Saturday, 29 February 2020

Stokesley 1823-1834: the flax-spinning mill behind the High Street

This follows the post The linen mills of Stokesley & Hutton Rudby: 1823-1908

1823 was the year in which the spinning factory of Messrs T & J Mease was erected just off Stokesley High Street.

The Mease family had been a presence on the High Street since the early 1790s.  The head of the family was John Mease, a respectable Wesleyan Methodist shopkeeper; at the beginning of 1823 he was 56 years old.  He and his wife Isabella Turnbull had two sons and three daughters: Thomas, Isabella, John, Rachel and Mary.  

John Mease was in business as a grocer and draper, but he was also a butter and cheese factor and sold Cleveland's dairy products to the London market.  Twenty years earlier, in 1802, Bell's Weekly Messenger on 14 November had carried a report from the police office at Union Hall in Southwark which gives us a glimpse of John.  

He was in London on business and that morning was "returning from Westminster through Lambeth-road" when he was approached by a respectable-looking man who, asking him if he was from Yorkshire, fell into conversation with him.  The stranger invited Mease to meet someone he knew who was in the same line of business as himself at Woolwich, and doing very well as he had a contract to supply the Navy.  They went to a pub where they met the man, one William Hill, who asked Mease the name of the salesman he used in London and promised him an order.  This, however, was merely window-dressing – the men were confidence tricksters and were hoping to cheat Mease out of the money they guessed he was carrying.  When Mease proved too suspicious for them, Hill snatched the money and ran, but was caught by Mease and some passers-by and brought before the magistrates. 

We can see that John Mease was no country bumpkin, ignorant of the ways of the world.  And Stokesley at the time of the Revolutionary & Napoleonic Wars (1793-1815) was a lively, outward-looking town.  The poet William Mason described its "busy and active life"
in a day when your public houses included, in addition to the present thirteen inns, the George and Dragon, the Half Moon, The Masons Arms, the Chequers, the Raffled Anchor, the Ship Inn, &c; 
when the war of American Independence had only subsided, followed by the French Revolution, and the wars of the Bonapartes were at their prime; 
when your captains in the East India Company’s service, your sailors in the mercantile marine, your harpooners who had gone down to the sea in ships and struck the Leviathan in the iced waters, came back to lay up for the winter, as well as the Jack Tar on leave from the Royal Navy, who had gone either by impressment or accepted bounty; 
when your markets were great gatherings of the rurals; your butchers’ shambles were filled with meat; when coals stood for sale in front of the square at the Swan, and the turf-graver brought his wares in donkey carts from Osmotherley; 
when the farmer and his dame rode on the pillion seat to the steppings at the inn; when handloom weaving was good, and intelligence amongst that class of operatives was great; 
when all these met at the hostelries to hear tales of adventure from the sailors, and the sparkles of wit from the literati of the town 
This was the world in which John's son Thomas, who was baptised in Stokesley in February 1792, grew up.  Thomas was remembered by his family (according to tradition in Hutton Rudby) as a gifted artist, inventive with his hands, a carver of objects in jet, a speculator and inventor who often had to take his family abroad to avoid his creditors.  His life history shows that he must have been a man of charm and charisma, who loved the public stage, was eager to take on arguments and controversies, and who made ambitious plans and entered into them boldly.

In or by 1800 (according to the Stokesley Flax Mill timeline on the Stokesley Heritage website, quoting Title Deeds research by Tom Berry), John Mease and an unnamed cabinet maker leased the house we know now as Number 42 High Street, Stokesley, "with shop and yard, garden and orchard behind".
Number 42 is the tallest building on the left
It stands on the north side of the High Street – known in the 19th century as North Row – not far from the Wesleyan Methodist Church (until 1883 this was the site of the Black Swan Inn) and was until recently occupied by Barclays Bank.  It is described in the Stokesley Society's Buildings of Stokesley as 
the jewel in the crown of the High Street.  Built of small bricks with handsome sandstone quoins and kneelers and a moulded cornice at the eaves ... retaining its bow windows, flat well proportioned sash windows and, best of all, its doorway under a wonderful shell canopy, the whole being completed with dormer windows in its Welsh slate roof.
In 1816 Thomas, aged 24, married Mary Mellanby in Whitby, where St Mary's parish registers describe him as a grocer.  A couple of years later, the Durham County Advertiser of 11 July 1818 records what must have been one of his earliest entries into public life when he and his father were among the many signatories to an address to the Mayor of Stockton requesting a meeting of the town and neighbourhood to consider forming a Canal to take cargoes such as coal and lime from Evenwood Bridge in County Durham to the Tees, for the benefit of trade.  (In the event, the Stockton & Darlington Railway was built).  Then in 1822 Thomas burst into print in the Stokesley "Paper War".

