#228 – Robert Fletchers Paper Mill – Part 2

Employees Handbook para (d)

Long Service Benefits

It is hoped that your association with the Company will be a long one, and that you will qualify for a Long Service Award. After 42 years’ service, men receive a gold watch, and after 37 years’ service, women receive a silver teapot.

Big, bad Beloit from Bolton. The room was unlit, save for a shaft of light through a window at the far end. A long exposure helped, but I was too far away for my light painting to have much effect.

Moving on, we knew there to be an even bigger machine lurking nearby. Off in a large extension to the side was a huge Beloit Walmsley paper machine, built less than 5 years before the mill closed, and apparently, still not paid for. I wanted to see this machine as I grew up not far from the vast Beloit Walmsley works in Bolton, and remember the massive machines which were dragged out on huge heavy haulage vehicles. Sadly, the last owners, Sandusky shut the place down, and now it lies empty, apart from the state of the art foundry which was built just before the works shut. The paper industry has been devastated by high energy prices since 2000, with most of the local paper mills closing, and this industrial Armageddon has had a knock on effect on the ancillary industries too.

As we made our way round the lower floors, we heard movement outside. Freezing, we heard the noise of a Transit Van driving round outside. Shit. Police? Azubi ventured closer for a look. Panic averted, it was a flatbed and the driver had parked it up by the containers outside, and was wandering off. Good. Carry on.

Rather than make our way outside and to the lower mills, which were closer to security, we decided to head back upstairs. We were keen to see the contraption known in the urbex community as the ‘Death Star’. Incorrectly described as a ‘potcher’ in many reports, this weird device is a ‘pan’ where the chopped hemp and flax would be boiled under pressure with caustic acid for a few hours. Needless to say the smell was still revolting.

A pan, not a potcher

Conveyors. Flax would be pitch forked onto here by hand, a particularly unpleasant job apparently.

Continuing upstairs, we made our way to the top floor. This was where the raw material started it’s journey through the mill, and needless to say, large bales of flax were still sitting there, waiting their fate.

Bales of flax given a stay of execution when the mill closed. Normally they would be chopped up, beaten, boiled in acid and then squeezed between rollers.

Wandering round the emergency respirators were reminders of how nasty the manufacturing process could be. Large amounts of chlorine and acids are integral to making paper, and you really don’t want to be hanging around if there’s any kind of leakage.

It was in these areas that we saw reminders of the human side of factory life. Lockers. Discarded payslips. Offices with power still going to the computers (yes, we tried). Out of date calendars. I flicked through the production records at the side of the machines, and found the last entry. Did the operators know that they wouldn’t be making another? Maybe not.

The last shift

The last payslip

And so, the light started to fade. You don’t get much light in the middle of December anyway, and lurking in the shadows of an unlit mill gave even less. Retracing our steps to our access point, we made our way back towards the hole in the fence, stopping off on a grassy knoll to look down over the site. Spotting a large lodge, below us, I headed down the slope to its banks. Noticing that the water was unusually still, and never one to miss the opportunity to photograph a reflection, I stepped down onto the marshy silt to capture the reflection of the mill in the water.

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