Damon & Kate Moore bought the Silk Mill privately from Notts Industries, a local car components manufacturer in February 2005. The building had been used as an engineering works for much of the twentieth century after it closed as a working textile weaving mill in 1926. During the mid-1970s it became unsuitable for this use, fell into disrepair and was eventually abandoned becoming classified as a Building at Risk by Mendip District Council. The lantern glass-roofed part was in the worst state of repair and restored as a priority.
View of the gallery roof from the top flight of stairs, with lovely new handrail December 2012.
With the roof and walls re-built it became our Gallery and opened to the public for the first time in May 2008 for the debut show by Foreground; Intervention/Decoration. In 2009 Kate & Damon’s son Dickon (then 18) joined the team and together they worked with a long list of volunteers and several experts in their crafts to put the rest of the site back together.
In 2013 the work is not finished but nearly all the building is in use at one level and there are 14 artists and artisans working daily in studios.
Walls going up on the second floor (Autumn 2012).
The Silk Mill is part of the regeneration of the district known in Frome as ‘Saxonvale’ for which a Development Brief has been adopted. There are many uncertainties regarding this redevelopment that are still unresolved and which may either have positive or negative outcomes for our project.
Here are some more pictures of the project and our work…
Below is a fuller history of the site:
A SHORT HISTORY OF THOMPSON’S SILK & CREPE MILL, FROME
(By Damon Moore, 2013)
FIRST PHASE 1790 -1925
Silk & Crepe Factories in West Wiltshire & East Somerset
Silk and textile manufacture had a significant presence in West Wiltshire and Somerset due to the region’s plentiful natural resources of timber and water and access to cheap labour. At the time of William Cobbett’s visit, (ref1) Frome rivalled Manchester in the number of mills and factories serving various industries. Until the Factory Acts of 1833, there were no regulations protecting children employed in the textile trade and they would have begun to work in the mills from the age of 9, (ref2). Mill owners varied in their attitude to working conditions since in the 17th and 18th centuries there were limited provisions for poor relief and the majority of these workers would have lived in purpose built accommodation or weaver’s districts many of which survive in Frome. Mill owners in Frome worshipped at the many non-conformist chapels, funding their construction and building of benevolent civic projects including institutes, public architecture and schools.
There are very few written or photographic records concerning the silk industry in general and for a very good reason which is that the owners were reluctant to allow any visitors to their factories. Competition between companies was intense – even established textile businesses could find themselves bankrupted by sudden alterations in the business model. The workforce of liquidated companies would try to find work in the same locality making everyone’s job uncertain.
The Silk Mill in Merchants Barton was named after its last owners, William Thompson & Philip Le Gros being originally constructed by the Ward family, silk throwsters of Evercreech, Bruton and Shepton Mallet in the closing years of the 1700s. Mill owners were quite used to building factories quickly since labour was affordable and because early mill structures were very vulnerable to destruction by fire. A roof truss in the Silk Mill on the top floor is inscribed ‘John Yerbury 1823’. Yerburys were known as hauliers with a carriage works located in Keyford. The architectural evidence suggests that an additional storey was added to the Silk Mill at that time using services supplied by the Yerbury joinery shop. There is little evidence of a water source at the Silk Mill but it is likely there was a race of some size issuing from the northern elevation before the factory converted to steam power.
What Happened in Thompsons Mill?
The process of silk manufacture goes through several stages and these would have been undertaken in different premises, (ref 3). By 1861 the Silk Mill had changed direction from silk throwing, (production of thread) to weaving, (production of finished cloth) which required heavier machines once the raw material had been washed, carded, (or dressed) and dyed. Large mechanical looms were bolted directly onto main beams with timber flooring being used primarily for access. The air would have been full of textile filaments and the terrific noise of machinery. We know that between the two Mills of Frome and Shepton Mallet, Thompson & Le Gros employed up to 400 workers, the majority being women and children however the Mill would have been part of a much larger complex in Merchants Barton, two structures from which still survive as a ‘heritage cluster’, (one was lost to an arson attack in 2009) and which have, since the closure of Notts Industries, (see below), stood derelict and unoccupied.
