This narration describes what was once the most powerful and dominating industry in the North West of England. In this respect, it describes the growth and development of an industry which historically "shaped" the towns and people of that region.
What will be revealed is a discourse concerning an industry that made Manchester and its surrounding districts to be the way they were in the Nineteenth and the early part of the Twentieth Century.
The old advert you'll see, below, indicates the erstwhile extent of this industry; as will the Mills left standing in and around Manchester, which are now mainly turned to other usages.
All this industry has long ago faded away into history. However, as you'll often find suggested in the various narrations this website offers: life can only be understood backward, and people can only be understood by the past that shaped them.
Manchester has a special place in world history: it became the first industrialised city. This distinction (or disadvantage? - according to one's point of view) grew from the seed fibres produced by a tropical and subtropical plant of the genus Gossypium, belonging to the mallow family Malvaceae (commonly known for practical purposes as cotton) and also the necessary mills which cleaned, spun and wove this product into a finished form.
Two main views of Manchester emerged in the period of its first industrialisation: One we could call the "Horrified" and the other, the "Approving". We can examine these two views later (in Part Two) and then decide if, perhaps, another view - somewhere in between - could exist.
However, although the title of this narration seems to allow the word "Manchester" to be dominant, our attention ought, in the beginning, to concentrate on the words "around Manchester" - for, it seems, the first Mills arose in that setting.
If we glance at a map indicating the rise and fall of the land in the area of our interest, we'd soon notice to the north and east and sweeping around to the south-east of Manchester, the embracing foothills of the Pennines. These form a series of cloughs and valleys along whose natural channels the waters - draining from the high uplands - resulted in fast flowing streams. At suitable places along these water-courses grew the first mills; happening many years before the subsequent harnessing of steam released mill-building from its original site dependency; thereby allowing the nineteenth century's massive sructures to spread and dominate the towns clustered around the central core of cotton commerce - 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 offered map which indicates our route. The map (whose use has been allowed by kind permission of Ordnance Survey) also indicates the area which is the concern of this narrative.
If we stepped into a car outside, say, Manchester's Town Hall, and then drove southwards along Princess Street and then into Brook Street - driving for about ten minutes or so - depending on the traffic, of course - we'd come to the start of a road known as the A34.
Along this route, we'd continue in our southerly direction to the outskirts of Manchester; then to reach Wimslow and that delightful aspects of the Pennine foothills known as Alderly 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 since we left the Town Hall - again depending on the traffic and the speed permitted.
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 Alderly Edge.
Here, we shall see something special: for not only did it become, in part, a cotton town, but also maintained itself as a major centre of silk-weaving; whose activity became almost submerged in what became the dominant activity of "King Cotton" growing around it and particularly to the north.
Yet, the first mentioned activity is one worthy of our travel. This for two reasons: the first because it adds another dimension to our view of the industry we're considering. Secondly - and as suggested - 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 slope to where it reaches the bridge over the River Dane, which we cross to enter Mill Street on the other side of the bridge.
At the round-about, 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. over its railed parapet is a view 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", located 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 first realised 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. This brings us back to the bridge on which we're now standing; because - all 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 whose length occupies Mill Street on the opposite bank of the River Dane - and, for obvious reasons, the mill is named "Dane Bridge Mill".
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, mainly 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. 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. 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 that silk has always been a highly prized material. This is 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 the valued material arose because of its enormously attractive appearance and also the fact of it being comfortable to the skin and having a capacity to retain the wearer's body warmth (a very useful attribute in the days of draughty halls and 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.
Afterwards came the almost obsessive impulse of Henry VIII to have his daily attire lavishly embroidered with silk. This impulse emerged in his daughter, Elizabeth I, with her desire for silk stockings and gloves. This royal propensity towards silk also emerged in Queen Victoria's desire to have her railway carriage lined with the treasured material. So - from very early times - silk production was a "right, royal and profitable business" (to coin a phrase) and it's no wonder a town like the one we're visiting sought to "take up the trade" ( so to speak).
But to get back to the source. As we previously noted, the original technique of silk production developed in China, which also gives an interesting story connected with its "discovery". It tells that 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, that person noticed a long "silk thread" pulling out from the cocoon. Thereby, and from this chance discovery, started the "growth" of silk and the growth of the town we're visiting. (All originating from a grub falling into a cup of tea - would you believe?)
However: be that as it may or as it may not be. Let's get back to the less speculative and more serious actualities of silk production, which the story of the Princess and her cup of tea offers 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 then to immerse them in hot water. The workers on the right are involved in drawing the filaments from the cocoon into threads.
(Note: The photo does not relate to Congleton but to another centre. Congleton obtained its silk one stage beyond this process. However, the photo is offered to show the beginning of the process.)
A fully mechanised process attaches the "caught" silk thread to a machine or device which pulls the thread continuously from its encasement and wind 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, the obvious question is: how did Congleton come into the picture?
As mentioned previously: its area possessed the attraction of 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. 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 originating in about 1750.
However, the seminal influence connected with silk and the associated mills arose from the influx of Huguenots escaping religious persecution in France, to settle in various places in England. Soon after their arrival in the early eighteenth century, they found their way to Macclesfield - eight miles north of Congleton. Discovering the power-source and communications Congleton could offer, the enterprising Huguenots did the short eight mile journey southwards; to instigate their profitable and desirable industry in another centre additional to that in Macclesfield.
The main silk-goods produced in the Congleton we're visiting eventually involved ribbons, hat trimmings, gloves and various silk cloths, all of which represented a vigourous trade.
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 - i.e. recession. The affects of this at that time is indicated by another situation familiar to subsequent times and even up to now - i.e. 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 - since 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: this 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. However, they're no longer used for their original purpose - as is the case of the one we've just seen from the bridge. Nevertheless - and with our return to the car park and therefore our transport - we can finish our visit by driving to another mill constructed in the mid 1800s when trade began to "pick up". Our special interest in this one is that it's still acting as a centre for connections with the old silk-trade.
We'll drive out of the car park and turning right at the Mill Street rounabout we enter a road with a name fitting to the royal connection we made with silk - "Mountbatten Way". After a short drive along its length, we reach another roundabout where we can turn left and continue along this direction for a short distance to a place known as Foundry Bank. Here we find towering before us is Victoria Mill. It 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. We can now park our car and have a good look at and around its building.
(The mill and a view of the shop's doorway located at the far end of the building)
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.
But now we've seen how silk-mills grew independantly from the dominating cotton whose original centre we'll visit next. This means returning along the A34 to the place in Manchester where we started our trip to Congleton. When we arrive back, we'll try to recapture the time when the thundering clank and hiss of steam grew all around - to eventually become silent...
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