‘A Unique Site of Major Historical Importance’: Hannah Barker discusses the restoration of Quarry Bank Mill

Being a Historical Advisor for the National Trust

I’m currently one of two members of History staff who are working with the National Trust as Historical Advisors. Whilst Sasha Handley is involved at Little Moreton Hall in Staffordshire (having previously collaborated with staff at Ham House), I am working with the Trust at Quarry Bank Mill in Cheshire. Quarry Bank is a unique site of major historical importance. Built in the late eighteenth century, at the start of the industrial revolution, it incorporates a large cotton mill, a farm, an entire village purpose-built to house the mill workforce and the homes and workplaces of the owner, mill manager and apprentices. Few, if any other sites of comparable significance are as complete or as untouched.


Quarry Bank Mill

I’m part of a team at Quarry Bank working on a £9.4 million expansion and (re)interpretation project, funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund and the National Trust.

This project started at the end of last year and will be completed by 2019. It includes the restoration and opening of a worker’s cottage and the village shop in Styal Village, opening Quarry Bank House to the public (the former home of the Greg family who owned the mill), the restoration of Quarry Bank garden and glasshouse, and improving access around the site with a new network of paths and roads, and car park.

For me, this collaboration offers the opportunity to use my research on the early industrial revolution, and on work, buildings and the use of space during this period in particular, to inform and shape a major public history initiative. But most of all, it provides an exciting change from my usual activities as an academic, and challenges me to think in new ways and to explore different ways of working as part of a team of curators, interpretation and programming specialists.


Apprentice House, Quarry Bank

One of my first tasks at Quarry Bank involved the reinterpretation of a building already open to the public: the Apprentice House. One of the things I want to do here is to give visitors a clearer sense of what it was like from the point of view of the original occupants: that is, the child workers. For me, the house as it is currently presented is too airy, too roomy and far too quiet. And more than this, it gives very little sense of the individual children who have lived here. We are planning to turn the quiet, still spaces within Apprentice House into something that gives more of a sense of their earlier, noisier, smellier and more cramped past, when the house was full of children.

One way that we are planning to achieve this transformation is by examining the material culture of the apprentices. We will be introducing apprentices’ boxes into the main girls’ dormitory, and by doing so, telling the individual children’s stories. These boxes would have been common amongst servants and other mobile employees in the eighteenth century, and would have been used to both transport one’s possessions and to keep them safe. From surviving records in the Quarry Bank archive we do know that it was likely that each apprentice had at least two sets of clothes, and that they sometimes borrowed money from their employer to buy other items, such as a new gown, shoes, a sliding rule, a flute and even a watch. Recreating some of these possessions, and the boxes in which they were kept, alongside providing details of the lives of their owners, will give us a much stronger sense of these children’s experiences working and living at Quarry Bank. I hope it will help visitors to feel a closer connection with these child workers and to develop a clearer sense of what being an apprentice at the mill would have been like.


Number 13, Oak Cottages: the pickled cottage

Since planning the reinterpretation of the Apprentice House, I’ve also been looking at the worker’s cottages. One of the buildings at Quarry Bank that will be newly open to the public after 2019 will be 13 Oak Cottages. It’s known locally as the Pickled cottage, because it has been literally pickled and left untouched and unaltered (and empty) since around the 1960s, if not earlier. It was built sometime during the 1820s, when the Gregs started the rapid expansion of the village to house its growing workforce. We can trace the occupants of the cottage from at least 1841, if not earlier, and know that the small, two-up-two-downs would have housed large families and mixed households, including lodgers, with others living in the cellar.

In thinking about how we present this cottage to visitors, we can obviously talk about who lived here, but I also want to give visitors a sense as well of what it was like to live here and can draw on my own research on the use of domestic space in smaller trading households in towns such as Manchester and Liverpool during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries to achieve this. Living in such small spaces was not simple, and the ways in which inhabitants would have shared their living space contradicts both traditional historical models of growing domestic privacy during the eighteenth century, and our own modern ideas about privacy and space.


Front room, ground floor, 13 Oak Cottages

For those who lived at number 13, restrictions on the size of living accommodation made many of the formal distinctions of space that we are used to unlikely. This means that we can’t assume that people applied single uses to different rooms as we do today – thus it seems quite possible that inhabitants would sleep and sit and socialize and cook and eat in the room we might think of as the front room on the ground floor, whilst the back room might have been a form of kitchen (though without running water). It is also likely that unrelated individuals would have shared bedrooms, and probably beds. Whilst we might baulk at such ideas – not just sleeping in a room in which food is prepared and eaten, but especially bed-sharing – it is clear that company and physical proximity were often more highly prized in the early nineteenth century than was a more modern understanding of privacy (especially if it was cold). And we know, of course, that any workers who had come from the Apprentice House would have been used to sharing beds with others, whilst in a period when large families were the norm, sharing beds with siblings would have been standard.


The cellar at 13 Oak cottages

But this doesn’t mean that privacy wasn’t important in terms of upholding certain standards of respectability. The separation of the sexes to preserve modesty and to prevent inappropriate sexual relations – especially between men and women who weren’t related or married – would have been important. Although men and women appear not to have been generally segregated in terms of daily activities during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, there were clearly exceptions to this rule where sexual impropriety or modesty were concerned: such as mending undergarments, washing and not engaging in illicit sexual behaviour. I hope that by exploring some of these issues, we will get a clearer sense of what life was like for the workers at the mill. With any luck future visitors will find the stories that we tell in our interpretation of the pickled cottage as interesting as I am finding my role as a historical advisor. For more information, go to hannahbarker.net and nationatrust.org.uk/quarry-bank.


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