Uppermill: a brief history

By John Kirkbride

The old days
DID you know that Uppermill viaduct has 23 semi-circular arches with rusticated voussoirs and is supported on a rectangular pier with projecting plinth and springing band? No, neither did I.

I was also unaware the viaduct is classed as a Grade II Listed Building, so I guess it won’t be getting pebble-dashed any time soon.

Though I’ve heard it described as the ‘capital’ of Saddleworth, Uppermill’s history follows an almost identical path to other villages in the region. The only real difference is that for the usual reasons of geography and transport, it grew a little larger than some of the other villages.

Saddleworth Civic Hall (or simply ‘The Civic’ as most locals know it) is located in Uppermill and houses the offices and Chamber of Saddleworth Parish Council. That makes it the administrative centre of the region, which I guess is another reason why Uppermill is generally regarded as the ‘main’ village.

Huddersfield Narrow Canal, Uppermill

The history of Uppermill – and Saddleworth in general – goes back beyond Roman times but the area only began to grow and prosper with the arrival of the textile industry. I can’t help wondering what the region would look like now if it hadn’t been for cotton and wool. Mostly forest, probably.

Having found no information to the contrary, I surmise (dear Watson) the name Uppermill derives from there once having been an upper mill and a lower mill somewhere in the village. Or something like that. However, if you have a more definitive explanation, do please let us know.

To keep pace with industrial growth in Saddleworth new transport links had to be created, one of which was the Huddersfield Narrow Canal.


Saddleworth Civic Hall, Uppermill

Appropriately enough, the idea was first proposed in 1793 at a meeting in the George Hotel in Huddersfield. The plans were drawn on the back of a beer mat, and construction began the following year with the marking out of the route. (I made up the bit about the beer mat).

Unfortunately, general inefficiency, the ill health of chief engineer Benjamin Outram, geological obstacles and a lack of money meant the project took a lot longer than anticipated. No doubt to the delight (not to mention relief) of everyone involved, the canal finally opened in 1811.

Sadly, the canal was not the most successful ever built due to its narrow width and bottlenecks caused by the Standedge Tunnel, and it eventually closed in 1963. Happily, it was re-opened to navigation in 2001 after a lengthy restoration and is now a popular Uppermill attraction. At one time you could cruise the canal on a narrow boat aptly named The Benjamin Outram.

The viability of canal transport obviously declined as the region’s railway infrastructure improved, and one of those improvements included the aforementioned viaduct with its rusticated voussoirs. (I thought they were a type of Victorian underwear, but apparently they’re the wedge-shaped pieces of stone that form the arches).

Viaduct above Den Lane, Uppermill

The viaduct was originally commissioned by the Manchester Railway company, which, by the time it was completed in 1849, had merged into London and North Western Railway. The architect and engineer was AS Jee, and his design featured three skewed arches to accommodate the canal that passed beneath.

It clearly took careful planning and clever engineering to allow the narrow boats to pass below this impressive stone structure, which seems ironic given that the viaduct would ultimately play such a pivotal role in the canal’s decline and fall. I guess that’s what they call progress.

One of the most prominent buildings in the village is Uppermill Methodist Church, which stands proudly in the square. It opened in 1913, replacing an older chapel built around 100 years earlier.

Constructed in a Romanesque style, its octagonal tower is 70 feet high and features leaded glass windows, providing a striking landmark in the heart of the village.

Uppermill expands
Along with the growth of the textile industry in the area came an influx of workers to keep the wheels and looms of the industry turning, and new housing in Uppermill expanded outwards (much like I myself have done).

To cater for the needs of these new residents, pubs, shops and other amenities began to spring up in the village.

In September 1913 the Uppermill Picture Palace opened, which was situated near to where the buses turn around today. Established by the Milnsbridge Picture Palace Company, it was managed by a chap called Tinker, while a Mr Chapman tinkered on piano to accompany the films.

It was renamed the Saddleworth Picture Palace in 1918, then relaunched under new management in 1923 with a film called Blood and Sand starring one of Hollywood’s earliest legends, Rudolph Valentino. In those days, in a rural Yorkshire village, that must have been a pretty exciting night out.

In 1929 the business was bought by Robert Plummer and his wife Vera, who ran the Saddleworth Picture Palace until it closed 30 years later. Sadly, the building was demolished to make way for an extension to Central Garage, which was next door.

