The history of Tring Silk Mill is varied and touches on many
different subjects, and I hope that all readers will find
something that interests them. This edition has been
slightly revised since the first printing in 2008, and I am
particularly grateful to Ian Petticrew for his editing
The following individuals and organisations all contributed
greatly, and in various ways, to the preparation of this
book, and I acknowledge with thanks the contributions of
Mike Bass, Marjorie Clarke, Alec Clements, Jill Fowler, Len
Major, Linda McGhee, Ann Reed, Alan and Tracey Taylor,
Shirley Thornhill, William A.Wells, and Martin Wheeler. The
staff of Tring Library, the Hertfordshire Record Office, the
Aylesbury Local Studies Centre, Alexandra MacCulloch of
Buckinghamshire Resource Centre, Bexley Local Studies &
Archive Centre, Hannah Kay of the Bexley Heritage Trust, and
the Redbourn Museum.
By the same author:
More Tring Personalities
Further Tring Personalities
The Tring Collection (compilation
of local history and verse)
Tring Gardens: Then and Now
The Second Tring Collection
(compilation of local history and verse)
History of Tring Bowls Club: 1908-2008
The Mystery of the Tring Tiles
They Called us to Arms
with Ian Petticrew:
Gone with the Wind: Windmills and those around Tring
Grand Junction Canal: a Highway laid with Water
The Railway comes to Tring: 1833-1846
Roads and those in Tring
The Early History of Silk
It is a long and winding road from China in 2640 BC
to Brook Street in Victorian Tring. But if Empress Hsi Ling
Shi (venerated as the Goddess of Silk) had not used her powers of
observation when strolling in the mulberry tree groves of her
husband’s palace, there would be no connection at all. Legend
has it that she noticed that the caterpillars of a certain moth (Bombyx
Mori) were feeding on the mulberry leaves before spinning their
silvery, white cocoons. She took one cocoon inside where it
accidentally fell into warm water and, as the water was absorbed, it
began to unravel revealing a continuous mile-long delicate network
of fibres. From this small beginning, the Empress is credited
with the invention of the loom, and later gave her patronage to the
Bombyx Mori - caterpillars and moth
For some 3,000 years the Chinese endeavoured to guard their secret,
and it was not until around AD 300 that the western world became
aware of the existence of an almost magical fabric. From then
on came the gradual establishment of an export route from China
which became known as the Silk Road, with its romantic images of
endless deserts and dunes; trains of hundreds of merchants and
camels; remote oases; bustling caravanserai; and fabled cities like
Samarkand. However, the history of the silk industry in
Britain was the opposite of romantic, as will be outlined in later
It took until the twelfth century for the art of producing silk
cloth to reach France, Spain and Italy, and this was brought to
England by the Huguenots, Flemish Protestant refugees escaping
religious persecution. They set up business as silk weavers, and
invented a technique which resulted in glossy lustre on silk
taffeta. At first establishing themselves in Spitalfields, they then
extended their activities to Coventry and Norwich.
James I of England was an enthusiastic supporter of the early silk
industry, and ordered that 10,000 mulberry trees be planted across
the land, but the choice of the Black Mulberry proved unfortunate as
this species will not thrive in a temperate climate. A later
experiment in 1718 in Chelsea Park also failed, and further attempts
to grow trees and breed silkworms met with only limited success.
This is not surprising when it is realised that it takes around 630
cocoons to provide sufficient thread for one blouse. The main source
of raw silk had to remain the imported skeins from China and the
warmer parts of Europe.
Two Norfolk brothers, John and Thomas Lombe were responsible for the
development of factory-based silk production. Travelling to Italy,
John set out to discover the secret of successful silk spinning, a
dangerous assignment as the penalty for industrial spies was death.
He bribed his way into employment as a machine winder in one of the
Sardinian mills, and smuggled his drawings of the machinery into
bales destined for export to England. It was thanks to this brave
mission that manufacture of silk on a commercial scale was
introduced to this country.
The northern town of Macclesfield grew to become the leading centre
of silk production in the country, with 120 mills and dye houses.
Some accounts state that William Kay, the founder of Tring Silk
Mill, had interests in Macclesfield, and both Henry Rowbotham and
John Akers, were born in that town. These two long-serving Managers
at Tring Mill brought with them the necessary skill and knowledge to
insure that the venture in Brook Street prospered for over sixty
The Local Silk Industry
There was never a tradition of large-scale textile production in
Hertfordshire, but at the end of the eighteenth century the demand
for silk, the expense of manufacturing it in London, and the ban on
its import during the Napoleonic Wars, led to the setting up of
various silk-throwing and -weaving mills in the county. Astute
businessmen, seeing the advantages of the nearness to the capital
and the local unpolluted fast-flowing chalk streams, took the
opportunity to convert old water-powered corn mills for use in the
The first mill in west Hertfordshire was probably established around
1760, and built in level meadows in the hamlet of Oxhey,
one-and-a-half miles south of Watford on the banks of the River
Colne. The four-storey mill towered over its surroundings, and on
one side stood the grand house of the mill-owner, and on the other
the 34 tiny cottages of the mill hands. It became known as Rookery
Mill after the noisy birds nesting in the nearby trees. (The name
lives on today - one end of Watford Football Club ground is called
Ownership passed to two Huguenot brothers, the Paumiers, who carried
on trading until 1820 when it was sold to Thomas Rock Shute who ran
that and another mill in Bushey. A trade directory entry mentions
three silk mills in Watford and states ‘silk throwing was the
principal manufacture of the town’. The other two mills were at Red
Lion Yard and Clarendon Road, and both at first were powered by
horses. At the end of the nineteenth century when the silk trade was
in decline, the workers at Watford were not so fortunate as their
counterparts at the Tring Silk Mill when Lord Rothschild rescued the
situation (see Chapter 12). The History of Watford records “Rookery
Mill was closed from depression of the silk trade, the hands thrown
out of employment, and considerable privation was endured by many of
them”. In late Victorian times it was converted to become Watford
Steam Laundry, but no trace of the premises remain today.
St. Albans Silk Mill
At St. Albans, on the site where monks once ground their corn, a
silk mill was established on the River Ver in the shadow of the
great Abbey on the edge of today’s Verulamium Park. Three floors
high, it was bought by the Woollam family and, as at Tring, was
powered by water and steam. As well as paupers from the town, a
smaller concern at Hatfield also drew on this source of labour. For
some reason this arrangement was not as successful, and in 1857 the
Wollams decided to transfer their operations to Redbourn.
Always a steam-powered mill, the factory at Redbourn was built
beside the Common and, at its peak, employed 140 mostly local men
and women. As at all factories, the dreaded ‘mill bell’ rang at the
crack of dawn six days a week rousing the sleepy workers to come
scurrying through the factory gates. Both Redbourn and St. Albans
mills were taken over by Maygrove & Co. in 1906, and when cheaper
foreign imports threatened production at Redbourn, operations
diversified with the output of rayon, embroidery silk, and
upholstery trimmings. The timely closure of the mill in 1938 enabled
the Brooke Bond Tea Company (which had been displaced from London by
bombing raids) to acquire the site and eventually to build a much
larger factory. About 50 years later, the company donated the old
Silk Mill Manager’s House to Redbourn Parish Council for use as a
museum of local history.
The bell from Redbourn Silk Mill
Another more short-lived venture in Rickmansworth, the three-storey
Batchworth Mill had several uses, and for a while was run as a
cotton mill. The work-force included London children from the
workhouse in St. James, Piccadilly, and a second mill operated in
Rickmansworth High Street.
In the main, during the boom years of the silk trade, the risk of
setting up these mills paid dividends for their proprietors. In
1824, the largest and most successful operation of all was set up
and financed by an astute businessman and entrepreneur, William Kay,
in Tring on the western edge of Hertfordshire.
It was money generated by the silk trade that supplied another
direct connection to Tring. The Williams family, who acquired the
Pendley Manor estate, had inherited a fortune from profits amassed
in the manufacture of a specialised type of silk. The founder of the
family, Joseph Grout, probably started to trade in Spitalfields, and
with his brother invented or learned a way of making black embossed
silk crêpe. The obsession of the nineteenth century with mourning
attire, popularised in large measure by Queen Victoria after the
death of the Prince Consort, led to huge sales of this particular
Joseph Grout (1776-1852)
In 1806 the Grout brothers started a firm in Norwich to throw and
weave silk crêpe. Other factories followed, as well as a showroom in
London, and a silk-reeling works near Calcutta. Nearly fifty years
later their products were of sufficiently high a quality to be
displayed at the Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace. The
catalogue entry tells us that Joseph Grout & Co. manufactured:
Folded and rolled black crape (sic), single, double,
treble and four threads.
Coloured aerophane crape.
Coloured lisse gauze.
Gossamer of various colours, used for veils.
Silk gauze grenadine scarves, and brocaded.
Silk muslin scarves.
Brocaded silk muslin dresses, with flounces etc.
It is possible that Joseph was acquainted with William Kay and was
aware of his ownership of the Tring Park estate for, in 1844, he
rented the mansion from William’s Trustees. On Joseph’s death
the tenancy passed to his illegitimate son, the Reverend James
Williams. Knowing that the Tring Park estate would soon come
to the market, James Williams very much wanted to buy it for
himself, but knew he could not match any winning bid of Baron
Rothschild. He satisfied himself with his estate at Pendley,
where he constructed a brand new house.
Memorial windows to both Joseph and James can be seen in Tring
Parish Church, and the large house at Pendley has been converted to
an hotel. The factory Joseph established continued to prosper,
and received the Royal Warrant in 1895. In World War II it was
one of only two firms to make parachute silk for the Government, but
ceased trading in the 1990s, 189 years after the Grout brothers
first established the business.
Founder of the Silk Mill
In the late eighteenth century, the small town of Wigton in the
north of Cumberland was a centre of the weaving trade, and the
spinning factories here used imported cotton, locally-produced wool,
and linen from flax grown on the Solway Plain. On the moors
above the town stood The Mains, a large house occupied by a
yeoman farmer. Neither of his sons, William and Joseph Kay,
were interested in a farming life, preferring to direct their
considerable energies to the opportunities offered by the local
It was not long before both young men were drawn to Manchester,
which was rapidly expanding due to the enormous profits being made
in the spinning mills. From small beginnings as a cotton
throwster, William diversified and established a large mill for both
cotton and silk manufacture near the centre of the city. Later
on in Tring, his valuable experience gained in the silk trade was to
prove very profitable for both brothers.
