The Mills in and around Congleton

by Karen Briddock

If we glance at a map indicating the rise & fall of the land around the north east of Congleton and sweeping around to the south east of Manchester, the embracing foothills of the Pennines, we'd soon notice, a series of cloughs & valleys along whose natural channels the waters, draining from the high uplands, result in fast flowing streams. At suitable places along these water courses grew the first mills; this happened many years before the subsequent harnessing of steam released the mills from their original water dependency. Steam power allowed what became the nineteenth century's massive structures of industry to spread and almost fill the towns clustered around the central core of cotton - which Manchester became.

But let's go to a typical place where the first mills may have been seen. To do this, we can glance at the map which indicates our route and shows the area which is the concern of this narrative.

Manchester MapIf we stepped into a car outside Manchester's Town Hall and drove southwards along Princess Street and then into Brook Street - driving for about ten minutes or so - depending on the traffic - we'd come to the start of the A34 road.

Along this, we'd continue in our southerly direction to the outskirts of Manchester; then to reach Wilmslow and that delightful aspects of the Pennine foothills known as Alderley Edge. But although tempted to stay in an area of outstanding visual attraction, our journey has another twelve or so more miles to go, we need to continue further along the A34 for a drive lasting less than an hour.

Our stop will be at Congleton, in Cheshire, a medium size town of about 35,000 people, nestling at the foot of those undulating line of hills we saw to our left as we travelled from Alderley Edge.

Here, we see something special, for not only did it become, in part, a cotton town, but also established itself as a major centre of silk throwing & weaving; an activity which became almost submerged in what became the dominant activity of 'King Cotton' which gathered around it - particularly to the north. Yet, the mentioned major activity is one worthy of our travel. This for two reasons; the first being it adds another dimension to our view of all the industry we're considering; secondly because places like Congleton is where the first mills grew.

But now we're approaching the town of our proposed visit; so we'll leave the continuation of the A34 and, as we near the main part of Congleton, turn left into a road named Rood Hill. We then follow its downward incline to cross the bridge over the River Dane and enter Mill Street on the other side of the bridge.

At the roundabout, immediately head, we'll turn right and then right again, to enter a convenient car park. Here, we'll leave our transport and take a look around the town.

Our first stroll takes us back the way we came and to the bridge we crossed. This offers a view over its railed parapet of the river flowing swiftly towards us from a north easterly direction. If we followed its course, upstream, we'd come to a place called 'Three Shires Head' - near the high uplands of Shining Tor - where the counties of Cheshire, Derbyshire and Staffordshire meet. This is where the River Dane tumbles swiftly from the high moorlands around the west of Buxton. In its tumbling waters, we'd see the fact known since the first people dipped their hand into the first stream and felt the potential power of the water's swift flow. And places offering this source of constant energy became the sites of ancient water mills.

However, mills must be worked by people having a convenient place to live and a surrounding area in which their products can be directly sold or transported to other markets. And this brings us back to the bridge on which we're now standing; because - around this - we'd see the combinations of river, roads, nearby canals (in this case, the Macclesfield Canal) and convenient places to erect dwellings and mills which allowed the type of town we're visiting to grow as we can see it did. So, let's have a look at one of its mills, built around the mid 1800s.

We'll do this by leaving the bridge over the river Dane and walking in the direction of Rood Hill and then crossing the bottom of its slope to enter a place just beyond the bridge, called Royle Street. Looking back from our position near the end of this street gives us a view of the bridge and a view of our first mill - which, for obvious reasons, is named 'Dane Bridge Mill' - and whose length occupies the opposite bank of the River Dane.

From its size and time of origin, we can assume it never needed to directly depend on water-power to drive its machinery - and, no doubt, in its beginning, used steam power. However, around the time of the early 1800s, we'd see at least four mills in the immediate vicinity - all using river power - and one of these stood on the site occupied by the later and much larger edifice of our immediate interest.

Anyway, we've seen what we need to see to give us the 'feel' of a mill. But what we need now to do is go further back in time to concentrate on the original distinctive feature of the town (silk production) which attracted our visit in the first place. And as we return to the car, I'll fill in some details you may not know (but if you do know, you may be interested enough to hear a repeat).

One fact you will know is silk has always been a highly prized material; testified by the long, ancient and arduous road, known as the 'Silk Road', used over many centuries by innumerable travellers and merchants in their journeys to and from China. All their effort to obtain this material arose because of its enormous attraction in appearance; and also the fact of it being comfortable to the skin and its capacity to retain the wearer's body warmth (a very useful attribute in the days of draughty castles).

In this country, the evidence of silk being treasured from early times has been found in all sorts of testimonies. For instance; in the seventh century, the Northumbrian monk - the Venerable Bede - in his 'Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation' - mentioned the fact that an Abbot, named Benedict, brought back two silk cloaks on his return from his visit to Rome. And these, it seems, excited the later King Alfred to the extent of paying the price of a large estate by the River Ware, in order to obtain their finery from the subsequent ecclesiastical owners.

Also, King John had a great propensity towards silk, to the extent that a list of possessions compiled just after his death - in 1216 - indicated he had 185 silk garments stowed away in Corfe Castle.

And afterwards came the almost obsessional impulse of Henry VIII to have his attire lavishly embroidered with silk; and the similar leaning of his daughter, Elizabeth I, towards a desire for silk stockings and gloves. And even later, the royal propensity towards silk emerged in Queen Victoria's desire to have her railway carriage lined with this treasured material. So - from early times - silk production was a 'right, royal and profitable business' and it is no wonder a town like the one we're visiting sought to 'take up the trade'.

