and when you need it, a PHF can be a killer! I have to admit I have been known to send memoranda with nothing but a PHF in mind. The technical term for this is ‘Covering Your Arse!’. Once again, people are idle and don’t read things. When the storm comes and someone denies having known something you just wave the piece of paper at them and they fall over.
Back to the job in hand. Winter was upon us and as I pondered about how to attack the assessment of Ellenroad I learned from Gavin that Coates had a serious deadline. In order to qualify for a large grant, they had to have the factory built and producing by November 1985 so they had to start on the demolition. He asked me if I had any recommendation as to who to set on. I told him to speak to N&R at Portsmouth Mill, Todmorden and ask for Norman Sutcliffe. N&R had demolished Bancroft and I liked them. Like all demolition contractors they were a slippery lot but they had the tackle and did a good job. Gavin went off and did his homework and shortly afterwards told me he liked my choice, he had had a look at one or two firms but had settled on N&R who had agreed to do the job for a demolition credit of £50,000.
A word of explanation here. The demolition credit is the amount the contractor pays to the owner of the building for the privilege of knocking it down and becoming the owner of any plunder. The main source of income for N&R out of this job was any cut stone and metal they salvaged out of the structure. Gavin was pleased with the price he had negotiated but I told him to beware. I said that from my experience he had better regard this money as a short term loan from N&R because Norman was as cute as a barrow load of monkeys and would get it back out of him in extras. Gavin bridled a bit at this, he informed me that he was used to negotiating and there was no way he would allow Norman to get away with anything. I got the definite impression that he had under-estimated Norman and so left it at that!
I started the assessment in January 1985 and at about the same time N&R moved on to the site to demolish the mill. A lot of things happened at once here so I’ll split them up and tackle what I had to do as regards the engine house first. I should add that Coates asked me to act as their agent in the matter of the demolition and advise them as it went on so I was doing my own thing and liaising with N&R at the same time. This was a good thing as it gave me access to the N&R cabin for a warm and a brew whenever I wanted it. It also helped me to get a better idea of what demolition actually entailed which was an education.
The first decision I had to make was how much of the mill I would need to make a decent heritage attraction. I needed all the buildings containing the plant associated with the engine and space for car parking and any additional buildings we would need to make the place work. This meant I wanted the engine house, the boiler house, the rope race, the pump room, generator house and chimney. All these existed. In addition but not so obvious I needed control of the river, weir, cloughs and the tunnels and wells at the back of the engine house which carried the condenser water to the engine. I would also need space in the field outside for the additional buildings. These added up to a considerable piece of real estate and I began to get a feel for the size of the operation.
The first part of the assessment was to physically get myself into every nook and cranny of the complex and inspect them. The open spaces of the buildings gave little trouble, the problems arose with everything above and below ground. I remembered that Peter Tatham, Robert’s steeplejack, lived half a mile up the road in Milnrow at Tim’s Terrace. I went up and had a word with him and told him I wanted Ellenroad chimney laddering and inspecting. He was pleased because when he first started as an apprentice with his grandfather, Ellenroad had been one of their regular contracts and they only lost it when Firs, a Manchester firm, put in a lower price. Peter also laddered the inside of the rope race so I could get access to the roof space above the engine house. This doesn’t sound too big a job but it involved a straight climb of about sixty feet up the inside of the race to gain access to a small door in the gable of the engine house itself.
While Peter was doing this I started with the underground elements. I lifted the manholes on the three wells at the back of the house. The wells were ten feet in diameter and about twenty feet deep and full of water. I persuaded the fire brigade to come to Ellenroad for a practice and after we shut the clough, they pumped the system dry and sent a rescue man down with me while I crawled through the system to inspect it. At one point they got a bit paranoid and dragged me out but I persuaded them to let me finish. Looking back, they were right, it was dodgy but I think they were impressed. Whenever I went back to them for help they always came and did whatever I wanted for nothing, it was always booked down as training I think!
The next element was the flues. I gained access under the boiler and inspected the settings then I went into the main flue between the boiler and the chimney. What a mess I found. The maintenance had obviously been neglected during the latter days of the mill running. They had stopped using the remaining Lancashire boiler and had installed a small package boiler for heating which had been run on forced draught. The effect of this was that there had been a heavy carry over of partially unburned coal into the main flue and it was full to within eighteen inches of the top. We are talking about a six feet square section flue running right across the back of the existing boiler and down the side of the engine house, under the access passage and on to the chimney base. Looking back I was crazy to go in there alone, the only precaution I took was to let Norman know I was going in and get him to come and give me a shout every hour to make sure I was still alive! I crawled all the way over the dust to the chimney base and came to the conclusion the whole flue had to be rebuilt together with the boiler settings.
There remained one other trip underground into the pipe tracks which carried the intake and outlet pipes from the condenser to the wells. This started in the cellar and was a horrible, restricted seventy five yard crawl through a wet tunnel. I didn’t enjoy this bit at all but got it done and was relieved to find there were no obvious problems. Later on I had to go in here again to install some pipes for the cooling system in the new factory. They needed a cold water supply and the river was the obvious place to borrow it from. The original plan was to dig a trench down the back of the engine house but I pointed out that there was no need for this as there was a pipe duct already in place. The only problem was that the contractors wouldn’t use the existing duct, they said there wasn’t enough room. I told Gavin to leave it to me and I put the pipes in one weekend ready for when the contractors started on the Monday morning. I didn’t do this to be clever, the last thing I wanted was to go down that hole again but doing it gave me brownie points with Coates and I needed them onside.
