One of the objectives of our project is to shine a light on the lives of people who lived and worked in Shepton’s western hamlets of Bowlish, Ham and Darshill. It’s easier said than done though – the raw materials that help us to understand those lives is hard to come by. There’s some in newspaper reports and some in the court cases, Wills and property records held in archives, but we’d like to uncover more, and this is where you may be able to help.
If your ancestors were involved in woollen or silk cloth-making and have diaries, letters, photographs, postcards, family bible notes, deeds, family-related newspaper articles or anything else that gives us a glimpse into how they lived and worked we’d love to hear from you; and the documents need never leave your sight. If you any of these or other items you think would help us, then please get in touch using the Contact Form on this site. We’ll arrange to visit you and photograph what you have. It’s as simple and painless as that.
If you have an artifact or two, such as a cloth marker (a round object usually with a disc in lead – see the one we found in our garden below) or a shuttle or maybe even the remains of a loom or drop spindle – much of our town’s spinning and weaving took place in people’s homes rather than in factories – then please get in touch. We’ll visit and take notes and photographs and log what you have.
The numerous silk factories in Shepton Mallet employed hundreds, probably thousands of people. Especially in the earlier years, a high proportion (around 30% in the 1830’s) of those were children under 12 years of age and our blog of 13 September looks at this in more detail.
We’re still recearching employment levels in the western Shepton mills, but the Whitchurch Mill in Hampshire using similar machinery employed around 110 people in the 19th century. However, many of the Shepton Mills were much bigger. For example, Whitchurch powered its machinery from a 6ft. water wheel, whereas the Lower Darshill mill had two wheels, 30ft. and 20ft in diameter, likely meaning that it employed several times as many!
There were many different jobs in silk factories including:
Twister – spun raw silk
Drawer – drew silk from silk waste for spinning
Thrower/throwster – twisted silk into thread
Piecer – joined the broken threads
Dresser – prepared silk for weaving
Dyer – dyed the silk
Weaver – wove the silk
Silker – sewed the ends of the fabric to prevent fraying
However, many weavers were likely employed to work in their own homes, which was typical of the 19th century silk industry and a report to the Poor Law Commissioners in 1837, a Dr. Kay described the methods of home weaving:-
‘A weaver has generally two looms, one for his wife and another for himself, and as his family increases the children are set to work at six or seven years of age to quill silk; at nine or ten years to pick silk; and at the age of twelve or thirteen (according to the size of the child) he is put to the loom to weave. A child very soon learns to weave a plain silk fabric, so as to become a proficient in that branch; a weaver has thus not unfrequently four looms on which members of his own family are employed. On a Jacquard loom a weaver can earn 25s. a week on an average; on a velvet or rich plain silk-loom from 16s. to 20s. per week; and on a plain silk-loom from 12s. to 14s.; excepting when the silk is bad and requires much cleaning, when his earnings are reduced to 10s. per week; and on one or two very inferior fabrics 8s. a week only are sometimes earned, though the earnings are reported to be seldom so low on these coarse fabrics. On the occurrence of a commercial crisis the loss of work occurs first among the least skilful operatives, who are discharged from work.’
This post marks the end of our series on silk cloth making and we hope you’ve enjoyed it. There will be more silk posts later in the year as more information about the Darshill, Ham and Bowlish industry comes to light.
We couldn’t have produced this series of blogs without expert help from:
Nalder & Hardisty, the owners of the Darshill, Bowlish and Coombe Lane, called themselves ‘silk throwsters’.
So, what’s involved in ‘throwing’ silk?
Silk throwing is the industrial process where silk that has been reeled into skeins is cleaned, receives a twist and is wound onto bobbins. Silk had to be thrown to make it strong enough to be used and three sorts of yarn were commonly produced: no-twist which was suitable for weft; tram that had received a slight twist making it easier to handle; and organizine which had a greater twist and was suitable for use as warp.
