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The earliest known photograph of Trings Silk Mill (undated).
The building’s upper two stories were removed c.1898.


Wendy Austin



Historic England list entry.

Tring Silk Mill Business Park



As people drive down Brook Street from Tring, often caught up in traffic congestion, very few notice the industrial complex on the left-hand side. Admittedly, it is not in any way remarkable or attractive, but the high walls conceal a fascinating story.

The old Silk Mill buildings have witnessed individual tales of enterprise, endeavour, unhappiness, and even despair. In later years, as Victorian values slipped into memory, the picture brightened as the premises saw many changes of activity, including a contribution to the war effort.

A silk morning dress with ruched violet ribbon trim and an elaborate lace collar, 1859.

The history of Tring Silk Mill is varied and touches on many different subjects, and I hope that all readers will find something that interests them. This edition has been slightly revised since the first printing in 2008, and I am particularly grateful to Ian Petticrew for his editing skills.

The following individuals and organisations all contributed greatly, and in various ways, to the preparation of this book, and I acknowledge with thanks the contributions of Mike Bass, Marjorie Clarke, Alec Clements, Jill Fowler, Len Major, Linda McGhee, Ann Reed, Alan and Tracey Taylor, Shirley Thornhill, William A.Wells, and Martin Wheeler. The staff of Tring Library, the Hertfordshire Record Office, the Aylesbury Local Studies Centre, Alexandra MacCulloch of Buckinghamshire Resource Centre, Bexley Local Studies & Archive Centre, Hannah Kay of the Bexley Heritage Trust, and the Redbourn Museum.
                                                                    May 2014
By the same author:
                        Tring Personalities
                        More Tring Personalities
                        Further Tring Personalities
                        The Tring Collection (compilation of local history and verse)
                        Tring Gardens: Then and Now
                        The Second Tring Collection
(compilation of local history and verse)
                        History of Tring Bowls Club: 1908-2008
                        The Mystery of the Tring Tiles
                        They Called us to Arms

with Ian Petticrew:
                        Gone with the Wind: Windmills and those around Tring
                        Grand Junction Canal: a Highway laid with Water
                        The Railway comes to Tring: 1833-1846
                        Roads and those in Tring



The Early History of Silk

It is a long and winding road from China in 2640 BC to Brook Street in Victorian Tring.  But if Empress Hsi Ling Shi (venerated as the Goddess of Silk) had not used her powers of observation when strolling in the mulberry tree groves of her husband’s palace, there would be no connection at all.  Legend has it that she noticed that the caterpillars of a certain moth (Bombyx Mori) were feeding on the mulberry leaves before spinning their silvery, white cocoons.  She took one cocoon inside where it accidentally fell into warm water and, as the water was absorbed, it began to unravel revealing a continuous mile-long delicate network of fibres.  From this small beginning, the Empress is credited with the invention of the loom, and later gave her patronage to the silk industry.

Bombyx Mori - caterpillars and moth


For some 3,000 years the Chinese endeavoured to guard their secret, and it was not until around AD 300 that the western world became aware of the existence of an almost magical fabric.  From then on came the gradual establishment of an export route from China which became known as the Silk Road, with its romantic images of endless deserts and dunes; trains of hundreds of merchants and camels; remote oases; bustling caravanserai; and fabled cities like Samarkand.  However, the history of the silk industry in Britain was the opposite of romantic, as will be outlined in later chapters.

Silkworm cocoon

It took until the twelfth century for the art of producing silk cloth to reach France, Spain and Italy, and this was brought to England by the Huguenots, Flemish Protestant refugees escaping religious persecution. They set up business as silk weavers, and invented a technique which resulted in glossy lustre on silk taffeta. At first establishing themselves in Spitalfields, they then extended their activities to Coventry and Norwich.

James I of England was an enthusiastic supporter of the early silk industry, and ordered that 10,000 mulberry trees be planted across the land, but the choice of the Black Mulberry proved unfortunate as this species will not thrive in a temperate climate. A later experiment in 1718 in Chelsea Park also failed, and further attempts to grow trees and breed silkworms met with only limited success. This is not surprising when it is realised that it takes around 630 cocoons to provide sufficient thread for one blouse. The main source of raw silk had to remain the imported skeins from China and the warmer parts of Europe.

Two Norfolk brothers, John and Thomas Lombe were responsible for the development of factory-based silk production. Travelling to Italy, John set out to discover the secret of successful silk spinning, a dangerous assignment as the penalty for industrial spies was death. He bribed his way into employment as a machine winder in one of the Sardinian mills, and smuggled his drawings of the machinery into bales destined for export to England. It was thanks to this brave mission that manufacture of silk on a commercial scale was introduced to this country.

The northern town of Macclesfield grew to become the leading centre of silk production in the country, with 120 mills and dye houses. Some accounts state that William Kay, the founder of Tring Silk Mill, had interests in Macclesfield, and both Henry Rowbotham and John Akers, were born in that town. These two long-serving Managers at Tring Mill brought with them the necessary skill and knowledge to insure that the venture in Brook Street prospered for over sixty years.



The Local Silk Industry

There was never a tradition of large-scale textile production in Hertfordshire, but at the end of the eighteenth century the demand for silk, the expense of manufacturing it in London, and the ban on its import during the Napoleonic Wars, led to the setting up of various silk-throwing and -weaving mills in the county. Astute businessmen, seeing the advantages of the nearness to the capital and the local unpolluted fast-flowing chalk streams, took the opportunity to convert old water-powered corn mills for use in the silk trade.

The first mill in west Hertfordshire was probably established around 1760, and built in level meadows in the hamlet of Oxhey, one-and-a-half miles south of Watford on the banks of the River Colne. The four-storey mill towered over its surroundings, and on one side stood the grand house of the mill-owner, and on the other the 34 tiny cottages of the mill hands. It became known as Rookery Mill after the noisy birds nesting in the nearby trees. (The name lives on today - one end of Watford Football Club ground is called ‘Rookery End’.)

Ownership passed to two Huguenot brothers, the Paumiers, who carried on trading until 1820 when it was sold to Thomas Rock Shute who ran that and another mill in Bushey. A trade directory entry mentions three silk mills in Watford and states ‘silk throwing was the principal manufacture of the town’. The other two mills were at Red Lion Yard and Clarendon Road, and both at first were powered by horses. At the end of the nineteenth century when the silk trade was in decline, the workers at Watford were not so fortunate as their counterparts at the Tring Silk Mill when Lord Rothschild rescued the situation (see Chapter 12). The History of Watford records “Rookery Mill was closed from depression of the silk trade, the hands thrown out of employment, and considerable privation was endured by many of them”. In late Victorian times it was converted to become Watford Steam Laundry, but no trace of the premises remain today.

St. Albans Silk Mill

At St. Albans, on the site where monks once ground their corn, a silk mill was established on the River Ver in the shadow of the great Abbey on the edge of today’s Verulamium Park. Three floors high, it was bought by the Woollam family and, as at Tring, was powered by water and steam. As well as paupers from the town, a smaller concern at Hatfield also drew on this source of labour. For some reason this arrangement was not as successful, and in 1857 the Wollams decided to transfer their operations to Redbourn.

Always a steam-powered mill, the factory at Redbourn was built beside the Common and, at its peak, employed 140 mostly local men and women. As at all factories, the dreaded ‘mill bell’ rang at the crack of dawn six days a week rousing the sleepy workers to come scurrying through the factory gates. Both Redbourn and St. Albans mills were taken over by Maygrove & Co. in 1906, and when cheaper foreign imports threatened production at Redbourn, operations diversified with the output of rayon, embroidery silk, and upholstery trimmings. The timely closure of the mill in 1938 enabled the Brooke Bond Tea Company (which had been displaced from London by bombing raids) to acquire the site and eventually to build a much larger factory. About 50 years later, the company donated the old Silk Mill Manager’s House to Redbourn Parish Council for use as a museum of local history.

The bell from Redbourn Silk Mill

Another more short-lived venture in Rickmansworth, the three-storey Batchworth Mill had several uses, and for a while was run as a cotton mill. The work-force included London children from the workhouse in St. James, Piccadilly, and a second mill operated in Rickmansworth High Street.

In the main, during the boom years of the silk trade, the risk of setting up these mills paid dividends for their proprietors. In 1824, the largest and most successful operation of all was set up and financed by an astute businessman and entrepreneur, William Kay, in Tring on the western edge of Hertfordshire.

It was money generated by the silk trade that supplied another direct connection to Tring. The Williams family, who acquired the Pendley Manor estate, had inherited a fortune from profits amassed in the manufacture of a specialised type of silk. The founder of the family, Joseph Grout, probably started to trade in Spitalfields, and with his brother invented or learned a way of making black embossed silk crêpe. The obsession of the nineteenth century with mourning attire, popularised in large measure by Queen Victoria after the death of the Prince Consort, led to huge sales of this particular textile.

Joseph Grout (1776-1852)

In 1806 the Grout brothers started a firm in Norwich to throw and weave silk crêpe. Other factories followed, as well as a showroom in London, and a silk-reeling works near Calcutta. Nearly fifty years later their products were of sufficiently high a quality to be displayed at the Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace. The catalogue entry tells us that Joseph Grout & Co. manufactured:

Folded and rolled black crape (sic), single, double,
                   treble and four threads.
Coloured aerophane crape.
Coloured lisse gauze.
Gossamer of various colours, used for veils.
Silk gauze grenadine scarves, and brocaded.
Silk muslin scarves.
Brocaded silk muslin dresses, with flounces etc.

It is possible that Joseph was acquainted with William Kay and was aware of his ownership of the Tring Park estate for, in 1844, he rented the mansion from William’s Trustees.  On Joseph’s death the tenancy passed to his illegitimate son, the Reverend James Williams.  Knowing that the Tring Park estate would soon come to the market, James Williams very much wanted to buy it for himself, but knew he could not match any winning bid of Baron Rothschild.  He satisfied himself with his estate at Pendley, where he constructed a brand new house.

Memorial windows to both Joseph and James can be seen in Tring Parish Church, and the large house at Pendley has been converted to an hotel.  The factory Joseph established continued to prosper, and received the Royal Warrant in 1895.  In World War II it was one of only two firms to make parachute silk for the Government, but ceased trading in the 1990s, 189 years after the Grout brothers first established the business.



William Kay
Founder of the Silk Mill

In the late eighteenth century, the small town of Wigton in the north of Cumberland was a centre of the weaving trade, and the spinning factories here used imported cotton, locally-produced wool, and linen from flax grown on the Solway Plain.  On the moors above the town stood The Mains, a large house occupied by a yeoman farmer.  Neither of his sons, William and Joseph Kay, were interested in a farming life, preferring to direct their considerable energies to the opportunities offered by the local textile industries.

It was not long before both young men were drawn to Manchester, which was rapidly expanding due to the enormous profits being made in the spinning mills.  From small beginnings as a cotton throwster, William diversified and established a large mill for both cotton and silk manufacture near the centre of the city.  Later on in Tring, his valuable experience gained in the silk trade was to prove very profitable for both brothers.

It is possible that during his time in Manchester William first met Nathan Rothschild, founder of the English branch of the famous family, who had settled in that city on his arrival in this country (Nathan’s immense fortune had its beginnings in the textile trade, and he was one of the first to take advantage of the new technology of printing onto cotton fabric.)

William Kay typified the go-ahead ambitious man who seized his chance to make money on the back of the Industrial Revolution.  Using wealth made in the textile trade in Manchester, he moved south to London where he increased his fortune by his dealings on the Stock Exchange.  By this time, he was well able to afford a smart town house at York Terrace, Regent’s Park, and to marry a young second wife, who in 1833 bore him a son.

In 1823 he had widened his business interests even further by purchasing the Tring Park estate, which included the mansion, parkland, properties, farms, and a water-driven corn mill - in all about 3,000 acres.  According to the writings of Tring historian Arthur Macdonald “having inspected the estate, he (William Kay) called at the auctioneer’s offices and asked the price. ‘One hundred thousand guineas’ was the answer, and Mr Kay arranged a meeting for the next day.  After some conversation, Mr Kay pulled out his watch and said ‘Gentlemen, it is now ten minutes to twelve.  I make you an offer of eighty thousand guineas, and I must have an answer, ‘yes or no’, by 12 o’clock”.  The offer was accepted at what was considered to be this extremely low price.  William never occupied the grand house himself, preferring to remain at the centre of things in London, and using another property in Tring only occasionally.  The mansion, the upkeep of which he deplored, was let continuously to his relatives and other tenants, including his old Manchester acquaintance, Nathan Rothschild.

