History of Dunkirk Mill

Richard Middlemore’s Mill

1601 The earliest reference is in the deeds, but to what is not explained.

25th November 1741 Earliest Reference: An advertisement for cloth stolen from the racks of the New Mills near Dunkirck, 17 yards of Raw Cloth, with a blue Stop List. Value about 4s. per yard when drest, white, belonging to Daniell Deverell, near the New Mills, clothier. He offered a reward of three guineas, and freedom from prosecution for anyone cooperating.

1740s Rates Payments:

Samuel Yeates New Mills 1/3d
Thomas Deverell Dyehouse Mill 1/2d
John Pinfold Longfords Mill 1/11d
Samuel Peach St Mary’s Mill 2/1d

dunkirk-history-01dunkirk-history-02 A general view of the site in c1740, the mill pond is much the same as it is now with wheel and sluices in the same place as the 1855 wheel.

A reconstruction of how the mill buildings may have looked in the mid C18th, at this stage the mill was used for fulling and raising.

To be LET or SOLD, a commodious FULLING MILL, called the New Mills, parish of Minchinhampton, lately occupied by Mr Samuel Yeats, very convenient for either a Clothing Mill, or to be converted into a Grist Mill, never wanting water, and nearly situate to Dunkirk, which is now advertised to be let.

From the Gloster Journal 6/9/1785

Richard Middlemore bought from Edward Sheppard esq. of Gatcomb for £420 the dwelling house and fulling mill adjoining, called New Mills, with the stocks, gig mill and other the millwork therein contained and the outbuildings, all late the possession of Samuel Yeats and all that shear shop with the buildings etc late in the possession of James Hoddinot with the tenements and rooms over the same and all those dwelling houses, nearby now or late in the possessions of William Robbins, John Webb and George Stibbs as his tenants.

  • the close of pasture adjoining called Rack Close
  • the laggett of pasture or road or way from the highway near Dunkirk House down to the said mill
  • allowing right of way down the lagger way to a meadow of Edward Sheppard adjoining the mill called Longmead.
  • Middlemore and his partner Richard Flight were clothiers and co-partners, dealers and chapmen.

The Map Evidence:

1780 New Mills is shown on the map of the new turnpike road from Dudbridge to Nailsworth. The mill appears to be the wrong way round and the mill race and outflow are not shown.
N.B. 1885 The Parish Boundary between Minchinhampton and Avening follows the line of the mill race demonstrating that New Mills was erected on the historic line of the river. Some meanders in the line demonstrate that the river was straightened at some point. (True of earlier maps)

1798 Bankruptcy

Middlemore had loans from a Bristol merchant and creditors included a linen draper, a woollen draper, and three drysalters from that city. Other names point to more local business; a family of woolstaplers from Tetbury; a Nailsworth woolstapler; a major dyer from Wallbridge.

John Cooper

dunkirk-history-03The sale to John Cooper of Woodchester, clothier, for £1,780, covered the cost of the mortgages. Other creditors received 5/- in the £.

John Cooper’s new spinning mill of 1798 was the first step in transforming New Mills into the great clothing manufactory to be known as Dunkirk Mills

Detail of the existing New Mills on the left and the new five spinning block on the right


1798 Benefiting from the demand for uniform cloth during the French Wars Cooper invested in new machinery, such as spinning jennies, and built his new block to house them. They were powered by two waterwheels.

To secure a firm foundation for the mill on the blue clay of the former flood plain the walls were built on stone slabs resting on elm piles sunk into the clay. Perhaps the mansard roof was designed to reduce the load on the piles.

1804 John Cooper was rated £80, higher than any neighbouring mill, for:
The New Mills 5 storeys high containing 4 stocks, 1 gig mill, machinery, millman’s house, Dye House, Scouring House, Shear shops, press house, picking house and wool stove.

And £12 for Dunkirk House:
The House, offices, workshops, stables, gardens & pleasure ground.
The re-christening of New Mills as Dunkirk Mills is explained by Cooper buying Dunkirk House as well. The link between lasted no longer than his business.

Peter Playne the Builder

1815 John & Joseph Cooper bankrupt.

1816 William Playne bought the mill for £4,500, covering the mortgages and 10/- in the £ for other creditors. He shared the mills with his brother Peter. They had the same arrangement at Longfords Mill.

1818 Peter Playne built his first block and installed two water wheels. Total water power varied between 40 & 10 h.p. A new reservoir was created.

1820 He installed a Boulton & Watt 14 h.p. steam engine and added a boiler house on the front of his new mill block.

1822 Peter Playne took over the whole estate including:

  • the dwelling house & fulling mills adjoining, lately called the New Mills but now Dunkirk Mill
  • the outbuildings, cottages, shear shop etc occupied by William Playne
  • close of meadow the Rack Leaze
  • lagger of pasture or way from Dunkirk House to the mills occupied by Peter Playne
  • the alterations & additional buildings & improvements made by John Cooper & Peter Playne
  • close of pasture Spout Meadow.

In the later 1820s Peter, and the firm Playne & Smith, enormously expanded Dunkirk, becoming one of the principal manufacturers of the district producing broad and narrow cloths.

1827 He added a block for hand loom weavers next to his mill. By 1839 it housed 2 power looms and 67 handlooms.

1829 He built a large wool warehouse beside the road.

dunkirk-history-05 dunkirk-history-06 dunkirk-history-07


A source of profits

1820 The East India Company gave William & Peter Playne an order for 5,000 pieces of Spanish Striped List cloths, half in December 1820 and half in February 1821 …only 10 were rejected and they were put in condition and accepted in February. At 36 yards each the order was 102 miles long. The firm was paid £52,600. Such enterprise helped to rob the Chalford mills of their specialised market in Company cloths.

