“The sight was most awfully grand…

…and lit up the heavens for miles.” So said Thomas Pratt in 1893 remembering the disastrous fire which ruined the Lower Darshill silk mill in 1843.

We shall hear more from him in the next blog, but let’s first look at the factory itself. Owned in 1843 by the local firm of Nalder & Hardisty, it was located at what is today the Shepton Mallet water treatment works on the A371. With two huge water wheels – one 30 feet and the other 20 feet in diameter – it employed children, women and men making silk crape. All stages of the manufacturing process took place there, with raw silk being carted in and finished cloth being carted out. The plan and key below show what was there and the areas of land enclosed:

Lower Darshill silk mill in 1827
Key

There was a mill on the site from the early 17th century onwards and a number of owners before Nalder & Hardisty took over around 1812, who converted the mill from making woollen cloth to silk. Throughout that time the area was in Pilton parish, having once been owned by Glastonbury Abbey, (the second weathiest abbey in England at the time of the dissolution of the monasteries in the 16th century). It was as a result of the building of the water treatment works about 1880 that the area was transferred from the Pilton parish to Shepton Mallet around the time of WW1.

The main factory building itself had five storeys plus an attic and was roughly 50 metres (160 feet) long. There were at least seven engine rooms, with various kinds of machinery including spinning, slip, drawing, tram and skellet engines as well as hot rooms for drying crape, a ducted hot air heating system and turners, carpenters and blacksmith’s shops. So far, we have not uncovered how many people worked there in its heyday, but this factory was big; very big. Look out for more about the fire that destroyed it in my next blog.

32 ft water wheel at Morwellham Quay, Cornwall. Photo: Penny Mayes

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