In 1713, an agreement was made for the division of parts of Haltwhistle Common which
included land on the east side of the Burn then known as Irdon Hill – the modern
Herding Hill. One of those benefitting from the allotment of land was one Thomas
Bell whom later maps show owning the parcel of land which includes Herding Hill Farm
and the land on which two woollen mills stood. These mills, known as High and Low
Mills or factories were worked as woollen mills throughout the early years of the
19th century and continued in use as dwellings until their demolition in the 1930s.
But, when were they built, who owned and ran them and what part did they play in
Haltwhistle’s Woollen industry ?
The Quaker’s Mill- Low Mill
According to John Wallis, antiquarian, natural historian and curate of Simonburn,
“There is in it (Haltwhistle) a manufactury of coarse bays (baize), belonging to
two worthy Quakers; their fulling mill finished, and approved of buy trial, 17th
September 1762; pleasure and cheerfulness appearing in every face on the occasion;
giving the prospect of better bread to the industrious poor.”
His words bear the mark of an eye witness: Wallis had close links with Haltwhistle
where an old college friend was vicar.
This is the first suggestion that processes other than fulling might be being carried
out in a centralised way- a manufactory where workers worked together to produce
woollen cloth, possibly including all the processes of carding, spinning and weaving
under one roof- or at least under one management.
But where was the worthy Quakers’ fulling mill? In Haltwhistle there is only one
source of water-power sufficient to drive heavy machinery and that is the water of
the Haltwhistle Burn.
The Manor lands at Town Foot already included a corn mill and, a hundred years earlier,
had accommodated a Fulling mill. How long would such a structure stand? Extant in
1653, would the same structure still be serviceable a hundred years later when the
Quakers came to town? We know that Saint was working as a Dyer on manor lands at
the time but there is no specific mention of his being involved in fulling until
his letter of 1837. Perhaps the old mill had fallen out of use and the Quakers’ project
rebuilt a mill on manorial lands. Wallis’s account suggests there was great enthusiasm
for the new mill as if it were a new venture for the town but his words could equally
well suggest that it was supplying additional prospects to the “industrious poor”
of the area- building a second mill. If this is the case then the most likely place
for it would be further up the Burn from the Corn Mill on land not owned by the Lords
of the Manor.
In his book of 1840, published posthumously, Hodgson quotes his predecessor Wallis’s
mention of the Quakers’ baize manufactury and adds that it was “carried on for many
years after by Messrs Bell”. He could, of course, be referring to the manufacturing
business or the premises but if the latter then it seems most likely that the mill
in question is either the High or Low Mills – both of which stand on Bell land. So
could one of these be the original Quakers’ fulling Mill? If so It would seem most
likely that the Low Mill was the original- why build further from the town if that
site was available?
The Bell family were numerous in Haltwhistle, many associated with the woollen industry
and many in each generation bearing the name Thomas. Piggot’s directory of the town
for 1822 lists two woollen weavers named Bell, Thomas and Robert and Thomas Bell
&Co Flannel Manufacturers. One Isaac Bell is listed as a flannel manufacturer at
Bardon Mill in 1834 and he appears to be succeeded by a Joseph Bell five years later.
By 1834 Thomas Bell’s firm no longer had an entry in the trade directories and he
is listed in the census of 1851 as a retired flannel manufacturer, aged 63 living
with his wife, Helen at White Craig.
Did Thomas Bell run both the High and Low Mills?
Bells in the woollen trade were resident in the Low Mill in from the first census
records of 1841 up until 1861. By 1871 it was unoccupied.
The High Mill was occupied by several families, Coulsons from 1841 to 1861, and
Crow 1841 to 1851. Like Low Mill, it was unoccupied in 1871. Essentially there is
no way of knowing for sure who the Mill proprietor was but no other woollen manufacturers
are listed as such in the directories of the period so it seems most likely that
Bell ran both factories.
So what processes were being carried out at the Low Mill? In 1841, a William Bell,
resident in the mill is given as a woollen slubber- someone who feeds wool into a
spinning frame. He is aged 45, clearly a well established artisan. Ten years later
he is described as a woollen weaver, a job he continued until he was in his mid sixties.
These census entries would suggest that both spinning and weaving took place at the
High Mill had resident woollen spinners, weavers, a dyer, fuller and wool piecer
at different times through this period.
This might suggest that a wider range of processes took place at High Hill but there
is no certainty that the men worked where they lived. Certainly many woollen workers
lived in the town at this time and would have walked to their respective places of
employment. One clue however comes from a comment about Mr. Bell’s successor, Mr.