End of the Silk & Textile Industry in Frome
The silk and textile industry went through many changes of fortune facing major competition from abroad even in its earliest days. Silk Masters relied on technological improvements to stay ahead but these were unpopular and a source of constant tension in the workforce. The last great boom in the silk trade was led by the prolonged period of mourning or ‘widow’s weeds’ made fashionable by Queen Victoria. During the First World War, this custom was abolished by Royal Decree after which the industry faced systemic decline. Thompson’s Mill was one of the last to close in Frome and region, being sold in 1926 by the Widow Elizabeth Le Gros to J.H.Nott and Sons of Swansea.
SECOND PHASE 1926-2005
J.H.Nott brought with him a large contingent of Welsh workers when he established an engineering company on the site of the former Silk & Crepe Works. Bill Ellis, co-director of Wessex Engineering is still alive and living in Frome as is his brother Tony. He remembers arriving in the town aged 5 with his Dad, Ernest, who was a chief foreman, working for Notts before starting his own business in the Silk Mill (ref4). Notts manufactured pipework for generating acetylene gas and the expanding illumination industry before specialising in pressings and the automotive trade. The company also held the patent for the ‘Carley Float’, a cork life-raft wrapped in copper wire and pitch which was purchased by the Royal Navy in large quantities for its battleships. Much of the production for this item took place in the Silk Mill.
In December 1941, Notts sold the Silk Mill to Ernest Ellis and Wessex Engineering was founded. There followed an intense rivalry between these two companies which continued until Notts reacquired the Mill in 1977. There were other great engineering companies in Frome including Singers Castings which cast the Scales of Justice on the Old Bailey and Boudica on Westminster Bridge. Wessex mainly worked as jobbing engineers – clients would turn up in the morning from a variety of trades requiring lathe and metalwork services, guillotine, milling and welding work, assembly and design. During the war years, Wessex completed many contracts for the Admiralty and manufactured munitions including rocket launchers, assembled on the top floor. A converted goods lorry was re-fashioned on the premises by Bill for the Frome Carnival, much to his father’s disapproval since he commandeered recently purchased sheet steel to make a missing bumper, but it still features in the annual parade. In 1948, the lantern-roofed gallery was leased to Isabella Firbank who established a laundry at the premises but this ceased to trade in the early 1960s, (ref5). The area is still sometimes referred to as the ‘Old Laundry’ by older Frome residents.
When the first motorways in the country opened they soon began to deteriorate once road traffic increased. Bill and Tony Ellis designed an aggregate testing device to standardise the substrate layer which was exported to all parts of the world. As Bill says, ‘What they call concrete today isn’t concrete’. During the 1970s Wessex Engineering invested heavily in remodelling the factory and became over-extended causing the company to fail. Notts re-acquired the Mill in 1977 when it was used for stores and then boarded up. A long period of neglect and dereliction then followed which ultimately lead to the Silk Mill, one of the most significant heritage buildings in Frome’s Conservation Area being placed on the register of Buildings at Risk, (Grade II, Risk Category ‘A’) and issued with a compulsory repair notice. Any rescue or conservation plan for the Silk Mill was considered further complicated by its linkage to the Saxonvale brownfield redevelopment site.
THIRD PHASE 2005 – THE PRESENT
Frome Silk Mill Arts Ltd
After 18 months difficult negotiation, Damon & Kate Moore purchased the Silk Mill in February 2005 from Notts Industries with the intention of converting the building as an artists’ studio project in the private sector. For Damon it was the realisation of an ambition he had held since a schoolboy at St Mary Redcliffe School, Bristol when he witnessed the destruction of the Wills Tobacco Bond Warehouses at Bristol Docks and the revival of Bristol’s waterfront around the Arnolfini Wharf building and Watershed. In general, acting agents advise against splitting land parcels in redevelopment scenarios since this may constitute a risk to owners achieving best value overall. The counter argument goes that allowing some development can greatly assist in highlighting an area’s profile as well as raising values and benefiting longer-term prospects. As a purpose-built silk manufacturing premises the interior of the Silk Mill is optimised for natural light and through its history as an engineering works, contains very little infestation. The original carcass of English elm has survived more or less intact for over 200 years which is uncommon since elm is especially vulnerable to wood-boring insects.
