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Badsey Silk Mill – a short-lived enterprise

At the far end of Mill Lane is a grand building, a former silk mill, now converted into four cottages.  Its time as a silk mill was fairly short-lived:  only some 30 years or so.  So what is its history, how did it come to be built and what caused its decline?

Badsey Silk Mill
Badsey Silk Mill cottages, 2008; photo by Mike Gwynn.

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The English silk industry

Silk comes from the cocoon of the silkworm of the silk.  Raw silk was imported into England from China, India and Turkey to be made into thread and woven.

Silk weaving was introduced to England in the 17th century by the Huguenots in Spitalfields, London. In the 18th Century people worked in their homes to make small silk items such as silk buttons and ribbons.  In the early 18th century John Lombe opened the first silk mill in Derby with his newly invented silk spinning machine. During the 18th century more mills were opened in other areas.

It was when steam power was introduced in the early 19th century that silk factories began to be established in many parts of the country.  At these factories raw silk was processed into thread and then woven using machines.  Badsey’s connection with the silk industry began in 1818.  Silk manufacturing was then seen as a profitable industry.  But, when import tariffs were removed in the 1820s and foreign competition began to be felt, times became tougher.  In 1860, after the signing of a new trade agreement with France, much of the silk industry in the country collapsed, but by that time, silk throwing had already ceased at Badsey.

John Thorp of Coventry buys the old corn mill and builds a silk mill

From at least the 17th century, and probably much earlier, a water corn mill was situated by Badsey Brook. In 1818, Anthony Smith, son of Joseph Smith, sold the mill for £1200 to John Thorp, a silk manufacturer from Coventry; John Thorp immediately set about converting it into a silk mill.  He erected a very large and substantial brick building nearly adjoining the old Mill, on part of the land called the Naite.

The following year, John Thorp obtained a mortgage of £1500 from Robert Lunn of Norton and Lenchwick in order to complete the silk mill.  He was by now in partnership with James Atkins, his future brother-in-law.  According to the historian, George May, silk-throwing had been introduced into Evesham by Thomas Mann in 1792, and a little later it was carried on by Anthony Stratton and subsequently by James Atkins.

Badsey Silk Mill
Deed of 2nd May 1818 - Anthony Smith sells to John Thorp.
Badsey Silk Mill
Deed of 12th January 1819 - mortgage from Robert Lunn.

We know from Sales Particulars when the mill was sold 44 years later that it was built with brick and contained four floors, each 76 feet 8 inches in length and 27 feet 10 inches in breadth and all the floors were well lighted.  The heights of the rooms were:

  • First Floor:  10 feet 7 inches;
  • Second and Third Floors:  9 feet 3 inches;
  • Fourth Floor:  7 feet 9 inches.  

The Mill also contained a washhouse, drying room and making-up room.

One assumes that silk throwing commenced at Badsey later in 1819.  A Master would have been appointed to oversee the running of the mill.  In 1822, John Thorp married Frances Atkins, the sister of his business partner.  They moved to London where the Thorp family had mills.  John Thorp settled in his wife’s home town of Evesham in about 1828, following her death.  In June 1829, his partnership with James Atkins was dissolved.

It was probably then that John Thorp entered into partnership with Wingfield Gee, a silk throwster originally from Cheshire, who had come to Worcestershire a decade or so earlier and worked at Overbury Mill owned by Thorp’s half-brother, Thomas Thorp.  The partnership with Gee was dissolved in May 1831, but Gee remained as Master of Badsey Mill, a position which was held either by Wingfield or one of his sons, Thomas or Wingfield, until the late 1840s.

John Thorp died at his residence, Green Hill Cottage, Evesham, on 26th May 1834.  One week after his death, a Vestry Meeting at Badsey resolved:  “… to reduce Wingfield Gee’s poor rate upon Badsey Silk Mill from £80 per year to £60 … they considered £80 too much, as the corn mill is out of work and also that Mr Gee employs many children who would be chargeable to the parish.”

