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William Blinkhorn’s Monster Chimney ‘Little John’ built in 1842 by John Ashton of Blakeley Near Manchester. The giant octagonal chimney towered to 367 feet and 6″ high

I have always called the ubiquitous, all-dominating, tall, cotton mill and factory chimneys in Lancashire’s cotton towns, once as common as blades of grass: ‘Lonely Sentinels’.

In Bolton’s cotton mills, bleach works, paper mills, iron works and foundries and diverse other industries, my old friend, the late Fred Dibnah M.B.E., a proud native Boltonian, Master Steeplejack and intuitive steam engineer, indeed, spent his entire life passionately surveying and repairing Bolton’s industrial chimneys. Fred also demolished quite a number around the town.

Whilst giving me a personal tour of some of the town’s finest surviving chimneys, Fred eloquently related many vivid experiences of his work on large industrial smoke stacks, by calling these skywards thrusting stone and brick chimneys: ‘Monuments to the Industrial Age’. This passionate statement of Fred’s profoundly inspired me to research and write potted histories of a goodly number of the North of England’s industrial chimneys. Following Fred Dibnah’s death in 2004, I wrote FRED DIBNAH’S CHIMNEY DROPS. ISBN 978-0-9532725-1-8.

William Blinkhorn’s Chemical Works.

William Blinkhorn who was recorded as a chemical manufacturer and dealer in manganese, founded his Kay Street Chemical Works, Bolton in 1833.

Blinkhorn’s manufacturing processes began with the production of sulphuric acid. This was achieved by the lead chamber process, involving burning sulphur or iron pyrites in a coal-fired furnace and absorbing the sulphur dioxide created in water-filled, lead-lined chambers; thus, sulphuric acid was manufactured.  Sulphuric acid was commonly used by the numerous bleach works that abounded within Bolton and nearby Bury. It was also in demand for the manufacture of soda-ash for the soap-boiling and glass-making industries.

Due to the relentless acid rain condensing from the fumes issuing from Blinkhorn’s works’ furnace chimney, the firm received numerous complaints from the occupiers of the nearby dwellings who lived cheek by jowl to the factory and, also from the many factories and cotton mills within the district.  In 1838, in an attempt to reduce the smoke nuisance, the infant Bolton Corporation, brought a legal action against William Blinkhorn, forcing his firm to increase the height of the work’s chimney to 90 feet, with the aim of more efficient fume dispersal from this higher level.

However, the plan failed. The chimney was found to be still far too small, which resulted by 1842, in Blinkhorn commissioning John Ashton of Blackley, Manchester, who had created a well-earned reputation as an expert chimney builder to construct an enormous octagonal brick chimney towering 367 feet, 6 inches into the sky in an attempt to solve the smoke nuisance. Incredibly, John Ashton and his brick-layers from the laying of the first brick, completed the construction of the chimney in sixteen weeks! To augment the speedy construction, a specifically-built, John Musgrave 4 horse-power steam engine, raised the bricks in iron buckets as the structure evolved. Following the fixing in place of the huge Pennine sandstone coping stones, and the construction of the brick-work flue, the chimney was by now completed. Undoubtedly John Ashton carried out a colossal job.

To celebrate this major chimney building achievement, William Blinkhorn invited over 4,000 ladies and gentlemen, who were hoisted up the chimney shaft in a cage, where at the top they enjoyed the panoramic views over the surrounding countryside.

The gigantic chimney quickly became a famous local landmark. In recognition of John Ashton, the towering brick stack became affectionately known as ‘Little John’. Indeed, for quite some time it was renowned for being the tallest chimney in Britain. Unfortunately, the towering brick stack did not however, achieve the desired result.  Three years later in 1845, due to increasing acid fumes and smoke, Blinkhorn’s Chemical Works was forced to close. The whole factory site was then taken over by textile machinery makers Dobson and Barlow who had moved from Black Horse Mill. The firm eventually manufactured a vast range of world famous textile machinery on the site which became known as Kay Street Machine Works.

‘Little John’ or the (Blinkhorn Chimney)

The enormous, octagonal brick stack, 367 feet, 6 inches high served seven steam boilers, plus a number of ventilating flues and furnaces. The diameter at the chimney’s base was 42 feet, 6 inches and at the top 24 feet.  Around 900,000 bricks and 120 tons of stone was used in the construction.  The chimney was struck by lightning in 1843 and again in 1909. A survey carried out in the same year revealed that the brickwork supporting the massive weight of the sixteen feet deep moulded stone cap had badly deteriorated and therefore, was profoundly dangerous.  This resulted in steeplejacks reducing the chimney’s height by forty-one feet, which unfortunately, spoiled its symmetry.  ‘Little John’ did, however, still dominate the whole of Bolton’s massive millscapes and moreover, could be seen from the breezy heights of nearby Winter Hill.

In his “Life and Times of Samuel Crompton”, French’s colourful description of the Blinkhorn Chimney paints a dramatic picture:

‘Near the Hall-i’th-Wood rises one of those octagonal columns so common in the manufacturing districts which serve as visible symbols of industry that surround them. The chimneys in and around Bolton are very numerous, and many of them are a great height, but all dwindle into pygmy dimensions compared with that near Crompton’s residence ……  Unintentionally, it has become a conspicuous landmark, indicating with power and precision the site of his (Crompton’s) invention …….’ (The spinning mule).

This interesting little tale is extracted from: THE LANCASHIRE STEEPLEJACK- a sketch of his career and work by an outsider, Bolton 1885.

Joseph Smith the famous “Lancashire Steeplejack” from Rochdale, was engaged carrying out repairs to the brickwork of “Little John” at the time of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897.  Sir Benjamin Dobson, the chimney’s owner, had given Smith instructions to fix around the top of the chimney, “eight arc lamps of 240 candle power each, which were to be lighted by electricity during the festivities, a sight never to be forgotten by the inhabitants of Bolton and the surrounding towns”.

Sadly, in 1967 ‘Little John’ was demolished. The chimney was 125 years old, but by then was only 150 feet high following two earlier shortenings.  Sadly, nothing now remains of William Blinkhorn’s Chemical Works. However, the name Chemist Street, which ran alongside the old chemical works, is a reminder of its original use.  Selim Rothwell, a local artist, sketched a view of Bolton from the top of the original chimney in 1842.  The painting he made from the sketch is displayed in Bolton’s Art Gallery.

Regrettably, I never photographed ‘Little John’, Bolton’s monster chimney. Notwithstanding, when aged 14, I frequently visited nearby Hall-i’th-Wood after cycling the ten miles or so from Top o’Hebers, Middleton. I would enjoy sketching the enigmatic and historic black and white fabric of this splendid 17th Century hall.

Alan McEwen is an author of industrial heritage books and runs Dandelion Stone Troughs & Architectural Antiques with Christine McEwen

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