BYGONE INDUSTRIES OF THE PEAK, Derbyshire

This is one of a series of articles published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 14th August 1995 (p.15), and reproduced by kind permission of its author, Julie Bunting.

The series is now available as a fully-illustrated paperback, published in 2006 by Wildtrack Publishing of Sheffield (ISBN 1-904098-01-0)

BYGONE INDUSTRIES OF THE PEAK: HAT MAKING

The manufacture of hats in the Peak was of considerable importance to one place in particular - the village of Bradwell. Its speciality was the ‘Bradda Beaver’, the sturdy working headgear adopted by lead miners in the Peak and elsewhere. Perhaps a touch of rustic humour gave name to the style, since only the well-to-do wore top hats of real beaver fur.

The hat industry of Bradwell was therefore heavily dependent on lead mining, which it followed into decline from the latter half of the 19th century. Hat making was carried on in the village for at least 100 years. During the industry’s heyday around half a dozen workshops were in operation on The Hills and Smalldale alone. Eight hatters were recorded at Bradwell in 1820. One of their number was William Evans of Smalldale, who derived considerable wealth from the trade. At his death in 1844, aged 72, he left the rents on certain lands to be paid to the preacher of the ‘old Chapel’.

The Middleton family of Bradwell had especially long associations with hat making. Job Middleton, an octogenarian at his death in 1899, owned a factory on The Hills, now a pair of limestone cottages. Job used to travel around buying wool, his raw material, no doubt leaving his daughters, who worked with him, to keep an eye on the other employees. In 1905, just one solitary Bradwell hatter, Theophilus Middleton, remained to talk of the old days. He became a hatter around 1875, one of a dozen villagers engaged in the industry full time. After he retired through ill-health he continued to live in his compact ‘shop’ with his wife. It had been her job to wash and card the wool. Her carding machine was a primitive arrangement of two flat boards about 10in (25cm) by 6in (15cm) covered with ‘wire card’ to clean and disentangle the wool. One board was fixed at the end of a kind of saw-bench. The operator sat at the opposite end armed with the second board, which had a handle, carding the pre-washed wool between the planks in preparation for ‘bowing’.

This rather strenuous operation involved the use of a long wooden bow fitted with a catgut string. The work was carried out by Mr Middleton, spreading a quantity of carded wool onto a wooden hurdle then plucking the taut bow-string over the fibres. This caused them to rise and separate before settling into an even web. The web was consolidated into hard felt by ‘planking’, a lengthy process of alternately steaming the wool over boiling water and rubbing it so that it shrunk and thickened. Worked to the correct size, the felt was forced onto a semi-spherical wooden block and left to dry.

The shape of the Braddas, as the Middletons called them, resembled an inverted pudding bowl. They were finished off with a cotton lining and a band above the narrow, curled brim. Most of the hats were dyed black in a washing copper but some were left their natural colour. Braddas were thick and heavy, perfect for withstanding hard knocks and dripping water in the mines, while the crown had to be strong enough to support a tallow candle. The life of a hat was about five years and considered to be good value for money.

A hundred years ago, occasional orders from other lead mining districts continued to reach Mr Middleton. He still had a small stock of Braddas for sale although no new ones had been made for many years.

HATS FOR WAR

The process of making Bradda Beavers was little different to that used for hats made from animal fur, whether top quality beaver or cheaper rabbit or hare. This becomes evident from a description of working practices at Lea Wood hat factory near Cromford. This extensive hatter’s mill complex centred on a three-storey building, the basement fitted with carding engines powered by a massive overshot water wheel.

The tedious job of planking was either given to out-workers or carried out in a planking shed on site: ‘ ... the workers would sit round a central cauldron of hot acidified water, alternately soaking and manipulating, rubbing and rolling the felt on the planks which surrounded the kettle into which any liquid drained to be reheated ... additional fibres were worked into the thin areas and especially to strengthen the brim’ (Wrigglesworth). Local people, mainly women, also made hats in their own homes on a self-employed basis.

Materials were mainly animal fibres such as fur, hair and wool. Large consignments of hats were sent to London to be finished off with peaks, linings, trimmings and ribbons, according to the latest fashion.

More than 100 people were employed at Lea Wood in the first half of the 19th century. In addition to turning out hats for the gentry, the workers made military caps and felt helmets for soldiers fighting in the Crimea. When the hatters themselves felt the effects of the Crimean War, through rising food prices, they were provided with a hand mill so they could grind their own corn.

Hat making was carried out on a smaller scale at Baslow and at Fritchley, where a row of houses retains the name of the Hat Factory. Between the 1820s/40s, hats were produced at Speedwell Mill in Wirksworth. An old mill at Brook House Clough, Rainow, was put to the same use until manufacture was transferred to Bollington around 1873.

Long after hat making ended in the Peak, the design of the old Bradda Beaver was resurrected in a manner which deserves wider recognition. It came about in the early days of the First World War when British soldiers at the front were in desperate need of suitable helmets. Research centred on the steel making city of Sheffield, where in 1915 Walter Sissons, of W. G. Sissons & Company, silversmiths, suggested a pattern to the Munitions Committee. The die for the prototype was made from a plaster cast of an old Bradda hat, taken by Walter Sissons junior, who lived in Bradwell. The pattern met with instant approval and the Trench Warfare Department placed an initial order for one million helmets at 4s 6d each. For technical reasons, manufacture was transferred to a new plant in John Street, Sheffield, to be operated by Viners rather than Sissons.

The original dies survived until Sissons’ factory in St Mary Street, Sheffield, was bombed during the Second World War - when British soldiers were once again fighting in helmets with that unmistakable Bradda-inspired silhouette.

© Julie Bunting
From "The Peak Advertiser", 14th August 1995;
Updated 17th January 2005.

Articles by Julie Bunting are reproduced with her kind permission.

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