History of Longfords Mill

Old Mill, Longfords Mill

Ian Mackintosh

 

The local textile industry dates back to the Middle Ages and evidence for a mill at Longfords survives in the Minchinhampton Custumal of 1304. It was described there as a water mill which is interpreted as meaning it was a corn mill. However by the 1600s it was a combined fulling and corn mill, typical of many in the valleys.

In 1759 Thomas Playne leased the estate, house, farm and mill. An estate map of 1766 shows the extent of the property and location of the buildings. Thomas Playne was one of many local and generally small suppliers to the East India Company. Thomas’s sons William and Peter Playne expanded the mill considerably. They built two other water powered mills, creating a twelve acre lake to power them and buying their first Boulton & Watt steam engine in 1815. The brothers divided Longfords and Dunkirk between them with William occupying the whole Longfords site. However they continued to supply the East India Company as a partnership and in 1820 were apparently the largest supplier of cloth to it, £20,000 – worth. It was estimated that the cloth if laid end to end would have reached from the mill to their London office.

The dynamic leadership of William and his son William junior ensured that the firm William Playne & Co. adapted to the innovations in production introduced in the 19th century and it enormously increased with the development of new markets. Unlike the Stanley and Ebley Mills sites where major new buildings replaced the historic fulling mills Playnes added new buildings when necessary. So there was a confusing maze of structures by the end of the century but this “illustrated as well as any site in the region the evolution of the integrated woollen mill from its beginnings in the early 18th century” (RCHM 1990)

The 20th century saw equally dramatic changes as the firm, now a subsidiary of Winterbotham Strachan & Playne Ltd, struggled to survive in often difficult times. This meant extensive new brick buildings which have since been removed, new machinery and the introduction of electricity. Products also adjusted with demand and in the 1930s the mill provided cloth for the Prince of Wales’s, the future Edward VIII, Rolls Royce. During the last phase of the mill’s life, from 1970 to 90, it was the largest manufacturer of tennis ball outside of the USA. The name William Playne & Co. continues as the trade name for the tennis ball cloth.

 

The Old Mill

The 1766 estate map shows the site of the mill as almost identical with the Old Mill. The Avening brook approaches from the east and the waste water passes the mill to the south. Later maps show the mill being increasingly surrounded by other buildings. A plan dated 1813 shows the new arrangement of a mill pond replacing the leat and buildings attached to the north end of the mill.

The mill has a date stone 1703 which is the date when William Playne assumed it was built but the style of lettering is early 19th century. The RCHM report describes it as dating from the early or mid 18th century and vernacular in style. This was “the fulling mill and water grist mill” bought by Thomas Playne in 1790. It was a substantial building for the time.

There is another date stone 1828 which records the year William Playne did fundamental work on it. In a memorandum he wrote for his son about the evolution of the buildings on site he writes “The original mill which was built in 1705 was rebuilt in 1828 on the Old Foundation some of the old oak beams and some of the … beams in … New the Roof members Timber and ash”. Old beams can be seen in the north end of the ceiling of the basement. Photographs demonstrate that the east side of the roof had a range of dormers and the gap in the joists survive inside to show where they were. The destructive effects of the hammering of the heavy fulling stocks meant mills had to be regularly refurbished but the building obviously underwent considerable restoration in 1828. However the small mullion windows suggest that the main fabric of the building was retained as they contrast with the larger and more modern windows of the Lake Mill built 20 years earlier.

At some point he inserted arches for a pair of overshot water wheels. Elsewhere on site he refers to the remains of old water wheels being used for flooring in 1840. Perhaps this is when the work was done on the Old Mill. The arches are very similar to those at Dunkirk Mill built in 1818 by his brother Peter.

Prior to its recent restoration the building also had openings for ventilation, identical to arrangements at Dunkirk. One sliding panel partly survives on the interior.

Evidence of shafting and bearings can be seen on beams and in the walls on the upper floors so clearly the mill was used for powered machinery in the 19th century. There is no record of what was installed but the logic is that preparatory machinery, perhaps carding was here as the adjoining steam powered mill, erected in 1856, had spinning mules on the top floor and power looms beneath.

A plan dated 1884 shows that one water wheel survived in the basement but that most of the rest of the floor was taken up with indigo mills and main gearing to the south and a fulling mill and washer to the north. Outside, next to the base of the chimney was the high pressure steam engine with the two boilers adjacent.

Such arrangements were swept away in the early 1900s. William Playne’s grandson now owned the mill and he records that in 1910 “the old 4 storey Mill Buildings were no longer safe for the modern heavy and quick–running machinery. The workshops … were very low, scarcely more than 10 feet high, and the floors, moreover, were so saturated with oil and caked with grease that, had a fire occurred during working hours, those who were in the upper storeys of the old Mill might have had some difficulty in escaping. The outside walls, also, which had had stood for more than a century, began to show signs of the heavy strain to which they had been subjected by the new machinery and in all probability before long the Factory Inspector might have condemned them”. Playne was writing of both the Old Mill and the 1809 Lake Mill.

As a result the Old Mill underwent another extensive renovation and became the site of a “central power station” generating electricity from the dynamo to electric motors. The whole mill except the fullers and washers was converted. So the Old Mill contains a possibly unique arrangement of a 125kvw Gordon water turbine with a dynamo, a Bellis & Morcomb steam engine with a dynamo and a later Allen diesel motor as used in 2nd World War submarines. JC Robinson, administrator of the PRISM Fund in 1990, commented that the turbine was “of particular interest, it was more unusual and its retention is important in demonstrating the continuing significance, well into the 20th century, of water power to Longfords Mill”.

The remainder of the mill was partitioned into workshops and stores and performed no further productive role. However people used the whitewashed walls to scribble notes, calculations or simple graffiti. One particularly poignant record of the death of a youngster during the 2nd World War was lost when the partitions were removed to restore the historic spaciousness of the old production floors.

In conclusion the Old Mill bears the marks of centuries of use. Positioned near the centre of the historic mill it retains the atmosphere of what Keith A Falconer the Head of Industrial Archaeology at RCHM called “a classic example of a woollen mill that has grown piecemeal over three centuries”.

 

References

RCHM: Draft report on Longfords Mill 1990

RCHM & AIA: Textile Mills In Industrial Archaeology Review Autumn 1993

AT Playne: Minchinhampton & Avening 1915

Ray Wilson: Electricity Generation at Longfords Mill

Glos. Archives: 1766 Map, 1813 plan D1347