Denovan Bleachfield & Printfield

Illus 1: Roy’s Map showing the Bleachfield at Denovan (National Library of Scotland).

The Dunipace Parish records of 1728 mention the New Miln of Denovan and it is possible that this was a corn mill on the site of the later bleachfield (the corn mill was probably replaced by Planting Mill).  Around 1747 it was taken over by Alexander Colvin for a bleachfield and is shown as such on Roy’s map.  In 1751 the Board of Manufactures provided a premium of £100 to help with the setting up of the works.  Adverts immediately appeared in the Edinburgh Evening Courant and the Caledonian Mercury for the bleachfield.  They provide a list of prices for the various types of cloth and a list of agents who would take in the material at towns throughout central Scotland.  These changed over the years but it is interesting to see those involved at the outset;

“Cloth for the field is taken in at Edinburgh, by James Wise, merchant, second laigh Shop above the Bank-close, Lawn-market; at Leith by John Graham merchant; at Linlithgow by Robert Clark merchant; at Borrowstounness by Tobia Bachop merchant; at Torphichen by Walter Stone weaver, who will also attend every Wednesday at Bathgate to take cloth there; at Falkirk by James Ireland at the Stamp-office; at Alloa by Hugh Fraser weaver; at Culross by William Drysdale weaver; at Stirling by Robert Forrester merchant; at Glasgow by Fergus Kennedy merchant above the Cross; at Kirkintilloch by Archibald Cuthill stamp master; at Airdrie by James M—vintner; and at the Bleachfield: at all of which receipts will be given” .

(Caledonian Mercury 19 March 1752, 4)

In 1762 the Board of Trustees for Manufactures gave financial aid to Denovan for the installation of beetling engines.  There was a great deal of specialism at the works from millwrights to bleachers.  Within the latter category tradesmen had their own areas.  In 1832, for example, there was an advert for

a practical bleacher, one who is well acquainted with the Scotch system of bleaching and finishing cotton shirtings

(Scotsman 14 January 1832, 1).

Alexander Colvin died at Denovan Bleachfield in April 1791, aged 84 years.  The business was continued by his widow who appended to the newspaper adverts an addition paragraph

Mrs Colvin having engaged a Bleacher who has had long experience, and is perfectly acquainted with conducting the business in all its branches, upon the most approved plan, she flatters herself, that it will be fully in her power to render satisfaction to those friends who are pleased to favour her with their employ

(Caledonian Mercury 1792, 4).

Their son, George Colvin, took over the works but died in 1798.  By that time Denovan estate had been acquired by James Johnstone of Alva.  In 1800 he leased the bleachfield to a Glasgow company for bleaching.  The senior partner of this company was Archibald Newbigging and in 1806 he bought out his other partners with a view to printing calico.  He was subsequently joined by John Newbigging, Peter Scott and Robert and Hugh Muir.  Calico printing and bleaching seem to have continued side by side.  However, the company was sequestered in 1819.  The works stumbled along until in 1830 they were purchased by James Graham Adam.  He invested in new machinery and expanded the works, which soon became very profitable.  By 1841, when the New Statistical Account was written, the Denovan Print Works employed 620 people.  It also provides the addition detail:

Block-makers, journeymen, 100; apprentices, males 85; females, 15.  Print-cutters and pattern-drawers, 30; colour-mixers, dyers, bleachers, and general labourers, 80; sewers and fringers of shawls, vary, according to the season of the year, from 50 to 150, – average, say, 90; miscellaneous, employed during the course of the year, 20; tierers, composed of boys and girls, one to each printer, – the ages of this class of workers vary from six to twelve years, 200.  Total number employed, 620.  Journeymen printers earn from L.1 to L.1.10s per week; male apprentices earn from 10s to 15s; and females from 5s to 10s per week, according to their respective skill and expertness; print-cutters and drawers earn from 15s to L.115s; labourers from 7s to 12s; and tierers from 2s to 2s 6d per week.”

The works were low lying and prone to seasonal flooding.  The long durations of rainfall usually made such events reasonably predictable.  This was not the case in October 1839 when the Earlsburn dam collapsed rapidly emptying the reservoir.  In the ensuing flood a quantity of cloth from Denovan Bleachfield was washed away, which was recovered afterwards.  The works seem to have continued on a more limited scale until 1846 when adverts cease.

Illus 2: 1861/63 Ordnance Survey Map (National Library of Scotland).

Competition in the calico printing trade was getting stronger.  The use of mechanisation and cheap labour elsewhere meant that profits at Denovan were declining.  JG Adam invested in four expensive new machines capable of printing six different colours at a time.  Disaster struck in February 1855 when the shed containing these caught fire and they were badly damaged.  The fire was discovered at 6am but the presence of inflammable materials meant that there was no chance of saving the building, which was essential to all production work and 200 men were temporally put out of work.  To make matters worse a 14 year old boy had entered the building to help with the salvage operations and apparently was hit by a falling beam and died, his burnt remains being found later.

The building had been insured and was rebuilt.  The delay was too much.  In December 1857 JG Adam declared himself bankrupt and suspended the company’s payments.  His liabilities were reported to amount to £60,000-£80,000.  200-300 workmen were now without any employment.  To pay off the creditors the assets were sequestered and put up for sale.  This included the mansion house, steading and offices, as well as:

The extensive PRINT WORKS at Denovan also lately possessed By Mr Adam, with the whole of the STEAM ENGINES and standing MACHINERY therein.

The Buildings consist of Machine Shops, Dye Houses, Padding Rooms, Colour Houses, Bleaching Houses, Engine Houses, Punching Shop, Calendar House, and other Buildings necessary for carrying on an extensive business.  The whole of the Premises are fitted up with Gas.

The machinery comprehends printing Machines with Fittings complete, Steam Can, Dye Vessels, Bleaching Pots, Washing machines, Extractors, Calendars, Engines, Boilers, and all necessary Appurtenances, Gas Apparatus, & c.

The Property is burdened with an annual Feu-duty of £11 3s…”

(Falkirk Herald 16 December 1858, 1).

The Printworks were being made ready for smaller scale operations in August 1860 but remained unused.  Reinstatement work began amongst great optimism in August the following year, but disaster struck yet again.  24 year old James Brown, labourer, was killed whilst cleaning out the mather dye pit.  An iron shaft which was revolving about two feet above the pit caught his waistcoat and shirt at the back and rolled him round the shaft.  The Denovan Print Works remained idle.  They were partially flooded by the Carron in January 1863 and the following June were put up for sale again, together with the house, at the much-reduced upset price of £12,000.  At that price they were bought by Baird & Co of Gartsherrie, ironmasters.  The company’s interest lay in the minerals and before long the owners were sinking ironstone mines.  They had no interest in calico printing and after brief attempts to sell the works as a going concern they sold off the machinery and fittings at knock-down prices in order to recoup some of the acquisition costs.  Having emptied the buildings they then tried to let them as workshops, but found little uptake.  Consequently, the wall materials of the various buildings were exposed for sale.  By 1867 only a few bare walls remained of this huge works.  In 1888 it was described as “literally a ploughed field.”

Sites and Monuments Record

Denovan Bleachfield & Printfield SMR 1176NS 820 831

G.B. Bailey, 2022