Glasgow’s oldest cotton mill
Stuart Nisbet returns to the site of his first article in the Lost Mills series (FORK News No. 40) to describe Glasgow’s oldest cotton mill.
Glasgow’s journey from medieval town to world-leading manufacturing city covered many stages. One was its reign as ‘King Cotton’. This occurred with the advent of steam power, following the success of an earlier generation of water-powered cotton mills.
This city is usually credited with having had only one water-powered cotton mill. This was at South Woodside on the Kelvin, which is the subject of this article. FORK News readers will know that Glasgow had others at Wyndford on the Possil Burn (FORK News No. 41).
The early centre of fine textile making in the Glasgow area developed from the 1760s at Anderston. Two of the main players were William Gillespie, a linen printer, and James Monteith, a weaver.
The early water-powered cotton industry in the region started with spinning mills on the White Cart at Busby (1778) and on the Levern Water at Dovecothall, Barrhead (1780). Richard Thomson was involved in both, and in 1783 he built a third cotton mill, at South Woodside, in partnership with Gillespie and Monteith.
All the early mills were based on Richard Arkwright’s designs. He visited Paisley in September 1784, where he was made a Freeman. The following month Arkwright attended a dinner in Glasgow with various cotton spinners, including the Woodside partners. Immediately after this, he made his celebrated visit to the falls of Clyde with David Dale, and New Lanark was conceived. At this time, Woodside mill was already spinning cotton yarn, using the power of the Kelvin.
Despite Glasgow’s claim to Woodside as its earliest mill, at this time the city had barely begun to spread beyond its medieval centre. In the Old Statistical Account in the 1790s, Woodside was considered to be a village well outside the city.
Woodside cotton mill was located at the downstream end of the flat site which includes the car park for Kelvinbridge underground station. The lade ran across the site, with the mill sitting astride it. Like most of the mill sites on the Kelvin, this was by no means the first mill on the site. The earlier paper mill at South Woodside was covered in FORK News No. 40.
James Monteith had ambitions to dominate the early water-powered spinning industry in the Glasgow area. Around the time of Arkwright’s visit, he bought Woodside mill form this two partners. He was also a founding partner in the water-powered mills at Blantyre (1785) and Pollokshaws (1792), and in 1793 he took a ten-year lease on a site on the White Cart in Cathcart parish. Fortunatley for Glasgow’s park lovers, this mill was never built, and the site in now the falls in Linn Park.
In 1799 Paisley’s Underwood mill bought the first James Watt steam engine in Scotland. From this point onwards, water power became less important, as steam-powered cotton mills could be built on any street corner in Glasgow.
Despite the rise of steam power, the existing water-powered mills continued to thrive. By 1812 Woodside cotton mill was run by Gillespie’s heirs. In 1832 Henry Houldsworth, who had been recruited from Nottingham by Gillespie in 1799, was the owner. He also owned a number of steam-powered mills, including one a Anderston. By this time Woodside cotton mill had 8,000 spindles, all driven by the power of the Kelvin.
In November 1835 Woodside cotton mill was burnt to the ground. The proprietors advertised the site, noting its forty-year reign as a successful cotton mill, and offering to rebuild it. However, by this time other industries were more lucrative and it was rebuilt as a paper mill in 1837. A steam-powered weaving mill was added directly downstream.
Although the mills and lade are long gone, the rubble weir can still be seen beneath the arch of Kelvin Bridge. If you look carefully under the bridge from the Kelvin Walkway, you can also see the bricked-up arch of the mill lade, beneath the legs of the Underground escalator. The cobbled access to the mill, Woodside Road, with its ruts worn by carts, also reminds us of the extensive water-powered industry driven by the waters of the Kelvin.