It is likely that William Kay selected Tring in which to invest because of its proximity to the capital, as well as the potential of the Brook End site, with its adjacent source of water power.  After his arrival in the town he wasted no time in investigating the advantages of his new purchase, and within a year, building of the Silk Mill was under way, in addition to a row of cottages on the west side of Brook Street.  The setting up of the operation he entrusted to Joseph, and when the local populace nicknamed the looming five-storey mill ‘Little Manchester’, the Kay brothers most likely felt they had achieved their objective.  With the business running smoothly and both management and workers in place, after four years the decision was taken to lease the business to David Evans’ company (see Chapter 5), but both Kays retained a financial interest in the concern.  When Joseph made his will in 1834, he bequeathed £190 a year to his executors, to be held in trust for his children’s education.

1833 map of Tring, showing the mill pond (blue), silk mill,
and feeder to the Wendover Arm Canal (top of map).

It was a boom time for industry generally, aided by the invention of the steam locomotive.  As the largest land-owner in the Tring area, William used his influence to ensure benefit to the town in general, and his own business interests in particular, by appearing before an Enquiry into the suggested route of the London & Birmingham railway.  It is minuted that he gave evidence in July 1832 to a Commission of the House of Lords, stating his opinions very strongly.  As the owner of some fields through which the intended line would pass, he believed the value of his land would be enhanced and, with other local businessmen, he contributed financially to the scheme to locate the station near Tring rather than at Pitstone Green as first proposed.  He stated he had to travel a lot, and when the construction was finished he wanted to reside at Tring more often.  William claimed he had laid out £30,000 for the erection of a silk factory and, as fashions change quickly, it was necessary to get goods to the market as speedily as possible.  He also contributed to the cost of constructing the lengthy road between Tring and its railway station.   His views were not shared by some of the gentry in the district, and it is possible they made him unpopular.  In any case, William did not live long enough to enjoy this new wondrous means of transport, as he died in 1838, soon after the railway reached Tring.

His death was untimely, and the local paper in his native Cumberland reported that he expired of a head injury after being knocked down by a horse-drawn cart a few yards from his house in York Terrace. (In spite of his sad end, it is perhaps fortunate for Tring that he died before he had time to implement all his ideas for the town.  He had in mind to lay a new road along a route similar to that taken by the present bypass, the difference being that he probably intended to demolish the mansion and to develop the surrounding area.)

Memorial to William Kay, Tring parish church.

William is buried in the now-neglected Kay family vault in Kensal Green Cemetery, North London.  He left a lengthy and detailed will which included a very generous legacy to his nephew, Robert Nixon, who had established the Aylesbury silk factory (see Chapter 10).  The Tring Park estate, including the Mill, was left in Trust for his young son, William who, at the time of his father’s death, was still a minor and accordingly, for the purpose of the inheritance, was made a ward of the Court of Chancery.  He died aged 31 in Paris as the result of a fall while hunting; he and his wife were childless, and the Court ordered that the estate be sold.  After much legal wrangling, it was eventually offered for auction in 1872, to be bought by the Rothschilds.

Reminders of William Kay are still to be found in Tring.  A late-Regency-style tablet to his memory can be seen in the vestry of Tring Church.  This memorial was re-sited during the Victorian restorations and was placed rather too high on a dark wall.  Nevertheless a female figure, scantily clad in marble drapery, may be discerned dimly, drooping in heart-broken grief over an urn.  Also in the church, a three-light stained-glass window on the south side of the chancel was donated as a memorial by Rose Louise Kay, widow of William junior, and all Mrs Kay’s cottage tenants who worked at the Silk Mill received as her parting gift a pair of warm woollen blankets.



The Water Supply

No wide river ever flowed through Tring, nor was there any natural large expanse of water.  However, a thousand years ago, the amount of water from the several springs rising in or near the town provided the power for the two mills listed in William I’s Domesday survey.  In Medieval times these springs beneath the ground supplied water to the monks’ fishpond at Tring Priory, and later to the town’s public horse-pond in the lowest part of Frogmore End.  Maps from the mid-Victorian era show a chain of ornamental ponds, complete with weir and sluice-gate, in the gardens of the now-demolished Frogmore House, and the first chapel in New Mill also relied on spring water to fill the outdoor pond used when conducting baptisms by total immersion.

It is fortunate for Tring that the chalk hills in the Wendover direction act as a sponge for the collection of rain water, which then seeps down to rest on the harder rock beneath.  The resulting springs flow downhill towards the centre of the town.  Old maps show springs near Miswell Farm, Frogmore, and Dundale, and it is possible that another underground supply begins in Tring Park somewhere near the A41.  It is thought this could run under the Memorial Gardens, the A41, The Robin Hood, and the first few hundred yards of Brook Street.


Tring water courses (blue)
From Andrews and Durys map of Hertfordshire, 1766.

When William Kay decided to build his silk-throwing mill in Brook End, his first concern was how to power the machinery.  It was apparent to him that the flow of water serving the existing corn mill was nowhere near the quantity needed to drive the sort of operation he was planning, and like all single-minded entrepreneurs, he did not let a difficulty of this sort deter him from his objective.  It is likely that William had to work in conjunction with the operators of the Grand Junction Canal, as that Company retained powers to obtain water supplies from any brook, spring, stream, river, or watercourse.  Part of the supply problem had been solved twenty-five years earlier when, in an admired piece of engineering, the canal company had raised substantially the bed of Brook End’s ancient watercourse.  William carried this idea further with a decision to divert the Dundale and Miswell streams to an existing swampy area, to create a huge mill pond (see below estimates vary from six to eight acres in extent) which was to supply water to a wheel beneath the proposed new Mill.

From the 1877 OS map of Tring, showing the extent of the mill pond at
that time; also, another feed entering the pond from springs at Frogmore.
The mill pond is now much reduced in size and the feed shown is culverted

In 1824 machines suitable for digging the necessary underground culverts did not exist, and so this gruelling work was carried out by men on their hands and knees hacking with pickaxes through the chalk.  Their efforts provided channels through which a sufficient quantity of water passed in the steady flow necessary to drive the massive 16-hp iron waterwheel.  Housed in a chamber partially below the ground, at 22 ft. in diameter and six feet in width, it had the distinction of being the largest in Hertfordshire.  The culverts built to divert the waters, although damaged, still exist and as late as the 1970s it was said to be possible to walk through from Miswell to the Silk Mill.  Beneath the front drive of the Mill House lie a labyrinth of corridors, and at the rear a manhole cover gave access to sluice gates controlling the flow of water to the Mill.  This ensured an even supply that remained constant throughout the year.

The 22feet diameter Silk Mill waterwheel, half of which is immersed
in the mill stream.

Once the water had served its purpose of sending the machines and bobbins whirring, it passed through the tail-race into the stream in Brook Street.  This rivulet became known as the Feeder, since its onward flow to the Wendover Arm of the Grand Junction Canal was used to top up the volume of water required in the pound of the Tring Summit; some emptied into the swampy area then known as Wormwood Lake (now Tringford reservoir).

Underground culvert leading into the Feeder.

A second benefit arising from all this engineering skill and hard work was improvement to the water supply from the Silk Mill to Tring Park mansion.  Passing through a pipe beneath Pond Close, the market place, and the main road, water was pumped to a tank or ‘water-house’, an arrangement which continued for some years until the erection of the Chiltern Hills Water Works at The Crong above Tring.  The auction particulars of 1820 for Tring Park estate tell us that the whole included “moats and fishponds, with an engine worked by water which amply supplies the mansion house, offices, stables, grounds, gardens, and a pond at the north front.  The command of water in this situation is particularly valuable, being equal to turning a water corn-mill, which is much wanted in the neighbourhood”.

The Feeder as it looked in the 1920s.
Today it carries rather less water and its banks are much overgrown.

When the Silk Mill closed in 1898 the Tring Park estate maintenance departments moved to the site, and the water-wheel continued to do good work, driving the saw-mill used by the carpenters, as well as a generator which supplied electricity (see Chapter 12).

Most of the mill-pond was drained, and the area planted out as a well-irrigated site for Lord Rothschild’s orchards, which presented irresistible ‘scrumping’ opportunities for local boys, whose expression “going over the boards” meant crossing the wet ground to reach the forbidden fruit.  The remaining portion of the pond, after years of neglect and vandalism, has been attractively restored and re-stocked by the present owners of the Mill House.

The area alongside the Feeder from the Silk Mill to Gamnel, now retained as a waterside walk, is planted with trees and the stream is crossed by two ornamental foot-bridges.  Sadly, although this stretch of Brook Street should be valued as the last-remaining green space in an increasingly built-up and busy thoroughfare, the stream and shrubbery are often polluted with litter.



David Evans & Company
Tenant of the Silk Mill from 1829

Due to wars, tariffs, and fashions, the silk industry was never viewed as ‘safe’ for the investment of capital, but for those willing to take the risk the returns could be enormously profitable.  It was a lucky day for the silk trade when fashion dictated that voluminous dresses replaced the simple straight lines of Regency style.  Then, any woman, even those in modest circumstances, aspired to own a Sunday-best silk dress, so precious that it was often handed down from mother to daughter.

The two men most connected with Tring Silk Mill recognised the great potential of the silk trade, and it is a coincidence that William Kay, the founder of the Mill, and his tenant, David Evans, were born sons of yeoman farmers in rural counties.  Both then moved to London to further their ambitions.

David Evans (1791-1874)

Brought up near Oswestry in Salop, David established his base in Wood Street, Cheapside, in the City of London.  In entries in trade directories from 1828 onwards he is described as a ‘Silk Agent’, ‘Merchant’, or ‘Warehouseman’, and possibly he was a consignee of Far Eastern merchants who shipped silk fabric to London, as well as acting as a salesman for provincial manufacturers in the north of England.  Before long he added to his business interests by undertaking hand-block printing on silk, a complicated craft requiring great skill and as many as 30 different processes.

His next logical step was to acquire premises specialising in silk throwing, so ensuring a steady supply of material for his London operation.  Deciding that it would best to base this in a less expensive area than the capital, in 1829 he signed the lease of William Kay’s silk-throwing mill in Tring, and bought outright the stock and machinery.  Soon David was able to increase the output of thrown silk by supplementing the existing water power with the installation of a steam engine.  This factory was shortly to be augmented by a small weaving operation in Akeman Street, and a much larger works at Aylesbury (see Chapter 10).  Four years after, he added to his local investments in Brook End by buying land and building 22 cottages.  Later in 1850, he was requested by the local authority to dispose of part of his land holding as it had been identified as a suitable site for Tring’s new gas-works.

David Evans never lived in Tring with his family and contented himself with a ‘temporary residence’ and frequent visits to the town.  Day-to-day control of operations he left to his managers, firstly Henry Rowbotham and then John Akers (see Chapter 7).  At times not everything went smoothly at Tring and before long disaster struck.  In 1836, the Mill was damaged by a serious fire and again six years later (see Chapter 6).  David, prudent as always, had taken out adequate insurance cover on the premises and machinery, and production was quickly restored.

In his portrait, David Evans appears as a thin-lipped shrewd individual, but this image belies his generosity to Tring on the occasion of Queen Victoria’s coronation in 1838.  Although it is difficult to know whether this was inspired by benevolence or a desire to demonstrate patriotism, his lavish expenditure gave his normally-deprived workers a day they no doubt talked about for the rest of their lives.  On the morning of June 28th the church bells woke the people of Tring, and a mood of feverish excitement prevailed.  Later came bands, singing, decorations, and fireworks.  The Aylesbury News describes events at the Mill:

“In the course of the day, David Evans Esq., proprietor of the Silk Mill, gave a holiday and a treat to 350 men, women, and children, employed in the factory.  The whole company assembled at the Mill, and walked from thence in procession through the town carrying appropriate banners, while Old England’s colours were seen gracefully waving from the top of the factory, the entrance of which was very tastefully ornamented with shrubs and flowers.

After dinner, which consisted of a good supply of beef and plum pudding, the health of Her Majesty was given, and most cordially drank by the whole party assembled, and the favourite old anthem was sung with the most imposing effect, the voices of some hundreds of children (who constantly sing while at work in the Mill), producing an effect seldom given on such an occasion.  The whole celebration was very ably managed by Messrs. Rowbotham and Parker, assisted in the kindest manner by many of the tradesmen of the town, who volunteered to wait upon the people at dinner.”

Hand printing a pattern on silk using a wooden printing block.

