Whisky (or whiskey, there is no distinction) was commercially manufactured in the Lancashire towns of Manchester, Liverpool and Bolton in considerable quantity throughout the 19th Century (see: Whisky), but the county also has a significant history of illicit whisky distilling. The illegal trade has been particularly associated with the wild area around the moors of Haslingden and Blackburn, recorded in innumerable stories and records of prosecutions from the 1820's onwards.
The Whisky Spinners
Whisky (of a sort) isn't too difficult to make, but governments are prone to tax the things people are fond of, and none more highly than whisky. Moorland hiding places, an abundance of fine peatland water and an independence of spirit, gave rise to Lancashire's illegal Grane Whisky, meeting the needs to augment a meagre income, and to drink enough to make it tolerable. With legendary disregard for troublesome London Laws Lancastrians kept a healthy trade in illegal whisky. Between 1835 and 1837 no less than 21 illegal distilleries were discovered in Bolton alone. No area was more famous than Haslingden; home of the notorious Whisky Spinners, tax-evading distillers on a grand scale. The practice was so widespread that an excise officer was permenanly based in Haslingden from 1834-48 to try to prevent it, though with a conspicuous lack of success.
In April 1857 a party of excisemen made a surprise visit to Bentley House near Calf Hey. After an extensive search, they found a complete whisky distillery in subterranean passages, purposely cut from the rock beneath a farm, with the flueway from the still feeding into the house chimney to diguise the give-away smoke.
There is another story that Grane whisky was regularly delivered to a Haslingden Hotel by the daughter of a weaving family. Three or four gallons would fill a hollow metal saddle, concealed beneath bales of woven cloth on a donkey. A similar device was used by a man one night at Haslingden Fair, he wore a metal waist coat containing Grane whiskey, very uncomfortable but full of consolation.
It seems unlikely that such business could have continued for over a century without the nodded acceptance of the gentry and judiciary. Bad luck if your local magistrate was a brewer, like Daniel Thwaite of Blackburn, who, in 1858 fined James Morris of Far Pike Lowe £230 for defrauding the revenue of an estimated £700 for a year. The Blackburn Supervisor of Excise said that he had never seen such an efficient illicit still, that the place had been constructed purposely for whisky manufacture and had been in operation for at least fifty years. By 1861 James was living with his family in Roscow Fold in Grane Village. Working as an engine tender at calf hill mill. In all probability he was back at spinning whisky too. It was too much of a coincidence that after the engine house was demolished in 1910, a complete whisky still was discovered.
Remains of Bentley House, Haslingden, one of the 'Whisky Spinner's' 'Mills'
Report of 'Illicit Distillation of Whisky' at Bentley House
Westmorland Gazette - Saturday 23 May 1857
The people of that area traditionally made their livings by spinning thread, and the makers of local whisky were referred to as the Whisky Spinners, a tradition celebrated in this ballad published in the 'Blackburn Standard' on Saturday 21 January 1888 about a distiller from Grindleton near Clitheroe;
Iv yo want a drink yer souls to cheer,
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