1833 Strike by his hand-loom weavers of 6 weeks.

1834 Yearly wages total £680.

  • Accidents: only 1 fatal one; no one disabled
  • The only night-work is fulling & no children are employed at this
  • There are 4 children under 9; they are seldom employed under 8
  • Discipline: mainly by small fines which are put to the fund for charitable purposes for the work-people
  • Corporal punishment is very seldom used except by the parents
  • They are discharged if they do not answer our purpose
  • Ventilation: by opening windows, air passages in the walls, manual fans
  • Heating is by steam pipes and manual fans
  • Clothes can by dried in the stove; it sometimes reaches 90° (F);

1839 Playne & Smith employed at the mill 2 power looms & 67 hand looms; 4 hand looms were unemployed. The Playne view:

as long as his men can afford to work as cheap as cloth can be made by power, he should retain human labour

Witness about 10 years ago kept only 2 looms; he was obliged to give up, from Mr Playne putting up shop-looms, and he went into the factory.

Playne Brothers

1848 The three sons of Peter were running the mill.

1851 Entry in the catalogue of the Great Exhibition:

220 Playne P.P. & Co., Nailsworth. Woaded*, wool dyed cloths, illustrations of the process of manufacturing cloth. These are specimens of the wool in each step of manufacture, from the raw material to the finished cloth, and are very tastefully arranged in a neat polished glass case.

*woaded = black though dyed using indigo not the outdated woad.

1855 The brothers demolished the buildings on the New Mills site and built two large blocks allowing the concentration of production at Dunkirk. The water wheel was installed, unusually driving machinery in each block.

The mill was now as up to date as it could be: spinning was by mules; weaving by power looms; fulling by the new milling machines.

1861 Employed at Dunkirk: 60 men, 31 boys, 94 women, 6 girls.

1862 London International Exhibition

Honourable Mention: Playne & Co. for cloth well made & finished in various qualities.


1863 Charles Playne was a member of two committees; one promoting the Stonehouse to Nailsworth railway and the other Nailsworth to Chippenham.

The 2.30 p.m. goods train stopped at Dunkirk siding.

Reconstruction drawings of Dunkirk Mills c1872 at the height of its development as a woollen manufactory.

1878 Hard Times: Dear Sir.

The West of England suffers beyond other places when wool is dear, as it has been of late because buyers confronted by the continual outcry for cheap goods are apt to go to Yorkshire. The old staple trade, e.g. black broadcloth and does has disappeared owing to change of fashion….

1889 I have had the pleasure of seeing the manufacturers at the zenith of their glory and the mortification of seeing the woollen trade as it exists today … the cause?…the introduction of worsted…..plain black woollen cloth is gone out of fashion…

Reply … The closing of a number of small mills and two or three large ones only proves that the law of the survival of the fittest, and the centralisation of production, have penetrated our district. There is no doubt that more cloth is being made in our district than ever before….

Closure of the Mill, 1889

Warning Bell

To capitalists & woollen manufacturers Mr Alexander Playne would be glad to meet with an engagement in, or to start, a manufactory of Woollen Cloth. Specific experience in judging fine wools & cloths. Can undertake the complete organisation & financial control of all processes, of a large business. 18 years experience. Morningside, Nailsworth.

Difficult Times

Ebley Mill closed and in successive weeks sales were held:

  • Of the machinery at Woodchester Mills. Disappointing prices.
  • Of the mill, lands and machinery of Vatch Mills. Disappointing.


5 Capital Scribbling & Condensing machines with Apperley’s & Lister’s feeds; 44 Broad Looms; 5 Self acting Mules; Belgian & Perpetual Cutters by Lewis etc.; Brushing Machines; 6 Fullers by Ferrabee; 3 Washers; Double Belgian Gig; Hydraulic & Screw Presses; Press Oven; Press Papers & Boards; Iron Screw Steam Press; 2 Steaming Vats; 3 Copper Dye Furnaces; Tucking Machines; Tearing Machines; Picking Machine with Self acting Feed; Dying Machine; Warping Drying & Sizing Machine; Wringing & Wetting Machines; Spooling Machines; 2 Cloth Measuring Machines; Grinding Frames & Grinders; Iron Bed Lathe; Drilling Machines; Iron Circular Saws & Bench; Indigo Mill; Iron Steam Boiler; Forge Back & Bellows; Anvils; Blacksmiths’ Tools; Iron Vices; 2 Iron Lifting Cranes; Pulley Wheels; Weighing Machines; Harness; Sleys; a Stock of Teazles etc

The End

7/6/1889 The whole of the machinery at Dunkirk Mills was sold and realised good prices.

To be LET or SOLD,DUNKIRK MILLS, Nailsworth, large and valuable Manufacturing Premises, containing about 6,000 square yards of floor space, 4 water wheels, 2 steam engines, 2 boilers, large dyehouses and outbuildings, with a siding on the M.R. Rent £250, for sale £3,000, also EGYPT MILL, Nailsworth, containing about 700 square yards floor space, 2 water wheels, about 20 h.p. Rent £65, for sale at £800. ~ Apply P.P. & C. PLAYNE, Nailsworth.

1890 Alexander Playne left for Montevideo on a wool buying expedition.