By this time Peter had laddered the chimney and the rope race so I climbed both and we had a good inspection. The most enjoyable part was the chimney, I am scared of heights but if you want to see the top you’ve got to go up the ladder. There is a tremendous sense of elation when you’ve conquered a fear like that and gained your goal. There’s nothing like the view from the top of a 220 feet high chimney and surprisingly enough, the gentle sway of the head in the wind can be quite relaxing. A lot of people can’t believe this, but chimneys are never absolutely stationary. They always transmit vibrations in the ground and magnify them and in any wind at all will sway appreciably. This feels worse than it is because it is so unexpected.
I had to sit down then and write the report. On the whole it was good, as far as I could see there was little wrong with the boiler and engine and no irreparable faults in the rest of the structure. The chimney needed the drum on top replacing which had been removed by Firs some time in the 50’s and there were a lot of general repairs and replacements needed but the bottom line was that there was no obvious catastrophic damage which would preclude putting the engine back in steam. My blue sky figure of £3million hadn’t changed. I fired all this lot off at Gavin and informed him verbally that I intended to run the engine but he had never heard me say this as strictly speaking, it was illegal. I also neglected to inform him of the fact that if anything went seriously wrong Coates would be liable! It seemed best to keep this bit of information to myself..
You’ll have to forgive me if I go on a bit here but I am going to deal with one of the high points of my career as an engineer. What I was proposing to do was to run the biggest textile mill engine in the world for the first time since 1974 with no insurance and several serious faults in the system. I didn’t do it lightly, I knew the risks but I also recognised that nothing would enthuse Coates more than seeing the engine in steam. Besides, I had the biggest Meccano set in the world to play with and I wasn’t going to pass this chance up!
I had an engine connected to a boiler and about ten tons of coal in the bunker. What I didn’t have was a feed pump that would work against pressure because of a frost damaged main. I also had no electricity supply. I started by giving the engine a thorough oiling and injecting a mixture of diesel and oil into all the cylinders to soak into the rust and the rings. I kept on doing this for a week until I was sure I had got as much lubrication into the bores and moving parts as I could. Then I took the lid off the boiler and put about 3,000 gallons of water in with a fire hose. When I had it full to the top I put the lid back on and fired up. As soon as I had steam I got the big Weir steam pump in the pump house going and tested the feed line. As I suspected it was cracked by frost and this meant we couldn’t put any water in while there was pressure on the boiler. I went home that night leaving a crack of steam going into the engine to warm it through. I had already warned Newton Pickles and the next day in February 1985 he and I went to Ellenroad and had a real play out!
While Newton did last minute oiling, essential because we had hardly any lubricators on the engine and would need all the initial lubrication we could get, I fired the boiler until we had 140psi on the clock. I should say at this point that there was an additional problem with the engine as in its last year of running, the right hand connecting rod had been removed and the engine was run on the left hand side only. We had no knowledge of how well the connecting rod had been re-installed. The parts of the engine are so large that you couldn’t just go and shake a bearing to see how much play there was in it, I had inspected it and as far as I could see it was safe enough to run. We would know more about it when we got it moving.
We had reached the point where we had to go for it. We couldn’t put any more water in the boiler and so had to gauge the fires against the water level. We locked the engine house door, Newton took station next to the valve gear and held the steam valve on the cylinder wide open and I opened the 18” stop valve. Nothing happened. There were surprisingly few leaks but even so, the engine house started to fill with steam. My heart was dropping into my boots when there was a grunt from the engine and Newton shouted “It’s away, the seal has broken!” He meant the grip of the rusty piston rings on the cylinder bores had been overcome by the pressure. By this time I couldn’t see anything at all because of the steam, I was blind and running on sound alone. I heard a groaning noise as the pistons scraped their way through ten tears accumulated muck and rust in the bores on the first stroke and then there was a tremendous shudder ran through the air. “What the hell was that?” I shouted, I was really worried. “Thar’t all reight, it was only the pigeon shit falling off the top of the flywheel!” shouted Newton. There was some thumping from the bearings but the engine started to gather speed, I cut back on the steam in case the governor didn’t get hold but it was OK. As we got up to about 50 rpm the governor took hold and the engine settled down to a noisy but relatively steady running speed. The only draw back, but this was temporary, was the foul smell from the cellar as the four air pumps delivered thousands of gallons of stagnant water into the drain back to the river.
As the seals established themselves the fog started to clear and we saw a glorious sight, the Ellenroad Engine in full flow for the first time in ten years! It was a wonderful moment but we didn’t have a lot of time to appreciate it because we had to start running round pouring oil into the bearings. It was a wonderful quarter of an hour, the engine was badly out of adjustment both in terms of the valves and the bearings but was running and as far as we could see there was nothing fundamentally wrong with it. We decided we had pushed our luck far enough and Newton went to shut the steam off. I told him I wanted to do an experiment as he shut down, I wanted to block the governor open and see how much effect the vacuum had after the steam was turned off. I jammed a brush head under the governor rod and Newton shut the valve down. The engine didn’t slow, it started to speed up and the brush head was stuck fast under the rod. It was getting really serious before it eventually began to slow down. Newton and I agreed afterwards that it must have been doing near enough a hundred revs a minute, far faster than it had ever run in its life before. This was very dangerous as the main danger with these engines is that overspeed increases the tension in the castings of the flywheel so much that they break and the wheel explodes. We got away with it but I made a mental note to do something about it.