It is possible that during his time in Manchester William first met
Nathan Rothschild, founder of the English branch of the famous
family, who had settled in that city on his arrival in this country
(Nathan’s immense fortune had its beginnings in the textile trade,
and he was one of the first to take advantage of the new technology
of printing onto cotton fabric.)
William Kay typified the go-ahead ambitious man who seized his
chance to make money on the back of the Industrial Revolution.
Using wealth made in the textile trade in Manchester, he moved south
to London where he increased his fortune by his dealings on the
Stock Exchange. By this time, he was well able to afford a
smart town house at York Terrace, Regent’s Park, and to marry a
young second wife, who in 1833 bore him a son.
In 1823 he had widened his business interests even further by
purchasing the Tring Park estate, which included the mansion,
parkland, properties, farms, and a water-driven corn mill - in all
about 3,000 acres. According to the writings of Tring
historian Arthur Macdonald “having inspected the estate, he
(William Kay) called at the auctioneer’s offices and asked the
price. ‘One hundred thousand guineas’ was the answer, and Mr Kay
arranged a meeting for the next day. After some conversation,
Mr Kay pulled out his watch and said ‘Gentlemen, it is now ten
minutes to twelve. I make you an offer of eighty thousand
guineas, and I must have an answer, ‘yes or no’, by 12 o’clock”.
The offer was accepted at what was considered to be this extremely
low price. William never occupied the grand house himself,
preferring to remain at the centre of things in London, and using
another property in Tring only occasionally. The mansion, the
upkeep of which he deplored, was let continuously to his relatives
and other tenants, including his old Manchester acquaintance, Nathan
It is likely that William Kay selected Tring in which to invest
because of its proximity to the capital, as well as the potential of
the Brook End site, with its adjacent source of water power.
After his arrival in the town he wasted no time in investigating the
advantages of his new purchase, and within a year, building of the
Silk Mill was under way, in addition to a row of cottages on the
west side of Brook Street. The setting up of the operation he
entrusted to Joseph, and when the local populace nicknamed the
looming five-storey mill ‘Little Manchester’, the Kay brothers most
likely felt they had achieved their objective. With the
business running smoothly and both management and workers in place,
after four years the decision was taken to lease the business to
David Evans’ company (see Chapter 5), but both Kays retained a
financial interest in the concern. When Joseph made his will
in 1834, he bequeathed £190 a year to his executors, to be held in
trust for his children’s education.
1833 map of Tring, showing the mill pond (blue), silk mill,
and feeder to the Wendover Arm Canal (top of map).
It was a boom time for industry generally, aided by the invention of
the steam locomotive. As the largest land-owner in the Tring
area, William used his influence to ensure benefit to the town in
general, and his own business interests in particular, by appearing
before an Enquiry into the suggested route of the London &
Birmingham railway. It is minuted that he gave evidence in
July 1832 to a Commission of the House of Lords, stating his
opinions very strongly. As the owner of some fields through
which the intended line would pass, he believed the value of his
land would be enhanced and, with other local businessmen, he
contributed financially to the scheme to locate the station near
Tring rather than at Pitstone Green as first proposed. He
stated he had to travel a lot, and when the construction was
finished he wanted to reside at Tring more often. William
claimed he had laid out £30,000 for the erection of a silk factory
and, as fashions change quickly, it was necessary to get goods to
the market as speedily as possible. He also contributed to the
cost of constructing the lengthy road between Tring and its railway
station. His views were not shared by some of the gentry
in the district, and it is possible they made him unpopular.
In any case, William did not live long enough to enjoy this new
wondrous means of transport, as he died in 1838, soon after the
railway reached Tring.
His death was untimely, and the local paper in his native Cumberland
reported that he expired of a head injury after being knocked down
by a horse-drawn cart a few yards from his house in York Terrace.
(In spite of his sad end, it is perhaps fortunate for Tring that he
died before he had time to implement all his ideas for the town.
He had in mind to lay a new road along a route similar to that taken
by the present bypass, the difference being that he probably
intended to demolish the mansion and to develop the surrounding
Memorial to William Kay, Tring parish church.
William is buried in the now-neglected Kay family vault in Kensal
Green Cemetery, North London. He left a lengthy and detailed
will which included a very generous legacy to his nephew, Robert
Nixon, who had established the Aylesbury silk factory (see Chapter
10). The Tring Park estate, including the Mill, was left in
Trust for his young son, William who, at the time of his father’s
death, was still a minor and accordingly, for the purpose of the
inheritance, was made a ward of the Court of Chancery. He died
aged 31 in Paris as the result of a fall while hunting; he and his
wife were childless, and the Court ordered that the estate be sold.
After much legal wrangling, it was eventually offered for auction in
1872, to be bought by the Rothschilds.
Reminders of William Kay are still to be found in Tring. A
late-Regency-style tablet to his memory can be seen in the vestry of
Tring Church. This memorial was re-sited during the Victorian
restorations and was placed rather too high on a dark wall.
Nevertheless a female figure, scantily clad in marble drapery, may
be discerned dimly, drooping in heart-broken grief over an urn.
Also in the church, a three-light stained-glass window on the south
side of the chancel was donated as a memorial by Rose Louise Kay,
widow of William junior, and all Mrs Kay’s cottage tenants who
worked at the Silk Mill received as her parting gift a pair of warm
The Water Supply
No wide river ever flowed through Tring, nor was there any natural
large expanse of water. However, a thousand years ago, the
amount of water from the several springs rising in or near the town
provided the power for the two mills listed in William I’s Domesday
survey. In Medieval times these springs beneath the ground
supplied water to the monks’ fishpond at Tring Priory, and later to
the town’s public horse-pond in the lowest part of Frogmore End.
Maps from the mid-Victorian era show a chain of ornamental ponds,
complete with weir and sluice-gate, in the gardens of the
now-demolished Frogmore House, and the first chapel in New Mill also
relied on spring water to fill the outdoor pond used when conducting
baptisms by total immersion.
It is fortunate for Tring that the chalk hills in the Wendover
direction act as a sponge for the collection of rain water, which
then seeps down to rest on the harder rock beneath. The
resulting springs flow downhill towards the centre of the town.
Old maps show springs near Miswell Farm, Frogmore, and Dundale, and
it is possible that another underground supply begins in Tring Park
somewhere near the A41. It is thought this could run under the
Memorial Gardens, the A41, The Robin Hood, and the first few
hundred yards of Brook Street.
Tring water courses (blue)
From Andrews’ and Dury’s map of
When William Kay decided to build his silk-throwing mill in Brook
End, his first concern was how to power the machinery. It was
apparent to him that the flow of water serving the existing corn
mill was nowhere near the quantity needed to drive the sort of
operation he was planning, and like all single-minded entrepreneurs,
he did not let a difficulty of this sort deter him from his
objective. It is likely that William had to work in
conjunction with the operators of the Grand Junction Canal, as that
Company retained powers to obtain water supplies from any brook,
spring, stream, river, or watercourse. Part of the supply
problem had been solved twenty-five years earlier when, in an
admired piece of engineering, the canal company had raised
substantially the bed of Brook End’s ancient watercourse.
William carried this idea further with a decision to divert the
Dundale and Miswell streams to an existing swampy area,
to create a huge mill pond (see below – estimates vary from six to eight acres
in extent) which was to supply water to a wheel beneath the proposed
From the 1877 OS map of Tring, showing the extent of the mill
that time; also, another feed entering the pond from springs at
The mill pond is now much reduced in size and the feed shown is
In 1824 machines suitable for digging the necessary underground
culverts did not exist, and so this gruelling work was carried out
by men on their hands and knees hacking with pickaxes through the
chalk. Their efforts provided channels through which a
sufficient quantity of water passed in the steady flow necessary to
drive the massive 16-hp iron waterwheel. Housed in a chamber
partially below the ground, at 22 ft. in diameter and six feet in
width, it had the distinction of being the largest in Hertfordshire.
The culverts built to divert the waters, although damaged, still
exist and as late as the 1970s it was said to be possible to walk
through from Miswell to the Silk Mill. Beneath the front drive
of the Mill House lie a labyrinth of corridors, and at the rear a
manhole cover gave access to sluice gates controlling the flow of
water to the Mill. This ensured an even supply that remained
constant throughout the year.
The 22feet diameter Silk Mill waterwheel, half of which is
in the mill stream.
Once the water had served its purpose of sending the machines and
bobbins whirring, it passed through the tail-race into the stream in
Brook Street. This rivulet became known as the Feeder, since
its onward flow to the Wendover Arm of the Grand Junction Canal was
used to top up the volume of water required in the pound of the
Tring Summit; some emptied into the swampy area then known as
Wormwood Lake (now Tringford reservoir).
Underground culvert leading into the Feeder.
A second benefit arising from all this engineering skill and hard
work was improvement to the water supply from the Silk Mill to Tring
Park mansion. Passing through a pipe beneath Pond Close, the
market place, and the main road, water was pumped to a tank or
‘water-house’, an arrangement which continued for some years until
the erection of the Chiltern Hills Water Works at The Crong
above Tring. The auction particulars of 1820 for Tring Park
estate tell us that the whole included “moats and fishponds, with
an engine worked by water which amply supplies the mansion house,
offices, stables, grounds, gardens, and a pond at the north front.
The command of water in this situation is particularly valuable,
being equal to turning a water corn-mill, which is much wanted in
The Feeder as it looked in the 1920s.
Today it carries rather less water and its banks are much overgrown.
When the Silk Mill closed in 1898 the Tring Park estate maintenance
departments moved to the site, and the water-wheel continued to do
good work, driving the saw-mill used by the carpenters, as well as a
generator which supplied electricity (see Chapter 12).
Most of the mill-pond was drained, and the area planted out as a
well-irrigated site for Lord Rothschild’s orchards, which presented
irresistible ‘scrumping’ opportunities for local boys, whose
expression “going over the boards” meant crossing the wet
ground to reach the forbidden fruit. The remaining portion of
the pond, after years of neglect and vandalism, has been
attractively restored and re-stocked by the present owners of the
The area alongside the Feeder from the Silk Mill to Gamnel, now
retained as a waterside walk, is planted with trees and the stream
is crossed by two ornamental foot-bridges. Sadly, although
this stretch of Brook Street should be valued as the last-remaining
green space in an increasingly built-up and busy thoroughfare, the
stream and shrubbery are often polluted with litter.
David Evans & Company
Tenant of the Silk Mill from 1829
Due to wars, tariffs, and fashions, the silk industry was never
viewed as ‘safe’ for the investment of capital, but for those
willing to take the risk the returns could be enormously profitable.
It was a lucky day for the silk trade when fashion dictated that
voluminous dresses replaced the simple straight lines of Regency
style. Then, any woman, even those in modest circumstances,
aspired to own a Sunday-best silk dress, so precious that it was
often handed down from mother to daughter.
