Catherine Street Mill – Whitehaven

(Page created 06/12/06. Last updated 25/04/07)

From an article by Margaret Robinson in The CIHS Newsletter, April 2002

The mill in Catherine Street, Whitehaven, now renovated and turned into flats, is an imposing building, and its builder must have been a power in the town. A plaque on the wall tells us that it was a flour mill for some years, but it was actually built as a flax-spinning mill in 1809, by Joseph Bell. Who was Joseph Bell? Good question, because his life is a fine example of eighteenth century industrial enterprise. His career spanned the great change-over from domestic handicraft to factory production.

His story starts when Daniel Bell, a native of Hawkshead and a Quaker, was apprentice in Lancaster in 1745 to a flax-dresser, taking the freedom of the town in 1751/2. In 1753 he married Rebecca Frodsham of Pouton, having set upon business as a flaxman, buying raw flax, preparing it in his own workshop, then putting it out to be hand-spun by local women. Joseph, their third child, was born in 1759. Unfortunately, Daniel died the next year, leaving Rebecca to raise their children and run the business, which she managed alone until 1769, when she married David Cragg, Daniel’s first apprentice and also a Quaker. This is quite important as many of the flax businesses in the North-West were run by Quakers, and their habit of extending advice and assistance to their fellows must have helped Joseph on his way. Joseph does not appear in the Lancaster Apprentice Rolls, so he must have been apprenticed elsewhere, possibly in Kirkham in the Fylde, bearing in mind his later business connections.

Nothing definite is known of him until 1781, when he appears as a fully-fledged owner of a flourishing business, still a Quaker and aged twenty-two. His insurance policy tells us that he was working in the house next door to his mother, now widowed for the second time. We know that they shared the houses and probably the business, being held jointly responsible for non-payment of tithes. He had equipment and stock insured for £1050; a warehouse in the backyard was full, and stock overflowed into their neighbour’s yard. He had also diversified into weaving, and had a shop with looms and yarn worth another £100. Then, at some point between 1781 and 1784, Joseph made a big career move.

Whitehaven had grown fast in the eighteenth century, sustained by a solid export trade of coal to Ireland. Ship-building had gone on there since the seventeenth century, to provide and maintain the collier fleet, and had expanded until Whitehaven ships were bought by ship-owners all over the North-West. Ships’ carpenters, ropers, block-makers and anchor-founders crop up regularly in the Parish Registers, but no one was making sail canvas, a gap in the market if ever there was one. Sail canvas was made in Lancashire, in Lancaster, Warrington and Kirkham. Two big firms had the Kirkham canvas industry pretty much to themselves, the Hornby brother and Langton Birley. The Hornbys were looking to expand, building  flax mill at Low Bentham in 1785. In Whitehaven, in partnership with Joseph Bell, they opened a Sail Cloth Manufactory in Scotch Street in 1784, trading as Hornby and Bell until joined by Henry Birley, nephew of the Kirkham factory owners, at some time by 1793. The partners opened Low Mill, on the River Ehen, and enlarged the product range to include huckaback (familiar today as roller towelling) and haberdashery. In 1800, John Marshall, already set to become the biggest linen manufacturer in the country, based in Leeds, was shown round the factory and was impressed by it size, with its 1500 spindles, although he thought the machinery ‘rough and clumsy’. Too much should not be read into that as Marshall, as an inventor and owner of patents for flax-spinning machinery, may have had an axe to grind.

Eighteenth century business partnerships were fluid, to say the least. Partnerships formed and reformed with different partners, sometimes lasting for a very short time; men traded on their own or with others both at the same time. By 1805, the Hornbys had left to concentrate on their Bentham factories, the new building in High Bentham being a big success. Joseph Bell was also ready to strike out again, and formed a new partnership with John Bragg. Bragg was a Quaker, owned a bleachfield at Egremont and was a ‘Russia Merchant’ i.e. he imported flax and hemp, which made him an ideal partner. Together they took a site in Castle Meadows, paying a rent of 18s.5d. a year, and built the mill in 1809. By 1810 they were advertising for labour, for a man to attend the steam engine, for overseers and instructors for the apprentices, and for ‘ stout boys to swingle and dress flax’. Like Henry Birley, now working at Cleator, they wanted no union labour. Flax-dressers, being apprenticed and a cut above common machine minders, were capable of standing up for themselves.

All these new flax-spinning factories, producing canvas yarn, were part of the national war effort, equipping the Navy and the merchant marine. After 1815, the bottom fell out of the market and most of the smaller establishments closed down. The Hornbys, the Birleys, and Bell & Bragg were big enough to weather the storm and survived, though Bragg left at some point before 1823. Joseph Bell’s factory continued until he died in 1832, leaving ‘all that my Linen or Flax Manufactory … situate in or near Castle Meadows, and all that my newly erected Warehouse in Irish Street’ to his three sons, Joseph, John and Daniel. The Catherine Street mill lasted as a flax mill until 1853, a monument to Joseph Bell, who started small as a Lancashire handicraftsman, and finished by leaving Whitehaven one of its major landmarks.