The name Radcliffe is derived from the Old English words read and clif, meaning "the red cliff or bank", on the River Irwell in the Irwell Valley. The Domesday Book records the name as "Radeclive". Other archaic spellings include "Radclive" (recorded in 1227), and "Radeclif" (recorded in 1309 and 1360). The Radcliffe family took its name from the town.
The first human settlements in the area, albeit seasonal, are thought to have been as far back as 6,000BC during the Mesolithic period. Archaeological excavations in 1949 at Radcliffe E'es (a level plain along the north bank of the Irwell, formed by retreating glacial deposits during the previous ice age) found evidence of pre-historic activity, suggesting a lake village site, but dating techniques of the time were unreliable. Further investigations in 1961 revealed rows of sharpened posts and worked timbers, but no further dating evidence was collected. In 1911, while repairs to the bridge at Radcliffe Bridge were underway, a stone axe-hammer was found in the river bed. The 8.5-inch (22 cm) large tool artefact weighs 4 pounds (1.8 kg) and is made from polished Quartzite, with a bore to take a shaft.
South of the present-day Withins reservoir is a possible location for a Hengi-form Tumulus. During the Roman period, a Roman road passed through the area on a south-east to north-west axis; tracing an alignment with the modern border between Radcliffe and Bury. The route linked the Roman forts of Mamucium (Manchester) and Bremetennacum (Ribchester). The approximate route was through Higher Lane in nearby Whitefield, through Dales Lane and across the Irwell over Radcliffe E'es through the site of the former East Lancashire Paper Mill. The route passes up Croft Lane, over Cross Lane and over the route of the Manchester Bolton & Bury Canal under the 10¾ milestone. It then crosses Bury and Bolton Road, and heads through Higher Spen Moor.
Radcliffe Tower in the early 19th century with the manor house
on the right before its demolition
Other than placenames, little information about the area survives from the Dark Ages. Radcliffe was likely moorland and swamps.
Following the 11th century Norman conquest of England, Radcliffe became a parish and township in the hundred of Salford, and county of Lancashire. One of only four parishes from the hundred mentioned in the Domesday Book and held by Edward the Confessor as a Royal Manor, it initially consisted of two hamlets; Radcliffe, near to the border with Bury and centred on the Medieval Church of St Mary and the manorial Radcliffe Tower, and further to the west Radcliffe Bridge, at a crossing of the Irwell. As a Royal Manor, the hide may originally have been up to four times the size it was when it was recorded in 1212 as being held by William de Radeclive, of the "Radclyffes of the Tower" family.
In the 15th century the Pilkington family, who during the Wars of the Roses supported the House of York, owned much of the land around the parish. Thomas Pilkington was at this time lord of many estates in Lancashire. In 1485 Richard III was killed in the Battle of Bosworth. The Duke of Richmond, representing the House of Lancaster, was crowned Henry VII. Sir William Stanley may have placed the crown upon his head. As a reward for the support of his family, on 27 October 1485 Henry made Thomas Stanley the Earl of Derby. Thomas Pilkington was attainted, and in February 1489 Earl Thomas was given many confiscated estates including those of Pilkington, which included the township of Pilkington, and Bury. During the English Civil War Radcliffe, along with nearby Bolton, fought on the side of the Parliamentarians against the Royalist Bury.
In 1561, after about 400 years rule by the Radclyffes, Robert Assheton (Lord of the Manor of Middleton) bought the manor of Radcliffe for 2,000 Marks. From 1765 the Assheton estates were divided between the two daughters of the late Ralph Assheton, one of whom married Thomas Egerton, 1st Earl of Wilton. The manor of Radcliffe appears to have been included in her share, and thereafter was included in the Wilton estates.
Textiles and the Industrial Revolution
The earliest known photograph of Radcliffe Bridge district, taken by William Smith in 1854.
The belfry of the original St Thomas' Church is visible on the horizon.
Pioneer Mill, at the end of Milltown Street in Radcliffe. The building was the last in the town to use cotton.
The first documented reference to industry in Radcliffe is after 1680, in the Radcliffe parish registers, which make increasing mention of occupations such as woollen webster (weaving), linen webster, and whitster (bleacher). These were cottage industries which worked alongside local agriculture. In 1780 Robert Peel built the first factory in the town, several hundred yards upstream from Radcliffe Bridge (at the end of Peel Street). With a weir and goit providing motive power for a water wheel, the factory was built for throstle spinning and the weaving of cotton—a relatively new introduction to Britain. The water wheel proved to be insufficient, and so around 1804 the goit was extended. The weir (known as Rectory Weir) was made from timber. Conditions were poor; the mill employed child labour bought from workhouses in Birmingham and London. Children were boarded on an upper floor of the building, and bound until they reached the age of 21. They were unpaid, and were kept locked up each night. Shifts were typically 10–10.5 hours in length, and children returning from a day shift would sleep in the same bed as children leaving for a night shift. Peel himself admitted that conditions at the mill were "very bad". In 1784 an outbreak of typhoid prompted Lord Grey de Wilton to inform the magistrates of the Salford Hundred; keen to prevent the spread of the disease to neighbouring towns and villages, they sent doctors to assess the situation. Their recommendations included leaving the windows of the mill open at night, fumigation of rooms with tobacco (as this was thought to discourage disease), regular cleaning of rooms and toilets and occasional bathing of children. The report forced the magistrates, led by Thomas Butterworth Bayley, to abandon the practice of binding parish apprentices to any mill not adhering to these conditions. The report also prompted Peel to introduce an Act of Parliament to improve factory hygiene, which later became the Factory Act of 1802. Over time, conditions at the mill improved; in the mid-1790s the physician John Aikin, a critic of the factory system, praised working conditions at the mill, and in 1823 inspections by local magistrates of conditions in mills across the county revealed that unlike many others, the factory at Radcliffe was adhering to all requirements of the Factory Acts.