The two men most connected with Tring Silk Mill recognised the great
potential of the silk trade, and it is a coincidence that William
Kay, the founder of the Mill, and his tenant, David Evans, were born
sons of yeoman farmers in rural counties. Both then moved to
London to further their ambitions.
Brought up near Oswestry in Salop, David established his base in
Wood Street, Cheapside, in the City of London. In entries in
trade directories from 1828 onwards he is described as a ‘Silk
Agent’, ‘Merchant’, or ‘Warehouseman’, and possibly he was a
consignee of Far Eastern merchants who shipped silk fabric to
London, as well as acting as a salesman for provincial manufacturers
in the north of England. Before long he added to his business
interests by undertaking hand-block printing on silk, a complicated
craft requiring great skill and as many as 30 different processes.
His next logical step was to acquire premises specialising in silk
throwing, so ensuring a steady supply of material for his London
operation. Deciding that it would best to base this in a less
expensive area than the capital, in 1829 he signed the lease of
William Kay’s silk-throwing mill in Tring, and bought outright the
stock and machinery. Soon David was able to increase the
output of thrown silk by supplementing the existing water power with
the installation of a steam engine. This factory was shortly
to be augmented by a small weaving operation in Akeman Street, and a
much larger works at Aylesbury (see Chapter 10). Four years
after, he added to his local investments in Brook End by buying land
and building 22 cottages. Later in 1850, he was requested by
the local authority to dispose of part of his land holding as it had
been identified as a suitable site for Tring’s new gas-works.
David Evans never lived in Tring with his family and contented
himself with a ‘temporary residence’ and frequent visits to the
town. Day-to-day control of operations he left to his
managers, firstly Henry Rowbotham and then John Akers (see
7). At times not everything went smoothly at Tring and before
long disaster struck. In 1836, the Mill was damaged by a
serious fire and again six years later (see Chapter 6). David,
prudent as always, had taken out adequate insurance cover on the
premises and machinery, and production was quickly restored.
In his portrait, David Evans appears as a thin-lipped shrewd
individual, but this image belies his generosity to Tring on the
occasion of Queen Victoria’s coronation in 1838. Although it
is difficult to know whether this was inspired by benevolence or a
desire to demonstrate patriotism, his lavish expenditure gave his
normally-deprived workers a day they no doubt talked about for the
rest of their lives. On the morning of June 28th the church
bells woke the people of Tring, and a mood of feverish excitement
prevailed. Later came bands, singing, decorations, and
fireworks. The Aylesbury News describes events at the
“In the course of the day, David Evans Esq., proprietor of the
Silk Mill, gave a holiday and a treat to 350 men, women, and
children, employed in the factory. The whole company assembled
at the Mill, and walked from thence in procession through the town
carrying appropriate banners, while Old England’s colours were seen
gracefully waving from the top of the factory, the entrance of which
was very tastefully ornamented with shrubs and flowers.
After dinner, which consisted of a good supply of beef and plum
pudding, the health of Her Majesty was given, and most cordially
drank by the whole party assembled, and the favourite old anthem was
sung with the most imposing effect, the voices of some hundreds of
children (who constantly sing while at work in the Mill), producing
an effect seldom given on such an occasion. The whole
celebration was very ably managed by Messrs. Rowbotham and Parker,
assisted in the kindest manner by many of the tradesmen of the town,
who volunteered to wait upon the people at dinner.”
printing a pattern on silk using a wooden printing block.
As the century wore on, the huge upsurge in demand for printed silk
meant that David Evans was again able to further his business
operations. At Crayford in Kent he acquired a silk- and
calico- printing business established by the inventor Augustus
Applegarth who had run into financial difficulty. The quality
of the unpolluted water of the River Cray proved ideal for washing
the silk and for setting the dyes, a tricky process as too much dye
could rot the fabric. Also, there were broad open fields in
which the silk cloth could be laid out and bleached in the sun.
The latest building technology had been used in constructing
Applegarth’s factory, the result being an iron-framed structure with
a large skylight roof supported by iron columns. This had two
advantages; it admitted the maximum amount of light to the work, and
discouraged industrial spying, an ever-present threat to the
stealing of designs.
The silk printing skills refined in London were put into use at
Crayford, one speciality being the application of Paisley patterns.
These intricate designs originated from Kashmir, and acquired huge
popularity with the Victorian fascination for all things Indian.
Copying and modifying imported originals, textile manufacturers,
including David Evans, were not slow to claim their share of the
lucrative new market, and the works at Crayford became well known
for the production of high-quality silk shawls.
Paisley pattern printing block.
By the 1850s David had earned great respect in the textile world of
the City of London, being one of the founders of the Linen and
Woollen Drapers’ Institution, and also one of its first trustees.
He no doubt enhanced his reputation by taking a stand at The
Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace, where the company was
described as silk manufacturers and printers. The list of
Bandanna handkerchiefs, manufactured in India.
Bandannas manufactured at Macclesfield from
Bengal and China silk.
Spun bandannas, manufactured in Lancashire.
Ladies silk dresses.
David Evans was then a wealthy man, and fully able to enjoy a
comfortable life at Shenstone, an elegant Swiss-style house on the
hillside above the works at Crayford. This imposing residence
stood in 19 acres of wooded parkland overlooking extensive views of
the Kent countryside, and the 20 rooms provided plenty of
accommodation for his large family of 14 children.
When he died in 1874 at the age of 83, the business passed to the
control of his three sons. All were known for their
philanthropy to their workforce and to local folk generally.
George, the youngest son, entered the Evans business in Cheapside
when he was 18, and remained there until his death at the age of 84.
In 1877 he paid for the refurbishment of the bells which had been
presented in memory of his father to Crayford church.
By the time of David Evans’ death, although still reasonably
profitable, the financial viability of Tring Silk Mill was in some
doubt, due in part to a continuing problem of lack of labour.
The opening of the Suez Canal also contributed, as raw silk from the
East could be sent more easily and quickly to Marseilles. The Mill
struggled on, and it is recorded that David Evans & Co. continued to
meet the annual rent of the premises and cottages in Brook Street
– amounting to over £500
– until, finally, the management was forced
to ask Lord Rothschild to agree to the surrender of the lease.
Shenstone at Crayford.
The Crayford works continued for over a century longer. After
160 years, operations were closed down in 2001 when David Evans &
Co. was described as “the last of the old London silk printers”.
Fifty years before, his private house had been purchased by Crayford
UDC and later demolished; today the grounds remain preserved as a
public open space.
Working at the Silk Mill
Although the mill has been much altered and enlarged over the years,
it is apparent that William Kay was an ambitious builder as
reference to old maps show that his plans produced an extensive
L-shaped structure. Built of brick, five stories high, and
with a small warehouse on each floor, at each level the floors were
supported by runs of evenly-spaced cast-iron pillars, and through
the centre of the building ran a central staircase. The ground
floor housed a dining room for the workers, and offices, one of
which was occupied by Joseph Parker, a key member of staff whose
position today would be described as Chief Accountant.
The general arrangement of a water-driven silk throwing mill.
The engine house, approached by an oilcloth-covered stairway, and
the chimney-stack adjoined the main building. Outside were the
carpenters’ and mechanics’ workshops, the silk washing room, and two
warehouses. As was customary, accommodation was provided for the
senior staff: a large house and garden for the Manager (see
11), a good-sized cottage, and a lodge house. Other amenities
included stabling for three horses, a double coach-house, and a
smith’s shop and forge.
Descriptions of the numbers employed in the Mill vary greatly, and
fluctuated according to the demand for the supply of silk, and to
agricultural seasonal work. In 1840 a reliable account states that
the Mill had capacity for 500 pairs of hands, consisting of 40 men,
140 women, and 320 children. The superintendents received one pound
a week; the men between 12 and 15 shillings; the average women’s
wages were 5s.6d.; and the children’s between 1s.0d. and 2s.3d.
Skeins of silk imported from China, Italy and Bengal underwent a
complex operation (see diagram) and on each floor workers
performed a different process. After being graded and washed with
soap and water, Winding onto star-shaped frames (known as ‘swifts’)
took place at the top of the mill, where the machinery required
little power to turn the reels; followed by Cleaning where the silk
passed through a scissors-like device which removed the knots and
enabled the size, or denier, to be measured. These processes were
usually carried out by children who had to keep constant watch and
re-join any broken threads immediately. On the next floor came the
Spinning, where the single silken filaments were twisted together up
to 80 times to strengthen them. Then came Doubling, when two to four
filaments were brought together with a slight amount of twist. In
the final stage, called Throwing, the doubled threads were twisted
once again by machine, but in the opposite direction, making the
silk strong and pliable. The finished product, a rope-like yard
called ‘organzine’, was then ready to be stored in the warehouses in
the yard to await transport either to David Evans’ weaving factory
at Aylesbury (see Chapter 10) or to mills in the north of England. The coarser-quality output was sent to Macclesfield and Coventry for
the ribbon trade.
Compared to other mills at that date, working conditions were
considered to be light and congenial. But the rooms were hot, the
machinery very noisy and dangerous, and the working hours long. Adults worked twelve hours a day and the children, controlled by Act
of Parliament, ten. An insidious problem was the risk of contracting
the dreaded ‘ague’, a loose term which covered many different sorts
of fever. This seemed to be particularly prevalent at Tring, and was
blamed on the stagnant water beneath the building, and the proximity
of the mill pond, the vapours of which were described as ‘pernicious
Visitors to the Mill were not encouraged, less from a desire to hide
the working conditions, but more from anxiety about what would now
be called ‘industrial espionage’. However, with difficulty, an
admission card could be obtained, and one official visitor of 1840
has left us his detailed account. One extract reads - “Tring is
seldom or never without ague, and as the malaria is generally found
to result from stagnant pools, several of which are in the vicinity,
it is to be hoped that, ere long, the proprietors of these sources
of pestilence will evince sufficiently morality and intelligence to
compel the removal of a nuisance so highly dangerous to all the
neighbourhood; actually fatal to some, and deeply injurious to the
lives and happiness of many innocent people. In the mill there are
almost always persons whose haggard looks evince their having lately
been afflicted with this terrible disease ............... The
proprietors of the mill pay Mr Dewsbury, Surgeon of Tring, £20 a
year for inspecting the persons employed in the mill, to insure
cleanliness and freedom from disease: after this evidence, we must
not attribute the presence of the injurious marsh to a want of
feeling in the proprietors, but rather to a want of information on
the subject”. (In fact everyone lacked “a want of information on the
subject” as later it was established that some of the town’s sewage
was leaking into the Mill Pond.) Other health hazards which caused
concern were bronchial problems, glandular swellings, and scrofula
tuberculosis of the neck).
