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Newsletter 89, Summer 2010 © Hampshire Mills Group

The Stroud Valley Textile Mills - trip report by Jeff Hawksley



Dunkirk Mill


On Thursday 20th May 2010,  a group of HMG members went to visit mills in the area around Stroud in Gloucestershire.  For mill enthusiasts, and those interested in industrial archaeology, this is the place to go.  Five mills were seen during the day and all within a circle of radius no larger than 3 miles. Time travelling between mills was minimal and, thanks to our hosts who gave so much of their expertise and knowledge, the time spent at the mills was used to the best advantage.


St. Mary’s Mill, Chalford.

The first surprise on approaching this mill was having the gates at the crossing over the railway opened by a crossing keeper.  It appears that this is an obligation written in when the railway was first built all those years ago and it continues to this day.  Once over the crossing the group was met by Ian Mackintosh of the Stroudwater Textile Trust and Anthony Burton, the well known industrial archaeologist (author of “Remains of a Revolution” and other works).   Ian Mackintosh gave up the rest of the day to accompany the group around all the mills and to explain their every detail.

St.  Mary’s is a very pretty mill nestling in the valley and there have been a succession of buildings and trades on the site for many centuries; certainly there had been fulling mills where heavy wooden hammers would have been worked by a waterwheel.  These hammered the woven cloth to felt the fibres together and so produce a much closer texture.  Some time in the 19th century the old-fashioned fulling stocks were replaced by rotary milling machines which performed the same function but worked on a continuous basis.  One such machine, built by J. and H. Ferrabee at their Phoenix Iron Works in Thrupp is on display at the mill.

The building visited was built around 1820 as a textile mill and it has a fine breast-shot waterwheel inside.  This worked until 1946 when electric motors were installed.  There is also a fine two-cylinder compound steam engine by Tangye of Birmingham which, it is thought, was installed in 1904.  By this time the building was occupied by the Chalford Stick Company who employed 124 people making walking sticks; this continued, apart from a break during the Second World War, for many years.  From St. Mary’s it was but a short journey to:-

Stanley Mill, Stonehouse.

At one time this had been a large textile mill and very important historically as one of the early fireproof mills with iron frames. At first it had 5 waterwheels “equal to 400 horse-power” but even as far back as 1833 the waterpower was augmented by a steam engine of 40 H.P.   In 1867 a new steam engine was installed and the following year a turbine of 80 H.P.  Clearly, with all this power, a large number of machines were in use.  Today just two remain, a carding machine and a Mule -  Frame spinning machine. Carding machines straighten and align the wool fibres in readiness for spinning.   Initially this was done by hand by drawing the fibres between two boards faced with wire bristles.   Carding engines mechanised the process by drawing the fibres between a succession of rollers also faced with wire bristles. After carding, the prepared fibres would have been fed to the Mule which draws out the fibres and twists them to produce a strong yarn suitable for weaving into cloth.  We were fortunate to meet Ken Staddon who came along specially to demonstrate these two machines and to explain their action.  Ken had been the manager at the mill when it was working and it was a great privilege to meet a man of such experience. As the years pass by such men will be increasingly difficult to find. The mill finally closed in 1989. Another brief drive brought us to:-


Egypt Mill, Nailsworth.

Egypt Mill, Nailsworth


 This mill had originally been used for cloth manufacture but, towards the end of its life, it was converted to a corn mill, It is now a hotel and restaurant and it was here that we had lunch. Two breast-shot waterwheels remain one of which still has the transmission to two pairs of stones located in the reception area on the first floor.  The drive is taken from a ring gear with inserted wooden teeth;  this was thought to be unusual because, by the time ring gears came into use, cast iron was being widely used. However, see later…. a pinion took power from the ring gear, through a pair of step-up gears to a horizontal layshaft and from here the stones were driven by bevel gears.  None of the machinery works but it is well preserved and nicely presented behind glass screens.  (And lunch was jolly good, too. Ed.)

Ian Macintosh describes the exterior
of Gigg Mill.     photo by SMV


Gigg Mill, Nailsworth.

