Every town has its notable quirks and features that it has accumulated over its lifetime; this week’s post highlights The Fascinating Story of the Silk Industry in Sherborne.
The story of silk weaving here in Sherborne goes back a very long way.
Hutchins (History and Antiquities of the County of Dorset) mentions a silk thrower settling into Sherborne around 1740.
In 1753 John Sharrer, a silk thrower from Whitechapel, London, leased from Lord Digby of Sherborne Castle, a water grist mill and a dwelling in Westbury. That dwelling is now known as The Riverside Nursing Home.
Sharrer may have settled here because there was much cheap labour in the town, and by 1764 Sharrer he had taken his nephew, William Willmot into partnership.
Fortunately for Sherborne, Willmot kept very detailed account books which have survived the years. These are documented interesting reports of how sometimes maintaining a regular supply of raw silk to throw was most difficult.
The silk was imported from China, Italy, Spain and France and it remained the property of the London merchants who farmed it out to the silk throwers to eventually be spun into yarn.
Mostly the throwing was done by water powered machines, but some qualities of silk could only be thrown by hand. This of course was very labour insensitive, but did give employment to hundreds of local people, mostly children. The silk remained the property of the London merchant and the thrower was required to return to him all the spun silk and any wastage.
The silk throwing mill in Sherborne was on the land between the now Riverside Nursing Home and the river that is today occupied by the industrial complex of Valmiera Glass UK Ltd.
The silk trade in Sherborne swung through periods of difficultly, but also lucrative times, until 1840. Then presumably through prosperous times again as it was then that the Westbury mil was extended to what is now know as the Old yarn Mills, across the road at the corner of Ottery Lane and Westbury.
In 1861 almost 600 people were employed, and that same year Horsecastles terrace was built to house many of the workers.
Motive power for the new mills was conveyed from the old mills via a shaft under the road. but by 1885 times has once again become hard and difficult and the silk mill closed. This was serious for the town, as silk had been it’s principle employer.
Fortunately a rescue operation came from a Reverend Joseph Ogle, a Congregational Minister, who had recently come to live in Sherborne. He had the idea of weaving the pure silk into fabric rather than just throwing it, and the first bale of finished silk left the mill in 1887.
Ten years later it was supplying dress lengths for Queens Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee.
Indeed in 1981 Sherborne Silk was spun into the wedding dress for Diana Princess of Wales. Some silk lengths can still be seen today in our own Sherborne Museum.
In 1907 the mill was sold to Mr Wright of Bingley, then following a recession in 1936 it was sold again to a Swiss silk weaver, a Mr Spitz. Sadly he over invested and then became bankrupt, resulting in his suicide. So, once again the mill was sold, this time Mr Fredrick Marsden who owned a mill in Coventry.
By 1938 the mill was once again in full production and financially secure. But the war was looming and now the mill became very busy weaving silk for parachutes.
After the war was over, fibre glass became the new material for weaving, and the future of the mill was well established, and locally the mill became known as Marglass.
In 1962 Marglass was sold again, this time to Courtaulds, and has now become known as the “leading name in glass fabrics”. Glass fabric of many different qualities, weights, thicknesses and weaves are produced. (It subsequently became P-D Interglas Technologies Ltd, and in 2013 was sold again and renamed Valmiera Glass UK Ltd. But its function remains the same.)
In 1976 They acquired the Coach & Horses Inn as an employees only social club, renaming it The Weavers, and it is still in use today by members and guests.
So for over 230 years the story of Sherborne’s silk mills and Marglass (as it was) is one of huge success, giving employment to Sherborne people, bringing prosperity and an industry that Sherborne people can be proud of.