Another essential amenity for Uppermill’s growing population was of course pubs, and many of those that were established in the 1800s (and earlier in some cases) are still open for business today.

The Bridge Inn on the High Street was lost many years ago, while the Cloggers Arms on Lee Street near the Civic Hall was a more recent casualty. However, a pub crawl up the main drag would still be worth the effort (particularly if you make the crawl back down it again).

The Granby, Waggon, Hare and Hounds and Commercial are all still pulling the pints as well as the punters, and although the interior decor has largely been updated to reflect more modern tastes, they still retain the ambience of traditional English pubs.

Speaking of updates, because the Commercial was always known locally as the ‘Commie’, it has recently been re-branded as . . . er, The Commie. I just hope the original name doesn’t get lost in the mists of time, causing future generations to assume the pub was a meeting place for Bolshevik revolutionaries.

If you’re not averse to a bit of a walk, The Church Inn is another quintessential English pub, and well worth the hike (or a cheeky taxi). Pretty much around The corner is the Cross Keys, an establishment that has been refreshing its patrons since 1745, and will no doubt continue to do so for many years to come.

21st century Uppermill
Uppermill has come a long way since its days as an industrial village dedicated to the textile trade, and a chunk of the local economy is now based around tourism. It has been for quite some time, to be fair, but more recently an increasing number of new bars and eateries are beginning to flourish, reflecting the UK’s booming cafe culture.

Gone are the days when local choice didn’t amount to much more than a pint or a nice cup of tea, because in Uppermill in 2022 you can get pretty well everything you’d expect to find in the trendier districts of Manchester.
Along with the traditional pubs there are smart contemporary café bars like Muse and Kobe Coffee, while on the edge of the square is the Mediterranean style Caffè Grande Abaco (which according to Google translates as Large Abacus Café, and that’s definitely a name you can count on).

Meanwhile, catering for the shoppers are a range of commercial outlets, from clothing stores and what we used to call ironmongers, to gift shops and emporiums of creativity and crafts.

Visitors looking for a more cultural experience won’t be disappointed either, with plenty of art, history and heritage on offer at Saddleworth Museum and Gallery. Housed in a beautifully restored mill dating from 1862 and located right next to the canal, it’s the perfect place to spend a fascinating hour or two.Uppermill is also ‘home’ to two of Saddleworth’s most popular annual events, the Rush Cart Festival and the Yanks weekend, both of which (I’m delighted to report) are set to return this summer after a two year absence. And if you’re looking for excitement, big crowds and more plastic glasses than you can shake a stick at, Uppermill is definitely the place to be on Whit Friday (another event making a comeback this year, hurrah)!

However, in the midst of all this exhilaration, we shouldn’t forget Uppermill is still at its heart a village community, just as it was over 100 years ago. There are butchers and bakers (and probably a candlestick maker somewhere), while the trusty Co-op continues to provide locals with most of what they need.

So while Uppermill’s commercial businesses cater well for the regular weekend tourist invasions, I can’t help thinking that there’s an aspirational aspect to the village’s popularity, too.

In other words, if we had a choice, I suspect Uppermill is the kind of village that most of us would quite like to live in. And recommendations don’t come much higher than that.

5 Replies to “Uppermill: a brief history”

  1. I remember when the Civic Hall was the Mechanics Institute do you please if you insist on writing histories of Uppermill make sure that they are accurate and not just cherry pick. You never write of the shops that were in the village that catered for you from cradle to crave and the bits in between.I note that when you referred to the Cloggers you did not mention that Sonny Ramhadin and his wife were lcensees there before they moved to Delph. Please do not downplay our village it was a wonderful place far better than the twee Mancester outpost it has become.(but it is still Yorkshire)

  2. It’s a pretty fair article written in an easy-to-read style. Well done.

  3. Understand there was an ‘upper mill’ and ‘lower mill’.. the Upper Mill being approx where the car park for Hare & Hounds now is..
    Smithy Lane was originally the main road, which carried on down over the river (poss near where stepping stones now are) and up over Ladcastle..

  4. Just wondering if Mr Kirkbride will see this message. I’m also wonderingif he’s a distant relative? My maternal side of the family are Kirkbrides

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