Silk in the workhouse


In Victorian workhouses, inmates were often given work related to the domestic task of running the workhouse and feeding (and perhaps clothing) the inmates.  Where there were more inmates than could be occupied in these tasks, they were set to work on a variety of menial tasks: stone crushing, corn grinding, gypsum crushing, oakum picking and wood chopping, for example.   A more unpleasant task of bone crushing was abandoned after a scandal in Andover, Hants, where the inmates were so hungry they ate the marrow and the rotting scraps of flesh of the bones.

In Cleobury Mortimer, they set their sights a little higher.   An entry in the Cleobury Mortimer vestry minutes, dated 24 February 1771, reads “At a Vestry Meeting held this Day pursuant to Notice given we do Order that the Officers of the parish do Agree with Mr Edw. Burlton and Company to establish a Silk Work in our Work House”.

And then the trail goes blank completely!  No further notes in the minutes, no record of either expenditure or income in the overseer’s accounts and no real information on who Edward Burlton might have been.

So, who was Edward Burlton?  A local connection seems most likely.  A will was proved for an Edward Burlton of Ludlow, in October 1804, with his estate marked as ‘under £10,000’ – a pretty substantial sum in those days.  In 1756, a shop and warehouses were put up for sale in Bewdley.  They had been in the possession of an Edward Burlton and his son, Thomas, but this Edward’s will was proved in 1757, with no mention of Thomas.  However, the dates fit and it looks as if Edward Burlton of Ludlow could be our man.  More research would be needed to validate the connections – and it would help to know what Edward Burlton did to make his money.

The spinning of silk is not often seen on the list of tasks in which inmates were engaged.   There are early 18th century reports of silk spinning and winding (for example, (1731) silk-winding in the City of London workhouse [1], Romford, Essex – spinning and winding at home in 1724 [2],   winding in both Greenwich and Ratcliff (Stepney, Middlesex) in 1725 [2] and Whitechapel, London in 1731 [3].  Peter Higginbotham’s excellent site – – mentions a parliamentary report of 1776 (but no full reference) that lists silk-winding at the St James, Westminster workhouse.  The same site also mentions spinning and winding in the 1750s at St Marylebone, Middlesex and at Coventry in the early 1800s; spinning at Mere, Wiltshire in 1814; and making silk goods at East Ward, Westmorland.  In Lancaster, in 1797, some were occupied in spinning [5]  In Banbury, Oxford, the vestry negotiated with a silk-merchant from Henley to set up a silk factory in warehouse in the churchyard.  Although planned to occupy a large number of children, it did not appear to have been followed through. [6]

Not far from Cleobury Mortimer, pillow lace-making using black silk, had been established in Bridgnorth by John de la Motte.   There is no exact date, but it was introduced some time before 1781, when de la Motte was executed as a French spy. [7]  The trade was thriving in 1824. [8] 

However, much closer in, Bewdley, silk weaving had been established by 1667 [9] and from around the second quarter of the 18C, silk weaving was a major industry in Kidderminster – even more important than carpet weaving. [10]  More interestingly, though, there was a silk mill in Ludlow in the 1770s, operated by William Jackson in Mill Street.   This was advertised for sale in 1777 and again in 1786 before being converted to a wool warehouse. [11]

We do not know what happened at Cleobury Mortimer – perhaps, as at Banbury, the idea was abandoned altogether, or it might have gone ahead but for some reason there is just no mention in the surviving records.

[1] Don Manoel Gonzalez London in 1731, London: Cassell & Co, 1888
[2] Account of Several Work-houses for Employing and Maintaining the Poor, London: SPCK , 1725
[3] Account of Several Work-houses for Employing and Maintaining the Poor, London: SPCK , 1732
[5] Sir Frederic Morton Eden The State of the Poor: A History of the Labouring Classes in England, with Parochial Reports, London, 1797.
[7] The Victoria History of the County of Shropshire, (ed) William Page, London: Archibald Constable, 1980, vol.i, p.421
[8] A Gazetteer of Shropshire, Wem: T. Gregory, 1824, p.63
[9] Bewdley Historical Research Group, Bewdley in its Golden Age -vol 2, Trade and Industries: 1660-1760, Bewdley, 1999, p.85
[10] Len Smith Carpet weavers and carpet masters: the hand loom weavers of Kidderminster, Kidderminster: Kenneth Tomkinson Ltd, 1986, pp.4-12
[11] Barrie Trinder The Industrial Architecture of Shropshire, Chichester: Phillimore & Co, 1996, p.149


One Response to Silk in the workhouse

  1. Pady Treves says:

    How interesting, especially as Burlton is an unusual name…..

    There are Burltons in Kidderminster and Ribbesford, Worcs. from the 16(c) and Edward and Thomas are family names.

    Numbers of Burltons in Ellesmere, Shropshire.

    From the House of Commons Parliamentary Papers, 1840:
    Rev. Edward Burlton, Shrawley, Foreign of Kidderminster 540 almshouses in Bewdley. A descendant?

    See also: Abstracts of returns of charitable donations for the benefit of poor persons made to the ministers & churchwardens of the several parishes & townships in England & Wales.1816

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