Denny’s industrial past is rich in its variety

The patternmakers department at Denny Iron Works.
The patternmakers department at Denny Iron Works.

Of the four towns that help make up the Falkirk Council area, Denny is the one that gets less attention from people like me who write about our rich history. Grangemouth, Bo’ness and Falkirk itself seem to dominate and for some reason Denny is often ignored despite the importance of the place especially in the industrial period.

The settlement grew up on the south bank of the River Carron which powered the mills of local farmers from the earliest times and helped convert locally grown flax into linen. By the late 18th century it was calico printing which employed over 1000 people producing textiles decorated with beautiful coloured patterns like those from the Indian region of Calicut. This lasted for only 50 years before new methods of dyeing and a change of fashion brought about decline and closure.

The reaction was to switch to other activities. For example, in the 1850s there were three mills driven by water power producing woollen shawls and tartans employing 200 men and women. The chemical works at Custonhall in Stripeside, which had supplied dyes to the calico printers, turned instead to making lacquers and enamels for the Falkirk foundries. Coal mining expanded rapidly and by 1900 three local mines, Herbertshire, Quarter and Carronrig were employing over 500 men with the ‘‘steam coal’’ mined in Denny particularly good for use in shipping. Four foundries opened their doors. The largest, Cruikshanks, specialising in engineering components for the Clyde shipyards. Finally, in 1896 John G Stein opened Anchor Brickworks and within a year tens of thousands of bricks were leaving the works each week. In 1921 they were used to build Gleneagles Hotel. Once again it didn’t last, with closure coming in 1931.

All of these played a part in saving Denny but by far the longest lasting and most important was paper making. The mills using the soft water of the Carron created an industry which employed many hundreds of men and women and made Denny one of the country’s most important paper-making centres. The earliest venture was Herbertshire Mill established in 1788 making paper by hand. Around 1810 part of Carrongrove woollen mill turned to paper-making and, although both mills changed hands several times, output continued to increase as machines were introduced. Herbertshire Mill specialised in high quality writing paper while Carrongrove made mill board and coarse paper. With the explosion in publication of books and newspapers, demand for Denny paper increased dramatically and new mills appeared along the length of the river. Denny Paper Mill opened in 1869 followed the Anchor Mill and the Vale Paper Works on the Dunipace side of the river and by the end of the century there were half a dozen mills in operation. Changes in demand led to mergers and closures though paper-making survived well into the 20th century.

By 1974 the last firm standing was Carrongrove which had became part of Inveresk Paper in 1924. Despite the high quality of the output the mill was closed in 2005 and today the huge site has filled up with new houses. The handsome manager’s house – built in 1862 for Andrew Duncan – has survived and is destined to be converted to flats.

Linen manufacture, calico printing, chemicals, brickworks, coal mining, iron founding and wool and paper-making which employed many thousands have come and gone. They helped make Denny a prosperous and confident community always capable of reinventing itself as times changed. This holds out the hope that the town will find a way to prosper once again.