This all sounds dangerous, and you’re right, it was. What has to be recognised is that we were in unknown territory here. Nobody had ever run the Ellenroad Engine at full speed with no load, not even ropes on the wheel. Even with the low pressure we were using we were dealing with tremendous forces and we had to know how the engine would react, especially if someone made a mistake. Neither Newton or I ever imagined that there was enough vacuum in the condensers to make it pick its feet up like it did, it surprised even us, but we had to find out and what I did was the only way to do it. I remember reading a memoir by a very famous American engineer and builder of steam engines in the 19th. century, Charles T Porter. In it he said that the faster you run an engine the less movement there is in any loose bearings. He demonstrated this by deliberately slackening bearings off and running his engines at high speed to demonstrate how quietly and well the bearings ran. I never quite believed this until we ran Ellenroad that day at 100rpm. I can assure you it ran like silk even though there was a quarter of an inch of play in the right hand cross head and crank brass! Porter knew his stuff but how else would we have found out?
Eventually, 300 tons of iron came to a stand still and we brewed up, had a pipe and did the inquest. The first thing I asked Newton was why he didn’t run when it overspeeded. “I was waiting on thee!” he said. Now that really is slit trench material! We both agreed that it had run a bloody sight better at 100rpm than 50 because the bearings hadn’t time to knock but we weren’t going to try it again! All told we were like a couple of dogs with two tails apiece. We had reason to be because we’d just made history and proved that the Ellenroad Engine, though it might need some TLC, was a runner! Now we knew we had an engine, we agreed to run it again for Coates. I arranged it with Gavin and he and a few others turned up the following week and we ran one more time in semi-public just to whet their appetites. I think that if any encouragement was needed, this steaming did the trick. None of them had seen anything like it before and they were all suitably awe-struck. Newton and I passed among them in nonchalant manner as if this was something we did every day of the week!
The second time we ran was less eventful of course because we had no dramas on starting or stopping. We ran it for about half and hour this time and almost put a polish on the rods. There was however, one thing different. When we came to light the boiler the day before, the chimney wouldn’t draw. In other words, there wasn’t enough natural draught on the flue to get hot gas drawn into the chimney and gain artificial draught due to the difference in temperature between the flue gasses in the chimney and the exterior air. Actually this isn’t quite accurate. The draught on a flue is the product of the difference in weight of the column of gas in the stack and the air outside. This difference in weight because the flue gas is hot reduces the atmospheric pressure in the furnace below the ambient pressure and it is this difference that drives air in to the furnace and supports combustion. The flue is under a disadvantage when you first start up with coal because the black smoke, loaded with carbon particles because of incomplete combustion, is heavier than clean air and so as it fills the stack you have to have quite a differential to get it lifted to the top. It worsens as the smoke cools in the cold stack. Even the forced draught fans won’t lift it and so extraordinary measures have to be taken. In Newton’s words, “You have to larn the chimbley to smook!”
To do this we opened a door in the main flue at the back of where the old economisers used to be and built a wood fire in there to further raise the temperature of the gas. After a few minutes you could feel the air being drawn into the chimney and the wood started to roar as it burned. At this point we shut the door, and shovelled some more coal in, we were away. Another point to mention is that at this time we didn’t have any automatic stokers, we had to fire by hand direct into the furnaces.
A couple of days after we had steamed the second time I was up on the chimney and there was a strong smell of sulphur. I asked Peter about it and he said he had noticed it since the second firing. We went down and opened the flue door and had a peep in, the whole of the flue was on fire, we had set fire to the flue dust which was actually partially burned coal. We shut the door and left it to it. There was nothing we could do, it wouldn’t do any harm and in the event it did a good job because it burned for three months and kept the flue dry all winter. It also reduced the level of dust in the flue to about a foot of proper flue dust on the floor. This was the industrial equivalent of mother sweeling the flue at Norris Avenue in my childhood!
While we are talking about flues I’d like to recount one incident that happened much later when I was running the engine each weekend for the public. We started doing this as soon as we had a viable engine, properly insured and this was before I had trained the volunteers so I ran the engine every weekend by myself for 18 months. I got it to a fine art and knew that if I got to Ellenroad at about four o’clock in the morning I could fire up, warm the engine and be ready to run at ten o’clock. It may sound strange but I often used to think as I drove over to Ellenroad first thing in the morning that it was nice to unique. I was the only man in the whole world setting off to run a 3,000 hp engine on my own. There must be thousands of people who would have given their eye teeth to be doing this.
On the particular morning this incident I want to describe happened it was very cold and foggy. I lit the fires as usual but had no draught and the products of combustion were blown back by the fans on the stokers into the boiler house. I knew I had to shut the stokers off and open the flue door at the bottom of the chimney in order to light a fire at the chimney base to get the column of air moving in the stack. There was no wind and when I opened the flue door the smoke fell out of the chimney and gathered in the yard like a big black pool! I’ve seen smoke fall from the top of the chimney down to the ground in similar conditions but I’d never seen it as bad as this. It intrigued me and I tried an experiment. I lit a piece of oil soaked rag and threw it into the smoke just to see what happened. There was no danger of explosion because it wasn’t confined. The rag was extinguished immediately it hit the smoke, there was no oxygen at all in the mixture.
Curiosity satisfied I waited until the smoke had run away along the ground and the chimney base was clear and then I hung an old raincoat soaked in diesel in the flue entrance, lit it and waited for a minute. It soon started to pull and was roaring away. I went into the boiler house, turned the stokers on and then went outside and shut the flue door. That did the trick and the draught soon built up to normal as the hot flue gases warmed the flue. The point about this story is that it shouldn’t have happened because a flue doesn’t normally lose it’s draught in a week, it takes much longer than that. In this case, I reckon it was my fault because I’d started a green fire on coal too soon, I should have burned wood or very small quantities of coal to keep the smoke down on starting. However, I was in a hurry and careless and what I’d done was try to get the chimney to lift heavy smoke, heavy enough to overcome the draught and literally choke the flue. I’d never seen this before and it just goes to show that we can always learn from our mistakes.