As the century wore on, the huge upsurge in demand for printed silk meant that David Evans was again able to further his business operations.  At Crayford in Kent he acquired a silk- and calico- printing business established by the inventor Augustus Applegarth who had run into financial difficulty.  The quality of the unpolluted water of the River Cray proved ideal for washing the silk and for setting the dyes, a tricky process as too much dye could rot the fabric.  Also, there were broad open fields in which the silk cloth could be laid out and bleached in the sun.  The latest building technology had been used in constructing Applegarth’s factory, the result being an iron-framed structure with a large skylight roof supported by iron columns.  This had two advantages; it admitted the maximum amount of light to the work, and discouraged industrial spying, an ever-present threat to the stealing of designs.

The silk printing skills refined in London were put into use at Crayford, one speciality being the application of Paisley patterns.  These intricate designs originated from Kashmir, and acquired huge popularity with the Victorian fascination for all things Indian.  Copying and modifying imported originals, textile manufacturers, including David Evans, were not slow to claim their share of the lucrative new market, and the works at Crayford became well known for the production of high-quality silk shawls.

Paisley pattern printing block.

By the 1850s David had earned great respect in the textile world of the City of London, being one of the founders of the Linen and Woollen Drapers’ Institution, and also one of its first trustees.  He no doubt enhanced his reputation by taking a stand at The Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace, where the company was described as silk manufacturers and printers.  The list of products included:-

Bandanna handkerchiefs, manufactured in India.
Bandannas manufactured at Macclesfield from
Bengal and China silk.
Spun bandannas, manufactured in Lancashire.
Ladies silk dresses.
Table covers.
Registered designs.

David Evans was then a wealthy man, and fully able to enjoy a comfortable life at Shenstone, an elegant Swiss-style house on the hillside above the works at Crayford.  This imposing residence stood in 19 acres of wooded parkland overlooking extensive views of the Kent countryside, and the 20 rooms provided plenty of accommodation for his large family of 14 children.

When he died in 1874 at the age of 83, the business passed to the control of his three sons.  All were known for their philanthropy to their workforce and to local folk generally.  George, the youngest son, entered the Evans business in Cheapside when he was 18, and remained there until his death at the age of 84.  In 1877 he paid for the refurbishment of the bells which had been presented in memory of his father to Crayford church.
By the time of David Evans’ death, although still reasonably profitable, the financial viability of Tring Silk Mill was in some doubt, due in part to a continuing problem of lack of labour.  The opening of the Suez Canal also contributed, as raw silk from the East could be sent more easily and quickly to Marseilles. The Mill struggled on, and it is recorded that David Evans & Co. continued to meet the annual rent of the premises and cottages in Brook Street amounting to over £500 until, finally, the management was forced to ask Lord Rothschild to agree to the surrender of the lease.

Shenstone at Crayford.

The Crayford works continued for over a century longer.  After 160 years, operations were closed down in 2001 when David Evans & Co. was described as “the last of the old London silk printers”.  Fifty years before, his private house had been purchased by Crayford UDC and later demolished; today the grounds remain preserved as a public open space.


Working at the Silk Mill

Although the mill has been much altered and enlarged over the years, it is apparent that William Kay was an ambitious builder as reference to old maps show that his plans produced an extensive L-shaped structure.  Built of brick, five stories high, and with a small warehouse on each floor, at each level the floors were supported by runs of evenly-spaced cast-iron pillars, and through the centre of the building ran a central staircase.  The ground floor housed a dining room for the workers, and offices, one of which was occupied by Joseph Parker, a key member of staff whose position today would be described as Chief Accountant.

The general arrangement of a water-driven silk throwing mill.

The engine house, approached by an oilcloth-covered stairway, and the chimney-stack adjoined the main building.  Outside were the carpenters’ and mechanics’ workshops, the silk washing room, and two warehouses.  As was customary, accommodation was provided for the senior staff: a large house and garden for the Manager (see Chapter 11), a good-sized cottage, and a lodge house.  Other amenities included stabling for three horses, a double coach-house, and a smith’s shop and forge.

Descriptions of the numbers employed in the Mill vary greatly, and fluctuated according to the demand for the supply of silk, and to agricultural seasonal work.  In 1840 a reliable account states that the Mill had capacity for 500 pairs of hands, consisting of 40 men, 140 women, and 320 children.  The superintendents received one pound a week; the men between 12 and 15 shillings; the average women’s wages were 5s.6d.; and the children’s between 1s.0d. and 2s.3d.

Skeins of silk imported from China, Italy and Bengal underwent a complex operation (see diagram) and on each floor workers performed a different process.  After being graded and washed with soap and water, Winding onto star-shaped frames (known as ‘swifts’) took place at the top of the mill, where the machinery required little power to turn the reels; followed by Cleaning where the silk passed through a scissors-like device which removed the knots and enabled the size, or denier, to be measured.  These processes were usually carried out by children who had to keep constant watch and re-join any broken threads immediately.  On the next floor came the Spinning, where the single silken filaments were twisted together up to 80 times to strengthen them.  Then came Doubling, when two to four filaments were brought together with a slight amount of twist.  In the final stage, called Throwing, the doubled threads were twisted once again by machine, but in the opposite direction, making the silk strong and pliable.  The finished product, a rope-like yard called ‘organzine’, was then ready to be stored in the warehouses in the yard to await transport either to David Evans’ weaving factory at Aylesbury (see Chapter 10) or to mills in the north of England.  The coarser-quality output was sent to Macclesfield and Coventry for the ribbon trade.

Compared to other mills at that date, working conditions were considered to be light and congenial.  But the rooms were hot, the machinery very noisy and dangerous, and the working hours long.  Adults worked twelve hours a day and the children, controlled by Act of Parliament, ten.  An insidious problem was the risk of contracting the dreaded ‘ague’, a loose term which covered many different sorts of fever.  This seemed to be particularly prevalent at Tring, and was blamed on the stagnant water beneath the building, and the proximity of the mill pond, the vapours of which were described as ‘pernicious effluvia’.

Visitors to the Mill were not encouraged, less from a desire to hide the working conditions, but more from anxiety about what would now be called ‘industrial espionage’.  However, with difficulty, an admission card could be obtained, and one official visitor of 1840 has left us his detailed account.  One extract reads - “Tring is seldom or never without ague, and as the malaria is generally found to result from stagnant pools, several of which are in the vicinity, it is to be hoped that, ere long, the proprietors of these sources of pestilence will evince sufficiently morality and intelligence to compel the removal of a nuisance so highly dangerous to all the neighbourhood; actually fatal to some, and deeply injurious to the lives and happiness of many innocent people.  In the mill there are almost always persons whose haggard looks evince their having lately been afflicted with this terrible disease ............... The proprietors of the mill pay Mr Dewsbury, Surgeon of Tring, £20 a year for inspecting the persons employed in the mill, to insure cleanliness and freedom from disease: after this evidence, we must not attribute the presence of the injurious marsh to a want of feeling in the proprietors, but rather to a want of information on the subject”. (In fact everyone lacked “a want of information on the subject” as later it was established that some of the town’s sewage was leaking into the Mill Pond.)  Other health hazards which caused concern were bronchial problems, glandular swellings, and scrofula (i.e.
tuberculosis of the neck).

However, the same writer showed excited interest when he reached the engine room, as he went on to say “There is a steam engine of twenty-five horse power, of so beautiful construction, fitted up so elegantly, and taken so much care of, as to elicit from anyone who sees it the warmest expression of admiration.  The room evinces the superintendence of a man of refinement and mechanical taste.  The engine is appropriately called Venus, and was constructed at the manufactory of Peel, Williams, and Peel, Manchester.”  This fulsome account would no doubt have caused the engine’s experienced minder, John Rolfe, a justifiable glow of pride.

Interior view of the Silk Mill.

In any silk mill the main hazard was always the threat of fire.  Sparks could be caused for any number of reasons - friction from opening the bales of skeins which could contain nails, stones, dry grass, or leaves; contact with hard objects; netting covering the boilers in the drying rooms; and steam pipes.  However, none of these applied as the management’s worst fears were realised in 1836 and again in 1842, when fires gutted part of the mill building (Appendix I.).

On both occasions nobody was hurt, and the ample insurance of the building and machinery covered the many thousands of pounds worth of damage.  Such rare pieces of sensational news were written up with relish by the editors of the local papers.  On the occasion of the 1836 blaze, it was reported that at noon the workers left for dinner, and at 1.30 pm.  Ruth Goodson, the housekeeper who lived in the Mill Cottage, saw thick smoke rising from an upper storey.  She instantly gave the alarm, but soon flames burst from the fourth floor, eventually engulfing the floor above.  Messengers galloped to Aylesbury, Berkhamsted, and Ivinghoe, and all responded by sending their fire engines, and two wealthy neighbours (Lady Bridgewater and a Mr Hay) despatched their private engines.  Streams of water from the mill pond were directed at the blaze.

As it happened, David Evans was travelling from London that same day to visit his mill in Tring.  He arrived on the scene some four hours after the event, having been forewarned by excited locals of the drama unfolding in Brook Street.  He was in time to see the flames still rising, and must have grieved to imagine what was happening to his valuable machinery.  The damage was mainly confined to the winding machines on the top floor, and was not too severe thanks to the efforts of Robert Harrison.  At very considerable risk, he saved many of the moveable parts, in spite of dodging molten lead raining down.  On a lower floor, two modern machines made of cast metal and worth about £400 each, were broken by crashing iron ceiling supports from the floor above, sending the machines hurtling to the flagstones below.  It was established that the fire started in the lumber loft after some boys had been ordered to remove a stock of bobbins but, when the dinner-bell sounded, forgot about their burning candle.  The outcome of the fire caused many to lose their jobs, but production was quickly resumed, and later, through the medium of the local newspaper, David Evans publically thanked all those who had rendered assistance.

Only six years later in the early hours of the morning, fire again broke out, this time in the steam-engine room. Afterwards, the local paper reported that due to water pumped from the mill pond “most prompt and efficient means were made to arrest the progress of the flames”. Berkhamsted and Ashridge fire engines arrived some two hours later and it was then unnecessary to call others, but too late to stop the Aylesbury engine. Although the main staircase remained intact, a total of £6,000 worth of damage was caused which included the loss of substantial quantities of both silk and coal. One wing of the building was put out of use, and for a second time resulted in limited employment and financial hardship to many families.

After the second disaster, it was proposed that the Parish of Tring should move its fire engine, and David readily agreed to the suggestion to locate it in a specially-prepared room at the Silk Mill.  (It was an arrangement that lasted for 25 years until an official Fire Brigade was formed, and the engine moved to the more central position of the Rose & Crown yard.)

Towards the middle of the century David Evans & Co. set up a small silk-weaving operation at No.60 Akeman Street, which complemented the printing and throwing factories he already owned and rented.  Never a large concern, it gave work to a number living in the small crowded streets in the centre of the town; in the Census of 1851, 35 people in Akeman Street are shown as engaged in the silk trade.  It seems that this concern had several different proprietors and perhaps was not too profitable, as newspaper accounts of 1859 inform that John Hillsdon, a Tring millwright and engineer, was involved in a court case in an endeavour to obtain outstanding payment for work done.

Another short-lived venture was started in Frogmore Street.  It was not a success, as this sad little notice was inserted in the Bucks Advertiser by William Brown, Tring’s land agent:


4th August 1858 - Auction under a Distress for Rent and Bill of Sale on the premises of Mr William Shipley.

Fixtures used in the business of a Silk Throwster. 6 hp high-pressure steam engine; 10 hp flue boiler with furnace and brickwork; all running gear driving the Spinning and Throwing Mills and Winding Engine; Also all furniture of dwelling house adjoining.

Some accounts say it was bought by David Evans’ son, Thomas.  In any case, silk manufacture in Frogmore Street finally ceased two years later when a notice in the local paper announced “the silk mill is soon to close” and again offered the steam engine, the machinery, and utensils for sale.

All in all, it was probably a good thing that William Kay established the silk industry in Tring, as it gave employment to many in the town, either directly or indirectly.  Working conditions at the Mill in Tring may have been better, but were certainly not worse, than for the large majority of those in Victorian England caught up in the Industrial Revolution and on the bottom rungs of the social ladder.

The Silk Mill today (reduced to three storys).



Managers of the Silk Mill

Any enterprise employing 500 workers needs an excellent management team to return a healthy profit, and no doubt David Evans selected his senior staff very carefully, especially the Manager.  His choice of Henry Sherratt Rowbotham ensured that, if nothing else, he had engaged a man with experience of the silk-throwing industry.  Henry came from Macclesfield, then a town containing 120 mills, mostly all involved in the various processes of silk manufacture.