The underlying coal measures throughout the parish were a valuable source of fuel. Radcliffe already had an established textile industry before the arrival of steam power. The first recorded instance of coal getting in the North West of England was in 1246, when Adam de Radeclyve was fined for digging de minera on common land in the Radcliffe area. Coal outcroppings were not uncommon; as recently as 1936 members of the public were seen carrying away large pieces of coal from a seam revealed by the landslip caused when the Manchester Bolton & Bury Canal breached at Ladyshore. Mining was initially limited to bell pits until the arrival of steam engines, which along with improved ventilation, made possible much deeper pits. The earliest known local use of such an engine was in 1792 at Black Cat Colliery. The parish of Radcliffe was once home to as many as 50 pits, but with the exceptions of Outwood Colliery and Ladyshore Colliery, all were either exhausted or closed by the end of the 19th century. During the 1926 General Strike many striking miners illegally took coal from exposed seams around the Coney Green area of the town, to sell to local housewives. In the 1950s to the north of the town the National Coal Board did some open cast mining near Radcliffe Moor Road, but the last legal instance of coal mining in Radcliffe was between 1931 and 1949, close to Bury and Bolton Road.
The transformation of the area from an industry based upon water power, to one based upon steam power, may not have been without problems. A story in W. Nicholl's History and Traditions of Radcliffe (1900) tells of a "great crowd" of protesters from Bury who marched on Bealey's Works, demanding that work be halted. James Booth ordered the gates closed, gave the ringleaders £5, and promised to halt work the next day. The crowd then marched on other businesses within the town before heading along the canal to Bolton, at which point they were apparently turned back by news of approaching soldiers.
This Grade II listed beam engine
once pumped water from the Irwell, to Mount Sion Mill
There were many smaller textile concerns in the parish. Thomas Howarth owned a cottage in Stand Lane from where he sent yarn to be dyed and sized. He made his own warps which were weaved in the town. He would then travel to Preston and Kendal where drapers would purchase his products. His nephews founded A. & J. Hoyle's Mill in Irwell Street, which employed power weaving to produce their specialities in Ginghams and shirting. The mill closed in 1968. Messrs Stott & Pickstone's Top Shop on Stand Lane was the first company to employ powered looms and spinning around 1844. Many of their employees would eventually leave to start their own businesses, such as Spider Mill, built by Robert and William Fletcher, and John Pickstone. This mill closed around 1930.
Radcliffe was at one time home to around 60 textile mills and 15 spinning mills, along with 18 bleachworks of which the Bealey family were prominent owners. However, the textile industry was not the town's major employer; other industries such as mining and paper making were also important sources of employment.
Mount Sion Mill along Sion Street was founded in the early 19th century and during the First World War manufactured guncotton. A weir was constructed along with a goit, used to turn a water wheel which powered a beam engine to pump water to the reservoirs above.
Radcliffe became well known for its paper industry; its mills included the East Lancashire Paper Mill and Radcliffe Paper Mill. The former was founded by the Seddon family on 29 March 1860, along the banks of the Irwell. Its construction provided much-needed employment: in the 1860s living standards within the town were poor, and local mills often operated on "short time". A reduction in the demand for coal had placed many colliers out of work, and the Lancashire Cotton Famine was starving Lancashire of raw materials, especially cotton. Soup kitchens were opened by local benefactors, and many local residents were on poor relief. The mill began producing low grade paper and newsprint, moving on to other products including high quality printing and writing papers. Radcliffe Paper Mill was formed during the First World War, when it took over from a paper mill and a pipe plant. It originally produced paper suitable for roofing felt, to cater for a national shortage. After World War II the mill employed over 600 people and produced 70,000 tons of paper annually. British Plaster Board Industries (BPB) took over the company in 1961.
Other industries in the town included brick making and chimney pot manufacture. Raw materials were sourced from local collieries. In Mill Street carts, waggons, and bicycles were manufactured from 1855, and elsewhere motor vehicles were also produced until the late 1950s. John Cockerill moved to the town from Haslingden before leaving for continental Europe to become the founder of Cockerill-Sambre. James Cockerill, employed Radcliffe man William Yates as his manager. Several foundries and machine manufacturers were located around the town, including Dobson and Barlow at Bradley Fold, and Wolstenholme's along Bridgewater Street. Munitions, aircraft and tank components were manufactured during the Second World War. Chemicals were manufactured by companies such as Bealey's and J. & W. Whewell.
From the 1950s Radcliffe's textile industry went into terminal decline, and although its paper industry survived to the end of the 20th century, both the town's largest paper mills have now been closed and demolished. One of the larger mills in Radcliffe was the Pioneer Mill, built between 1905 and 1906, and which ceased weaving in July 1980—the last mill in Radcliffe to use cotton. The building is now occupied by several different businesses.
Although the town retains much of its existing Victorian and Edwardian housing stock, new estates have been built on former brownfield land including that of the Radcliffe Paper Mill Company. Since deindustrialisation the local population has continued to grow. Radcliffe's housing stock of 23,790 properties is a mixture of mainly semi-detached and terraced housing, with smaller percentages of detached housing and flats. In 1974 the town became a part of the Metropolitan Borough of Bury, and as a result has been described as losing its independence, and to some extent its identity.