Originally a fulling mill with a mill pond and waterwheel by 1808 it was supplying cloth to the East India Company.  Now it is home to an important collection of artefacts and textile machines, primarily looms.  Robin Mitchell led us through all the steps to weave yarn into cloth starting with a simple model to show how the longitudinal threads (the warps) had to be lifted alternately by an arrangement of shafts to make a gap through which the crossways threads (the weft) could pass.  From these simple beginnings of over-and-under a progression was followed to more complex arrangements to produce patterned cloth. 

“Work experience” for some members took place on a small demonstration loom with eight shafts.  Each shaft, when raised, lifted a selection of warp threads and by lifting one, or several together, in sequence, a pattern could be produced. Teamwork required two people to work the shafts, one to pass the weft from left to right and another,  at the other side, to pass it back again from right to left.  One person worked the reed to beat the newly inserted weft tight up against its predecessor and one to read the instruction book and call out the sequence for the shaft lifters.  Our team’s performance had all the characteristics of a Whitehall farce and it was then easy to appreciate the benefits of the Dobby loom which had a mechanical device to lift the shafts in the correct sequence automatically.

The Dobby loom at the mill is a cottage type loom from around 1850.  It is manually operated,  has John Kay’s flying shuttle for one-man operation and the “drop box”,  invented by John Kay’s son Robert, which allowed the weaver to switch between a number of shuttles.  If these were loaded with different coloured threads extra opportunities to vary the patterns became available by weaving in different coloured wefts. The final development was the fully powered loom and their example is a Dobcroft loom built by Hutchinson and Hollingworth of Bolton in 1950. This is clever mechanism at its very best.


Demonstration of the Fulling Stocks at
Dunkirk Mill.      photo by SMV

Finally to: Dunkirk Mill, Nailsworth.

This had been a large scale textile mill and, although much of it has now been converted to  apartments  some areas have been preserved with their original waterwheels.  Keith Browne was on hand to welcome us and to show us around.  A fine waterwheel in one area, reputed to be the largest waterwheel in Gloucestershire, is in full working order and was operated for us during our visit.  It is an overshot wheel built on the suspension principle and has ring gears at both ends, each with inserted wooden teeth. At the left-hand end a pinion meshing with the ring gear drives a layshaft via a step-up gear.  A teazle gig mill is driven from this layshaft.  It is not known whether a separate machine was driven from the ring gear at the right-hand end but it is generally accepted that it is very difficult to link the two pinions together.


The teazle gig mill has a set of rollers covered with rows of teazle heads and its purpose is to raise the nap on the cloth after it has been fulled.  We were able to see this machine at work preparing a length of green billiard cloth.  Maybe this gives some idea of the texture produced.  Adjacent to the gig mill there is a rotary milling machine and there are plans to couple this up to the layshaft so that it too can be worked by the waterwheel.

After raising the nap on the teazle gig mill the cloth has to be sheared to clip any stray fibres and leave a smooth even surface.  In the old days this was done by hand by highly skilled craftsmen with huge heavy shears.  The craftsmen were also highly paid and so, as usual, a machine was developed to do the job mechanically. They have a shearing machine in the mill with a rotary cutter armed with knives arranged in a spiral.  Nowadays this form of cutter would be described as “like a lawn mower” but it’s story is more interesting.  When Edward Budding saw one of these machines he realised that the principle could be put to good use for cutting lawns.  Budding was the manager at John Ferrabee’s Ironworks at Thrupp and together they began production of lawn mowers in 1830.

In another part of the mill they have two more waterwheels each with ring  gears with inserted wooden teeth.  Remember the surprise at finding such gears at Egypt Mill?  It is now clear that they were quite common in the mills along the Stroud Valley.  Another unusual feature:  the two waterwheels can be coupled together by a friction clutch; further, the flow of water, and hence the power produced, was controlled by a centrifugal governor - this is a sophisticated arrangement.  It is clear how that water power was important for the mills in this area and they continued to be used, in association with steam engines, well into the 20th century.

      All this in just one day.

                                                                                      Jeff Hawksley     24th May 2010

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