Some businesses in Cumbria have existed for so long they seem to have become part of the landscape; sites where the same buildings have been in use by generations for as long as most can remember.

There can be few better examples of this than Cowens, based in the historic sandstone of Ellers Mill overlooking the River Caldew at Dalston, which celebrates its 200th anniversary this year.

Cowens Ltd started out as Jacob Cowens & Sons Ltd in 1821 when Jacob Cowen took over the spinning mill, which was built in the 1700s.

In those days there were six or seven mills in the vicinity, all powered by the same mill race. Cowens also ran a forge, making shovels and pickaxes.

In the 1890s the Cowen family appointed mill manager George Bottomley to run the factory. His daughter Mary married Joseph Coulthard who was brought into the company to run the mill after George. The Cowen and Trimble family (descendants of the Cowen's) continued to chair the board of directors up until David Trimble’s retirement in 2016.

Joseph Coulthard’s sons, first George then Michael, took over the helm, with Michael retiring in 1994. His son, Jonathan has been managing director since 1995. He is now the sole shareholder, with Carlisle United co-owner John Nixon supporting as non-executive director.

At its peak, 300 people worked in the mill. However, in 1901 the four-storey building was struck by lightning and the remaining shell was rebuilt as a two-storey factory. The original stair tower to the fourth floor still remains to this day.

After the fire the company moved from spinning yarn to making non-wovens, namely cotton wools and cotton waddings, which it still specialises in today.

"We're not easy to pigeonhole. We make a very wide range of products but that's helped us when one market sector is struggling as there will be another to keep us going,” says Jonathan.

In 1995 Jonathan’s team built a needle felt line producing a material which was able to absorb oil from water and could be used to clean up after spills. Over time it developed a full range of environmental products, including floating booms and bunds for containing spillages.

At the same time, faced with overwhelming pressure on cotton wool sales from cheap imports, a production line in a factory in Poland was set up to produce cotton for Cowens, enabling it to continue supplying this range of products.

Another important product is a specialist fire barrier made from natural fibres for use in furniture manufacturing. It also sells a range of mechanical pumping and separation equipment.

In addition to all this, Cowens designs and builds mechanical equipment to help overcome particular issues, such as developing stillages for tilting large storage tanks so customers can extract the full amount of liquid from them to avoid waste.

The customer base for Cowens’ products is just as varied as the materials themselves and spread all over the world from Europe to Vietnam, China and even Antarctica, where it supplies the British Antarctic Survey with pollution control equipment.

“We've always focused on looking after our customers and I think that's why we've got very loyal customers and that's really what it's all about,” says Jonathan.

"A lot of it is just making the purchasing experience pleasant. You need to know who your buyer is and what their needs are, talk to them about things that matter to them and not let them down.

"We're always looking for the next new product or new market. Research and development is a primary objective. We're always trying to reinvent and improve what we do already and supply a wider range of products and services to existing customers.”

Customers range from the NHS, vets and hairdresser suppliers who use its cotton wools, while others such as the Environment Agency and industry use its pollution prevention equipment. It is also currently involved in work on aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth II, the largest vessel ever built for the Royal Navy.

The Covid years have not been easy with the closure of non-essential shops hitting cotton wool sales hard. However, Cowens was kept busy supplying the NHS, as well as liners for coffins.

Jonathan says Cowens saw a drop off in sales during the Covid crisis and has still not returned to 2019 levels. At the same time it is also being affected by the severe increase in freight costs.

“Freight costs have gone up from $2500 per container to $18,000 per container,” says Jonathan.

To insulate itself against the current supply chain issues affecting the UK, Cowens has ordered enough raw materials to last it for the next two years.

However, despite the challenges Jonathan says demand remains healthy and the order book is stronger every day.

Of its 10 current staff, Brian Hayton has been there continuously for a remarkable 49 years.

Over the years he has worked in various production and maintenance roles, walking to work every day from his home nearby.

He has a simple answer when asked why he has kept coming back for nearly 50 years.

“Well, it’s all right here, isn’t he?” he says.

“It’s a nice walk down in the morning and it’s a lovely building to come and work in and a great group of people.”