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Whitchurch Silk Mill

Whitchurch Silk Mill, rear view showing location on Frog Island in the River Test.

Whitchurch Silk Mill is located on Frog Island in the River Test, Whitchurch, Hampshire.  The Mill is a magical place, surrounded by beautiful countryside, brimming with history and an important reminder of Hampshire’s industrial heritage.

Whitchurch Silk Mill, view from front.

Although silk production ceased in December 2011, due to the economic downturn, the Mill is still open to the public.  Whitchurch is a wonderful day-out and with the weather set to improve next week (temperatures predicted to reach 27 degrees celsius) it is the perfect choice for a family day-out.  The Mill staff are very friendly and happy to discuss all aspects of the Mill’s history and silk fabric production.  For more information, CLICK HERE.

In 1815, the Mill was built by Henry Hayter although it is possible that a mill has stood on the site since the Domesday Book (1086).  When Hayter renewed the lease of his copyhold in 1814 he installed a new tenant, Joseph Phillips.  The nature of business at this time was wool processing, Whitchurch has always had a long association with the woollen industry. Henry surrendered his copyhold, in May 1816, to Wakeford’s Bank Andover and Warwick Weston, a London yarn factor. Wakeford Bank and Warwick Weston subsequently put the Mill up for auction on 16th August 1816. The Mill failed to sell.

William Maddick was granted copyhold from 1817-1844.  He was a Spitalfields silk manufacturer and weaver who specialised in weaving black silk.  It is likely that during Maddick’s copyhold, the Mill began throwing silk, supervised by one of a succession of managers employed by Maddick to oversea production during his absences in London.

The next copyholders were Alexander Bannerman and John Spencer (1844-1846) who sold the Mill freehold to William Chappell (1846-1871). During Chappell’s ownership a number of key legislative bills came into force in Britain, impacting on the Mill’s social infrastructure, the main one being The Factories Act. Below are a few key changes brought about by this Act:

  • 1844 Act – Children aged 9-13 only allowed to work nine hours per day, plus lunch break; women to work no more than twelve hours per day during the week and nine hours on a Sunday; one and a half hours worth of meal breaks per day; all factories had to be lime-washed every fourteen months;
  • 1850 Act – Women and children only allowed to work between 6am and 6pm in the summer and 7am and 7pm in the winter; all work on a Saturday to end at 2pm; children aged 9-18 only allowed to work ten and a half hours per day/night;
  • 1901 Act – The minimum working age is raised to twelve; it was the employer’s responsibility to provide all child employees with an education and proper meals; the Mill had had a school room since c1846; all factories had to have fire escapes.

William Chappell’s son, Henry, took over the Mill’s ownership in the 1870s until his death in 1877.  At this time the Mill was still weaving silk, likely to have been serge, a type of twill fabric.  Henry’s widow, Adelaide, ran the Mill until 1886 when she was forced to sell the building to pay-off debts. The Mill, by this time, had fourteen looms and ten employees.

In 1887, it was purchased by John Hide a local shopkeeper and draper.  John installed a new waterwheel and three water-powered ‘Tappet’ looms, replacing the already fifty year old wooden treadle looms.  The waterwheel powered the looms until the late 1920s when electricity was introduced to the building.

Loom 14 in the weaving shed. A nineteenth century, Hattersley Tappet loom by William Smith & Bros Ltd of Heywood Lancashire.

John Hide married Elizabeth Newman whose brother-in-law was Thomas Burberry (1835-1926).  The Mill began to weave for Burberry.  John’s son James ran the Mill from 1905 until 1911.  Following John’s death in 1911, James inherited the Mill and ran it until 1955. James died aged 92, a bachelor and without children. Throughout this period the Mill continued to weave silk for Burberry, producing twenty-two different colours of silk lining for their famous raincoats.  Thomas Burberry was a draper’s apprentice when he established his first shop in Basingstoke, Hampshire, 1856, aged just 21.

Before the Second World War, the Mill dyed its own silk. Weaving continued throughout the First and Second World War when plain silk was produced for insulating cables.  Another outlet for the Mill’s silk fabric was lining for legal gowns and cream silk for shirtingStephen Walters & Company of Suffolk brought the Mill in 1956 and ran it until 1971. 

The Mill continued to supply Burberry as well as Ede & Ravenscroft.  Ede & Ravenscroft brought the Mill in 1971 and ran it until 1985.  The Mill became the heart of the company’s legal and academic gown production.  In 1985, the Mill was brought by the Hampshire Buildings Preservation Trust who carried out restoration on the buildings.  Finally, in 1990 the Whitchurch Silk Mill Trust was established with the aim of securing the Mill’s future.

Brief History of Silk and How It Is Made

  • Silk has been woven in England since the fifteenth century, mainly in Spitalfields, London and Norwich.  By the eighteenth century silk weaving could also be found on the Essex-Suffolk border and Macclesfield in Cheshire;
  • Woven silk came to Europe from China along the Silk Road. The Silk Road ran from Beijing, Mongolia, Afghanistan, Persia and Turkey to the rest of Europe.  The journey took one year;
  • Silk is produced by the Bombyx mori moth who eats a large quantity of mulberry leaves while still in larval form. To produce 1kg of raw silk, 220kgs of mulberry leaves need to be eaten per moth;
  • The caterpillar takes three days to spin its cocoon.  The cocoons are then placed in hot water causing the silk thread to unravel.  The thread is then reeled and thrown onto a skein of silk;
  • The silk is then wound onto bobbins;
  • Silk is drawn from the bobbins on the creel by the warping mill to create a warp. Warp are the threads that run the length of the fabric; Weft are threads that cross the width of the fabric;
  • The silk yarn is then transferred from the warping mill onto a wooden beam;
  • The warp beam is transported to the weaving shed  and knotted-on to a new warp. The warp beam is a roller at the back of the loom on which the warp is wound;

    Beam Trolley
  • The fabric is now ready for the weaver.
Loom 10 in the weaving shed. A nineteenth century,  Hattersley Dobby loom by William Smith & Bros Ltd of Heywood Lancashire.

Weaving at Whitchurch has always taken place on original Victorian power looms.  There are two types of loom at the Mill, the Hattersley Dobby and the Tappet loom, both made by William Smith & Bros Ltd of Heywood, Lancashire.  On each loom, weft threads are introduced between the warp threads by means of a shuttle. A shuttle is a tool for carrying the weft through the warp.  These looms can weave one to two metres of cloth every hour.


Social historian, based in the UK.

2 thoughts on “Whitchurch Silk Mill

    1. Dear Noel,

      Thank-you for your lovely comment. I am so pleased to hear that Whitchurch Silk Mill is back in action again. It was a little strange when I visited to hear the machinery silent. That is terrific news. Let’s hope a big order comes in soon and the Mill gets back on its feet again doing what it does best, weaving top quality silk:)

      Regards Emma.


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