Diggle: a brief history (including the wheel)

By John Kirkbride

The brief history bit
UNLIKE some other villages in Saddleworth, Diggle doesn’t really have a clearly defined village square, though that doesn’t detract from the strong sense of community to be found here.

It could be argued that the former hamlet of Weakey near the Hanging Gate is at the centre of the village, but doubtless not everyone would agree (and I don’t want to start a scrap).

Diggle Station and hotel. Picture courtesy of Saddleworth Museum

The name Diggle apparently derives from the Saxon word degle, which means ‘valley’, and like most of our local villages it started life as a collection of small hamlets. Around 250 years ago there was Harrop Green, Diglea and Weakey, which the main road has drawn together like a thread as new housing has developed over the decades. Diglea, near the Diggle Hotel, is the oldest of the original hamlets, and the narrow lane there offers a glimpse of the way the village must have looked 200 or more years ago.

Agriculture and textiles were Diggle’s main ‘industries’ in the early 1700s, but the development of canal and railway transport provided a boost for the local economy. By the late 1700s the Standedge to Oldham turnpike road had appeared, making access to the area much easier, and houses built of locally quarried stone began to spring up to accommodate the incoming workers. It was at this point that Diggle first began to evolve into a fully-fledged village.

Some notable landmarks
The Diggle Hotel has been around since the 16th century and is still a hotel and is still in Diggle (obviously). Originally designated as a ‘beer house’, it was granted a hotel and inn licence in 1859.

It stands at the bottom of Boat Lane, so named because that’s the way the horses went while the canal barges were ‘legged’ through the tunnel below.

Upstream from the Diggle Hotel is the attractive Diggle Brook valley, which for many years has been the home of Diggle Rifle Range. Indeed, records have apparently shown that shooting was taking place here as long ago as 1860.

Hanging Gate. Picture courtesy of Saddleworth Museum

During both World Wars the area was used as a training ground for the army and the range is still active today. (On a clear day with the wind in the right direction we can hear the shots from here at Highmoor).

Diggle’s Hanging Gate Inn opened in 1803, soon after the arrival of the turnpike road (not to mention the potential clientele to keep the pumps flowing). The original structure didn’t survive and the present building was constructed in 1926. Now renamed the Gate Inn, it’s still a popular watering hole and eatery for locals and visitors.

Digging in Diggle
The Standedge Tunnels from Diggle to Marsden were such an ambitious engineering project for the late 1700s, they were almost a tunnel too far. Comprising three railway tunnels and a canal tunnel, the project was beset by problems from the start, largely due (apparently) to poor management.
As you would expect, excavation for the canal tunnel began at both ends, but at some point someone noticed the Diggle end was considerably higher than the Marsden end. Nobody wanted two tunnels, one on top of the other, (apart from which the Marsden end would have been constantly flooded), so worked commenced to correct the issue. This in turn caused several collapses, while leaks were a persistent problem.In a bid to save the project from failure, top engineer Thomas Telford was drafted in to advise on the construction, and the tunnel finally opened for business in 1811. It had only taken 17 years – if they’d waited a little longer they could have carried their goods in Transit vans.

Diggle waterwheel
In 1847 a huge waterwheel was constructed at Diggle Mill, which in its day was the second largest in the UK, topped only by the Laxey wheel in the Isle of Man. (the latter remains the largest working waterwheel in the world).

The Diggle wheel was almost 65 feet in diameter and seven feet wide, and was built from 32 segments with 64 massive spokes linking it all together. It carried 192 buckets, each with a capacity of 37 gallons, and provided an output of 130 horsepower.

Exactly why this huge power source was deemed necessary has become lost in the mists of antiquity, but it would have made a great fairground ride (apart from the bit where it goes underwater perhaps).

In an ironic twist, mill owner and operator William Broadbent was blind and never even got to see this engineering wonder of the time. The wheel was dismantled in 1924.

Diggle mills
Diggle has fewer large mills than some of the other Saddleworth villages as historically much of the weaving that went on here took place in smaller premises.

Having seen so much of our architectural heritage destroyed and replaced with structures designed by five-year-olds using Lego, it’s always gratifying to see old buildings being repurposed and put to good use. A good example of this fine initiative is Diggle’s Warth Mill.

Warth Mill. Warth Mill. Picture courtesy of Saddleworth Museum

Constructed in 1919, the building was acquired by the Tanner family in 1928. With the automotive industry growing rapidly, the mill was used for the manufacture of tyre fabric, and in its heyday was producing nearly 50 tonnes of the stuff every week.

When production at the mill ceased, instead of demolishing it and building houses, the premises were made available to a collection of small businesses, many of which still thrive there today.

Warth Mill. Picture courtesy of Saddleworth Museum

Another prominent industrial structure is the former WH Shaw’s pallet works, which dates from the 1860s. Originally a loom-making factory, in the 1890s it employed more than 500 men. (Whether or not there were any female employees doesn’t seem to be recorded). The decline of the woollen trade after World War II led to the closure of the loom works in 1969, and the premises were subsequently converted to office use.

As most Saddleworth residents – and particularly those who live in Diggle – will know, the new Saddleworth School is currently under construction at the former pallet works. Whether you think this is a good idea or not will depend very much on where you live, I suspect, and how it will all pan out in the end remains to be seen. Whatever the eventual outcome, it seems that the education of many Saddleworth children will ultimately be added to the story of Diggle’s colourful history and heritage.


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