The Cottage, Ham Lane

Likely built in the mid 18th century, this house on the old main route between Shepton Mallet and Croscombe was improved at the beginning of the 19th century and again in the mid 19th century.

Built as part of the Strode land and property centred on what are today called Old Manor and Ham Manor (farm), the 1839 Tithe map shows that The Cottage was owned and occupied by Eleanor Penny (nee Strode), previously of Ham Manor. The slightly later 1841 census shows that she (aged 70 years) shared the house with her son Joseph (30), both of whom were of independent means, Mary Burgess (40) and Matilda Lee (15), Eleanor’s daughter and grand-daughter respectively.

When Eleanor died in 1841, the house remained in the family until about 1885 when it was contracted to be sold to a Mr James Higgins. However, the sale didn’t go through with him, and who did buy it is unknown.

The house had a well in its yard and a separate deep drain onto the hillside, leading to speculation that The Cottage may have had a small abattoir, possibly linked to the nearby Butcher’s Arms public house and Roseland Cottage in the 1840’s (see January 18 post).

Shepton streets – Darshill, Ham and Bowlish people and places

Over the years successive councils and developers have named streets in our town after people associated with the western hamlets of Darshill, Ham and Bowlish.

So, lets start with Barrington Place. Named after Barrington Court, the final home of Colonel William Strode, international woollen merchant, passionate Presbyterian, joint executor to his brother Jeffrey’s Will which bequested the Shepton Mallet Grammar School, committed supporter of the Parliamentarian cause and Member of Parliament for Ilchester until forceably ejected in 1648 as part of Pride’s Purge of moderates. William was born at Darshill.

Hyatt Place, named after a prominent Shepton family also remembered by a stone plaque near the entrance to the church. In particular, two 19th century brothers, William and George lived at Bowlish and William sold the factory there in 1836 including a fulling mill worked by an iron water wheel, a dye house and stove. Later around 1908, Dr James Hyatt and his daughter Dr Annie Hyatt were Shepton’s Medical Officer of Health and Deputy.

West Shepton, is a road as well as a locality which historically comprised the area around Kent Lane as can be seen from the remaining late medieval/17th century buildings. Once there was a mill pond and fulling mill here powered by the stream which flows from the higher ground, through Kent Lane and thence down Coombe Lane to join the River Sheppey. Church records from 1633 show one of the investors in this industrial complex was Henry Slade of Ham, who lived at what is now known as Old Manor on Ham Lane.

Strode Way, named after the family who from the turn of the 13th century until the turn of the 18th were major industrialists and merchants in the town, making vast fortunes and building their own chapel as a wing in the church, regrettably demolished in the 19th century.

Cazenove Close, named after the family which lived at Ham Manor on Ham Lane. The father, Brigadier Arnold de Lérisson Cazenove and his wife Elizabeth had four children, all brought up whilst they lived there. The most well-known was Christopher, an actor who appeared in numerous stage show, films and TV shows from the seventies into the naughties. Perhaps his most famous role was as Ben Carrington in the long-running American TV saga, Dynasty.

From top left: Christopher Cazenove, John Forsyth, Joan Collins and Kate O’Mara, on the 1980s ABC show “Dynasty.”
Credit: ABC, via Photofest

Whiting Close, named after Abbot Richard Whiting who was hung, drawn and quartered on the summit of Glastonbury Tor for refusing to hand over the Abbey to the Crown in 1539. Alice, his neice, married Darshill-born Edward Strode around 1530 and she had seven children with him. They likely lived in a now-demolished mansion adjacent to what is today called the Lower Silk Mill.

Allen Drive, named after the local farming and real estate family who owned the land upon which the St Peter’s estate was built. The senior member of the family at the time, Ernest George, lived at Coombe Lane and other members at Darshill.

Spring in Shepton…

One of the delights of research is coming across littleknown or unknown items. Like jewells, they not only shine a light on the past, but they also provide a spur to further work of discovery.

In 1913, author Edward Thomas, rode his bicycle from London to the Quantocks describing what he saw in the language and imagery of the time. Its atmosphere evokes a lost period of gentility and beautifully crafted observations of nature and gives no hint of the conflict so shortly to follow with the outbreak of the First World War.

On his way he visited our town and this is what he says about Bowlish and Darshill:

“I rode from it (the Anglo-Bavarian Brewery) in whirls of dust down to Bowlish and into the valley of the Sheppey. To within a mile of Wells I was to have this little river always with me and several times under me. Telegraph posts also accompanied the road. It was a delightful exit, the brewery was behind me, a rookery before me in the beech trees of the outskirts. On both hands grassy banks rose up steeply. The left one, when the rookery was passed, was topped with single thorn trees, and pigs and chickens did their duty and their pleasure among the pollarded ashes below. Most of the cottages of Bowlish are on the other side, their gardens reaching down in front of them to the stream, their straggling orchards of crooked apple trees behind within walls of ivy-covered stone. Where Bowlish becomes Darshill, the cottages are concentrated round a big square silk-mill and its mill pond beside the road. Up in the high windows could be seen the backs or faces of girls at work. All this is on the right, at the foot of the slope. The left bank being steeper, is either clothed in a wood or ivied oaks, or its ridgy turf and scattering of elms and ash trees are seldom interrupted by houses. A sewage farm and a farmhouse ruined by it take up part of the lower slope for some way past the silk-mill: a wood of oak and pine invades them irregularly from above. Then on both hands the valley does without houses. The left is a low, steep thicket rising from the stream, which spreads out here into a sedgy pool before a weir, and was at this moment bordered by sheaves of silver-catkined sallow, fresh-cut. But the right side became high and precipitous, mostly bare at first, then hanging before me a rocky barrier thinly populated by oaks. This compelled the road to twist round it in a shadowy trough. In fact, so much has the road to twist that the traveller coming from the other direction would prepare himsilf for scaling a barrier, not dreaming that he could slink in comfort round that wild obstacle.”

In Pursuit of Spring by Edward Thomas

Bowlish looking east c.1910

Your help is needed…

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.

A cloth marker found in Bowlish (face)

Reverse side

Silk jobs and wages

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.’

SindenGarden, Sweden (note huge number of threads!)


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:

  • The Penny Magazine for the drawings

Working in a silk factory

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.

1843 Illustration

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:

Mechanised silk reeling
Mechanised silk throwing

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.

Doubling by hand

Trials of the silk industry 1824 -1832

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.

Silk in the UK and Shepton Mallet

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.

“…more handy than grown-up persons…”

Silk – production, people and Shepton 2

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 Is Silk Made?

How does the cocoon turn into a fibre?

How To Make Silk

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.

Making Silk Fabric

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.

Silk – production, people and Shepton 1

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.

Silk Worms

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 Is Silk Made?

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.

How Is Silk Made?

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.