Breakfast, boilers and coal at East Lancashire Paper Mill

East Lancashire Paper Mill

FOR a three-week period in summer 1987 I had a real job, as in getting my hands dirty, really dirty; and not just my hands.

Each summer East Lancashire Paper Mill, in Radcliffe, about eight miles north of Manchester, closed down for a two-week period during Wakes Week for maintenance.

During that fortnight towards the end of August the mill employed temporary labour, mostly sixth form students, to help the skeleton full-time staff and sub-contractors with the maintenance programme.

As I recall this was mostly word-of-mouth, and I probably secured my place by writing a letter; Dear East Lancashire Paper Mill…

On the first day, which I think started at 7:30am, we students assembled in the canteen where our names and the department we were to be working in were read out. We were also given our overalls; dark blue in colour with the East Lancs Paper Mill shield on the left breast pocket. There wasn’t a right breast pocket.

I was assigned to the boiler-house, and it wasn’t just any boiler-house. This was vast, and could be seen from miles around. It generated so much electricity that it fed into the national grid, and was supplied with coal brought in articulated tipper wagons by Alfred Hymas, a haulage company from Burton Leonard, a village between Harrogate and Ripon, in North Yorkshire.

The coal was tipped into a hole in the ground which was covered with a large metal grill; meaning rain could easily fall in but not humans.

The next bit I’m not too sure about, but somehow the coal was taken from this hole into a series of buckets that travelled up the side of boiler house via a Paternoster-style conveyor to a small entrance at the top, and then onto a horizontal conveyor that dropped the coal into the appropriate hopper for one of the four boilers.

Cotton mills and engineering

I was one of two students working in the boiler house, which was handy as we were as naive/stupid as each other. Both of us had been born in the 1960s when the north Manchester area was all cotton mills and engineering factories; although their days were numbers even back then and by the early-1980s the Thatcher government had pretty much killed them off.

The boilers were huge; there was no problem standing up in them and I was told they’d come from a ship. Only three out of the four worked at any one time, the far right one on standby should one of the others fail.

My job, which was supposed to be for two-weeks but was extended to three, involved helping to clean the boiler house, repair the fire bricks inside the boilers, fit new gaskets to certain pipes and, for an entire day, shovelling the coal that was stuck to the sides of the hoppers down the chute.

Shovelling coal from the inside of the hopper would be a health and safety nightmare today; but in 1987 myself and the other student were given rags to tie round our necks and the bottom of the legs of our overall to keep the dust out, and very basic face masks.

Armed with our shovels we slid through the safety fence from the gangway into the top of the hopper and got stuck in.

We took it in 10 minutes shifts; this was seriously exhausting and sweaty work. We were both young and fit but the heat at the top of the building, even without the boilers working, was incredible.

It was possible that if we got too close to the edge the coal would give way and we would plummet a few metres down into the boiler. It never happened and even if it had I doubt we would have been injured; it would have been a Veruca Salt down the pipe in Willy Wonka type adventure; but not as psychedelic.

We had taken our coal shovelling instructions from a man who’d lost one of his little fingers while cleaning some dirt from the conveyor belt chain that took the coal to the hoppers. He told us he’d wiped it with a rag and felt a “nick”. He rubbed his hand with a rag and then saw his finger was missing; and then he started to scream.

Shovelling coal was good fun; doing some real work because up until then it had been pretty easy; we weren’t the poor people that had been assigned to shovelling the paper pulp that had been lying around for months on end. That was like shovelling shit.

Cushy job

My cushy job, however, didn’t really involve 45-minute breakfasts, leisurely walks around the mill, including the separate storage mill, or sitting around drinking tea and reading the newspaper.

Neither I nor my co-student had ever been in such a vast place before so we didn’t know how these things worked. We didn’t realise that on our “welcome to ELPM” induction sheet, when it said that breakfast was between 10:00am and 10:45am it actually meant that we were only supposed to take 15 minutes within that time period.

This was pointed out to us in our second week, which is when we re-read the sheet and there it was; although it was quite hard to understand. We’d really enjoyed our leisurely breakfasts, especially because the canteen was spotless and for me I could fantasise that I was Arthur Seaton in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning.

And anyway no-one in the boiler house was bothered about our leisurely breakfast. Same as when we set of for a walk one morning, as you do in a vast paper mill and especially if you’ve read Peter Currell Brown’s Smallcreep’s Day.

