A blow upon a wound…

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 also says 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.”

How things might have been in Shepton…Greenland Woollen Mill, Bradford-upon-Avon

“Thousands of people assembled…

on the surrounding cliffs and edifices and watched the progress of the fire, while others were engaged in trying to save what they could…”

A burnt out cloth mill at New Mills in Derbyshire

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.

A Victorian fire waggon (not Shepton Mallet)

In the next blog we’ll take a look at the aftermath of the fire.

“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

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

Darshill Lower Silk Mill complex

The complex today from the A371. The mill buildings are centre and right and the river runs right to left between the two walls. The Mill Master’s House is hidden behind

Dating from at least the mid-18th century, the Lower Silk Mill was likely used used to manufacture woollen cloth before being converted to silk clothmaking in the 19th century and then to apple juice manufacture in the late 19th/early 20th centuries.

The main mill building was ‘L’ shaped and had a mill floor at ground level and two further stories of which only one remains. The mill wheel was likely located at the southern end of the main building. There are several blocked openings but apart from window and door surrounds, other features have been lost.

Courtyard at mill looking south-east in 1998. A terrace of modern houses was built to form a ‘U’ opposite the sliding double-doors

The mill master’s house stands to the east of the main building and was originally connected to it via an arch, now blocked. All of its internal features have been lost and a number of external windows on the south wall have been blocked.

Mill Master’s House in 1998

Ham landmarks – Roseland Villa/The Butcher’s Arms/Studfold Cottage

Today, Studfold Cottage is simply a family home, but it has a fascinating history and a cellar.

Studfold Cottage today

Likely built in the 17th century, the house was originally part of the Strode estate centred on what is today called Old Manor and is one of a number of buildings on the main route between Shepton Mallet and Croscombe before the modern road was built in the mid-19th century.

The property has had a number of names starting with Roseland Villa, becoming The Butcher’s Arms public house by the time of the 1841 census, reverting to Roseland Villa before 1847 and finally becoming Studfold Cottage in the 20th century.

The Butcher’s Arms is a common pub name and although there is no evidence that it was ever licensed as an inn, the 1830 Beer Act allowed home occupiers/owners to sell beer, cider and perry from their premises. As a result, rooms in houses and cottages rapidly opened as alehouses serving in this case, the many workers at the silk mills at Darshill and Bowlish and local residents.

Interestingly, there is a historical association of a butcher’s premises with inns and alehouses. Not only was there a ready market for the meat but bull baiting regularly occurred in the surrounding courtyards and there was an archaic belief that meat from a baited animal was of higher quality: let alone providing entertainment in the process! In many rural alehouses the keepers were primarily farmers and butchering was part of the job.

In 1839 – 41 Isaac Gould a retired Army veteran injured at Waterloo lived next door to The Butcher’s Arms (now Roseland Cottage). He may be the butcher and grocer of Bowlish listed in the 1848 Hunt’s Directory of businesses and people.

There is no record of whether the Ham/Bowlish pub had a sign, but this Cotswolds example gives a flavour of the linkage between drink and meat.

Sign at The Butcher’s Arms, Sheepscombe

Ham landmarks (Weirside Cottage)

Until the time of the WW1, Ham was separate from the rest of Pilton parish and its residents are buried in Pilton church there rather than in Shepton Mallet.

Wearside Cottage on the A371 today

The archtecture of this cottage suggests it was built around 1650 and it was probably the miller’s dwelling for the adjacent corn mill, although that remains to be proven. What is certain though is that it was part of the mill complex of buildings in 1809 and was (still) owned by the Strode family in 1838/9 according to the Pilton Tithe, although it was leased to a tenant at that time.

Following the demise of the woollen cloth industry in Shepton Mallet and the surrounding area by about 1820, the town in general went through several decades of privation. Successive censuses showed many homes standing empty for 20 years or more as hundreds of families left the town to seek work elsewhere in England and the USA. Weirside Cottage was affected too and from 1838 (perhaps before) to 1861, the house was divided into two dwellings – a common practice then to house poorer families. By 1861 though its occupants had also been blighted by the economic depression in the town and the house was empty.

