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!
Later Dee Mill got the demo treatment and I got the flak but in the end it was seen by all as the correct advice.