This article was written by Michael Brooks for the Amersham Society/Amersham Museum newsletter and is reproduced here with permission.
Researching my family history, I discovered that my great, great, great, great grandfather, Randal Hibbert (b. 1769) was a yeoman farmer and woollen clothier who built a cotton factory in Godley, Nr. Hyde, in 1798, when the Industrial Revolution was changing the patterns of life in England for good. Fortunes were made with the switch of manufacture from woollen cloth to cotton. Amersham had a cotton mill from 1789 to 1809, so I determined to research its history.
Although cotton had been introduced into this country by Protestant refugees from Antwerp as early as 1585, the manufacture of cotton cloth took many years to develop because of our thriving wool trade. The economy of the country relied on our superior fleeces and the spinning and weaving of fine woollen cloth in farms and cottages. The women and children did the spinning and roving whilst the men did the weaving on hand looms. Looms were treasured possessions, as shown in many wills. Before the days of National Censuses it is not easy to trace the names and numbers of those involved. Amersham Parish Records from 1637 give the names of shearmen who cut the stray fibres from woven cloth and of some weavers. A local token bearing the clothmaker’s arms was issued by Andrew Burrows in 1675 and Elizabeth Ruff a trade token depicting a shuttle in 1668. In that same year Job Rayment is recorded as dyeing cloth in a dyehouse behind the Swan Inn. A will of 1710 by Samuel Wyer records him as a clothworker.
Wars on the continent interrupted our export trade, leading to a glut of wool. “Burial in Wool Acts” of 1667 and 1673 were passed to prop up the farmers. Relatives of the deceased had to swear an affidavit that a woollen burial had taken place. A fine of £5 was levied for non-compliance, though our Amersham parish records show that Sir William Drake was listed on 24th September 1690 as “buried in linen and the law satisfied”. The influence of the local squire seems to have extended beyond the grave! The semi-circular-topped tombstones in St. Mary’s Churchyard are said to represent a bale of wool, the lines across the tombstones thought to represent a type of binding. The last entry concerning burial in wool appears in the parish record of 1802. The “Burial in Wool Acts” were not repealed until 1814.
Woven cotton goods were being freely imported by the 18th century but the use of cotton to produce cotton cloth was strongly resisted by woollen and silk manufacturers. They ensured that an Act was passed in 1720 prohibiting the wearing of any printed or dyed goods of which cotton formed a part, with the exception of blue calicoes, muslins or fustians. The statutes were relaxed after 1730 to allow dyeing and printing of cloth made with a linen warp and cotton weft, such as fustians. Cloth merchants began to hand out warps and raw cotton to the weavers, paying for the roving, spinning and weaving, receiving the finished cloth in return. After 1767 the inventions of Hargreaves, Crompton and Arkwright led to a gradual change in cloth production from an almost entirely cottage industry to factory production, using water power to run the new machinery. The manufacture of purely cotton cloth was legalised in 1774; before that date cotton cloth was mainly imported from India.
A pamphlet of 1782 states ‘As for the ladies, they wear scarcely anything now but cotton, calicoes, muslin or silks and think no more of woollen stuffs than we think of an old almanac.’ Power looms were introduced from 1775, hastening the end of the cottage system. Poor agricultural wages and poverty caused a huge migration to the towns; whole families are known to have moved. Some Buckinghamshire families moved to Lancashire. In the new factories the men worked the spinning machines with women doing the weaving with their children doing much of the cleaning under the machinery.
Amersham had a cotton mill from 1789 to 1809, the brainchild of a very interesting polymath, Richard Morris. He was a Baptist Minister at the Lower Baptist Chapel and lived at Bury End. He had become well aware of poverty in the town and the low agricultural wages, worsened by closure of the Tothill workhouse in the High Street due to neglect and maladministration in 1780. That workhouse (now Frith House) was replaced by a new workhouse at 22-28 Whielden Street, but there was insufficient room for all the paupers.
Morris had been born in Radcliffe in 1747 and knew of the flourishing cotton trade in Lancashire. He needed to supplement his stipend; on joining the army, his family had purchased his commission, but he was dishonourably discharged from the Oxford Blues for failure in 1775 to attend church parades due to his dissenting views. He had become involved with a drapery and a grocery business in Amersham and then he decided to enter into partnership with Thomas Hailey, a glazier and plumber and his son, to build a cotton mill in Bury End, on a site now beneath Tesco’s car park. Morris designed the spinning, weaving and bleaching machinery and did much of the construction work himself. His designs were later sold to other cotton mills in the south east of England.
The mill was powered by an undershot waterwheel on a stream branching from the Misbourne. The junction may still be seen where water enters a culvert behind Tesco’s store, going under the car park and London Road West, later to rejoin the river downstream. The main river continued under Station Road to power the waterwheel at Bury Corn Mill which was to become a café and then Ambers. Initially 28 men were employed in the mill but later this rose to 100. Pigott’s Directory of 1792 states “Messrs. Morris, Hailey and Hailey manufacture white cotton goods by machinery of the newest, some of it of peculiar, construction. His cotton calicoes of high quality are much in demand.”
It is likely, though not certain, that paupers were employed at the mill. The Posse Comitatus of 1798 (which listed all able-bodied men who might be available to serve in the army) named 33 men as spinners or weavers. The mill had to be enlarged and Drapers John Fenn and Joseph Wickenden became partners. The mill was far and away the biggest employer in the area. The finished cloth was hung out to dry and stretch on tenterhooks on a piece of land belonging to Rector John Drake on the other side of the river.
Amersham was not ideally situated for manufacture, though by 1789 turnpike roads had improved the transport of goods and a regular carrying service had been established to London. Richard Lee had 12 horses, three wagons and five carts, but packhorses were still used. Though initially a success, the French trade embargo during the war with Napoleon (begun in 1793) made the production of cotton cloth increasingly uneconomic. The Amersham mill could no longer compete with Lancashire and the mill closed in 1807. However, Richard Morris and the Drake and Weller families brought it back into production the following year to try to relieve the distress caused to the workers. Despite their efforts, it finally had to close in 1809. Some families migrated away, even to Lancashire.
Joseph Jennings purchased the mill to produce silk crêpe and this manufacture lasted until the mid-1850s. The 1851 census lists only four silk weavers. The silk mill was shown on maps of 1825. No evidence has been found to support the idea that the black silk thread used in the production of the local black lace was made at the mill.