Ten years later, the census shows that a woman, whose husband likely worked away, was living in Weirside Cottage with her six children.

The end of Strode family ownership came in the 1860’s or 70’s as that branch of the family emigrated to New Zealand and, in 1905, eventually sold up – “a cottage and two pieces of garden ground near Ham Mill” – for £100. The new owner was Eveline Hawkey (née Fear) who was a schoolteacher at Bowlish and later Croscombe schools. She and her family lived there for 65 years.

Family painting

Ham landmarks (continued)

In previous blogs, we’ve had a look at Cleevers and the Old Manor in Ham Lane. In this one, we’ll look at Ham Mill, the building behind the tall green fence on the A 371.

Ham Mill from the A 371

Interestingly, this part of Ham together with Ham Meadow and Weirside Cottage is on the south side of the river Sheppey, whereas the rest of Ham is on the north side. Quite why this is the case is presently unknown.

What looks like one building has in fact two parts: the mill and a dwelling, the latter – presumably for the miller – at the western end (to the left in the picture). This may have been a later addition as the original miller’s dwelling may have been the adjacent Weirside Cottage.

The earliest documents we have found so far tells us that a building on the mill site was bought from Thomas Strode in the 1760’s by the Lovell family, who lived at Ham Manor Farm (now Ham Manor). The building has its own leat (water channel) diverted from the Sheppey via a sluice and small aqueduct running behind Weirside cottage to the still existing mill wheel.

The mill was used to grind corn – known as a ‘grist’ mill – in the 19th century, and may well have been a cloth mill earlier in its life.

By the mid-20th century, the grinding of corn had ceased and the Pratt family operated a haulage business – Pratt & Sons – from there, transporting animal feed and other goods; the mill building was used for storage.

In 1976, Pratt & Sons ceased trading and the mill building was converted into a domestic dwelling.

Ford Collection

Christmas for all? 5


No era in history has influenced the way in which we celebrate Christmas quite as much as the Victorian.

Before Queen Victoria’s reign started in 1837 nobody in Britain had heard of Santa Claus or Christmas Crackers. No Christmas cards were sent and most people did not have holidays from work. The wealth and technologies generated by the industrial revolution of the Victorian era changed the face of Christmas forever. Do-gooders like Charles Dickens wrote books (e.g. “A Christmas Carol”, published in 1843), which actually encouraged rich Victorians to redistribute their wealth by giving money and gifts to the poor. These radical middle class ideals eventually spread to the not-quite-so-poor as well.

The wealth generated by the new factories and industries of the Victorian age allowed middle class families in England and Wales to take time off work and celebrate over two days, Christmas Day and Boxing Day.

At the start of Victoria’s reign, children’s toys tended to be handmade and hence expensive, generally restricting availability to the well-off again. With factories however came mass production, which brought with it games, dolls, books and clockwork toys all at a more affordable price. Affordable that is to “middle class” children. In a “poor child’s” Christmas stocking, which first became popular from around 1870, only an apple, orange and a few nuts could be found.

Normally associated with the bringer of the above gifts, is Father Christmas or Santa Claus. However, the two are in fact two entirely separate stories. Father Christmas was originally part of an old English midwinter festival, normally dressed in green, a sign of the returning spring. The red and white costume became associated with Father Christmas in the 19th century and much of the present-day image is due to cartoonist Thomas Nast in the 1870’s and 80’s. The stories of St. Nicholas (Sinter Klaas in Holland) likely came via Dutch settlers and from the 1870’s Sinter Klass became known in Britain as Santa Claus and with him came his unique gift and toy distribution system – reindeer and sleigh.

The “Penny Post” was first introduced in Britain in 1840 by Rowland Hill. The idea was simple, a penny stamp paid for the postage of a letter or card to anywhere in Britain. This simple idea paved the way for the sending of the first Christmas cards. Sir Henry Cole tested the water in 1843 by printing a thousand cards for sale in his art shop in London at one shilling each. The popularity of sending cards was helped along when in 1870 a halfpenny postage rate was introduced as a result of the efficiencies brought about by the new railways.

