By Fay Sampson ~ September 16, 2011
Mills and Mountains
Just back from another fascinating research trip. This time, the Fewings genealogical hunt takes them to the north of England, where Nick’s ancestors were cotton weavers. Needless to say, there are dark doings in the present which match up with some of the darker times of the past.
My inspiration came from my husband Jack’s Lancashire ancestry. I am particularly intrigued by his great-great-great-grandfather, John Tootle, who appears in the 1941 census as a handloom weaver. He is just the kind of person who is being put out of work by the Industrial Revolution. But John has another string to his bow. In the next census he is down as a medical botanist. A trade directory has him as a herbalist. But that doesn’t prevent his children from being sucked into the cotton mills. 9-year-old Robert is at work there. Children did dangerous work like cleaning under the moving machinery.
We began our exploration in Burnley with the Weavers Triangle. More than a hundred mill chimneys used to belch their smoke into the air. Now, only half a dozen still stand, and they are cold.
I had hoped that, sometime in our time there, I would come across a derelict mill beside the canal, which I wanted for one of my scenes. We had only to walk out of the Weavers Triangle Visitor Centre for the canal towpath to lead us past mill after mill, now silent, their windows covered with rusting grilles.
But the nineteenth century came to vivid life at the Queen Street Textile Museum. They have the only steam engine still powering looms anywhere in the world. It was a thrill to see it with steam up, the piston flashing across with a thunderous roar. Especially as, when the whole mill was up and running, even the mill manager used to have to knock on the door and ask permission to enter the engine room.
In the weaving shed downstairs, this engine was powering over 300 looms. Pulleys were whirring, leather belts dancing. Only two of the looms were actually in operation, but we were able to watch as the warp threads lifted and fell and the shuttle shot across between them at twice a second. There were audio tapes of former millworkers telling of the dangers of leaning over your loom to mend a broken thread and getting caught in the machinery. They used to pin their hair up tight to prevent a scalping. They only wore it loose at the weekends. Hence the saying, “letting your hair down”.
At Helmshore Textile Museum, we were taken back into an even older world. This mill was powered by water, and the displays took us through the process of producing wool cloth. We saw the carding, spinning and weaving of wool. It then had to be fulled. This involved soaking it in stale human urine. People were paid a penny a pot. But if you were teetotal, it was 2d a pot. We watched the waterwheel driving the fulling mill: huge wooden hammers that beat the cloth to make it thicker and stronger. In the next door mill was the story of cotton spinning, with a row of Crompton’s Mules flashing to and fro as they twisted many fine threads into stronger ones.
But the great thing about these northern towns is that, no matter how smoky and tightly packed they once were, you could easily get out into the wonderful clean hill country around. We took one of Jack’s family’s favourite outings, to the immense mass of Pendle Hill. It was a steep climb, but the views were wonderful.
I am now well into the writing of the book, and thoroughly enjoying reliving these experiences. The provisional title, THE UNDERLOOKER, may change. I’ll keep you posted. Severn House have scheduled publication for November 2012.
The fourth in this series, FATHER UNKNOWN, was published last month.
Meanwhile, I am nearly through the revision of the Pennant Melangell crime novel. THE HUNTED HARE (Monarch) should be out in August 2012.
Fay Sampson (UK) is a writer of adult and children's fiction and non-fiction, including A MALIGNANT HOUSE, #2 in the Susie Fewings series, a British Crime Club Pick.
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