Celia Hart's blog about what's going on in and around her studio.
Art, printmaking, inspirations, gardening, vegetables, hens, landscapes, wild flowers, East Anglia, adventure, travel.

Sunday, 8 August 2010

Lunch at t'mill

It's been a busy few days – a lot of driving and a long way from home, so spending today just pottering about and gardening has been good therapy. On Saturday afternoon Cliff and I were traveling home from Liverpool and we decided to stop at one of the National Trust properties along the route for lunch (after all, a NT card is really a pass to a posh chain of cafes – isn't it?) . We chose Quarry Bank Mill at Style just up the road from Manchester Airport; we had a lovely lunch, had a look around and bought some tea towels in the shop before setting off on the long journey south.

No, wait . . . there's more . . .

It was so much more fascinating than we expected . . .

Quarry Bank Mill is a cotton mill founded in 1784 by Samuel Greg to spin cotton thread, it is now one of Britain's most important industrial heritage sites.

Next to the mill is the house built by Samuel Greg for himself and his wife Hannah. She commissioned some fashionable landscape gardeners to create a terraced garden along the river gorge (I think she deserved a nice garden, after all it was her family contacts who lent Samuel the money to build his mill). Samuel and Hannah's son Robert took over the business and introduced weaving as well as spinning to the mill. The workers lived in a nearby village and many of them were unpaid child 'apprentices'; Robert Greg employed a doctor to look after the children's health – Dr Peter Holland, Elizabeth Gaskell's uncle. Elizabeth knew Mrs Greg and visited her at Quarry Bank – imagine Mrs Gaskell and Mrs Greg taking a walk in the terraced garden and discussing the day to day gossip of life at the mill . . . what an inspiration for a novelist!

'Don't you find such close neighbourhood to the mill
rather unpleasant at times?'

She drew herself up:

'Never. I am not become so fine as to desire to forget the
source of my son's wealth and power. Besides, there is
not such another factory in Milton. One room alone
is two hundred and twenty square yards.'

'I meant that the smoke and the noise--the constant going out
and coming in of the work-people, might be annoying!'

'I agree with you, Mr. Hale!' said Fanny. 'There is a
continual smell of steam, and oily machinery – and the noise
is perfectly deafening.'

From 'North and South', Chapter XX 'Men and Gentlemen' by Elizabeth Gaskell

So, what can you see inside the mill? – basically it's the whole process of spinning and weaving cotton, from a bale of cotton fibres to cloth. There were some fascinating demonstrations of handloom weaving, but the highlight was seeing and hearing the machines at work. The first part of the process was a carding machine which turned a big bale of cotton fibres into a soft fat rope which could then be spun into finer and finer and finer thread. The power behind all of the machines was the massive water wheel – look at the film and you'll see people walking across behind the the wheel. Today the 200 year old water wheel still provides the power for the looms; the noise on the weaving floor was deafening (and not all the looms were in use!) with the rhythmic clatter of shuttles flying back and forth – no wonder mill girls were good at lip-reading!

Oh yes, and the looms are weaving those tea towels.


  1. I live in the next town over from Lowell Massachusetts. We have a National Park devoted to the mills and industrial revolution. The founder of the mills traveled to England and posed as a buyer for the cloth that was being made there.He came home and from memory built the looms and mills. The city of Lowell was later named for him. Our mills employed young girls from surrounding farms. They worked 12hour days in horrible conditions. They were called Mill Girls. I love visiting the Mills, you learn so much about our history.

  2. Celia, this post really got my attention. I am so glad that you all were able to visit the mill, and ... to tell us all about it.

    What a mixed bunch of feelings I have about the history of this place. The gardens are beautiful. The conditions underwhich the girls worked in the mill perhaps not so beautiful.

    I have made note of Quarry Bank Mill, hoping to be able to see it for myself someday.

    (I would also definitely bought some tea towels.)

    Best wishes. xo

  3. Hi and thank you so much for telling me about Lowell and the cotton mills in Massachusetts. I had a look at the websites about Lowell Textile Mills and I see how similar they are to Quarry Bank. Maybe I'll visit one day.

    Hi Francis - this is a fascinating place, in fact there was much more to see (the houses where the workers lived and the apprentices' house for instance) but we didn't have time. Perhaps we'll go back when we're in the area again. The work conditions were very tough - but apparently Quarry Bank was not the worst.


  4. Fascinating stuff... and it makes me realise we don't make good use of our NT cards!

  5. I have visited there so many times as a child. Mostly I remember the oily smell, and the overwhelming, exhilirating noise.

  6. Hi Gina - NT cafes are a great place to break a journey - much more refreshing than a service station!

    Hi Silverpebble - I thought you's probably know it - and yes those power looms are very very noisy!


  7. Just a thimbleful...

    Yes, sobering thoughts! George did his C & G in spinning and weaving in Belfast and he talks about the noise and how all the girls lipread. There were also a lot of injuries from the machinery.In some of the sheds the humidity was so high the girls wore only silk slips which clung to their bodies - the young men thought that was great!!!

  8. Hi Mavis, I think that Quarry Bank Mill closed as a commercial cotton mill in 1959. That must have been quite an experience for George - he must know all about how those machines work.


  9. Those tea-towels would be nice to print on you know.... I did a few some years ago with tea towels and napkins from (whisper it) ASDA, which were probably made in factories in the far east which no doubt still have equally grim working conditions to those of the Victorian mills.
    So at least we've shaped up a bit!

  10. Ah yes, I do love a good NT place though over here there aren't that many so we don't bother with cards. Andrew and I recently went to the Lisburn Linen museum - very cool indeed and I nearly bought stuff but goodness, we are still waiting for the darn house to be finished and I couldn't bare buying one more thing for this seemingly unobtainable home!
    Oh and you MUST print on those tea towels!

  11. It looks a fascinating place, and so interesting to learn about the process of weaving.

    Thanks also for the tip off about the cream teas at the Mill hotel in Sudbury, will try them some time (soon!). My meadows aren't quite that far round as I'm at the Cornard end, but I can walk from home to Rodbridge right along them all - you're right, it's a beautiful walk.

  12. My parents lived for many years in Macclesfield - Quarry Bank was local! Brilliant place to visit.

  13. thanks for the visit! such a huge building. the tea towels look lovely. the noise would be almost unimagineable, i should think.

  14. All those years of living just a stone's throw and I never got round to visiting. It looks fascinating. I have, however, been to the Helmshore Textile Museum in East Lancashire, the first visit was very interesting as a colleague and I had a private tour on a reccy before taking a school trip. It really made the British Social and Economic history that I studied for O level come alive. Also one of the looms "belonged" to my elderly neighbour's sister in law. The building was originally a mill in its own right but now houses machines brought from various other mills in Lancashire so that the whole process of producing the fabric can be seen.

  15. Hello, I really enjoyed your blog about the mills. I grew up in a mill town in Lowell, Massachusetts. If you have time you should check out this website http://www.athm.org/ One of my all time favorite exhibits were the Princess Diana Dresses for Humanity - it was amazing!

  16. I was about to reply to your lovely comment by commenting on that glorious fig post , but then i spotted this. I have never been to Quarry Bank Mill even though I live so near, its about 30 miles away. My son went on a school trip and its a place I have been meaning to visit so thanks for the reminder.
    Thanks for the encouragement. We have the blue Pig on our itinerary list and are off to Harris later. The weather is as grey as it was back home! A bit of blue sky would make all the difference.


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