Silk throwing was originally a hand process relying on a turning a wheel (the gate) that twisted four threads while a helper, who would be a child, ran the length of a shade, hooked the threads on stationary pins (the cross)and ran back to start the process again. The shade would be a between 23 and 32m long. The process was described in detail to Lord Shaftesbury’s Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Employment of Children in 1841:
‘For twisting it is necessary to have what are designated shades which are buildings of at least 30 or 35 yards in length, of two or more rooms, rented separately by one, two or four men having one gate and a boy called a helper… the upper storey is generally occupied by children, young persons or grown women as ‘piecers’, ‘winders’ and ‘doublers’ attending to their reels and bobbins, driven by the exertions of one man… He (the boy) takes first a rod containing four bobbins of silk from the twister who stands at his gate or wheel, and having fastened the ends, runs to the ‘cross’ at the extreme end of the room, round which he passes the threads of each bobbin and returns to the ‘gate’. He is despatched on a second expedition of the same kind, and returns as before, he then runs up to the cross and detaches the threads and comes to the roller. Supposing the master to make twelve rolls a day, the boy necessarily runs fourteen miles, and this is barefooted.’
By 1820, machinery had been invented whereby throwing was done using rectangular frames, manufactured from cast iron, and powered by belts from line shafts driven either by steam engines or water wheels.
The illustrations are from 1834:
The skeins were placed into bales and taken to the mill for processing. Reeling is the process where the silk that has been wound into skeins, is cleaned, receives a twist and is wound onto bobbins. Silk throwing is the process where the filament from the bobbins is given its full twist. The process where filaments or threads from three or more bobbins are wound together is called doubling. The last two processes can occur more than once and in any order. Tram was wound, thrown and doubled, organzine was wound, doubled then thrown and doubled again. Sewing silk could receive further doubling and throwing. No-twist was often three single filaments doubled together. Many other combinations were possible.
Colloquially, silk throwing can be used to refer to the whole process: reeling, throwing and doubling, and silk throwsters would speak of throwing as twisting or spinning.
The silk industry in Europe started in Italy followed by France. To protect the nascent English industry, Parliament passed protective laws in 1766 which continued until repealed in 1826. That repeal added to a depression in the home industry leading to ‘extreme distress’ and as a result, an 1832 Select Committee inquired into the causes.
They found that the quantity of raw (unthrown) silk imported into England rose from 544,000lbs (544k lbs) in 1787 to 3075k lbs in 1831. Roughly ⅓ of raw silk was imported from India, ⅓ from China and ⅓ from Italy. The amount of thrown silk imported during that period was fairly constant at between 300k lbs and 370k lbs.
However, it was the volume of imports from France following the 1826 repeal which was the principal cause of the distress. Within a year, the volume of imports to England had become 978k lbs, where it roughly remained until the time of the Select Committee. The data in the report suggests that rather than replacing English manufacture, there was actually an increase in demand. For example, total production of English cloth in 1826 was 4342k lbs, whereas production in 1832 was 4272k lbs; clearly not a significant decline.
However, the clothiers took the opportunity to reduce or rationalise or mechanise their production such that in Macclesfield, for example, in 1824 there were 276k spindles in use in the town and 10,229 people were employed, whereas in 1832, there were 117k spindles and 3622 people were employed. One can speculate that the spectre of the threat of imports from the ‘old enemy’, France, was a powerful way to drive change. In any event, there was a consequential increase in the country-wide amount paid in the Poor Rate and, of course, behind each recipient is a story of poverty and family break-up.
We are still researching the exact number of looms in Shepton, but the Select Committee includes a reference to the town: collectively, in ‘Taunton, Shepton Mallet and Dassell (Darshill), Devises, Reading, Haslemere and Hammerpond, Macclesfield, Kettering, Bullock Smithy and Leigh’, in 1825 there were 1450 looms and in 1831, 1185 looms, a reduction of 18%.
We know there was a pretty stable population in Shepton throughout the 19th century and, so, if there was in fact a reduction in employment here by 18% or thereabouts in the years 1825-31, many poor and desperate people and their families would have been forced either into the workhouse or face destitution.
