|Memories of Fazeley, written by Joseph T. Hunter in August 2008 when he was 88 years old.
The Cotton Mills of FazeleyFazeley had three weaving mills and a dyeing area, plus a bleachworks, some of them being driven by water power. It is said that Robert Peel, travelling from Mile Oak towards Sutton Coldfield, saw the Bourne or Black Brook meandering across the fields to his right and thought up the idea of harnessing the water power and building cotton mills in Fazeley. He was already producing tape and cotton goods in several counties but there was plenty of female labour available in Fazeley and the surrounding villages. Robert Peel had already built a mansion at Drayton, the canals had been constructed and the railway was passing through Tamworth, so the prospects were good.
The 'cut' as it was called, was made at Hints, and the first we see of it is the water course, as one travels out of Mile Oak. Peel had hired a Mr Wilkes to make a series of pools at Bonehill to supply his cotton mills and the pools were dug out with Irish labour with spade, pick and wheelbarrow. The next we see of the 'cut' is at Bonehill turn as it passes under the old A5, having wound its way south of Mile Oak.
A few hundred yards nearer Fazeley, a bleach works was built at the head of the first pool, but in my day the power was supplied by turbines, but with all the water around, the bleaching was done with spring water. A natural spring had been discovered at a farm that lay a few yards off Mile Oak crossroads on the Tamworth side and the water was piped down to Bonehill, crossing the old A5 near the hospital.
During my employment at William Tolson Ltd in the 50's, a break occurred near the farm and the pipes were replaced. These were made of wood, burnt to allow the passage of water, one of which was presented to be viewed at Tamworth Castle. Down at Bonehill, two huge reservoirs were made to hold the spring water and were covered in for safety. A filter bed of Morecambe sand was made, which was replaced periodically and the water flowed under the road for chemicals to be applied to the bundles of cotton which came in from India, Egypt and the South Islands. They were of a greyish white colour, the latter imported ones had the finest counts, and cotton had to be bleached to get the light colours before it was carried to the dye works in Mill Lane, where I was employed for many years.
An earlier bleachworks had been built nearer Fazeley and the foundations can still be seen but little is known or written of its existence. Along the 'cut' three large pools had been made and these, with the aid of a water wheel, supplied the power for Bonehill Mill.
The first Robert Peel of six in the area to be knighted wove calico and wove one with a parsley pattern, worn in my mother's day, in black and white, in pinafores. Thereafter, he, Robert, was called 'Parsley Peel' and was the first Peel to be knighted.
The water wheel has now been removed, the water diverted, and one large pool has been dry for years. The other two large and small pools have been stocked with carp and fished daily with contests being held in the summer. The 'cut' continues under the old A5 south and meets the 'Mill Race', the original Bourne Brook, and forms into a pool which with a waterwheel and later, turbine powered the two storey weaving mill.
Across the yard is another mill called the 'South Mill' and a coal fired boiler which provided the hot water for the dyeworks, where I worked for many years.
The workings of this dyehouse were destroyed years ago which was a travesty. The steam driven water extractor made of cast iron in which tape and cotton were placed was smashed. It bore the name 'As supplied to the Great Exhibition of Paris 1851'. The vats where the tape and cotton goods were dyed, and made of wood, dated back to Victorian times and in the dyeing process, done by hand, one got used to the hot water ! Powered aluminium vats had been in existence at De Hamel's for years, where I worked for a short spell.
Near the dyehouse, where tape was stored prior to boiling and dyeing, was the 'skinyard'. In earlier times, circa 1900, it had been a tannery and dozens of nails were still in the beams where skins had hung and there were also vats. I had never read or heard anyone talk of this tannery until a few years ago when talking to an elder cousin. She told me that her grandfather, who I knew as a child, lived in Coleshill Street and had moved there from Bristol to be foreman of the tannery.
The mills with the exception of the Steam Mill (1886) had been built around1790 and bought by the Tolsons in 1841.
My mother's family had moved from Blockley, in the Cotswolds around 1850 and my granny, as a child, had a half day schooling at the last house on the right in Mill Lane and a half day in the mill. The school fees were only a few coppers a week.
Tolsons had two firsts. They were the first company to produce elasticated bandage for knees etc, in the South Mill, henceforth it was called the 'rubber shop'.
They had in their employ a man called Chambers who lived in Birmingham and he used to tinker around with a sewing machine in his front room. He discovered how to make curtain tape that is fixed to the top of the curtains, which contained pockets and a later version had double pockets which could be used either side. It was called Chalco but the patent was not applied properly and Thomas French of Manchester copied it and called it Rufflette.
Where the 'Mill Race' met the 'Cut' flood gates were built and the stream met the Bourne Brook. It then flowed past a further two storey tape mill near the Fazeley to Birmingham road. Near the flood gates an eel trap was constructed. I have seen salmon ones to enable fish to get upstream but never an eel one.
One day in the 50's with the flood gates down and the stream showing shingle, I was alongside the stream when an otter came bounding up and stopped within a few feet of me. This was the last sighting I saw of them. There had been a small pool in the nature reserve in Drayton Manor where otters used to play, but in Bonehill Pools before the Second World War they were hunted out of existence by the South Derbyshire Otter Hunt, when I saw men with their spiked rods and large dogs. Terrible!
Peel solved the problem of providing power for the Drayton mill for it lay in a hollow and the now combined brooks rushed by on the way to the River Tame near the river bridge that spans the river near Two Gates. He created an overflow from the canal and created another large pool which, along with a water wheel, provided the power for the mill. This mill was demolished for road widening and the pool is now named Fazeley Marina and hosts about 50 narrow boats.
The Steam Mill was built in 1886 by the Tolsons as a huge 5 storey building which my mother used to recall had as many windows as days in the year 365. Constructed of good solid red brick, the mortar is black, being of pulverised ash and lime built to last.
Only the bottom room is now used for weaving and recently the mill has been sold and is to be converted into flats, so that will be the end of the weaving industry in the Tamworth area.
The first floor of the mill has a very high ceiling to accommodate the French Jacquard ( ladder) looms which could produce patterned silk type shoulder straps for ladies lingerie, boot loops 'Little Gent', 'Beaver Brand' and latterly 'Tuf' boots.
The second floor was the warehouse where finished goods were parcelled ready for despatch by L.M.S vehicles. The third and fourth floors were weaving rooms and the 5 floor was used for warping. Quite a few years ago the coal fired boiler was sold and the buyer must have been a boiler enthusiast for he cut off the front and installed it in his kitchen and it was shown on a Fred Dibnah programme.
During the last war, 'fire watching' was done from the roof of the mill and one summer evening Alec Henshaw, the well known test pilot, (still around in his 90's) taking a spitfire up from Castle Bromwich aerodrome, engaged a marauding German fighter and a dog fight ensued in which, I am almost certain, the German fighter was shot down; the fire watchers having a grandstand view.
In my day calico printing had finished at Bonehill Mill and flour, animal and poultry meal was produced. Over the road is the listed timbered 'Rose Cottage' which was the pattern shop where patterns were made of copper and wood. A hoist still stands at the end of the dwelling.
Worth mentioning next door, alongside the old A5 is a listed small building classed in deeds as a small dwelling and called a 'tivvy house' by an old friend of mine. I know of no other example of that type of building. It has large doors, a hay loft, open fireplace and chimney and an armchair.
A traveller on the road with horse and cart could put his cart in the yard and 'kip' down for the night in his armchair. Sounds cosy !
Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel owned farms, mills and property and was one of the wealthiest industrialists in the country. His dairy was most modern but, sadly, has been demolished, although the old stables still remain.