By the time this incident happened we had completely renewed the brickwork settings and flues round the boiler. I had taken the opportunity to put some of my own ideas into effect while we had it down and did things like incorporate sliding expansion joints in the side walls. Ten years later there is no sign of movement in these walls and I have never seen a boiler setting side wall that didn’t move when built in the conventional way. Another thing we did was pay particular attention to the sizing of the side flues. I made them as narrow as I possibly could and paid a lot of attention to sealing them against leakage. All this showed up when we first fired the boiler. We raised steam from cold to working pressure with only 30cwt of coal. I’ve never seen it done with less than four to five tons before. One reason for this that I worked out later was that because we had such a large chimney for a single boiler we had plenty of draught with the side flue dampers only open about four inches. Normally, with a cold boiler and flue the dampers have to be wide open to give enough draught to get a good fire going. If you think about it, the hottest, and therefore the most useful, gas is in the tops of the side flues. When the dampers are wide open this is all going to warm the flue. At Ellenroad with the dampers almost closed we were only allowing gas from the bottom of the flue to escape up the chimney, this was cold in comparison with the gas higher up and so the boiler ran more efficiently. None of the formulae in the old reference books take account of this and I really do think we discovered something significant about flueing a Lancashire boiler by these modifications at Ellenroad. That’s prime source industrial archaeology for you but unfortunately, by the time I worked it out the industry was dead!
While Gavin and his superiors at Coates digested my report they asked me to carry on working with Norman on the demolition of the mill. It was to be early in March before I got my next grilling about the engine so I’ll describe what Norman as up to. We have to talk about demolition and associated matters.
DEMOLITION AND CHIMNEY FELLING
Everybody, at some time or another, has seen men at work tearing a building down. The classic TV image of this is either the steel ball hitting the wall, the precisely shaped charges bringing down the redundant block of flats or the chimney slowly falling to the ground and breaking to pieces. These are spectacular images but very little to do with the day to day work of the demolition contractor. Ask most people what their definition of demolition is and they will say wrecking buildings, mine would be re-cycling the materials the building is constructed from. This definition states precisely what the contractor is doing and this is where he makes his money. Properly treated, there is a market, or at least a use, for everything in the building. We shall deal with the stages of demolishing Ellenroad Mill.
The first thing to be placed on site is the cabin, hook it up to water, electricity and sewage and you have the nerve centre ready to operate. You also have the place where you can get warm and brew up. A demolition site in February is one of the coldest places on earth.
The first people into the building are Norman’s sub-contractors, men who specialised in one particular aspect of the salvage of the mill. One gang will be lifting any clean flags, i.e. not oil soaked, and carefully loading them up and taking them away, these are more valuable than the scrap metal. Another lot will be lifting the maple floors and stripping out any other useful wood. A man who specialises in wiring and fittings will remove everything electrical which is useful, light and power fittings, switchboxes and motors. When all this is out of a floor Norman’s men move in and smash all the glass to discourage vagrants and encourage ventilation. At this stage Norman has a quick inspection and his men remove anything else of value like heavy copper cables, loose artefacts and furniture. I got him to save some of the fine woodwork and etched glass panels out of the board room. When all this is completed Norman moves in with a big tracked back hoe with a bucket on and demolishes all the exterior buildings around the mill.
Once these are down and everything is cleared away, he has access to the main structure all round and this is the point where he usually moved in with the crane with a 120ft jib and a thirty hundredweight steel ball on the end of the cable. This is used to smash the building down until all that is left is a pile of rubble. I had an amusing conversation with Norman one day when I asked him what happened if he took a swing at something and missed. Norman gravely informed me that if you got your ball wrapped round your jib it was a very serious matter! More tracked back hoes with buckets move into this heap of rubble and start to process the wreckage, removing all the cast iron pillars and steel girders. These are transported away to the scrap metal merchants and weighed in. This metal is the biggest return Norman will get and he has to be able to estimate what weight there is in a building very accurately in order to price a job. The rubble that was left was dumped in nearby land fill but nowadays things have changed, the tax on landfill is so high that it pays the contractor to import a large portable crusher and convert the irregular lumps of rubble into graded hard core which can be sold or used on site.
Norman told me that N&R were the first firm in the Manchester area to use back hoes to process buildings like this. Previously, the way metal was removed was to fasten a wire or a chain on to each piece and drag them out of the rubble. The back hoes were a far better tool but of course needed a greater investment. I never tired of watching John, one of Norman’s drivers, using the enormous Liebherr back hoe to extract girders, lay them on the ground, straighten them roughly by leaning on them with the bucket and then picking them up like straws and placing them in the trailers that took them to the scrap yard. I once asked John how accurate he was with the bucket and he drove a six inch nail into a timber with it! This bucket was big enough to hold a car! The power of the machines was awesome, N&R had a metal shear for the Liebherr and it could cut a girder eighteen inches deep just as easily as you or I could cut a thread with a pair of scissors.
In the case of Ellenroad there was another process to complete before Norman could move in with the ball. Part of the contract was that he had to demolish the mill in such a way that he didn’t damage the parts of the building we wanted to save. This was a major complication because, apart from the chimney, they were all integral with the main body of the mill. This was to be where the demolition credit evaporated away. Norman and I developed a strategy to deal with the problem. We decided that he would physically cut the connections between the main mill and the parts we wanted to save before dropping the mill with the ball. This was easier said than done as the integrity of the main structure depended in part on the integrity of the whole. We couldn’t just cut everything away, we had to leave enough connections to preserve the safety of the whole structure without risking damage to the parts we wanted to keep when the rest was dropped. This meant cutting down through the mill at all the points where the heritage part and the redundant structures met and cutting all the girder connections e4xcept for about an inch of the bottom web of each girder. Norman reckoned this would hold the main mill against wind stress but would tear when the girder was shifted during the demolition. In the event he was right. Remember that during all this there was a deadline in that the mill had to be dropped and the site cleared by March to give the building contractors a chance of getting the factory built in time for the November deadline.
