Cottoning on-the evolving story of Tanner’s Waterside Mills

FOR more than 180 years people have been coming to Waterside Mill in Greenfield for work and to work.

The one-time cotton mule spinning mill, located off the A635 Holmfirth Road, is quieter than in its heyday and its manufacturing base is far more diversified.

But the premises – erected in 1836 and taken over by its current owners in 1911 – remains a hive of activity.

Certainly the four founding members of the Tanner family, Gilbert, Harold, Jack and Sydney, could little have imagined how the business would develop over the next 107 years.

From beer making to flags for football fans, window manufacturing to incontinence products, there’s a place for all at thriving Tanners Business Centre – one of Oldham’s largest.

The diversity of the operation sees around 120 tenants, 100 storage units and 50 businesses occupying the sprawling site with its offices, storage units, workshops and even the UK’s only dummy wind turbine tower!

Its success story led to a recent visit by the Mayor of Oldham, Councillor Javid Iqbal, who came for an hour and stayed for more than two.

‘Tour guide’ for the morning was John Tanner, grandson of Gilbert Tanner, the latter who was knighted by King George VI for his services to public and political life.

And as the country prepares to remember the fallen of the Great War, Colonel Tanner also received the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) in the last month of the conflict in 1918.

Waterside Mills were purchased from the Buckley family for £4,500, potentially around half a million pounds in today’s money.

The Buckleys prospered sufficiently from the business to provide funds to build St Mary’s Church in Greenfield.

As for the Tanners, they manufactured heavy cotton fabrics and felts for the military and the paper industry.

At its height, the company employed approximately 850 people across four factories: Waterside Mill; Warth Mill in Diggle, specialising in tyre fabrics for the fast growing motor industry; Monarch Mill in Royton for the spinning of course count cottons for weaving conveyor and canvas products; and Ellenroad ring spinning in Newhey producing finer cotton counts for towelling etc.

Tanner Bothers continued to supply major tyre companies, including Goodyear, Firestone and Pirelli. They also distributed own brand dental floss to major retailers until the work moved to the Far East.

“I continued battling away and suppled Pirellis right up until last minutes,” explained John, currently chairman and one of the chief fundraisers for Saddleworth Players.

“But in the late 1990s we thought if we don’t do something then we are not going to be here anymore.

“In the end I went to see Pirellis and told them we were closing. When I started in the 1970s, we employed about 250 people, by the end it was about 150.

“But every one of them stayed during the 90 days’ notice period and worked right the way through until the last day.

“It’s always sad to lose a business but I believe every single person got a job which I am really proud of.

“For me though I was too young to pack it in. We started to redevelop the units which is why we now have a business centre.

“I was always looking for new products and a friend of mine in Belgium said he was looking for a UK distributor for what we now know as incontinent products.

“Eventually, we finished up supplying the distributors who were supplying the nursing homes. The old weaving shed was where we stored the containers.

“When the NHS decided these products would become free to those who would need them people were moving away from nursing homes to living at home.

“So we hit on the idea we could supply directly to people at home. And we did that using the internet.

“We set up our own website – – and our sales tripled overnight.”

John and his wife Poppy are directors of Tendercare while another seven people are employed.

“It is interesting to see how the business has evolved,” added John

“We are virtually full and it is a common problem across Saddleworth and Oldham that there is a shortage of business units.

“I am full of admiration for the people who run these businesses and long may they continue.”

• To learn more about available space at Tanner Business Centre call 01457 872273.

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