John Thorp’s “natural daughter”, Elizabeth, aged 15 at the time of his death, was to inherit the mill.  John’s half-brother, Thomas Thorp, took over as trustee and executor of his will; in a codicil, Samuel Thorp, another half-brother, was also named as trustee and executor.  Part of the mortgage was paid off.

The silk throwing process

Throughout its life, Badsey Silk Mill was a “throwing mill” (that is, spinning of silk thread and not silk weaving).  Silk throwing was the name given to a series of operations through which the raw silk was worked to convert it into a weavable state for warp or weft.  It involved five processes:  winding, cleaning, spinning, doubling, and lastly the throwing itself which resulted in a rope-like thread which was both strong and elastic. The raw silk was most likely brought from Coventry which was a major centre of both the spinning and weaving of silk and which was where John Thorp had connections. 

Badsey Silk Mill
                          Throwing or spinning by hand.

Silk throwing was originally a hand process relying on someone turning a wheel (the gate) that twisted four threads while a helper, a child, ran the length of a shade, hooked the threads on stationary pins (the cross) and ran back to start the process again.  The shade would be between 25-35 yards long, so for twisting it was necessary to have a building whose room length was several yards longer.  With room lengths at Badsey of 76 feet 8 inches, this converts to just over 25½ yards.  This does not appear big enough, as a description of the process in Lord Shaftesbury's Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Employment of Children, published 1842, stated: “For twisting it is necessary to have what are designated shades which are buildings of at least 30 or 35 yards in length, of two or more rooms, rented separately by one, two or four men having one gate and a boy called a helper...”

The illustrations below appeared in The Penny Magazine, Vol XII, No 711, published in 1843, so give an idea of the type of machinery in use at the time.

Badsey Silk Mill
                     Winding machine.
Badsey Silk Mill
         Throwing machine.
Badsey Silk Mill
                                 Doubling by hand.

In the 19th century, the process became more mechanised.  The introduction of the steam engine in the late 18th century put an end to sheer manual work and allowed massive productivity gains in the textile industry.  When the mill was put up for sale in 1863, the machinery was also sold.  It comprised:

  • Two metal spinning mills with 238 spindles each, made by Ritson of Manchester
  • Two spinning mills with wood fitting
  • Four throwing mills with two sets of ten reels each
  • Two short Swift engines
  • Three long Canton Swift engines with 40 swifts* each, one ditto incomplete
  • Four short Swift engines with 90 swifts each
  • Doubling frames, trams, shaft bobbins, wood patterns of the driving wheels, spare wheels, boxes, etc

* The winding machine consisted of a series of swifts placed side by side and revolving on their own axes quite independent of each other.

In his book, Silk Throwing and Waste Silk Spinning, 1903, published in London by Scott, Greenwood & Son, Hollins Rayner gives a very detailed description of the processes involved. The illustrations below from the book may give some idea of what the machinery may have looked like when it was sold in 1863.

Badsey Silk Mill
                  80 spindle cone rover.
Badsey Silk Mill
                                        100 spindle-cap spinning frame.
Badsey Silk Mill
                                                        Bobbin reel.
Badsey Silk Mill
                                       Doubler Winder.

In his book, Silk Throwing and Waste Silk Spinning, 1903, published in London by Scott, Greenwood & Son, Hollins Rayner gives a very detailed description of the processes involved.  The following illustrations from the book may give some idea of what the machinery may have looked like when it was sold in 1863.

The Silk workers

The mill was worked chiefly by child labour with some children as young as eight employed.  In March 1822, one Sarah Belcher, told a Public Enquiry that "she was sent by the Governor and Guardians of the Poor of North Littleton to Badsey Silk Mills to serve Mr Atkins in the business of silk-winding, receiving 1s 7½d from the said master and 10½d from the Parish of North Littleton; later she was paid 2s 6d a week until she was hurt in the Mill". 

Bentley's Directory of 1841 states:  “A little south of the church stands a silk mill, which gives employment to about 70 of the villagers.”  Wingfield Gee & Son and Thomas Gee were listed as silk throwsters.

