View Full Version : Archived: J&J Crombie, Grandholm Mills, Aberdeen

14-12-2009, 11:08 PM
The life and death of a mill on the Don.


A couple of months ago, a small exhibition was organised by Aberdeen city council in the old Provost Skene’s House. I went along during my lunch hour because I wanted to conjure up a place that I poked around a while ago. We have different motives for exploring – sometimes to satisfy curiosity, have an adventure, experience the thrill of transgressing, to unlock a puzzle, or just take pleasure in making pictures. These all tend to fuse together at the time, but afterwards the photos are a way of evoking memories. It's surprising and depressing how quickly we forget.




The exhibition was devoted to Crombie – the firm who make the famous woollen overcoats. They were founded in 1805 and worked in the city for almost two centuries, until (having long since passed out of Scottish ownership) they were shut down by owners Illingworth Morris in 1991, and production moved elsewhere. The mills on the River Don were locked up, and a long time afterwards I stuck my nose in, while they were still lying empty. In fact, they lay like that for many years, and redevelopment only started quite recently. Little did I realise that afterwards I would see inside another woollen mill also owned by Illingworth Morris and similarly shut down, then unceremoniously flattened: Huddersfield Fine Weavers, at Kirkheaton. I’ve only just made the connection between Crombie and Illingworth Morris, but they were bought over decades ago, when Illingworth Morris was owned by the wife of James Mason, the famous American actor.




I’d more or less forgotten about the photos I took at Grandholm until I saw a flyer for the exhibition. So I located the prints, languishing at the bottom of a shoebox with all sorts of other stuff pressing down on them: a half-filled sketchbook, cuttings from magazines, photos of friends who’ve since dispersed to the points of the compass. The wallet of prints stirred up memories. I mind fine about my grandmother folding away woollen blankets made by Crombie (everything they bought was locally made in those days, and without the need for any entreaty to “Buy British”). My mum’s cousin, who served in the Gordon Highlanders during the War, and fought in the Palestine, used to wear a Crombie greatcoat at Remembrance Day. Crombie was once an integral part of Aberdeen's identity, and although it moved upmarket to become a luxury brand, many ordinary folk owned a suit or coat of Crombie cloth.




J&J Crombie were one of Aberdeen’s major employers, founded in 1805 at Cothal Mills near Fintray as wool spinners and weavers – Cothal is a hamlet a few miles upstream of Grandholm on the Don. Their dense woollen cloth was scoured and milled then spun and woven so that it was proof against the Scottish winter, which was why it was later adopted by the army. As Billy Mackenzie sang, Dusseldorf's an old place, and Aberdeen's a cold place… To meet increasing demand, power looms were installed in the 1850’s and a decade later the mill clothed the Confederate army during the American Civil War. Later still, senior spooks in the KGB wore Crombie coats, hence they were styled the “Russian Army Greatcoat”. During several wars, Crombie turned out khaki cloth for army blankets, uniforms and greatcoats – perhaps some remain yet, tucked away in Aberdeen’s lofts. The famous “British Warm” overcoat was created for the British Army during the Great War, and apparently it’s still made today – just not in Aberdeen. Meanwhile, Crombie's success meant that they outgrew the mills at Cothal, and in 1895, took over Grandholm Works, then expanded relentlessly.




14-12-2009, 11:08 PM
Before Crombie’s time, Grandholm Works, which lies on the north bank of the Don at Woodside, was the largest linen works in the country. It was set up by Leys Masson on the Haughs of Grandholm two centuries ago, though overtaken by Richards’ Broadford Works in the 1870’s, I think. Grandholm was one of the few textile factories to survive the economic crisis of the 1840’s and 1850’s when Aberdeen's textile industry collapsed – and one of the few other survivors was Broadford. I never really thought of Crombie/ Grandholm as a companion to Richards/ Broadford – but I guess they are comparable. Under James and John Crombie, Grandholm went from linen to woollen spinning and weaving, and became the largest woollen tweed mill in Scotland, which will surprise some, who expect tweed to come either from Harris, or the Borders. Similarly, the mill’s waterwheel was claimed to be the largest in the country. The Victorians had a great appetite for facts, figures and one-upmanship …




By the 1920’s, thanks to growth during WW1, there were 320 power looms at Grandholm, and over 1000 employees. Yet soon after this high point, the last of the Crombies retired from the business, and the remaining shareholders decided to sell out to Titus Salt’s company, part of a Yorkshire woollens empire. Again in WW2, Grandholm Works was turned over to production for the military, and the mill turned out almost 500 miles of cloth each year. In the 1950’s, when my mother visited J&J Crombie as a schoolgirl, Grandholm Mills was Scotland’s largest, at over 400,000 sq. ft. At that time, Aberdeen was proud of Crombie, and the feeling was mutual. The family bequeathed money to the university, and an impressive halls of residence was built in their name. By the 1960’s, Illingworth Morris had taken over Salt’s company, and at that time inherited Crombie, which was still a profitable business employing around 800 people at Grandholm. The increasing cost of producing woollen cloth using labour-intensive methods meant that new machinery was installed in the 1980’s, including Sulzer rapier looms and Macart (http://www.macart.com/s300.html) spinning frames, made by one of the few British textile machinery makers still left in existence.




In its day, Grandholm was like a walled city; surrounded by a high barrier of granite rubble. I remember it was a cold place, sitting in the hollow of the River Don’s flood plain, facing northwards. The mills had their own canteen, engine houses, a mile long mill lade, and a power station with water turbines as a back-up. Unlike the red brick buildings of Broadford Works, Grandholm Mills were built entirely from the native silver-grey granite that marks Aberdeen apart from the rest of Scotland. The weaving sheds were low, single storey ranges with slate on one pitch and north light glazing on the other. The newest sheds were built in the 1930's, and paradoxically they were used for weaving and carding as well as spinning. The Old Mill towered over them, the best vantage point over the flat site. The weaving sheds were pretty empty with one exception, but the Old Mill contained a Victorian lift, and the engine house still had a belt drive, painted pillar box red, which may originally have been water powered but was later connected to a Boulton Corliss steam engine.



In the mid 1980’s, Crombie began styling and making “designer” clothes to take advantage of the strength of their brand: until then most of its cloth production went elsewhere, to be made into clothes by tailoring companies abroad, and on Saville Row. Increasing costs (and increasing land values making the site worth redeveloping) meant that Grandholm Works shut its doors in June 1991, and Illingworth Morris moved production to Yorkshire. Today there is almost no industry left in the city, and the decline really took hold a decade ago: first Aberdeen’s textile mills closed, then its paper mills. A few years later the site was bought by Cala Homes. Their development company Cala Grandholm kept the mill shop open for a few more years, until some Aiberdeen minks decided to burn it down. That severed one of Aberdeen’s last links to the woollen trade.


Happily I saw Crombie before the “epic” era of UE forums so I was able to appreciate it for what it was, rather than it being a mere notch in my bedpost. Strangely, not only is there nothing about Grandholm on any of the forums – there’s almost nothing on the net, full stop, so the story of Grandholm's final days hasn’t been told. Yet.

Photos shot on Kodak print film, because at the time I didn’t know any better. :p

16-12-2009, 10:01 AM
interesting place well captured :thumb