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Post by Stanley »


One of the advantages of working for REW as a self-employed person was that I could take time out whenever I wanted to deal with other matters. This might be a week off to have a holiday or some time to do another job closer to my heart or pocket. There was one job in particular which was to turn out to be quite fundamental in lots of ways.

It all started while I was doing Ellenroad Engine. At that time, Courtaulds had a large spinning mill in Shaw, just down the road from Newhey which had a large steam engine on the premises though not in use. It had been superseded by electric drive. A well known band of engine enthusiasts, the Northern Mill Engine Society, who were based in Bolton, had an interest in the engine and steamed it occasionally by permission of the owners. The engine was built and installed by Scott and Hodgson of Guide Bridge near Manchester in 1907. It was a twin tandem compound designed for 1500hp at 65 ½ rpm and was a lovely example of a typical textile steam engine. The engine was shut down when the mill electrified in 1967 but, like Ellenroad, it was never scrapped by the owners. The mill closed down as part of widespread textile closures in Lancashire and in 1984 it was demolished.

The engine house and its contents escaped demolition because in 1982 it had been Scheduled as an Industrial Monument (County number 28) by the Department of the Environment. It stood, lone and forlorn in the middle of a desert of rubble and immediately became the target of vandals.

I need to say something about Scheduling here. To Schedule a building or artefact as an Ancient or Industrial Monument is the highest degree of legal protection that the government can bestow. In theory it makes it an offence punishable at law to make any modification repair or alteration without consent. This is the same level of protection as that conferred on Stonehenge or any other national monument. However, my argument has long been that Scheduling cannot protect a building or artefact if there is no local custodian and the will to protect. For years, I had been working with the government on many different projects and was well known in those circles particularly English Heritage who were the government agents in these matters. I had been making unofficial reports on the condition of Dee Mill for years to the Inspectors and had warned them that the site was being vandalised. The problem was that the mill site passed through the hands of a variety of owners who all had one thing in common, they were sitting on a site which would increase significantly in value if the Dee Mill Engine was removed. Therefore it was in their interest not to fight too hard to prevent damage to the house. Despite statutory warnings to the owners from the authorities, things gradually deteriorated until, by 1990, the engine was so badly vandalised that there was no prospect of it ever steaming again.

In March 1990, while I was doing Ellenroad and living with Mary at Overdale the Inspector of Ancient Monuments sent me a copy of a letter he had sent to a prospective developer of the Dee Mill site which suggested they should contact me for expert advice on the site and what could be done with it. I pursued the matter but nothing ever came of it and the site changed hands yet again.

Round about this time I got word from one of my moles that Dee Mill chimney was going to be felled. I went down there and introduced myself to Mervin Simpson of Simpson Brothers (Explosives) Ltd from Heywood who had the job of dropping the stack. As it was isolated in the middle of a large derelict site they were dropping it with explosives. I had a professional interest in this of course from my army days and went with Mervin to look at the preparations.

A word or two here about demolition by explosives. To the uninitiated, blowing something up is easy. You just stick a pile of explosives inside, light the blue touch paper and retire! Nothing could be further from the truth. The explosives aren’t used as a battering ram but more like a surgeon’s scalpel. The idea is to use the minimum amount of explosive in exactly the right place to destroy the integrity of the structure so that nature, in this case, gravity, can take its course. What Mervin was aiming for was to use the charges to persuade the chimney to fall over. The demolition would happen when it hit the ground. The danger that he had to avoid was any chance of the detonation throwing loose bricks far enough to damage property or injure anyone.

He and his men had drilled holes around the inside of the stack and put a stick of gelegnite into each hole. These all had detonators inserted into them and the detonators were joined to each other by Cordtex instantaneous fuse. This is an explosive fuse which, when actuated burns so fast that in effect, it ignites all the detonators it is connected to at once and so ensures simultaneous detonation of all the charges. The Cordtex was connected to an electrically fired detonator which in turn was connected to the exploder located well away from the chimney in a safe place. When all was ready and the police had ensured that the site was clear, Mervin connected the wires to the exploder. Wound the high voltage generator by hand to charge the capacitor inside the exploder and then pressed the button which sent the current down the wires to the set-up. There was a dull thud, a small puff of smoke from the bottom of the chimney and then a slight pause before the chimney slowly toppled and disintegrated as it fell. It was a text book operation and the chimney shattered into individual bricks as it hit the floor. Dee Mill chimney had bitten the dust.

