Silky skills

Last time I wrote that I would give some further consideration to the people who might have worked at Brandon Silk Mill, in Warwickshire. In the 1851 census for Ryton-on-Dunsmore were 26 people with silk-related occupations, mostly children.

It seemed likely that there were other silk workers in nearby villages. I looked at the 1851 census records for Frankton, Princethorpe, Willenhall and Stretton-on-Dunsmore. Only in the last were there any silk-related occupations, bringing the total to 37.


The table shows that most workers were children, with only 10 aged 16 or more. There were no children under 10, but there is later evidence that this might not be strictly true. More than half of the workforce were 13 or younger. Only 5 were engaged in weaving. Of these 4 were engaged in weaving ribbons, which were highly fashionable at the time. Among the other occupations was one woman silk packer and in the village was a packing case maker, who may have worked at the mill, but the census provides no link.

There was also local lad George Williams, 23, a “plush and silk printer”. By 1861 he was publican at the Malt Shovel Tavern.

Something is missing. There is no one with a managerial or supervisory role, such as “overlooker”. There was also no proprietor or manager of silk works.  There was only one weaver.

What the papers said

The Coventry Standard, 1 Dec 1854, reported an assault at “Messrs. Rowbottom’s Brandon silk mills” and refers to a Mr Thomas Rowbottom. I have not been able to find him in the censuses.

The mill and associated residence was auctioned in 1867 (of which more to come), but, despite the general decline in the industry, continued as a silk mill into the 1870s. The building was far more substantial than 37 workers would suggest.

The Coventry Standard 10 May 1872 reported on a breach of the factory regulations at the Brandon Silk Mill. Mr T Iliffe, it said, was summoned by Mr Otto Striedinger, sub-inspector of factories, for employing three boys for more than 6.5 hours per day (minor transgressions involving three other boys were not pursued) and another boy without a certificate to show that he had attended school the preceding week. Mr Striedinger said that Mr Iliffe was not a hard taskmaster, but, in the face of competition, was trying to get cheap labour. He thought that Mr Iliffe had been deceived by parents and the smallest penalty was applied, that is £1 for each of the three boys plus costs: £7 11s (7 pounds and eleven shillings).

An interesting line was taken regarding non-attendance at school. The Act required the parent to cause to attend school. In this case the parent claimed that he had sent the boy to school, but was unaware that he had played truant. The bench thought that, as there was no evidence that Mr Kenning knew his child was not in school, it would be enough to caution him and gave him two weeks to pay costs of 7 shillings.

In the case of Thomas Chater, the charge of working longer hours than permitted was dropped, but, for not sending his son to school for three hours on each of the days that he was working, was fined 5 shillings and costs. He had a month to pay, but if he defaulted would be imprisoned for two weeks.

Two other fathers were fined 5 shillings plus costs, that is £1 11s. each, for not sending their boys to school. In default one month in prison.

It is clear that the mill was finding it hard to compete with foreign imports and a shrinking market.

Finding Mr Iliffe took some time. Then I found Tom A S Iliffe in the 1891 census, resident of Ryton-on-Dunsmore, Silk Broker, 54, born Coventry. The same Tom A S Iliffe appears in the 1881 census at Mill House, Brandon. His occupation is given as “silk throwster”, but it also says “master employing 150 men & boys”. Next records were 1 to 6 Mill Cottages, whose occupants were also silk workers. Mr Iliffe had a boarder who was a silk broker.

The newspapers led me to a Mr Iliffe, manager, but it was only in 1881 that I found out how many workers there were, presumably it should have included something about women and girls. In 1871 Tom A S Iliffe was at Brandon Mill House, “silk throwster” and “employer of 170 (120 females and 50 men & boys)”. He lived with his brother, a surgeon, and a housekeeper. In 1861 Tom Alfred Soden Iliffe was a ribbon hand, but his father was a silk mercer, in Coventry.

The Coventry Herald 12 Oct 1877 reported on a charge of assault, which was dismissed, by John McDonough, manager at Brandon Silk Mill. But Mr Iliffe was still in charge? I have not been able to find McDonough in the censuses.

Where were all the silk workers from?

Given the information in the 1871 census, it seemed sensible to look at that census for places near to Brandon Silk Mill. The table below shows one obvious flaw: I could only find 108, when the mill apparently employed 170. The trouble with going further towards Coventry is that there were large mills in the city and, while there is no proof that the villagers of Ryton on Dunsmore, Stretton on Dunsmore and Wolston actually worked at Brandon Silk Mill, it would have been an improbable commute to any other silk works. There was a railway station near to Brandon, but would silk workers be paid well enough to commute by train?


For clarity’s sake I found no silk workers in nearby parishes of Bagington, Bourton on Dunsmore, Brinklow, Frankton, Princethorpe and Willenhall.

It is possible that some children were recorded as scholars to conceal under-age working, but in 1872 the Inspector had presumably not found children under the age of 10 and only found the mill was using overlong hours in respect of 6 children.

I looked for the boys named in the newspaper in the 1871 census. Henry and George Heritage lived at Brinklow, aged 10 and 8, both scholars. Frederick Chater I could not find (though the father named, Thomas Chater, was at Wolston – I think the newspaper might be mistaken about the boy’s name). Ishmael Kenning, of Ryton, was prosecuted for not sending his son to school for 3 hours on workdays: in 1871 his oldest child was William (named in the paper), 8 years, scholar. So maybe there was a recruitment drive, but the advert I found for winders and cleaners was published in July 1872.

So, as the missing 62 (or so) cannot stand up, can anyone find them?

In case you are wondering, Mr Otto Shriedinger, 50 (in 1871), H M Inspector of Factories, born Bavaria, Germany.  Germany was a new country at the time.  In 1861 he was described as a naturalised British subject.

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