Like his predecessor Henry VIII, James 1 attempted to establish silk production in England, purchasing and planting 100,000 mulberry trees in the first quarter of the 17th century, some on land adjacent to Hampton Court Palace, but they were of a species unsuited to silk worms, which also didn’t like the climate, and the attempt failed. Consequently, raw silk was imported into England from China, India and Turkey to be made into thread and woven. Silk weaving was itself introduced to England in the 17th Century in Spitalfields, London by Huguenot emigrees fleeing persecution on the Continent.
In the 18th Century people worked in their homes to make small silk items such as silk buttons and ribbons in places across the country including Macclesfield, Congleton and Leek. In the early 18th John Lombe opened the first silk mill in Derby with his newly invented silk spinning machine, which used water power. During the 18th Century more mills were opened in other areas, including Shepton Mallet and other locations in Somerset, in the last quarter.
When steam power was introduced in the early 19th Century silk factories were established in many areas, especially in Cheshire, Lancashire and Coventry. At these factories raw silk was processed into thread and then woven using machines, replacing the looms that had hitherto been in people’s homes.
Silk in Shepton Mallet
Collinson in 1791 says that there were about 4500 people employed in the cloth industry – both woollen and crape – in the Shepton valley, i.e. Darshill, Bowlish, Draycott, Leg Square, Kilver (Jardines) and Charlton. From about 1812, the silk mills at Lower Darshill (1 mill), Middle Darshill (1 mill), Upper Darshill (2 mills) and Coombe Lane (1 mill) were owned by a company called Nalder & Hardisty.
In his evidence to the 1833 Factory Commission, which spawned the first Factories Act targeted at regulating the employment of children, William Hardisty said that his company were silk throwsters and made crape (black silk fabric chiefly used as mourning dress) and, from 1829, gros de Naples fabrics. (‘literally “thick or stout of Naples;” and by which we understand it to be a silk of that description. The article we know in trade by this name is a plain stout silk; it is the staple of silks; but of which there are of course, many qualities, and in all colours; lengths various, to 100 yards.’ Perkins 1845).
The Lower Darshill and one Upper Darshill factories used both steam and water power, but steam was only used in summer when the river Sheppey water was short. The steam engines at these two mills were 10hp and 4hp respectively. Middle Darshill (adjacent to Darshill House today) and the other factory at Upper Darshill used water power only. The mill at Coombe Lane was hand worked.
The process of making crape involves no heat, thus any heat was supplied only for the comfort of workers. Lower Darshill was heated with hot air in winter, and the other factories by stoves and steam apparatus, Ventilation at the factories was at the workers option.
Safety and welfare at the factories was a concern, with dangerous machinery being fenced off. The work itself was not filthy and workers had two periods in the day when they could leave the sites.
The hours of work in summer were 6am to 8.15am; 9am to 1pm and 2pm to 7pm: 11 ¼ hours/day. On Saturdays, it was 10 ¼ hours. In winter, the times of attendance varied, but the hours worked were the same. There were three or four times a year when the workers had a few days holiday.
Children were employed in the winding of silk as it was very light work and they were more handy at swift engines and thus better at throwing silk. There were no apprentices (see blog of 13 September 2018 for more information on the employment of children in these and other silk factories).
At each factory, there were four or five small cottages for the mechanics who kept the machinery working. At Darshill and Coombe Lane, there were six cottages occupied by weavers. Hand weavers at Coombe Lane were employed by the yard.
In this blog, we look at the concluding stages of the production of silk fibre.
What exactly is this fibre made of?
Silkworms have salivary glands called sericteries, which are used for the production of fibroin – a clear, viscous, protein fluid that is forced through an opening in their heads called the spinneret. The diameter of the spinneret determines the thickness of the silk thread, which is produced as a long, continuous filament. A second pair of glands secretes a gummy binding fluid called sericin which binds filaments together: more about that later.