The boiler house was separate from the main mill, presumably to reduce the risk of fire, and was clad in light blue-coloured corrugated sheet metal. It looked newer than the rest of the complex; although I doubt it was.

East Lancs Paper Mill was founded in 1862 and was made up of a series of buildings separated by yarded areas, which reflected the way the business had grown over the years with new bits being added on an ad hoc basis.

By far and away the largest of these buildings was the paper mill itself, which was where the raw pulp was mixed and dyes added before heading to vast steel plate beds where this gloop was fed at speed through a series of heated rollers, and where at some point a watermark was stamped, before emerging as paper and then being cut to shape.

There was also an adjacent building; the brown mill which, as you might guess, is where brown paper was made.

After visiting the two main paper mills we then headed across the River Irwell on a footbridge to Pioneer Mill, a former cotton mill built in 1906 and bought by East Lancs to store paper.

Pioneer Mill, and the footbridge, still stand today with the mill mostly unused save for a few cash and carry wholesalers and back street car repairers.

The three-storey red brick building was filled wall to wall, ceiling to floor with paper of all sizes and quality. Some of it, such as A4, was boxed and on pallets ready for the outside world and East Lancs at that time was known for its Elan brand, which was the paper for photocopying and was the bedrock of the business.

Clocking in and clocking off

But ELPM was far more than just two papermaking mills, a boiler house and an old cotton mill. There were also storerooms, maintenance workshops, packing rooms, storage areas, toilets and washrooms, the canteen (of course) and offices. And it was the office where each Friday afternoon I went to pick up my wages as my “reward” for clocking in and clocking off to signify that I was at work.

To collect my wages I’d ring a bell on the wall outside of the office and a small window would be lifted open from the inside; I’d give my name and a small brown envelope would be handed over packed with cash.

Aside from the various building and departments within the mill complex there was a pub across the road from the main entrance in Church Street East, the Papermakers, and ELPM also supported a cricket club, social club and bowling green; and it also had its own small reservoirs, referred to locally as lodges, supplying water along with the River Irwell to the papermaking process and no doubt in the early days to power the mill via steam or water wheel.

Radcliffe is a small town within the Greater Manchester population and it was evident that the majority of the people in the mill had known each other all their lives; infant school, secondary school, apprenticeship.

And what was also evident was that bullying was rife; perhaps not as bad as it had been in school days but it was still there.

These bullies were merely showing off in front of us students. Men who had become fat from too much booze – in the Papermakers – and too many fish suppers; and wheezing from too many fags thought they ruled the roost. And, to an extent, they did.

These bullies had, no doubt, stopped their co-workers from fulfilling their potential in life, but East Lancs Paper Mill wasn’t unique in terms of bullying; bullying was part and parcel of working in heavy industry but was, and is, no way excusable.

And while bullying was evident the fact that the mill’s days were numbered wasn’t. Up until the mid-1990s the paper-making industry in Radcliffe employed 2,000 people with East Lancs and Radcliffe Paper Mill being the two largest.

The 32.5-acre ELPM site currently lies vacant, all evidence of its existence apart from the sadly unimpressive main gates, now razed to the ground. It has outline planning consent for around 520 new homes and a school.

The collapse of the paper industry in Radcliffe, and indeed the Irwell Valley, was abrupt and brutal and East Lancashire Paper Mill closed in 1998.

33 Comments
  1. My dad worked at ELMP all his life sad to see it now
    I can remember the Christmas parties for the kids I even went to see him play cricket one evening after work. It always seemed a lovely friendly place to work.

  2. My name is Steve Barnes i worked at ELPM from 1976 until closure in 2001. Had some great mates there Stu & Carl Robinson,John and Ian Stanbank John Greenhalgh who was best man at my 1st & worst wedding. Big Bill was a firm but fair gaffer with no favourites. Seen bullying there too. I remember arthur rowe being a bit of a bully,well towards me at any rate! Lots of familys worked together there,Steve & Dave Holland,father & son Dave & Paul Ramsden,Stuart & Mick Herdson. Good days out watching United,especialy with John Stanbank & Steve “Whitty”Whitbread. All good lads. I moved out of the area after it closed & re-married in Las Vegas in 2013,never been happier! Miss the lads,miss the laughs & the banter,hope everyone went on to find work after it went bust.

