Exploring the story in Glyn Ceiriog – Lesley Beckton
I took an interest to support the community in Glyn Ceriog, to explore the link with production of Welsh Plains, locally called ‘webs’, for export. The team at the Glyn Ceriog Institute are very interested and they have a map showing tenter frames on display.
I started by reading ‘The Welsh Woollen Industry’ by J Geraint Jenkins at the local Library, as it was a reference only copy. There are good chapters on the valley are an easy read, and very interesting and factual though.
Jenkins records that “In the Ceriog Valley alone, the amount of woven cloth was enough to keep eleven fulling mills in constant employ in the last decade of the eighteenth century’. ‘Each fulling mill, according to Davies*, dressed twenty-two webs a week; a web being made up of two pieces, each 95 yards long.
For each web the cost of 36lbs wool for the warp was £1 10s, the cost of 56lb various wool for the ‘woof’ (weft) was £1 19s 8 d. Then the cost of blubber oil, which could have been used for lighting or for soap, was 3s 6d, plus 5s 6d for the weaver (no mention of paying the spinners) and the cost of ‘milling’ (fulling) at 1s 6d. An additional 8d was added for ‘measuring and house room for sale’ (?) bringing the total production cost of each piece of Glyn web to £4 1s 9d. At market depending on the price of the cloth, which in 1790’s was selling at between 9d and 17d a piece, the traders could expect between £7 and £13 at market, so making a good profit, even though they had to pay for buying in wool (described as coarse combings) from as far away as Yorkshire and Lancashire Mills to combine with local wool. P 217
I found another little gem, ‘A History of the Parish of Chirk,’ written by C. Neville Hurdsman. He points out that ‘fulling was one of the oldest and, locally, most important activities of medieval times. We should never forget that for hundreds of years sheep rearing and wool production and processing was the main commercial activity of Britain, and virtually the only manufactured or semi-processed commodity exported to overseas markets up to the 16th century.’
Although not all wool produced was for export, these are very convincing arguments to remember when faced with those sceptical that Welsh Plains was exported at all. Jenkins goes on to discuss how the markets and trading operated and it’s clear that we’ve lost the knowledge of times past occupations and commercial adventures.
Whilst the main part of the early chapter is devoted to the process of flannelling and tentering, there’s an interesting footnote on the same page that ‘The manufacture of these tenter hooks was a subsidiary industry, usually undertaken by the local nailor; purchase of up to 3,000 of these at a time are recorded in Chirk Castle accounts.’ P161
Another interesting snippet he records is that ‘between the 13th and 16th centuries, the construction methods for water mills was quite crude, involving little more than laying (or setting) close woven hazel or willow hurdles across the river, strengthened by tree trunks, boulders and clay, thus forming a weir to divert water into a mill pond. This type of weir was in constant need of repair, and we sometimes come across references to mills that had become “unsettle” by collapsing weirs.’
‘Lending weight to the tradition that the first water powered fulling mills of North Wales were established on the Ceiriog is a recorded directive in Chirk Lordship accounts of 1329/30 “that the fulling mill was made anew”.’
This shows that a fulling mill has existed at Chirk before this date, possibly quite a long time before, whose weir had perhaps broken. A later reference in the Warden’s Estate Accounts for 1331/2 mentions a fulling mill at Chirk with an annual farm ( or rental) value of 60/-. This may be the same mill mentioned in a grant issued by Henry, Duke of Somerset in 1463 which, amongst other lands and tenements, states that Richard ap David ap Robert has possession of a fulling Mill with water course belonging “on a site Y Pandy Kerric in the town of Waun Issa - ie Lower Chirk.’
Great knowledge and skills were needed by the fuller and his team ‘Harnessing the water wasn’t as straightforward as it may seem as seasonal and weather abnormalities can quickly change the Ceiriog from a trickle to a swirling current, and vice versatile, ‘while varying power requirements according to function need fairly precisely varied flows to the wheel. The technicalities of smoothing out the power source required a lot of ingenuity and engineering skill to avoid either commercial hardship or physical calamity. There is some reason to believe that the groupings of mills close to one another was a sound tactic to share the burden of flood control which could be costly.’ P163
Hurdsman also confirms my thoughts that the earliest valley mills would have been attributable to the local monastic establishment, in this case Valle Crusis, as these Monastic Houses developed land clearance and sheep farming in the area, ‘having both the intelligence and finances to exploit available power sources.’ This brings in links with Llangollen and especially as we know the high trail drover’s road leads in that direction and that Llangollen became a major cloth producer in the 1800s.
Looking more into the time we are interested in, there is a record in a Survey of the Lordship of Oswestry showing that the Abbot House of Valle Crusis ‘paid 2/- a year for a water course “to serve the mill” at Halton. Further earlier references, probably to this mill, is an entry in Chirk church rate books for 1663 under Halton township, reading “William for the Walkemill 4d”, and in 1671 Katherine Verch Edward is paying a rental of £1.13.4 for a “Pandu” in Halton.’ P161
This reference to the walkemill refers to ‘the primitive treading method of treating the wet clayey cloth.’ P161 . There’s a later reference to Edward Griffiths, described as a “fuller or walker” renting a mill and house in Halton for £3.10.0 a year between 1682 and 1715 and also “Hen Keiriog” at Ifton Rhyn on the Shropshire side of the river in 1705. ‘Griffiths sometimes paid part of his rent in kind; for example, in 1712 being allowed 15/- off his rent for “walking of blankets”. It is safe however to assume that in this area, by the late 17th or early 18th century, in spite of ‘walking’ references, the fulling would be water driven. P161
Hurdsman wraps up this small chapter by saying that ‘the activities of the fullers and dyers of Chirk had ended by the mid 18th century as the industry developed further up the valley in the region of Glyn Ceiriog - possibly because the atmosphere up river was less polluted by the effluent of iron working in the lower reaches, which must surely have prejudiced the tentering process.’ That firmly places fulling activity from 1750 onwards higher up the valley.
In Oswestry library I found a lot of digitised newspaper articles relating to the mills. They are not easy to read and incomplete. I was pleased t be able to attend an evening lecture at Glyn Ceiriog Institute which turned out to be very informative. It took the form of a photo collection to which Rob Jones and the audience talked. Lots of local photos, some dating from the mid 19th century, including the mill at Llanarmon, now called the ‘Woolpack’, Berwyn Mill and Old Mill which is now demolished and also tenterframes in situ.
My exploration of the story continues ...