Malmesbury Silk Mills
The two factory buildings known as the Silk Mills were built in 1793 by Francis Hill, a clothier from Bradford. This was the time of new machinery – Arkwright and the spinning jenny - and there was much unrest in the wool industry across the country, but specifically in Bradford where riots took place. Hill’s answer was to move his business to Malmesbury where the labour force was more amenable and probably more desperate for work. The new machinery would be driven by the same mill race that used to turn the millstones.
The buildings with their numerous large windows were designed to make the maximum use of natural light because wool dust in the air can be, under certain circumstances, explosive as well as the ever present risk of fire. So lamps and candles were not encouraged!
The earliest known mill on the site was Schotesbure Mill in the 13th century. This was a corn mill and continued so under the Cannup family from around 1550 and it was then called Cannup mill, but after 50 years a fulling mill was built by Nicholas Archard – Archard’s mill. Fulling involves beating wool to form a felt like material. The work force continued to give trouble. A Highland regiment camped outside the town and so many of the female staff, lured no doubt by the kilts, took leave of absence that the mill had to be closed.
The mill was first used to make silk in 1852 but let Richard Jefferies report what he observed in 1867 – remember this was less than 150 years ago!
The silk arrives here in a raw state and is unpacked in the upper storeys of the building. Much of it is Chinese and the packages often contain small slips of paper stamped with Chinese characters. The operation of cleaning employs a large number of children who tend the machinery used for that purpose. Most of these are very young and sing at their work. Overseers superintend them and talking is not allowed, for the simple reason that attention is required to manipulate the silk properly…… Apparently the greatest attention is paid to the comfort of those employed. The rooms are very large, well lighted, and though necessarily warm, not overheated. Nevertheless, from being so early put to work the children have an old look; but nothing of that careworn expression sometimes seen in factories. The machinery is driven by water power.
The silk industry had varying success with some periods of closure but it finally ceased in 1941 and the employees diverted to more important war work, much of it at Ekco just outside the town.
After the war in 1950 Dryden bought the mill; initially to dress and process rabbit skins. Myxamatosis put paid to that and 1954 it became an antique showroom; an imaginative change in their business plan.
In 1984 the original factory buildings were converted into apartments.