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 22nd February 1999 (p.9), 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: TAPES AND NARROW FABRICS

In the latter years of the 19th century, the weekly output of 230 people employed at Speedwell and Haarlem Mills in Wirksworth equalled the circumference of the earth. Under the broad description of tape makers these workers were producing a wide range of narrow fabrics, from boot laces to ferrets (stout cotton or silk tapes) and smallwares (haberdashery).

The medieval word 'taeppe' described any narrow cloth used for any conceivable purpose and demand was well established long before commercial tape manufacture was introduced to Derby in the early 19th century. The Derby mills inspired expansion of the industry to Ashbourne and Wirksworth and together these three towns formed the nucleus of the largest tape producing centre in the world.

Of the small number of outlying manufacturers, John Hackett was listed as a tape maker in the Matlock area in 1821, possibly at Tansley, the business apparently passing to Thomas Hackett. By 1829 there is mention of Tatlow and Fletcher's smallware factory by the first dam in Middleton Dale, though by 1846 the building stood unoccupied before being put to other uses.

The trade flourished best at Wirksworth. Haarlem Mill, a former cotton spinning mill paralysed by the cotton depression, was converted to tape weaving by 1815. Willow Bath tape mill, which had a steam engine, dates from the same period and the steam-powered Speedwell Mill, a former hat factory, was converted for tape manufacture in 1844 by Joseph Wheatcroft. In 1879 the Wheatcroft firm acquired Haarlem Mill, steam and water powered, which had earlier been worked in conjunction with Arkwright's mills at Cromford. The thriving family firm later established its own bleachworks at Wash Green where it also had a dye yard, so eliminating the expense of sending all its material to Matlock for bleaching.

John Bowmer and Sons began tape making in 1883 at Providence Mill in Wirksworth, later known as Gorsey Bank Mill. The firm was later to make the proud boast that it had manufactured the fuse-binding tape of every Mills Bomb used in the First World War. Bowmers built a new mill at Water Lane in 1961 and nine years later merged with M. Bond and Company of Ashbourne to become Bowmer-Bond Narrow Fabrics Limited of Hanging Bridge Mills on the river Dove at Ashbourne. Bonds traced their tape making origins to Alrewas in 1795 before moving to Ashbourne in 1866. These old-established firms have been responsible for producing immeasurable amounts of the notorious red tape beloved of officialdom both at home and overseas.

AHEAD OF ITS TIME

Nineteenth-century fashion kept domestic demands high, whether silk ribbons, laces and trimmings or strong bindings to meet the huge market in corsets. By the end of the century, taking Messrs. Lowe & Scholes of Tansley as an example, typical output included stay (corset) binding, India tape, carpet binding, skirt beltings and venetian blind webbing. Lowe & Scholes operated two large four-storey mills powered by five mill dams, the machinery attended to a small army of workers, all experienced skilled hands, smart, intelligent and industrious'. (The Matlocks and Bakewell 1893, reprinted by the Arkwright Society 1994.) Some of these employees had evidently started young; when tape weaver Joseph Ball retired in the summer of 1897 it was reported that he had worked at Tansley tape mills for seventy years, having commenced at only seven years of age.

Exactly a hundred years ago a revolutionary invention called the Poyser Tape Loom made the news. The ingenious Mr. John Poyser of Bolehill, Wirksworth, was in the process of setting up his invention at the old Malt House on Steeple Grange. His tape or ribbon loom was the subject of a lecture at the Yorkshire College by Professor Beaumont, who declared that the inventor had achieved what ninety-nine out of a hundred persons would say was the 'Utopia of a dreamer' but had succeeded so remarkably that he was entitled to be ranked amongst the foremost textile inventors. The Professor expected the loom to be 'an epoch-making one in the textile world' but his optimism was misplaced. The equipment was actually ahead of its time since the existing yarn technology could not match the speed of the shuttles. The only firm which entirely installed the Poyser Loom went into liquidation. Yet its revolutionary speed foreshadowed technical advances of more recent times, until finally shuttles were made obsolete by the introduction of needle looms.

The Bowmer-Bond factory at Ashbourne is now sole survivor of the old tape manufacturers of the Peak District. The traditional mainstay of cotton is still used here but on a vastly smaller scale than modern day materials such as PVC and polypropylene webbings, made for specialist needs in the transport industry and in such diverse items as camera straps and equestrian and mountaineering equipment.

© Julie Bunting
From "The Peak Advertiser", 22nd February 1999.

Articles by Julie Bunting are reproduced with her kind permission.

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