Flax Spinning Mill

The mill in Catherine Street, was a flour mill for some years, but it was actually built as a flax-spinning mill in 1809, by Joseph Bell. 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 Hornby's 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'.

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. 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. Catherine Mill is a Grade 2 listed building of national importance as the earliest mill to contain a central engine house and what’s more, it was fire-proofed.

Flax and hemp had been grown in the North West for centuries, but it was mainly hemp that was grown in West Cumberland, for rope making. The earliest linen factory known in the North West dates from 1742. It was at Lowther (Westmorland).

Typical 19th Century Spinning Mill
Typical 19th Century Flax Spinning Mill


Whitehaven had been small harbour and fishing village from 13th century or earlier. Expansion began in mid-17th century with building of piers by Lowthers 1632-4 and 1679-81 and granting of market charter 1660. By the 1680s it had grown rapidly, expanding from village of c.30 households in early 17th century to a town of over 1,000 inhabitants by 1685, which more than doubled to 2,281 by 1696. Sir John Lowther had laid out grid of streets by 1680s, making Whitehaven the earliest planned new town in post-medieval Britain.

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