On Saturday we decided to drive over to Styal, on the edges of the Cheshire countryside near to Manchester airport, to visit Quarry Bank Mill, an old cotton situated in a valley of the River Bollin. It was established in in 1784 by a textile merchant, Samuel Greg. The site was chosen as the fast flowing river in the narrow valley could be exploited to provide the power to drive the mill machinery.
Coming from Lancashire, when I researched my family tree it was no surprise to discover that many of my ancestors worked in the cotton industry. My mother started work at 16 in the office of the mill where her mother, aunt and cousin already worked as weavers. So visiting Quarry Bank has a particular resonance for me.
Lancashire cotton workers, 1910 (Picture source: Beautiful Britain website)
On a cold, but reasonably pleasant, winter’s day, the mill was fairly quiet. But as well as visitors to the mill buildings there were a number of people enjoying a walk along the paths through the woods. In the summer it’s also possible to visit the restored gardens created by the Greg family for the house they’d built next to their mill, but it was closed for the winter.
We started our visit by touring the Apprentice House, a short way from the mill, up a hill.
It’s a guided tour, which takes about 40 minutes. The house was built to house “apprentices” – essentially indentured child labour from workhouses and poor families from as far away as Liverpool and London. The children were brought to Styal when they were only 9 years old and made to sign “contracts” that bound them to work a 12 hour day, 6 days a week for Greg, typically until they were 21. Their only day off was Sunday when they had to make two trips on foot to attend services at the Parish church in Wilmslow, about 2 miles away. The guide showed us round the house and talked about the apprentice system and the life of the children and the conditions they lived in. No photos are allowed but there are some pictures on the NT website here.
Just outside the Apprentice House the Trust have recreated the vegetable garden where the vegetables and herbs were grown. These weren’t used to feed the apprentices who had to survive on a thick porridge and “lobscouse” (stew), but to sell in the village shop.
After a meal in the restaurant, we toured the mill building.
The architecture of the mill is very typical of the late 18th and early 19th Centuries when it was built. It has very simple neo-classical lines and a large number of windows to let natural light into the building. The most distinctive features are the tall chimney, that must have been built when the mill converted to steam power, the bell tower and the pediment with the clock face.
Inside the mill there are exhibits providing information on the history of the mill, cotton, textile manufacturing processes, the lives of the mill workers and the Greg family. There are examples of cotton manufacturing machinery starting with hand spinning wheels and hand looms then moving on the powered machinery from the 20th century – including carding machines, spinning machines and looms.
Mule spinning machines at Quarry Bank Mill (Picture source: Wikipedia)
Trust employees give demonstrations of the equipment, and in the spinning and weaving rooms visitors gains an impression of the noise generated even when a small number of machines are operated. Noise levels would have been considerably higher when the factory was still in operation producing cloth. In fact they still do produce yarn and cloth. Some is sent out to customers and tea towels and a few other goods manufactured from the cloth woven in the mill are on sale in the shop, which is an inevitable feature of all “visitor attractions”.
The tour culminates with exhibits about how power was provided to mills, including a chance to see the restored, massive water wheel. There were also some working steam engines (I always find them hypnotic to watch) and a chance to peer up from the bottom of the chimney to see the sky.
The water wheel (Picture source: Quarry Bank Mill website)
The original Mill owner, Samuel Greg, who was a Unitarian, was reputably one of the better employers, but it was all relative. I wouldn’t have fancied working in the noise and dust with amongst lots of unguarded machinery for 12 hours a day, six days a week that his employees, some as young as 9 years old, had to endure. He’s actually mentioned in Engels’ book “The conditions of the working class in 1848”.
The tour around the mill provides an introduction to cotton manufacture and an impression of how the cotton workers used to live and their working conditions during the late 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. The Trust don’t romanticise life in the mill too much. The visit makes you realise just how much working people have achieved since then, mainly by organising and fighting for themselves. And it’s quite sad that a once great industry, that provided jobs for millions of people in the North West of England, has now all but disappeared.