Manufacturers & Merchants
The area of the Fylde around Kirkham still retains an agricultural flavour which dates back to preceding centuries when its produce found a ready market in the developing industrial towns of Lancashire from the late 1800s. However, although it was not to expand like other industrial centres such as Preston, Kirkham still became an important place for manufacturing industries. It has been reported that at one time there were eleven mills in the Kirkham area and in 1926 Barratt’s Directory of Preston and District gives nine ‘Cotton Spinners and Manufactures’ in Kirkham. These mill buildings had a significant impact on the landscape of Kirkham. It was not just the larger manufacturing towns in Lancashire that were characterized by industrial buildings. The area around the Fylde had been notable for the production of flax and hemp since the middle ages but this expanded considerably in the eighteenth century. Flax (or linen) was important for the production of sail cloth and the development of these industries was promoted by legislation which resulted in the taxing of imported cloth from 1712 and, from 1736, the requirement for all English ships to have English sails. This inevitably boosted areas such as Kirkham where there was an established infrastructure for such production. Using a small port at Wardleys on the Wyre near Poulton, and later Fleetwood, merchants began to import flax from the Baltic to pass out to local dressers, spinners and weavers to produce coarse linen which was suitable for sail cloth. Eventually these manufacturers established their own factories for this production. Flax production also resulted in some migration into Kirkham with Irish immigrants coming to work in the industry. This in turn led to the increased in the catholic population and ultimately the building of The Willows Catholic Church.
In the late eighteenth century there were two major firms of merchants and makers of sail cloth, Hugh Hornby and Sons and Langton, Birley and Co. The Birley family became the leading flax manufacturer in Kirkham and along with the Hornby family and the Langtons were leading names in the area. Their status was reflected in the houses they had built and lived in. Ash Tree House on Church Street was built by Thomas Langton around 1765. Langton also built Carr Hill House, where Carr Hill High School now stands. Milbank or Mill Banke which once stood on Wrong Way (the present-day Station Road) was built by Thomas Birley in 1808.
Some of the trade of these Kirkham manufacturers and merchants was carried out with the colonies. This involved some interests in the slave trade and John Birley came to be known in the family as the ‘West India Merchant’. In the Preston Historical Society Newsletter for Winter 2020 Aidan Turner- Bishop has noted that John Birley the Kirkham flax merchant ‘invested with Lancaster slavers in the slave trade at Preston and Poulton’ with profits from this being reinvested in textile manufacture. So, like many other parts of the North West and the country as a whole Kirkham’s wealth and prosperity was due, in a significant degree to the brutal traffic of enslaved Africans.
The boom-time for the production of flax and linen for sail cloth occurred during the Napoleonic Wars and the periods of relative peace that followed meant there was less demand from the navy for these materials. However, at the same time the cotton industry in Lancashire was beginning its great expansion. Initially this was small scale production on handlooms but some of the flax merchants of Kirkham picked up on these new opportunities and, for example, the Hornby Flax Mill, which had ceased production in 1824, was adapted for cotton production and reopened in 1850.
The Flax industry in Kirkham continued until 1895 when the Kirkham Flax Mill went into liquidation. Barrett’s 1952 Directory of Preston and District still lists four ‘Cotton Spinners and Manufacturers’ for Kirkham but, in the following two decades, the cotton industry in the town disappeared as it did across the whole of Lancashire.