MEMORY LANE: Keighley was a thriving hub for pin making

Broochmaking was once a thriving Keighley business – and an obscure little mill might have been one of them, as Robin Longbottom explains.

On the valley side south of Keighley is a small stream called Hog Holes Beck.

It originates in the moor above Long Lee and flows into the River Worth.

Just before entering the Worth there was once a small mill, no larger than a large cottage, known as Broach Mill.

It appears to have been built in the early 19th century and no longer survives, having been purchased in the 1850s by the Marriner family of Greengate Mill, who demolished it and incorporated the land into their large estate. Nothing has been revealed regarding the history of this obscure mill, but a clue to its purpose may well lie in the name of the pin.

Today the word brooch, now more commonly spelled brooch, is used to describe an ornamental piece of jewelry to enhance an article of dress. But it was originally referring to a large pin that was used in the Middle Ages to tie clothes together, usually over the shoulder, perhaps a dress in the case of a woman or a coat for a man. A decorative disc was often attached to the top of the pin and kept it from slipping through clothing.

In Yorkshire the word brooch continued to be used to describe a pin and during the first half of the 19th century Keighley was a center for broach makers (parish registers record many of them working in the town between 1815 and 1840). However, rather than making pins to hold clothes together, they made long, hand-forged pins that were made into woolen combs.

Wool combs were used singly or in pairs by wool combers to untangle fleeces and prepare them for combed yarn spinning.

Broach makers worked independently in small workshops where they forged the long broaches by hand, repeatedly heating and striking the iron rod to extract it before quenching and hardening it. Hand forged steel pins were turned by the thousands and then made into hand combs.

The comb makers, who assembled the combs, also worked in small workshops. The pins were secured in a bar of hard wood, probably beech, to which was attached a wooden handle turned at right angles. They were mounted in rows of three or four and graduated in length, the shortest being closest to the handle.

Combs with three rows of pins were called 3 and those with four as 4. Each row was usually made up of 28 pins.

As the mechanization of the combed spinning industry progressed, Keighley’s factories required an ever-increasing number of combs of wool, and the combs were in great demand. By the 1850s, there were over 20 men and boys in the town working as brooches and combs makers. John Whalley, who had moved to Keighley from Roughlee in Lancashire, was the largest manufacturer employing six men and two boys.

However, in 1847 Samuel Cunliffe Lister and Isaac Holden (later of Oakworth House, Oakworth) filed for a patent for a wool combing machine. There have been many attempts to develop a successful method of machine combing wool, but none have been successful so far.

The development of the wool combing machine put the makers of brooches and combs out of business. By 1861 John Whalley’s business had failed and he and his family had left Keighley and found work as a blacksmith in Dukinfield, now in Greater Manchester.

With hundreds of redundant hand combs now on the market, an enterprising man from Keighley – James ‘Pie’ Leach – has found a new use for them. He recycled them – taking them apart, he put the pins in bundles and left for Manchester where he sold them to butchers to use as meat kebabs.

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