Born in 1810, Henry moved to Tring during the late 1830s and occupied a house described as being at ‘West End of Mill’.  A few years later he returned to Macclesfield to marry, and then brought his young wife, Jane, back to Tring.  Usually in those times it was the custom for the Manager of a factory to live adjacent to his workplace, but Henry did not occupy the Mill House in Brook Street.  This may have been through choice, or the fact that the Bookkeeper and Cashier and his large family were already in residence.  Instead, the Rowbothams settled in a house in the semi-rural smarter ‘West End’ of the town, in a property large enough for his wife, children, mother-in-law, and three servants.  Jane, who may have had social pretensions, is described in the Census of 1851 as ‘Gentlewoman’.

The proprietor of the Mill lived 70 miles away in Kent, and it was this fact that enabled Henry to enjoy such a comfortable lifestyle.  His high salary reflected the complete responsibility for the day-to-day running of production at Tring; control of the workforce; and the expectation that he would sort out serious problems.  His pride in his position and his comparative youth is shown in a letter of 1839, when he wrote to the Aylesbury Guardians of the Poor -“The report of your Committee, who recently visited the Silk Mill, was handed to me by Mr David Evans, since he does not interfere with any regulations connected with this establishment”.  But as will be seen from the newspaper account below, Henry’s policies sometimes could have unwanted consequences.

His other duties included liaison with local authorities including the Tring Vestry, which involved matters relating to pollution, drainage, and the health of the workers.  He was expected to take an active part in civic affairs, and was elected as one of the Tring Guardians of the Poor serving the Berkhamsted Union.

Disciplinary matters also had to be addressed and, where necessary, evidence set before the Bench about any employee’s misdemeanours.  A typical case occurred in 1849 when two 16-year olds, Joseph Copcutt and George Norman, ran away from the Mill.  As it was not the first time this had happened, both received one month’s hard labour at Hertford gaol.  Henry Harris, on the other hand, came up before a more lenient magistrate and was sentenced to three days’ solitary confinement and only two week’s hard labour for the unlikely offence of stealing a violin.

Sometimes a far more worrying incident arose which the Manager had to treat with the utmost seriousness.  Mary Ann Beard, a pauper child from St. Margaret’s, Westminster, complained that she had been assaulted by an elderly male worker.  A lengthy correspondence followed between Henry, the Guardians, and eventually the proprietor of the Mill.  The outcome was a court case (which David Evans complained had cost him £53 in prosecution costs) and the man spent four months in gaol and, although formally acquitted, was dismissed from his employment of 25 years.  Following this episode the mill girls were allowed to leave for dinner 10 minutes ahead of the other workers, and their surveillance was increased.

Henry Rowbotham appears today as a character from the pages of a novel by Charles Dickens.  He employed stern discipline in the Mill; he visited the Governors of London workhouses to negotiate the allocation of pauper children; he travelled to Aylesbury and Berkhamsted to carry out the same function there; and at times he personally inspected the children and made his selection on the grounds of their “strong constitutions, free from disease and strong in limbs, particularly about the ankle joints”.  (The latter was important, considering that they were expected to stand at their work for up to 10 hours a day.)  However, it is likely that his rule was not as harsh as that of his counterparts in the mills of northern England, where labour was more readily available and expendable, and beatings were commonplace.  Even so, the following account appeared in the Bucks Herald of 9th November 1839:

AYLESBURY UNION. A report having reached the Board of Guardians, that four lads belonging to this union, employed at the Tring Silk Mill, had been beaten with too much severity by Mr. Rowbotham, the superintendant of the mills, the boys, and the woman with whom they lodged, were brought before a full Board on Wednesday last, when a thorough and patient investigation of the facts took place.

It appeared from the evidence of the lads that they had run away for the second or third time from their work, and were absent all night; that on their return, Mr. Rowbotham made them take off their smock-fronts and jackets, and then beat them with nut (hazel) sticks, about the thickness of half and inch in diameter five of which he broke about them, and then used the strap they were much marked, but in only one case had blood been drawn.  Three of them, however, did their job as usual, the youngest of them played at leap-frog the same afternoon.  One of them was laid up for one day with the bowel complaint, but resumed his employment the next morning.

The woman at the lodging house, told them on their return, that their flogging “served them right.”  One of them repeated her remark, after she had seen one of the boys stripped the other two thought that the lads were more severely beaten than they had seen lads before; but they were lads very difficult to manage and keep in order.

On the conclusion of the investigation, a guardian moved that “the boys were too severely beaten;” but on a division the motion was negatived.

And this from the Bucks Herald, 17th April 1847:

(Before the Rev. J. Williams.)

George Newman and Joseph Copcutt, two lads, about 16 years of age, were charged with running away and leaving their employment at the Silk Mills, at Tring.  Proof of the offences being given, and it further appeared that this was not the first time they had been guilty of the same offence, they were committed to Hertford Goal for one month to hard labour.

Like most Victorians, Henry experienced great personal grief.  Within the space of ten years, he lost two of his five children, his young wife, and his mother-in-law, leaving him to raise the three surviving children with help from an elderly live-in governess.  On his retirement, he moved to Reading to be near his married daughter, but Henry was at least spared the knowledge of the tragic end of his younger daughter who was drowned off the coast of New Zealand in that country’s worst-ever shipwreck.  This occurred shortly after he died in 1871, when his body was returned for burial in the Rowbotham family vault at Drayton Beauchamp churchyard.  The cortège travelled slowly from Tring Station through the length of the town and, as was the custom of the time, most tradesmen and shopkeepers lowered their window shades as a mark of respect.

Grave of Henry Rowbotham, St Mary the Virgin Church, Drayton Beauchamp.

The position of manager at the Silk Mill passed to John Akers, another Macclesfield man, who during his time in Tring was to see many changes to the old order.  By that date the system of binding apprentices from the London workhouses was over and, although paupers were still used, other choices of available occupations meant it was often a case of taking whoever was available.

Three years after John took over, David Evans died and the ownership of his various business concerns passed to his sons.  In England the silk industry was starting to decline, and it was only a matter of time before the inevitable surrender of the lease of Tring Silk Mill to the new owner, Lord Rothschild.  During these difficult years, John was retained as Manager and, in addition to the problem of labour shortage, he had to weather some stormy dealings with Tring local authorities.  Disputes started when a request was made to the Mill to give up the right to extract water from the stream, and to agree instead to the construction of a reservoir for water storage in front of the premises.

Brook Street c.1870s (Robin Hood public house on the left)

For many years after the Mill was first built, Brook Street was still known as ‘Brook End’.  Lined with small cottages, the road was little more than a country lane, overhung with trees, and no doubt muddy in the winter months.  It meandered down towards New Mill to join with Wingrave Road, and then on to the corn mill at Gamnel.  In the middle of the century, Tring Council decided upon a plan of action for improvements which included road-widening, better drainage, and once the problem of leaking sewage had been identified, provision of a sewer.  It was not long before concerns about the effects of these works on the water level in the mill pond led to increasingly acrimonious meetings between John Akers, Lord Rothschild’s agent, the Canal Company and the Solicitor representing the Tring authorities.  The latter received a letter from John (which he later regretted) beginning and ending:

“Tring Mills
March 23rd 1888

Dear Sir,

I have your letter of yesterday when I require your advice for my ‘future guidance’, I may ask you for it ....................... Some portion of your letter assumes the nature of a threat; if meant as such, I treat it with contempt.
Yours truly,
J. Akers

After various Injunctions and Appeals, the matter of Tring’s water and sewage problems eventually ended up in the Court of the Lord Chancellor, when a decision was made that most likely completely satisfied none of the parties involved.

In spite of a far from smooth working life, John Akers enjoyed the time spent with his family at the Mill House, where the three youngest of his five children were born. He remained there until his retirement to Aylesbury, where he died at age 76 in 1906.  It was the end of an era, and Tring’s industrial past as ‘Little Manchester’ would soon begin to fade into the history of the locality.



Child Labour

The story of the use of child labour in the mills of Britain is bound up with the role of the Poor Law and the workhouse system.  Maintenance of the poor was expensive, and a prime aim of the Guardians of the Poor in every town was to recoup part of the cost, lessening the burden on local ratepayers.  Savings were made possible by binding workhouse children in apprenticeship to the mill and factory owners.  As the century wore on, some of those with a social conscience began to protest at the system, and by the 1830s and 1840s various Factory Acts were introduced.  However, as child labour was considered essential in the manufacturing process of silk, this legislation did not apply to them, and they had to wait another twenty years to obtain a degree of protection in the workplace.

The view held by Joseph Grout (then renting Tring Park mansion from the Trustees of William Kay) was typical of other silk mill owners.  He gave evidence to a Factories Enquiry Commission and stated that he saw no objection generally to restricting the working hours of children under the age of 13, but “ ..... the measure is quite uncalled for with regard to the silk trade, as the labour of children is so extremely light, for it is only to watch a thread, and tie it when it breaks.  They have to walk backwards and forwards which is only gentle exercise.

The Manager at Tring, Henry Rowbotham, stressed that children should start work at an early age so they would be worthy of their hire later on, and that they must have done nothing previously as their hands would otherwise be too rough.  Girls were valued more highly than boys, who were usually discarded by the age of 15, and this preference was reflected in the girls’ wages, as they were paid 3d. a week more than the boys.  It was felt that they obeyed orders more readily, their reactions were better co-ordinated, and their small nimble fingers could swiftly fill the bobbins and join broken threads.
One tragic victim of the system was Lucy Marshall, born in Harrow Yard, Tring, in 1848.  Her drunken father deserted his wife and four young children, forcing the family to be sent to the Berkhamsted Union workhouse.  After a few years Lucy and her brothers returned to Tring to work in the Silk Mill, and she recounts the terror of her first day, when she was overwhelmed by the noise and flying wheels.  She was still too small to properly reach the machines, and stood on what was called a ‘wooden horse’.  Her temporary home in Brook End added to her woes, as the couple she lodged with quarrelled, drank, swore, and did not feed her sufficiently.  The Marshall family’s harrowing sequence of events continued, when the mother, still in the workhouse, languished with cancer for three years, and Lucy’s oldest brother absconded from the Mill.  After many unpleasant experiences, Lucy left the Mill at thirteen years of age and continued to battle her way through a life dogged with difficulties and sadness.

At that time, Lucy’s story was probably no more or less different to dozens of others, but it may be that the pauper girls from London enjoyed better conditions than some local children living in nearby lodgings.  David Evans had purchased five cottages in front of the Mill in Brook End and these were converted into a dormitory to accommodate the apprentice labour force.  A married couple, the Master and Matron, supervised this building and were responsible for the welfare of the young inmates.  Regular inspections by the Board of Governors from St. Margaret’s and St. George’s workhouses in London ensured that the boarding arrangements met with approval.

St. Margaret’s Workhouse, Westminster

However, it is now not really possible to say just how satisfactory or otherwise were the conditions for the children.  Any criticisms resulting from the inspections were most likely moderated, as the Governors avoided any situation where paupers had to be returned to their workhouse.  So generally the overseers found everything favourable, and the girls in excellent health, but sometimes they had to admit that the sleeping arrangements were not impressive - the bedding scanty and not clean enough.


Former dormitory accommodation for the workhouse children (Brook St. to the left)

Consideration of the weekly diet of the children concluded that the following was adequate and, although monotonous, the amounts probably compare favourably with the diet of the local populace:

Daily – Breakfast l lb. Bread, 1 pint milk (sufficient to last the day)
Dinner 6-oz. Meat cooked with vegetables
(4 days a week)
Soup or Rice or Suet Pudding
(3 days a week)
No Beer
Supper 3-oz. Cheese
(no sweetened food or any sort of fruit)

In spite of the approval of the workhouse inspectors, it may be that the above did not always apply, as an incident reminiscent of Oliver Twist occurred at the Mill when the Berkhamsted Union reported that a young apprentice, Elizabeth Gibson, had complained about the food.  She stated that there was only bread and butter and no milk, and that meat was served infrequently and then often inedible.  Mr Burnett, the Master, allegedly grabbed her, dragged her by the hair across a cobbled yard, and locked her in an outhouse for two hours.  An enquiry found this, and other aspects of his behaviour, reprehensible.

Working hours for everyone were long, but sometimes varied according to the current demand for silk.  When the Mill first opened the working day was about 12 hours, later reduced to 10, with nine hours being worked on Saturdays.  Children under the age of 11 supposedly did seven hours plus three more for ‘schooling’.  The apprentices were roused from their beds at 5 a.m. to be ready at their machines half an hour later, and 30 minutes were allowed for breakfast at 7 a.m. and an hour for dinner.

