Local heritage content included in the town’s audio trails

The content of the four town-wide trails which include information from the Darshill, Ham and Bowlish Heritage Project is reproduced below.

N.B. The Stop number refers to the location relative to other Stops on the trail. The numbers in red are the GPS coordinates of the location.

Milling heritage

Stop 9: Bowlish C.1600: Mill Complex 1 [361220,143957]

Located in the vicinity of Bowlish House, now a hotel, this estate included workshops and ancient cottages and may have been the site of the first Bowlish mill. The woollen cloth-making complex probably came into the Strode family in the last quarter of the 16th century and the 80-acre estate included the clothier’s house, now Old Bowlish House.

It’s thought that this was where the renowned 17th century ‘Spanish Cloth’ was made and the production of woollen cloth continued here until the early 18th century. Bowlish House itself was built nearby in 1732. 

The adjacent Coombe House was possibly part of the clothmaking area – its core was originally documented as ‘clothmaking workshops’ in the late 18th century. Today’s house was built around 1820.

Stop 10: Bowlish C.1700: Mill Complex 2 – north of the River Sheppey [361242,144008]

Around 1700, ownership of the estate at Bowlish changed hands from the Strode family to Nathaniel Tilley, a clothier from Dinder. He decided to move his manufacturing from the old mill and workshops on Coombe Lane to the opposite bank of the River Sheppey. 

You can still see the remains of what he built today, including a dye house, a fulling mill, a ‘scribbling loft’ for mixing coloured wools before spinning, finishing shops and workers’ cottages. The mill pond which powered the mill was located behind the long row of workers’ cottages you can see but was removed when the estate was broken up. Woollen cloth making continued until the 1840s when the complex was converted to make silk cloth and continued to do so until about 1900.

Old Bowlish House was the mansion of the estate. There are records of various names –  Bowlish, Bowlis and Boulesse Farm. Much of the house was built around 1630 on the foundations of a late medieval building. It was modernised around 1760 and again in 1860. For more than three centuries, it was the clothier’s house for the Bowlish cloth making industry.

Stop 11: Bowlish C.1800: Mill Complex 3 – Coombe Lane [361302,143584]

This large listed 18th century cloth making factory was built on land owned by the Duchy of Cornwall and leased by a series of clothiers from the late 1780s. There was a house with a factory, and extensive buildings. Unlike other mills built in the valley bottom, this one was built on the hill.  It lacked access to enough water to run the machinery so it was driven by human muscle power, a difficult and physically arduous job for those who worked there. 

By 1812 a row of six weaver’s cottages had been built on the south side of the factory . By this time it had become known primarily for weaving silk cloth, although it may have originally worked with woollen cloth. 

The site became redundant in the 1880s and was converted to housing.

Stop 12: Wester Shepton [361187,143188]

This woollen cloth making complex around Kent Lane dates back to at least the 17th century. Local tax records show payments from 1633 onwards by the Strode and Wookey families, and others. 

It was powered by a tributary of the river Sheppey which flows down Coombe Lane, now culverted, although you can still hear the river running underground. You can still see the remains of the 17th century estate – look for the two houses with stone mullioned windows, one of them with a date stone. Within living memory the mill pond still existed on the western side of the lane, although it was filled in to enable new houses to be built.

Stop 13: Ham mill [361011,143937]

Ham Mill is situated about 250 metres downstream from the hamlet of Bowlish along the Sheppey river. The watermill here was fed by a narrow millpond about 300 metres in length, fed by diverting water from the Sheppey River. 

Although the site may have medieval origins, the mill buildings are late 18th or early 19th century.  They were used to mill corn but it’s quite possible that they were used for clothmaking at some earlier stage. The mill was linked to Ham Mills Yard opposite.

Weirside, the pretty cottage next to the mill was probably built during the first half of the 18th century on 17th century foundations. It was probably the home of someone associated with Ham Mill, although Ham Mill had its own miller’s accommodation from the early 19th century.

Stop 14: Upper Darshill [360852,143892]

Around 1820 there were four mills and factories at Darshill. By the early 1830’s they were all owned by the Nalder & Hardisty company. We’ll look at each of them in turn.

In his evidence to the 1833 Factories Inquiry Commission, William Hardisty said there were four or five small cottages attached to each of his factories, occupied by people who looked after the mills and the machinery. Six more cottages were occupied by weavers. The cottages at the Lower Darshill site are identified on early maps.

