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Adelaide Chappell of Whitchurch Silk Mill

One of the most important women in the Silk Mill’s history is Adelaide Chappell, who fought to save the Mill from closure in the Victorian period. Adelaide became the Mill’s owner when her husband Henry died suddenly in 1877, he was just 48 years old. Her father-in-law’s former housekeeper, Sarah Chamberlain, was made ‘overlooker’ (Forewoman) of the Mill and helped Adelaide to run it.

Victorian, credit Whitchurch Silk Mill

Seventeen years earlier in 1860, a disease in Europe destroyed its’ silkworm industry. At the same time war in China had led to the destruction of many mulberry trees (the home of silkworms), which made raw silk expensive and difficult to find. In the same year, Britain signed the first Free-Trade agreement with France to create better economic stability. However, the French had access to cheaper silk and paid their workers less, and now imported French silk no longer had tariffs attached to it. All these factors effectively ended the silk industry in Britain. The cotton and woollen industries boomed, but silk mills, like at Whitchurch, struggled to survive.

The Mill continued to struggle throughout the next two decades and by 1880 Adelaide had re-mortgaged the mill, and converted the northern weaving shed into four cottages. She rented out the ground floor of the Mill to the new Salvation Army Corps, which upset many people in the town. She also rented out the fishing rights to the local fishing club. Her workforce continued to decrease, until by 1881 only 15 workers remained, a big drop from the 113 workers in 1850! It is thought that by this point the Mill stropped processing thrown silk commercially.

By 1886 Adelaide could not afford to repay the loans she took out to keep her business afloat. She was forced to give up and she put the Mill up for sale, where it was bought by a Mr. John Hide, whose sister had married Thomas Burberry, and it remained in the Hide family for the next 68 years.

However, Adelaide and her family left Whitchurch in 1891 to move to London and made a new start.

The Mill Today

Today Whitchurch Silk Mill is a 205-year-old Grade II* textile mill on the River Test in the small Hampshire town of Whitchurch. It is the only example in Britain of a working silk mill open to the public, where visitors can watch skilled workers operating the machinery. It operates the largest collection of operational historic silk looms and machinery in the United Kingdom.

Credit Whitchurch Silk Mill

The gift shop and outdoor café are open Tuesday to Sunday 10.30 am to 5pm, serving delicious cakes and light lunches on the banks of the River Test. Families can enjoy a themed outdoor Fairy Trail around the beautiful site. From 17 May the outdoor café and shop will be open. The Mill and special exhibition can reopen from this date along with pre-booked tours for small groups which can resume.

Credit Amy Hammett, Whitchurch Silk Mill
May 2021

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