Sunday, 25 October 2015

The Textile Mills of Earlston

For over 200 years, textile production was an important part 
of the Earlston economy.  

We have one of the earliest descriptions of the village  in "The First Statistical Account of Scotland, 1791-1799," edited by Sir John Sinclair, where  Parish Minister Rev.  Lawrence Johnston wrote:
 "The principal manufacture is linen cloth.  There are between 40 and 50 weaver looms mostly employed weaving linen........ We have only one woollen manufacturer,  though no place could be better  situated for carrying out that branch of trade.   The Leader Water runs along the west and there is plenty of wool to supply 20 manufacturers."

Later, a cauld (or weir)  on the Leader Water came to provide the mill lade with the water to power both Rhymers Mill and Mid Mill.

In the 18th century, RHYMER'S MILL was  a corn mill before being transformed by the Whale family into a textile mill where  the  manufacture of gingham was introduced by Thomas Whale.    

A carved inscription on the old mill building, 
with  the names C & M Whale clearly visible.

The 1891 publication "Two Centuries Of Border Church Life V2   - with Biographies Of Leading Men And Sketches Of The Social Condition Of The People On The Eastern Border",  by James Tait.  includes a paragraph  on the Whales Family.  
"Thomas Whale died on the 11th March 1814, aged 74 years; and his widow died two years afterward;  but the business was carried on with great skill and success by their daughters,  Chritian was the elder, and was a very clever woman, but she modestly gave the first place to her younger sister Marion and the designation of the firm was "Marion Whale Co,"   The gingham was manufactured of cotton and the weaving was done in private houses;  in some of which there was a factory containing twenty or thirty looms.  The colours were woven into the cloth, not printed as is now generally done;  and everything was of the best material  One of the sisters travelled to Edinburgh, along the Northumberland coast and even to London, which was very inaccessible in those days.  After a life of great activity and usefulness, Christian Whale died on the 22nd July 1872, aged 75 years, and is designated on her tombstone "late manufacturer of Earlston". 
The 1851 Census identified Christian  Whale as a 64 year old manufacturer of gingham and cotton, employing 60 workers, mainly weavers and winders of cotton. Also in the business was her sister Marion aged 56.   Ten years on in 1861 Christian, now aged 7)  and Marion 56, were both described as Gingham Manufacturers.

How usual was it in mid Victorian times for women entrepreneurs to head a business?  

There were  close connections  with the Clendinnin family.  The 1851 census recorded that Elizabeth Clendinnen. aged 39 and a widow was a "manufacturer of plaids", and her son was named Thomas Whale Clenddinnen.   Other family members were employed in the mill with 15 year old Lancelot described as a "cotton warper".  

In Slater's 1903 Directory of Berwickshire,  Thomas Clendinnen & Sons,  are named  as "gingham manufacturers, tailors and drapers".  They also had a shop on the High Street.

Rutherfurd’s 1866 Directory of the Southern Counties, published in nearby Kelso,   commented :
 Earlston produces quantities of the Earlston ginghams. There is no other place in the country where the same class of gingham is made”.
Two surviving examples of the Earlston Gingham  in the collection of Auld Earlston.
Rhymer's Mill later became a dye works run by a firm called Sanderson and the path  alongside the Leader WAter is still referred to as "The Tenters" where the dyed wool was hung out to dry.  In 1911 the premises were taken over by John Rutherford & Sons,  agricultural engineers, who operated at the mill until the business closed down in 2014. 


The photograph below from  the Auld Earlston collection is captioned:   

"Thomas Gray, (1856-1910), Manufacturer of Gingham - a cotton fabric originally made in India Gray.  He  lived in Earlston and was a well-known Border fiddler"

Unfortunately efforts to trace any further information on this Thomas Gray with those dates have met with limited  success.   An entry in the 1881 census for Earlston lists a Thomas Gray, a gingham manufacturer born in Earlston, living on his own at Kilknowe Head, but his age is given as 85, so born c.1786.  Records of the Berwickshire Naturalists Club  refer to him as a noted antiquarian, known as "Tam of Earlston"  or "Gingham Tam".  Some more research is  needed here to identify the Thomas Greys. 


