When mass tourism arrived in the Lakes, largely by train, in the middle of the last century, how the workers from Northern industrial towns must have marvelled at the clear Lakeland air, sparkling streams and rolling green hills. The laws governing pollution and clean air were yet to be passed, and the towns and cities they left behind were noisy and smog-laden, with forests of smoking factory chimneys covering everything with a layer of grime and soot.
Yet Lakeland had its industries, too; they were less intensive, sometimes hidden away,though the impact of many a one- hundred-year-old quarry can still be seen today, dominating the landscape that they reshaped so dramatically. And these small industries were every bit as important to a sparsely populated region like Westmorland for its survival and prosperity as the cotton mills were to every North West town in Lancashire or Yorkshire.
This month, The Way We Were explores particular industries in Lakeland, through the accounts of those who worked within them. Despite plentiful supplies of water power, the remoteness of Lakeland from a major port or city limited the extent of its manufacturing enterprises.So rather than transport bulky raw materials in, local industries sprang up round readily available local materials, such as wood for the bobbin mills and saw mills, local stone and slate for building, or sheep for the Kendal woollen industries.
Naturally, some local industries were necessary for village life and people always required joiners, builders, plumbers or stone masons, as they did in every town in the country. But some industries were indiginous to Lakeland and this week we look at one very traditional local industry which used local materials, and relied on the urgent demands of the prosperous Northern cotton industry nearby.
In 1840, a quirk of fashion dictated that the popular tall hats for men were dated and unfashionable. A certain hat block maker from Pendleton, who found his trade shrinking, came instead to Ambleside, where he set up a bobbin mill to make bobbins for the thriving textile trade. His bobbins were a small, light commodity he could send by train to Northern factories or even via Liverpool Docks to the Indian markets. His mill was by a swift flowing stream which turned his water wheel and drove the machinery; the coppice woods nearby gave abundant supplies of birch, alder, ash and sycamore to make his product, and the area could supply a loyal workforce willing to work long hours for modest wages, in the absence of any better employment or higher wages. "During my grandfather's life we had about fifty or sixty men working full time turning out bobbins, some sent to India, the largest to India, and some to Belgium.
"Now, we used to have horses and wagons of our own, and we used to go into the woods in wintertime and mark the trees for felling so that all the timber could come into the yard in spring. It was all divided up, sawn in the saw shop, taken into the yard and stacked, then in springtime the men used to go out there and take what we called the wooden horses with knives to peel off the bark. The bark was all peeled off, and it was stacked in different compartments, and it had to ripen there till the following year. Then the wood was brought into the mill and sawn up into their orders, and then it had to be dried out again, it had to go into the kilns to be dried, and then it was brought to the mill and shared into different departments for the different bobbins."
The different parts of the bobbin were then stuck together, glued in squares and then put into machines to have the squares knocked off, made into rounds and the shuttle pirms sent to the silk manufacturers. Here is how one former employee recalled the job:
"I went up there for seventeen shillings a week, making bobbins; and we used to peel poles, three halfpence a score; we used to peel those at night on piecework; we could do four score in the hour, and then after that you'd be slowing down because you were getting tired. All that wood that came in, we used to peel it - three halfpence a score."
When an apprentice had served his time up to the age of 21, he might then earn about a pound for a sixty hour week. Skilled men on piecework could make 25/- a week:
"I think some workers eventually moved out, you know, and found better wages. The mill was noisy and dusty. The men started at six in the morning, till six at night, with half an hour for breakfast and an hour off at midday."
At least the mill was never cold because the running of the big machinery kept it warm; but the risk of fire was enormous when the buildings were still candle lit before gas lamps were introduced, and there were several fires recorded over the years. On one momentous occasion, the stream outside had frozen solid, with no water available to fight a fierce fire which had broken out in the December night, and the boss and his family, dressed in thin nightshirts were joined by workers to form a human chain to fight the blaze. The mill was saved.
Each worker was provided with a tallow candle and candle stick for dark winter mornings and evenings, but candles were not used in daylight hours, despite the darkness of the building. Accidents with dangerous machinery were common:
"I got lamed at the Mill; I had a post driven right through my tummy off a circular saw. I only have a fifth of a tummy. I lived in hospital for about six years, and then I got perforations you know, and duodenal ulcers, and my operation wasn't a success and I had another two....I was only seven stone weight; And I had a finger off as well on the circular saw..."
While the cotton manufacturing industry continued to demand bobbins, trade flourished; but as cheap foreign competition hit home, the bobbin mills were forced to adapt in order to survive. Their willingness to change and their inventiveness earned continuing success:
"...we carried on with the textile trade until after the last war, and the plastics came in and they just took over, the wooden pirns and all that were made from plastics, so then we were wondering what to do with it and we started on wood turnery such as handles for pick shafts and hammer shafts and artists' brush handles..."
The mill saw most change in the 1930s, when it added golf tees, darts, and screw driver handles to its manufacture. Eventually even these were made from plastic:
"So we were back saying what to do with the premises and eventually we decided we would try and let part of it for holidays, so we converted some of the empty wood sheds and it went like a bomb did that - so eventually we more or less converted the whole of the existing buildings for the holiday trade, and that is how it stands today."
There was little unproductive space at the mill; years before, the owners had seen the growth of the hotel trade and the need for a large, quality laundry to serve it; and from 1902, a new laundry flourished alongside the mill,employing up to thirty women and a fleet of delivery vans. Their careful work won prizes and even the Queen of Holland, visiting Rydal Hall around 1921, patronised the laundry.
"Looking back to those days, it was lovely; they were very, very pleasant compared to the upside down world of today, my goodness, yes. I don't think people worked harder but the atmosphere in those days was very differnt, they all seemed to want to do their very utmost and their very best, give the very best of their lives to you. Today it doesn't seem to be a bit like that."