At our August speaker meeting we were pleased to welcome Ian Keys from the Darshill and Bowlish Conservation Society.
Ian gave us an informative talk and update on the progress of the two-year Heritage Project delving into the history of the Shepton Mallet Hamlets of Darshill, Ham and Bowlish that was started in September 2018. These three locations were at the forefront of the wool, cloth and silk industries from the early 1400s and well into the 1800s.
The project is studying the remains of the cloth making and farming industries, the present and historical build and natural environment and aims to revive something of the lives of the people of previous generations.
We were told of a poem written in 1641 by Richard Watts. The poem written in Olde English is entitled ‘A Concise Poem on the Situation, Trading etc of Shepton Mallet in the County of Somerset’. It describes Shepton Mallet as ‘This far famed town that lies near Mendip towering hills, whence doth arise great store of lead and coal’ with mentions of an unparalleled church roof, famous school, market cross, cloth making for kings and nobles where three score thousand were employed from local villages.
One of the largest fulling mills was on the site of the current sewage treatment works. A huge building stood with two great waterwheels of twenty and thirty foot in diameter, sadly destroyed by fire. There were three more fulling mills in Darshill and a large factory complex five stories high in Bowlish.
Many of the workers in the mills were children, some as young as five years old. They had some of the most awful jobs including cleaning the wool cloth by trampling on it in vats of fullers earth and urine. It was then washed in clean water before being hung on the drying racks. There is still evidence of the terraced walls of the rack fields alongside the A371 road to Wells where the cloth was hung on tenterhooks, the name derived from the tenting or tensioning of the fabric.
It was after the time of the Black Death in 1348 that the development of the area began and, in the 1400s, the building of corn mills and fulling mills changed the landscape.
In the mid 1500s there was an influx of Huguenot weavers into Britain, French silk weavers who brought fine cloth and varieties of colour to the industry.
However, despite all the obvious prosperity, there was unrest in the 18th century with pay strikes and demonstrations and in 1775, following the introduction of the Spinning Jenny, there were riots at Bunkers Hill, the site of the old Norah Fry Hospital, where two rioters were killed.
This was a dark period for the industry and the population of the area declined by 40%.
In the late 1700s the area was given a new lease of life with the introduction of silk weaving and by 1812 there were four silk mills in Darshill and one in Coombe Lane owned by Nalder and Hardisty. Among the workforce again were young children, some from the local workhouse. They worked over thirty hours a week, were paid 5d from which they paid 1d towards their education.
The society is focusing its research into the industrial landscape of Shepton Mallet which was concentrated along the banks of the River Sheppey, at Longbridge, Bowlish and Darshill.
A snapshot of the projects progress in the first year includes twelve properties surveyed, nine archaeological surveys underway, an archaeological dig planned, a Spring biodiversity walk, three school events with two more planned along with Summer walking tours and a fete. By the project end date of August 2020, the society are looking to deliver a printed summary of their work, a searchable website with photo gallery, a public realm heritage trail, hopefully, linked to the existing Shepton Mallet Town heritage trail and engagement and learning events in communities and schools e.g. Collett Day and links into Key Stage 2 Geography and History.
There is no doubt that the history of these areas of Shepton Mallet is significant and has left a legacy of some fine buildings that remain as a monument to the industry that once dominated the area.
You can find out more about the work of the Darshill and Bowlish Conservation Society and the history of the area by visiting the society website Project Website