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1829 Holyrood Lace Mill
Manufactured Plain Net 1829 – 1964. Mill owner for many years Col. J. W. Gifford (1856 – 1930) Astronomer and Pioneer in x-ray Photography.

There had been a long tradition of weaving cloth at Chard and with the mill owners of Nottingham needing to relocate their factories because of the unrest and disruption to business in the major cities, Chard looked the ideal place. The population was used to weaving and there was ample water streaming down from the surrounding hills, which was needed to drive the early twist net machines. The climate, much like that of its northern counterparts, was damp, which prevented threads from snapping.

Making net was hard and dangerous work, there was the oil from the machinery and fibers from the net floating around the rooms, add to that the naked flames for light, it was an accident waiting to happen, and the first lace mill burnt down in 1825 after only operating for 4 years. The new lace mill was built by Sparks and Co. of Stembridge. The building is constructed deliberately tall rather than long; as well as allowing light into the floors, it’s also a statement of the standing of the new owners and by 1830 it was complete, and the Holyrood Lace Company was formed.

The huge lace machines were on the first three floors of the mill, the fourth floor was used for storage, and the top floor – now the Stringfellow Room- was where the yellow silk form China arrived in ‘the brown’ – its raw state.

Not all work was done within the building. The lace industry offered women the chance to work from home, and they would be seen sat on the doorsteps of their houses, black velvet cushions attached to the back of their hand, mending holes in the fine netting. This was a very skilled job, as there is no knot to show where the repair started or finished. Soon not a street or building nearby could fail to have some connection with the mills.

Whereas previous generation had worked the land, children, parents, and grandparents now worked grueling hours on bobbin net, stood side by side at the lace machines, sat at home mending lace or worked in one of the engineering houses manufacturing machine parts. The industry gradually reached out and touched everyone in the town.

There were 49 bobbin lace machines in Chard in the year 1826; thirty years later the number of these machines had increased to 360.

The Giffords

Colonel J B Gifford was a very distinctive man with his top hat and patch over one eye, he bought the mill in 1852. He trained in making bobbin net at Barnstable in Kent from 1835 1842. He took on the mill at just the right time. The Crimean War (1853 -1856) broke out, and there was a large demand for mosquito nets. The year after the war ended, Gifford set up partnership with Mr M Fox of Wellington, and Gifford, Fox and Co Ltd was created.

Colonel J B Gifford was instrumental in bringing the canal through from Taunton to Chard in 1842, but this was to be short-lived. As the railway from Taunton to Chard was created in 1865 and made the canal redundant virtually overnight, though it has to be said it was a Gifford who introduced the railway to Chard. J B Gifford was also joint founder of the YMCA.

His son and successor, James William Gifford was born in 1856, he was primarily interested in science and could speak five languages. At the age of 19 he went to The Royal Collage of Chemistry in London. Following his return to Chard, Gifford joined the ‘Old Volunteer Force’ in 1882 and was soon commissioned with the rank of Major commanding the 5th Battalion Somerset Light Infantry.

There followed a busy couple of years where he joined the board of the Gifford Fox Lace Mill, married Emma Rossiter and moved into Oaklands a house on the Crewkerne Road. Although a member of Chard Borough Council his interests firmly lay in scientific experimentation and he soon became excited by the discovery of X-ray’s by Wilhelm Roentgen. Experiment’s followed in his well equipped laboratory at Oaklands which culminated in the production of his first X-ray photograph taken on 18th January 1896. He was later made a Fellow of the Royal Photographic Society and the Roentgen Society. In addition to his work in X-ray’s he also became fascinated behind the optical properties of lenses in astronomical telescopes. At one time he had three of them in an observatory at his home.

With the approach of WW1, although he was declared unfit for overseas service at 58, he was recognized for his expertise in the field of telescopes, lens’s, optics and photography and asked to assist both the Army and Navy by developing new optics for telescopes and underwater periscopes. He not only personally funded this research but also supplied several hundred top quality telescopes to the troops on the front line.

During WWI, Oaklands was converted by Colonel Ralph E Gifford into a hospital for the disabled of the war, wearing uniforms of blue trousers and shirts. The Giffords also owned Chard Reservoir, which was built to supply water to the now disused canal, which was treated much as a holiday resort, where the staff of Oaklands House could spend a day fishing or swimming, as well as boating or shooting ducks.

When Ralph Gifford died, his wife took over the business, and they continued as a family to be very influential and commercially important in the town, though they had three sons, the business gradually left their hands.

Factory owners in Chard built rows of cottages to house the workers, sold beer to them from the pubs they owned, the London Inn (now Sainsburys) and the White Horse (now closed on Silver Street).

Working Conditions

Employees at the mill all lived close by and the surrounding terraced housing was built by the mill owners called Rows, because they were built at right angles they can still be seen today on Howard’s Row, Deacon’s Row, Providence Row and Leicester Row. It was expected that if your parents lived in a mill house all the children would work in the mill for the rest of their lives.

Everyone worked 11 hours a day, children were limited to 10 hours by the ‘Childrens Employment Act of 1847’ and children were entitled to a 10-minute break. On Sunday they had to attend church.

The nursery rhyme ‘Jack be nimble, Jack be quick’ was a lace ditty they used to sing as they jumped over a candle during breaks.

The rooms at the mill were deafening, with the thunder of the machines so loud their constant drumming was heard around the town. Many workers quickly became deaf and had to communicate using sign language. Eyesight loss was also common, as lace workers; having to concentrate hard for hours on extremely fine weave.

Winter was freezing, and women lace menders would send out their children to get hot coals in terracotta pots, which they would put beneath their skirts to help keep them warm.

The lace mills suffered from boom times, times of war when flat lace was needed for mosquito nets and time of hardship when depression struck the weaving trade and employers had to reduce pay and their workforces. During one of these depressions Chard Lace workers rioted for more information on this check out Chard Museum, go on a Lace Riot Walk or there are books available from the Museum.

Workers at Gifford’s (Holyrood) lace mills around the 1930s. Seated second from the right is Ruby Potter. The ladies seen here either had clean jobs or they have changed into party dresses for the occasion.

More information available from Chard Museum or the Chard Museum website.

Exerts from

Chard a look at its buildings – A survey by Holyrood Comprehensive School

The Chard Lace Riots Written by Jan Suchacki

The History of Chard – A Chard History Group Publication

The Holyrood Lace Mill Written by Julia Cook and Edited by Jan Suchaki

Images of England Around Chard Compiled by Gerald Gosling and Frank Huddy

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