The history of Tulketh Mill
Until recently the history of Tulketh Mill seemed a tale based only on nostalgia. The factory was built at the height of Preston’s cotton years but then lost its way as the old industry declined. With Carphone Warehouse taking over the mill in recent years, however, the old mill has taken on a new lease of life, having found a brand new role for the 21st century.
The factory was built in 1905 during Preston’s last boom years as a mill town. Preston’s biggest mills were built during this time, another significant building being Horrocks’s mill on New Hall Lane.
The building of Tulketh Mill took place in the days of horse-drawn vehicles. Mrs Mary Margerison, Mayoress of Preston, laid the foundation stone on 13th May 1905 and the mill had its official opening ceremony on Wednesday 11th July 1906. A new Mayoress, Mrs Ormerod, officially named the mill and started the engines for the first time.
Tulketh was one of Lancashire’s biggest spinning mills at the time. In those days the mill was surrounded by fields. The opening of such a huge mill was a sign of optimism at the time, but it in fact heralded the beginning of end of Preston as a mill town. The First World War, in particular, brought the boom years decisively to a close.
Although the mill’s northern end was extended in 1918, land had been set aside for a second mill scheme, which never materialised as the decline began.
In those days, male and female employees at Tulketh Mill usually had different jobs. Work in the cotton room, the blowing room and operating the carding machinery was generally done by men. This was mainly because this work was physical, dirty and sometimes dangerous. Men also did the mule spinning, which was hot, dirty and humid.
Mr Lee, a mule spinner at Tulketh described his working conditions: ‘It was very hot…to make it spin better to get the humidity, we used to throw buckets of water all over the floor…Then they had to open water tanks in certain places, steaming all day to give you humidity, you see, so the cotton wouldn’t snap. All we did was drink gallons of water…on the front side at Tulketh when the sun was out it was 108 degrees.’
Another worker, Betsy Leigh (1880 – 1956), remembered: ‘Tulketh was the most modern mill in Preston when it opened, but was a devil of a place to get to. Public transport did not really head that way then, so I used to walk to and from work, six days a week, while we lived in Ribbleton.
It was a bright place to work, but in summer, the heat was unbearable when the sun shone through all those windows. We cursed those windows many a time. We used to get a week off without pay during Preston holidays, so we had a holiday club, were we put so much money away each week throughout the year.’
Concern about the harmful effects of modern life on “the family” is nothing new. The cotton factories of Preston always depended very heavily on the cheapest available labour, including young children.
Working from six in the morning until six at night, a married woman had little time or energy left for cooking or housework. When children were born, the economic need for the wife to go to work usually outweighed the domestic need to stay at home. A woman stayed at her looms as late as possible before a birth and got back to them as soon as possible afterwards, lest they be taken over by someone else.
According to Betsy Leigh: ‘When the women were expecting, we would carry on working right up to the last week before we were due, as we needed the wages. The older women would always tease us, saying in their day they would go into labour at work and have the baby at the side of the loom on a pile of cotton waste. We knew it did happen, but the old women liked to exaggerate. They said we had never had it so good compared to their days.’
Tulketh Mill’s chimney, one of Ashton’s most prominent landmarks today, has in fact been lowered twice: in the 1930s and the 1960s. The photo below, from 1925, shows the mill with the original chimney.
Tulketh Mill survived for many years with its original purpose. By the end of the 1960s, however, Lancashire’s cotton industry entered terminal decline, and the whole future of the building came into question. The Lancashire Evening Post reported on a campaign to save the mill, but it wasn’t until Littlewoods, the catalogue company, came to the rescue in 1968 that the future of the mill was assured.
Part of the mill’s new role involved the gutting of the factory of its old boilers. Windows had to be removed from the upper floors to enable sections of spinning machines to be lifted out of the mill. In their place the latest conveyor belts were installed.
Littlewoods was based here for over 30 years, taking an active part in two Preston Guilds, even holding a Miss Littlewoods competition for one of them. One memorable day came when the Littlewoods staff were invited to take part in a television commercial with Bruce Forsyth.
Carphone Warehouse’s links with Tulketh Mill began towards the end of 2005 when the company sought planning permission to set up a new call centre.
The first rumours spoke of ‘dozens’ of jobs being created. Those rumours, however, proved to be a huge, and fortunate, underestimation. With its large premises, excellent transport links and fantastic source of Lancashire accents, the mill has proven to be the ideal choice for a call centre.
The new call centre was officially opened on 19 December 2006, by Carphone Warehouse’s founder and chief executive, Charles Dunstone and the mayor of Preston. At that point, the company had refurbished Tulketh Mill to include a restaurant, a relaxation area and a gym.
At that stage, 300 jobs were planned for Carphone Warehouse’s Preston operations, but those ambitions quickly grew with an announcement, at the beginning of 2007, that the workforce was to be increased to up to 2,000.
If such developments are anything to go by, it is clear that Carphone Warehouse is going to play an important part in Ashton’s future.
There are many sources for this article. Thanks to everyone who has supplied details. The main source was an old edition of Littlewoods’ newsletter, The Groundforce Times, which was generously supplied by Carphone Warehouse. Many sections of this history were taken directly from that source.