Dalesman May 2012 – Linen woven into Brompton’s past

Jennie Hancock and Vera Brittain shared their memories of Brompton by Northallerton, their home village.

It has heritage of linen weaving that stretches back many centuries. Jennie, of Brompton Heritage Group, says, “We don’t know how far back it goes, but we know that there was a good skill base here. That’s why the mill owners came here.”

The Church in Brompton

The Church in Brompton

Vera, who worked in one of Brompton’s linen mills, says, “They had a cottage industry for linen weaving. They had the looms in houses or sheds – so I’ve been told, I don’t remember it personally.”

Jennie says, “Very early on, linen was taken to Osmotherley to be bleached. They used to spread the linen on gorse on a south facing hillside. The mill at Osmotherley is now converted to a Youth Hostel, Cote Gyll.

Jennie adds, “The cottage industry linen weavers worked for themselves, and I think that has given the village a certain ethos. There was no lord of manor, no one they had to kowtow to. So when Chartism came, they embraced it wholeheartedly – a lord of the manor would probably have told them they couldn’t do that, or they’d lose their home and/or job.”

Jennie feels that the characteristic lives on in the village today. She says, “People are independent, and they stand on their own two feet.

However, in the 1850s, she says, “The linen factories came, and lasted over a hundred years. Brompton linen was in the Great Exhibition of 1851, and some said that some of the linen at the Vatican came from Brompton. They also exported it to Northern Ireland – it was amazing.”

Jennie says, “The mill owners were entrepreneurs – that’s why Brompton was so successful, because they adapted, and got new machines. When WWI broke out, they immediately started making material for tents.”

Vera went to work in the mill in 1946, after being demobbed from the RAF. She says, “We did a lot of sheeting for bed linen, and table cloths and serviettes.”

Eventually, Brompton’s mills closed, in the 1960s. The factories closed, says Jennie, due to cheaper materials coming in. “Synthetics, and things made abroad. The bottom fell out of the market. But Brompton lasted longer than a lot – it made quality stuff.”

Vera Brittain and Jennie Hancock with new houses built where Vera used to work

Vera Brittain and Jennie Hancock with new houses built where Vera used to work

Vera recalls, “While I was there, they got new machines – Northrops. They were more efficient machines.”

The Mill owners belonged to three families: the Yeomans, Wilfords, and Pattisons. Jennie says, “Yeomans came first, then Pattisons joined them and it became the Pattison- Yeoman Mill.”

Historically, Brompton was good place to work linen because it is low-lying and damp – and linen is easier to work with in a humid atmosphere.

Brompton’s Beck runs through the village and most of the time, looks innocuous. But from time to time, it floods.

Nowadays, flooding causes distress to residents. But Jennie comments, “The Beck used to be dammed at Water End to flood the green and then run pleasure boats on it. People used to come on the train for a day out from Teesside – it was like a resort.”

Vera recalls her childhood home at Water End flooding. “The water came in the front door and out the back. We had to go upstairs.”

Vera worked in the linen mill for several years, and says, “I loved working in the mill. I loved having a job, and I was happy to do more – until I felt I was being exploited.”

She explains: “I ended up with 5 machines. They wanted me to do a 6th, but I wouldn’t get extra money for it. On 5, I was on bonus, but if I had 6, I wouldn’t get it, as I couldn’t do 6 as easily as 5. I could see some people with one loom getting as much money as me with 6.”

“So I talked to my husband, and he said pack it in, there must be something else you can do.”

Vera decided to leave – but the boss didn’t believe her when she handed in her notice. She says, “At the end of my notice period, I asked for my P45, and they wouldn’t give it to me – they said you’re not leaving.”

“I went home in tears. My husband went up and got my pay and P45.”

After that, Vera worked picking potatoes, then in a school, then in a hotel, where she stayed until she retired.

Village life in Vera’s childhood was very different to today. The biggest change, she feels, is the car. When she was a child, there were few, if any cars. Children played out safely on the streets – and 23 shops in the village supplied everyone’s needs.

She even recalls her mother opening a shop – for a short time. “She turned the front room into a sweet shop – you didn’t need permissions in those days,” she comments. The venture, however, was not a commercial success because, she says, “Father kept helping himself.”

Today, Vera still enjoys living in Brompton, where she has many friends.

Today, Vera still enjoys living in Brompton, where she has many friends.

Learn more about Brompton by joining Brompton Heritage Group, http://www.bromptonmatters.co.uk/

Read the article in full in Dalesman Magazine, available only in print, see www.dalesman.co.uk

About Helen Johnson

Freelance writer specialising in Yorkshire's history and heritage.

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