Brierfield Mills

Date Visited: February 2016

East Lancashire was largely dominated by the textile industry but like the rest of the county, it declined from the 1950’s onwards. Remnants of the industry struggled on into the 21st century and one of the most recent, and significant, departures was Smith and Nephew, aka BSN Medical. Sat astride the Leeds Liverpool canal, and its 20th century equivalent, the aforementioned M65, Brierfield Mill is a gigantic rock of Gibraltar-like place, both in its size and seeming permanence.

Brierfield Mills were established on the east bank of the Leeds and Liverpool Canal in 1838, and was Brierfield's first steam-powered cotton mill. It was erected on behalf of Henry Tunstill of Wheatley Lane. The first mill occupied the site of a later mill's northern end, and was operated by Henry Tunstill and Sons.

The new Brierfield mill consisted of the 'middle' mill, a six-storey building and two further, adjoining four-storey mills erected 1868 and 1873. The 'south shed' was added to the mill in 1876 and comprised a weaving shed, warehouse, offices and workshop.

Smith and Nephew Textiles Ltd started producing surgical bandages in 1957, and modernised the plant in the 1960. They were listed as spinners, weavers, dyers, bleachers and surgical dressing manufacturers in 1963. The company operated as Smith and Nephew plc, merged with the German Beiersdorf AG soon after and traded as BSN Medical Ltd until the time of closure in 2010 when production transferring to Germany.

After closure, it sat unused, a gigantic quandary for all involved as to what to do with it. Being a listed building limited the options, and the initial proposal for a Muslim girls school was rejected by the council as the focus now is on integration rather than segregation of communities. The mill was then bought by Pendle Council and they entered into a joint venture with Barnfield Construction to produce an ambitious plan for not just the mill but some of the adjacent land as well. I was taken round the site by Paul, a former maintenance engineer on the site who had helped decommission the site and now acted as caretaker.

The decommissioning had done a sound job of removing everything, which basically left 380000 square feet of fresh air to photograph. But this isn’t exactly an uncommon experience, it just means I have to look harder and compose differently.