This fascinating picture gives us an important record of the industrial revolution in Warwickshire. The textile mill was built for Sir Roger Newdigate of Arbury Hall (1719-1806) on his land to the north of Collycroft around 1790. A leat was constructed to bring water from another part of the Arbury canal system, involving an aqueduct over Collycroft locks on the Coventry Canal. Additional water for the mill came from a small stream and machinery was driven by a waterwheel beneath the mill. A branch of the canal was constructed to link a wharf at the mill to the Coventry canal for transport of raw materials and goods. Other branches of the Arbury private canal system served the Newdigate’s colliery at Griff nearby.
Child labour at the mill
This picture was made by Lequesne for the Newdigate family in the 1790s. It shows children working at the mill, which was at that time a worsted factory making woollen cloth. There is a cut-away, scale model of the mill at the Science Museum in London, based on this drawing. Women and children were employed as cheap labour in many textile mills at that time, often with men as supervisors. Textiles formed around half of Britain’s exports in the mid 18th century as machines in factories gradually replaced home working. You can see the large windows to let in light (in pre-electricity days).
Silk mill and decline
The mill was converted for silk throwing and known as ‘Bedworth mill’ later on in the 19th century, contributing to the substantial local silk-ribbon trade centred on Coventry and Bedworth. In 1850, White’s trade directory shows Daniel Rowbotham in charge of the silk mill and he continued up until 1854.1 The machinery and waterwheel had been removed by 1849 to be replaced by steam power. By 1860 Daniel Rowbotham had been succeeded by a relative, Thomas Rowbotham. By 1886 the building was in poor condition but it continued in use: in 1900 and 1904 Jagger and Co. were operating the silk mill, but it had ceased operation by 1908.2 The mill building was finally decommissioned in the 1950s and the houses of Mill Terrace now stand on the site – you can still see the large mill windows.
Inspiration for George Eliot?
It is possible that this mill inspired George Eliot (1819-1880), whose father worked on the Arbury estate and who lived at Griff House nearby so as a child she would have been familiar with it. In her novel ‘The Mill on the Floss’ the mill forms an important setting for the story, which revolves around a brother and sister who live at the mill and (spoiler alert) where sadly they both drown in a flood… though the Arbury corn mill nearby has also been suggested as the original inspiration. There is another link with George Eliot: the owner of the mill, Sir Roger Newdigate, is said to be portrayed as Sir Christopher Cheveral in ‘Mr Gilfil’s Love Story’ one of the short stories in her first published novel: ‘Scenes of Clerical Life’.
Part of the material in this article is based on exhibitions held by Warwickshire County Record Office in 1969, 1991 & 1995.
1 White, F. & Co ‘History, Gazetteer, and Directory of Warwickshire’, Sheffield, 1850, p. 570; Kelly’s ‘Directory of Warwickshire’, London, 1854, p. 25.
2 Kelly’s ‘Directory of Warwickshire’, London, 1860, p. 939; 1900, p. 40; 1904, p. 40; 1908, p. 43.