In October 1992 I got a telephone call from a bloke called Dave Biggin who was the development manager for Littlewoods Home Shopping at Shaw, a very large and wealthy mail order company. His firm had bought the Dee Mill site and the surrounding land and wanted to develop it. My name had cropped up on some correspondence he inherited with the site and he wanted to have a meeting to discuss the engine house. I went down to Shaw to see him and it became obvious that Littlewoods wanted the Dee Mill engine out of the way but wished to do everything by the book and, if possible, save the engine for re-installation on another site.

We went into the engine house and had a look at the engine. I can think of few sadder sights than a wonderful piece of machinery that has been vandalised to the extent that it had. All the loose parts had been stolen for scrap, other parts damaged by ineffectual attempts at dismantling, the whole was red rust and had been sprayed all over by graffiti artists. To a bloke like me who had just spent eight years restoring Ellenroad it was a terrible sight. Worse was to come when we went in the cellar. It was obvious that someone was using it for shelter while taking drugs, it was damp, cold and absolutely filthy. A further problem was that there was septic water leaking in through the foundations. The most likely cause for this was organic matter rotting in the old mill lodge which had been filled in with demolition rubble. We came out into the fresh air and I told Dave that I could get rid of it for him but it would be a long job. I pointed out that what we were proposing to do was the legal equivalent of demolishing Stonehenge and we would have to jump through a lot of hoops but it could be done. I think it was the first time anybody had made a positive and practical proposal for the site and after a day or two to consult he came back to me and gave me a free hand. They asked me how much my hourly rate would be and I plucked what to me was an enormous figure out of mid air. They bit my hand off and I realised that I was out of touch, I’m pretty sure I could have doubled the figure! I went away a wiser man but stuck by the figure I had quoted.

In many ways it was like a mini version of Ellenroad but instead of refurbishing the engine I wanted to destroy it. Same difference actually as I was dealing with the same people, the same laws and the same bureaucracy. I had to consult with everybody involved , the Northern Mill Engine Society, Oldham Borough Council, the local Museums Service and English Heritage. NMES weren’t interested as they regarded the engine as being beyond saving. Oldham would have liked it for the Manor Mill Project they were starting in the town but hadn’t got any money and the Development department wanted to see it out of the way so they could facilitate the new investment in the site and more jobs and rateable value for the town.

I reported back after a few weeks and made an application for Scheduled Monument Consent to demolish the engine house and scrap the engine. This rather surprised Littlewoods as this was what they had always been told couldn’t be done. They questioned me very closely about the strategy but I convinced them that there was nothing to be served by pussy-footing about, we had to come out of the closet and ask for exactly what we wanted. The crux of the matter was that we would have to convince English Heritage and the Department of the Environment that the scheduling process had failed and that as it stood, Dee Mill was in indictment of the whole system. The best solution was to bite the bullet, demolish and accept Littlewood’s offer to fund a textile survey in Oldham by the Museum’s Service to give interpretational input to the new exhibitions at Manor Mill. We had to bide our time while the committees ground their way through the proposal but in the end I got a result. Subject to our doing a measured drawing of the house and a photographic record of the demolition, we could go ahead.

I went down to Rochdale and had a word with Peter Dawson who had been my architect at Ellenroad. We arranged to go to Dee and measure the building up. Measuring a building like Dee Engine House is a two man job. Somebody has to hold the end of the tape! True, there are modern instruments which measure by bouncing a pulse off an opposing wall but methods like this were no good to us as many of the measurements we needed were obstructed by parts of the engine. Additionally, Peter needed my advice as, theoretically, we were measuring to a standard which would enable someone to use the drawings to reinstall the engine. This meant that the position of things like holding down bolts had to be carefully plotted.

One of the first things we discussed was which system of measurements we would use. There isn’t a lot of point measuring a building built using the old Imperial measures in metric units! As it turned out, the building was constructed in increments of three inches. Anywhere where we couldn’t get an accurate measurement because of obstruction we guessed to the nearest three inches! The acid test of any measured plan is when the draughtsman sits down at the drawing board and converts the measurements made on site into a scale drawing. Any discrepancy between the overall sizes and the cumulative totals of the individual measurements stands out like a sore thumb. Peter said that all the measurements fell together like a jigsaw puzzle, as much a commendation for the original builders as the draughtsman. The other thing that became obvious was that the building was perfectly square, quite an unusual thing in a large old building like the Dee House.