The cocoons are then put into a shallow, woven basket made of bamboo, like the one below.
How does the cocoon turn into a fibre?
The cocoons are submerged into boiling water. The silk is then unreeled from the cocoon by softening the sericin and then delicately and carefully unwinding the filaments. In this photo, the silk worker is ‘reeling’ many fibres – the norm is between four to eight cocoons at once. A single thread filament is too thin to use on its own, so many fibres are combined to produce a thicker, usable fibre. This is done by hand-reeling the threads onto a wooden spindle to produce a uniform strand of raw silk. As the fibres are being drawn through the small hole of the wooden panel above the pot, the pot is periodically stirred which twists the fibres together. The twisted fibres, now a thread, then feed over the round barrel above the holed piece of wood, and then onto the spindle that is constantly being turned by hand. It takes nearly 40 hours to produce a half kilogram of silk.
The sericin protects the silk fibre during processing and is often left on the fibres until the yarn or even woven fabric stage. Raw silk is silk that still contains sericin. Once this is washed out in soap and boiling water, the fabric is left soft, lustrous, and up to 30% lighter.
What happens to the moth inside the cocoon?
If the moth is allowed to survive once it’s spun its cocoon, it will eventually emerge as an adult moth. To emerge, it releases proteolytic enzymes to make a hole in the cocoon. These enzymes are destructive to the silk and can cause the silk fibres to break, reducing a fibre over a mile in length to segments of random length. This seriously reduces the value of the silk threads and to prevent it, silkworms are usually not allowed to hatch from their cocoons, by being boiled or sun dried. The heat kills the silkworms and the water makes the cocoons easier to unravel.
In the next blog in this mini-series, we’ll look at silk in the UK, in Shepton Mallet and the trials the industry went through 1824-32.
Having completed our mini-series on the Lower Darshill silk factory fire of 1833, we thought you might enjoy another mini-series looking at the process of making silk cloth and the Shepton Mallet context.
The legacy of wool
Centuries of woollen cloth production in Shepton – focused on the river valley from Lower Darshill, through Ham and Bowlish, to Draycott, Kilver and Charlton – went into decline as a result of a lethal combination of industrial unrest due to successive continental wars which caused huge fluctuations in the cost of food whilst wages remained static, abortive attempts to introduce steam power, changing tastes such as the rise of cotton fabrics, and the world-weary attitude of the local clothier owners (see blog of 20 February for more details).
However, the woollen cloth mills, old as many of them were, did leave behind buildings, water wheels and labour, some of which could be repurposed into silk factories.
Such was the case at Lower Darshill, Middle Darshill, Bowlish, Coombe Lane and Draycott, but before we look at those mills in particular, let’s have a look at how silk fibre is produced, the processes involved in turning it into thread and how the cloth was woven.
At this stage in our project research, we cannot say that the stages and processes here were exactly those followed in Shepton, but they do provide a clue as to what was likely to have been found here between 100 and 220 years ago.
Where does it start?
Silk is an animal protein fibre produced by certain insects like worms and spiders, to build their cocoons and webs. Silk worms are the very beginning of the journey to make the most stunning of fabrics; prized as much today as it was then, although it is much, much cheaper.
The “silkworm” is technically not a worm but a moth larva, but they are always referred to as worms. The particular worms are called Bombyx Mori, the mulberry silk moth, so-called because it feeds on mulberry leaves. It is a breed of silk worm that relies on human intervention to survive: it’s domesticated.
This practice of breeding the silkworm for the production of silk is known as sericulture and it has been around for at least 5000 years when it was taking place in China. From there, it spread to Korea and Japan, and later to India and the West. Over millennia, the silkworm was slowly domesticated from the wild silk moth, Bombyx Mandarina.
Many insects produce silk, but only the filament produced by the Bombyx Mori and a few others in the same species is used by the commercial silk industry.Its eggs take about 14 days to hatch into larvae, which eat continuously: to produce 1 kg of silk, 104 kg of mulberry leaves must be eaten by 3000 silkworms. It takes about 5000 silkworms to make a pure silk kimono.
