Agecroft print works was possibly founded around 1823 when the calico printers William Worlidge and Joseph Taylor took out a lease on land from Richard Buck and Elizabeth Hull of Agecroft Hall. In the 1840s the print works was taken over by James Bayley and Frederick Craven. Their partnership came to an end in 1849 and Frederick Craven (1818-1893) took over sole ownership continuing to run the business until his death from offices and warehouse at 44 Portland Street in Manchester under the Bayley and Craven name.
Frederick Craven was a manufacturer of printed calicos. In the early years of the Agecroft print works block, plate and roller printing methods were probably employed but later engraved roller printing dominated manufacturing. Engraved roller printing enabled the production of large volumes of printed cotton fabric but required considerable capital investment in both the machinery and the engraving of the copper rollers. Each engraved roller printed a separate colour in the design so more colours meant more rollers and hence an increase in cost. From what we can see of Craven’s fabrics their limited number of colours and ‘novelty characteristics’ suggest that his fabrics were at the cheaper end of the market in what was a highly competitive industry.
Under Craven the print works expanded becoming a large undertaking, making him a very wealthy man. Reputedly employing several hundred workers, many would have lived nearby in the Whit lane area. Maps indicate the scale of the print works but we also have further details about the factory from a newspaper report of an extensive fire in 1898. The lengthy newspaper article indicates that the factory had two main buildings, one of four storeys, which was destroyed, and another two storey building which survived the fire. In addition there was a large reservoir, a factory chimney and various ancillary buildings used for mixing and preparing dyestuffs and chemicals, processing and packing the cloth and stabling horses and wagons.
Plagiarism was rife in the textile industry and Craven was a dogged advocate of the registered design legislation of 1842 which was an attempt to protect textile design copyright. Consequently many of the designs he produced were officially registered with the Board of Trade in an effort to prevent copying. Registering the design involved sending a fabric swatch to the Board of Trade. These were named and dated on receipt. Later transferred to the National Archives at Kew they provide invaluable material for the textile historian.
Between 1849 and 1894 Craven registered over 3,200 designs for printed textiles under the Ornamental Design Act 1842. There is no evidence to suggest where Craven acquired the designs for his textiles but given his stance on design protection it is likely that he employed his own pattern designers.
Craven took the opportunity to exhibit at the Crystal Palace in 1851 where the official commentary stated that his fabrics were of a good standard of design in relation to their class, suggesting that the fabrics were commercial. The Illustrated London News said of their designs ‘Messrs. Bayley and Craven make a very superior display of fast lilacs, madder colours, &c. The styles are generally well selected, and the greater number of the patterns are eminently textile. The designs, too, are mostly of the medium size, without running into the extremes of neatness or of blotch in effect. Altogether, this is tasteful and satisfactory exposition of a useful class of prints’.
Craven lived for several decades at Hope Lodge in Broughton with his wife and two children. In 1871 the family moved to Bakewell where Craven rebuilt Thornbridge Hall, a sixteen bedroom Jacobean style sandstone house, commissioning a window for the great hall from William Morris & Co to designs by Edward Burne-Jones. The fruits of Craven’s business were spent, in part, on purchasing a large and valuable art collection which included works by major British artists including Burne-Jones, Millais, Rossetti and Turner. These he loaned to various exhibitions including the Manchester Art Treasures Exhibition of 1857. Many art works were auctioned in 1895, fetching high prices and eventually ending up in national collections.
After Craven’s death the Agecroft works continued to operate until around 1915, despite the reduced capacity caused by the 1898 fire. The works appear to have ceased production sometime into the 1920s. Maps of the 1930s show the buildings are disused.
Left: an engraved roller printing machine from an illustration of 1840. Roller printing, closely identified with Lancashire, increased printed textile production tenfold having a direct impact on prices and consumption. Agecroft Print works initially had single, two and three cylinder machines. Craven was one of several Manchester manufacturers who arranged for a practical demonstration of the roller printing machine to take place at the 1851 Crystal Palace exhibition. The printing machine was just one of several pieces of equipment required for high volume textile production and locally Mather and Platt became one of the main manufacturers of textile machinery. These included mixing and dyeing vats, calendering machines and steamers require to fix dyestuffs.