However, the same writer showed excited interest when he reached the
engine room, as he went on to say “There is a steam engine of
twenty-five horse power, of so beautiful construction, fitted up so
elegantly, and taken so much care of, as to elicit from anyone who
sees it the warmest expression of admiration. The room evinces the superintendence of a man of refinement and mechanical taste. The engine
is appropriately called Venus, and was constructed at the
manufactory of Peel, Williams, and Peel, Manchester.” This fulsome
account would no doubt have caused the engine’s experienced minder,
John Rolfe, a justifiable glow of pride.
Interior view of the Silk Mill.
In any silk mill the main hazard was always the threat of fire. Sparks could be caused for any number of reasons - friction from
opening the bales of skeins which could contain nails, stones, dry
grass, or leaves; contact with hard objects; netting covering the
boilers in the drying rooms; and steam pipes. However, none of these
applied as the management’s worst fears were realised in 1836 and
again in 1842, when fires gutted part of the mill building (Appendix
On both occasions nobody was hurt, and the ample insurance of the
building and machinery covered the many thousands of pounds worth of
damage. Such rare pieces of sensational news were written up with
relish by the editors of the local papers. On the occasion of
the 1836 blaze, it was reported that at
noon the workers left for dinner, and at 1.30 pm. Ruth
Goodson, the housekeeper who lived in the Mill Cottage, saw thick
smoke rising from an upper storey. She instantly gave the alarm, but
soon flames burst from the fourth floor, eventually engulfing the
floor above. Messengers galloped to Aylesbury, Berkhamsted, and
Ivinghoe, and all responded by sending their fire engines, and two
wealthy neighbours (Lady Bridgewater and a Mr Hay) despatched their
private engines. Streams of water from the mill pond were directed
at the blaze.
As it happened, David Evans was travelling from London that same day
to visit his mill in Tring. He arrived on the scene some four hours
after the event, having been forewarned by excited locals of the
drama unfolding in Brook Street. He was in time to see the flames
still rising, and must have grieved to imagine what was happening to
his valuable machinery. The damage was mainly confined to the
winding machines on the top floor, and was not too severe thanks to
the efforts of Robert Harrison. At very considerable risk, he saved
many of the moveable parts, in spite of dodging molten lead raining
down. On a lower floor, two modern machines made of cast metal and
worth about £400 each, were broken by crashing iron ceiling supports
from the floor above, sending the machines hurtling to the
flagstones below. It was established that the fire started in the
lumber loft after some boys had been ordered to remove a stock of
bobbins but, when the dinner-bell sounded, forgot about their
burning candle. The outcome of the fire caused many to lose their
jobs, but production was quickly resumed, and later, through the
medium of the local newspaper, David Evans publically thanked all
those who had rendered assistance.
Only six years later in the early hours of the morning, fire again
broke out, this time in the steam-engine room. Afterwards, the local
paper reported that due to water pumped from the mill pond “most
prompt and efficient means were made to arrest the progress of the
flames”. Berkhamsted and Ashridge fire engines arrived some two
hours later and it was then unnecessary to call others, but too late
to stop the Aylesbury engine. Although the main staircase remained
intact, a total of £6,000 worth of damage was caused which included
the loss of substantial quantities of both silk and coal. One wing
of the building was put out of use, and for a second time resulted
in limited employment and financial hardship to many families.
After the second disaster, it was proposed that the Parish of Tring
should move its fire engine, and David readily agreed to the
suggestion to locate it in a specially-prepared room at the Silk
Mill. (It was an arrangement that lasted for 25 years until an
official Fire Brigade was formed, and the engine moved to the more
central position of the Rose & Crown yard.)
Towards the middle of the century David Evans & Co. set up a small
silk-weaving operation at No.60 Akeman Street, which complemented
the printing and throwing factories he already owned and rented.
Never a large concern, it gave work to a number living in the small
crowded streets in the centre of the town; in the Census of 1851, 35
people in Akeman Street are shown as engaged in the silk trade. It
seems that this concern had several different proprietors and
perhaps was not too profitable, as newspaper accounts of 1859 inform
that John Hillsdon, a Tring millwright and engineer, was involved in
a court case in an endeavour to obtain outstanding payment for work
Another short-lived venture was started in Frogmore Street. It was
not a success, as this sad little notice was inserted in the Bucks
Advertiser by William Brown, Tring’s land agent:
4th August 1858 - Auction under a Distress for Rent and Bill of Sale
on the premises of Mr William Shipley.
Fixtures used in the business of a Silk Throwster. 6 hp
high-pressure steam engine; 10 hp flue boiler with furnace and
brickwork; all running gear driving the Spinning and Throwing Mills
and Winding Engine; Also all furniture of dwelling house adjoining.
Some accounts say it was bought by David Evans’ son, Thomas. In any
case, silk manufacture in Frogmore Street finally ceased two years
later when a notice in the local paper announced “the silk mill is
soon to close” and again offered the steam engine, the machinery,
and utensils for sale.
All in all, it was probably a good thing that William Kay
established the silk industry in Tring, as it gave employment to
many in the town, either directly or indirectly. Working conditions
at the Mill in Tring may have been better, but were certainly not
worse, than for the large majority of those in Victorian England
caught up in the Industrial Revolution and on the bottom rungs of
the social ladder.
The Silk Mill today (reduced to three storys).
Managers of the Silk Mill
Any enterprise employing 500 workers needs an excellent management
team to return a healthy profit, and no doubt David Evans selected
his senior staff very carefully, especially the Manager. His
choice of Henry Sherratt Rowbotham ensured that, if nothing else, he
had engaged a man with experience of the silk-throwing industry.
Henry came from Macclesfield, then a town containing 120 mills,
mostly all involved in the various processes of silk manufacture.
Born in 1810, Henry moved to Tring during the late 1830s and
occupied a house described as being at ‘West End of Mill’. A
few years later he returned to Macclesfield to marry, and then
brought his young wife, Jane, back to Tring. Usually in those
times it was the custom for the Manager of a factory to live
adjacent to his workplace, but Henry did not occupy the Mill House
in Brook Street. This may have been through choice, or the
fact that the Bookkeeper and Cashier and his large family were
already in residence. Instead, the Rowbothams settled in a
house in the semi-rural smarter ‘West End’ of the town, in a
property large enough for his wife, children, mother-in-law, and
three servants. Jane, who may have had social pretensions, is
described in the Census of 1851 as ‘Gentlewoman’.
The proprietor of the Mill lived 70 miles away in Kent, and it was
this fact that enabled Henry to enjoy such a comfortable lifestyle.
His high salary reflected the complete responsibility for the
day-to-day running of production at Tring; control of the workforce;
and the expectation that he would sort out serious problems.
His pride in his position and his comparative youth is shown in a
letter of 1839, when he wrote to the Aylesbury Guardians of the Poor
-“The report of your Committee, who recently visited the Silk
Mill, was handed to me by Mr David Evans, since he does not
interfere with any regulations connected with this establishment”.
But as will be seen from the newspaper account below, Henry’s
policies sometimes could have unwanted consequences.
His other duties included liaison with local authorities including
the Tring Vestry, which involved matters relating to pollution,
drainage, and the health of the workers. He was expected to
take an active part in civic affairs, and was elected as one of the
Tring Guardians of the Poor serving the Berkhamsted Union.
Disciplinary matters also had to be addressed and, where necessary,
evidence set before the Bench about any employee’s misdemeanours.
A typical case occurred in 1849 when two 16-year olds, Joseph
Copcutt and George Norman, ran away from the Mill. As it was
not the first time this had happened, both received one month’s hard
labour at Hertford gaol. Henry Harris, on the other hand, came
up before a more lenient magistrate and was sentenced to three days’
solitary confinement and only two week’s hard labour for the
unlikely offence of stealing a violin.
Sometimes a far more worrying incident arose which the Manager had
to treat with the utmost seriousness. Mary Ann Beard, a pauper
child from St. Margaret’s, Westminster, complained that she had been
assaulted by an elderly male worker. A lengthy correspondence
followed between Henry, the Guardians, and eventually the proprietor
of the Mill. The outcome was a court case (which David Evans
complained had cost him £53 in prosecution costs) and the man spent
four months in gaol and, although formally acquitted, was dismissed
from his employment of 25 years. Following this episode the
mill girls were allowed to leave for dinner 10 minutes ahead of the
other workers, and their surveillance was increased.
Henry Rowbotham appears today as a character from the pages of a
novel by Charles Dickens. He employed stern discipline in the
Mill; he visited the Governors of London workhouses to negotiate the
allocation of pauper children; he travelled to Aylesbury and
Berkhamsted to carry out the same function there; and at times he
personally inspected the children and made his selection on the
grounds of their “strong constitutions, free from disease and
strong in limbs, particularly about the ankle joints”.
(The latter was important, considering that they were expected to
stand at their work for up to 10 hours a day.) However, it is
likely that his rule was not as harsh as that of his counterparts in
the mills of northern England, where labour was more readily
available and expendable, and beatings were commonplace. Even
so, the following account appeared in the Bucks Herald of 9th
AYLESBURY UNION. – A report having
reached the Board of Guardians, that four lads belonging to this
union, employed at the Tring Silk Mill, had been beaten with too
much severity by Mr. Rowbotham, the superintendant of the mills, the
boys, and the woman with whom they lodged, were brought before a
full Board on Wednesday last, when a thorough and patient
investigation of the facts took place.
It appeared from the evidence of the lads that they had run away for
the second or third time from their work, and were absent all night;
that on their return, Mr. Rowbotham made them take off their
smock-fronts and jackets, and then beat them with nut (hazel)
sticks, about the thickness of half and inch in diameter
– five of which he broke about
them, and then used the strap –
they were much marked, but in only one case had blood been drawn.
Three of them, however, did their job as usual, the youngest of them
played at leap-frog the same afternoon. One of them was laid
up for one day with the bowel complaint, but resumed his employment
the next morning.
The woman at the lodging house, told them on their return, that
their flogging “served them right.” One of them repeated her
remark, after she had seen one of the boys stripped
– the other two thought that the
lads were more severely beaten than they had seen lads before; but
they were lads very difficult to manage and keep in order.
On the conclusion of the investigation, a guardian moved that “the
boys were too severely beaten;” but on a division the motion was
And this from the Bucks Herald, 17th
THURSDAY, APRIL 15
(Before the Rev. J. Williams.)
