In 2010, in line with a European directive to ‘naturalise’ watercourses wherever possible, the Environment Agency carried out a feasibility study for removing a culvert which channels the Kirklees Brook through Tottington Print Works, as it impedes the flow of the brook. This study needed to consider any archaeological constraints prior to devising a proposal. Bury Council, as the landowner, was also keen to gain a better understanding of the remains that survive across the rest of the print works’ site.

These objectives were met by an archaeological survey of the above-ground remains, coupled with some limited excavation as a community-based project under the supervision of OA North. In addition to assessing the extent and heritage value of the remains, it was hoped that the project would help to raise the profile of the site locally, and inform a strategy for the long-term management of the print works.

The above-ground remains of Tottington Print Works are spread across an area of some 62,000 square metres on both sides of the Kirklees Brook. These remains include massive stone-built foundations for steam engines, stone cisterns, dye becks, and extensive fragments of walls, some of which line the channel of the brook as it flows south to its confluence with the Irwell.

Following the removal of scrub vegetation by members of the British Trust for Conservation Volunteers (BTCV), the extent and survival of buried structures were tested by the limited excavation of two targeted areas. This was carried out by volunteers attending a total of 12 pre-arranged events, including several public open days, over a period of three months.

The first area to be targeted for excavation was on the site of the bleach croft, in the north-eastern part of the print works complex. While this area had become overgrown since the demolition of the building, the tops of several stone cisterns were visible protruding through the vegetation, suggesting that buried remains were likely to survive in situ.

Removal of the topsoil and demolition rubble revealed more stone cisterns and flagstone flooring across much of the excavated area. Some of the flagstones had clearly subsided, presumably marking the position of collapsed drains that had served the washing machines and steeping cisterns in the building.

Excavation also revealed the tops of two large iron cisterns, almost certainly the remains of the two ‘circular wrought-iron cloth bines’ with wooden linings, referred to in an inventory and valuation of the works compiled by the Calico Printers’ Association in 1904. A row of three large stone cisterns was discovered in the southern part of the excavated area, and several rectangular stone-built cisterns, all sunk slightly into the floor, were also unearthed.

The second area to be investigated lay within an extension to the dye house that had been built in the second half of the 19th century. This had spanned the Kirklees Brook, requiring the culvert to be lengthened. The removal of layers of topsoil and brick rubble uncovered the intact flagstone floor of the dye house, which had been laid over the culvert. The southern part of the excavated area was dominated by the base for a small horizontal steam engine constructed largely from huge stone blocks, and two stone dye becks set into the floor at the northern end of the dye house, and within the footprint of the early 19th-century building.

Many different artefacts were discovered during the excavation. Ceramic objects were the most common, and included fragments of large earthenware bowls and storage jars, typical of a nineteenth-century domestic context. Fragments of finer tablewares, such as transfer-printed plates, cups and saucers, were also found, which had perhaps derived from the manager’s office.

Numerous pieces of ceramic ‘pot-eyes’ were also unearthed. These were fitted to machines and set in partition walls, and provided a smooth surface to guide the rope of cloth being winched between different processes in the bleach croft.

Perhaps the most interesting objects from the site, however, were discovered by chance by members of the local community, and passed on for inclusion with the project archive. These include several tallies that bear the company name, and some tools that would have been used in the works.

In total, some 245 square metres of the bleach croft were cleared of scrub vegetation and demolition rubble, and another 40 square metres of overburden were removed from the floor of the dye house. These two areas covered only a fraction of the entire site, and yet the excavation revealed fascinating and well-preserved remains of the print works, and demonstrated the likelihood that buried elements of other parts of the works will survive. Taken together with the extensive above-ground structures and numerous reservoirs that exist, the site of Tottington Print Works is clearly an important heritage asset; the site can be seen to be one of the best remaining examples of a nineteenth-century print works in the county, and makes a key contribution to the historic character and appearance of the Kirklees Valley Local Nature Reserve.

The project also elicited a high level of interest and support from local residents of all ages. Some were keen just to view the site and learn about its history, or share their local knowledge and stories of the print works, while others had an appetite to explore its physical remains by joining in the excavation.