Stop 15: Upper Darshill, Upper Mill [360735,143877]

Now replaced with a pair of ‘mill-like’ semi-detached houses, the original mill was demolished in 1975. The production of woollen cloth stopped here in the 1820s. By 1833 the mill was making silk cloth, powered by the large millpond to the east, now a nature reserve. Parts of the complex were used into the 1950’s as a distribution warehouse for bottles and crates of cider, apple and pear juices.

You can still see the remains of the impressive water management sluices and races, and former workers’ cottages to your right.

Stop 16: Upper Darshill, Lower Mill [360626,143904]

One of two mills in Upper Darshill, this mill is an ‘L-shaped’ building with the Mill Master’s House attached. Parts of these buildings are the remains of a woollen and then a silk mill which continued in operation as the Anglo Apple Mills well into the 20th century. Some features may be of considerable age.

By 1833, the site was owned by Nalder & Hardisty, silk throwsters, and the water powered mill was supplemented in summer by a four horse-power steam engine. The terrace of homes on the west of the site dates from the 1990s.

Stop 17: Middle Darshill/Darkeshole mills [360416,143937]

Darshill House was built in 1904 upon earlier foundations. The red-brick Handle House – used for drying teazels used in making woollen cloth – is a rare survivor and probably dates to the late 18th/early 19th century.

This is possibly one of two local mills mentioned in the Domesday Book. The 13th century place name of the mill complex here was Durkeshale.  Durkes was almost certainly a personal name, usually the tenant. The Old English hale probably refers to a nook or recess within a valley or within a river bend.

Under Silk Mill Barn are 13th century tunnels served by a water channel or leat 160 metres long which flowed under the barn and then divided in two, each powering a wheel. This is a rare survivor. The tunnels still exist. Recent radio-carbon dating of mortar samples from the tunnels confirmed they date from 1248-1305. We don’t know whether the mill at this time was used for grinding corn, fulling cloth or both.  

By the 17th century, the site had a mansion house as well as a grain mill, 3 ruined fulling mills and a croft. The estate was known as Darkeshole. By the 1790s the names Darsole and Darsel were used on maps and in documents referring to the larger area now known as Darshill.

The mill had stopped making woollen cloth by the late 1820s. In 1833, Naldy and Hardister, the owners, told the Factories Inquiry Commission that the complex had been converted to make silk cloth. It was described as being ‘worked by water only, requiring very little power’. By 1856, cloth production at the mill had stopped altogether.

Stop 18: Lower Darshill mill [360118,143970]

This was probably also one of the two local mills mentioned in the Domesday Book but nothing remains of this mill which burnt down in 1843. 

Powered by a large millpond, by 1793 it had two mill wheels, one 30 and one 20 feet in diameter. It was by far the largest woollen cloth mill in the Shepton area, three times larger than its nearest rival. From 1812 it was converted to make silk cloth. 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 as well as hot rooms for drying silk cloth, a ducted hot air heating system and turners, carpenters and blacksmith’s shops. There was also a house, The White House.

By 1833, the water wheels were supplemented by a 10 horse power steam engine.

In 1843, disaster happened when the mill burnt down. Overall, more than 170 people were employed there at the time. The scene that night was captured later in a letter of 1893 from Thomas Pratt. His story was published in a newspaper here fifty years later and long after he’d emigrated to Australia. It’s a rare example of a first-hand account of the fire, the way the mill was organised, the machinery it contained, as well as a precious few snippets about the people who worked there. His account is fascinating.

At about seven years of age I was sent to work at Darshill factory, and with other children of about my own age, worked at what was called the drawing engine on the fifth floor….. I never liked working in the factory, although I believe I was considered a good hand. At the age of 12 or 13 i left the factory and went into Wells to learn the trade of a mason. I stayed there for some time but trade being bad I returned to Shepton…..

“On the evening of Jan 10th, 1843 it was bitterly cold and the mistress coming up desired me to clean out the flue that the heat might come up more freely. …  Shortly after cleaning out the flue I had occasion to go near this small grating, and hearing an unusual noise I looked into the room below, and heard the mistress named Sarah Hiscox shouting to the children to run for their lives as the factory was on fire. … At the same time, a cloud of smoke came through the heating flue in which I became enveloped….. I at once gave the alarm, when there was a great rush for the stairs. After i had run a short distance I remembered that I had no hat, and at once returned, but found it was in the bottom of a basket of bobbins which I upset all over the floor.

“I then made for the stairs …and I was able to leap nearly half a flight of stairs at the time. On reaching the landing of Colston’s room,  my first thoughts were of my mother who worked there. I pulled open the door and the smoke came out in clouds. I holloaed with all my might but all had gone down.