George Newman and Joseph Copcutt, two lads, about 16 years of
age, were charged with running away and leaving their employment at
the Silk Mills, at Tring. Proof of the offences being given,
and it further appeared that this was not the first time they had
been guilty of the same offence, they were committed to Hertford
Goal for one month to hard labour.
Like most Victorians, Henry experienced great personal grief.
Within the space of ten years, he lost two of his five children, his
young wife, and his mother-in-law, leaving him to raise the three
surviving children with help from an elderly live-in governess.
On his retirement, he moved to Reading to be near his married
daughter, but Henry was at least spared the knowledge of the tragic
end of his younger daughter who was drowned off the coast of New
Zealand in that country’s worst-ever shipwreck. This occurred
shortly after he died in 1871, when his body was returned for burial
in the Rowbotham family vault at Drayton Beauchamp churchyard.
The cortège travelled slowly from Tring Station through the length
of the town and, as was the custom of the time, most tradesmen and
shopkeepers lowered their window shades as a mark of respect.
Grave of Henry Rowbotham, St Mary the Virgin Church, Drayton
The position of manager at the Silk Mill passed to John Akers,
another Macclesfield man, who during his time in Tring was to see
many changes to the old order. By that date the system of
binding apprentices from the London workhouses was over and,
although paupers were still used, other choices of available
occupations meant it was often a case of taking whoever was
Three years after John took over, David Evans died and the ownership
of his various business concerns passed to his sons. In
England the silk industry was starting to decline, and it was only a
matter of time before the inevitable surrender of the lease of Tring
Silk Mill to the new owner, Lord Rothschild. During these
difficult years, John was retained as Manager and, in addition to
the problem of labour shortage, he had to weather some stormy
dealings with Tring local authorities. Disputes started when a
request was made to the Mill to give up the right to extract water
from the stream, and to agree instead to the construction of a
reservoir for water storage in front of the premises.
Brook Street c.1870s (Robin Hood public house on the left)
For many years after the Mill was first built, Brook Street was
still known as ‘Brook End’. Lined with small cottages, the
road was little more than a country lane, overhung with trees, and
no doubt muddy in the winter months. It meandered down towards
New Mill to join with Wingrave Road, and then on to the corn mill at
Gamnel. In the middle of the century, Tring Council decided
upon a plan of action for improvements which included road-widening,
better drainage, and once the problem of leaking sewage had been
identified, provision of a sewer. It was not long before
concerns about the effects of these works on the water level in the
mill pond led to increasingly acrimonious meetings between John
Akers, Lord Rothschild’s agent, the Canal Company and the Solicitor
representing the Tring authorities. The latter received a
letter from John (which he later regretted) beginning and ending:
March 23rd 1888
I have your letter of yesterday
– when I require your
advice for my ‘future guidance’, I may ask you for it
....................... Some portion of your letter
assumes the nature of a threat; if meant as such,
I treat it with contempt.
After various Injunctions and Appeals, the matter of Tring’s water
and sewage problems eventually ended up in the Court of the Lord
Chancellor, when a decision was made that most likely completely
satisfied none of the parties involved.
In spite of a far from smooth working life, John Akers enjoyed the
time spent with his family at the Mill House, where the three
youngest of his five children were born. He remained there until his
retirement to Aylesbury, where he died at age 76 in 1906. It
was the end of an era, and Tring’s industrial past as ‘Little
Manchester’ would soon begin to fade into the history of the
The story of the use of child labour in the mills of Britain is
bound up with the role of the Poor Law and the workhouse system.
Maintenance of the poor was expensive, and a prime aim of the
Guardians of the Poor in every town was to recoup part of the cost,
lessening the burden on local ratepayers. Savings were made
possible by binding workhouse children in apprenticeship to the mill
and factory owners. As the century wore on, some of those with
a social conscience began to protest at the system, and by the 1830s
and 1840s various Factory Acts were introduced. However, as
child labour was considered essential in the manufacturing process
of silk, this legislation did not apply to them, and they had to
wait another twenty years to obtain a degree of protection in the
The view held by Joseph Grout (then renting Tring Park mansion from
the Trustees of William Kay) was typical of other silk mill owners.
He gave evidence to a Factories Enquiry Commission and stated that
he saw no objection generally to restricting the working hours of
children under the age of 13, but “ ..... the measure is quite
uncalled for with regard to the silk trade, as the labour of
children is so extremely light, for it is only to watch a thread,
and tie it when it breaks. They have to walk backwards and
forwards which is only gentle exercise.”
The Manager at Tring, Henry Rowbotham, stressed that children should
start work at an early age so they would be worthy of their hire
later on, and that they must have done nothing previously as their
hands would otherwise be too rough. Girls were valued more
highly than boys, who were usually discarded by the age of 15, and
this preference was reflected in the girls’ wages, as they were paid
3d. a week more than the boys. It was felt that they obeyed
orders more readily, their reactions were better co-ordinated, and
their small nimble fingers could swiftly fill the bobbins and join
One tragic victim of the system was Lucy Marshall, born in Harrow
Yard, Tring, in 1848. Her drunken father deserted his wife and
four young children, forcing the family to be sent to the
Berkhamsted Union workhouse. After a few years Lucy and her
brothers returned to Tring to work in the Silk Mill, and she
recounts the terror of her first day, when she was overwhelmed by
the noise and flying wheels. She was still too small to
properly reach the machines, and stood on what was called a ‘wooden
horse’. Her temporary home in Brook End added to her woes, as
the couple she lodged with quarrelled, drank, swore, and did not
feed her sufficiently. The Marshall family’s harrowing
sequence of events continued, when the mother, still in the
workhouse, languished with cancer for three years, and Lucy’s oldest
brother absconded from the Mill. After many unpleasant
experiences, Lucy left the Mill at thirteen years of age and
continued to battle her way through a life dogged with difficulties
At that time, Lucy’s story was probably no more or less different to
dozens of others, but it may be that the pauper girls from London
enjoyed better conditions than some local children living in nearby
lodgings. David Evans had purchased five cottages in front of
the Mill in Brook End and these were converted into a dormitory to
accommodate the apprentice labour force. A married couple, the
Master and Matron, supervised this building and were responsible for
the welfare of the young inmates. Regular inspections by the
Board of Governors from St. Margaret’s and St. George’s workhouses in
London ensured that the boarding arrangements met with approval.
St. Margaret’s Workhouse, Westminster
However, it is now not really possible to say just how satisfactory
or otherwise were the conditions for the children. Any
criticisms resulting from the inspections were most likely
moderated, as the Governors avoided any situation where paupers had
to be returned to their workhouse. So generally the overseers
found everything favourable, and the girls in excellent health, but
sometimes they had to admit that the sleeping arrangements were not
impressive - the bedding scanty and not clean enough.
Former dormitory accommodation for the workhouse children (Brook St.
to the left)
Consideration of the weekly diet of the children concluded that the
following was adequate and, although monotonous, the amounts
probably compare favourably with the diet of the local populace:
Daily – Breakfast l lb. Bread, 1 pint milk (sufficient
to last the day)
Dinner 6-oz. Meat cooked with vegetables
(4 days a week)
Soup or Rice or Suet Pudding
(3 days a week)
Supper 3-oz. Cheese
(no sweetened food or any sort of fruit)
In spite of the approval of the workhouse inspectors, it may be that
the above did not always apply, as an incident reminiscent of Oliver
Twist occurred at the Mill when the Berkhamsted Union reported that
a young apprentice, Elizabeth Gibson, had complained about the food.
She stated that there was only bread and butter and no milk, and
that meat was served infrequently and then often inedible. Mr
Burnett, the Master, allegedly grabbed her, dragged her by the hair
across a cobbled yard, and locked her in an outhouse for two hours.
An enquiry found this, and other aspects of his behaviour,
Working hours for everyone were long, but sometimes varied according
to the current demand for silk. When the Mill first opened the
working day was about 12 hours, later reduced to 10, with nine hours
being worked on Saturdays. Children under the age of 11
supposedly did seven hours plus three more for ‘schooling’.
The apprentices were roused from their beds at 5 a.m. to be ready at
their machines half an hour later, and 30 minutes were allowed for
breakfast at 7 a.m. and an hour for dinner.
Children working in a silk mill
The one day of rest each week saw little fun for the apprentices, as
the Mill Manager, assisted by the clergymen of the Parish, was
expected to enforce strict observance of the Sabbath. Both
Sunday School and church services were attended twice and, as a
treat, special entertainment was provided on Holy Days.
Occasionally there was a red-letter day, when some local worthy
would arrange the venue and food for a sit-down meal.
The girls must have presented a quaint sight as they filed to church
from their lodgings in Brook Street. In summer they wore a
cotton print dress and a lilac print cape, covered in the winter
months by a shawl. These clothes (which after their day’s work
the girls were required to keep in good repair) were complemented by
good strong petticoats, thick nailed boots, and a coal-scuttle
bonnet. Two complete sets of outfits were supplied each year,
together with a new Bible and a Prayer Book. One early account
of conditions inside the Mill claimed that the children were taught
to sing hymns as they worked, and to put especial energy and piety
into the tunes if visitors were present. To some extent this
practice continued, as local folk passing along Brook Street
reported they could hear singing coming from inside.
It is difficult to assess just how much education the children
received. Under the Health & Morals Apprentices Act 1802 (42
Geo III c.73), all those under 11 years of age were required to
attend school for half the day, and some sort of school had been
established by the first Manager, which supposedly benefitted not
only the children at the Mill but also local infants. But as
late as 1865, the Berkhamsted Guardians were complaining to his
successor on this point. They stated that “there does not
seem to be any part of the day set apart for instruction or
amusement”, eliciting the response “we are going to keep up
or add to the education of the children by setting apart several
evenings a week for writing and reading”. Perhaps matters
in this respect did improve, as later accounts report that the girls
from the Silk Mill joined with pupils from Tring School in singing
at fund-raising concerts.
Although unwanted children were removed from the Berkhamsted
workhouse, the Guardians were never entirely happy about the
arrangement, and protested every time labour was requested for
Tring. Their argument was that the wages paid were so low that
the paupers often still needed to be supplemented with Poor Relief.
The authorities were also well aware that it was difficult to make a
living as an adult Silk Throwster and few stayed in Tring after
their apprenticeship had run, so the worry remained that they might
return to the workhouse and revert to their poverty-stricken status
as a continuing charge on the Union. This possibility (among
others) also concerned the guardians of the St. Margaret’s
Workhouse, Westminster [see Appendix].
It seems odd that the Mill Managers did not ask the Tring workhouse
to help with the supply of child labour, but it is possible that the
dominance of the straw-plaiting industry might explain this.
