The early industrialists and their child labour: how our area developed

Tring canvas weaving
Tring canvas weaving

From the time of its first Market Charter in 1315 and before, Tring has always been a small agricultural market town, but in the Victorian period some successful industry was established, helped by the coming of both the Grand Junction Canal and the London & Birmingham Railway.

In 1823 a successful cotton and silk manufacturer, William Kay (1777-1838), purchased the Tring Park estate but not with the objective of living in the mansion house. He preferred to remain in London minding his other investments.

He claimed to have spent £30,000 erecting a five-storey silk throwing mill in Brook Street which processed imported skeins from China and Bengal ready for dispatch to various silk weaving mills, both locally and in Macclesfield and Coventry.

At its peak the mill employed as many as 600 people, including a large number of children – some as young as eight years old – sent from both local workhouses and those in St Margaret’s and St George’s parishes in London.

The children were housed in a long dormitory building fronting the mill, provided with work clothes, and reasonably well fed.

All hands worked very long hours, but children were supposed to get some rudimentary education. Conditions may not have been so harsh for them as those in mills in the north of the country.

By the time the first Lord Rothschild (1840-1915) bought Tring Park in 1872, the silk trade generally was already in serious decline due mainly to cheaper foreign imports.

Not wishing to cause hardship, he continued to let the firm run at a loss until the doors finally closed in 1898.

The top two storeys and tall chimney were then removed, but the original premises can still be seen in Brook Street and now serve to house a variety of industrial units.

Smaller concerns were the canvas weaving shops which sprang up in various parts of Tring; looms were also set up in the parish workhouse.

The largest premises were in Park Road, and others in Akeman Street, Dunsley, off Langdon Street, and later, Charles Street, the latter not closing until the 1920s. Again, some local child labour was used, usually boys referred to as ‘half-timers’, meaning they attended school for part of the day either before or after working in the factory.

One industry in Tring that still operates today is flour milling – Heygates at New Mill being the last working flour mill in Dacorum.

At Gamnel a windmill had been built on a strategic side alongside the canal, joined later by a brick-built six-storey mill erected under the ownership of the Mead family at the time when steam was replacing wind power - the windmill finally being demolished in 1911.

The adjacent wharf was then a busy place as the trade included dealing in hay, straw, gravel, coal, coke and general carrying by water.

Part of the complex included a boat-building business run, and later owned, by Bushell Brothers, a concern that Thomas Mead had established as he wished to operate his own fleet of narrow boats.

The original building still stands, but the interior is transformed as, instead of mechanical shafts, cogs, belts and sets of grindstones, a bank of computers now control the steel rollers.

Brief mention should be made of the two cottage industries of Tring, straw plaiting and, to a lesser degree, lace making.

Essential to the local economy in the 19th century, this work could be carried out at home, mainly by women but also children.

Without it many would have gone hungry for it helped to keep the wolf from the door, especially during times of agricultural depression when there was no employment for the menfolk.