Researching the history of factories

Design for the starch mill of Stonard & Curvis, London, 1784 (Birmingham Reference Library) The industrial revolution began in Britain. Water-power had long been used for some processes. Fulling mills had made England a major cloth-making country in medieval times. Still spinners and weavers toiled in their own homes. The invention of machines to do these jobs in the late 18th century meant that cloth workers could be gathered together in huge factories. Among the earliest was Quarry Bank Mill at Styal, Wilmslow, Cheshire, begun in 1784 by textile merchant Samuel Greg, and now a museum of the industrial revolution.

At first factories used water-power, so they were often called mills, though steam-power soon took over. In a burst of inventiveness, many other industrial processes were mechanised. Factories sprang up close to sources of raw materials and fuel. Industrialisation then drove developments in building. The earliest experiments with iron-frame construction were the great textile mills, the first being a flax-mill at Shrewsbury, built in 1796 by Charles Bage.

Temple Mill, LeedsIndustrial buildings could be starkly functional, but some were surprisingly splendid. As Britain entered the Victorian era, architects had a wealth of styles to play with. Classical architecture remained influential, but other periods in the past were pored over for inspiration. The extraordinary Temple Mill in Leeds (completed 1843) was built in the Egyptian Revival style, a copy of the Temple at Edfu. But the Italianate style was a more popular choice for commercial and industrial buildings. Later in the century the Gothic Revival held sway, but still had its rivals. In the 1880s the Wills No 1 tobacco factory in Bristol was built in the Gothic Revival style, while a florid neo-Jacobean was the choice for a hat factory in Luton.

The sheer size of factory buildings gave them a formidable impact on the urban and rural landscape. Pear Mill in Stockport might be mistaken for a palace, were it not for the industrial chimney beside it. It was built from 1908 to 1912 to the designs of Stott and Sons of Manchester, and completed by Philip Sidney Stott, one of the most prolific mill architects.


Primary sources

Bill-head of J & W Parnell, Bristol, before 1850