Smooth as silk

PastToPresentGenealogy is in the midst of a series of posts about child labour in the silk industry. I had a vague recollection that someone in Andrew’s Kindred was employed in silk production and I rediscovered the occupation of my second great grandmother Mary Ann Blythe was described as “silk winder” in the 1851 census for the small village of Ryton-on-Dunsmore, near Coventry, Warwickshire.

Mary Ann Carter, formerly Blythe.  Image courtesy of Barbara Williams.

A brief trawl of the internet revealed that Coventry was once an important centre for silk products in the nineteenth century. At first I thought she might have worked in the city, but residence at Ryton, rather than near to the city’s mills, prompted me to look elsewhere. The Ordnance Survey (OS) mapping of 1886 shows, barely a mile from Ryton, the Brandon Silk Mill, and I think this was the most probable place of work for Mary Ann.

Ordnance Survey 1886 revision.  Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland.

Although there was a steep decline in silk manufacture in England after import tariffs were removed in 1860, the mill was apparently still operating in 1886, but on the 1903 OS map was described as “disused”. The leat and tail race formed a straight-line diversion from several meanders of the River Avon.

Ordnance Survey 1886 revision. Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland.

Little remains of the mill today, though according to Our Warwickshire, the location of the mill wheel and the leat and tail race are still visible, which fits what can be seen via Google Earth. It says the mill was converted to silk spinning in the 1820s.

As far as I can work out, it is likely that Mary Ann would have been taken by her mother to see if the mill would take on the wee lass at anything from eight to ten years old. Initially, she would have been involved in knotting threads when they broke and/or winding silk threads from cocoons onto bobbins. Aged twelve she might have been moved on to more difficult tasks, such as cleaning silk thread, and doubling several threads together. At fourteen many advanced to winding and warping threads for the weavers. Presumably, then this is what Mary Ann was doing aged fourteen in 1851. At sixteen many learned to weave.

So, how important was the silk mill to employment in Ryton-on-Dunsmore in 1851? Analysis of the census for the parish shows that the total population was 520, including 50 scholars and 267 (51%) people in work. In other places I have looked the working population was generally about one third, so Ryton seems to have been pretty busy. Indeed, the range of occupations is very broad, which suggests a thriving, busy place.

Of those in work the majority were engaged in farming (68%) with just 27 (18%) in silk, most of whom were under sixteen, see table below.



There were a range of jobs specified. There were silk winders aged 9 and 10, boys and girls, and females aged 14 and 18. Two boys aged 11 and 12 were silk washers. There were silk throwers aged 11 and 12 (boys) and one woman of 20. There was one silk packer, a woman of 25 years. This more or less fits the sort of progression I have learned about.

Although the mill employed less than one fifth of those in work, it was still significant. In particular the earnings of the (mainly) children would have supplemented the incomes of families dependent upon low paid farm labouring work, which was in ever reducing supply and increasingly uncertain as new machinery and techniques reduced the need for farm hands.

I will have a look at other nearby villages, such as Brandon and Wolston, to see if more silk workers lived there.

7 thoughts on “Smooth as silk

      1. I concentrated only on the silk industry. I’ve looked at the 1842 Royal Commission into children working in mines for my family history but not as in depth as the silk research. There’s also the 1842 Royal Commission looking at children in trades and factories which covers lace-making and is available on Ancestry & FMP I think.


      2. Thankyou. From what I can work out, it seems that by 1841 employment of under tens in coal mining and lace work was not much of an issue in the places where my ancestors lived. More widespread research would be too big a project for me – probably post-grad dissertation and one was enough for me! Post coming up.


      3. Look forward to it. I’ve often thought about doing something around child employment in the coal industry, but haven’t had the time. Yesterday I looked back at the 1842 Royal Commission and realised my 4x great grandfather and three of his children gave evidence. Two of his daughters worked as hurriers.


  1. I think that is cause for a certain amount of envy! As I understand it the 1833 Factory Act excluded lace works, could that be because much of it was done in more domestic environments? I guess the more pressing concerns at the time were to regulate the larger (and growing) employers to reduce exploitation of children and adults in dangerous environments like cotton mills.


  2. Thank you Andrew to add life to my ancestors stories and how they lived. This is very informative and insightful and I love the photo.


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