Echoes of the past: The history of the Brighouse tannery trade

Kirklees Corn Mill where the Fairburns started their business activities
Kirklees Corn Mill where the Fairburns started their business activities

It was just an acknowledgement card from one company to another. The company in Glasgow that received it is of no real interest to this column but the sender most certainly is – Edward Fairburn & Sons, Brighouse and dated February 8 1904.

In 1857 there was Edward Fairburn & Bros, Corn Millers and Fairburn Bros who were Card Makers and by 1862 the name of E & A Fairburn Corn Millers was also appearing - all very confusing.

The Fairburn family were principally card makers for at least 125 years, with their business being initially established by Adam Fairburn at Cooper Bridge. It was Edward Fairburn who, having lost his father at the age of eight, at the age of fourteen began to take a more active interest in the firm. It was this Edward Fairburn who took over the Kirklees Corn Mill at Cooper Bridge in 1850.

In 1878 the business was expanding sufficiently enough that they were able to purchase part of the Victoria Works (the current Sainsbury supermarket site) in Brighouse and in 1890 the neighbouring Calder Vale Mills in Brighouse. In 1894 the Fairburn family changed both these sites into leather works.

The Calder Vale Mill was turned into the tannery, scouring rooms, drying sheds, rolling and currying rooms, warehousing and large making rooms. Their business quickly established itself and even won gold medals and certificates at an exhibition held in Huddersfield for their speciality work in leather belting (machine belts).

The Victoria Works, which in those days was said to be separated only by a small field, was where the wire drawing and card clothing businesses were. In these premises they had drawing rooms, annealing and cleaning sheds, hardening and tempering rooms and all the latest heavy machinery that the industry offered for this type of business.

The finished goods utilised all the skills their work force had and ensured their goods were sold all over the north of England and many other parts of the country, ensuring the name of Brighouse was well to the forefront.

With growing success at both Victoria Works and the Calder Vale Mills the Fairburns decided to sub-let the old corn mill to Henry Dean for the remaining period of their lease. With the expiration of the lease Henry Dean signed a new lease with Sir George Armytage to rent the whole of the corn mill site for £111 per year.

The mill kept on working until 1946 when its life as a working corn mill came to an end. The Dean family continued to live on the site until the 1980s. With the passage of time the whole place fell into a state of disrepair, which resulted in the surrounding woodland almost reclaiming it.

The Fairburns were not the only family involved in the tanning business. In 1867 James Lee of Hipperholme purchased Tan House Croft, built a tannery building and by 1894 was employing 60 people. The Lee family ran the tannery business on this site until 1903, when it was sold to the Brooke’s stone company. The Lee family continued in this trade at their new premises in Gardener’s Square off Denholmegate Road.

Some readers may also remember Sharpe’s Leather works on Park Street/Park Row, opposite the Brighouse Rest Centre. Whilst the tannery business was just a small part of the overall industrial scene in Brighouse that employed local people over many years, this is another illustration of the town’s industrial diversity. This week’s photograph shows the Kirklees Corn Mill where the Fairburn’s started their business activities.