  3. Hi everyone I worked at the mill from1974 to 1978 as an apprentice bricklayer . I think I was the worst apprentice they ever had. When my time was up they sent me back to australia and told me to never lay a brick as long as I live.
    Happy days. I will never forget the fun and wit.
    Hello to everyone. Robert field

    • I am trying to ascertain which company dealt with the liquidation/closure of East Lancs Paper Mill
      My name is Stanley Ayres 01704 620914 email [email protected]. I am a partner in ST Paper operating from a factory in Heckmondwike.My partner Terry Stuart and myself purchased 400 tonnes of sheets and reels of paper and board.I PERSONALLYhandled them all taking Regards and thanks Stansamples, sheet or reel sizes of paper and board. Am trying to obtain a copy of the original invoice, can you help or direct me to who now has the company documentation

  4. Hello

    Interesting history. I googled for 3 former friends and employees, Colin Ashworth, Ian Holt and Stuart Allen.
    I now live in Spain but remember my time at ELPM.

    My Dad David Nelson Lister senior was the Mill Super and I followed on in the white mill production area on machines 1, 2 and 5. I am sure many remember him as a hard task master, but hopefully fair.
    I Never went above machine man before leaving for a sales career.
    A great place and great paper.

    Lots of good stories with management, Kirkpatrick, Trickett, Pomfret., Burgess, and more.
    Great to review history and good times.
    I saw the gates 2 years ago, what a shame.
    The Seddons from Cheshire did own the company for many years.
    DAL

    keep up the good work and great memories.

  5. Started at elpm in 1978 straight from school and stayed for 11 years, working in the salle. Met so many characters but none more so than my 2 sorrogate fathers, jimmy holbrook and ken white house. Look back often on all the good times, not usually the work which was usually tedious but the people, which made working there so interesting!!

  6. I started work at the ELPM in the summer of 1970 at the age of 16. Although I only stayed for 4 years (I had the bright idea to try working abroad), it was without doubt 4 of the most formative years of my life. The characters all seemed larger than life and it’s only when I look back I realise what a special place it has in my life. Dianne, I remember your father although I didn’t have any real dealings with him. I worked in the office with Peter Wolstenholme, Dennis Holt, Peter Burnham, Harry Pickup and a big busted wages clerk called Elaine, happy days ……..

    • Now that we don’t have industry on that kind of scale, does that kind of experience still exist? I doubt it. As I mentioned I was only there a few weeks but it was a great time.

    • Hi Peter,

      My name is Jan Bryan and I worked at Robert Horne the Paper Merchants, until 1995 and had dealings with Peter Holt and Elaine, who moved into Sales. I also visited the Mill with my Boss, Pauline Bond, who has sadly passed on since. The Paper Industry as a whole was brilliant, and its really sad that its died. Robert Horne have since gone to the big Paper Merchants in the sky too. I look back with great affection on my days dealing with everybody at the Mill.

  7. Derek, my dad was Jack Pom, he worked there from 1933 when he left school until 1981, but he was on extended sick leave from 1977 as he got emphysema from dust. I remember going round the mill several times with him as a lad, it fascinated me. Also, they used to run Christmas parties and trips out for the kids of the workers there

  8. yes i worked at east lancs 62 till 78 i was a cutterman on the 85 inch supercutter has bert fleet called it i was on arth0ur rowes shift alan bray was my best soul mate i have never known so many people come and go in a worke place ln my life i saw a lot of bullying there realy nasty bulling i myself waspicked on one day by somone called stuart heardson till i put him on his back never botherd again all the time i was there yes i saw a lot of things at that mill every body new what you did were you went who your girl or boy friend was the name alwhyn blare springs to my mind.has do lots of others that i have forgot i remember nacy in the offices and my good mate les turnock and tommy burns and good old author dykes wish i had not wasted 17 years of my life there but i did

  9. I worked at ELPM in the Wages Office from 1975 to 1987. It was a great place to work. My father in law was Travis Trickett who was Chief Engineer there. People were so friendly. I remember when all the students worked during the holiday shutdown. They don’t have workplaces like ELPM anymore. At lunch time in the canteen, for 24p you could have a starter, main meal, pudding and tea or coffee which made you so full you didn’t feel like working in the afternoons. Those were the days.

  10. I worked there 1964to1965 anybody remember happy drome,Bert fleet,jack Pom,big bill ,the mill will run through this w/end yippee

  11. hi, have you tried youtube, there is one promotional video on there. there was another made a few years later but its not on youtube

  12. Had a walk around the site about a month ago. Took my camera, but there was nothing left worth photographing. Thought I’d be able to accurately locate the boiler-house but I couldn’t. Shame.