“I was soon out in the yard safe and sound, where I found my mother and sister quite safe. The few women and children left in the stairs soon rushed out and all were safe. I never knew how the alarm was given, but it was a miracle how the great number of little children got out safely. … We met the poor old master wringing his hands and saying it was all over. I ran towards the town crying ‘Fire’ but others had gone before me.

“We had not been out very long before huge flames burst through the upper windows both front and back. The sight was most awfully grand and lit up the heavens for miles. Thousands of people assembled on the surrounding cliffs… and watched the progress of the fire. … I believe there were two water engines from the town playing on the fire. … The stream of water poured into the burning building, but it had no effect, and at about two o’clock on the following morning the front and back fell in, leaving the two gables standing. 

“This sad catastrophe caused much destitution among the poor people, but many soon left the town for Reading and other places. A report was circulated that the factory was at once to be rebuilt, and the hopes of the people ran high, but they were doomed to be disappointed.”

The disastrous Lower Darshill silk factory fire put hundreds of people out of work, most of them women and children. The impact on their families was severe. The loss of the mill was another nail in the coffin of the local woollen cloth manufacturing industry. 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. 

There were rumours that the factory would be rebuilt in the 1860’s, after the opening of the new Shepton to Wells road but it never materialised. The two gable ends stood charred and unchanged for almost 40 years until they were demolished in the early 1890’s to make way for the new sewage works. 

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.


Stop 4: The ‘Bowlish House Establishment for Young Ladies’ [361230,143959]

Although originally built as a home, Bowlish House was used for around 30 years up to 1862 as a private school. It was run by Ann Lush and then the Misses Ellen Bryant and Ellen Simms as an Establishment for Young Ladies. It was widely advertised. By 1861, ten young ladies ranging from six to 16 years old, were being educated and boarding here.

Records of other early private schools are scant, but in the first half of the 19th century there were six other establishments listed in the local trade directories. One of them, Ivey House in Park Road, continued as a prep school up to around 1970 for children up to 11 years old. 

One Ivey House pupil from the 1960’s remembers; “The tumbledown school had obviously been quite a grand private residence at one time – I remember the stained glass & bell pulls for summoning servants were still there.” 

Although publicly-funded, the nearby – near to Bowlish House – 19th century Workhouse (now the Norah Fry housing estate) on the Old Wells Road also had its own schoolroom.

Stop 5: Bowlish school church [361061,143954]

Bowlish School is a rare example of a combined school and church. 

The very first Factories Act in the second quarter of the 19th century compelled employers of children under 12 to educate them at work. Not surprisingly many employers chose to ignore it. 

By the second half of the 19th century, a national campaign for universal education had persuaded the government to make the provision of education compulsory. From 1870, the first state, or ‘Board’, schools were established under the Elementary Education Act.  In Shepton, there were three: Bowlish school church, Waterloo Road and Kilver Street.

Bowlish School Church opened in 1869. It was built at a total cost of £579-4s-0d. The school provided education for children under 12 working in the local silk mills of Draycott, Bowlish, Ham and Darshill. It doubled up as a place of worship too. 

There were 64 pupils in two classes when the school opened its doors. Most of them had never attended school at all, and many were often absent. Some families living at the Workhouse were quite destitute and relied on their children’s earnings to help make ends meet. Payment of the 1 penny ‘School money’, the legally-required contribution towards the cost, was often a problem and children were turned away when they weren’t able to pay. 

Over the following century, national provision of education changed substantially. The 1918 Education Act raised the school leaving age from 12 to 14 and all fees in state education were abolished. 

Today, Bowlish is an infant school with over 100 pupils aged 4-7 in four classes. The bell you can see is still rung each day by a pupil to mark the end of morning and afternoon school.


Stop 7: Bowlish school church [361061,143954]

Whilst the primary purpose of the school church was to provide education for children, it was also a place of worship for the local community. It was served by the parish church of St Peter & St Paul, and was the responsibility of the curate, although the rector took the regular Sunday service at 6.00pm. The curate took a service at 11.00am on alternate Sunday mornings.  

After the service, ‘the floor boards would hinge, and by a complexity of ropes and pulleys, a partition was raised to protect the altar from the coarser language and frequent missiles of the workhouse and mill children.’ The mechanism was still in place up to the 1990’s when the cellar was filled as it was prone to flooding from the nearby River Sheppey. The church bell is still used to mark the start and end of the school day and breaks.

All services at Bowlish had ceased by the 1920s but the Sunday School and choir continued until the late 1940’s.

