The Bancrofts of Charles Mill, Oxenhope

Wool Skep Plate

Oxenhope, near Keighley is one of those villages which has had a high number of Bancroft families living there over the last couple of centuries..... most of them descended from the  family line of Joseph Bankcroft [spelt with a 'k'] and Grace Greenwood who were married in 1752 at Bradford Parish Church.

Most prominent amongst these Bancroft families in Oxenhope, was one who ran a worsted spinning business from Charles Mill for nearly one hundred and fifty years.

Our story starts with the building of Charles Mill about 30 years before the Bancrofts came on the scene The earliest reference to the mill is an indenture of 17th August 1803 concerning a mortgage on land and ‘the mill or building being erected on the Little Ing in Oxenhope and intended as a worsted mill’. The parties to the mortgage, value £310, were Henry Wright, gentleman, and Charles Ogden. In another indenture of 25th November 1803, water was diverted from Leeming Water to provide a mill pond for Charles Ogden, described as a worsted manufacturer. The mill pond is still there today, and is now part of the garden of a nearby house built and once owned by the Bancroft family.

Mill Pond with Charles Mill in background

It is likely that the Charles Mill got its name from Charles Ogden, who seems to have quickly failed in business, because by 1808 he had sold machinery and other equipment including wheels, shafts, frames, engines, combs and combing pots belonging to the mill’s two combing shops for £700. There were also two cottages included in the sale.

In a deed of 30th May 1810 the Rev. James Charnock, incumbent of Haworth paid £945 for 'the land with the mill for spinning worsted yarn and the cottages’ and Ogden was described at that time as a ‘Worsted Manufacturer, Dealer, Chapman and a Bankrupt’. Rev. Charnock probably acquired the mill as an investment with the help of his wife, who was a wealthy heiress, and when he died in 1819 the mill was inherited by his son Rev. Thomas Brooksbank Charnock of nearby Cullingworth. Rev. Thomas Charnock was a man of independent means but had no parish of his own. He was a good friend of the famous Patrick Bronte of Haworth and therefore used to help him out from time to time in his parish.
By 1833, Charles Mill had been let to a George Feather and among his employees was his nephew John Bancroft [1815-1869],the son of Jonas [1791-1880] and Betty Feather. On the 1841 census John Bancroft is described as age 25 years and an overlooker at the mill. Rev. Thomas Charnock died suddenly in 1847, by committing suicide, and was succeeded by his widow Mary Charnock. John Bancroft was therefore given the the opportunity he was looking for….he took over the tenancy of the mill in 1848, and by the 1851census he is shown as a ‘worsted spinner, employing 22 hands, 13 boys and 22 girls’, some of which were possibly outworkers, and he was at that time shown as actually living at the mill, as was his father Jonas. Both were probably living in the two cottages which were part of the mill complex ,and Jonas  was listed as a woolsorter, which was a job that could be quite hazardous in the mid-19th century, as can be read on the following article by clicking here. By 1861 the Charnock family had sold Charles Mill to George Feather, and two years later John Bancroft formed a partnership with three other individuals, who were probably financing him, and started trading as ‘John Bancroft & Co’
John and his wife, Mary Ann, had a married life of only twelve years which was touched with tragedy in as much as three of their seven children died as infants, and another son called Walker Bancroft was killed in a mill accident Their infant children Jonas died of the croup age three, John died of worm fever age one, George died of teething, inflammation of the lungs and convulsions age one. Their mother Mary died a year after their third infant death in 1853, age 33 years, after a long illness of Phthisis pulmonalis [tuberculosis]

Walker Bancroft
Eleven years later their second child, Walker Bancroft was killed at the age of 21 years at Charles Mill where he worked as an engine tender. An enquiry was held on 3rd March 1862 by the Deputy coroner for Yorkshire, and the cause of death was given as 'accidentally crushed, when working in a steam engine'. Walker appears to have been an unlucky young man because he had also previously been involved in earlier accident, when he lost his left hand, and this early photograph shows him with his large cap strategically placed to hide his missing hand. The local newspaper described the fatal accident as follows:
‘Fatal Mill Accident.....On Saturday morning, during the breakfast half hour, a young man named Walker Bancroft, son of Mr. John Bancroft senior partner of the firm Messrs John Bancroft & Co of Lowertown, went to the engine to repair it [while the mill was standing]. Something went wrong, and he was strangled by the engine being set in motion because the buckets of the water-wheel having become filled with water.’

The father, John, died , age only 56 years, in 1869 and the cause of death was described as “chronic ulcer of stomach etc”. Their gravestone in The Oxenhope Wesleyan Graveyard at Lowertown tells the sad fact of the family's life.

 John was succeeded in the business by his sons Joseph Riley Bancroft [1838-1890], and his brother Jonas Bancroft [1850-1913] who eventually became joint owners of the mill property in 1876 when their Uncle George Feather died the previous year and left it to them. Joseph  was a prominent member of the community being a member  of the Oxenhope Council Board for twelve years, three of them as Chairman. Looking at the census records for this period, it would seem likely that Joseph probably bought his brother out of the property because Jonas, who was twelve years younger than his brother, had his occupation  recorded as either 'wool merchant' or 'wool agent' whereas his brother Joseph lists his occupation as ' master wool spinner' on the census records.

