Answers to Questions


The Cotton Mill, St Albans, 19th Century

August, 2007



St Albans

David Hardy (hardy @t from Netherlands, writes: I am trying to find more information about William Harris of Grange Farm, St Alban's, born around 1780 died 1841, married Elizabeth Harman of Chicksands, Beds formerly Bevan. In his will he refers to property lost "by the Providence of the Cotton Mill".   Can you suggest any local Hertfordshire records I could consult regarding either Grange Farm or any financial ventures in St Alban's involving a cotton mill in the early 1800s ? Or should I stay at home and stick to online sources ?

I will concentrate on information on the Cotton Mill to see what information you are likely to be able to find, as in general terms similar sources will apply in the search for information on Grange Farm.

There is a road in St Albans called Cotton Mill Lane and the mill was at the bottom of the hill, on the River Ver. The detail on the right comes from a map of St Albans produced in 1822 for Clutterbuck's The History of the County of Hertford. The River Ver runs along the bottom, with an ornamental lake in the grounds of Holywell House and the cotton mill is indicated by the letter P.

The guide, Made in St Albans, contains a modern walking map showing the former location of the mill and the following text:

Here stood the cotton mill which gave the lane its name. The town's first waterworks were also located here. The watermill is thought to have been built in the late 18th century for polishing diamonds, but in the early 19th century production changed to the spinning and weaving of cotton and the manufacture of candlewicks. In 1840 around 60 people worked here. Some eight years later output switched to Berlin tapestry wool, to satisfy a huge demand, but half a century after that the mill was grinding grain. After 1883 the site was used for the open air baths.

A check of the online catalogue of HALS on the Access to Archives site for "cotton mill" showed a link to the Spicer Street Independent Chapel - and a check of their web site came up with a picture and the following relevant history:

After meeting for a while with the Baptists, those who had withdrawn formed their own congregation and for the first few months met in a cotton mill in what is now Cottonmill Lane. The first service was held on 7th September 1794 and a Sunday School was commenced with about twenty children. (This was just fourteen years after Robert Raikes, regarded as the founder of Sunday schools, started such a school in Gloucester.) 1994 saw the celebration of the two hundredth anniversary of this 'Independent' Sunday School. It is one of the oldest in the country!  A few months later, in 1795, the independent congregation acquired a small 'barn-place' in Long Butt Lane, somewhere off Sweet Briar Lane (now Victoria Street), fitting up their new meeting place for about 88.

The online search also turned up the following item referring to a nearby estate - but the index entry does not mention the date of the seizure of the estate or the location of the mill - so it might be totally irrelevant:

Title deeds of the Hilfield Lodge Estate, Aldenham, Hertfordshire, property of the Timins family, 1647-1931

Catalogue Ref. DE/Tm
Timins, J F, Captain, of East India Company

[from Administrative History]  Highfield Lodge "a magnificent gothick mansion" was built by Hon George Villiers of the Marines who bought up many small properties to form a park and estate and also built a (cotton) mill and brewery. The Crown seized the estate for debt and sold it in lots, Captain Timins only buying the house and adjacent land. Though the deeds are in their original bundles, it will be seen that there is some confusion and overlapping in their arrangement. The Berrows, famous Worcester newspaper owners and many London merchants are mentioned in these documents; the long correspondence with the lawyers illustrates the complexities of Regency conveyancing

The Universal British Directory of Trade & Commerce (Volume 5 published circa 1798) lists George Gill as being the only cotton-manufacturer in St Albans. The 1823 Pigot's Directory  for Hertfordshire lists a William Harris, cotton-spinner at St Albans. The 1828/9 edition lists two cotton spinners - William Harris, near Sopewell House (this will be the cotton mill mentioned before) and John Staples, in London Road. The 1839 Directory lists a Henry Dupree, candlewick manufacturer, at St Albans Cotton Mill.

The above information is typical of what one often gets when looking for information on a farm or other businesses in the first half of the 19th century and further information is likely to be buried in manuscript maps and other records which are not indexed in detail.

In this case the next step is to find information about the ownership of the cotton mill and the key documents are the Land Tax returns at HALS  Unfortunately I don't think they are available online, although if they have been microfilmed they may be available at your nearest LDS Family History Centre (see familysearch for details - there are 13 Centres in the Netherlands). Land Tax returns were made every year and list the owner and occupier of all taxable properties - and by looking at one year you should be able to find out whether William Harris of the Cotton Mill owned the mill, or more likely, who his landlord was. By looking at a sequence of years you may be able to determine when his tenancy (or ownership) started and finished, Available dates are listed in Tracing Your Family History in Hertfordshire and are stretch from 1753 to 1825, One problem is that (without further checking) I am not certain whether the Mill was in the parish of St Peter or St Stephen as it seems to have been right on the boarder. An examination of the tithe maps (at HALS) for St Stephen (1838) and St Peter (1840) should make this clear - and may provide further information of ownership. (Tithe maps could also include information on Grange Farm)

If the land tax identifies a major landowner there is a possibility that some estate records survive (see box on the Timins papers given above) and these will need to be hunted down. (If the mill was associated with the Holywell House estate surviving documentation could be in Oxfordshire - possibly even in Blenheim Palace!) However in most cases, with small landowners, relevant documentation will not survive.

There could also be information in parish papers (for instance William Harris may have been a church warden, or may have provided cotton goods to the overseers of the poor) and some of these have been microfilmed and be available at LDS Family History Centres.

My view is that if you want to pursue this further a well-planned day at HALS looking at Land Tax returns and identifying other documents that might be relevant in their collection could be useful - but whether you would find anything directly linked to the loss of property is far from certain.

In response to the above David provides some extra information relating to London records which throws more light on the  change of management of the Mill. He writes: I was particularly pleased to see you had found the name of Henry Dupree as candle wick maker since it confirms the link between Harris in St Albans and London !

William Harris, his (step)son-in-law Edward Jeanneret, and Henry Duprey, cotton merchants, had a joint Sun fire insurance policy  in 1831-32 for premises at 44, Basinghall Street, London.  In an 1834 policy Duprey's name was not included, but he was at 60, Aldersgate, London in 1841.

The partnership of Harris and Jeanneret, cotton manufacturers of St Albans and London was dissolved in 1835. Apparently all was not well down at mill..... however I have found no insolvencies in the Gazette and the family appeared to be well-off.   For some strange reason all the Harris children set up drapery businesses in Hull from 1851 onwards.

Drapery may not be a new activity as The Universal British Directory of Trade & Commerce circa 1798 lists "Harris & Co, Grocers and Drapers" in St Albans - and it would not be all that surprising for someone from a family of drapers to diversify into making cotton fabric. I have not looked further except to note that a Joseph Harris, Market Place, St Albans, was listed under "Grocers and Tea Dealers" in the 1828/9 Pigot's Directory .

If you can add to the information given above tell me.