In the 1841 census for Badsey, only one silk throwster (Thomas Gee) and three silk winders were recorded.  The silk winders were 65-year-old Judith Mustin and her 40-year-old daughter, Martha.  Judith died in 1844 and, by 1851, Martha was living on her own, described as a “Pauper formerly employed in silk mills”.  The third silk winder was 16-year-old Elizabeth Hartwell.

So where were all the other silk workers?  The person in charge of Badsey Silk Mill in 1841 was Thomas Gee who was recorded as living there with his wife and four servants.  Thomas had married a short time before the census.  His new bride was Sarah Sophia Sheaf who it so happened was the daughter of Thomas Sheaf, the Badsey census enumerator.  The census of 1841 was the first to list the names of every individual.  It took place at a time when investigations into working conditions in mines and factories were taking place, which resulted in the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Employment of Children being published the following year.  This was one of the most important documents in British industrial history. Children were on average five times cheaper to employ than adults, and were expected to work the same hours.  Comprising thousands of pages of oral testimony (sometimes from children as young as five), the report’s findings shocked society and swiftly led to legislation to secure minimum safety standards in mines and factories, as well as general controls on the employment of children.  Was Thomas Sheaf concerned that if he recorded children as silk workers on the census then he might cause problems for his new son-in-law?

We do not know who the enumerator was in Wickhamford in 1841, but he was less wary of recording the names of silk workers.  Nine people were recorded with the occupation of silk throwster, some of them children.  It was just a short walk across the fields for the Wickhamford folks to get to Badsey Silk Mill.  Four members of the Sharp family were employed at the mill:  18-year-old Ann, 15-year-old Charlotte, 10-year-old Eliza and 8-year-old Harriet.  The sisters were living on their own as their father had died just a month before; Ann and Charlotte’s mother had died in 1824 and Eliza and Harriet’s mother had died in 1835.  In addition, 20-year-old James Freeman, 16-year-old Caroline Falkener, 15-year-old Mary Rogers, 14-year-old Phebe Howes and 8-year-old William Cook, were all employed as silk throwsters.

One Badsey girl who very probably worked at the silk mill in the 1840s was Caroline Knight.  In 1850 she married William Beechey, an agricultural labourer, who was from Blockley.  By 1851 she was working as an operative silk throwster at the silk mill in Blockley.  

By 1851, no one in either of the villages was recorded as working in the silk industry, but that is thought to have been because there was temporary pause in activities whilst a new proprietor was found.  Certainly by the autumn of 1851, silk throwing had begun again, although is thought to have lasted for less than a year.  During this period, some boys were controversially recruited from Tewkesbury.  A court case accused Thomas Bolland Langley, who was then Master of the mill, of poaching a number of boys from the mill at Tewkesbury belonging to Humphrey Brown, MP.  The manager of the Tewkesbury mill said:  “I consider loss has been sustained by the plaintiff, the absence of the boys putting a stop to a considerable portion of the machinery.  The wages differ according to the nature of the employment.  On Friday we finish the work and commence on the Saturday.  If any of the hands leave before then, they are paid for the time they have been at work but, if discharged during the week for want of work, they are paid the full week.  The terms of contract are from week to week.”

One of the boys was 13-year-old Henry Kirkham, listed in the 1851 census as a silk winder, as were his younger sisters, 11-year-old Ann and 9-year-old Sarah.  Henry remained in the textile industry.  The 1891 census found him living in Loughborough doing frame work for knit and hosiery.

The beginning of the end

A number of events happened towards the end of the 1840s which perhaps hastened the end of the silk industry in Badsey.

Henry Thorp, the husband of Elizabeth Thorp who had inherited the mill from her father when she came of age, died in March 1847.  Henry was also Elizabeth’s first cousin and had been in the silk business all his life, firstly managing the Thorp family mills in Macclesfield, then in London, and then had come to Overbury in the mid 1840s (possibly when Wingfield Gee left).  Elizabeth was left a widow at the age of 28 with three young children.

The following year, Elizabeth’s father-in-law (and uncle), Thomas Thorp, died in January 1848. It was he who had been the principal executor and trustee of his half-brother’s will.