 During the period 1870-1885 the mill underwent a great deal of alteration. It had originally been powered by just a water wheel, but by the mid 1880’s a steam engine had been installed to supplement the water power system because water power alone was probably incapable of providing the requirements for the expanding business.A great deal of structural work was undertaken to alter and double the size of the existing building from what had originally started life as two cottages. The rebuilt mill was  two storeys with an attic, and was double the width of the earlier building.The Bancrofts consistently referred to themselves as worsted spinners in the trade directories and a stock list of 1881 itemised the manufacturing process and the machinery in the mill floor by floor....the ground floor was where the wool was washed, dried and combed, the first floor was used for spinning and the attic area [sometimes known as the garrett] was used for winding and warping. The mill at this time was  lit by gas and heated by steam pipes, as confirmed by records from 1881 which proudly say that ' gas meter pipes are now fitted through the mill, and all steam pipes are now fit up to and from the boiler'
 Here  is an old photograph of this period showing the flywheel of the steam engine being removed from the mill.

Joseph Riley Bancroft continued to run the business until his death in 1890, and his two sons John Walker Bancroft [1867-1945] and Frederick Riley Bancroft [1872-1939] then took over and continued to run the business as 'John Bancroft & Co'. By 1915 the mill produced hosiery, knitting and weaving yarns from its 4,200 spindle machines.

John Walker Bancroft [1867-1945] and family
Frederick Riley Bancroft [1872-1939]

Frederick Riley Bancroft was obviously something of a textile engineer, as can be seen from the following picture which is a scale model of a weaving loom made by him. He attended a Night Class and was awarded a First Class Diploma in the Elementary stage of Machine Construction and Drawing from the Science and Art Department South Kensington, age thirteen. The loom may have been part of the practical side of the examination. He was also a lifelong member of Oxenhope Methodist Church, being a Circuit Steward, Trustee and Teacher in the Sunday School.

 When Frederick Riley Bancroft died  suddenly at his home 'Brookfield' in 1939 his brother, John Walker Bancroft, exercises his legal right in line with a previously drawn up agreement, and bought out his late brother’s shares.   Frederick Riley Bancroft’s son Norman, was asked to leave the firm, which had been started by his great-grandfather, and he then went  into business on his own [more about this later]

A year later John Walker Bancroft brought his only son Sydney into the business and when his father died in 1945, Sydney continued running the business . John Walker's obituary in the local newspaper described him as '  a senior partner in the family firm for 54 years, and a member of the Bradford Wool Exchange for over 50 years....he was also a wireless enthusiast and designed and built the first car to be used in Oxenhope in 1900...he lived at Hillcrest in Oxenhope'.

 Documents dating from the period of the second world war show that the mill had moved from producing yarn for weaving and knitting to its war time products of ‘government khaki warp and weft yarn for serge battledress’. Records from this time also show that the steam engine and water wheel of the late-19th century had been replaced by an 80 h.p. diesel engine and water turbine, although a boiler had been retained to provide steam heating. Lighting was now by electricity, from the mill's own supply.

 Sydney had married Maud Riley, and retired from the business in 1957 and then spent much of his time working for several charities and for the community as a local councillor, and eventually became Mayor of Keighley from 1971 to 1972.
He was a lifelong member of Oxenhope Methodist Church and was a steward of the Haworth & Oakworth Methodist Circuit, and also had the unique distinction of being elected an Alderman by the local council, when he was no longer a servicing Councillor. He died in 1984.

Sydney and Maude Bancroft
 As Sydney and his wife Maude had no children to take over the business when he retired, the firm of John Bancroft & Co together with Charles Mill was sold to his cousin Norman, who had had previously had to leave the family firm in 1939 after his father’s death.

Norman Bancroft

Moving back in time again....Norman had been forced out of the Charles Mill business previously in 1939 by way of his Uncle buying his father’s shares and at the time of his death. With the help of many business friends and employees of his former firm, he bought into a business in Keighley called Arthur Ratcliffe & Co at Eagle Mills in Keighley, which had 3000 spindles, and  the firm went from strength to strength as it was wartime and all mills were working flat out producing goods for the war effort. Norman’s business eventually merged with the owners of Ponden Mill near Stanbury, who had 2000 spindles and became Bancroft & Sunderland Ltd and they then bought out his cousin Sydney’s business after his retirement, at Charles Mill in Oxenhope, which at that time was operating 3260 spindles, spinning hosiery, hand knitting and weaving yarn. The group eventually consolidated their business at the three mills, and  ceased production in 1973 at both Ponden Mill and Charles Mill to concentrated its business at Eagle Mill in Keighley.

 Charles Mill was then left unoccupied for many years until it was finally converted into residential use as apartments in the 1980’s, and today is known as Charles Court.

A collection of old Bobbins from Charles Mill

 The Bancroft's business at Charles Mill shows an evolution involving rebuilding, expansion and additions, but it always remained a small mill concentrating on just one aspect of the textile manufacturing process….spinning, rather than adding weaving to it's range of operations, as other mills in the area did. It is a demonstration that concentration on just one aspect of textile manufacture could permit the survival of a small firm into the modern age.

 [I am grateful  to Mrs Norma Mackrell and Mrs Dorinda Kinghorn, who are both members of the Bancroft family, for providing some of the information for this article.]

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