The Ashworth family, who first came to Bolton to escape the Great Plague of London in 1665, worked a large farm at Birtenshaw, and were one of the first families to specialise in textile production in Bolton. John Ashworth (1696-1767) bought cotton in Liverpool and Manchester and sold, or gave it out on credit, to the local cottage spinners and weavers. He then bought back the finished cloth.
The soil and climate in Turton were poor for farming, so the switch to textiles manufacture was more rapid than in other areas. The Ashworths and neighbouring gentry became manufacturers, while the labourers and cottagers became domestic spinners and weavers. Henry Ashworth (1728-1790) shared in the local development of the cotton industry, while retaining his farming interests and also starting what was to become the family occupation of land and property agent. He had a warehouse in Bolton town centre, on the corner of Fold Street and Chancery Lane, and one in Manchester. He had an extensive business in the manufacture of a coarse durable fabric called Thick Sets Fustians and Jeans, using a linen warp called Hambro Yarn and a cotton weft. After the introduction of Arkwright's water-frame a cotton warp was used. It is believed that Henry once employed the inventor of the cotton spinning Mule, Samuel Crompton (1753-1827), and also Crompton's future wife. After Henry's death in 1790, his two sons John (1772-1855) and Edmund (1776-1856) continued the family business. John became a member of the Edgworth Quakers in 1793.
In 1803 Ashworth's first major mill, the New Eagley Mill was opened. It was a 3-storey building, situated on the banks of the Eagley Brook, a tributary of the River Irwell. Power was supplied by a 17 feet diameter, 10-12 horsepower water wheel.
Proximity to Bolton's coal fields would later provide cheap steam-engine coal. The two brothers gave up their Manchester warehouse, but continued to use their Bolton warehouse as a centre for hand-loom weavers.
Henry Ashworth (1794-1880) took control of New Eagley Mill in 1818. From this time until 1880, he was the principal partner in the Ashworth firm. In 1821 he was joined by his brother Edmund. In 1831, Henry and Edmund became sole partners in New Eagley Mill at a time when it was expanding. Between 1818 and 1834, the two brothers transformed the small unknown spinning mill into one of national and even international renown.
The increased production caused the brothers to open a warehouse at 38 Ormerod's Court, Manchester. By 1820, New Eagley Mill had been extended; the whole building was raised to five and six storeys, and the number of operatives doubled. Nine family cottages were built in the mill yard, housing between a third and a half of their first 50 employees. Between 1822 and 1825 the mill was again more than doubled in size, and a 40-foot diameter, 45 horsepower water wheel erected. More cottages were built at Bank Top, the name given to the village they established at Tops Farm, which overlooked New Eagley Mill.
In 1829 Henry and Edmund purchased Egerton Mill from Philip Novelli, an Italian merchant living in Manchester, who had experienced financial difficulties with the mill since it's opening in 1826. The brothers extended the mill and installed a 62 feet, 110-140 horsepower water wheel, one of the largest in the country. A visitors book was kept beside it, as it became an attraction for visitors to industrial Lancashire in the 1830.s and 1840.s. Bolton, for geographical reasons, continued to be more dependent on waterpower than other Lancashire cotton areas, most of which had from the 1830's become largely dependent on steam-power.
During the 1840's Henry was vice-chairman of a local railway company which ran through his estate. Oaks Station, together with sidings and sheds, was opened in Turton, just below Henry's residence, The Oaks. Proximity to a railway greatly improved the movement of goods to and from his business. The local railway company was absorbed by the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway Company.
Henry and Edmund were often absent from their mills for weeks or even months, while they pursued their social and political interests, or engaged in travel. Their withdrawal from supervision of their mills was made more serious by growing mutual animosity, causing delayed decision making and neglect. To add to the problem, control of the mills was left to incompetent managers. By 1854 when both mills were making large profits, the brothers were in a sufficiently strong financial position to dissolve their partnership and to divide the firm equally between them. H. & E. Ashworth now became Henry Ashworth & Sons, and Edmund Ashworth & Son. Henry received New Eagley and Edmund took Egerton. Edmund retired in 1864, leaving active control to his sons Edmund and Samuel.
Between 1862 and 1864 John Ashworth (1826-1888) founded John Ashworth Cotton Spinners. In 1868 he opened New Mill, Holland Street. The mill was demolished during the 1960's and a Co-op store opened there, this was demolished in 1985, B & Q DIY store then occuppied the site. Unfortunately these garishly coloured buildings, especially B & Q with its high wire fences and barbed-wire, did not blend in with nearby St. Paul's Church in the same way that the mill or Co-op used to, and were less popular with the local residents. The Electrical Substation, near St. Paul's church, still contains a plaque referring to the mill, to which it was once connected.
During the early 1860's there was a decline in the cotton trade due to the increased cost of raw cotton brought about by the American Civil (1861-1865). From 1865 boom conditions developed, encouraged by reduced continental tariffs and an increased trade with China. In 1873 the demand for British cotton again declined, this time due to the increased competition, particularly from France. However, New Eagley's profits were helped by the management of George Binns Ashworth (1823-1905), and only did New Eagley record an actual loss during this period decline.
Henry Ashworths death in 1880 marked the end of an era, the Indian spinning industry was expanding and Lancashire would in the future face considerable competition. The census returns of the following year showed that the rapid increase in northern textile towns had come to an end. By this time the weaving and spinning sheds at New Eagley had ceased to be integrated so George Binns Ashworth considered it expedient to close the spinning shed, while maintaining a large weaving shed. In 1898 E.Ashworth & Sons was one of the 14 firms which combined to form the English Sewing Cotton Co.
In 1940 the weaving shed was closed under the Government's wartime concentration scheme. In 1949 an attempt was made to restart the looms but this failed because of a general labour shortage. New Eagley then stood empty until taken over by a storage firm.