The Tring Workhouse is known to have had a furnished plait room, and
this occupation could be said to be more congenial than mill work,
as at least it did not impose too much restraint on the liberty of
For those who worked in the Mill during their formative years, the
destructive experience branded itself on their character. In
the following chapter, evidence of this is clearly shown, and
eloquently described, in the words of one such unfortunate lad.
(Child Worker at the Silk Mill and later known as
‘The Tring Poet’)
Still all the day the iron wheels go onward,
Grinding life down from its mark;
And the children’s souls,
which God is calling sunward,
Spin on blindly in the dark.
The above words from Cry of the Children were written by
Elizabeth Barrett Browning and clearly mirror the experience of the
Gerald Massey, when at the age of eight years old he was sent
to work in the Tring Silk Mill. Born in dire poverty in a stone
hovel at Gamnel Wharf and largely self-educated, he went on to
achieve some renown in Victorian times with his early poetry, later
prose work, and his lecture tours in Britain and America.
Gerald’s father worked as a boatman at the flour mill at New Mill,
and his paltry wage forced him, probably with reluctance, to send
his older sons a short way down the road to the Silk Mill. It
was a wounding time that Gerald never forgot, and one that shaped
his radical opinions and outlook for the rest of his life.
Written in later life, the following description of his childhood
has been reproduced many times, but it is worth quoting again.
The brief and bitter summary speaks for all the children at the Mill
who would, most likely, have given similar voice had they possessed
Gerald’s literary talent:
“Having had to earn my own dear bread by the cheapening of flesh
and blood thus early, I never knew what childhood was. I had
no childhood. Ever since I can remember, I have had the aching
fear of want, throbbing in heart and brow. The currents of my
life were early poisoned ... I look back now in wonder, not that so
few escape, but that any escape at all ... so blighting are the
influences which surround thousands in early life, to which I can
bear bitter testimony.”
His release from this detested employment came after the disastrous
fire of 1836 (see Chapter 6). Gerald was one of the children
who stood in Brook Street and watched with high excitement and
pleasure as the flames shot skyward, not realising the grim
financial consequences for his parents. Afterwards, to make
ends meet, he was forced to take up the local cottage industry of
straw-plaiting, less arduous than mill work, but still a stifling
occupation for a spirited young boy.
In spite of the Massey family’s dismal life, Gerald’s mother had
managed to instil Christian values in her sons, and to see that
Gerald was taught to read well. When he was fifteen, he was
able to escape from Tring and seek his fortune in London. Once
there, his poetic talent was soon recognised by, among others, some
leading members of the Chartist movement. It is not surprising
that his background encouraged him to take up the cause with
enthusiasm, and soon he was editing a radical publication.
Gerald’s later life was interspersed with problems, tragedy, and
lack of money. None of it deterred him from writing copiously, and
even at the end of his life, he was labouring on a great work
expounding his theories about ancient Egypt.
An 1856 poem of his, entitled Lady Laura, tells the story of a
wealthy lady who takes pity on the children working in a nearby silk
mill. She plucks one man from the mill, is kind to him and his old
mother, and the couple fall in love and eventually marry. (This is
surely a flight of fancy, as it is highly improbable that anything
so romantic ever occurred at the Mill in Tring.) In the account of
her life, Lucy Marshall (see Chapter 8), who
worked at Tring Silk Mill along with her young brother, mentions
that he “was put to lodgings with the man who used to ring the
Mill bell”. This feature of the children’s working life
impressed also itself on Massey’s memory,
for in his Lady Laura he also mentions the mill bell:
Pleasantly the Chime that calls to Bridal-hall or Kirk;
But Hell might gloatingly pull for the peal that wakes
babes to work!
‘Come, little Children,’ the Mill-bell rings, and
drowsily they run,
Little old Men and Women, and human worms who have spun
The life of Infancy into silk; and fed Child, Mother,
The factory’s smoke of torment, with the fuel of human
O weird white face, and weary bones, and whether they
hurry or crawl,
You know them by the factory-stamp, they wear it one and
The Factory-Fiend in a grim hush waits till all are in,
and he grins
As he shuts the door on the fair, fair world, and hell
The least faint living rose of health
from the childish cheek he strips,
To run the thorn in a Mother’s heart: and ever he
His sacrifice; with Life’s soiled waters turns his
And shouts, till his rank breath thicks the air, and the
Child’s brain Devil-ward reels.
It is likely that Massey retained few fond memories of his
birthplace, but he did return over the years to give lectures in
Tring’s Commercial Hall and its Assembly Rooms; he also
presented copies of his books to the Tring Mechanics’ Institute.
He would probably be the first to appreciate the irony of the way
his native town remembers him, as a block of cream-rendered luxury
flats, built in 2004 and sited almost opposite the hated Silk Mill,
is named Massey House. What might have pleased Gerald more was
the Poetry Competition named in his memory. Open to all pupils
of Tring School, the theme for 2008 was Working in Tring Silk Mill
in the 1800s and the panel of judges awarded first prize to 15-year
old Abbi Brown for her poignant poem entitled:
FIFTEEN PENCE A WEEK
Red-raw hands shield dusty eyes
Weakly raised to dream-laden skies
Invisible hands stifle silent cries
For fifteen pence a week.
Far from family, far from home
Back in the workhouse, never so alone
Small hands shake, starved stomachs groan
For fifteen pence a week.
Winding, cleaning, all day long
Beyond the bars, the sun shines strong
Scarce a whisper, scarce a song
For fifteen pence a week.
Enveloped in shadow Kay’s henchmen lurk
One fumbling finger brings shouts from the murk
“You’re worthless! You’re nothing!
Now get back to work!”
And to fifteen pence a week.
We’re ‘civilised’ now; we know that it’s wrong
To force children to work and cut short their song
Locked in a factory, all the day long
For fifteen pence a week.
And yet we go shopping, and yet we still buy
Clothes made in China by children who’ll die
Once it was English and now it is Thai
Paid fifteen pence a week.
The problem remains, though the years
have gone by
We don’t want to know, and we’re living a lie
We’re thrilled by the prices and don’t
the question why
It’s that fifteen pence a week.
Not four feet tall I stand, and yet
My bones are aged from physical debt
My childhood is gone, and my future is set
At fifteen pence a week.
I can’t tell the time and I can’t tell the date
I’ve not been to school, and now it’s too late
But I hope that in heaven they’ll open the gate
For my fifteen pence a week.
Like almost everyone, towards the end of his life Gerald Massey
sometimes thought back to his youth and the days when he departed
Tring to work in London. The poverty and cruelty he saw in the
city impressed itself on him to such an extent that, years later, he
recalled one aspect in a poem he wrote for his granddaughter.
Always sympathetic to suffering, whether of people or animals, he
recounted the loathsome practice of the bird-sellers in the street
markets around Spitalfields. In this area, it was the Huguenot
silk-weavers (see Chapter 1) who first
discovered that the quality of song of caged birds could be improved
by putting out their eyes with hot wires. (When these settlers
moved east to establish their craft in Norwich, the caged songbirds
went with them, and today some say this is how Norwich City Football
Club acquired its nickname of ‘The Canaries’.) Massey’s
Listen, my little one, it is the lark,
Captured and blinded, singing in the dark.
His nest-mate and his younglings are all dead:
Their feathers flutter on some foolish head.
Of some lost Paradise, poor bird, he sings
Which for a moment back his vision brings ...
He sings his fervid life out day by day;
Imprisoned in an area underground ...
As if with floods of music he would drown
The dire, discordant roar of London Town.
The Aylesbury Connection
In Buckinghamshire in earlier years, the making of lace had given
poorer folk a reasonable living, but in the 1830s everything
changed. This cottage craft became redundant, as machine-made
lace from the Midlands started to swamp the market. The
situation presented serious problems for the Guardians of the Poor
at Aylesbury and other smaller towns in the district. (The
ratepayers already considered themselves over-burdened with payments
of Parish Relief, and a further drain on their purses was most
A solution suddenly presented itself when Robert Nixon, a nephew of
William and Joseph Kay of Tring Mill, became out of work. He
had acted as Manager at Joseph’s silk mill in Manchester and, on his
uncle’s retirement, Robert travelled south to use his experience to
establish his own operation, and to ensure its profitability he
resolved to base the business on the use of cheap juvenile labour.
The Aylesbury Guardians needed little encouragement to seize this
opportunity, and offered him advice and every assistance. They
suggested that a portion of the workhouse premises in Oxford Road
could be used as a silk-weaving mill, and agreed to spend £200 on
the conversion, provided Robert entered into a bond not to employ
any hands except paupers chargeable on the Parish of Aylesbury.
(The Aylesbury Guardians were not alone in their anxiety to relieve
complaining ratepayers of the necessity to maintain the poor of the
parish. Other nearby institutions were not above using
doubtful methods, and an account relating to the Thame workhouse
reveals a sorry tale of machinations, threats, and broken promises.
William Bates and Richard Dorset had both fallen on hard times and
received Parish Relief to help maintain dependents. With the
assurance of firm employment, good wages, and adequate housing, the
two men, against their better judgment, were bullied into loading
the 14 members of their families into a farmer’s cart to Tring.
In the event, the adults could obtain no work at the Mill, the
children were paid nowhere near the expected sum, and only one house
was provided for both families. However, the Thame Guardians
achieved their aim as, for a while, they became the responsibility
of the Berkhamsted Union instead.)
After reaching agreement with the Aylesbury authorities, Robert
Nixon settled in the area, living for a while in some luxury at
Tring Park mansion which he rented from his Uncle William.
Robert had brought with him Richard Moscrop, a superintendent of the
Manchester mill, who was also anxious to make a new start.
Between them, the two men set up 40 treadle-operated hand looms in
the workhouse premises giving paid employment to many female
paupers. Matters did not always go according to plan as,
exactly one day after the serious fire at Tring Silk Mill (see
Chapter 6), a similar catastrophe occurred at
Aylesbury. The wind blew a gas-light which in turn set fire to
a loom, but fortunately the damage amounted to several hundred
pounds, and not thousands as at Tring.