There are lots of phases of the larvae, as they hatch from tiny pin head size and over 30 days grow into worms. When the colour of their heads turns darker, they are about to moult.
How does the worm turn into a cocoon?
After they have moulted four times, their bodies become slightly yellow and the skin becomes tighter. The silkworm attaches itself to a compartmented frame (see above), twig, tree or shrub in a rearing house to spin a silk cocoon over a three to eight day period. The larvae then prepare to enter the pupal phase of their life-cycle and enclose themselves in a cocoon made up of raw silk produced by the salivary glands. Steadily over four days, the silkworm rotates its body in a figure of eight movement approximately 300,000 times, constructing a cocoon. The final moult from larva to pupa takes place inside the cocoon, which provides a vital layer of protection.
These are the cocoons that the larvae produce.
The cocoon is made of a single thread of raw silk which is usually between 300 and 900 metres long (330 – 980 yards). The fibres are very fine and lustrous, about 10 μm (millionths of a metre) in diameter. In comparison, a human hair is 17 to 180 μm in diameter. Approximately 2,000 to 3,000 cocoons are required to make 400 grams (14 ounces) of silk. Worldwide, at least 32 million Kg of raw silk are produced each year, requiring 4.5 billion Kg of cocoons.
In the next blog, we’ll look at the next stages in the production of raw silk.
The disastrous Lower Darshill silk factory fire must have put hundreds of people out of work, many of them women and children as well as men. The impacts on the families of those people would have been severe. Alternative employment close to home was difficult to come by and the parish workhouse, where families were split up, was the last-resort alternative to starvation. Our informant, Thomas Pratt, says there was ‘destitution‘ among the poor people as result of the fire.
There were rumours that the factory would be rebuilt but in the 1860’s – after the opening of the new Shepton to Wells road – he reports the two gable ends still stood charred and unchanged as potent reminders of that fateful evening in January 1843. In fact, it wasn’t until the building of the sewage works in the early 1880’s that they were demolished as the site was cleared.
Thomas himself emigrated to Queensland in Australia and the people he mentions in his article, Sarah Hiscox, the supervisor, and Walter Butt and Samuel Hiscox, his fellow machinists, moved away to Bristol, the Midlands and Reading in search of work.
The impact of the fire on the town and the townsfolk of Shepton compounded the late 18th century decimation of the local woollen cloth manufacturing industry. A lethal combination of industrial unrest due to successive continental wars caused huge fluctuations in the cost of food whilst wages remained static, abortive attempts to introduce steam power, changing tastes such as the rise of cotton fabrics, and the world-weary attitude of the local clothier owners all contributed to its demise.
Collectively, these factors spoke to attitude and the Rev. John Collinson in his 1791 book, The History and Antiquities of the County of Somerset, describes the streets of Shepton as being narrow and dirty.
He alsosays Shepton then had a population of nearly 9,000 people who lived in 1,138 houses (an average of 7.9 persons/house). However, Claire Gathercole in her 2003 paper Somerset Extensive Urban Survey – Shepton Mallet Archaeological Assessment says that by 1801 the population of the town had declined to between five and six thousand, although it had expanded physically, absorbing other local settlements. The population figures from both sources were written without the benefit of a census so one must be cautious, but taking them at face value they suggest the town lost around 40% of its population in a decade.
Collinson says that the mill-based woollen cloth, crape and silk industries in the Sheppey river valley employed some 4,500 people in 1791. To which must be added, at different times in history, the shepherds, home workers and suppliers who were based in the surrounding villages and farms and the considerable number of ‘supply-chain’ merchants and carters who imported and transported raw materials such as wool, woad and oil through the ports of Southampton and Bristol.
The silk industry gradually replaced wool – the Lower Darshill mill was bought by Londoner Francis Nalder around 1812 – but employed far fewer people, particularly as the raw silk used was wholly imported from abroad rather than being grown here. Later, in the last half of the 1820’s, his company Nalder and Hardisty bought and converted two more mills at Darshill and, unlike their woollen clothier predecessors two generations earlier, they invested in steam power.