But to get back to the source. As we previously noted, the original technique of silk production developed in China, which also produced an interesting story connected with its 'discovery'. This tells the first inkling of the silkworm's possibilities happened when a cocoon fell from a mulberry tree into a cup of tea being enjoyed by a Chinese Princess. When an attendant attempted to withdraw the offending item from the hot tea, he or she noticed a long 'silk thread' pulling out from the cocoon; and thereby, from this chance discovery, started the growth of silk and the growth of the town we're visiting. It's unbelievable that all this started from a grub falling into a cup of tea?

However, be that as it may or as it may not be, and as fanciful as it may seem, let's get back to the less speculative and more serious actualities of silk production, in which the story of the Princess and her cup of tea gives an important clue.

As implied in the story, to obtain the silk thread, the cocoon is immersed in very hot water. This immediately kills the grub and dissolves the glue like secretion (sericin) so that the thread can be withdrawn from the protective cocoon in a continuous strand. The offered picture shows this first process, with the lass on the left collecting the cocoons from a 'broom' (where the grubs had been cultivated) and immersing them in hot water. The workers on the right are involved in drawing the filaments from the cocoon into a thread.

(The photo does not relate to Congleton as Congleton obtained its silk one stage beyond this process. However, you may be interested to see the beginning of the process the photo depicts.)

But to continue, the fully mechanised process attaches the 'caught' silk thread to a machine or device which pulls the thread continuously from its encasement and winds it onto a reel and then transfer the reeled thread to a bobbin. Each 'good quality' cocoon gives something like an amazing 300 to 400 metres of thread. The thickness and strength of thread can be adjusted by twisting the desired number of silk filaments together.

The weaving process is then a matter of having a machine or device (a loom) capable of holding a number of threads in parallel (the 'warp') and weaving through this a continuous thread (the 'weft') backwards and forwards to make the fabric. The idea of this interlacing probably developed from the method of making reed baskets and mats. But this is just a speculation on my part, which, however, seems reasonable to assume?

So, now, the obvious question is; how did Congleton come into the picture?

As mentioned previously: the attraction the area possessed was in its potential water power; and as we've already seen, the town had an ample supply of this in its main river and the streams and brooks flowing into that river. And if we'd made a visit in, say, the mid 1820s, we'd see as many as twenty three mills in and around the town, all busily working and powered by water wheels up to twenty feet in diameter, some of these going back in origin to about 1750.

But the seminal influence regarding silk and the use of mills for that purpose came from the influx of Huguenots escaping religious persecution in France, to settle in various places in England. After their arrival and in the early eighteenth century, they found their way to Macclesfield, eight miles to the north of Congleton. With the power source and communications Congleton could offer, it takes hardly any speculation to suggest the enterprising Huguenots, with their knowledge and skills derived from the 'silk centre' of France, would soon do the short eight mile journey southwards; to instigate this profitable and desirable industry in another centre additional to that in nearby Macclesfield.

Arising from its introduction, the main silk goods eventually produced in the town of our visit involved ribbons, hat trimmings, gloves and various silk cloths, all of which, it seems, represented a vigorous trade. And an idea of how this trade eventually began to dominate the town is indicated by the Congleton manufacturers concern about proposed relaxation on the importation of cheaper finished goods. At a meeting held in Congleton Town Hall, in 1826, they vociferously stated that out of a population estimated at nearly 10,000, almost 7,000 had employment in silk and its associated trades, whose jobs could be seriously affected by the proposed relaxation.

This fear expressed by the silk manufactures soon became reality; and the town experienced a situation familiar to people of subsequent times and even up to now; recession, and the affects of this at that time is indicated by another situation familiar to subsequent times and now; demonstrations.

During the particular recession of our concern, thirty mills in and around the town stopped work; and, in March 1829, a gathering of something like 7,000 workers, including men, women and children, walked the streets of the town, carrying large banners, some of which stated, 'Work and Starve - down with Free Trade'. All this in response to the drastic reduction in employment and the wages of those still in employment. So we can well imagine the scene, as it's one familiar to our own time.

In response to the growing competition from cheap importations, the mill owners found the adoption of steam power effected reductions in costs. For instance, steam power offered a reduction of nearly 50 per cent in labour costs and, with the expansion of its use, the nearby town of Biddulph became an important and convenient source of coal for the converted mills. By the late 1840s, nearly 60 percent of power in the immediate district came from steam. Yet even so, many smaller mills involved in the more delicate silk products held on to water power because it seemed more suited to the finer processing silk demanded.

So this is more or less the story of Congleton as a silk production centre. A look around the town will show many mills still standing but no longer used for their original purpose, as in the case of the one we've just seen. But now, with our return to the car park and therefore our transport, we can finish our visit by driving to another mill constructed, again, in the mid 1800s, when trade began to 'pick up'. And the special interest in this one is that it's still acting as a centre for connections with the old trade of silk.

To see this, we'll leave the car park and, turning right at the Mill Street roundabout, enter a road with a name fitting to the earlier royal connection we made with silk, 'Mountbatten Way'. After a short drive along its length, we come to another roundabout where we turn left and continue in this direction for a short distance to a place known as Foundry Bank; where, towering before us, is Victoria Mill. This represents a consortium still connected with the old products, but without the rumble of water wheel and the clank and hiss of steam to manufacture its wares. Here, we can park our car and have a good look at and around the building.

Victoria Mill DoorVictoria Mill(The photo shows the mill and a view of the shop's doorway)

As you can see from the sign above the doorway, one of its functions is to store and sell a wide variety of goods; and also offer a shop wherein visitors can buy whatever they may fancy from its selections. A purchase of some silk ribbons, perhaps, could serve as a useful remembrance of what was once the great trade of Congleton.



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