As you know, the Industrial revolution is a favourite topic of investigation of mine, and industrial tourism is one aspect of the Revolution that I find terribly interesting. Today, I thought you might like to know about some industrial innovations which were and still are part of the scenery around Jane Austen’s childhood home at Steventon, and which were part of the tourism trail even then. In one of her friend, Mrs Lefroy’s letters, dated Wednesday 17th June 1801, she mentions visiting the silk mill at Overton;
The two Miss Carletons Miss [Vyse] & Miss Speed came to spend the day in the morning we went first to the Silk & then to the Paper Mills
Overton was not far from the Rectory at Ashe, as you can see from this section from my map of Hampshire in 1797. Ashe is marked number 1, and Overton is marked number two.
Sadly, the Silk Mill at Overton is no longer operational, but if you would like to follow in Mrs Lefroy’s footsteps it is still possible to do so for another Mill, which was established in the area in the early 19th century still stands at Whitchurch, which is another small town that Jane Austen often visited. She mentions it in her letter to her sister, Cassandra Austen of the 30th November, 1800:
Martha ( LLoyd-jfw) has promised to return with me & our plan is to [have] a nice black frost for walking to Whitchurch…
The Silk Mill at Whitchurch was built around 1813 and in 1817 William Maddick ,who was a silk weaver from Spitalfields, in London, bought it and owned it until 1844. The Overton Mill, which was about 4 miles away from Whitchurch, “threw” or wove silk and was the main employer in Overton during the 18th and early 19th centuries. These mills employed mainly women, and children from the ages of 10 to 14. The Overton Mill went out of business in the 1840s following a fire and all its remaining machinery , contents and building materials were sold at auction .
The Whitchurch Mill was powered by a water wheel. The Mill is built on the River Test. This is famed as one of the finest trout streams in England.
It has wonderful clear water, running over chalk beds, and the quality of it is so pure that the area is famed not only for its fishing but for the production of watercress, which needs pure,free-flowing water to provide a healthy crop.The river actually rises in Mrs Lefroy’s village of Ashe, and then it wends its way down to Overton and Whitchurch. It eventually travels though the southern part of Hampshire to enter the estuary about Southampton water.
You can see the whole process of making silk fabric at the mill,and while the machines now used are older than our era, the process was very much the same when Jane Austen knew Whitchurch. Hanks of Silk are imported from China and are dyed and then would onto a winding machine:
and then they are onto bobbins, in preparation for making the warp. Any colour can be produced, for the dying process takes place on site.
The silk is drawn from the bobbins onto the creel by the warping mill, in sections to create the warp.
All the machinery is powered by the water wheel, though the bands are all now covered to comply with modern health and safety legislation.
Fabric for clothing or for upholstering furniture is produced here. The types of silk that can still be made at the mill include taffeta, bombazine, ottoman, faille and organza.The mill can also produce ribbons, twills and satins. And, as you may have guessed, costume departments in the television and movie industries often call upon the mill to make authentic materials for them to use in costuming for period dramas. The mill can make small fabric runs which larger businesses might find uneconomic, and this is perfect for costuming departments .
Many of the 1990 adaptations of Jane Austen’s novels used the mill to provide fabric for them, and there is a small display at the Mill showing stills from various films and adaptations including, Becoming Jane, a bio of Jane Austen that sadly really missed the mark for me:
The BBC’s production of George Elliot’s Middlemarch:
and The Aristocrats, based on the story of the Lennox sisters, who lived fascinating lives in 18th century England and Ireland:
Since 1990 the Mil has been restored and administered by the Whitchurch Mill Silk Trust, and it is a most delightful place to visit ( the on-site shop is very tempting too).It is fascinating to see an example of the type of industry of which Jane Austen would have been aware when she lived in this area, and to realise that though the area of Hampshire around Steventon was primary an agriculturally based economy, other industries flourished there too.