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Discover a thread of history at Whitchurch Silk Mill

The mill is a stunning Georgian building, by the banks of the River Test, which has been restored to its former glory and still creates silk on its three working looms. ANGELA KNIGHT took a tour round this local gem

Geraldine Gardner

geraldine.gardner@newburynews.co.uk

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01635 886684

Discover a thread of history at Whitchurch Silk Mill

WHITCHURCH Silk Mill is the oldest silk mill in the country and thought to be on the same site as one of the four mills recorded in the Domesday Book.

It is situated only a few miles South of Newbury, in a beautiful location beside the River Test on a piece of land called Frog Island.

The Mill is now a working museum, a reminder of Britain’s industrial heritage as it still weaves silk fabrics using 19th century machinery.

The fortunes of this Georgian mill have been mixed, changing hands several times over the years. It was built in 1815 by Henry Hayter, where it was used to finish off woven materials in a process called ‘fulling’ – the process of cleansing it to remove oils.

After the Battle of Waterloo, the country’s economy declined, soldiers came back from the war, unemployment and taxes were high and the mill went bankrupt and was sold at auction as a job lot.

Its association with silk began in 1817 when the new owner changed its operation to throw silk. It was then acquired by new owners from Manchester in 1844 and again sold only two years later.

However, it is known that the mill employed 108 staff, including 39 children under the age of 13.

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By 1866, the mill passed into the ownership of James Hyde, a nephew of Thomas Burberry – founder of the clothing chain of the same name – when it was used to weave 22 different coloured serge linings for trench coats. Interestingly, the great nephew of Hyde still lives nearby.

In the 1890s some modernisation took place. The waterwheel was made wider so that it had more power and could operate at 11 horsepower.

Until the 1920s, the looms were powered by waterwheel, before the mill was converted to electricity.

Hyde owned the mill until 1955, when it was bought by a silk weaver to preserve the Victorian machinery and looms.
It was then sold to a company that made barristers’ robes and graduate gowns.

Lord Denning, the famous judge and Master of the Rolls could well have worn one of the robes made here. He was born in Whitchurch in 1899 where his father had a draper shop. Denning lived close to the mill and became a patron. He lived to 100 and died in 1999.

By 1985, the building was on the market for housing development, but such was the outcry locally that it was decided to preserve it. The Hampshire Buildings Preservation Trust bought and restored it, establishing it as a working museum.

In 1990 it opened under the management of the Whitchurch Silk Mill Trust, which still runs it today.

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I was given a guided tour of the Silk Mill by its director Sue Tapless, who showed me around the old building, which still operates three looms built in the 1890s – some of the old weavers’ stools have their names scratched underneath.

She told me that many of the phrases we use today originated from the weaving process – weavers were often deafened by the noise of the looms and became ‘cloth-eared’, being ‘on tenterhooks’ referred to cloth hooked on nails and ‘spinning a yarn’, when a story drags on like spinning a length of silk or wool.

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Two weavers work at the mill at the moment making 600 silk fish, filled with lavender, to present at the Clothworkers’ Guild annual dinner.

There are oral history installations, videos and text panels and hands-on, interactive tasks for visitors to ‘have a go’. There is lift access to the three floors for the disabled and babies in prams. The mill also has a good working relationship with the Worshipful Company of Weavers and art colleges and offers four placements to students in the summer to learn weaving techniques.

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Sue says that they have 30,000 visitors a year.

There are many activities and events organised during school holidays and weekends, including theatre groups, craft workshops or demonstrations given by the Kennet Valley Weavers, Spinners & Dyers.

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There is also a picturesque, seven-mile mill trail, passing five historic mills along the banks of the River Test, which rises six miles away in Ashe, near Jane Austen’s childhood home in Steventon.

The river is a crystal clear chalk-stream, home to trout and grayling, moor-hens, herons, egrets and swans. There are no longer silk worms or silk moths to be found at the mill, only one commemorative mulberry tree as a reminder of the mill’s heyday.

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It’s a tranquil setting for an outing, a browse around the shop and a coffee or lunch in the café, then a walk beside the river, where you will no doubt be welcomed by a family of tame ducks – they seem to know duck food is sold in the shop.

Opening hours: Tuesday-Sunday, 10.30am-5pm | For more information visit www.whitchurchsilkmill.org.uk 

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