Early Fireproof Housing in a Staffordshire Factory Village

By JENNIFER TANN and L. D. W. SMITH, University of Aston,
Post-Medieval Archaeology, 6, 1972.

This extract reproduced here by kind permission of Jennifer Tann and publisher and copyright holder Maney Publishing
[ www.maney.co.uk/journals/pma ] [ www.ingentaconnect.com/content/maney/pma ]

Factory villages were built during the important first stages of the Industrial Revolution when industry was largely dependent upon water power. Manufacturers in search of good power built factories at sites which were often some distance from towns and villages and badly served by communications.' In such localities they had to build housing in order to attract and keep a labour force. Housing survives at many rural industrial sites; at forges and furnaces, woollen mills, and in many coal mining areas, but it was in the cotton industry that the factory village emerged in its most developed form. This article discusses a unique row of housing in a small factory village in south Staffordshire built by Sir Robert Peel MP, the cotton manu­facturer, father of the Prime Minister.

Between 1779 and 1780 Peel's father, also a cotton manufacturer, moved from Blackburn to Burton on Trent. In 1780 his first cotton spinning mill was opened there. By 1795 Peel and his partners owned four cotton mills in Burton. Meanwhile his younger son, (Sir) Robert Peel, had moved from Bury, where he owned extensive cotton works, to Tamworth, eleven miles from Burton, and, having purchased the pocket borough, entered Parliament as member for Tamworth in 1790. He built a cotton spinnning mill in Tamworth and converted part of the castle into a calico printing works but his major development was at Fazeley, a small hamlet well supplied with potential water power, only two miles away at the crossing of Watling Street with the road from Coleshill to Tamworth. A cotton spinning mill was at work in Fazeley by 1791 and when Arthur Young6 visited the village soon after the mill had been opened he thought that it was 'probably the first situation for an inland town that is to be found in Great Britain, for here is the junction of the Birmingham and Coventry Canals which unite Hull, Liverpool, Bristol and London . . . This situation is so favourable in relation to communications, plenty of water, cheapness of coals and cheapness of labour, that Messrs. Peele and Wilkes (his partner) may reasonably hope to be the founders of a new town on this centre of all the inland navigations of England.'

Fazeley did not fulfill Arthur Young's expectations but by the end of the century-there were four water powered spinning mills, bleach and print works in the village. Three storey housing was built in Coleshill Street and in an adjoining lane, and two storey housing, the subject of this article, was built in Mill Lane. Fazeley was the location of only one of several cotton spinning developments under Sir Robert Peel's control but he seems to have over-reached himself in the early years of its development and little new building appears to have taken place after the early 19th century. Even before the end of the 18th century Peel had contracted his indust­rial empire by selling some works in Lancashire and thereafter he directed more attention to his parliamentary career. Peel's example in setting up cotton works in Fazeley was not followed by other manufacturers and Fazeley remains today a small village.

The plain front elevation to the Mill Lane houses (fig. 84 and plate xxxrv) makes, at first sight, few concessions to conscious architectural style. The regularly spaced and aligned windows were a deliberately designed feature however, being achieved at some inconvenience to the occupants. This touch of the'polite' meant that in this terrace of reflecting pairs it was necessary for adjoining houses to share kitchen windows (fig. 84, ground floor plan). In plan the houses are similar to many small ter­race houses of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The front door opens into a living room off which is a small kitchen and back scullery. The stairs lead from the living room to the main bedroom. From here a door leads to a small bedroom, half the depth of the house, but extending across the kitchens or sculleries of the house and the adjoining one. In common with most industrial housing of the period the Mill Lane houses are badly ventilated, through ventilation being only accidentally present in every second house. The stairs are steep and there is little storage space. But there is one important difference between these houses and all other known contemporary housing for the Mill Lane houses arc fireproof; as dwellings they are typical but as property they are superior.

