Halton Mill is an old building built in the late nineteenth century, in which Luneside Engineering Co. (Halton) Ltd. was incorporated on 23 February 1949. The company was set up by Colonel Theodore Bernirski, who was a polish immigrant and engineer. Named ‘Lech’, after the tribal name for the Poles, it employed skilled immigrants who struggled to get trade union recognition as anything but labourers.
After three months of getting a grasp of the English language, the first floor of Halton Mill was rented at a nominal sum, and the workers initially made a name for themselves doing odd jobs like sharpening garden sheers for a shilling, and spraying cars. Colonel Bernirski recalled wanting to return to a free Poland at some point, but his birthplace had become part of the Ukraine in the former Soviet Union. Things began to pick up for the group of workers when they were sub-contracted to make chassis for cars that would be sent to Australia. Unfortunately for Lech, the Australian business collapsed, culminating in financial issues for the firm.
After the disaster of the Australian work contract, a Lancaster businessman allied with the Poles to bankroll the company to make up for the lost income and invest in new technologies to make the mill even more productive. The colonel’s expertise was vital in keeping the company a success, an expertise forged in his history. When the Nazis invaded Poland in September 1939, Bernirski worked as a production manager at a Warsaw factory making aircraft parts for a British company and later became a soldier fighting for Polish freedom. As late as the 1970s, photos are available showing Polish and English workers enjoying leisure time side by side. By the end of his time at Lech, an anglicised version of the Colonels name became common: Mr Ben.
Just as factories and points of interests can become the hub for money flowing in and out of a town or village nowadays, similar patterns can be found in the time of ‘Lech’. Under the leadership of both the Colonel and Eva, the company invested in its people, its building, its surroundings and its products. For example, the Colonel insisted that pleasant conditions made for happy workers. He worked with the community towards this goal, with the environment providing pleasant walks along the banks of the Lune thanks to well-kept gardens and the private boathouse.
When Lech had successes, the workers of the company felt success too – and subsequently the wider community. One common pastime of the workers was visiting the Greyhound Pub, with photos showing the workers outside the Greyhound Pub, which continues to serve the people of Halton and Lancaster quality food and drink to this day. Photographs in the Mill’s archive depict a close-knit workforce bound together by a parental figure in either the Colonel or Eva. In one particularly cheery scene, workers are depicted skating along a frozen River Lune (please do not copy them!)
A key part of the Mill’s links to the community was raising the standard of living in the area. The annual ‘Lancashire Best Kept Village’ competition in 1982. Halton managed to capture three of the prizes, and of sixteen entries in the industrial site section, Luneside Engineering was chosen to be the standard bearer. The Mill was noted for its “immaculate and colourful gardens” and well-kept paintwork on the buildings themselves making for an all-round pleasant experience. Credit for the gardens was attributed to two men. Firstly, Bill Livesey who developed them for twenty years, making long term plans for productive and beautiful gardens. Secondly, Steven Pennington for keeping them in prime condition after Bill’s retirement. Well-kept gardens meant more than good looks to the community. They fostered a sense of pride in the hearts of Halton residents, and healthy competition with other Lancashire villages too!
Without doubt the Mill’s presence, and the company within, had a positive impact on Halton and wider Lancashire. But being a large part of such a small community can cause dramatic effects when times are tough. Two stories emphasise this well, firstly with the cancellation of the British Aircraft Corporation (BAC) TSR-2 after government decided it was too costly. This left the Mill and the Colonel fighting for every single penny and every single job. There were over 90 employees when the firm was threatened in 1965. The second big challenge came with the recession of 1983 which saw government policy drive up the exchange rate, making imports cheaper and hitting factories like Halton Mill. As a sub-contracting company, Lech bear the brunt when companies begin to keep things in house or use labour abroad. Much like her father, Eva here faced 65 families depending on her leadership to eat.