In the spring of that year Thomas's wife Mary and another lady had called twice upon the bookseller and radical Robert Armstrong for donations to the Wesleyan Methodist Missionary Society.  He took the view that they had been sent out to beg by their husbands and he was not in sympathy with their cause, telling them
I did not believe Humanity and Charity to be at all the object in view of their employers, and that in my humble opinion they had much better stay at home and cultivate the Heathen among their own sect.
On Monday 2 June 1822, Thomas Mease gave a forceful speech to a Wesleyan Methodist Missionary meeting in which he attacked Armstrong and his beliefs.  He was so pleased with the reception of the speech that he arranged for it to be printed.  Armstrong responded, hostilities began and the Paper War was soon in full swing.  It lasted until the summer of 1824.  The full story, including the unedifying quarrels over the deathbed of old John Appleton in the workhouse, is told here

Tom Berry's research shows that by 1822 Number 42 High Street belonged to John Mease and Thomas Mease with two tenants, and that within a few years it was occupied by John and both his sons, Thomas and John junior.  They converted the garden, which lay behind the house, and the warehouse wine vaults into a "corn mill and spinning factory".

John senior had not been content with his shop but had branched out into selling butter and cheese to London.  Thomas had gone into the same line of business as his father and is listed in Baines' Directory of 1823 as a grocer & tea dealer and linen & woollen draper, but he expanded into the production of cloth.  

Stokesley, like Hutton Rudby, was a centre of linen weaving and one of Thomas's earliest ventures was into linen manufacture – which is to say, employing handloom weavers to produce cloth which he sent to a bleachyard and then sold on.  We catch a glimpse of this business, which was evidently running concurrently with the spinning factory, in a notice in the London Gazette of 22 May 1829.  This records the end of a linen manufacturing partnership between Thomas and John Mease and John Barr of Stokesley.  This had also been a side venture for John Barr, who was listed, like Thomas, as a grocer & draper in the 1823 Baines' Directory.  Evidently while he and Thomas had managed the Stokesley end of the business, John Mease was in charge of marketing their cloth in Manchester because he is named in the notice in the Gazette as "John Mease of Manchester".  

The "spinning factory" was a more ambitious venture.  Baines' Directory 1823 shows that Thomas and his brother had set up the business of "T & J Mease," flax & tow spinners.  (The subordinate position of the "J" in the firm name must mean that this was his brother John, who was seven years younger than Thomas and now about 24 years old, not his father John.)  

They were embarking on the mechanised spinning of flax and tow into yarn.  It had proved much easier to mechanise the production of cotton than linen, but linen manufacturing began to make up lost ground when in 1787 the first machine to spin flax was developed in Darlington by John Kendrew.  Flax and tow are produced when the flax plant is broken down, resulting in long line fibres that make a fine, strong yarn and short tow fibres that make heavier, coarser yarn.  (A succinct description of the processes can be found here).  
Flax spinning mill
Baines' Directory recorded that
A considerable manufacture of linen is carried on here, and that trade is likely to be extended, by a mill, which Messrs Thomas and John Meale [a typo for Mease] are now erecting, to be worked by the power of steam.  
The Mease brothers' plan was to power their frames of spindles with a steam engine and the machines in which they invested will have been later models than Kendrew's, developed in Barnsley and Leeds. 

Many of Thomas and John's employees are likely to have been very young.  R P Hastings' Hutton Rudby: An Industrial Village (1979) notes that in 1841 the Hutton Rudby mill was worked by two flaxdressers and ten spinners who were mostly girls and boys in their 'teens.  An advertisement placed by an Otley mill at this time shows the workforce they were seeking:
Leeds Mercury, 26 April 1823
Wanted, at a Flax Spinning Mill, Three or Four large Families of Children.  If the Fathers of such Families are either Hecklers, Weavers, or Husbandmen, the Whole can have constant Employment at good Wages.
Further Particulars can be had on Application to Mr Meek, of Knaresbro'; or Mr Howgate, at West-End Mill, near Otley
This excerpt from Historic England's website gives an idea of what happened when a child was not quick to learn the knack of the work
Samuel Downe, who was born in Shrewsbury in 1804, worked in Ditherington Flax Mill from the age of 10. He described working conditions in the factory during a Parliamentary Enquiry in 1832:
 "we used to generally begin at five o’clock in the morning till eight at night".  When asked had he received punishment he replied "yes, I was strapped most severely till I could not bear to sit upon a chair without pillows, and I was forced to lie upon my face at night. I was put upon a man’s back and then strapped by the overlooker".  When asked why he was punished he replied… "I had never been in a mill where there was machinery, and it was winter time, and we worked by gas-light, and I could not catch the revolutions of the machinery to take the tow out of the hackles; it requires some practice and I was timid at it."
Improvements followed, and in 1834 the 92 children working at Ditherington Flax Mill only worked part-time and had some schooling between 9-11 am and 3-5 pm.
So the noise of spinning frames and a steam engine and the smoke of a mill chimney were added to the general clamour of Stokesley.  Though the economy took a bad hit after the Napoleonic Wars ended, Stokesley was still a lively place with a broad sense of humour – as can be seen from this account, told as a ridiculous story and evidently picked up by newspapers across the country.  This is from the Sussex Advertiser 
Sussex Advertiser, 23 May 1825
Marriage Extraordinary
The 24th ult. a marriage was celebrated at Stokesley, in Yorkshire, of a pair who had passed the delightful, anxious period of courtship in the factory of Messrs T and J Mease.  
A fellow workman of the bridegroom's having accepted the important office of giving away the blooming bride, and all the necessary preparations having been attended to, the morning was ushered in by the ringing of the church and factory bells.  The town-crier officially announced the wedding to take place at half-past nine o'clock, and gave a general invitation to the inhabitants to attend.  
The important moment came, and Richard Chambers, sweet sixteen, led forth his blooming bride of fifty-five, "all blushing as Aurora from the East," to the hymeneal altar of the good old town of Stokesley.  All other business was now at a stand.  The town band preceded the nuptial procession to the sacred fane, playing, "Come haste to the Wedding," and other appropriate airs.  After the indissoluble knot had been tied, the "happy, happy, happy pair" were borne in triumph, in chairs, round the town, preceded by the musicians, and followed by a concourse of spectators and guests.  
The ludicrousness of the scene was greatly heightened, by the bridegroom, who is of a very diminutive stature, being publicly shaved by the celebrated tonsor of the place, with a gigantic razor, 30 inches long!  Rustic festivities followed, and mirth and humour drew the curtains of evening over the hilarities of the day.
Raucous days in Georgian times.  I wonder who wrote it (perhaps Thomas Mease?) and whether all the details are correct or whether the newspaper embellished the account.  It's interesting to note mention of the factory bell, the town-crier and the town band.  It's certainly true that the parish registers record the marriage of a Richard Chambers to Elizabeth Rodery on 25 April 1825. 

