Ellen H’s story

Chippenham was built on the cloth trade, with many small-scale weavers having looms in their homes to produce material once the thread had been dyed. By the mid-1800s, however, mechanisation and larger scale industry had led to the establishment of a full cloth mill.

This mill, which offered carding, dyeing, spinning and weaving, sat on the banks of the River Avon where the Hygrade meat factory later sat, a site which is now new apartment housing along Westmead Lane.

This mill, owned by Pocock and Rawlings, was one of the biggest employers in Chippenham towards the latter half of the 19th century, alongside the railway works, and the Nestle factory. By 1911 the workforce numbered around 130, the bulk of which were unmarried younger women. One of these women was Ellen, alongside at least four of her siblings.

Ellen Hillman

Ellen’s father – Julius – was a weaver at the factory throughout the 19th century, and married his wife Julia in 1871. There’s some discrepancy about where this took place – both St Andrew’s Church and the Wesleyan Methodists have a record of the marriage. They had nine children in all, of which Ellen was the fourth, born in the mid-1870s.

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The family, while clearly non-conformist in religion – like much of Chippenham at the time – appeared to be unable to decide which branch of non-conformism suited them best. Ellen was baptised into the Primitive Methodist faith, as were her sisters Anne, Elizabeth and Frances. However, her brothers Frederick and Arthur, and her sister Florence were baptised into the Wesleyan Methodists, and her sister Emily was christened at the Tabernacle church.

Although their parents married from Blind Lane (now Gladstone Road), while they were young, Ellen and her siblings lived on Factory Lane, modernly known as Westmead Lane, while their father worked at the cloth mill at the end of the road. Their grandfather, a dyer, also worked at the mill and lived next door. As they grew up, Ellen’s siblings gradually went to work for the cloth mill themselves. One of them, Anne, died at the age of one, but the rest all grew up to bring in a wage to the family. They found work in the mill themselves, and the condensed milk factory, and the railway.

In the late 1880s, when Ellen was about 14, the family moved out of Factory Lane into new houses on Parliament Street. While today this street is part of Chippenham, at that time the houses were outside the town’s boundaries, administratively in Lowden, and it would have been quiet compared to Factory Lane. This would have been a desirable move for a large family.

Around about this time, Ellen left school and started work. Her first job was in the Nestle Condensed Milk Factory. It’s unknown exactly what she did in the factory, but younger workers often were general factory hands – fetching and carrying, and menial tasks – and would gain specific knowledge and skills as they worked.

In 1892, when Ellen was 18, her father died suddenly. He’d been conducting a service at the Primitive Methodist Church in Kington St Michael, and had walked home with Ellen’s next youngest sister Elizabeth. As they went past the Police Station in New Road Julius collapsed and died, aged 42. An inquest said he’d had a weak heart all his life. Ellen’s mother Julia was left a widow with several very young children, and the eldest children had to support the family.

One of the girls went to work as a domestic servant in Bristol, and one of the boys as a railway porter in London, but the rest of the siblings stayed local. Ellen and three of her sisters went to work in the cloth mill. Two of them became weavers, having almost certainly learnt the trade from their father, while Ellen became a harness mender.

A harness mender did not relate to horses used at the mill, and instead referred to the mechanisms that drove the weaving looms. These were called harnesses, and Ellen’s job would have been to maintain them. This was specialist work, and appears to have usually fallen to men, so Ellen’s technical skill set appears to have been unusual. Other women at the mill worked as weavers, wool carders, spinners, spoolers, cutters, wharpers, beaters, machinists and general hands.

power loom factory

The Waterford Cloth Mill, also known as Pocock and Rawlings, took on workers from around the age of 14. When a young man married he could expect to keep his job, as he needed this to support his family. However, young women were expected to give up their jobs at the mill when they married, as they then had the responsibilities of a household and family. Some did keep their jobs – in 1911 there were eight married women at the mill, as opposed to 60 unmarried women and two widows – but this was driven by economic circumstance rather than propriety.

Significantly, Ellen and several of her sisters did not marry, so kept their jobs and lived with their mother. This may have been driven by the need to keep their family household going in the face of the loss of income that their father’s early death caused, but also may be down to lack of opportunity or a wish to keep their jobs.

By 1911, Ellen was in her thirties and had been the harness mender for over ten years, while her sisters Louisa and Emily were weavers. Another sister, Florence, had died in 1909, and had worked at the mill as a cutter.

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1915 saw a devastating fire which destroyed the Waterford Mill almost entirely. The five-storey main building, along with the rest of the outbuildings complex, was damaged beyond repair. This sounded the death knell for the textile industry in Chippenham, despite it continuing healthily in nearby towns like Trowbridge, as the factory was not rebuilt. Pocock and Rawlings did continue in some capacity until around 1930, but most of the workers lost their jobs. It’s unknown where Ellen worked after this, as employment records were sketchy and not in the public domain, but it’s possible that she continued with Pocock and Rawlings due to her skills. Other option would have been to go to Saxby and Farmer, and join the local women working in munitions there during the First World War. She may also have taken the same choice as her sister Emily, and returned to work at the Condensed Milk Factory.

Ellen’s mother Julia died in 1929, and whatever work Ellen was doing at this point she gave up to become the householder at Parliament Street. Her sister Emily lived with her, as did her sister Louisa on occasion.

Ellen died in 1948, aged 74. The house was then passed on to her sisters.

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