Saturday, 8 December 2012

Chapter 2. Linen Weaving & the Paper Mill

In 1831 the population of Hutton Rudby was at its 19th century peak of 1,027 and the township was dominated by linen weavers [1].

In the early part of the century there was a significant linen industry in the Cleveland area (though on a minor scale compared to Nidderdale and Knaresborough) and neighbouring villages such as Osmotherley and Brompton were also weaving communities.
Linen had long been used for many products from fine fabric to canvas, but it would soon face serious competition from light cottons, which would eventually force linen manufacturers to concentrate on the heavier cloths – in Hutton, this was to be sailcloth. 
From the harvesting of the flax to the woven linen cloth lay many stages of production and a great deal of time, and this long interval between the initial investment and the finished product created a natural division between the flax preparation and spinning, and the weaving and finishing.

There was consequently room in the industry for both large and small producers, and for domestic and putting-out systems of production.  It was a risky trade, vulnerable to fluctuations in the market, and it was ideal for "open" villages, where cottagers were free to use their spare land or premises to trade for themselves.  When the trade was flourishing weavers could sublet their houses or squeeze extra cottages and sheds onto spare land.  A resident landlord, on the other hand, ran his village as part of his whole estate, and would prefer to pull down empty houses rather than risk the arrival of incomers who might end up as a charge on the rates [2].
Flax had been grown locally in the past – Mr Barlow would soon meet Simon Kelsey, a prosperous yeoman, former churchwarden and member of the Select Vestry, who had received the government bounty for flax growing in 1780 – but it was generally imported from the Baltic.

The plant is pulled from the ground when the blue flowers are dead and most of the leaves have withered.  Then followed the drying and rippling of the flax – removing the seeds by drawing the flax heads through a coarse comb.  The plant was then retted – softened by being spread out in the dew, or left to soak in springs, ponds or tanks.  Then it was dried once more and broken by beating, then scutched or swingled, when the woody stem was struck off to leave only the fibres of flax.  The scutched fibres were then dressed or heckled; flax-dressers were to be found in Hutton in the 1841 census.  Heckling was a dusty job needing no specialist equipment – simply enough light, some storage room and space for the wooden benches on which stood the iron-toothed heckles through which the flax was pulled. 

When the fibres were as smooth as possible, the flax was ready to be spun.  Spinners worked by the fireside in their homes, keeping the yarn wetted by dipping their fingers into a bowl or cup of water kept by the spinning-wheel.  A little window was usually let into the wall near the fireplace to give more light for the work.  Some of these "spinner's windows" are still to be seen in the village. 

The spun yarn was then taken to the weaver.  Flax was best woven in damp conditions, nearly always at ground floor level though in some areas the weavers worked in cellars.  In Hutton it was generally carried on in a shed behind the weaver's house [3], known in the early 19th century as a shop, loomshop or workshop.  Sometimes a weaver would use a rented loom or rent a space for his own loom in someone else's shop. 

Lastly, the brown or greenish webs of linen were bleached.

The old method was to bleach the linen in the sun.  This was replaced by the Dutch method in the early 18th century, a lengthy process using an alkaline solution of potash and lime, neutralised with buttermilk.  From the 1760s  bleachers began to use oil of vitriol (dilute sulphuric acid), and this was replaced at the end of the century by bleaching powder containing chlorine and lime, which reduced the time taken from months to hours.  Another Select Vestry member that Mr Barlow would meet soon after his arrival would be William Sayer, the cornmiller of Middleton, who ran the bleachgrounds there.  A little way along the river, Mr Joseph Neville was the linen manufacturer, bleacher and cornmiller at Crathorne.

Mechanisation had already begun in the linen industry.  Scutch mills using water power to turn the scutching blades appeared in the middle of the 18th century, the first flax-spinning mills were patented in 1787, and machine-heckling came in from 1808. 
In Hutton there were several small "linen manufacturers", such as George Bewick and various members of the Sidgwick family, and there was a resident agent of the Newcastle company, Clark, Plummer & Co. 
At the time of Mr Barlow's arrival, the paper mill which had been operating on the Hutton bank of the river Leven was nearing the end of its working life.

The C19 sailcloth mill is on the site of the paper mill
It had been working for over fifty years, but the introduction of new techniques was threatening its livelihood.  Paper was made from the rags that were the waste of the linen trade.  It was a complicated and highly skilled craft, needing plenty of fresh clean water to pulp the rags, and the machinery that did this was worked by the waterwheel.  The Hutton mill had been run since about 1810 by Robert Norman, who is described in Baines' Directory as a coarse paper manufacturer – Hutton's was evidently a "brown" mill, rather than a "white" mill making fine paper.  Mr Norman left the village soon after Mr Barlow's arrival, for the more successful mill at Moorsley Banks in County Durham.
Even in a time of depressed trade the village would strike us now as a busy and bustling place.

Alive with the constant clatter of the many looms, the braying of the pack mules in Enterpen, the noise of the villagers’ pigs, horses, cows and poultry and the passing traffic of farming life, the village greens were surrounded not only by houses but also by the smithy, the workshops of the saddler, carpenters and wheelwrights, and the shops of tailors, cobblers, bakers, butchers and grocers.

Two carriers worked from the village, taking and fetching goods to Stockton on a Wednesday and to Stokesley every Monday, Thursday and Friday, and on Sundays the Primitive Methodists would progress through the village singing hymns to call their congregation to the chapel.


[1]  the 1831 census shows 123 linen weavers over the age of 20, more than in any other North Riding linen-making community: Hutton Rudby: Industrial Village c1700-1900, R P Hastings

[2]  with thanks to Barry Harrison's interesting talk to the CTLHS Feb 2004

[3]  from a newspaper cutting of March 1928, Miss Winifred Blair's scrapbook:  "Another resident of the village told our representative that two years ago a weaving shed at the back of his house was pulled down, and the large stone used for beating yarn on was broken up. He added that there are still a number of weaving sheds in existence, but they are not now used for that purpose…"  The weft was softened by beating.

No comments:

Post a Comment