People of note 

Thomas Strode, mathematician. Old Bowlish House

Thomas Strode was born in 1626 at Old Bowlish House, the eldest son of clothier Thomas Strode and his wife, Abigail. Do you remember statistics at school, and the concept of  ‘probability’?  Thomas first understood and coined the term and became a respected mathematician who corresponded with both Sir Isaac Newton and the German-born, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz.

We don’t know a great deal about Thomas’ early life in Shepton but we do know that he entered University College, Oxford, on 1st July 1642, and studied there for about two years. His university career was thwarted by the Civil Wars (1642-49), and he wrote later to his friend John Collins (1626-83): 

“It was my unhappinesse that by reason of our civil warrs, I had not sufficient time in the university to have perfected my latine by reading good authors, and afterwards my inclination lead mee to the study of the mathematicks.”

In 1645 Thomas and his fellow student, Thomas Culpepper, joined his tutor, Abraham Woodhead, on a tour of the near Continent. The trio were granted a college license to travel abroad for four terms and set out shortly after 22 June 1645. 

After his return to England, Thomas was admitted as a student of the Inner Temple in London in November 1647 and was called to the Bar in 1655. Some time between 1647 and 1652, when he married Ann, the daughter of Thomas Churchill of Wincanton, he took possession of one of his father’s estates at nearby Maperton. Thomas and Ann went on to have eight children together, three boys and five girls.

Thomas became quite well known as a mathematician and he was consulted over an early work by Isaac Newton, then in his twenties. Newton later called him ‘an able mathematician’. 

He also corresponded with James Gregory, a Scottish mathematician and astronomer, who was particularly interested in infinite series and the reflecting telescope.

Thomas wrote and published two important papers. The first, published in 1678, was the first time the word ‘probability’ had been used in a mathematical context. His second paper, published ten years later, explored the mathematics of sundials. 

In the sundials paper he says it was “composed for near relations”. Is it possible perhaps that his paper resulted from the sundials he himself had designed and installed? Certainly sundials still exist at the Strode family house at Windsor Hill, on the outskirts of Shepton,  and there is documentary evidence of one at his Maperton house where Thomas and Ann lived and were buried. Perhaps others await discovery.

Charlotte Sophie Horwood, Liberal Suffragette, No 6 Bowlish/Little Bowlish

Charlotte Sophie Potter was born in Exeter in 1856. She was brought up by her mother, grandmother and two brothers in Clifton, Bristol while her father James worked in Westbury-on-Trym.

After she married Charles Henry Horwood in 1873 the couple went to live with Charles’ brother in Hammersmith, London. Sometime between 1881 and 1883 Charles and Sophie

moved to Shepton Mallet where their only child, Louise Lydia Isabella, was born. Charles became a painter and decorator and by 1894 Sophie ran a grocery business from their home in West Shepton. By 1901 Charles and Sophie had left West Shepton to take up the tenancy of Number 6 Bowlish which Charles subsequently bought. 

Between moving to Bowlish and 1911, Sophie took up the cause of women’s suffrage. In the Census of that year she registered her suffrage views on the census return as part of an organised campaign where many women across the country did the same thing. 

“If women don’t count, neither shall they be counted”  was the rallying call for suffragettes during the 1911 census in the UK.

As part of her campaign for universal suffrage, Emmeline Pankhurst called on women to boycott the census in protest against the Liberal Government‘s reluctance to give women the vote. She urged women who were at home on census night to refuse to complete the return. The potential penalty was a £5 fine or a month’s imprisonment. The alternative was to avoid the census altogether by making sure they were out of the house. 

On 2nd April 1911, enumerators were sent out to collect the details of all households across the country. Householders were asked to list everyone in the house. The first form of passive protest for women was to spoil the census form by either refusing to provide any information or by scribbling comments and slogans on it.  ‘I don’t count so I won’t be counted’, ‘I am a woman and women do not count in the state’ or ‘No vote – No census’.

Sophie was conflicted. She was both a supporter of the Liberal government and a suffragette.  So whilst she allowed herself to be counted she still made her personal views clear in her marking of the Census form, although perhaps in a less strident tone than her peers:

“The whole of the thinking women of Shepton Mallet send this message to Government praying that the Womens Suffrage bill may be passed in May next. S.C. Horwood a moderate minded liberal suffragette”

There is no evidence of other suffragette activity in the town around the 1911 Census but we do know that the well-known activist, Emily Blathwayt, was imprisoned at Shepton Mallet prison for breaking the windows of the Bath Post Office.