John Kirkbride writes a brief history of Delph village for The Saddleworth independent
The old days
NESTLED in the Castleshaw Valley straddling the River Tame is the attractive village of Delph.
In previous village histories I’ve talked about the origin of the name – but Delph is tricky. The Urban Dictionary has it down as a green, plant-based gunk useful for greasing engine parts… but that doesn’t sound right.
The most likely source is the Old English word ‘delf’ – meaning quarry – which seemingly refers to some bakestone quarries just north of the village.
Bakestone? Good question. Apparently, they were flat stones around three quarters of an inch thick and were used to bake oatcakes and muffins (every day’s a school day!).
Like most of Saddleworth’s villages, Delph developed from a tiny hamlet during the 19th century, when a number of small textile mills popped up in the area. There are still a few weavers cottages in evidence today. Many of the residents would have been sustained by either farming or weaving (or presumably baking oatcakes).
One of the joys of Delph is that the centre of the village looks very much as it would have done in the 1800s. Things have changed, of course, but most of the original buildings along the high street have remained intact.
All of our villages have their individual charms, but in Delph this aspect is enhanced by the river and the stone bridge that crosses it.
One of the largest and best known of Delph’s industrial buildings was Bailey Mill, which was located next to Delph Station.
It was built by local entrepreneur siblings David and Henry Mallalieu between 1863 and 1871. Having been weavers since their teens, they formed a company in 1856 and the new mill would be its home.
From the start, D & H Mallalieu’s operation involved the whole process, beginning with raw fibre which was dyed, spun and woven into cloth all under the same roof. There was even a private railway siding serving the mill, making it easier to deliver raw wool along with the coal needed to fuel the boilers that ran the machines. It was a smooth operation all round, and the company soon acquired a global market.
Originally producing material for shirts, the company expanded into woollens and flannels for men’s trousers and ladies’ dresses. They also made hat shapers, or ‘forms’, for hat makers in Luton and Stockport, as well as tweed for the numerous flat cap manufacturers in and around Manchester.
Naturally the mill employed a lot of people, and it’s probably fair to say this marked the start of the real expansion of Delph into a more developed community.
To a large extent, it also replaced the previous practice of weavers working on looms at home, (although the concept of working from home seems to have gone into reverse, for the moment at least).
By the end of World War II around 75 per cent of what was produced at Bailey Mill was being exported abroad, ending up in iconic stores like Bloomingdale’s, Macy’s and the Hudson Bay Trading Company.
Closer to home, Mallalieu’s supplied clothing for brands like Aquascutem, Burberry and Jaeger. In 2000 production was moved from Bailey Mill to Valley Mill in Delph.
Sadly, as most Saddleworth people will be aware, the story doesn’t end well. In 2016 the mill was ravaged by a devastating fire and had to be all but demolished.
As reported in this very journal, family member Katie Mallalieu watched as the mill was reduced to little more than a single storey frontage.
Hopefully, whatever redevelopment eventually takes place there will be sympathetic and in keeping with the mill’s illustrious history.
On a lighter note, Delph is home to a lively community (when not under lockdown restrictions) with no less than three historic pubs.
You’ve also got Delph and Dobcross Cricket Club while if the sound of brass is your thing, Delph Band Club is the venue to head for.
The cricket club is another institution with an illustrious history. Formed in 1873, it was originally just Delph Cricket Club, but added its neighbouring village to the name the following year. Back then it was based at Gatehead on Delph New Road, moving to its current ground at Huddersfield Road in 1915.
Professionals who’ve made guest appearances at the club include the legendary Gary Sobers, Frank Worrall, Roy Gilschrist and Conrad Hunte.
During the 1970s the club’s professional was renowned West Indian bowler Sonny Ramadhin, who for a time was also the landlord of the White Lion pub.
The Band Club in Lawton Square is home to the village’s very own brass ensemble. Delph Band was formed in 1850 and went on to become the first Saddleworth band to win the National Championship of Great Britain. It’s also played at the Commonwealth Games and made TV appearances in Brassed Off and Coronation Street.
Perhaps not surprising then the Saddleworth’s Whit Friday band contest is an eagerly anticipated event in Delph. At the height of the proceedings the high street is lined with enthusiastic supporters, and the atmosphere is vibrant and welcoming.
Sadly, this year’s competition has been cancelled again due to Covid, but Delph could definitely be the place to be if the planned contest in June 2022 takes place.
Back in the 60s, 70s and beyond, Delph was also home to the White Elephant youth club on Denshaw Road, where Saddleworth’s renowned Phil Beck was a young DJ. My mum worked there with a chap called Les Mingham and, I suspect like many locals of a certain age, I have some fond and formative memories of the place.
Millgate Arts Centre
Sitting at the bottom of Stoneswood Road is the Millgate Arts Centre, with its impressively large windows and ornate clock. Formerly the village’s Co-op store, it has arguably become the cultural centre of Delph.
For many years it has been home to the local library, not to mention the village’s very own theatre, where the thespian troupe known as Saddleworth Players are based along with many other groups.
I used to know the auditorium quite well as my sister was a member of Delph Junior Players before moving on to other things, and we saw her in quite a few productions there.
Sadly there have been no performances since March 2020… but there’s good news. It’s been announced on the centre’s website that preparations are underway for an “exciting re-opening” of the Millgate Arts Centre in September!
Like all our villages, Delph has evolved from its origins as a hamlet of weavers (and oatcake bakers) and will no doubt continue to evolve.
The historic Old Bell at the crossroads is now a restaurant and gin emporium while a number of commercial developments provide space for thriving local businesses.
From what used to be the bank you can now withdraw cocktails and ‘small plates’, and within walking distance of the village centre you can order food inspired by cuisines from around the world.
I can’t help wondering what the original inhabitants of Delph hamlet would have made of all this evolution. Some I suspect would have been impressed; others would probably have said, ‘What’s a cocktail?’
Whether you call it progress or not, it’s pretty much inevitable. But it’ll take more than progress for Delph to lose its inherent character.