In 1840, the Braggs’ Trade Directory describes Shepton as a neat and clean market town in recovery from the economic threat imposed by the failure of the fleece-based cloth industry. Silk manufacture, brewing and cheese making had substantially filled the gap, stabilising Shepton’s population at around 5000, which was where it remained for most of the 19th century. However, this was at a time when the population of England rose from 9 million in 1801 to 41 million in 1901. In short, Shepton stagnated and depopulated.
Shepton was not unique in seeing 19th century stagnation, but it’s experience underscores the changes in our country brought about by the Industrial Revolution. The new, efficient and much larger factories powered by coal and steam in the cities, the Midlands and the North, meant that goods could be made more cheaply than by the use of water power.
Could Shepton have become an industrial powerhouse?
Perhaps. As Julia de L. Mann says in ‘The cloth industry in the west of England 1640 to 1880‘, “Had manufacturers in Frome and Shepton Mallet persisted with their experiments (of the carding machine and spinning jenny) after 1776-81 their history might have been very different, for they, of all the western centres, were the nearest to the supply of coal, though it was not such good coal as that of Yorkshire.”
on the surrounding cliffs and edifices and watched the progress of the fire, while others were engaged in trying to save what they could…”
Today it seems improbable that so many people could watch a Shepton Mallet fire, but they did, apparently. It happened on 10th January, 1843, before the arrival of the railways when most local people still worked on the land; today, in winter when leaves are absent from trees, the cliffs can be seen rising above the water treatment works on both sides of the modern road. Thomas Pratt’s story, published in a newspaper here fifty years later, long after he’d emigrated to Australia, is a rare example of a first-hand account not just of the fire, but also of the way the mill was organised, the machinery it contained as well as a precious few snippets about the people who worked there.
Thomas was employed there from the age of seven and although he was considered a good hand, he didn’t like the work. He worked largely on the fifth floor and in the attic rooms at the very top of the buildings, variously serving the spinning machines or as a general labourer. After six years or so at the age of twelve or thirteen, he left to learn the trade of a mason in Wells, staying for some time until the trade became bad – perhaps due to lack of work – and he returned to work again at the mill.
The night of the fire was bitterly cold and the children’s supervisor, Sarah Hiscox, asked him to clean out the flue so that heat could come up from the fire on the ground floor to the upper floors more freely. This he did and shortly after heard an unusual noise from the floor below coming through a grating in the floor. He peered through and heard Sarah telling the children to run for their lives as the factory was on fire. A cloud of black smoke came through the flue and Thomas shouted the alarm to the other children working in the attic. There was a great rush for the stairs. Realising that he didn’t have his hat, he returned to where he had been working and retreived it from under a basket of bobbins which he upset over the floor. The stair was now clear and he leaped down half a flight at a time. Arriving two floors below, he remembered his mother worked in one of the rooms, so he opened the door and was enveloped in a cloud of smoke. He shouted as loudly as he could, but decided the women had already run for their lives.
Two more floors below, he came across two women obliviously trying to take a basket of bobbins up the stair and completely blocking it. He shouted for them to make way, but they refused, seemingly unaware of the danger and threatened to report him to the boss. With other workers now behind him, he vaulted onto the basket and tumbled headlong onto the stairs beyond, upsetting both the basket and the women. Not stopping to talk any further, he exited into the yard followed by the remaining children and women and found both his mother and his sister safely there. He never knew how the alarm was first given, but it was a miracle that the great number of small children got out safely.
It was only a little while before huge flames burst through the upper windows front and back. Two water engines from Shepton poured a stream of water into the burning building, but it had no effect. During it all, the big water wheel incongruously continued to turn until many hours later, around two in the morning, the side walls fell in, leaving only the gable ends standing.
In the next blog we’ll take a look at the aftermath of the fire.
…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:
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.