The work went on in all weathers and thanks to Norman’s wonderful skill, he achieved his goal of dropping the mill without damaging the heritage bits. We reached a stage in late February where he had cleared the whole of the site and the rope race stood there like a playing card on end at the back of the engine house, gently swaying in the wind. That was my problem, the rope race was particularly valuable to us because it was the finest example left in England. Unfortunately the builders had never envisaged it standing on its own, it was designed as an integral part of the mill and the walls were only two bricks thick. It stood a hundred feet tall, sixty feet in depth and only fourteen feet wide. As the wind blew from the south west on the huge expanse of brick it swayed gently. I told Norman to get his crane up to it and I asked him to tap the wall with the steel ball. He did so and a ripple ran up the brickwork to the top and then down again to the bottom. A couple of loose bricks fell off and I lit my pipe and had a ponder. I was on top of the water tower at the time and Norman came up to me. “What are we going to do?” I had made my decision so I told him I didn’t know what he was going to do but I was going to the pub at Newhey to have a pint of Guinness and a beef sandwich. “When I come back I want that thing gone!”. Norman nodded, I went to the pub and half an hour later when I came back we hadn’t got a rope race.
I’d seen this coming and had plenty of time to think about it. My reasoning was that the only way we could make the rope race safe was to corset it in scaffolding. I reckoned we were looking at £350,000 to do this and stabilise the structure. This would have ripped the heart out of the project because we hadn’t any major funders at that point and what would any funder’s attitude be anyway to an emergency call for that amount of money. It wasn’t on and it had to go. In preparation I had got Norman to move the big alternator out of the bottom of the race before it became unsafe. I had done the best I could but we had lost one of the glories of the site. Apart from the physical space, we lost all the countershafts and the magnificent cast iron staircase that zigzagged up the back wall from the cellar to the roof. Nobody questioned the decision at any time. I think they were all glad they hadn’t had to make it. It was necessary but I was sad to have to do it.
With the rope race sorted, clearing of the site went on apace and Norman finished on time. I think Coates finished up owing him £5,000 so I was right about the short-term loan! Gavin was pissed off but even he appreciated watching a master at work. The strange thing about all this was that Norman was almost illiterate and innumerate. He could keep records in his own way but nobody else could read them. I went into the site hut one morning and he was sat there with the Financial Times. After a while I asked him whether he was checking on his shares and he said “No, I’m looking to see what news there is of the state of the St Lawrence Seaway.” Intrigued, I asked him why. He explained that he had a contract with Shepherds the scrap metal merchants to deliver 1,500 tons of metal at a certain price. After that he went on to market price. At the moment the market price was higher than the contract price so as soon as he filled the contract he went on to a better rate. However, he knew that there was a lot of scrap waiting on the shores of the Great Lakes and as soon as the ice melted in the St Lawrence and this metal moved on to the market, the price would fall. His strategy was to get on as fast as he could with sending the scrap in but keep an eye on the St Lawrence so he got notice of any change! Note, this was a man who, to all intents and purposes, couldn’t read or write!
There were a few funny stories during the demolition, once again, indulge me while I tell one or two of them. We had almost cleared the site and the only thing left standing was the southern toilet block which looked very forlorn particularly as it was emulating the leaning tower at Pisa, it was gradually moving out of plumb to the south! This was because now we had taken the weight of the mill off the site the ground was readjusting to the change in load and was rising slightly like a shallow dome where the mill used to be. The 90 feet high tower was on the outside edge and was being pushed over slowly. The reason why Norman had left it was because there was no plunder in it, it would all have to go down the tip. The Safety Officer from the building contractor turned up one day and noticed the lean. For some contractual reason he was in charge of safety on the site but had had the good sense to keep away while we were dropping the building. He now saw an opportunity to assert his authority and declared a no go zone around the offending object, nobody had to go within 150 ft of it. Norman nodded but said that gave him a problem, his jib was only 120 ft. so how was he to knock it down, throw bricks at it? The Safety man said that wasn’t his problem and left. I asked Norman what he was going to do, Norman winked and said “Knock the bugger down of course, we’ll tell him it fell over!” Twenty minutes later the tower had gone. Blokes like Norman are worth their weight in gold. I know we have to have regulations but a bit of flexibility and common sense could keep you on track when all the regulations were against you. He knew it and so did I, it was reprehensible acts like this that made the difference between success and failure.
Norman usually had a simple solution to most problems. When we first started on the mill some concerned passer-by got the RSPCA to call in to enquire about the welfare of the kestrels who were nesting behind the brick facia on the east end of the mill. Now I’m all in favour of being kind to animals but this was getting things out of proportion. Gavin thought so as well when he heard about it, he had a November deadline in mind. Apart from anything else it was far too early in the year for them to be laying eggs. I don’t know what Norman did but I noticed that shortly afterwards the kestrels had flit and were nesting on the top of the chimney! They moved from there when we started on the head and I don’t know where they finished up. I can’t remember whether it was at Ellenroad but I seem to remember a similar incident when a Robin nested in the jib of the crane. Norman reckoned that it didn’t mind the crane being used and carried on. He swore blind that it hatched its eggs but I have my doubts!
There was another small problem at the rear of the mill which reared its head after the main contract had finished. N&R had another contract to clear and fence the land at the back of the mill and raise a bund to give privacy and cut down on noise. The Ellenroad Company owned the land but over the years several home owners had encroached on it by building illegal garages. The Mill Company had informed them they would allow the encroachment but had taken steps to ensure that they could gain no rights in law so the garages had to go. All the owners agreed except one right under the back boundary wall of the mill. He was obdurate, it was his garage and he wasn’t going to shift it. Norman took all the necessary steps to warn him and give him notice to move his stuff but he was a stubborn man and held his ground.
