Silk Mills at Watford


from Street and Place Names in Watford

Silk Mills were a significant source of employment at Watford in the early 19th century and the following extract comes from Industrial Archaeology of Hertfordshire:

In 1771 the Sessions records of the Liberty of St Albans note an appeal against an assessment for poor rate by Edward Crutchley and John London, 'occupiers of a silk mill at Watford'. Their mill was almost certainly Rookery Mill on the Colne at the lower end of the town. The Universal British Directory (1792) speaks of a 'Mr Paumier' - probably Pierre Paumier, member of a second generation Huguenot family in England - as operating three silk mills there; he had been in the town since at least 1780, when his daughter Margaret married William Harty, though at what date he succeeded Crutchley and London is unknown. The three mills were Rookery, worked by water power, and two smaller ones, one said to have been in Red Lion Yard on the site of the present-day covered market, the other at Clarendon Road corner, both worked by horses. Highway rate lists for 1836 and 1837, now in the Watford Public Library, give four mills, all in different occupations but without a clue to their whereabouts. Robson's Directory of Herts (1838) records only two: Rookery and one occupied by Thomas Toppin or Tuppin. The other two had vanished and Toppin himself vanishes thereafter.

By 1806 Paumier had given place at Rookery Mill to his son-in-law Harty, about whom little is known except that, according to Hassell's Tour of the Grand Junction Canal, he ran 'the celebrated silk mills'; and by 1826 to Thomas Rock Shute, born at Sydenham, Kent in 1802 and thus a very young man for his position. Whether Shute's family had any previous connection with the silk industry has not been discovered; at any rate, he evidently made a success at Watford, since he continued there until his death in 1881. Then the mill closed down, becoming in turn a steam laundry and a piano factory; today, after a destructive fire, its remains (with recent extensions) house several small firms of engineers and joiners.

The working conditions in the silk mills would not be acceptable today. The first edition of The Book of Watford prints an extensive extract about the use of children in silk mills from the House of Commons report on "Bill to regulate the labour of children in the mills and factories of the United Kingdom." Several people gave evidence relating to the silk mills at Watford. The following is a short extract of the evidence given by Daniel Fraser on 10 July 1832.

How old are some of them?-Some of them turned 5, and at 6 years of age .

. . . At Watford, in Hertfordshire, the mill is worked both day and night. In Hertfordshire, the children go at 6 in the morning, and work till 7 at night, and they have one hour and twenty minutes intermission.

Then the night hands go on at 7, and work till 6 in the ensuing morning?- Yes, The Committee most likely will have some further evidence upon that subject, which will be able to state that more particularly. In this mill, children were going in at 5 years of age, and those children have worked the usual hours. At this mill, if the children are not tall enough, stools are got for the infants; they have no Sunday-school, nor week-day evening-school at this village; it is a little village where this mill is. I found that one of the children, Elizabeth Taylor, went to the mill at between 7 and 8 years old, for 1 s. a week at first; she is now nearly 15 years old, and has 3s. 6d. a week. There are instances there, where the wife is working during the night, and the husband working during the day; the amount of their wages is 20s. a week, both their wages united, for working night and day.

Do you know whether the children are beaten up to their work there also?- Yes; they are regularly urged to their work by beating; they use canes in that mill to beat the children.

Have you seen any instances, in going round. of those children being chastised?-Yes; I saw a boy of the name of Richard Love, for making a waste with a peg, which is a thing that will very frequently occur in the silk business, by being thrown off the bobbin; I saw him standing in the midst of a group of little children; he had received a bleeding wound in the right side of his face, in consequence of making this peg waste.

Are you able to say, whether that fault might not have been unavoidable, and whether it might not have been an accident?­ From the number of pegs they have to keep up, it is a thing that might occur with older ones than this Richard Love. I dare say he might be from 12 to 15 years of age.

This was not inside the mill was it?-No.

Is there not considerable objection made to yourself and other persons, that wish to observe upon the system of examining those mills?- Yes, they do not allow any person to examine those mills except they have business; they fine the children at this mill: there is James Naylor, who has 2s. a week, he lost two hours one morning, and he was fined for that 7d.; his mother asked the reason of this deduction, and Mr. Rodduck, the overlooker, simply replied, "That this was the "rule ... I found there was one female doing the work of three or four men in the throwing department, in taking charge of the silk which they wound. Thirty or forty children are the usual charge for a man. This young woman had nearly 100 under her care, and the amount of her wages was 10s. a week. for which, as I calculate, she was doing the work of three men; and if the children had been properly attended to, they would have required more than three.

In 1833 children under 9 were banned from all textile factories, and children from 9-13 were limited to 48 hours a week an young people up to 18 limited to 60 hours a week.

See also Silk Mills in Hertfordshire.

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