Children working in a silk mill

The one day of rest each week saw little fun for the apprentices, as the Mill Manager, assisted by the clergymen of the Parish, was expected to enforce strict observance of the Sabbath.  Both Sunday School and church services were attended twice and, as a treat, special entertainment was provided on Holy Days.  Occasionally there was a red-letter day, when some local worthy would arrange the venue and food for a sit-down meal.

The girls must have presented a quaint sight as they filed to church from their lodgings in Brook Street.  In summer they wore a cotton print dress and a lilac print cape, covered in the winter months by a shawl.  These clothes (which after their day’s work the girls were required to keep in good repair) were complemented by good strong petticoats, thick nailed boots, and a coal-scuttle bonnet.  Two complete sets of outfits were supplied each year, together with a new Bible and a Prayer Book.  One early account of conditions inside the Mill claimed that the children were taught to sing hymns as they worked, and to put especial energy and piety into the tunes if visitors were present.  To some extent this practice continued, as local folk passing along Brook Street reported they could hear singing coming from inside.

It is difficult to assess just how much education the children received.  Under the Health & Morals Apprentices Act 1802 (42 Geo III c.73), all those under 11 years of age were required to attend school for half the day, and some sort of school had been established by the first Manager, which supposedly benefitted not only the children at the Mill but also local infants.  But as late as 1865, the Berkhamsted Guardians were complaining to his successor on this point.  They stated that “there does not seem to be any part of the day set apart for instruction or amusement”, eliciting the response “we are going to keep up or add to the education of the children by setting apart several evenings a week for writing and reading”.  Perhaps matters in this respect did improve, as later accounts report that the girls from the Silk Mill joined with pupils from Tring School in singing at fund-raising concerts.

Although unwanted children were removed from the Berkhamsted workhouse, the Guardians were never entirely happy about the arrangement, and protested every time labour was requested for Tring.  Their argument was that the wages paid were so low that the paupers often still needed to be supplemented with Poor Relief.  The authorities were also well aware that it was difficult to make a living as an adult Silk Throwster and few stayed in Tring after their apprenticeship had run, so the worry remained that they might return to the workhouse and revert to their poverty-stricken status as a continuing charge on the Union.  This possibility (among others) also concerned the guardians of the St. Margaret’s Workhouse, Westminster [see Appendix].

It seems odd that the Mill Managers did not ask the Tring workhouse to help with the supply of child labour, but it is possible that the dominance of the straw-plaiting industry might explain this.  The Tring Workhouse is known to have had a furnished plait room, and this occupation could be said to be more congenial than mill work, as at least it did not impose too much restraint on the liberty of the individual.

For those who worked in the Mill during their formative years, the destructive experience branded itself on their character.  In the following chapter, evidence of this is clearly shown, and eloquently described, in the words of one such unfortunate lad.



Gerald Massey

(Child Worker at the Silk Mill and later known as ‘The Tring Poet’)

Still all the day the iron wheels go onward,
Grinding life down from its mark;
And the children’s souls,
        which God is calling sunward,
Spin on blindly in the dark.

The above words from Cry of the Children were written by Elizabeth Barrett Browning and clearly mirror the experience of the young Gerald Massey, when at the age of eight years old he was sent to work in the Tring Silk Mill. Born in dire poverty in a stone hovel at Gamnel Wharf and largely self-educated, he went on to achieve some renown in Victorian times with his early poetry, later prose work, and his lecture tours in Britain and America.

Gerald’s father worked as a boatman at the flour mill at New Mill, and his paltry wage forced him, probably with reluctance, to send his older sons a short way down the road to the Silk Mill.  It was a wounding time that Gerald never forgot, and one that shaped his radical opinions and outlook for the rest of his life.  Written in later life, the following description of his childhood has been reproduced many times, but it is worth quoting again.  The brief and bitter summary speaks for all the children at the Mill who would, most likely, have given similar voice had they possessed Gerald’s literary talent:

“Having had to earn my own dear bread by the cheapening of flesh and blood thus early, I never knew what childhood was.  I had no childhood.  Ever since I can remember, I have had the aching fear of want, throbbing in heart and brow.  The currents of my life were early poisoned ... I look back now in wonder, not that so few escape, but that any escape at all ... so blighting are the influences which surround thousands in early life, to which I can bear bitter testimony.”

His release from this detested employment came after the disastrous fire of 1836 (see Chapter 6).  Gerald was one of the children who stood in Brook Street and watched with high excitement and pleasure as the flames shot skyward, not realising the grim financial consequences for his parents.  Afterwards, to make ends meet, he was forced to take up the local cottage industry of straw-plaiting, less arduous than mill work, but still a stifling occupation for a spirited young boy.

In spite of the Massey family’s dismal life, Gerald’s mother had managed to instil Christian values in her sons, and to see that Gerald was taught to read well.  When he was fifteen, he was able to escape from Tring and seek his fortune in London.  Once there, his poetic talent was soon recognised by, among others, some leading members of the Chartist movement.  It is not surprising that his background encouraged him to take up the cause with enthusiasm, and soon he was editing a radical publication.

Gerald’s later life was interspersed with problems, tragedy, and lack of money. None of it deterred him from writing copiously, and even at the end of his life, he was labouring on a great work expounding his theories about ancient Egypt.

An 1856 poem of his, entitled Lady Laura, tells the story of a wealthy lady who takes pity on the children working in a nearby silk mill.  She plucks one man from the mill, is kind to him and his old mother, and the couple fall in love and eventually marry.  (This is surely a flight of fancy, as it is highly improbable that anything so romantic ever occurred at the Mill in Tring.)  In the account of her life, Lucy Marshall (see Chapter 8), who worked at Tring Silk Mill along with her young brother, mentions that he “was put to lodgings with the man who used to ring the Mill bell”.  This feature of the children’s working life impressed also itself on Massey’s memory, for in his Lady Laura he also mentions the mill bell:

Pleasantly the Chime that calls to Bridal-hall or Kirk;
But Hell might gloatingly pull for the peal that wakes babes to work!
‘Come, little Children,’ the Mill-bell rings, and drowsily they run,
Little old Men and Women, and human worms who have spun
The life of Infancy into silk; and fed Child, Mother, and Wife,
The factory’s smoke of torment, with the fuel of human life.
O weird white face, and weary bones, and whether they hurry or crawl,
You know them by the factory-stamp, they wear it one and all.
The Factory-Fiend in a grim hush waits till all are in, and he grins
As he shuts the door on the fair, fair world, and hell begins!

The least faint living rose of health from the childish cheek he strips,
To run the thorn in a Mother’s heart: and ever he sternly grips
His sacrifice; with Life’s soiled waters turns his wildering wheels;
And shouts, till his rank breath thicks the air, and the
        Child’s brain Devil-ward reels.

It is likely that Massey retained few fond memories of his birthplace, but he did return over the years to give lectures in Tring’s Commercial Hall and its Assembly Rooms; he also presented copies of his books to the Tring Mechanics’ Institute.  He would probably be the first to appreciate the irony of the way his native town remembers him, as a block of cream-rendered luxury flats, built in 2004 and sited almost opposite the hated Silk Mill, is named Massey House.  What might have pleased Gerald more was the Poetry Competition named in his memory.  Open to all pupils of Tring School, the theme for 2008 was Working in Tring Silk Mill in the 1800s and the panel of judges awarded first prize to 15-year old Abbi Brown for her poignant poem entitled:


Red-raw hands shield dusty eyes
Weakly raised to dream-laden skies
Invisible hands stifle silent cries
For fifteen pence a week.

Far from family, far from home
Back in the workhouse, never so alone
Small hands shake, starved stomachs groan
For fifteen pence a week.

Winding, cleaning, all day long
Beyond the bars, the sun shines strong
Scarce a whisper, scarce a song
For fifteen pence a week.

Enveloped in shadow Kay’s henchmen lurk
One fumbling finger brings shouts from the murk
“You’re worthless! You’re nothing!
    Now get back to work!”
And to fifteen pence a week.

We’re ‘civilised’ now; we know that it’s wrong
To force children to work and cut short their song
Locked in a factory, all the day long
For fifteen pence a week.

And yet we go shopping, and yet we still buy
Clothes made in China by children who’ll die
Once it was English and now it is Thai
Paid fifteen pence a week.

The problem remains, though the years
    have gone by
We don’t want to know, and we’re living a lie
We’re thrilled by the prices and don’t
    the question why
It’s that fifteen pence a week.

Not four feet tall I stand, and yet
My bones are aged from physical debt
My childhood is gone, and my future is set
At fifteen pence a week.

I can’t tell the time and I can’t tell the date
I’ve not been to school, and now it’s too late
But I hope that in heaven they’ll open the gate
For my fifteen pence a week.


Like almost everyone, towards the end of his life Gerald Massey sometimes thought back to his youth and the days when he departed Tring to work in London.  The poverty and cruelty he saw in the city impressed itself on him to such an extent that, years later, he recalled one aspect in a poem he wrote for his granddaughter.

Always sympathetic to suffering, whether of people or animals, he recounted the loathsome practice of the bird-sellers in the street markets around Spitalfields.  In this area, it was the Huguenot silk-weavers (see Chapter 1) who first discovered that the quality of song of caged birds could be improved by putting out their eyes with hot wires.  (When these settlers moved east to establish their craft in Norwich, the caged songbirds went with them, and today some say this is how Norwich City Football Club acquired its nickname of ‘The Canaries’.)  Massey’s poem reads:

Listen, my little one, it is the lark,
Captured and blinded, singing in the dark.
His nest-mate and his younglings are all dead:
Their feathers flutter on some foolish head.
Of some lost Paradise, poor bird, he sings
Which for a moment back his vision brings ...
He sings his fervid life out day by day;
Imprisoned in an area underground ...
As if with floods of music he would drown
The dire, discordant roar of London Town.




The Aylesbury Connection

In Buckinghamshire in earlier years, the making of lace had given poorer folk a reasonable living, but in the 1830s everything changed.  This cottage craft became redundant, as machine-made lace from the Midlands started to swamp the market.  The situation presented serious problems for the Guardians of the Poor at Aylesbury and other smaller towns in the district. (The ratepayers already considered themselves over-burdened with payments of Parish Relief, and a further drain on their purses was most unwelcome.)

A solution suddenly presented itself when Robert Nixon, a nephew of William and Joseph Kay of Tring Mill, became out of work.  He had acted as Manager at Joseph’s silk mill in Manchester and, on his uncle’s retirement, Robert travelled south to use his experience to establish his own operation, and to ensure its profitability he resolved to base the business on the use of cheap juvenile labour.  The Aylesbury Guardians needed little encouragement to seize this opportunity, and offered him advice and every assistance. They suggested that a portion of the workhouse premises in Oxford Road could be used as a silk-weaving mill, and agreed to spend £200 on the conversion, provided Robert entered into a bond not to employ any hands except paupers chargeable on the Parish of Aylesbury.

(The Aylesbury Guardians were not alone in their anxiety to relieve complaining ratepayers of the necessity to maintain the poor of the parish.  Other nearby institutions were not above using doubtful methods, and an account relating to the Thame workhouse reveals a sorry tale of machinations, threats, and broken promises.  William Bates and Richard Dorset had both fallen on hard times and received Parish Relief to help maintain dependents.  With the assurance of firm employment, good wages, and adequate housing, the two men, against their better judgment, were bullied into loading the 14 members of their families into a farmer’s cart to Tring.  In the event, the adults could obtain no work at the Mill, the children were paid nowhere near the expected sum, and only one house was provided for both families.  However, the Thame Guardians achieved their aim as, for a while, they became the responsibility of the Berkhamsted Union instead.)

After reaching agreement with the Aylesbury authorities, Robert Nixon settled in the area, living for a while in some luxury at Tring Park mansion which he rented from his Uncle William.  Robert had brought with him Richard Moscrop, a superintendent of the Manchester mill, who was also anxious to make a new start.  Between them, the two men set up 40 treadle-operated hand looms in the workhouse premises giving paid employment to many female paupers.  Matters did not always go according to plan as, exactly one day after the serious fire at Tring Silk Mill (see Chapter 6), a similar catastrophe occurred at Aylesbury.  The wind blew a gas-light which in turn set fire to a loom, but fortunately the damage amounted to several hundred pounds, and not thousands as at Tring.

