Fletcher, Burrows & Company owned all the collieries and built cotton mills in Atherton in northwest England. Gibfield, Howe Bridge and Chanters Collieries exploited the coal seams of the Middle Coal Measures in the Manchester CoalfieldPart of the Lancashire Coalfield. Some easily accessible seams were worked on a small scale from the Middle Ages, and extensively from the beginning of the Industrial Revolution until the last quarter of the 20th century.. The Fletchers built company housing at Hindsford and a model villageType of mostly self-contained community, built from the late 18th century onwards by landowners and industrialists to house their workers. at Howe BridgeSuburb of Atherton in Greater Manchester, built as a model mining village in the 1870s by the Fletchers., which included pit head baths and a social club for its workers. The company became part of Manchester CollieriesCoal mining company with headquarters in Walkden, Lancashire, formed in 1929 by the merger of a group of independent companies operating on the Manchester Coalfield. in 1929. The collieries were nationalised in 1947, becoming part of the National Coal BoardStatutory corporation created to run the coal mining industry in the United Kingdom under the Coal Industry Nationalisation Act 1946. . Howe Bridge Mills were built in Atherton town centre.


In 1776 Robert Atherton of Atherton HallCountry house and estate in Atherton in Lancashire, England built between 1723 and 1742, demolished in 1824. leased the coal rights under his estate to Thomas Guest from Bedford and John Fletcher of Tonge with Haulgh in Bolton, forbidding them to extract coal from under the hall.[1] The Fletchers had mining interests in Bolton and Clifton in the Irwell Valley from Elizabethan times. Matthew Fletcher’s family owned most of Clifton in 1750[2] including the Ladyshore and Wet Earth Collieries.[3]

During the early 19th century the Fletchers worked several pits around Howe Bridge. In 1832 John Fletcher’s son Ralph, who lived at the Haulgh in Bolton, died leaving his pits in Great Lever to his son, John who had built up the Lovers’ Lane Pit, and divided the business in Atherton into shares for his sons, John, Ralph, James and his nephew John Langshaw. The company was then known as “John Fletcher and Others”.[4] The company developed the Howe Bridge Collieries and sank three shafts in the 1840s when James Fletcher was the manager. The family acquired land and property in Atherton and between 1867 and 1878 Ralph Fletcher controlled the business. Abraham Burrows became a partner in 1872 and the company became Fletcher Burrows and Company. John Burrows was the company’s agent from 1878 to 1900 when Leonard Fletcher took over. In 1916 Clement Fletcher took over and remained with the company for 45 years.[5]

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Former miners’s bath house and cottages at Howe Bridge
Wikimedia Commons

The company was considered to be a good employer and had a reputation for good management. In the 1870s it built homes at Hindsford and the model village at Howe Bridge for its workers . The model village at Howe Bridge is a conservation area. A public bathhouse, shops and a social club were part of the village. The workers, some of them pit brow womenFemale surface labourers at British collieries. They worked at the coal screens on the pit brow (pit bank) at the shaft top until the 1960s. Their job was to pick stones and sort the coal after it was hauled to the surface. who worked on the pit brow screens sorting coal, were provided with hampers or turkeys at Christmas by the company.[6] The Fletchers also contributed to the cost of St Michael and all Angels Church at Howe Bridge in 1877.[7]

In 1921 the illustrator and cartoonist Heath Robinson visited the company’s pits, and was commissioned to produce its 1922 calendar.[8]


Among the old small pits working around Howe Bridge in the early 19th century were the, Old Endless Chain Pit at Lovers Lane, the Old Engine Pit, the New Engine Pit (a gin pitHorse-driven engine used in lead and shallow coal mines.), Marsh Pit, Little Pit, Sough Pit and Crabtree Pit. Colliers who worked for the Fletchers were entitled to free ale at the Wheatsheaf at the end of their shifts.[9] In 1774 coal was sold for 2d a basket and the price was 5d by 1805.[10]

The largest of the early pits owned by the Fletchers were Lovers’ Lane Colliery which lasted until 1898 and the Eckersley Fold pits. These pits became part of Howe Bridge Colliery along with the Crombouke Day-Eye, which dates from the 1840s, when a drift [a]adit was driven into the Crombouke and Brassey mines at a gradient of 1 in 5.[b]In this part of Lancashire a coal seam is referred to as a mine and the coal mine as a colliery or pit. The Crombouke and Eckersley Fold pits closed in 1907. The company sank Howe Bridge Colliery’s deep mines in 1845. Three shafts were sunk to the Seven Feet mine, the Victoria pit where coal was wound at 447 feet (136 m), the Puffer for pumping water at 435 feet (133 m) and the Volunteer, the upcast ventilation shaft.[11] Howe Bridge Colliery was taken over by Manchester Collieries and closed in 1959.[12]

