The History of the Whitewater, by local historian Ronald Mein
The Leven Valley in which the hotel is situated takes its name from the river flowing from the southern tip of Lake Windermere in the English Lake District. The river is now no more than a shadow of its former self since a weir was constructed upstream from the hotel; prior to this the river could produce 200 brake horse power of energy at the hotel bridge. Over the centuries many industries have existed on the site of the luxurious hotel, the earliest recorded is a corn mill that existed in Tudor times during the reign of Queen Elizabeth the first. The mill was controlled and managed by nearby Cartmel Priory. Since those very early beginning’s there have been many industries on the site including, corn mills, bobbin mills, iron works, a gunpowder mill, woollen mill, flax mill, dye works, a pyroligeous acid manufactory, cotton mills and numerous other smaller businesses. Prior to becoming the hotel, the last industry this building was used for was the world famous ultramarine blue pigment factory “known as the world famous Dolly Blue Mill” which occupied the site.
The Cotton Masters were also attracted to Backbarrow by the power of the river but there was a major problem and that was a shortage of workers in such a remote rural area. However the problem was solved by the cotton masters taking in Pauper children who were then the responsibility of their local parish and a drain on their meagre resources; parishes were more than happy to rid themselves of these poor retches. A large number of children came from Liverpool, Manchester and from as far away as Brighton but the largest number were acquired from London, eventually the number of children apprenticed to the cotton mill was more than 200. In 1816 after Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo parliament turned it eyes on internal affairs and set up a parliamentary commission to examine the condition under which pauper children lived and worked, the Backbarrow Mills were amongst others chosen to be examined.
It was found that these child apprentices worked fourteen hours a day and in summer’s good daylight even longer. The Backbarrow children were housed in two dormitories known as High and Low Row. Male children slept in one and females in the other they slept three to a cot, they rose at 4am and worked fourteen hours a day six days a week. They had half an hour break for lunch which was usually oat cake and milk, sometimes seasonal fruit was added. They had their tea while they worked; many were so tired that some were found asleep under their machines when the supervisor made his nightly round of inspection. On Sunday mornings they cleaned and oiled their machines and in the afternoon marched the three miles to Finsthwaite Church for prayers. After the service they were then taught their letters.
On the opposite bank of the river from the hotel stood a group of four story tenements housing fifty mill workers and their families. These tenement’s shared ten dry earth toilets, they had no internal water supply and all families shared the two outside water taps from which to draw water, their lighting was by oil lamps or candles. The Parliamentary enquiry resulted in an Act of Parliament which did not forbid child labour but it did say that children under the age of seven could not be employed, however there are many cases where this was ignored. The Act did not restrict their hours of work or improve their living conditions but it did forbid mill owners from transferring children over such long distance. The mill suffered a number of serious fires caused it was thought by static electricity sparks igniting the fine cotton dust in the air. In 1868 there was a very serious fire causing all the spinning mules’ and other machinery to fall through all the mill building floors and destroying them. Although the mill was rebuilt it never reopened. The owners found they had enough capacity in their other Lancashire mills.
In 1880 a Woollen mill opened in one of the mill buildings but lasted only a couple of years then it also closed. In 1890 Johannes Eggestorff whose father had set up an Ultramarine blue pigment factory in Hull for James Reckitt and Son acquired the vacant Backbarrow cotton mill site including the mill and all the accommodation for workers, and started to manufacture ultramarine blue powder the under the name of the Lancashire Ultramarine Company, it became so successful that the company was taken over in 1928 by Reckitt and Colman Ltd. Ultramarine blue is a laundry agent that has many other uses, to mention a few it was used In washing powder, paint, manufacture, ladies make up, wallpaper printing, textile printing, rubber manufacture, artist’s paints, cement and brick colouring, sugar refining, and plastic colouring.
During world war two Hull was bombed and Reckitt’s Kingston factory was destroyed causing them to move their carton filling department to Backbarrow in 1941. The original carton filling building is now an integral part of the nearby Lakeland Motor Museum. The pigment was manufactured from a finely ground mixture of sulphur, china clay, soda ash, pitch and velspar. The grinding and mixing was achieved using a large dry ball mall an example of which can be seen on display today outside the Whitewater Hotel. The ground mixture was then loaded into crucibles and stacked in one of 13 kilns and then fired using coal to a temperature of 800 degrees centigrade over a period of three days, it was then allowed to cool over a period of two weeks.
After offloading from the kilns the raw blue was transferred to what is now the main block of the hotel, it was crushed and washed with copious amounts of water to remove the unwanted impurities. The washed blue was then loaded into one of five wet ball mill’s for final grinding, then followed a number of refining stages, boiling, settling, “Which separated out the various shades of blue”, drying and dressing. Eventually by blending an extensive range of about ninety guaranteed shades, blue powder was produced to customer’s requirements. Container’s weights ranged from 25kg paper sacks, 50kg plywood kegs, and 125 kg steel drums. A very large amount of blue was packed by women in the Kendal Rd carton filling department into small cartons of various sizes ranging from 1oz,1 1/8oz, 30gm and up to 1kg and dispatched around the world.
The factory was a major employer in the area and on average some fifty women and 40 men were employed, often there would be three generations of a single family working at the mill, many lived in houses owned by the factory. The factory closed in 1982 not because of lack of business but because the factory could not meet the required environmental standards, strict control of waste water and the chimneys act designed to stop air pollution. The main factory building is now the luxurious four star Whitewater Hotel which has on display in its grounds examples of machinery and inside smaller items are tastefully displayed.
The carton filling department which is only a short walk away is part of the Lakeland Motor Museum; the Motor Museum also incorporates the Leven Valley Heritage centre containing recreations of scenes from the mill using dressed mannequins, hundreds of samples of ultramarine products and equipment, photograph’s and detailed information. The factory was always fondly referred to as the Dolly Blue Mill throughout its 92 years of manufacture and has now passed into folk law and its memory preserved by the hotel.
Local Historian and former mill employee Ronald Mein