The morning of VE Day 1985 dawned and an N&R low loader drew on the site carrying a Sherman Tank! Norman drove it off the trailer and approached the offending garage. By this time a small crowd had gathered and the man who owned the garage had come out to defend his property. Norman popped up through the turret of the tank and shouted at him, “Do you know what day it is?” No reply. “This is the fortieth anniversary of the surrender of the German forces in Europe. Do you know how we beat them?” Still no reply, “By a pincer movement! Look behind you!” The bloke looked round and saw the bucket of the new Liebherr back hoe descending on the roof of his garage. It crushed it completely and the poor bloke, defeated, slunk off into the house. I asked Norman why he had done it and he told me that apart from the crack he was going to a rally that weekend with his tank, he collected military vehicles as a hobby, and this was a good chance to try it out. Incidentally it also drew the man’s attention away from the garage so he couldn’t do anything stupid like take up residence. There was method in Norman’s madness. Norman had another hobby, he bred Pekinese dogs and a more surreal site than an eighteen stone demolition contractor cuddling a Pekinese I have yet to see!
As you are probably beginning to realise, I had a lot of time for Norman Sutcliffe. He was a hard man to work for and cut a lot of corners but he was nothing if not able and I can always give a bloke space for that. He was also a great man for ‘The Crack’. No, we’re not talking about class A drugs here, we’re talking about humour, practical jokes and all the things that make a hard job pass a bit more comfortably. That’s right, you’re going to get a few Norman stories! All of them have one thing in common, there’s a strand of humour running through them somewhere. If there’s one thing that I miss in our modern world it’s the capacity of people to have a laugh, most people are so busy rushing round trying to make money that they’ve lost the capacity to extract humour out of everyday life. I’m not talking about leisure and entertainment here, but the humour of the work place. People like Norman, and others you’ll meet later on, had the gift of seeing the funny side even under very stressful conditions. Some manufactured the humour themselves.
Norman and his men were working on a small contract in the Todmorden Valley and they were having a bit of trouble with a bloke who insisted on parking his car in front of his house every day even though it was in the way of the wagons getting into Norman’s site. He kept asking him to move it but in the end decided to do something about it. The lads put some slings round the wheels of the car and Norman lifted it with the crane up on to ledge on the hillside where there were some allotments. Later that day the bloke went for his car and it didn’t take him long to realise not only that it wasn’t where he had parked it but that there was only one way it could have got where it was now. He went to Norman and complained bitterly but Norman told him he’d put it there out of harms way and he’d lift it down for him each night. They put it in front of his house for him later and the bloke never parked it in the way again.
.Norman had a bloke called Jim Barnes who used to do a lot of work with him. Jim lived with Sue, his wife, up at Crey Farm in Whitworth. The first time I ever saw Sue she was putting a new engine in Jim’s Bedford truck! Some woman! Jim was working for Norman down on a site they had cleared in Rawtenstall. They had almost finished and Jim was doing some final clearing up. Norman told him he had to go off for the rest of the day but a bloke would be coming down to have a look at a portable conveyor that was on the site. Norman said that the bloke would buy it and he wanted £750 for it. “Don’t let him take it until he’s given you a cheque!” and off he went. A while later, this bloke turned up and had a look at the elevator. “How much does Norman want for it?” Jim told him seven and a half. The bloke had another look, said it was OK and went off for his wagon to tow the conveyor away. When he came back he gave Jim the cheque which he stuffed in his shirt pocket while he helped hitch the conveyor up. After they had gone it dawned on Jim that he’d never looked at the cheque so he got it out of his pocket and got the shock of his life. It was made out for £7,500! Seven and a half isn’t accurate enough if you are buying something off someone like N&R! Norman never even gave Jim the price of a drink but he told me the tale afterwards because he thought it was funny.
The best laugh of the lot with Norman was when he died. It happened suddenly while he was demolishing a mill in Rochdale and we all gathered in Cliviger for the funeral. The church was packed, all the usual suspects were there. Just before the service started a coach turned up and about thirty Asians came into the church. The only seats left were in the choir stalls and so they all filed in there. I’ve never seen Asians at a funeral before and it says something about Norman that they turned up. We had the wake in the pub across the road from the church and it was the best blow-out I’ve ever seen. As one bloke said to me, there was only one thing wrong, Norman should have been there. I made a mental note to have my wake before I die. It’s a lot more fun that way!
One celebration Norman did attend was my 50th. birthday party at Overdale. I remember him going into the corner with Janet and getting her to write something in the birthday book they were making up for me because ‘he had left his glasses at home.’ I told Janet why he had done it afterwards and she said she thought it might be something like that. Someone came in during the party and asked who owned the Mercedes parked outside. It wasn’t that it was in the way, they had never seen a two door Mercedes with the 600 engine in it before. Trust Norman to have something different!
By this time, at Ellenroad, the contractors were on the site surveying. I went and had a word with them and asked how accurate their survey was. The bloke showed me their modern equipment and told me they didn’t expect more than a 5mm. error. I said that in that case they’d better check their levels carefully just before the building started because the ground was rising and their levels would be all to cock in a week. They did a check and found I was right, Gavin said I’d earned my wage just with that alone, he and Coates were pleased. Where the mill had been was a plain expanse of concrete, this was originally the cellar floor. I pointed out to Gavin that each pillar base was ten feet square and went down fifteen feet into the ground. They had better mark them before they levelled the site and route any pipe tracks or drains between them. Once again, I got brownie points. Gavin said I had saved them about £7,500.