Queen Victoria’s German husband Prince Albert helped to make the Christmas tree as popular in Britain as they were in his native Germany, when he brought one to Windsor Castle. The British people adopted the tradition after the Illustrated London News printed an engraving of Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and their family around their Christmas tree in 1848.

Crackers were invented by Tom Smith, a London sweet maker in 1846. The original idea was to wrap his sweets in a twist of fancy coloured paper, but this developed and sold much better when he added love notes (mottos), paper hats, small toys and made them go off bang!

Carol Singers and Musicians visited houses singing and playing the new popular carols including:

  • 1843 – O Come all ye Faithful
  • 1848 – Once in Royal David’s City
  • 1851 – See Amid the Winters Snow
  • 1868 – O Little Town of Bethlehem
  • 1883 – Away in a Manger


We hope you have enjoyed this mini Christmas series and wish you a merry Christmas and a happy New Year.

‘Santa’s Portrait’ byThomas Nast, published in Harper’s Weekly, 1881

Christmas for all? 4

In blog 2, we left our country in the midst of the Cromwellian republic with Christmas abolished by the puritan majority in Parliament.

Some 50-or-so years later at the start of the Georgian period, Christmas was again fully celebrated. The Georgians enjoyed many different pastimes during the holidays such as cards, hunt the slipper, blind man’s bluff, shoe the wild mare, carol singing, storytelling and dancing. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Twelfth Night parties were extremely popular and involved games, drinking and eating. British Pantomime also grew in popularity during this period, especially among the upper classes.

The day after Christmas, St Stephen’s Day, was the day when people gave to charity and the gentry presented their servants and staff with their ‘Christmas Boxes’ containing a gift or money. Hence Boxing Day.

January 6th or Twelfth Night or Epiphany signalled the end of the Christmas season and was marked in the 18th and 19th centuries by a Twelfth Night Party. Games such as ‘bob apple’ and ‘snapdragon’ (finger-picking lighted currants from a plate of flaming brandy) were popular, as well as more dancing, drinking and eating. Twelfth night remained popular until the late nineteenth century. Once Twelfth Night was over, all the decorations were taken down and the greenery burned, or the house risked bad luck.

Unfortunately the extended Christmas season disappeared after the Regency period, brought to an end by the rise of the Industrial Revolution and the decline of the rural way of life that had existed for centuries. Employers needed workers to continue manufacturing throughout the festive period and hence the shortened Christmas period.

Christmas in Georgian and Regency times was a vibrant affair. The tradition of using evergreens to brighten the home began in the pagan era and, at the time of the winter solstice throughout Europe, bonfires were lit and houses were decorated with evergreens.

Whilst the use of evergreens at this time of year as a decoration in the home was pagan in origin, the early Christian church cheerfully adopted this practise, legitimising the plants and giving them a Christian association, with one exception: mistletoe. The ban on this plant which had Norse and Druidical associations continued throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. Holly was easily adopted by the church as a symbol of the crown of thorns, the red berries a poignant reminder of Christ’s blood. Ivy symbolised fidelity. Not so mistletoe, which had the risqué associations of kissing games…not holy and not genteel (think French-kissing and groping)!

“The mistletoe with its white berries hung up to the imminent peril of all pretty housemaids. The mistletoe is still hung up in farmhouses and kitchens at Christmas, and the young men have the privilege of kissing the girls under it, each time picking a berry from the bush. When the berries are all plucked the privilege ceases.” Washington Irving in The Keeping of Christmas at Bracebridge Hall, 1822.

The decoration of homes was not just for the gentry: poor families also brought greenery indoors to decorate their homes, but not until Christmas eve. It was considered unlucky to bring greenery into the house before then.

