Exploring further - where to go and what to look for

Civic and other locally based groups often have a page on industrial history on their websites, and these are often the best place to go to next.  

Reference and local studies libraries in Halifax, Todmorden, Keighley, and Rochdale will have material relating to mills in their area. Local Historical Societies often hold collections of mill data based on members research, and may have published articles relating to mills on particular streams. Some history societies also have original documents in their own archives.

Older people will often have a personal knowledge of old mills when they were still in production, and stories and reminiscences are important in bringing the documentary evidence to life.

Further records are kept at the various branches of the West Yorkshire Archive Service, and at the Greater Manchester Record Office. You will probably need to make an appointment to look at original documents and to be issued with an archive user’s ticket, and will be asked to write in pencil. Catalogues can be consulted on line although they may not list all documents or details in the collection. There are plenty of books and pamphlets to help with reading old handwriting, explaining the frequent use of abbreviations etc., and this becomes much easier with a bit of practice.    

This list is to give you some idea of the kind of records that you might be able to find in the collections of local history societies and archive service. Some of these sources are also now available on line as indicated. (See website addresses).


The first OS maps of the 1840s generally provide a good guide to the location of mills, and changes such as the addition of dams and enlargement of mill sites can be plotted on later editions. Buildings may also be marked disused or all traces of a mill may have disappeared.

Mills are marked on 18th century county maps and from the Tudor period there may also be larger scale maps showing where mills stood on a particular stream. Maps may also provide clues about the early history of a site because the fields in which a mill stood were often called Milne Field, Milne Holme, etc. long after the mill itself had gone.

Maps are available in local studies libraries and archives, and some old maps are now available on line.

Family and Estate Papers

Documents found among family papers may make it possible to trace the history of a mill site over several centuries, especially if this was part of a prosperous family business or the owner was the Lord of the Manor. Indentures record that a particular mill with its associated dams and water supply was to be leased for a certain number of years, and will name those by whom the lease was taken and give the yearly rent.  

Family papers often reflect the careful attention paid to maintaining water rights for example in agreements with other landowners about providing access to facilitate repairs to dams and water courses. When a mill was part of a particular estate and this was sold the sale catalogue may describe the mill and contents and contain large scale plans of the dams and goits that supplied them.

If the archives hold the papers of a mill owning family these may provide a host of fascinating information from the time a mill was built to the end of its working life. These papers may have been deposited with archives or maybe in estate offices.   

Mill Surveys

One of the earliest surveys of cotton mills was made by Samuel Crompton in 1811, who wanted compensation for the widespread adoption of his spinning mule which he had not patented. In the survey he records the name of the factory and the numbers of mule spindles in use, and in comparison gives the number of water frames, throstles and spinning Jennies. The original is in the Bolton archives, but is printed in various books. 

Census Returns

Families living at mills or mill cottages can be traced over the years from 1841 onwards through to 1910. The early censuses are free to access. The returns can also help give a picture of activities around the mill such as hand or power loom weaving and wool combing. As well as describing the occupation of employers, such as corn millers, cotton spinners or manufacturers, the returns will also list the number of employees. 

Trade Directories

Directories such as White’s and Kelly’s provide a general guide to who was in business at a particular mill, although the entries were not always updated. Copies can be found in Local Studies Libraries and there is also a digital library of trade directories for England and Wales, 1750-1919, at Leicester University’s Historical Directories Project.

trade directory - west yorkshire


Early newspapers were closely linked to commercial interests, rather like today’s free press, which means that they often have advertisements of sales of water mills giving details of water courses, dwelling houses, land, machinery, etc. The insecurity of the cotton trade in the late 18th and early 19th centuries caused a lot of bankruptcies, and sale notices reflect how often people had financial problems. There are also sometimes notices of rewards for the return of runaway apprentices or for information leading to the recovery of stolen cloth.

newspaper example

From the middle of the 19th century there are newspaper reports of accidents, eye witness accounts of fires, and accounts of strikes, closures etc. Newspaper reports can help especially in understanding the part mills played in the life of the local community. Some newspapers, including the Leeds Mercury, are now online. Others are available on microfilm in reference or local studies libraries.

Insurance Records

The late 18th and early 19th century policy registers of the Sun and Royal Exchange Fire Offices give the names of partners taking out insurance and a valuation of the property including mill, millwork, machinery and stock. There may sometimes be records of claims arising from theft or fire as cotton mills in particular were often damaged by fire and rebuilt using insurance money. The records of the Sun and Royal Exchange offices are deposited at the Guildhall Library in London and copies can be obtained from there. They are also available online.

Insurance docs

Factory Enquiries Commission Report, 1834

Parliamentary Papers, XIX-XXI, 1833-4

Firms stated when a mill was built or said to have been built, whether used for spinning, weaving, for cotton, worsted etc., and whether using water or steam power. Mill owners also gave details about hours of work including night working and the employment of children. The commissioner’s reports were reprinted by the Irish University Press in 1972 and copies can be found in major public libraries and online.

Photographs& illustrations

Copies of old photographs, paintings, engravings, architect’s drawings and bill heads can be found in the archives of local history societies and in private collections, and are sometimes available in digital form. There may be restrictions on reproducing them.

Old map image

Enlarged plan from the sale of Mytholm Estate, June 1868 showing Mytholm Mill, waterwheel, reservoirs and tunnel goit
Courtesy of Halifax Library West Yorkshire Archives

Company Histories

There are a few books about old textile firms, and these can be very useful especially when so many firms' documents have been destroyed. Companies still in business may include a page on company history on their website.

Next section: Useful websites and books

Power From the Landscape

Alternative Technology Centre
Unit 7, Victoria Works
Victoria Rd
Hebden Bridge

Tel: 01422 842121

Contact Us

Hosted by Green Web Host

Designed and built by Losource