Robert demonstrated his commitment to the new venture by taking a
house in Buckingham Road in Aylesbury, and enrolling his son in a
private boarding school in Temple Square. He died in 1853 at
the early age of 43 and is buried in the graveyard of St. Mary’s
Parish Church in Aylesbury. Possibly realising he was
terminally ill, before his death Robert Nixon had leased the
Aylesbury business to David Evans, the tenant of Tring Mill who
immediately extended the premises, adding 70 new power looms to
allow greatly increased production, and engaging James Hobday from
Birmingham as Manager. Later the operation was expanded again
with his purchase of Aylesbury’s old parish mill for the sum of
£600, the money being used by the town authorities to buy a public
The mill at Aylesbury was always essentially a weaving mill, and the
necessary material was supplied from Tring. The thrown silk
was delivered in skeins and was rewound onto reels, followed by a
second and more careful winding, then transfer to the weaver’s
quills. The finest silk came from the use of hand-looms, as it
left the machine as perfect. In contrast a little later on,
when power-looms were introduced, a finishing process of hot
pressing was added.
The other operation performed at Aylesbury was the difficult process
of producing patterns in the fabric, either by the introduction of
silk of various colours; by a different arrangement of threads; or
by using silk of differing substances. (This very complicated
procedure was greatly simplified by a machine invented by the
Frenchman, Jacquard.) The designer was a skilled operative
for, as well as thinking up the pattern, he was required to
undertake the painstaking task of drawing his design on paper,
setting his machine (known as ‘a piano’), and inserting narrow
perforated slips of cardboard into the machine to transfer the
design. This whole process remained largely a mystery to the
rest of the workforce.
Cottage industry - silk weaving at home.
In the meantime, Richard Moscrop had moved a short away off to
Whitchurch where he made his home and established a silk-weaving
operation and drapery business. He was joined by a host of his
relations, including his brother and his mother, described as ‘the
matriarch of the family’. Among his selected sites were
Leppers Yard where 30 females worked, and a few cottages for the
production of ribbon silk, an operation ideally suited to women as a
ribbon-loom was smaller in both size and weight. Later, a new
factory was erected and fitted with machines, looms, warehouses, and
employees’ houses. This area in the south end of the village
became known as ‘Little Bolton’ after Richard Moscrop’s native town,
and he was affectionately known to workers and villagers as ‘Old
Mossy’. The Moscrop family provided much-needed employment for
Whitchurch and for nearby Waddesdon, where a similar but smaller
offshoot branch was opened. Women worked hand-looms in a
building in the centre of the village, in a road still called Silk
Street. None of the precious silk ever went to waste, as any
remnants from the skeins were saved and used as stuffing for
After the death of the founder of the business, the manufacture of
silk in the villages of both Whitchurch and Waddesdon ceased, and
the Moscrop family made their living in other ways, one brother
becoming manager of the Co-op stores. It is likely that this source
of revenue for these rural communities was missed, especially by the
women who were fast-forgetting their old skill of lace-making.
The mill at Aylesbury carried on until 1887, when the following
auction sale notice appeared in The Bucks Herald:
BY DIRECTION OF DAVID EVANS, ESQ.
Well-situated Freehold Manufactory, residence, and 26
houses and cottages.
The extensive manufactory recently used as a silk mill,
in an area of 7,448 sq.ft. with numerous offices
Boiler house, engine house containing a 14-hp steam
engine with lofty shaft.
Brick-built and slated 8-roomed manager’s house
attached, with extensive warehouses at rear.
12 cottages also adjoining, and a large garden, the
whole covering an area of nearly an acre.
4 newly-built houses with stone bay windows.
2 brick-built and slated houses, with gardens and
frontage to the Oxford Road.
8 recently-erected roomy cottages in Mount Street.
All classes of silk goods were produced at the mills in Bucks,
mostly leaving the factories in a finished state ready for the
counters of the silk mercers. It is said that some articles
manufactured at Aylesbury were exported to Paris, re-imported to
London, and then sold as ‘superior French goods’. Silk items
from Aylesbury were considered fine enough to exhibit at the Crystal
Palace Exhibition of 1851 and, reputedly, even found their way into
Queen Victoria’s wardrobe.
Examples of silk from the Aylesbury silk factory
Bucks Country Museum, Aylesbury
County Museum, Aylesbury
The Mill House
The Mill House when occupied by Walter Thomas and his family
Like all old buildings, over the years the Mill House has seen its
share of wear and tear. However it has survived neglect, a
serious fire in the 1970s, and subsequent vandalism to remain a
square and attractive example of late-Georgian rural architecture.
Reputedly built in 1812, it is constructed of single-skin
pinkish-red local brick covered by a slate roof. A transom bar
around the outside of the house, just below the level of the
first-floor sash windows, originally supported the cladding of
terracotta fish-scale tiles, some of which can still be seen at the
rear of the property. (On the right-hand side of the entrance
to the Mill House and facing Brook Street, a second substantial
double-fronted property of a similar date accommodated other senior
The Mill House today.
Known at first as Brookend House and no doubt enlarged at different
times, the 1872 auction particulars of the Tring Park estate
describe the Mill House as having “a large hall, spacious dining
and drawing rooms, a breakfast room, five bedrooms, two dressing
rooms, and a water closet”. Always a family home, the Mill
House has seen a variety of tenants and owners. As well as
various Managers of the Mill, these include the first Bookkeeper and
Cashier, the Engineer in charge of the Tring Park estate maintenance
departments, the General Manager of RMR Engineering, and one
enterprising couple who opened a tea room and also offered day
tickets for fishing in the lake. This brief venture, although
successful with the public, had to be abandoned when planning
permission was refused by the Council on account of the difficult
access and inadequate parking arrangements.
Map c.1877 showing the Mill House (red), Mill Pond and Tring Feeder
Brook Street is shaded green.
Always one of the most attractive features of the property, the
sizeable lake is viewed from the ground floor of the house through
two pairs of French doors opening from the main reception rooms.
It is large enough and sufficiently deep to allow a rowing boat, as
shown in Victorian photographs. Trees and shrubs, and the
much-repaired old flint wall, screen the entire garden from view
both from Brook Street and the public footpath at the rear of the
The original garden and orchard of the Mill House once extended as
far as the Market Place, but most have now disappeared and been
built over. From about 1820 to 1888, facing Brook Street and
in the north-east corner of the garden, stood some thatched hovels
known as Dog Kennel Cottages, so called because a Captain Yates
housed his pack of hounds at the rear.
Mill House, viewed from Brook Street.
By the middle of the twentieth century, the lake presented a sorry
sight after it had been deliberately polluted, and the central stone
fountain smashed and overturned. Fully cleared out and
restored, it now supports a variety of freshwater fish such as
bream, carp, perch, and rudd. Fringed by tall trees and
shrubs, it is home to mallard and Aylesbury ducks, and visited by
herons during the daytime, and bats catching insects in the evening.
Many of the house’s period features were lost in the middle of the
twentieth century during the time the property was unoccupied.
Partial renovation was done during the 1980s, and much careful
restoration has been carried out since by the current owners who
have also extended the house on its northern side.
Rothschild Ownership 1872 - 1940
Long before the 4,000-acre Tring Park estate came to the market in
1872, the Rothschild merchant banking family had acquired other
estates, land, and property in various parts of the Vale of
Aylesbury. Acquisition of Tring Park was particularly
desirable, especially as the surrounding area held fond memories for
the family, dating as far back as the summer holidays spent there in
the 1830s. At the auction sale it was no problem for the
Rothschilds to outbid all comers, and the Tring Park estate was duly
knocked down for £230,000.
Details from the auction catalogue of the Tring Park estate,
As well as a mansion house surrounded by a glorious park, it
included desirable farms, pubs, shops, and land. Part of the
package was the doubtful asset of a sprawling six-acre site in Brook
Street on which stood the five-storey 170ft-long working Silk Mill;
a further condition of the sale stipulated that the machinery in the
Mill had to be paid for at a fixed valuation.
As outlined in Chapter 5 the silk industry
was soon to slide into decline, and after the surrender of the lease
of the Mill to Lord Rothschild a major problem remained. His
lordship was aware that sudden closure would cause great financial
hardship to the workforce, and for a while he continued to run the
business at a loss, retaining John Akers as Manager. During
their employment by Lord Rothschild, the workers were treated with
his usual generosity. For example, at Christmas 1889 he
presented all 300 mill hands with a new silver crown each, and
arranged a party in the Victoria Hall. Everyone’s eyes were on the
three decorated Christmas trees loaded with gifts for employees and
their children. After a sumptuous tea, other members of the
Rothschild family arrived to assist Lady Rothschild in handing out
the presents, as well as what was described as “an article of
clothing, both useful and appropriate for every guest”.
One recipient of this bounty was James Teddar, who had worked in the
Mill for 58 years.
When the doors of the Mill finally shut in 1898, Lord Rothschild
provided a pension to the older employees, while some of the young
men, who could not get other jobs, were offered a paid passage to
start a new life in Canada. Many Tring lads took advantage of
this opportunity, and some did extremely well in their new country.
(Closure did hold one benefit for his lordship, as he was then able
to order the demolition of the top stories of the Mill, which it was
said detracted from the view from the windows of his mansion.)
A useful purpose then had to be sought for the smaller but still
sizeable old premises. This did not prove too difficult, and a
solution for the obsolete building was soon found with the
relocation of the Tring Park estate maintenance departments
The small army of staff from the various trades employed to keep the
mansion and all the estate buildings in immaculate condition was
re-housed from its buildings in Park Street; it included the
carpenters’ department with its stock of timber, followed shortly by
Nathan (Nathaniel) Mayer Rothschild, 1st baron Rothschild of
A power station was installed to supply electricity to Tring Park
mansion, farm buildings on the estate, and the Rothschild laundry on
St Peter’s Hill. The scheme also included a system of
telephones and fire bells. A long room, clad in dark red
glazed tiles, housed two large steam engines, their drive wheels,
some 10ft. in diameter, rotating leather belts in conjunction with
smaller wheels two feet away; two banks of 6ft-square accumulators;
and a control panel of polished slate. A door led to stone
steps which descended to an area containing several rows of acid
tanks. A dynamo was attached to the gearing of the waterwheel,
and fuelled pumps to hoist hydraulic lifts in both the basement of
the mansion and the Mill itself. In the early 1930s, one steam
engine was replaced by an oil-engine which was fuelled by three
large diesel oil tanks placed on an outside wall.
The electricity power station - engine room and control
Alterations to the Mill premises were designed by Tring architect,
William Huckvale, and the setting-up operation and overall control
by Walter Thomas, one-time ship’s engineer, who moved with his
family to the Mill House. Walter’s first challenge was to supervise
the removal of the top two storeys of the mill, followed by the
laying of cables from the Home, West Leith, and Hastoe Farms and,
later, the Museum. Given carte blanche to purchase the best
equipment, the project was something of an engineer’s dream, and
Walter was a welcome visitor to the engineering firms in the City.
Walter Thomas outside the mill.