At MID MILL Charles Wilson & Sons  manufactured  blankets and tweeds. The 1851 census described him as a "of the firm of Charles Wilson & sons,  blankets and plaiding manufacturers employing 18 men 7 women and 19 girls".  Ten years on, the business had extended to making tweeds, and employed  "28 men and 44 women, boys and young women". 

Slater's Commercial Directory of 1882 recorded Roberts, Dun & Company as Tweed Manufacturers at Mid Mill.    Subsequently Simpson and Fairbairn took over the business and greatly extended its operations.  A 1903 Directory described Simpson & Fairbairn  as a tweed manufacturer and dyers at Mid Mills 

It appears that the firm later adopted the name of Rhymer's Mill, as in the photographs below.

Always at the mercy of  the dictates of fashion and economics, Border woollen manufacturers between the wars  had a hard and stressful time.  The global depression, tariff barriers and instability especially in Eastern and Central Europe made export markets difficult.  Cheaper competition from areas like Yorkshire and North America plus the reduced  purchasing power of the unemployed resulted  in idle plants and closures.  In Galashiels a third of the manufacturing capacity of the town was lost in the 1930's 

 Mill Road houses, built for the workers.

However Simpson and Fairbairn  weathered the storm,  although short time working was often prevalent.  During World War Two, the mill was fully employed on service and  utility clothing  and after the war it was a boom time for the Borders as world wide stocks of clothes had to be replaced, with the firm employing more than 300 workers. 
making it  the economic mainstay of Earlston. 

But by the late 1950's and early '60's, the old problems of cheaper competitors and vulnerability to changing fashions had returned.  The   firm tried  to innovate by making cellular blankets and moving into  ladies' wear. 

On 13th June 1961 "The Southern Reporter" headline read "Closing of Earlston mill shocks 200 workers",  with a skeleton staff retained in the  hope the mill could re-open, once orders were forthcoming. The tidal wave of workers coming up Mill Road was reduced to a trickle.   After a few months, the mill did restart with the weaving and finishing department only and in 1966 a Mr Claridge (a textile designer) took over and oversaw a brief period of expansion.  

But the decline could not be stemmed.  The mill finally closed in 1969 when a workforce of almost 100 was made redundant.  Some of the workers went to Wilson & Glenny of Hawick who like Simpson & Fairbairn were part of  Scottish Worsteds & Woolens Group.  But they in turn closed along with William Brown of Galashiels who were also part of this group.

Earlston's role in the  Borders textile industry came to an end. 

 Today a street name sign reminds us of the village's past.

 Two photographs taken in 1974  of the Derelict Rhymer's Mill

Earlston census returns for the mid 19th century identified workers in the following occupations:

Cotton Weaver, Cotton Winder, Cotton Warper, Cotton Gingham Weaver, Clerk in Gingham Warehouse. Agent for a Gingham Warehouse  
Piecer in a Woollen Factory   (a 13 year old boy) 
Machine Feeder in a Woollen Factory (15 year old girl) 
Steam Loom Weaver of Wool (18 year old girl) 
Blanket Weaver, Power Loom Weaver, Hand Loom Weaver,  Wool Carder, Wool Picker, 
Overseer in Woollen Factory, Power Loom Tuner, Spinner in Woollen Factory 

You May Also Like to Read:   
Earlston's Gingham Tam - Thomas Gray.

Thank you to everyone who has  donated or loaned old photographs for Auld Earlston.  We  welcome all contributions on the village's past  -  contact us on or via the comments box below.  

For more photographs on village life,  
look at our associated Facebook page  Lost Earlston


  1. Thanks for a first class article.

  2. Brings back memories,

  3. Amazing to think of those mills employing so many people.


Thank you for taking the time to comment. Your feedback is much appreciated.