the felt industry in one family

I decided to sketch a basic family tree for every Springhill head of house on the 1911 census. With only 12 households this was a feasible proposition.

The occupier of Springhill House in 1911 was one Robert John Howorth Mitchell (RJH) , Director of felt works. Hmm, that’s interesting. RJH has the same surname as one of Rossendale’s major felt companies, he is listed as director of the felt works yet lives in a rented house, the owner at that time being RC Turner on behalf of Mrs Turner’s Trust. His wife was Helen Gladys Margaret Mitchell.

Mitchell thumbnail

This begs three questions:
Was RJH related to the Mitchells who were instrumental in the felt trade?
Was he related to his bride, Helen Gladys Margaret Mitchell, prior to their marriage?
Why was he in a rented house?

A trawl through the censuses illustrates the history of the felt industry in Rossendale within the one family. To go back a couple of generations:

John Mitchell was born in Burnley in 1812, as was his wife Ellen. He had three sons, William (b1839, Burnley), Thomas (b 1840, Burnley) and Robert John Chadwick (‘RJC’,b 1847, Burnley).

By 1851 they were living at Hear Stones Lodge, Goldshaw Booth, Burnley where John is recorded as ‘Worsted Spinner”. 1861 he lived at Hugh Mill, Spotland (technically Rochdale but a mlle from Springhill), woollen manufacturer, and 1871 at Fearns, Waterfoot, Carpet Manufacturer. Thomas and William are at the same address in 1871 whilst RJC, ‘woollen manufacturer’ at the address of 1-5 Aldergate St, St Boltoph, City of London, which looks like a hotel.

It appears therefore that somewhere around the late 1850s John Mitchell moved from Burnley to the Waterfoot area of Rossendale (which includes both Fearns and Hugh Mill) and moved profession from worsted spinner to woollen/carpet manufacturer.

In the early history of the felt industry the majority of felt was manufactured in the Leeds area and transported to Rossendale for printing. With the lapse of a number of patents in 1854 the manufacturer of felt commenced in Rossendale and John Mitchell is said to have been one of the first felt manufacturers in the area. Much felt at that time was used for carpets as it was cheaper to produce and easier to handle than wool carpet. Something induced a worsted spinner to see and exploit this opportunity and John Mitchell built a substantial enterprise, often buying up mills and machinery cheaply from other failed manufacturers.

John Mitchell’s third son, RJC, is recorded as being at Springfield House, Rawtenstall, on the 1881, 1891 and 1901 censuses - confusing, given the similarities of names of Springhill and Springfield houses and the fact that the two properties are about 1/2 a mlle apart. In 1901 RJC is recorded as a ‘felt carpet manufacturer’, 1891 ‘manufacturer felt’, 1881 as ‘manufacturers dyers and printers’, 1871 ‘woollen manufacturer’. Mr and Mrs RJC Mitchell were prolific layers of datestones, including Woodlea Mission in 1894 by RJC and Waterfoot Conservative Club in 1889 by his wife.

William and Thomas are recorded at similarly large properties with similar occupations, in addition William was MP for Burnley (Cons) between 1900-1906 and hence on the 1901 census in Paddington with his wife and daughter Helen Gladys Margaret. Thomas was Hon Colonel in the 5th Battalion, East Lancs Regiment. He was obviously proud of this, recording it on every census even after his retirement. Thomas was in Devon in 1891 and London in 1901 and Brighton in 1911 so it appears that Rossendale did not attract him long term although some of this activity may have been sourcing and marketing.

By 1876 the three brothers had begun to trade under their joint names as Mitchell Brothers, becoming a limited company in 1893. Their innovations included techniques to increase the width of felted carpet and they are said to have developed needle-felting as a process permitting the felting of materials which are difficult to felt in the traditional manner. By 1897 it is said they owned every felt mill on the river Whitewell - 8 in total - plus others.

In 1904 Mitchell Brothers merged with two of their competitors, Richard Ashworth and William Stansfield to form Mitchell Ashworth Stansfield & Co Ltd or MASCO. They continued to trade under this name until they merged with the Bury Felt Manufacturing Co in 1962. Further mergers followed and the combined company finally ceased trading as a felt manufacturers in 1993.

Robert John Howorth Mitchell, the Springhill resident, was born in 1881, the third of four children (and only son) of Robert John Chadwick Mitchell (RJC) and Margaret Stuart Howorth. It was the new company, MASCO, that he directed. He married his cousin, Helen Gladys Margaret Mitchell, the daughter of William, in 1909.

An indication of the size of MASCO is given by the company’s roll of honour of WW1 below:

MASCo war roll of honour thumbnail


Looking a bit further on the 1911 census, RJH had been married for less than a year and had no children. It is feasible therefore that he rented a substantial residence whilst his own house was being made ready. He is listed as resident of Springhill House in Kelly’s directory of 1913 but that may be old data. It is unclear how long he stayed in there.

(Supplementary information from Walter, PThe Felt Industry’, Shire 2010)