The tradition of a Christmas tree in the house was a German custom and apparently brought to Court in 1800 by Queen Charlotte, wife of George III. However, it was not until the Victorian era that the British people adopted the tradition, and more about that in tomorrow’s blog.

A man tries to steal his pleasure…

Christmas for all? 3

Following yesterday’s post on 16th and 17th century Christmas, here are a couple of contemporary stories for you to enjoy.

The Lord of Misrule

Francis Saunders was charged that there having been in his house at Blatherwick at Christmas time, a lord of misrule, he and others had appointed that the lord of misrule must have for a lady or Christmas wife, one Elizabeth Pitto, daughter of the hog-heard of the town; whereupon, the defendant, putting on a gown and a shirt or smock or surplice, read words set down in the form of marriage in the Book of Common Prayer, putting a ring upon the finger of the woman, and going through the rest of the ceremony, and afterwards, at night, putting the parties into a bed together. Defendant was also charged with being a swearer and a drunkard

Calendar of State Papers, Domestic Series, Charles 1, 1637-8.

Christmas witches

Over 300 years, the witch hunting craze in Europe executed over 100,000 people, mainly women. Here’s a Christmas witches story:

Joan, Margaret and Philippa Flowers were ‘known to be herbal healers’ and came from a local family which ‘had fallen on hard times’. They accepted employment as servants with the 6th Earl and Countess of Rutland, at Belvoir Castle near Grantham, Lincolnshire, but the sisters, and their mother, were unpopular with the other staff, and there were suggestions of theft, and misdemeanours. All three were dismissed and only Joan was given a payment of severance amounting to ’40 shillings, a bolster (pillow), and a mattress of wool’.

After the sisters were dismissed, the Earl and Countess fell ill, suffering from ‘vomiting and convulsions’. Their son and heir, Henry, Baron de Ros, died, and was buried on 26 September 1613. Their younger children, Francis, and daughter, Katherine, suffered similarly and Francis also died and was buried on 7 March 1619.

It was five years after the Flowers were dismissed from Belvoir Castle, and following the death of their second son, Francis, that the Rutlands had the Flowers arrested before Christmas of 1618/9. After initial examinations, the women were taken to Lincoln gaol.

When arrested Joan Flowers professed her innocence. She was not known to be a Church-goer but en route to the prison at Lincoln she asked for bread as a substitute for the Eucharist. She had claimed that something so blessed could not be consumed by a witch, but she choked and died after the first bite.

At Lincoln, Margaret was to accuse her mother of witchcraft, while Phillipa admitted to witchcraft on behalf of herself, Margaret and Joan. The sisters said they had entered into communion with familiar spirits that had assisted them with their schemes. The mother’s familiar was a cat named Rutterkin. The women admitted that they stole the glove of Lord Ross and gave it to their mother, who had dipped it in boiling water, stroked it along Rutterkin’s back, and pricked it. Combined with some incantations this supposedly caused Lord Ros to become ill and die. An attempt to harm Lady Katherine, the Earl’s daughter, had failed when it was found that Rutterkin had no power over her. The women had also taken some feathers from the quilt of Rutland’s bed and a pair of gloves. By boiling these in water mixed with blood they cast spells to prevent the Earl and Countess from having any more children. Both women admitted to experiencing visions of devils and that their familiar spirits (like a possession) visited them and sucked at their bodies.

Margaret and Philippa Flowers were tried before Henry Hobart, Lord Chief Justice of the Common Pleas, and Edward Bromley, a Baron of the Exchequer, and found guilty. They were hanged in Lincoln castle on 11 March 1619.

Later that year a ballad, Damnable Practises of Three Lincolnshire Witches Joane Flower and Her Two Daughters,  appeared.

The Earl and Countess remained so convinced that their son had been killed by the effects of witchcraft that they had it inscribed on their monument at Bottesford church. It reads, in part:

“In 1608 he married ye lady Cecila Hungerford, daughter to ye Honorable Knight Sir John Tufton, by whom he had two sons, both of which died in their infancy by wicked practises and sorcerye”


17th century witches