Robert demonstrated his commitment to the new venture by taking a house in Buckingham Road in Aylesbury, and enrolling his son in a private boarding school in Temple Square.  He died in 1853 at the early age of 43 and is buried in the graveyard of St. Mary’s Parish Church in Aylesbury.  Possibly realising he was terminally ill, before his death Robert Nixon had leased the Aylesbury business to David Evans, the tenant of Tring Mill who immediately extended the premises, adding 70 new power looms to allow greatly increased production, and engaging James Hobday from Birmingham as Manager.  Later the operation was expanded again with his purchase of Aylesbury’s old parish mill for the sum of £600, the money being used by the town authorities to buy a public recreation ground.

James Hobday

The mill at Aylesbury was always essentially a weaving mill, and the necessary material was supplied from Tring.  The thrown silk was delivered in skeins and was rewound onto reels, followed by a second and more careful winding, then transfer to the weaver’s quills.  The finest silk came from the use of hand-looms, as it left the machine as perfect.  In contrast a little later on, when power-looms were introduced, a finishing process of hot pressing was added.

The other operation performed at Aylesbury was the difficult process of producing patterns in the fabric, either by the introduction of silk of various colours; by a different arrangement of threads; or by using silk of differing substances.  (This very complicated procedure was greatly simplified by a machine invented by the Frenchman, Jacquard.)  The designer was a skilled operative for, as well as thinking up the pattern, he was required to undertake the painstaking task of drawing his design on paper, setting his machine (known as ‘a piano’), and inserting narrow perforated slips of cardboard into the machine to transfer the design.  This whole process remained largely a mystery to the rest of the workforce.

Cottage industry - silk weaving at home.

In the meantime, Richard Moscrop had moved a short away off to Whitchurch where he made his home and established a silk-weaving operation and drapery business.  He was joined by a host of his relations, including his brother and his mother, described as ‘the matriarch of the family’.  Among his selected sites were Leppers Yard where 30 females worked, and a few cottages for the production of ribbon silk, an operation ideally suited to women as a ribbon-loom was smaller in both size and weight.  Later, a new factory was erected and fitted with machines, looms, warehouses, and employees’ houses.  This area in the south end of the village became known as ‘Little Bolton’ after Richard Moscrop’s native town, and he was affectionately known to workers and villagers as ‘Old Mossy’.  The Moscrop family provided much-needed employment for Whitchurch and for nearby Waddesdon, where a similar but smaller offshoot branch was opened.  Women worked hand-looms in a building in the centre of the village, in a road still called Silk Street.  None of the precious silk ever went to waste, as any remnants from the skeins were saved and used as stuffing for upholstery.

After the death of the founder of the business, the manufacture of silk in the villages of both Whitchurch and Waddesdon ceased, and the Moscrop family made their living in other ways, one brother becoming manager of the Co-op stores. It is likely that this source of revenue for these rural communities was missed, especially by the women who were fast-forgetting their old skill of lace-making.

The mill at Aylesbury carried on until 1887, when the following auction sale notice appeared in The Bucks Herald:


Well-situated Freehold Manufactory, residence, and 26 houses and cottages.
The extensive manufactory recently used as a silk mill, in an area of 7,448 sq.ft. with numerous offices attached.
Boiler house, engine house containing a 14-hp steam engine with lofty shaft.
Brick-built and slated 8-roomed manager’s house attached, with extensive warehouses at rear.
12 cottages also adjoining, and a large garden, the whole covering an area of nearly an acre.
4 newly-built houses with stone bay windows.
2 brick-built and slated houses, with gardens and frontage to the Oxford Road.
8 recently-erected roomy cottages in Mount Street.

All classes of silk goods were produced at the mills in Bucks, mostly leaving the factories in a finished state ready for the counters of the silk mercers.  It is said that some articles manufactured at Aylesbury were exported to Paris, re-imported to London, and then sold as ‘superior French goods’.  Silk items from Aylesbury were considered fine enough to exhibit at the Crystal Palace Exhibition of 1851 and, reputedly, even found their way into Queen Victoria’s wardrobe.

Examples of silk from the Aylesbury silk factory
Bucks Country Museum, Aylesbury

Bobbin Shuttles

Bucks County Museum, Aylesbury



The Mill House

The Mill House when occupied by Walter Thomas and his family c.1890s

Like all old buildings, over the years the Mill House has seen its share of wear and tear.  However it has survived neglect, a serious fire in the 1970s, and subsequent vandalism to remain a square and attractive example of late-Georgian rural architecture.  Reputedly built in 1812, it is constructed of single-skin pinkish-red local brick covered by a slate roof.  A transom bar around the outside of the house, just below the level of the first-floor sash windows, originally supported the cladding of terracotta fish-scale tiles, some of which can still be seen at the rear of the property.  (On the right-hand side of the entrance to the Mill House and facing Brook Street, a second substantial double-fronted property of a similar date accommodated other senior staff members.)

The Mill House today.

Known at first as Brookend House and no doubt enlarged at different times, the 1872 auction particulars of the Tring Park estate describe the Mill House as having “a large hall, spacious dining and drawing rooms, a breakfast room, five bedrooms, two dressing rooms, and a water closet”.  Always a family home, the Mill House has seen a variety of tenants and owners.  As well as various Managers of the Mill, these include the first Bookkeeper and Cashier, the Engineer in charge of the Tring Park estate maintenance departments, the General Manager of RMR Engineering, and one enterprising couple who opened a tea room and also offered day tickets for fishing in the lake.  This brief venture, although successful with the public, had to be abandoned when planning permission was refused by the Council on account of the difficult access and inadequate parking arrangements.

Map c.1877 showing the Mill House (red), Mill Pond and Tring Feeder (blue).
Brook Street is shaded green.

Always one of the most attractive features of the property, the sizeable lake is viewed from the ground floor of the house through two pairs of French doors opening from the main reception rooms.  It is large enough and sufficiently deep to allow a rowing boat, as shown in Victorian photographs.  Trees and shrubs, and the much-repaired old flint wall, screen the entire garden from view both from Brook Street and the public footpath at the rear of the property.

The original garden and orchard of the Mill House once extended as far as the Market Place, but most have now disappeared and been built over.  From about 1820 to 1888, facing Brook Street and in the north-east corner of the garden, stood some thatched hovels known as Dog Kennel Cottages, so called because a Captain Yates housed his pack of hounds at the rear.

Mill House, viewed from Brook Street.

By the middle of the twentieth century, the lake presented a sorry sight after it had been deliberately polluted, and the central stone fountain smashed and overturned.  Fully cleared out and restored, it now supports a variety of freshwater fish such as bream, carp, perch, and rudd.  Fringed by tall trees and shrubs, it is home to mallard and Aylesbury ducks, and visited by herons during the daytime, and bats catching insects in the evening.

Many of the house’s period features were lost in the middle of the twentieth century during the time the property was unoccupied.  Partial renovation was done during the 1980s, and much careful restoration has been carried out since by the current owners who have also extended the house on its northern side.




Rothschild Ownership 1872 - 1940

Long before the 4,000-acre Tring Park estate came to the market in 1872, the Rothschild merchant banking family had acquired other estates, land, and property in various parts of the Vale of Aylesbury.  Acquisition of Tring Park was particularly desirable, especially as the surrounding area held fond memories for the family, dating as far back as the summer holidays spent there in the 1830s.  At the auction sale it was no problem for the Rothschilds to outbid all comers, and the Tring Park estate was duly knocked down for £230,000.

Details from the auction catalogue of the Tring Park estate, 1872.

As well as a mansion house surrounded by a glorious park, it included desirable farms, pubs, shops, and land.  Part of the package was the doubtful asset of a sprawling six-acre site in Brook Street on which stood the five-storey 170ft-long working Silk Mill; a further condition of the sale stipulated that the machinery in the Mill had to be paid for at a fixed valuation.

As outlined in Chapter 5 the silk industry was soon to slide into decline, and after the surrender of the lease of the Mill to Lord Rothschild a major problem remained.  His lordship was aware that sudden closure would cause great financial hardship to the workforce, and for a while he continued to run the business at a loss, retaining John Akers as Manager.  During their employment by Lord Rothschild, the workers were treated with his usual generosity.  For example, at Christmas 1889 he presented all 300 mill hands with a new silver crown each, and arranged a party in the Victoria Hall. Everyone’s eyes were on the three decorated Christmas trees loaded with gifts for employees and their children.  After a sumptuous tea, other members of the Rothschild family arrived to assist Lady Rothschild in handing out the presents, as well as what was described as “an article of clothing, both useful and appropriate for every guest”.  One recipient of this bounty was James Teddar, who had worked in the Mill for 58 years.

When the doors of the Mill finally shut in 1898, Lord Rothschild provided a pension to the older employees, while some of the young men, who could not get other jobs, were offered a paid passage to start a new life in Canada.  Many Tring lads took advantage of this opportunity, and some did extremely well in their new country.  (Closure did hold one benefit for his lordship, as he was then able to order the demolition of the top stories of the Mill, which it was said detracted from the view from the windows of his mansion.)

A useful purpose then had to be sought for the smaller but still sizeable old premises.  This did not prove too difficult, and a solution for the obsolete building was soon found with the relocation of the Tring Park estate maintenance departments  The small army of staff from the various trades employed to keep the mansion and all the estate buildings in immaculate condition was re-housed from its buildings in Park Street; it included the carpenters’ department with its stock of timber, followed shortly by other employees.


Nathan (Nathaniel) Mayer Rothschild, 1st baron Rothschild of Tring (1840-1915)

A power station was installed to supply electricity to Tring Park mansion, farm buildings on the estate, and the Rothschild laundry on St Peter’s Hill.  The scheme also included a system of telephones and fire bells.  A long room, clad in dark red glazed tiles, housed two large steam engines, their drive wheels, some 10ft. in diameter, rotating leather belts in conjunction with smaller wheels two feet away; two banks of 6ft-square accumulators; and a control panel of polished slate.  A door led to stone steps which descended to an area containing several rows of acid tanks.  A dynamo was attached to the gearing of the waterwheel, and fuelled pumps to hoist hydraulic lifts in both the basement of the mansion and the Mill itself.  In the early 1930s, one steam engine was replaced by an oil-engine which was fuelled by three large diesel oil tanks placed on an outside wall.

The electricity power station - engine room and control panel.

Alterations to the Mill premises were designed by Tring architect, William Huckvale, and the setting-up operation and overall control by Walter Thomas, one-time ship’s engineer, who moved with his family to the Mill House.  Walter’s first challenge was to supervise the removal of the top two storeys of the mill, followed by the laying of cables from the Home, West Leith, and Hastoe Farms and, later, the Museum.  Given carte blanche to purchase the best equipment, the project was something of an engineer’s dream, and Walter was a welcome visitor to the engineering firms in the City.

Walter Thomas outside the mill.

Lord Rothschild’s great interest in all matters agricultural, had led to several new farms being established in the Tring area.  Twenty-five acres of land adjoining the Mill in Brook Street were fenced and hedged and rented to John Batchelor.  He occupied the attractive newly-built farmhouse, designed in the usual ‘Rothschild estate style’, surrounded by outbuildings, a large garden, and an orchard.  A further strip of land fronting Brook Street was set out as allotment gardens.  Around 1913, some tall trees beside the Feeder were felled in readiness for the erection of a row of new cottages, but the plan had to be abandoned when the ground was discovered to be too waterlogged.

Tring Fire Brigade parade outside the Silk Mill c.1930s.

The end of the 1930s saw the end of another era for the Mill, when the death of the second Lord Rothschild resulted in the break-up and sale of most of the Tring Park estate.  The high number of maintenance staff were no longer needed and, in any case, everyone was occupied with thoughts of the looming prospect of war.



RMR Engineering 1940 - 1974

The merchant bank N M Rothschild & Sons began dealing in bullion from an early date, and in 1852 took over the lease of the Royal Mint Refinery in the East End of London.  At that time, gold had recently been discovered in California and Australia, and supplies, together with quicksilver from Spain, were readily available.  Workers with experience in metal refining were recruited from France, and labourers’ cottages were built on the refinery premises.

As World War II drew nearer Victor, the third Lord Rothschild, ordered a survey to see how best RMR could contribute to the war effort, and a separate company, RMR Engineering, was formed in 1938 to take over some of the work previously done at the refinery.  All were aware that disruption threatened due to the expected blitz on London, and it was apparent that plans would need to be made to re-site the operation.  One suggestion was relocation to the old Silk Mill premises in Tring, then being used as a barracks for soldiers of the Dorset Regiment.

When the bombing raids began, the Minister of Aircraft Production drew up a 21-year lease for the premises, the other parties being Lord Rothschild and the Bank of England.  Suitable modifications to the premises were designed by William Huckvale junior and, when complete, equipment from the refinery was moved down to Tring.  The exterior of the Mill was painted in camouflage colours and a pillbox (still in place) was built on the roof, presumably as a defensive measure.