Lord Rothschild’s great interest in all matters agricultural, had
led to several new farms being established in the Tring area. Twenty-five acres of land adjoining the Mill in Brook Street were
fenced and hedged and rented to John Batchelor. He occupied the
attractive newly-built farmhouse, designed in the usual ‘Rothschild
estate style’, surrounded by outbuildings, a large garden, and an
orchard. A further strip of land fronting Brook Street was set out
as allotment gardens. Around 1913, some tall trees beside the Feeder
were felled in readiness for the erection of a row of new cottages,
but the plan had to be abandoned when the ground was discovered to
be too waterlogged.
Tring Fire Brigade parade outside the Silk Mill c.1930s.
The end of the 1930s saw the end of another era for the Mill, when
the death of the second Lord Rothschild resulted in the break-up and
sale of most of the Tring Park estate. The high number of
maintenance staff were no longer needed and, in any case, everyone
was occupied with thoughts of the looming prospect of war.
RMR Engineering 1940 - 1974
The merchant bank N M Rothschild & Sons began dealing in bullion
from an early date, and in 1852 took over the lease of the Royal
Mint Refinery in the East End of London. At that time, gold had
recently been discovered in California and Australia, and supplies,
together with quicksilver from Spain, were readily available. Workers with experience in metal refining were recruited from
France, and labourers’ cottages were built on the refinery premises.
As World War II drew nearer Victor, the third Lord Rothschild,
ordered a survey to see how best RMR could contribute to the war
effort, and a separate company, RMR Engineering, was formed in 1938
to take over some of the work previously done at the refinery. All
were aware that disruption threatened due to the expected blitz on
London, and it was apparent that plans would need to be made to
re-site the operation. One suggestion was relocation to the old Silk
Mill premises in Tring, then being used as a barracks for soldiers
of the Dorset Regiment.
When the bombing raids began, the Minister of Aircraft Production
drew up a 21-year lease for the premises, the other parties being
Lord Rothschild and the Bank of England. Suitable modifications to
the premises were designed by William Huckvale junior and, when
complete, equipment from the refinery was moved down to Tring. The
exterior of the Mill was painted in camouflage colours and a pillbox
(still in place) was built on the roof, presumably as a defensive measure.
The responsibility for setting-up operations was entrusted to John
Flynn, who remained at RMR for the next 25 years. The Mill once
again echoed with the roar of machinery as torpedo detonators poured
off the production line, soon supplemented by precision parts for
artillery and aircraft. A second company from London, Shield Alloys,
shared the accommodation and produced aluminium alloy and brass sand
castings for aircraft components.
Arthur Kimpton, head of the Rothschild bullion department and
chairman of the price-fixing committee of gold and silver markets,
became General Manager of both companies, although his time was
limited when his expertise to contribute to vital war work was
requested by H M Treasury. Weighty decisions were no doubt taken in
the Board Room, which was established in a long room formed from the
cottages fronting the road, and once the home of the pauper girls
from the London workhouses.
During the war, life did have its lighter moments, and at Christmas
the children of employees of RMR were entertained to parties in
Tring Park mansion hosted by members of the Rothschild family. The
mammoth Christmas tree, multi-coloured balloons, live clowns, and
Punch & Judy, must have seemed great treats to youngsters accustomed
to wartime austerity. Their parents were not forgotten, and
good-quality entertainment for the workers was arranged; the
concerts sometimes included such local celebrities as the
international baritone Denis Noble, his actress wife Miriam Ferris,
and songs with words by Tring-born song-writer, Herbert Brandon.
RMR Engineering letterhead, showing signs of post-war austerity.
The workforce from RMR London had to be enlarged by recruitment from
areas with a tradition of tool-making. Housing proved a particular
problem, but in some parts of the town a few Tring Park estate
houses were available. Otherwise, single men were accommodated in
the old Bothy building in London Road (now the site of Tesco
supermarket), and single women in the redundant Rothschild laundry
building at St Peter’s Hill. Immediately after the war, the RMR
Housing Society was registered. As such societies had priority over
private developers and the limited supplies of scarce building
materials, it enabled the Rothschilds in conjunction with the Town
Council, to build a quantity of metal-framed three-bedroom houses
in Meadow Close, Tring, and in villages nearby.
After the war, it was estimated that 73 million parts were produced
by the two companies (Shield
Alloys manufactured most of the detonators for bombs used by the
RAF). The demand for aircraft parts carried on until the end of the
Korean War in 1953, but raw materials were scarce, and RMR was
forced to compete for the limited supplies of steel. The number of
workers increased from 130 in 1950 to 280 six years later, and
making full use of the machinery and labour was difficult. Bottlenecks sometimes occurred and odd stop-gap items would appear
in the contracts book, such as one million hot-water bottle
Lipstick case manufacture c.1960s.
The transition from war to peace meant a search for new products,
and the rapid switch to bus-ticket machines and cosmetic containers
was astonishing. Firms such as Coty were looking for accelerated
production to recover the lost markets of pre-war days, and soon
orders for lipstick cases were coming not only from Coty but Max
Factor, Ponds, and Elizabeth Arden. After the years of post-war
gloom, a new optimism prevailed and trade in cosmetics boomed, and
by the beginning of the 1950s, 188,000 lipstick cases per week left
Ten years later times had changed, and factory work no longer held
great appeal, as female workers preferred to travel out of Tring to
obtain jobs in offices and shops. However the order book was full,
and an article in the local paper relates that John Flynn was his
usual forthright self when he told the reporter “People should be
proud to work in a factory! Britain’s future is in her factories
..................... what does it matter if, in some factory jobs,
a girl gets a little oil on her hands? Oil can always be washed off.
A sensible girl laughs at any stupid snobbery about factory work. She can afford to do so because she receives a good basic wage, and
it is up to her how much more she earns in bonuses and incentives”.
The ill-fated DE HAVILLAND “COMET”—
advertisement in FLIGHT, 25th April 1952
Relations between the volatile manager and newcomers from other
industries, who would have preferred the backing of a union,
occasionally had to be sorted out by David Colville, a partner in
the Rothschild bank. His weekly visits to Tring helped to smooth
over any difficulties.
However, new technology was being developed, and as plastics started
to replace the demand for metal products, it became a continuous
struggle to find outlets for the skills and capacity that had been
built up. Towards the end of the 1960s, N. M. Rothschild & Sons
signalled that direct involvement in metal industries was no longer
the best role for a merchant bank, and in 1974 the business was put
on the market.
It was the Chairman, David Colville, who announced that RMR
Engineering was soon to be acquired by a precision engineering
company based in Luton. He assured the 180 assembled workforce that
it would continue to trade under the name of RMR & Tring Engineering
Ltd. But a few months later, plans to expand the business received a
setback when, due to pressure on the local authority to supply
building land, planning permission for a new warehouse was refused.
A spokesman for the new owners stated “We are absolutely stumped by
this. Since the take-over in March we have turned RMR from a
stagnant company into a thriving business. We have fought and
struggled and now the company’s order books are jam packed. Everyone
is full of enthusiasm here, but without a warehouse we just haven’t
room to carry out the orders. If there is no possibility our getting
this warehouse, we may have to look outside Tring.” This proved to
be the case, and another chapter in the history of the old Silk Mill
came to an end.
After the death of the second Lord Rothschild in 1937, much land and
property of the Tring Park estate were put on the market.
Along with several other farms, Silk Mill Farm, then leased to
William Mead, owner of the nearby flour mill, came under the hammer.
In the auction catalogue the property was described as a ‘Pleasure
Farm’, and comprised the farmhouse, 25 acres of land, garden,
orchard, four piggeries, two loose boxes, a meal house, and
cow-house for eight beasts. The whole lot realised £2,050.
Silk Mill farm c.1930s.
After the war more land was urgently needed by local authorities for
residential development, and anxious to relieve overcrowding in the
capital the Greater London Council sought building sites all over
the Home Counties. Tring was one area ear-marked for
expansion, and by the late 1960s plans to build on the site of Silk
Mill Farm were well advanced. Various planning applications
were submitted to Tring UDC; the usual concerns voiced; and the
usual compromises agreed. Phased building work got underway,
which included the erection of a large community centre, four shops,
play spaces, as well as new roads and areas of private housing.
Some of the modern street names in this area are a reminder of times
past – Silk Mill Way, Evans Way,
Mill Gardens, and Brookfield Close.
Considerable work was undertaken to provide an open recreational
area with a stream-side walk. The Feeder, polluted and choked
with blanket weed, had dwindled to a muddy trickle at its New Mill
end. It was cleared and cleaned, over thirty trees planted
along the banks, and some years later two bridges erected.
Described by their engineer as a “milestone in futuristic masonry
design”, they were lowered by crane into position over the
The Feeder near its junction with the Wendover Arm.
Today the old Silk Mill premises in Brook Street are painted a
uniform cream colour, and house small business units of varying
sizes engaged in diverse activities. The original L-shaped
buildings, and later additions on the northern side, surround a
large yard, in the corner of which is the former boiler house.
A high arch of Victorian construction, now bricked up, once led to
the cellar complex containing the underground water wheel, and an
interlinking arrangement of chambers, culverts, and sluices
channelled this water beneath the buildings and yard in a
brick-lined tunnel. All the machinery below the ground was
removed many years ago, and the great wheel, which no longer turns,
is securely sealed off and hidden from view behind a stout iron
door. If an ear is placed against this door, the sound of
rushing water can still be clearly heard, and walking over the
tarmac of the yard today and pausing in the centre, from below one’s
feet comes the noise of the stream, evoking memories of the Mill’s
past and its bustling activity.
Reminders of the second world war can also be seen in the yard where
two robust Nissen huts, once the barracks of the men of the Dorset
Regiment, still give good service. The legacy of Home Guard
activity tops the building, and four flights of stairs and an iron
ladder lead to the pillbox with its three firing slits giving a line
of sight covering the road below and the rear of the building.
In more recent times, relics of the production activities in World
War II have been discovered, including some hand-grenade cases in
the soak-aways. Within the last few years, underground
inspections have been carried out by the Environment Agency
investigating possible pollution of the water due to various metals
used in post-war production.
If the ghosts of William Kay, David Evans, or Henry Rowbotham ever
waft down Brook Street to haunt the old Silk Mill, they will still
recognise some features from those days of long ago. In the
original part of the building, they will feel at home within the
thick brick walls, the cast-iron columns, and the high Victorian
windows which allowed plenty of light for the delicate process of
silk throwing. Perhaps also, shadowy images of small pale
faces will return their gaze, and they will hear the faint echo of
children singing hymns. But, raising their eyes upwards, they
may be puzzled why the tall brick chimney and the top two stories of
the Mill have disappeared.