Feeding the Textile Industry: From Coppice to Bobbin

English Heritage

Stott Park Bobbin Mill, Cumbria

Introduction to Stott Park
Nestled on the shores of Lake Windermere in the Lake District, this extensive working mill produced literally millions of the wooden bobbins that were vital to the Lancashire spinning and weaving industries during the 19th and early 20th centuries. It is the only working bobbin mill left in the Lake District today.

Stott Park, built in 1835, was one of over 100 bobbin mills operating in the Lake District over a 200-year period.

Using a ready supply of water to power its machinery, the mill produced millions of bobbins for the Lancashire textile industry.

In the 20th century automation and competition closed most of the bobbin-making industry. But Stott Park survived by adapting to the market and making whatever turned wood products customers required.

When it closed in 1971, Stott Park had remained virtually unchanged for over 100 years.

Guided Tour of the Factory
Jack Iveson started work as a clerk at Stott Park Bobbin Mill in 1927. In 1949 he took a 25% share in the business, which he still held when the mill shut in 1971. Jack died in 1985, but in the early 1980s he recalled his working life and spoke in detail about how the mill had run.

About 500 tons of coppice wood were processed by Stott Park Bobbin Mill each year. The wood arrived as long, fresh poles, which were cut to a manageable length and seasoned until they were ready for use.

‘Oh everything came in by horse and cart then you know … anywhere from 18 hundredweight up to – say – 24 hundredweight. We used to get birch, alder, ash, sycamore, hazel, rowan. But I think they were the main six woods.’

‘[We preferred birch] because it’s a nice soft wood to turn and nice to handle, and it’s nice clean wood and not too heavy. If you’re making bobbins out of – say – ash or hazel or rowan, well, they were a very solid, heavy type of wood.’

Unguarded steel saws cut coppice poles into blocks (known as blanks) and slabs (cakes) of different sizes to suit different purposes.

‘If they were very narrow pieces he would use a stick so his hand didn’t get too near the saw. For an ordinary bobbin – inch and a half to two inches long – well he just used his hand.’

The blocking machine operator, known as a blocker, held the cake in his hands and brought a saw blade, spinning at 8,000 revolutions per minute, down, to cut over 5,000 blanks in a day. It was specialised work:

‘You didn’t put [just] anyone on a saw like that, they’re too dangerous really. No, he had to know his job, to be efficient. The same chap worked for 40 years, a chap called Jim Graham. He did the sawing up into the slabs and when he’d got a good hep he would go from there to the blocking saw.’

Each block had a hole drilled through it, so that it could be put on a lathe.

‘[The boring machines] were going all the time. [The operator would] sit in front of it and bore it, holding the piece of wood. He’d just hold it in his hand. It might take two or three shoves, it all depends on the bobbin you see.

[It could be] nearly anybody, but it wanted a fairly strong lad, not a new starter. [It was a] fairly simple thing to do, although there was a certain amount of danger … it could spin round in your hand and be quite nasty.’

The automatic boring machine further mechanised the bobbin-making process. Skilled individuals were replaced by mechanically complex machines, designed and built locally, and specifically suited to the industry.

‘It’s like a big cam [rotating disk], and it works backwards … and there’s a roller on the end of the pushing bar, and that goes down into these slots … it works backwards and forwards in three separate pushes.’

Making a bobbin required two lathes: one to cut the rough shape, and one for a fine finish. Machines like this cut a rough bobbin every 5 seconds across a 10-hour day. It was essential that machine and tools did not let you down.

‘The main things were keeping your tools sharp, keeping your claver sharp, and your spindles oiled, and this slide oiled here for easy working. [Tools] were sharpened at least once a day, sometimes perhaps two or three times a day. It all depends on your wood. If you were using fairly dry sycamore, that would blunt … much faster than if you were using, say, soft birch wood or something.’

The mill could produce tens of thousands of bobbins of exactly the same size. It was a specialised skill to mount sharp, expertly forged tools on the machines.

‘You usually had seven [tools] at the front, and you’d have at least four at the back, often more. Eleven tools was the minimum you would have. You could have up to fifteen, eighteen, depending on the type of thing you were turning.’

‘The skill was in sharpening your tools properly, getting them at the right angle and the right slope and whatnot; getting them tempered properly.’

‘Making them join up together, same as your slipers and your bevellers and different things, and getting these tools to come in just the required distance so that they just touch the mandrel and touch the pin. Oh, there’s quite a lot in it.’

The final stage of production was polishing bobbins in a spinning wooden barrel.

‘It was just a case of filling the thing up with bobbins and then putting one or two pieces of paraffin wax in, putting the belt on the side … and letting it revolve for a matter of 20 minutes, half an hour, and it made the world of difference to the finish of the bobbin.’

Today Stott Park is open to visitors by guided tour. Entering the mill and seeing the journey from tree to bobbin at first hand, on the original machinery, is like stepping back into England's industrial past.

Credits: Story

Contributors
Kevin Booth, Jack Iveson, Rose Arkle

Visit Stott Park Bobbin Mill

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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