John Flynn

The responsibility for setting-up operations was entrusted to John Flynn, who remained at RMR for the next 25 years.  The Mill once again echoed with the roar of machinery as torpedo detonators poured off the production line, soon supplemented by precision parts for artillery and aircraft.  A second company from London, Shield Alloys, shared the accommodation and produced aluminium alloy and brass sand castings for aircraft components.

Arthur Kimpton, head of the Rothschild bullion department and chairman of the price-fixing committee of gold and silver markets, became General Manager of both companies, although his time was limited when his expertise to contribute to vital war work was requested by H M Treasury.  Weighty decisions were no doubt taken in the Board Room, which was established in a long room formed from the cottages fronting the road, and once the home of the pauper girls from the London workhouses.

During the war, life did have its lighter moments, and at Christmas the children of employees of RMR were entertained to parties in Tring Park mansion hosted by members of the Rothschild family.  The mammoth Christmas tree, multi-coloured balloons, live clowns, and Punch & Judy, must have seemed great treats to youngsters accustomed to wartime austerity.  Their parents were not forgotten, and good-quality entertainment for the workers was arranged; the concerts sometimes included such local celebrities as the international baritone Denis Noble, his actress wife Miriam Ferris, and songs with words by Tring-born song-writer, Herbert Brandon.

RMR Engineering letterhead, showing signs of post-war austerity.

The workforce from RMR London had to be enlarged by recruitment from areas with a tradition of tool-making.  Housing proved a particular problem, but in some parts of the town a few Tring Park estate houses were available.  Otherwise, single men were accommodated in the old Bothy building in London Road (now the site of Tesco supermarket), and single women in the redundant Rothschild laundry building at St Peter’s Hill.  Immediately after the war, the RMR Housing Society was registered.  As such societies had priority over private developers and the limited supplies of scarce building materials, it enabled the Rothschilds in conjunction with the Town Council, to build a quantity of metal-framed three-bedroom houses in Meadow Close, Tring, and in villages nearby.

After the war, it was estimated that 73 million parts were produced by the two companies (Shield Alloys manufactured most of the detonators for bombs used by the RAF).  The demand for aircraft parts carried on until the end of the Korean War in 1953, but raw materials were scarce, and RMR was forced to compete for the limited supplies of steel.  The number of workers increased from 130 in 1950 to 280 six years later, and making full use of the machinery and labour was difficult.  Bottlenecks sometimes occurred and odd stop-gap items would appear in the contracts book, such as one million hot-water bottle stoppers.

Lipstick case manufacture c.1960s.

The transition from war to peace meant a search for new products, and the rapid switch to bus-ticket machines and cosmetic containers was astonishing.  Firms such as Coty were looking for accelerated production to recover the lost markets of pre-war days, and soon orders for lipstick cases were coming not only from Coty but Max Factor, Ponds, and Elizabeth Arden.  After the years of post-war gloom, a new optimism prevailed and trade in cosmetics boomed, and by the beginning of the 1950s, 188,000 lipstick cases per week left Tring.

Ten years later times had changed, and factory work no longer held great appeal, as female workers preferred to travel out of Tring to obtain jobs in offices and shops.  However the order book was full, and an article in the local paper relates that John Flynn was his usual forthright self when he told the reporter “People should be proud to work in a factory!  Britain’s future is in her factories ..................... what does it matter if, in some factory jobs, a girl gets a little oil on her hands?  Oil can always be washed off.  A sensible girl laughs at any stupid snobbery about factory work.  She can afford to do so because she receives a good basic wage, and it is up to her how much more she earns in bonuses and incentives”.


The ill-fated DE HAVILLAND “COMET”—
advertisement in FLIGHT, 25th April 1952

Relations between the volatile manager and newcomers from other industries, who would have preferred the backing of a union, occasionally had to be sorted out by David Colville, a partner in the Rothschild bank.  His weekly visits to Tring helped to smooth over any difficulties.

However, new technology was being developed, and as plastics started to replace the demand for metal products, it became a continuous struggle to find outlets for the skills and capacity that had been built up.  Towards the end of the 1960s, N. M. Rothschild & Sons signalled that direct involvement in metal industries was no longer the best role for a merchant bank, and in 1974 the business was put on the market.

It was the Chairman, David Colville, who announced that RMR Engineering was soon to be acquired by a precision engineering company based in Luton.  He assured the 180 assembled workforce that it would continue to trade under the name of RMR & Tring Engineering Ltd.  But a few months later, plans to expand the business received a setback when, due to pressure on the local authority to supply building land, planning permission for a new warehouse was refused.

A spokesman for the new owners stated “We are absolutely stumped by this.  Since the take-over in March we have turned RMR from a stagnant company into a thriving business.  We have fought and struggled and now the company’s order books are jam packed.  Everyone is full of enthusiasm here, but without a warehouse we just haven’t room to carry out the orders.  If there is no possibility our getting this warehouse, we may have to look outside Tring.”  This proved to be the case, and another chapter in the history of the old Silk Mill came to an end.



Modern Times

After the death of the second Lord Rothschild in 1937, much land and property of the Tring Park estate were put on the market.  Along with several other farms, Silk Mill Farm, then leased to William Mead, owner of the nearby flour mill, came under the hammer.  In the auction catalogue the property was described as a ‘Pleasure Farm’, and comprised the farmhouse, 25 acres of land, garden, orchard, four piggeries, two loose boxes, a meal house, and cow-house for eight beasts.  The whole lot realised £2,050.

Silk Mill farm c.1930s.

After the war more land was urgently needed by local authorities for residential development, and anxious to relieve overcrowding in the capital the Greater London Council sought building sites all over the Home Counties.  Tring was one area ear-marked for expansion, and by the late 1960s plans to build on the site of Silk Mill Farm were well advanced.  Various planning applications were submitted to Tring UDC; the usual concerns voiced; and the usual compromises agreed.  Phased building work got underway, which included the erection of a large community centre, four shops, play spaces, as well as new roads and areas of private housing.  Some of the modern street names in this area are a reminder of times past Silk Mill Way, Evans Way, Mill Gardens, and Brookfield Close.

Considerable work was undertaken to provide an open recreational area with a stream-side walk.  The Feeder, polluted and choked with blanket weed, had dwindled to a muddy trickle at its New Mill end.  It was cleared and cleaned, over thirty trees planted along the banks, and some years later two bridges erected.  Described by their engineer as a “milestone in futuristic masonry design”, they were lowered by crane into position over the water.

The Feeder near its junction with the Wendover Arm.

Today the old Silk Mill premises in Brook Street are painted a uniform cream colour, and house small business units of varying sizes engaged in diverse activities.  The original L-shaped buildings, and later additions on the northern side, surround a large yard, in the corner of which is the former boiler house.

A high arch of Victorian construction, now bricked up, once led to the cellar complex containing the underground water wheel, and an interlinking arrangement of chambers, culverts, and sluices channelled this water beneath the buildings and yard in a brick-lined tunnel.  All the machinery below the ground was removed many years ago, and the great wheel, which no longer turns, is securely sealed off and hidden from view behind a stout iron door.  If an ear is placed against this door, the sound of rushing water can still be clearly heard, and walking over the tarmac of the yard today and pausing in the centre, from below one’s feet comes the noise of the stream, evoking memories of the Mill’s past and its bustling activity.

Reminders of the second world war can also be seen in the yard where two robust Nissen huts, once the barracks of the men of the Dorset Regiment, still give good service.  The legacy of Home Guard activity tops the building, and four flights of stairs and an iron ladder lead to the pillbox with its three firing slits giving a line of sight covering the road below and the rear of the building.  In more recent times, relics of the production activities in World War II have been discovered, including some hand-grenade cases in the soak-aways.  Within the last few years, underground inspections have been carried out by the Environment Agency investigating possible pollution of the water due to various metals used in post-war production.

If the ghosts of William Kay, David Evans, or Henry Rowbotham ever waft down Brook Street to haunt the old Silk Mill, they will still recognise some features from those days of long ago.  In the original part of the building, they will feel at home within the thick brick walls, the cast-iron columns, and the high Victorian windows which allowed plenty of light for the delicate process of silk throwing.  Perhaps also, shadowy images of small pale faces will return their gaze, and they will hear the faint echo of children singing hymns.  But, raising their eyes upwards, they may be puzzled why the tall brick chimney and the top two stories of the Mill have disappeared.





Bucks Herald, 30th January 1836

On Friday morning intelligence was received at the Sun Fire Office, in which the property is partly insured, that a most destructive fire had broken out the previous afternoon, between one and two o’clock, at the extensive mills of Messrs Evans & Co., in the immediate vicinity of the town of Tring.  The mills are of vast extent, and raised to a height of five stories; and at the time of the accident, trade being very brisk, as many as 800 work-people, of whom a large proportion were young girls, were at work.

About half past one o’clock the housekeeper, who occupies a cottage adjacent to the mill, on going outside her door, saw a thick smoke arising from an upper story of the factory.  An alarm was instantly given, but before any measure could be adopted to ascertain the nature of the danger, flames burst forth, and spread with great rapidity along the fourth floor of the building, and thence to the floor above.  Expresses were instantly sent off to Aylesbury, from whence two large engines were sent, and two others were brought from the town of Tring.  Lady Bridgewater and Mr. Hay, who are residents in the neighbourhood, and have each a private engine, likewise promptly sent them to the spot, and the inhabitants for miles round showed the most commendable disposition to render every assistance in their power.

There was fortunately and ample supply of water from an adjacent pond, or rather small lake of about twelve acres, whence a powerful and well-directed stream was constantly played on the fire, which was eventually got under [control], after having destroyed the whole of the uppermost floors, and materially damaging the the one next below.

Mr. David Evans had left London that very morning on a visit to his silk factory, and on reaching Berkhamstead, on his way down, about three o’clock in the afternoon, had the mortification to learn, as the common talk of the place, that his valuable and well-known factory, distant about eight miles, was then in flames.  He hurried on to Tring, where he arrived in time to witness a melancholy confirmation of the rumour; the flames were then blazing most fiercely.

The fire according to the accounts yet obtained, is believed to be purely accidental.  It is said that a workman had occasion to go up shortly before dinner time to a dark apartment on the fourth floor, and that he took with him a lighted candle, and as the fire is known to have broken out in this part of the building, it is supposed that by some carelessness or accident, fire was then set to apart of the loose materials therein.

Surveyor has been sent down by the Sun-office to make full enquiries into the extent and cause of the calamity.  The property is ensured in the Sun, the Protector, and other offices, altogether to the amount of £11,000, which, it is believed, will amply cover the loss to the proprietors; but still the calamity to the population of Tring and the neighbourhood, which mainly depends on these works, is likely to prove most distressing, for it is not expected that the full business of the mill can be brought in to operation for three months to come, and in the meanwhile the spring demand will have been furnished from other quarters.

We have since learned that the loss is estimated at less than £6,000.  Many of the hands had been sent from Aylesbury, and we shall in all probability have many of them back on the Parish, although it is probable that no time will be lost in again putting the mills in working order.



Bucks Herald, 8th January 1842

The inhabitants of this town were aroused from their slumbers between 3 and 4 o’clock on Tuesday morning last, by a loud cry of fire.  It appears that Rolfe, the engineer, got up and struck a light to see what o’clock it was, and hearing a crackling noise proceeding from the direction of the mill he opened the window of his cottage which looks into the mill yard, and observed a great cloud of smoke issuing from the entrance to the engine department, and in a few minutes flames burst forth with great fury from the room over, used as a winding and finishing room, and in which was deposited about £2,000 worth of silk.  Below this room (which is of considerable length) exclusive of a workshop and other offices, was a cellar filled with about 200 tons of coals, and over the before-mentioned room was another filled with machinery, forming the east wing, with a residence next the High Road occupied by the second manager.  So raging were the flames, that in a short space of time the whole of this pile of building was completely gutted.

The parish engine as well as that of Tring Park was quickly on the spot; and as all hope of saving the wing was given up, the firemen directed their attention to the preservation of of the main building, and by great exertions with a plentiful supply of water this was effected, although the doors and windows forming the communication were much burnt, and the stone staircase within the main building had given way.  The engines from Berkhamsted, Ashridge and Aylesbury arrived in quick succession, but the flames having been got under [control], they were not brought into action.

The property is held under a long lease by David Evans, Esq., of Cheapside, and insured in the Sun, Phœnix, Alliance, Imperial, and Union offices.  The loss is estimated at from £6,000 to £7,000.