As we’re talking about demolition I want a quick word now about chimney felling. Ellenroad chimney wasn’t to be felled of course but in the normal demolition job, they have to be dealt with. Chimneys are only felled when there is room to do it safely. In many cases, such as Swabs at Middleton which was right next to the main road, they have to be dropped brick by brick and this is very expensive. Felling is much cheaper and is always done wherever possible. There are three main ways of felling a chimney. Peter Tatham’s preferred method on a secure site was to mark the centre line on the line where he wanted the chimney to fall, mark a point to each side that he thought they could cut to without the chimney toppling and then start to cut the brickwork out each side, propping with light props where necessary to stop the brickwork above the cut forming an invert and falling on the workers and then cut away until the chimney became unstable. At this point it will start to rock in the wind and a crack will open up at the back. A small piece of wood is inserted in the crack and cutting re-commenced. A man stands at the back watching the tell-tale and as soon as it starts to move, blows a whistle and everyone gets out of the way. The chimney falls and the job is done. This is a lot safer than it sounds if done by skilled men as the stack moves very slowly at first. The only drawback to it is that you can’t forecast accurately when the stack will fall.
Another method, favoured by Fred Dibnah, the TV steeplejack, is to cut away the bricks but fill the gap with heavy wooden props wedged firmly into place. When the crack opens at the back you carry on cutting until you are sure you are past the point of no return. At this point you stop and build a fire against the wooden props. The natural draught on the chimney turns this into a blow torch and drags all the flame on to the props and up the flue. After a short time they are so weakened that the chimney falls. With luck, you can predict the timing of this fall reasonably accurately and so it is a good thing if you are a showman. The problem that can arise is that if you haven’t cut enough out the stack won’t fall. When Ronny Goggins dropped Jubilee mill chimney he made an error and the fire burned out but the chimney didn’t fall. Very embarrassing. They had to wait for the wind to change and that brought it down. The thing that caused this was that the firebrick liner was in a lot better condition than anybody thought and was taking the weight.
The last and most certain method is to drill the base, insert charges and blow the bottom out of the structure. In skilled hands this is the most controllable method of all but great care has to be taken to get the right weight of charge in the right place. Dee Mill chimney was dropped by Mervin Simpson from Heywood very neatly by this method but when the same method was used by another contractor on the redundant cooling towers at Halifax Power Station around this time he got it wrong and all he did was make them ten feet shorter and very unstable. N&R were called in to clear this one up!
I photographed many chimney fellings both for myself and the DOE. One of these was by Fred Dibnah at Moss Mill in Rochdale. I was seen on the programme as I did the pictures of Fred going about his business for the DOE. Years later in Dordrecht in Holland, a friend of mine and myself went to buy a birdcage in an antique shop and the lady said “I have seen you on television!” I told her she was mistaken but she described the chimney coming down and I realised she must have seen the Fred Dibnah programme!
By the end of March construction was in full swing on the site at Ellenroad building the new factory. I was needed occasionally for esoteric questions about the drainage etc. but otherwise I was able to attend to the Engine House. There was one matter which straddled the two really. I found out who had the plans of the coal mines in the area and got them for the site. The whole of the ground under the surrounding area and the large motorway junction was riddled with mine workings at a depth of about 500 ft. These were full of water and indeed, were used by the local water authority as a supply of drinking water. However, under the mill buildings themselves there was a solid pillar of coal left untouched. We weren’t going to suffer from subsidence even if everybody else did!
MANAGEMENT AND OTHER MATTERS
By March 1985 my report was with Coates and they were about to give me their decision. I had been told unofficially that they wanted me to go ahead. It was time to stop goofing about. I had to get down to actually making Ellenroad happen. This process started when I had a visitor on site one day, a man called John Youngman, Chairman of Coates Brothers and husband of Phyllida who was a major stockholder in the company. John was, to say the least, impressive. He had the same effect on me as my headmaster at Stockport Grammar School. He’ll laugh if he reads this but it’s true. He asked me a direct question, “How much will it cost to support you and your work for a year?” I did a quick sum, these buggers never gave you time to think! £50,000. There was a short silence and then John said “Right, get on with it. Sort the details out with Gavin.” That was it, I had the project, a year’s funding and a clean slate. Double Yippee!
This was the point where the real learning curve started. I had never done anything on this scale before and there was so much I didn’t know. However, I had a certain amount of common sense and was never afraid of saying “I don’t know.” or asking for help. Gavin had taken note of my original plan and we soon had a Steering Committee set up with equal representation from the Council, Coates and the Funders, in this case, English Heritage. The chair of the Steering Committee was John Pierce, the Planning Officer. He was later to become Chief Executive of the Council and proved to be a rock. John believed in Ellenroad from the start and, once we had the initial funding, if there was any one input which made the difference between success and failure, it was his. He never ever let me down, always gave good advice and we are still firm friends.
I’m not going to try to tell the story of the project in detail, it would take far longer than we have time for. I’ll just lay out the major steps and tell a few of the stories that cropped up along the way. Assume for the purposes of this narrative that for the first twelve months I was flying blind and it was only good friends, good luck and wall of death management that saved me. To my credit, I had got the structure of the project right in the first place and never deviated from that in the next eight years.
Before I start I want to give my view of how it all happened in the first place. I was never told but I am sure that I wasn’t the first to have a look at the possibility of saving Ellenroad and doing something with it. It was too big not to have been the subject of discussion. I think that the size of it had put everybody off and that unofficially the view was that it was Mission Impossible. Then, suddenly, this bloke crawls out of the woodwork, has the confidence of Coates, a track record in the field and wants to take on the whole thing at virtually no cost to the Council. I should imagine the attitude was “What have we got to lose?” I was given my head and found my feet before the Trust did. Because of this lead, I had enough sense to lay down the principle that there cannot be ultimate responsibility without absolute power. I demanded both and it was in everybody’s interest to give it to me. I even had an imprest account, topped up every month and I could spend £500 without reference to anyone. All I had to do was account for the spending at the end of every month. I never abused this privilege and there was never a single question about any expenditure by this route. I have always said that nobody ever again will have so much autonomy and actual spending power when dealing with a project like this. I was very lucky and they got a good result.