On purchase, the Silk Mill was in a parlous state and no inspection of the interior had been made for nigh on 30 years. Professional surveyors could not write a risk assessment since it was considered contaminated and too dangerous to enter. Many reports had been written but no clear direction or future for the building had been established. The roof of the Old Laundry had largely collapsed along with most of its northern gable end. Timbers supporting flooring had disintegrated, main beams had deflected and dislocated in some places and most of the flooring from the upper stories was non-viable or missing. Parts of the main roof were starting to fail due to water ingress and windows and window elements were crumbling, collapsed or broken. There were no services in place and the building was hidden under an ivy screen, infested by pigeons whose droppings carry the psittacosis virus and surrounded by dilapidation and thriving woodland. Damon’s previous occupation had been as an artist-poet and part-time bookseller and Kate was a teacher. Neither had any relevant experience in the building trade but they could both see the potential of the building for its set purpose. Being only able to afford limited professional advice, they learned as much as possible from specialist contractors taking a ‘design and build’ approach aiming to overcome each problem as it came along.
Following essential repairs, surveys, planning and listed building permission, the decision was made to convert the Old Laundry area first in order to spread the word and launch the project to the town and strategic bodies. The gallery opened in 2008, (see chronological list & photos) and continues to host arts events, concerts and exhibitions right up to the present. With the introduction of the Intermedia Series this year, the gallery is defined as a collaborative arts and contemporary music resource.
The restoration of the main Mill and its eventual use relied upon both directors being unpaid and voluntary assistance with helpers arriving for short and medium stays from all parts of Europe. One volunteer, Steph Tyszka from Cambridge stayed for almost a year and contributions like his proved the essential tipping point. Had main contracts been commissioned, costs would have tripled and rents would have been beyond what artists could have afforded. Schedules of works continued over the next five years with frequent interruptions for breaths to be taken and new rounds of financial planning. The old staircase was condemned so a new main staircase was designed by Fran Uwins, a volunteer master carpenter resident in France and was built over many months from five indigenous hard woods by a volunteer team most, if not all completely inexperienced in joinery. An in-house carpenter’s shop was created using bartered machines and the staircase newels were turned by Kate on one of the largest shop lathes ever produced – the 3meter 1936 Wadkin RS Professional brought in especially for the job. Fran made three visits, working and teaching the team what to do and Dickon, Kate and Damon’s middle son, joined as a fellow director and project manager, helping to replace the main roof in 2012 when the final schedule, fitting out studios in the upper floors was initiated and completed. Now we have 22 studios occupied and a long waiting list!
Frome is the town that says ‘yes’ and the Silk Mill is currently spearheading a new cultural quarter for Saxonvale. This is a problematic brownfield site in the centre of Frome which has lapsed into a state of stagnation over almost two decades. The growth of alternative creative sectors in Frome, its general arts profile and the success of the Silk Mill creates the impetus for an economic transformation of this area, allowing Frome to take the lead in establishing new arts-led cultural landscapes in Somerset.
References & Sources
1. Rural Rides by William Cobbett. E-book edition, Project Gutenberg. p.361 (link).
2. The Silk Industry in Evercreech. Evercreech Local History Society.
3. Wikipedia’s entry; ‘The Silk Industry of Cheshire’ gives an excellent description of the manufacturing process (link).
4. Recorded interview with Bill Ellis, former director of Wessex Engineering, 2006
5. Archive material contributed by Geoff Yates, former Chair of Notts Industries.
Additional Historical Information
Frome Museum, North Parade.
Warp and Weft, The Story of the Somerset & Wilts Woollen Industry, Kenneth Rogers, Barracuda Books, 1986.
The Industries of Frome, Rodney Goodall, 2009