The steam power being cut off by the injury to the engine and machinery, the labour must be very limited until it is restored.  Some employment will be afforded by water-power, with which the mill is partly worked.




Two highly contrasting reports of inspections carried out at Tring Silk Mill, their aim being to establish the mill’s suitability as a place of employment for workhouse girls.



Evening Mail, 27th October 1845

Mr. Thorne then brought before the board the report of a committee appointed to inquire into the apprenticing of girls to the proprietors of the mills at Tring.  The report was rather voluminous, and of a most interesting character, but the following abstract contains the most prominent features of it.

It commenced by stating that the committee, having heard that the guardians of the neighbouring parish of St. George, Hanover Square, had apprenticed a number of girls to the mills near Tring, in Hertfordshire, made inquiry into the circumstances, learned that 30 to 40 girls belonging to that parish, from the ages of 11 to 13 years, had been so apprenticed, and that the treatment of the children was perfectly satisfactory.  The premium paid for each girl was £4. 17s. 6d., payable in two payments, with a necessary outfit of clothes. On the expiration of the apprenticeship the girls were able to get a comfortable living.

Mr. Rowbotham, the manager of the mills, had applied to that parish (St. Marylebone) for 20 girls, and on the committee proceeding to Tring for the purpose of viewing the mills, they had an interview with that gentleman, and saw the girls at work.


Silk throwing frame.

The continuous filament from the top/horizontal bobbin is pulled onto the vertical/bottom bobbin, A flyer round the bottom bobbin inserts a twist.

The labour consisted of attending to several small wheels, which were set in motion by a steam engine, for the purpose of winding silk, preparatory to its been used by the weaver.  Their duty consisted in watching a given number of these wheels, and every 11 or 12 girls were overlooked by an adult female.  The work appeared clean and healthy, and not in the least laborious, and the children themselves appeared to be cheerful and happy.  The hours of labour per diem for those under 11 years of age was 6½; above that age, 10 hours; and above the age of 13, 12 hours. The number of children so employed was 312, but it was desirable to increase the number to 340.

A short distance from the factory was the domestic establishment, under the control of a matron, which place the committee also visited and had an opportunity of seeing the children at dinner, which consisted of meat, potatoes and pudding.  The sleeping apartments were also well constructed, and the greatest possible attention appeared to be paid to the comforts of the children.  From inquiries made in the town, the committee learned that the greatest attention was paid to them.  They were taken to church at least twice on the Sabbath, and received every instruction in their religious and domestic duties; and it was stated to the committee that in no instance had any apprentice fallen into vicious or bad habits.  On making inquiries as to what the girls were able to earn when out of their time, the committee were informed it was 6s. per week.  This the committee thought a very small sum indeed, but were informed that the living about that neighbourhood was very cheap, and that there were persons in the place who undertook to board and lodge them for 4s. per week, leaving them 2s. to lay out in clothes.

The report concluded by stating, that considering that it would be of great benefit to those girls whose relatives and friends would not object to it, the committee had agreed to the application, and submitted it to the board for approval.

Mr. Powell, in moving the adoption of the report, said, that having been one of the committee who visited the mills, he felt perfectly satisfied with what he saw, the only objection he had being the lowness of wages alluded to in the later part of the report; but then that was stated to be the full amount of wages given round that part of the country.  The clergyman of the parish took a great deal upon himself in looking after the welfare of these girls, some of whom were selected by him as singing girls at the church.  For his own part, he should not have any objection to one of his own nieces going, so satisfied was he that the children were well treated.

Mr. J. Anderson, as one of the committee, must also express his approbation of sending these girls to work in the mills.  The employment was not laborious, nor was it attended with any risk of health, everything appearing to be done for the comfort, welfare, and happiness of all those employed.  They had the pleasure of seeing the children at dinner, and they all looked cheerful and happy.  With respect to the low rate of wages after the apprenticeship had expired, if they did not like to work at it, they would be able to go to service and make as good servants as many who were taught trades in London, but who were afterwards compelled to go out of service.  He, on the day they visited Tring, asked the mistress of the principal inn what she would do, seeing she was a motherly kind of woman, about sending the children, and her answer was, that they would do wrong if they did not, as the children were treated well.  He also heard that this same woman, on every Christmas eve, had all the apprentices in the factory to tea with her.

Mr. Malalieu said, the sum of 6s. a week was very small indeed.  If these children were to be sent to Manchester they would be able to earn, when out of their time, from 14s. to 18s. per week.

Mr. Potter said, he thought the board were much indebted to these gentlemen for the trouble they had taken in considering the best way of getting these children into life.  It was a well known fact that the female children became apprentices to persons for the worst of purposes, frequently got ill used, and again became to inmates of a workhouse.  If often occurred that they became ill in their places, returned again to the workhouse, went out again, fell into bad company, and were either ruined or became permanently inmates of the workhouse.  It was their duty, therefore, to try and wean them from the workhouse, and at no time of life could they better do it than between the ages of 11 and 13.  At that period of life their minds were either disposed for good or evil, and it was his firm opinion that nothing tended so greatly to the benefit of a child as to remove her from those who might make her mind depraved.  By the carrying out of that report they would be the means of greatly benefitting those who might be sent as apprentices to the silk mill.

A guardian wished to know whether the children were to be sent against their wills or that of their parents.

Mr. Thorne Oh no.

The report having been adopted, a resolution was carried, authorising the committee to make the selection of children to be sent.

After transacting the usual routine business, the board broke up.


Refusal of Justices to allow binding of Apprentices to Tring Silk Mills.

Marylebone Mercury, 29th October 1864.

From statements made by the children upon application to justices for permission to bind them to the above mills, they (the justices) considered it necessary to visit the mills, and the following report was the result:

‘At a petty session held on the 19th inst., we were asked to consent to the binding as apprentices to Mr. Evans, of Tring, of fifteen female children belonging to this parish; on that occasion we thought it right to withhold our consent to the proposed bindings of Gordon and Woodward, the first named child being claimed by her grandfather, who declared himself willing and able to provide for her, and the eyesight of the latter being defective and unfitted for the particular work required in a silk mill.

In the course of our examination statements were made by several of the girls that they had at times been beaten by the men in whose charge they were placed.  This seemed to us to require further investigation; we therefore adjourned our decision to the remaining cases, and requested you to accompany us to Tring thoroughly to examine as to the care and treatment of the girls there belonging to St. Pancras.

We now beg to tender our thanks both to yourselves and the three directors of the poor who were associated with you, for the very ready way in which you met our suggestion; and having this day paid a visit to the Tring mills, and very fully and carefully investigated, not only the present treatment of the children employed there, but their future prospects for obtaining a livelihood, we regret to say that we feel it to be our duty in the interest of the children to decline our consent to the proposed binding.

Knowing, as we do, the great difficulty the Directors of the Poor have to place out in the world satisfactorily the large number of girls belonging to the parish, we did not arrive at this decision without being fully satisfied as to its correctness; and from the information obtained this day by ourselves and brother directors, we are not without hope, that on full consideration, you may be disposed to think it the right conclusion.  Meantime, for the information of the board generally, we will here recapitulate some of our chief objections to the proposed apprenticeships:

1st, The total want of education given to the children, although these girls were of the tender age of eleven (for the most part it was not intended to give them during their whole term of apprenticeship any instruction beyond that of an afternoon Sunday school): they would therefore very speedily forget the little knowledge they now possess, and be utterly unfitted hereafter to rise to any superior position.  This objection of itself seems to us sufficient to render it inexpedient to bind the children.

2nd, The work at the mills has a tendency to try the eyes, and as several of the girls have at a previous period suffered from ophthalmia, and work causing a greater strain on these organs should be carefully avoided.

3rd, The work-rooms we found to be very close, not a single window open although the weather was exceedingly fine and warm; the rooms are of a very low pitch, and unless proper attention is paid to the ventilation, constant confinement there must be very trying to the health, especially during the hours when they are lighted by gas.  In the work-rooms with the girls we find that boys of twelve to fifteen years of age were also employed; this we cannot think at all desirable.

4th, As regards the complaint of the girls that the men in charge struck them when they failed in their work, we are satisfied that this has frequently been the case; and although we believe that these punishments have been of a very slight nature, the practice is evidently so dangerous that nothing can justify it, and we trust that now it has been brought to the knowledge of the manager of the mills, any repetition of it may be prevented.

5th, The dormitories appeared clean, but we thought them very crowded; we should think their contents of cubic feet to be very far below the space required by the Poor Law Board for paupers generally.  The matron placed over these girls did not seem to us a person well suited to control young girls, and she informed us that her husband occasionally boxed the girls’ ears and beat them on the arm with a strap; we intimated to her how entirely we disapproved of this treatment.

6th, The apprenticeship of these children was to be for a term of seven years, during which time they would be earning from 1d. to 6d. a week, everything being found for them by the proprietor of the mills; after that they would be able to earn 5s. 6d. weekly, providing their own food, clothing and lodging; more than this they cannot hope to gain at this trade, and it does not seem to us at all desirable to bring up girls to a life offering so small a prospect in the future.  They have little opportunity of ordinary household work, which is most essential to a woman, not only if she desires to enter into domestic service, but to enable her satisfactorily to perform her duties in a house of her own.

Feeling this to be a matter of considerable importance, we have endeavoured to bring fully before you the several matters that influenced our decision.  We have only further to add, that we should be extremely glad to hear that your Board of Directors were willing, and had been able, to make some arrangements for the education of those girls to whose apprenticeship we consented about ten months back; we did so on the full conviction that the arrangements at Tring were in this respect similar to those at the St. Albans silk mills, were we believe a certain time in each week was apportioned to the instruction of the children.’

The Sub-committee that visited the mills with the justices concurred in the report, and recommended that the proposed binding be not carried out.

Notwithstanding the above reports, both of the justices and the committee, several members of the Board contended that the mills was the best place to send the girls. Mr. Welby stated that they had the advantage of getting rid of the girls so soon, but Mr. Jon. Salter remarked that there was great probability of their return after their apprenticeship with two or three additions to the family.  Such a contingency could but be expected where a girl could earn 5s. 6d. a week when out of her time wherewith to lodge, clothe, and maintain herself.

The Board adopted the report of the committee.


Blue silk evening gown with delicate lace and ribbon trim, c.1955.



Osborne’s London & Birmingham Railway Guide, 1840.
The Industrial Archaeology of Hertfordshire: W. Branch Johnson, 1970.
David Evans & Co: The Last of the Old London Textile Printers, Stanley D. Chapman, 1974.
N. M. Rothschild & Sons - Pensioners’ Newsletter: History of RMR Engineering,
    J. Spencer Richards, March 1997.
Tring Parish Magazine: Article - Tring Fifty Years Ago, October 1907.
Hertfordshire Countryside: The London Girls of Tring, Lilian Gibbens, August 1991.
The Pauper Girls of Tring Silk Mills between 1840 and 1871:
    Cynthia Wheatley, September 2000.
A Ravelled Skein: Silk Industry in South-west Herts 1790-1898
    Sheila A. Jennings, University of Hertfordshire, 2004.
Hertfordshire People: Working in the Silk Mills:
    Article by Margaret Ward, March 2005.
Gerald Massey: Chartist, Poet, and Radical Freethinker, David Shaw, 1995.
More Tring Personalities - William Kay, Wendy Austin, 2003.
A Little of my Life, from The London Mercury, Lucy Luck, 1926.
A Year at Chequers: The Diary of Miss Georgiana Williams, 1997.
Tring Advertiser - The Stream that went to Ground: Article by Robin Reynolds, October 1976.
Tring and West Herts Herald: Article Tring to have a Waterside Walk, January 1974.
The Mills of Redbourn, Alan Featherstone, 1993.
A History of Aylesbury, Robert Gibbs, 1895.
History of Whitchurch, Joseph Holloway, 1889.
Aylesbury Vale’s Yesteryears, Hayward Parrott, 1981.
A Brief History of the Mill House and Silk Mill, compiled by owners of the Mill House, c.1992.
The Bucks Advertiser and Aylesbury News archives.
The Bucks Herald archives.
County Press (Hertfordshire), January 1836.
County Herald (Hertfordshire), January 1836.
Bucks Gazette, January 1836
Auction Sale catalogues, Tring Park Estate, 1820, 1872 and 1938.
The notes of Arthur Macdonald, c.1890.
Chambers’ Encyclopædia.
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Bexley Local Studies & Archives Centre.
Bexley Heritage Trust.
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Census Returns, 1841-1901.
Maps: Andrews & Dury; O.S.