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Thursday, 28 January 2010

The first factory?

I caught up with Michael Portillo's Great British Railway Journeys trip to Cromford and Derby last night, which I'd taped. I was anxious to see this episode as I am researching the early mills for my book The Children History Forgot, which focuses on child labour in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. I was very surprised to hear Mr Portillo say that Richard Arkwright's factory at Cromford was the first water-powered factory in Britain. There was an even earlier silk mill built by George Sorocold for Thomas Cotchett at Derby in 1702, which had a waterwheel, but was not a success. (People and Industries, W.H. Chaloner, Frank Cass, 1963.)   He then contradicted what he'd said earlier by saying the first factory was built in Derby - which is correct!  Although Arkwright's was the first successful COTTON factory, the silk mill at Derby built by the Lombe family circa 1721 was the first viable water-powered textile factory in England.  If I remember rightly, the Old Silk Mill behind Mr Portillo in his piece to camera was built on the site of the Lombe mill. I was also surprised that Mr Portillo trotted out the hoary old chestnut about John Lombe being poisoned by an Italian woman for bringing the secrets of powered silk throwing to England, because this story was discredited by historians years ago. Makes good telly, I guess. Mr Portillo's visit to John Smedley's factory was lovely to watch, though - inspiring to see we still have some British industry left. We have lost so much.
Image: Sir Thomas Lombe's silk mill, Derby, completed in 1721. Charles Knight's Pictorial Gallery of Arts, Vol.1, c.1860.

Monday, 25 January 2010

Burns Night

Today is the anniversary of the birth of Scotland’s Robert Burns. Burns left us a unique poetic legacy. He was born on 25 January 1759 in a humble cottage built of clay in Alloway, Ayrshire. Robert, the son of a farmer who gave him an unusually broad and cultured education, first ‘committed the sin of rhyme’ while still in his teens.

Burns’s life changed forever when his book of Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect was published in Kilmarnock in 1786. The ‘heaven-sent ploughman’ was always the subject of social controversy. During his lifetime, and in the years following his death, his private life threatened to overshadow his achievements. Did the frailties which helped make Burns a great poet hinder contemporaries’ appreciation of his work? In my latest feature for Highlander magazine, I discuss Burn’s life and loves, and his reputation as a man and poet during his lifetime and after his death.

Image: ‘O Tibbie, I Hae Seen the Day.’ Poem on Isabella Steven, daughter of a man near Lochlie (Lochlea) who owned three acres of peat moss. She consequently felt entitled to look down on the poet, then a young man.
Engraving from Complete Poetical Works of Robert Burns, (William P. Nimmo & Co., 1881.)

Claire Tomalin

I am very excited because I’ve been invited to the Claire Tomalin talk in the Guildhall at the Bath Literature Festival on 6 March. The event is being sponsored by Jane Austen's Regency World, so a big ‘thank you’ to Tim Bullamore for his kind invitation. I am a huge fan of Claire's work – I particularly enjoyed her biographies of Jane Austen and Samuel Pepys – so I will be counting the days to my trip!

Sunday, 17 January 2010

Reviews of Regency Cheshire

Here are the first few reviews:

‘Well researched, full of interesting facts and fascinating anecdotes, and with an impressively broad overview, Wilkes has created both a rich social history and a captivating snapshot of an age of incredible change.’ Lancashire Evening Post 3.11.09

‘This well-researched book gives a detailed portrait of Cheshire society during the early years of the 19th century. From the scandals of the Prince Regent to the tumultuous threat of reform, the whole of the county is represented in the story of this one county. A fascinating account.’ Family History Monthly, January 2010.

‘A fascinating and energetic insight into the pre-Victorian period.’ Discover My Past England, January 2010.

‘Sue Wilkes paints a vivid and informative picture of Regency society... Regency Cheshire sparkles with enthralling descriptions and accounts about the everyday lives of the elite, contrasting their opulent lifestyle of assembly balls, racing, hunting and shooting, with the appalling conditions of factory workers and lowly farmers trying to make ends meet…a pleasure to read.’ Jane Odiwe.

You can read a detailed review here at Jane Austen's World – I can thoroughly recommend Vic’s blog if you are a fan of all things Regency. There is always something new to read on her website; she has done a fantastic amount of research.

An illustration from Regency Cheshire:
Ladies’ fashions, evening wear, 1810. French engraving by Camus, c.1830. Author’s collection.

Saturday, 16 January 2010

Dumbing down?

I enjoyed Michael Portillo’s visit to the Scottish Borders in Great British Railway Journeys (programme 9) but I am beginning to wonder about his presentation. Had he really never heard of the Border reivers before opening his copy of Bradshaw? Or was he just saying that as a means of engaging the viewer - by professing ignorance so he can explain the history to camera? My jaw dropped when he called the Border reivers a ‘forgotten people’ – they are the stuff of legend in the Northern counties, and are certainly not forgotten. It was fascinating watching the women munitions workers ‘doing their bit’ for the war effort, though.

Thursday, 14 January 2010


I was annoyed to find I’d missed Michael Portillo’s Great British Railway Journeys again last night, following in the footsteps of Salford’s George Bradshaw. The programme is on ridiculously early in the evening, just when I am usually cooking tea for the family, and I have only caught the last few minutes of some episodes. There was a programme about the importance of the cotton industry and Cottonopolis (Manchester) which I would like to see again – it is not the same watching it on i-player. Mr Portillo is going to visit the Scottish Borders tonight (one of my favourite places) in tonight’s programme so I must remember to set up the video recorder.
My feature for Discover My Past England this month is about tracing your cotton ancestors. Although the cotton industry is indelibly associated with Manchester and Lancashire, there were cotton mills in Cheshire, Yorkshire, Derbyshire, Staffordshire and other counties. Your local archives are good places to find company wage books or pension records; check their online catalogues first before making a special journey.

Image: Lancashire Cotton Weaving shed, early 20th C. postcard. Author’s collection.

Monday, 11 January 2010

Winter Wonderland

We have had lots of snow here this week, although not as much as some people, and it has been extremely cold. In Regency Cheshire , the mail-coaches were expected to keep going whatever the weather. However, coaches often got stuck in the snow, which happened on one of the coldest nights on record, that of Friday 8 February 1799. The post-boys struggled on with the mail-bags on horseback. In those severe winters long ago, there were even reports of coachmen freezing to death.

Images: A snowy Delamere Forest, and the author’s back garden. © Sue Wilkes

Monday, 4 January 2010

Great British Railway Journeys

Unfortunately I only managed to catch a few minutes of Michael Portillo's Great British Railway Journeys (BBC2) tonight, which is a shame as there was some smashing archive footage of the underground network of canals in the Duke of Bridgewater 's mines at Worsley. In Narrow Windows, Narrow Lives, I covered a lot of the territory Mr Portillo will be visiting in his series. The Duke of Bridgewater's success with his novel canal linking Manchester and Worsley inspired a huge growth in canal building, although Cheshire rather lagged behind; the county's canal network was still being completed in Regency Cheshire . I will look out for the first programme again when it is repeated.

Image: Worsley Basin and ‘starvationer' boats,
Lives of the Engineers: Brindley and the Early Engineers, Samuel Smiles, (John Murray, 1874.)

Happy New Year!

A belated Happy New Year to all my readers! It's bitterly cold and icy here in Cheshire this morning, and with reports that supplies of grit for our roads are running low, no doubt there will be great demand for Cheshire rock salt from the mines beneath our feet. Have a safe journey, everyone!