I did a series of photographs of the building detailing every part of the engine and building and then sat down to write the report. I detailed the history of the engine, the measures that had been taken to protect it and the reasons why these had failed. My overall opinion was that Dee Mill was an indictment of the Scheduling system, a standing reproach to the conservation authorities and the sooner it was accepted that it had been lost through neglect and permission given to demolish, the better. This report, together with the pictures was used as supporting evidence for the application and I delivered the whole thing by hand to the authorities in London. As I told Dave Biggin, all we could do now was sit back and wait while the system digested our application and come back to us with a decision. Dave asked me what the chances were and I told him that I couldn’t be sure but I reckoned they would jump at the chance to get the problem out of the way.

I submitted the request for Scheduled Monument Consent to demolish Dee Mill Engine in February 1993 and the Consent was granted on 23rd May 1994. I gave the necessary notifications to everyone involved and we started demolition early in the morning of June 18th 1994.

It was a sunny Saturday morning and at half past five in the morning we were unloading a big tracked back hoe off its transporter and getting on to the site. The engine house stood alone in the middle of a field of rubble and we could get to it all round. I knew that as soon as we were noticed the enthusiasts would come out of the woodwork and we would get a certain amount of flak. Before we even went on the site I primed the lads that were doing the job. If asked any questions they were to say they knew nothing beyond the fact that it was legal and they had a job to do. If asked about me, I was just an amateur photographer doing some pictures. I had told them exactly what I wanted doing and they started into the building.

Unless you have seen it done before, you can have no idea how quickly a big machine can destroy a building. There was nothing subtle about our approach, the machine got up to the building, reached out and simply pushed a section of wall in until it collapsed. We started by breaking the pillars between the windows on the south side and as we did the second pillar the roof fell in with a tremendous roar. We worked our way round the building collapsing the walls until we arrived at the end where the flywheel was. I told the driver to drag the rubble back into a ramp, climb the ramp until he could reach the flywheel and smash the castings on top. I knew that whatever happened, once this was done it was obvious that there was no going back. My worry was that we might end up with people lying down in front of the machine to stop us. It was far too late for anyone to save the engine but there were certain to be people who wouldn’t understand this and we had to very quickly reach a point where it was obvious that it was too late.

As the machine was smashing the castings on the wheel a man came running across the site in dressing gown, pyjamas and carpet slippers. He was absolutely livid and started screaming and shouting at the machine driver. Eventually he gave up and retreated but said he was going to ring the Council. We carried on levelling the house and had started to drag the rubble and wreckage back off the engine. The man who had tried to stop us returned with a Councillor who he had dragged out of bed. This bloke was evidently trying to play it as though he had not known that the demolition was going to happen. He did know of course because during the process of consultation it had been voted through in a full meeting of the Council. I suspect he was trying to keep his constituent on-side politically by pretending he knew nothing about it.

I decided it was time I cam out of the closet and introduced myself to the Councillor. He took me on one side and muttered to me that he was glad to see the engine house going but was it legal? I assured him that the Consent had been granted and the necessary letters giving 14 days notice had been sent three weeks before. Thus armed he went back to his constituent and made whatever explanations were necessary. I felt sorry for the protester actually because he evidently had strong feelings about the engine. But, as I said later, they’d had twelve years to do something about it but had simply sat back and watched it decay. We had several more officials round our ears during the day and the press as well but we were legal and the bottom line was that the vast majority of local residents wanted it to go.

It took a fortnight to scrap the engine and clear the site. I made up a final report using the pictures I had done and sent it off to all concerned together with the measured drawing of the engine house. Dee Mill site was cleared and could now be re-developed by Littlewoods at their leisure.

There was a nice sequel to this job. Dave Biggin and I were invited to the company headquarters at Liverpool where we were given lunch and congratulated on a job well done. The nicest thing as far as I was concerned was that the Chairman popped his head in and told me that the report I had done to support the case for SMC to demolish the engine was the best report he had ever read. I suggested he should get me in to teach his executives to write reports but nothing ever came of it.

Demolishing Dee was sad but interesting. I have no regrets about doing it, it was the only solution to what had developed into a big problem all round. It confirmed me in my long held opinion that no matter how many legal safeguards are put in place, the preservation of any large artefact like Dee Mill Engine or Ellenroad depends on the quality of care given by the people on the ground. The actions of a government department in London can do nothing to ensure survival.

Stanley Challenger Graham
Stanley's View
scg1936 at

"Beware of certitude" (Jimmy Reid)
The floggings will continue until morale improves!
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