It was about this time that the Gee family left Badsey, Wingfield Gee Senior and Junior moving to Derby to work in a silk mill and Thomas Gee to become an innkeeper in Cleeve Prior.  After the long reign of the Gee family, it seemed difficult to get a suitable person to manager the mill.  An announcement in the press of August 1849 indicated that a partnership between Swarbrook and Pitt, Badsey, Worcestershire, silk throwsters, was to be dissolved.  Neither of those names are familiar ones in Badsey, so their association with the village was very short-lived.

A report in the Worcestershire Chronicle of 12th March 1851 of arson attacks in December 1850 spoke of the first fire being at Mr Appelbee’s farm at the Silk Mills. Mr Appelbee owned the adjoining land and it is assumed that he was perhaps using the mill for storage.

By the autumn of 1851 the mill was operational again with Thomas Bolland Langley installed as Master.  An ordained Church of England minister, he was a most unlikely candidate to take on the running of a silk mill.  During his short time at the Mill he was accused of forgery, of poaching mill workers and defaulting on payment.  As reported in the local press in September 1852, Langley and his partner, Melen, had already “decamped without discharging the amount”.  The Reverend gentleman, who then disappeared, was probably the last Master of Badsey Mill.

The demise of the Silk Mill

Badsey Silk Mill
                        Advertisement in The Coventry Herald, September 1852.

After the unfortunate period when Thomas Bolland Langley had been in charge of the mill, it was now necessary for Elizabeth Thorp (or Stratton as she now was, having married again in 1851) to find a new Master.  On 24th September 1852, an advertisement was placed in The Coventry Herald advertising Badsey Silk Mills to be let.  The desirable premises were described as “in good repair, and well stocked with modern machinery, in excellent working order, and are situated contiguous to the Oxford, Worcester and Wolverhampton Railway.”

A year later, in October 1853, the young silk mill owner died, aged only 34.  As far as we know, no one had taken on the letting.  Certainly by December 1854, the premises were no longer being used as a mill.  A notice in The Worcestershire Chronicle of 3rd January 1855 described a Ball in aid of the Patriotic Fund which was held on 29th December in the Silk Mill.  As around a hundred people attended, it was obviously no longer used as a working factory.  One of the providers was Robert Mansell Stratton, the widowed husband of Elizabeth Thorp.

Billings’ Directory of 1855 confirms that the mill had not been operational for some time:  “… the silk factory has been closed for some time, but work is now about to be resumed … by Mr Isaac Gee.”  There is no evidence that this plan ever materialised.  Isaac Gee was the nephew of Wingfield Gee.  He had been working as a silk throwster at the time of his marriage in 1850 in Derby, but was described as a clerk in the 1851 census and as a tea dealer in the 1861 census.

At the time of Elizabeth Stratton’s death in 1853, she had two surviving children – Eliza aged 14 and Frank aged 11 – who became heirs to the mill.  In 1860, the Mill and house was unoccupied but the land was being used by William Warmington and Samuel Butler.  Eliza Thorp mortgaged her half share in the property to Thomas Dyke, a carpenter of Salford Priors, Warwickshire, in order to release £200.  

On 12th October 1863, a few weeks after Frank Thorp’s 21st birthday, he and Eliza, arranged for Badsey Mill to be auctioned at the Northwick Arms Hotel, Bengeworth.  The mill had lain dormant for a good many years, probably since the death of their mother ten years previously.  The purchaser was William Parker who paid £490 for the mill.  The conveyance was formally signed on 25th January 1864.  The adjoining orchard was sold to the Dean and Chapter of Christchurch.

Badsey Silk Mill
Abstract of Title of Eliza Thorp and Frank Thorp to Badsey Silk Mill.
Badsey Silk Mill
Deed of 25th January 1864 - sale to William Parker.
Badsey Silk Mill

William Parker wasted no time in converting the building into residential accommodation as the date of 1864 and name plaque on the wall testify.  The short-lived silk industry was at an end in Badsey and a new chapter in the mill’s history was about to begin.

Maureen Spinks, November 2020 

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