  13. Hi there guys. Interesting stuff. Do any of you know my dad who worked there since the early 70’s ’til it sadly closed down in 2001. He was an electrical engineer named Alan Bennett? I’m 28 now and it closed down when i was in my last year of school and i always wanted to work there but never got the chance. My dad said they valued the workers there and everyone was one big family. Lovely. You just don’t get that these days. I’ve been down there recently with my camera taking pictures of the site like the old iron gates, the Papermakers pub and the cricket ground. The most interesting was some old boulders that are stacked on top of each other and the top one says “pap”. Aloso there are tiles still on the walls of the cellar, just at the side of the gates. And with the old gates and the old Papermakers pub all boarded up it and vast empty old site, it really feels dead from what was once a living thing. When your down there you can feel the ghosts. Although if i’m ever around the area i like to pop into Stones bakery. The best bread and pies i’ve ever had! Cheers chaps.

  14. This brings back memories! My dad worked in the brown mill for most of his working life. He was responsible for dealing with incoming waste cardboard boxes which were minced up into a pulp. Quite often there would be items that shops etc had left in the boxes and so they were always searched for ‘loot’ before pulping. My brother and I often took dad his lunch at weekends and we would spend time running around the machinery and climbing up huge bales of waste cardboard. Another health and safety nightmare.!

  15. Hi Tony,
    Thanks for your insights, very helpful.
    I had a walk around the Wilton Mill and ELPM sites a couple of weeks back. Took my camera but there’s nothing left of either.

  16. HI Guys, the boiler house was formerly at R.A.F. Wrexham. I confirm that the paper was stored at the Wilton Mill, Cotton Machinery is fairly light and the mill flooring not strong therefore, so the paper had to be stored next to the ceiling supports on each floor.I worked there from 1965-79.

  17. Hi Chris,
    Thanks for reading my blog post. I think I mentioned that I was a bit vague on a few things, so you must be right about Wilton Mill. I had a drive around Pioneer as part of my research and I have to admit it didn’t seem big enough. The main thing I remember about walking there was going across what I thought was the Irwell but I guess it must have been Bealey’s Goyt.

  18. I worked at ELPM from 76 until March 87 so I would have just missed your time in the boiler house. I remember well the students who used to work in the July and September holidays. ELPM actually shut down in 2001 and sadly this led to the shutting down a few years later of the Papermakers Arms!

    The paper was stored in the old Wilton Mill next to the mill. I don’t remember the paper being stored in the Pioneer mills in the time I was there. The boiler house then had been installed after the war and had been moved from an ordnance factory. It consisted of 4 x 50,000lbs coal fired chain grate boilers. I think that when you worked there power generation had stopped and before the power generated was about 4 MW which was all used by the mill with the remaining power purchased from the grid.

    It is all a few years ago and ELPM went the way of many paper mills in the UK and shut down. The mills were in fact too small to be viable and this was never helped by government policies over energy.

    As last comment the breakfasts always were a problem as you rightly point out they lasted far longer than the allowed 15 minutes

    • The alternator was still running when I was there in 1989 – 1993, making about 4.5 MW but the two DC generators had been disconnected. It needed to run to drop the steam pressure from 16 barg down to 2 for the paper machines.

    • Do you remember the ghost stories about the three girls in the Wilton Mill and the balcony that collapsed ? I didn’t give any credence to any of it but I was in the old offices (at the far end of the building) one night and nearly crapped myself.

    • Thanks for reading my blog post. I’m quite surprised how little there is on the web about ELPM, and I wish I could remember more about my brief time there.

      • Dear Richard and everyone of you has taken a little bit of time to share their fond stories of ELPM..My earliest memories of ‘the mill’ are @1976 and going to work with my old man.

        I wasnt really aloud into the works or upstairs in the office BUT I recall many hours spent in the smoke filled gate house opening and closing the gates (green button,red button) – Wagons in, wagons out…Wow ! What more do you need at 6 years old !
        My Dad was John Charles Seddon,some of you may remember him as Mr John, I hope many of you had the chance to speak to him and have good memories of him, some good some bad perhaps. For all that, he was an incredibly fair and kind man always wanting what was best for East Lancs, the people of Radcliffe and his family.
        Situations of course change and the Seddon association with ELPM came to a sad end in 1985,
        Im hoping that some of you can enlighten me on stories of old and the whereabouts of others – Dennis Holt, Mrs Holt and of course the legend Derek the driver

        Keep those gates open !

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