Queen Street’s immense steam engine was originally named ‘Prudence’ but was renamed ‘Peace’ after the war to commemorate the many factory workers whose lives were ended in the conflict. She was built in 1894 by William Roberts of Nelson and there are only two other extant examples in the world. The lovely ‘Peace’ isn’t exactly peaceful when going, though. She powers more than 300 weaving looms that produce up to an ear shattering 120 decibels – something you can now experience in person when she’ll be fired up for a series of steam days this year.

Expert staff and volunteers at Queen Street Mill demonstrate all aspects of steam weaving and recount emotive stories of the time when cotton was king – and Burnley was truly its Crown Princess.

The small village of Harle Syke was once home to seven mills and was the base of many cotton firms. Through its heyday, the Queen Street Manufacturing Company rapidly expanded to house just under 1,000 looms and by 1913 it employed 300 people. Yarn and thread came from local spinning mills, arriving on bobbins and then transferred onto the ‘pirns’ that feed the shuttle system. Nowadays, the cotton used comes from Helmshore in Rossendale.

Great British Life: The 120ft tall mill chimney and the pond which stores half a million gallons of water. The 120ft tall mill chimney and the pond which stores half a million gallons of water. (Image: Kirsty Thompson)

In the shuttle workshop visitors can discover the intricacies of the machinery workings, with displays of healds, dobby lags and pegs, reeds and shuttle making equipment – there were more than 600 different types of shuttle for different looms and types of cloth or carpet. The tour guides, headed by the fount of knowledge that is Richard Hall, are gifted at making the many technical aspects of the factory accessible and understandable to visitors of all ages and backgrounds.

The tour also shows the pathways or alleys formed by the workers’ clogs as they moved around the rapidly-moving looms. Those workers originally worked 12 hours a day and had just one week off a year in ‘Wakes Week’, when the boilers were closed down for their annual inspection.

The brick-built mill chimney, standing at 120 feet high, is an iconic local landmark and, at its opening, mill ‘tackler’ Edmund Atkinson climbed to the top to pay a cornet solo. It was, and is still, an industrial sight to behold, but the chimney’s output was often a curse to locals hanging out their washing on a Monday – especially if the wind was in the wrong direction!

Great British Life: Peter Robinson with the engine called Peace. Peter Robinson with the engine called Peace. (Image: Kirsty Thompson)

Today, Peace can still be powered by the steam from one of those original two massive Lancashire boilers, fed from the mill pond’s half a million gallons of water. The cylinder sizing machine, used to treat warp thread to make it stronger, is a rarity too and one of the last remining of its type.

The whole weaving process from start to finish is absorbing, ranging from fascinating insights into the engines’ development, but more importantly for the historical window into factory life at the time. Conditions for adult workers were, frankly, absolutely brutal though women were, unusually, paid the same rates as men. Children as young as 13 were also employed – generally doing basic tasks around the factory such as ‘reaching in’, rather than working with the looms.

There were no ear-defenders given out against the noise and large-scale deafness among workers led to the development of their special mill sign language to communicate, known as ‘mee mawing’ – the exaggerated mouth movements used by Les Dawson in his comic sketches. Pay was minimal to say the least and weavers were often just paid a piece rate based on their efficiency. The boilerman or firebeater worked alone, arriving at 6am to fire up the boilers before work began in the mill an hour later. He would then toil a 15 hour day, stoking in temperatures up to 40°C.

Great British Life: Much of the machinery was made in Burnley. Much of the machinery was made in Burnley. (Image: Kirsty Thompson)

We now know that cotton dust can cause cancer and the famous Christie Hospital was founded mainly to study and treat the diseases of cotton workers – which included TB and many other serious bronchial ill-effects of the choking 80% humidity atmosphere.

Colin Stevens is Queen Street Mill’s expert weaver and steers visitors safely around the clattering looms. He says: ‘The Steam Days are always a great attraction – though we generally power the looms on electricity. We take immense pride in the fact that, day-to-day we use this heritage technology to still make cloth into quality products that people can buy.

‘There are 307 looms in the weaving shed and three in the warehouse – and they were all made right here in Burnley by Pembertons or Harland and Todd. It’s quite an ear-opener for visitors when we get just one moving – imagine what it was like when there were 1,000 on the go.’

Engine specialist Peter Robinson, who joined the Queen Street Mill team last year, said: ‘The original company continued manufacturing until it closed in 1982. Four years later, Queen Street was re-opened as a museum by the then Prince Charles.

Great British Life: Colin Stevens in the weaving shed. Colin Stevens in the weaving shed. (Image: Kirsty Thompson)

‘There have been some big glitches over the year – we had to do major work to stop the main chimney actually falling in and then repair the engine, and they were big jobs and very expensive – but it’s all paid off and it’s great to be properly open for business now.’

The mill’s heritage has been celebrated in films and productions including Peterloo and the Christmas Carol. The weaving shed was featured in ‘The Kings Speech’ and actor Colin Firth’s tribute in the visitors book describes it as ‘a thing of beauty’. This exposure, along with an increased interest in mill heritage, has helped stimulate international interest in the mill, and staff are expecting a rise in visitor numbers this year.

Tours end in a cosy exhibition space, often featuring the work of local artists and hosting lots of educational and fun workshops and interactive activities. The adjacent Weavers Rest Café serves soup, hot and cold drinks and sandwiches. The shop has a range of products, including aprons from museum assistant Janet Irons, as well as many items woven on site and then sent to a local manufacturer for final finishing.

* Queen Street Mill, at Harle Syke, Briercliffe, Burnley, BB10 2HY, is open from Wednesday to Saturday every week from noon-4pm until November 2. You can explore at your own pace, but guided tours give a real insight into the history and heritage of the mill and demonstrations of the original textile machinery.

There is a busy programme of events, including textile art workshops, children’s craft events, puzzle days, ghost tours and regular exhibitions and dates for the iconic steam days, when you can visit the mill while the boilers are firing on all cylinders and the engines are running at full tilt will be announced on the website, lancashire.gov.uk/leisure-and-culture/museums/queen-street-mill-textile-museum

Great British Life: Queen Street Mill is an important part of our textile heritage. Queen Street Mill is an important part of our textile heritage. (Image: Kirsty Thompson)

Heir and hair

Ever wonder where the word ‘Heirloom’ originated? The wooden weaving handloom was one of the most valuable items in a medieval household. So the loom, naturally, was passed to the family heir.

Go on, let your hair down! That one came from the mills as well. The vicious rattling looms were very dangerous, and it was practical (and necessary) for the many women working in mills to tie up their long hair to cover it. So, when you finished work, what would you do?