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 June 2004 (p.unknown), 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: SHARP PRACTICE AT HATHERSAGE

The attractive village of Hathersage with its healthy clean air has not always been so. Extensive wire drawing took place at the heart of the village in the 19th century, and the associated trade of needle grinding made life very unpleasant.

The work of sharpening needles to a fine point on a grindstone was dangerously unhealthy, giving early needle grinders a life expectancy of 10 years from entering the occupation. The whole village also paid a price in grimy, dust-laden air, with minute metal particles eating into the glass and stone of buildings near the mills, not to mention the lungs of the inhabitants. Those who lived on higher ground considered themselves fortunate.

Wire drawing was one of the secondary metal trades dependent on the iron industry of east Derbyshire, where ironstone occurs in the coal measures. Iron smelting is recorded at Barlow as early as the 12th century. Iron was later put to use on the outskirts of the Peak, where the Hallamshire region of Sheffield developed as a manufacturing centre for scythes, sickles and knives. Sheffield of course became world famous for its cutlery, a trade now represented at Hathersage in the distinctive factory of David Mellor.

Sheffield brass foundries used to provide metal for the manufacture of brass buttons in Hathersage, but this was on a small scale compared with wire drawing activity. The story of its development in Hathersage is very involved but its inception may date from a patent granted by Queen Elizabeth in 1565 to Humphrey and Schütz for the 'making of steele and iron wyer'. Schütz is known to have established a wire drawing works at Hathersage.

An important early product as far as the Peak was concerned were sieves, or riddles, for washing mineral ore, chiefly lead but also copper. From the recently published Ecton Copper Mines (Landmark), we learn that Hathersage was a main supplier of sieves to Ecton. Late 18th-century accounts include an invoice from James Hodgkinson containing an interesting reference to wire brooms: '24 Sive bottoms of No 48 wires £12.16.0d; 12 Wire brooms £4.18.3d [and] 12 Ridles at 1s 2d per Ridle 14s 0d.'

At this period, cast steel wire was being drawn at the Hathersage works of Robert Cocker, with specific mention of clock springs. Needle making appears to have been introduced - along with a few experienced workers - from the Studley, Worcestershire area. Records from Redditch show that their needle makers were obtaining wire from Hathersage by at least 1790; in 1798 one of the Hathersage suppliers was Thomas Cocker.

Samuel Cocker, who had been apprenticed to a Manchester needle maker, set up in the trade at Hathersage in 1810. He possibly held an additional interest in Barnfield Mill on the Hood Brook, sharing the premises with Robert Cook, a wire drawer who moved from Studley in 1811 and within 10 years was operating as Robert Cook & Co. of Barnfield Works. Cook produced cast steel wire, needles, gill pins etc. and Barnfield was one of only three firms worldwide to manufacture hackle pins for combing wool and raising the nap on cloth. Fifty years after arriving in Hathersage, Robert Cook had 100 employees including 20 children. One nine-year-old girl told the Children's Employment Commission of 1862 that she was at work shaping umbrella ribs from 6 am to 7 pm. One 11-year-old boy said that he sometimes worked a 15-hour day.

The name of Henry Cocker is associated with Dale Mill on the Dale Brook, which he took over around 1824, when a second storey was added and the manufacture of brass buttons was abandoned in favour of wire drawing for the production of steel pins and needles. Henry Cocker was already producing these in workshops across the road from Dale Mill, the present Eastwood Cottages. A tunnel between the mill and the workshop may have been used for wire drawing.

GRAMOPHONES, BICYCLES AND UMBRELLAS

A mill later known as Victoria Works was in the hands of Tobias Child, who from the 1830s produced amongst other things hackle and gill pins for the textile industries. John Stead, a 'pin manufacturer' was here at the beginning of the 20th century; he also made gramophone needles.

Atlas Works, near the confluence of the Hood and Dale Brooks, was another wire drawing mill operated between the 1840s and 1880s by the Cocker family, perhaps the first in Hathersage to change from water to steam power. Output from Atlas Works included bicycle spokes and umbrella frames, this latter having a firm local connection. The invention of the world's first successful collapsible umbrella frame is attributed to Bradwell-born Samuel Fox, though credit should mainly go to Joseph Hayward, one of Fox's employees at the mighty Stocksbridge Steel Works. En route to fame and fortune, young Fox was apprenticed to Samuel Cocker and Sons in 1831 and initially worked as a wire drawer in Hathersage.

Water power for the Hathersage 'needle mills' was supplied by the Hood and Dale Brooks, with steam engines introduced from 1841. By the following decade, however, the needle industry was in general decline, and the factory of Samuel Cocker & Sons closed in 1852/3.

Robert Cook & Co. remained in business until the early 20th century, since which time the factory buildings have met various fates. The Atlas Works was demolished in 1907 after several years lying idle, while Victoria Works, which had moved into millstone production, closed down after the steam boiler blew up in 1910. Barnfield Mill and Dale Mill have been converted to residential and commercial use.

© Julie Bunting
From "The Peak Advertiser", 14th June 2004.

Articles by Julie Bunting are reproduced with her kind permission.

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