Stott Park Bobbin Mill: Still Bobbin Along|
by Barbara Ballard
An elegant past - that's what England's Lake District usually brings to mind. But, suprisingly, that past was much more than scenic hills and lakes dotted with pleasure boats. In the 1800's the Lake District was the site of a thriving bobbin industry with more than 65 mills in operation.
While touring Cumbria, I took a small car ferry that runs from Bowness, on Lake Windermere, to Lakeside. A mile down a minor road I discovered Stott Park Bobbin Mill. The mill, in Victorian times, was a noisy, dusty place lit by paraffin lamps. Today, thanks to English Heritage, who purchased the abandoned mill in 1983, we can see and experience this bobbin making operation as it was 100 years ago. The steam engine puffs, belts flap, and wheels and pulleys rattle as tour guides give demonstrations of the original bobbin making process. The Lake District had just what these mills needed-fast moving streams and coppice wood. But it was the cotton industry's development in Lancashire with its insatiable demand for bobbins that got things rolling.
And roll they did at Stott Park Bobbin Mill. In 1835 a farmer, John Harrison, inherited the site where Stott Park stands. He built the mill and then leased it. After his death, the mill experienced several lessees until the Coward family acquired the tenancy in the 1860's, enlarging and improving the mill. The family's link with the mill lasted until 1971 when plastic bobbins insured the demise of the mill. Its owner, John Robert Coward, abandoned it, literally leaving everything in place.
Stott Park, with its 25 employees, was small compared to some of the mills that employed 250 workers, but it still managed to produce a quarter of a million bobbins a week and even made handles for tools. That's a lot of wood. Coppicing, explained our guide, consists of cutting trees every 15 years so that many new shoots come from the old stump. This ensured a steady supply. Silver birch, ash, oak, and sometimes sycamore were used in the mill.
The wood was carted to the mill - a ton at a time - where it was debarked. To accomplish this, logs were placed on a "peeling horse" and the bark was hand peeled by ten orphan children peeling 12 hours per day, 6 days per week. The children were given no pay or education, only a roof over their heads and two meals a day. At the age of 12 the boys were allowed to begin a five-year apprenticeship. After peeling the logs, the wood was stacked in a drying shed for one year to season it. Then the bobbin making process began.
Imagine using a bench saw with no safety guards to cut the wood into short lengths. And, being paid by the piece, a worker cut as quickly as possible. Different lengths and diameters of wood were needed, depending on what kind of bobbin was wanted. A fast worker could produce 5000 bobbin lengths per day.
A machine punched out bobbin shapes. This process, said our guide, is similar to cookie cutting and demanded a worker hold tightly onto a round block of wood while metal cylinders cut out bobbin blocks with great force. The piece of wood got smaller and smaller, and there was less and less for the worker to hold on to as the metal cylinders came smashing down. There were no grips, no protection. One false move or a slip of the hand, and the worker's hand, not the wood, would feel the force. Workers using these machines had the potential to produce 10,000 bobbins a day.
Drilling holes in the bobbins was a dangerous job, no matter how skilled the worker. The tour guide demonstrated how the worker sat on a bench at a horizontal drill holding a bobbin in front of him and then guided the center of the bobbin onto the rapidly spinning drill. There were no safety devices and, if not careful, he could drill a hole in the palm of his hand. Needless to say, mill injuries were common on these machines.
An improvement was made in this process in 1870 when an automatic drill with a 40 horsepower motor was introduced. This machine, usually operated by a 12-year-old apprentice, could drill 2 bobbin blocks at the same time.
Next it was time to watch the bobbins being cut into their distinctive barrel shapes with the flange at either end. This step was demonstrated on a roughing lathe. The rough bobbin then had to be dried for 48 hours, after which it went to the finishing lathe for its final shaping.
The skilled procedure required the use of knives and shaping tools to round, gouge, cut, clean and bevel the bobbins. The particular combination of these tools finished the bobbin's final shape. There were so many different sizes and shapes that the mill could offer hundreds of choices to customers. Spout bobbins - round pieces of wood fastened to building walls, then to gutter downspouts - comprised much of Stott Park's output.
We made our way to the second floor of the mill where the bobbins then went for polishing. They were dumped on a small, inclined, slatted wooden table and rolled around by hand. This polishing loosened any shavings and bits of loose wood. Our guide pointed out the wood on this table is, itself, smooth and polished from many years of use.
Finally the bobbins were put in a wooden barrel with bits of wax for 30 minutes. Around and around the barrel went, driven by a belt as the wax polished, filled in, and smoothed holes in the wood. Out of the barrel and into a giant sieve the bobbins went, and the excess wax was shaken off.
The guide explained that bobbins were then taken for final sorting and counting before being put in burlap bags. They were tied in groups of 12, weighed and sold by the gross (144). The customer was charged by weight as the sacks had to be transported by horse and buggy to the rail lines 5 miles away, thence by sail to Liverpool.
Power for this entire bobbin-making process was first provided by a 32-foot water wheel 1 mile away from the mill's location. This wheel was replaced about 1858 by a one-metre water turbine, manufactured in Kendal. When the mill was extended in 1880, a single cylinder steam engine, in use for 20 years at a Yorkshire coal mine, was brought to Stott Park to keep all the machines powered. Fueled with scraps of wood, it turned the wheel and drove the piston at 80 revolutions a minute, generating 40 horsepower. After 60 years of faithful service at Stott Park, the steam engine was replaced by electric power, new to the area in 1940. Electric lighting for the mill was put in at the same time.
When English Heritage acquired the mill in 1991, they found the steam engine needed only a new boiler to put it back in working order. During the tour, the guide powered up the engine and set the machinery in motion. History truly comes alive at Stott Park Bobbin Mill, a living museum of the Lake District's industrial heritage.
Located in Cumbria on minor road 1/2 mile north of Finsthwaite near Newby Bridge; southwest side of Lake Windermere; accessible by Windermere ferry from Ambleside to Lakeside, then 1 mile. Parking, ground floor only for disabled.
Stott Park Bobbin Mill
Open first April-30th Sept.; daily from 10 am to 6 pm; in Oct. daily from 10am to 5pm. Interior by guided tours only, lasting 45 minutes; last tour starts 1 hour before closing.
Operates Tues., Wed., and Thurs. Entry 2.90 for adults; free for English Heritage members.
English Heritage - This site is consistently down more than it is up.