Another power I had which was very useful was ‘virement’, this is a legal term which has roots in Norman French and what it means is the ability to swap funds from one account heading to another. This is the single most important power that someone in my position could have had. I will admit now that some of the funding moved about the accounts so quickly that only I knew exactly what was allocated where. I can assure everyone that I never overstepped the line but will admit there were times when I was tempted and got very close to impropriety. The protection here, for me as well as for the Trust was the annual audit by KPMG, one of the best accountancy firms available. I had insisted we have someone of this calibre even though they were so expensive. Apart from anything else it gave funders added confidence when they saw who was doing our books. You would be amazed at how long it took to get it through to some of the directors that we needed a top class firm of accountants, not some half qualified clerk in a back street in Milnrow!
I can’t say what the first thing I did was because there were so many things going on at once so what follows will be simply a list. I got English Heritage on board and started the process of actually Scheduling the Engine House as an Ancient Monument. This gave it a legal status which aided protection but more importantly opened up areas of possible funding both governmental and private. I talked to department in the council, Community Projects, which managed Manpower Services schemes in the borough. I started to look for an architect. I drew up a Memorandum and Articles of Association for the trust, I based this on my experiences at Pendle Heritage, there was no way I was going to tie a noose for my own neck! I also had to start planning three years ahead because until I had projects and costs I couldn’t raise funds and I needed to get on with this so as to have funding in place at the end of the year when the initial Coates funding finished. In short, there was a mountain of work to do.
Getting a relationship going with English Heritage was the first thing as I needed to get funding in place for major repairs like making the engine house secure and waterproof. The first expenditure from this source was an asbestos clearance carried out by N&R. What was at one time seen as cheap and effective insulating material was now regarded, quite rightly, as a deadly poison and the engine house was full of it. N&R undertook to clear it all out before we put any workers in there. I got a Manpower Services scheme in place which gave me forty workers, two foremen and a manager. There was supporting funding for materials and tools with this so we could start doing work straight away. The first manager was Peter Cunningham and I remember when he first came to the site to look at the size of the rabbit. We walked round and I showed him some of the jobs we had to do and he went quieter and quieter. We got into the site hut and brewed up and I asked him what he thought. He told me it frightened him to death! I agreed with him and said I felt the same but if we just started and quietly nibbled our way into the cheese there wasn’t anything we couldn’t do. If it got beyond the skills available we would have to get contractors in. He cheered up a bit, set to and was a good man for me until he moved on to another job and Graham Riley took over.
Finding an architect proved to be a bit more difficult, I was pointed at a couple of candidates one local and one from Preston but wasn’t impressed. Then, by chance I heard about a firm called Cooper and Jackson. I can’t remember how this came about but somebody did me a good turn. I made an appointment, went to see a bloke called Peter Dawson and all my problems were solved. In terms of individual contribution, Peter Dawson was the best man we had on the construction side. He did his job well and in all the time we worked together and all the contracts we set on there wasn’t one mistake. Needless to say, I am still talking to Peter ten years later!
I got my version of the legal side of the trust together and dropped it in the lap of the deputy Town Clerk, David Shipp who was a lawyer. He sorted out my legalese and approved the Articles of Agreement. We decided on a panel of members and set up the Trust to replace the Steering Committee. Then I had to apply for charitable status and I remember being pleasantly surprised how easy it was.
Six months in we had a site which was well-organised, humming with activity and beginning to take shape. I had a local builder re-roofing the place, temporary closures in the windows and a scheme of work in place to keep us going for several years. The site was clear of asbestos. As Ellenroad got going so did Coates. They got the factory built and hit their target of production by November so there was great rejoicing all round. At this point I started to hear ugly rumours about John Youngman’s position as regards the funding for the first year. The story I heard was that he had agreed to the funding unilaterally, this was a public company remember, and every time the matter was raised by the board he claimed ‘Chairman’s Folly’ and refused to discuss it until there was news to report. Gavin told me that the best possible outcome would be if we could come up with the funding to buy the lease on the engine house before the Annual Meeting. I forget all the details but we were talking a lot of money, anyway, I found it and on the day when everyone expected the shit to hit the fan John stood up and announced that there was a problem with the engine house at Ellenroad. Gavin tells me that it was a fairly dramatic moment as John had his critics. John announced that the company auditors had advised him that unless they made an immediate donation of £10,000 to the Trust, Coates would have to pay tax on the capital gains from the sale of the lease of the engine house. The donation was voted through and John came out as clean as a whistle!
This would be round about March 1986. A lot of these dates will be approximate because all the documents dealing with this period are in the files of Ellenroad so I have to rely on memory. Standing back and making an assessment from the vantage point of 1999 I can truthfully say that I am amazed how well I did. As father said, there’s a providence looks after drunken men and idiots. It was working full time then and doing a bloody good job.
I think that we have the major side issues out of the way now. We are at March 1986, the Trust has been formed and is about to achieve Charitable Status. I’ve started the funding drive and we have an MSC team working on the site and actually getting things done. I’m travelling to Rochdale almost every day and working in the evenings on the paperwork. Life is very full and rewarding and I’m learning so much so fast that it’s hard to believe from this point in time that I could have taken it all in. I was doing all right, but there was still a lot to learn!
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