The houses were made fireproof by the use of brickwork vaults instead of timber construction for the upper floor and roof. It will be seen from fig. 85 that the upper floor and roof are differently constructed and it will be useful to consider their design separately. There is a precedent for the floor design in the use of similar semi-elliptical vaults for ground floors over cellars in larger houses. The longitudinal vault span here is about nine feet and each bay buttresses the bays adjacent. The only difficulty in using such vaulting above ground is that of restraining the last vault at each end. This problem was overcome by the provision of a chimney breast at each end of the terrace, the mass of which was sufficient to form an adequate end buttress. This con­sideration evidently led to the design of the terrace as an even number of houses with layouts alternately handed. The roof vault is quite different. It is semi-circular with the direction of span from front to back. The shape is built up with rubble concrete at the crown and haunches to provide straight surfaces for the roof tiling. Tie rods, which arc certainly original, were provided at positions coinciding with cross walls, where they were hidden by being buried in wall plaster. One rod was found to be loose, and they were evidently redundant, support by the cross walls at the crown preventing collapse of the vault. The choice of the difficult front-to-back direction of the roof vault instead of the easier longitudinal spanning in multiple bays as in the first floor, implies a purely architectural decision to give an eaves line to the street elevation instead of a row of gables, another concession to contemporary architectural taste.

The fireproof construction must have been deliberate. It was probably more costly than traditional construction. It cannot be explained as the idiosyncratic work of canal builders equipped with ready-made centres, who were unused to trusses; the architectural standard is too high. Neither can it be explained as an attempt to save timber, because such as intention could only be carried out properlv by using moveable centres for the vaults. The dependence of the roof vault cn the cross walls implies that the walls were built at the same time and this would have created extremely difficult conditions for the use of moveable centres.

Some explanation of why Sir Robert Peel built these unique houses is required, and evidence for dating them must be sought. It is clear, since he was responsible for the passing of the first Factory Act of 1802, that Peel felt concern for the pauper apprentices employed in textile mills. We can presume that his consideration extended to the familes employed (although the Act did not). At all events, Peel no doubt wished to be seen to be a model employer. Since he had a seat at Draycot Manor, some two miles from Fazeley, what better way or place in which to demonstrate his pater­nalism than by building architecturally superior housing at Fazeley? But Peel was a businessman. He must have recognized, as did other cotton spinners, that the provision of housing was a good way of attracting and keeping a labour force. By making the property fireproof he was protecting his own investment.

Peel's mills at Fazeley are of traditional construction; they were built before William Strutt first demonstrated the use of brick vaulting in factories at the Derby Calico Mill, erected in 1792. However the Mill Lane housing is unlikely to date from much later than 1800 for Peel had, by then, begun to contract, rather than expand, his industrial undertakings. Fireproof factory building was then in its infancy—there are only four known British examples before 1800— and fireproof industrial housing was unknown.

A key figure in the history of fireproof factory construction was Charles Bage, friend of William Strutt, who built the first completely iron framed factory in Shrewsbury in 1796-7. At this time his father, Robert Bage, owned two paper mills in Staffordshire, one of them at Elford, only about five miles from Fazeley.

Bage had other connections with the Fazeley area for when in 1808 he married for the second time, his wife, Ann, was sister of John Harding, one of Sir Robert Peel's partners in the Fazeley mills." Bage, presumably, visited Fazeley when courting his future wife, as well, no doubt, as visiting his father at Elford. He certainly saw his in-laws at Fazeley after his marriage to Ann.

These visits would have given him an opportunity of discussing his experiments on brick arches with John Harding, and, perhaps, with Peel. The first floor vaults of the Mill Lane houses correspond to the 9 ft. span experimental vaults built by Bage in 1802. John Harding left Fazeley in 1811 to go into partnership with a Leeds banker so that the Mill Lane housing almost certainly dates from between 1802 and 1811.

In 1819 William Strutt wrote enthusiastically to his son Edward "I have been lately thinking of Arching Bricks more than anything else—I have made arches beautiful in appearance, of common bricks entirely without any cutting whatsoever either in the Arch or Walls, without pillars or beams and although they are simple and as cheap as walling, so that all houses may now be fireproof with scarcely any increase of expense."

The housing in Mill Lane, Fazeley shows that Bage anticipated Strutt in recommending fireproof housings but so far as is known, neither of them built any fireproof housing for their own employees at Shreswbury or at Belper, Milford and Derby. And Peel did not build any more fireproof housing. Fireproof factories cost about one third more than factories of traditional construction and it may be presumed that the cost of fireproof housing increased in the same ratio. It was no doubt for this reason that fireproofing did not become a common feature of 19th century working class housing.