Gibfield Colliery‘s origins are in a shaft sunk to the Trencherbone mine in 1829 close to the Bolton and Leigh RailwayLancashire's first public railway, promoted as a mineral line in connection with William Hulton's coal pits to the west of his estate at Over Hulton. line which opened in 1830.[13] The colliery was served by sidings near Bag Lane Station. In 1872 the colliery was expanded when another shaft was sunk to access the Arley mine at 1233 feet (376 m). A third shaft was sunk after 1904 accessing nine workable coal seams between the Arley mine and the Victoria or Hell Hole mine while the original Gibfield shaft was used for ventilation.[14] The first pit-head baths in the country were built at Gibfield in 1913. Gibfield closed in 1963 and the site was cleared.[11]

Chanters Colliery in Hindsford was sunk in 1854 in an area where coal had been mined for centuries from small pits. One of these pits, the Gold Pit which closed before 1800 was reputed to have had a steam engine. The colliery was modernised and developed in 1891 when two shafts were sunk first to the Trencherbone mine at 1121 feet (342 m) and deepened to the Arley mine at 1832 feet (558 m) in 1896. These shafts accessed 12 coal seams.[15] Coal screens and a washery were built, and steel headgear and a new winding engine installed by 1904.[16] The colliery was continually developed and modernised and lasted until 1966.[17]

Manchester Collieries, Nationalisation

In 1927 Robert Burrows proposed a merger of several local colliery companies including Fletcher, Burrows’ Atherton Collieries operating west of Manchester. As a result Manchester Collieries was formed in 1929. In turn when the coal industry was nationalised in 1947 Manchester Collieries became part of the National Coal Board’s Western Division, No 1 (Manchester) Area. A reorganisation in 1952 moved the Atherton Collieries into No 2 (Wigan) Area.[18]

Colliery railways and locomotives

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Ellesmere in preservation at the National Museum of Scotland
Wikimedia Commons

After 1830 Lovers Lane Colliery was connected to the Bolton and Leigh Railway at Fletchers sidings north of Atherleigh.[19] The Fletchers built a tramroad to a landsale yard at Stock Platt Bridge in Leigh where their coal was sold.[20] This tramroad constructed to standard gauge was converted to narrow gauge system which was hauled by horses before 1850.[21] The Fletchers decided to extend this short branch to the Bridgewater Canal in 1857. A basin at BedfordSuburb of Leigh in Greater Manchester, one of the three ancient townships that merged in 1875 to form the town of Leigh. was constructed and the line was extended from Stock Platt through Bedford via a tunnel, 889 feet long, built by the cut-and-cover method. A new line from Howe Bridge to the east of the turnpike was built to the tunnel by May 1861 and the old tramway was removed.[22] The Fletchers bought two locomotives for use on this line, Lilford and Ellesmere, from Hawthorn’s in Leith. Both locomotives had reduced chimneys as the tunnel height was restricted. The tunnel was in use for 70 years although in the later years its use declined and the track was lifted in 1952.[23] The workshops at Gibfield Colliery built a 0-4-0 saddle tank locomotive in either 1888 or 1893 which probably worked to Bedford basin. It had no cab and a reduced chimney and was named Electric.[16]

Two saddle tank locomotives, Carbon a 0-4-0 in 1920, and in 1923 Chowbent a 0-6-0 were bought from Andrew Barclay Sons & Co. in Kilmarnock. In 1927 0-6-0 saddle tank Colonel was bought from Hunslets.[24]

Cotton mills

The first of the six Howe Bridge Mills was built in 1865 on the north side of Mealhouse Lane by the directors of Fletcher, Burrows & Company. The last mill was built in 1919. In 1929 the company joined Combined Egyptian Mills and Howe Bridge Mills became the company’s headquarters. The company’s name changed to Combined English Mills in 1953 and subsequently was owned by Viyella. Numbers 2 and 5 mills were demolished in 1965.[25] The Howe Bridge Spinning Company was the fourth largest such company in Lancashire in 1891, with 250,000 spindles and in 1922 had 700,000 spindles.[26]


a adit
b In this part of Lancashire a coal seam is referred to as a mine and the coal mine as a colliery or pit.