Scrubbing mills

A scrubbing or rubbing mill was a method of smoothing flags to be used for house floors and similar purposes, where a smooth surface was demanded.

It was used where the layers of flagstone from the quarry were rough-surfaced or rippled (locally called “dappled”). The flags were first produced by splitting along their cleavage planes, leaving a surface with irregularities. The purpose of the scrubbing mill was to polish out these irregularities, leaving a smooth surface.

Steam driven scrubbing mill at Calderdale
Close up of flag stone chained to beam










A simple scrubbing mill consisted of a circular pit about 5 metres (15ft) across. A layer of the flagstones to be smoothed was placed in the pit and firmly wedged in position. Water or steam power turned a strong vertical shaft which came through the centre of the floor of the pit and slowly rotated a wooden beam. Heavy flags were chained to the wooden beam and were dragged around over the lower flags, rubbing them smooth. Water and sand were added to help the abrasion process. During the polishing process the flags were turned, moved or replaced according to the rapidity with which they were rubbed down.

VR Reconstruction of the Scrubbing Process 

Earlier scrubbing mills used water power and were located where a plentiful supply of water was available to turn the water wheel, such as at Dules Mouth or on Newgate Brook near Turn Village.

Steam powered mills were introduced during the latter half of the 19th century. Steam power allowed much more freedom in where the scrubbing mills could be located. They were built in the quarries or as part of stone processing sites such as Higher Cloughfold. The development of the railways saw steam-powered versions built near the main gauge railway lines, for example at Facit and Broadley stone sidings.

The 19th century was a time of tremendous innovation in engineering and manufacturing, with engineers constantly striving to improve machines and manufacturing processes. Scrubbing mills were obvious candidates for improvement through the skills and ingenuity of the iron machine makers of the time. Two of the people who responded to this challenge were James Coulter and Herbert Harpin from West Yorkshire, an Engineer and a Quarry Owner. In 1865 they were granted a patent for an improved scrubbing mill built from iron. This was an ingenious machine and would have been considerably more efficient than earlier scrubbing mills, but there is no evidence that it was introduced into Rossendale.

The scrubbing process was a simple concept and was widely used in Rossendale, but it was very slow. When the faster process of mechanised sawing of flags became more common, the slow scrubbing process declined and was very uncommon after 1913.

The Healy Stone Sidings and Polishing Mill video below was produced by a group of young people as part of the CAR Video Unit Project.

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