Things began to change at the end of the 1820s.  John Barr had retired from the linen manufacturing partnership in May 1829 leaving Thomas and John to continue the business together.  Then on 3 March 1831, a notice in the London Gazette shows that the brothers' flax-spinning partnership had come to an end and that Thomas took over the business.  

By 1834, according to Tom Berry's research into Deeds, 42 High Street was occupied by John Mease, grocer, and sons Thomas, flax spinner and John, linen manufacturer, along with "land and items behind Numbers 36 and 38".  Buildings of Stokesley records that a passage between Numbers 38 and 42 leads to outbuildings that have survived since the Meases' time "with their arches and loading doors with elegant stone surrounds".

The Stokesley Directory database records that Pigot's Directory 1834 lists John Mease jnr as a Linen & Damask Manufacturer on Beck Side, while Thomas was listed as a Flax Dresser, Spinner and Patent Thread Manufacturer on Front Street.

However, there is always a slight lag between the compilation of a Directory and its publication and by the time Pigot's came out, Thomas's plans for a greatly expanded business were well underway.

He bought land on the other side of the River Leven, not far from the packhorse bridge, and was building another flax-spinning mill there.  The building survives as the premises of Millbry Hill (formerly called Armstrong Richardson).  

I have not been able to find confirmation that he built a gas works next to the Mill, as is stated in the letter written to Michael Heavisides (author of Rambles in Cleveland, 1909) by Thomas's son Joseph.  However, that's not to say that he didn't – it would have been an obvious way to increase profits by ensuring long working hours and he would, as stated by Joseph Mellanby Mease, have been able to sell gas to the town under the Lighting and Watching Act 1833.

While Thomas was occupied with business, and with chapel attendance – he was a Wesleyan class leader – he was also engaged in politics.  When the Hon. William Duncombe visited Stokesley during his successful campaign to be elected Tory MP for the North Riding in the winter of 1832/3, the Tories claimed that Thomas had stirred up something approaching a riot when Duncombe tried to address the voters.  Thomas instantly denied the charge and subsequently produced a pamphlet entitled "Two Letters on Tithes and Corn Laws, addressed to the Hon W Duncombe, M.P."  In this Thomas addressed two urgent political questions of the day: reform of the system of tithes and the abolition of the Corn Laws and it was reviewed in the York Herald of 13 July 1833 in the most favourable terms, largely because the reviewer wholeheartedly agreed with Thomas's point of view: 
an excellent little work that has just issued from the press, and which we have perused with no common pleasure ... The author is evidently a man of considerable talent; he has condensed into a pamphlet of 80 pages, a collection of important facts and irrefutable arguments, which might easily have been expanded into a bulky volume.  His language is remarkably terse and perspicuous and the work throughout displays considerable elegance of composition.
The reviewer quotes a passage from the pamphlet to illustrate his point.  In this we can hear Thomas's voice – though we might not agree that this, the first sentence quoted, is so "remarkably terse":
If, then, the Church have no rightful property in tithes, and their compulsory enforcement, under existing regulations be an anti-christian exaction, injurious to both payers and receivers, by exciting bitterness and contentions – and oftentimes expensive law suits too – the only question for determination is, – whether at this crisis of agricultural and national distress, the Clergy of the establishment ought not to be placed upon the apostolical footing of voluntary maintenance; like the accredited Pastors of the general body of Dissenters, who, in learning, and talent and respectability, and usefulness – although certainly not in wealth, and titles, and worldly enjoyment – are by no means their inferiors; that tithes, for the public good, may be duly appropriated to the exigencies of the State.

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