The corn mill at Galgate was bought in 1792 by John Armstrong, James Noble and William Thompson of Lancaster. They converted it to a silk spinning mill, becoming the first of its kind in the country.
In 1832, the mill was expanded with the addition of a three-storey building constructed next to the original part. The extension housed large self-acting (or automatic) mules, which were very recent inventions. The power to run these machines came from two 10hp beam engines, housed in a boiler and engine house.
Four years later, John Armstrong’s son (also called John) joined the firm. He went on to become the sole owner. In 1851, he had a huge five-storey brick extension constructed. This featured iron columns supporting the wooden floors throughout, and a large water tank on the roof to supply a sprinkler system. The construction proved a stressful time for John, and his health suffered badly.
Seven years after the extension was built, John died. The mill was put up for auction, along with the manager’s house, 61 cottages owned by the firm, the local school and lecture room. However, when the auction did not reach the reserve price, the decision was taken not to sell. Instead, Richard Baynes Armstrong, the brother of John, stepped in. Richard had been a successful barrister in London for 50 years and, now at age of almost 70, he relocated to Lancaster. He cleared John’s debts and took over the full time running of the mill.
Richard’s early years at the mill proved to be a very difficult time. The American Civil War (1862-4) meant that cotton could no longer be imported to Britain, and this lack of trade also affected the silk market. His workers offered to work for half of their regular wage if he would continue to employ them. The silk yarn they produced could not be sold, but was put into storage in the hope that it would be bought at some later date.
The strategy paid off, and the silk stocks were sold after the war. Richard was able to pay his workers the other half of their wages that they had lost, and added 5% interest on top. His grateful workers presented him with a silver epergne (a table centrepiece) and all 213 of them signed a testimonial to him.
When Richard died, his associate William Satterthwaite took over the mill and turned the company into a limited one. The firm continued to trade as William Thompson & Co. , the name of one of the original founders.
The year of 1882 brought its share of tribulations. One of the boilers exploded, flinging its iron shrapnel out into the room. Fortunately, none of the men present were injured. An eight week strike also occurred. Workers at Brighouse, who supplied the mill with silk, went on strike as the silk they were having to process was of poor quality, and this resulted in a loss to their earnings. The Galgate workers came out ‘in sympathy’.
In 1905, William Armstrong became the manager. Thirteen years later, he and his brother were able to buy the mill, with help from investors from Yorkshire. In 1918, a new boiler and engine house was built for the steam engines. These were used to generate electricity and, in 1925, the old steam beam engines were decommissioned. During the 1930s, the mill was providing the livelihood for most of the village, directly employing more than 200 people. When William retired in 1944, his son Lloyd became the owner.
In 1957, Galgate Mill was sold to Patons and Baldwins from Darlington. Under the deal, Lloyd continued as the managing director, and it still operated under the William Thompson & Co. name. At this time, the mill was employing around 100 people and ran day and night with women working the day shift and men working the nights. Silk remained the main spinning concern. Patons and Baldwins invested in new machinery and were keen to develop the synthetic fibre production aspect of the business. This was because both the supply of silk and the market demand for the finished spun product was in decline.
The mill continued to be run successfully up until the start of the 1970s, and by this stage was mainly producing artificial spun fibres such as nylon and only a very small quantity of silk. In 1971, the manager Rodney Kay gathered the workers in the canteen for an announcement. He had bad news to give them. Patons and Baldwins had decided to close the mill, stating that increasing competition had forced them to concentrate their production at other sites. The mill at that time still employed 85 people, most of them women. The news was a shock to the whole village. One woman from a family who had seven members that worked at the mill commented to the local paper “I have not had time to think what I will do when the mill closes. People have stopped us in the street to ask us about the future but we have not had time to think”.
The manager of the Lancaster Employment Exchange, a Mr A. Grace, stated “The problem of the people working at the mill is quite peculiar to Galgate with 95 per cent coming from the village. I think there’s a reasonable chance of finding them jobs at Lancaster, but it’s a bit of a blow to consider travelling on the bus to work”.
When the machines were finally turned off and the mill workers left for home for the last time, England lost its last silk mill.
Visiting the Site Today
Galgate Silk Mill is Grade II listed. The three-storey mill and the later five-storey brick built addition can be seen either side of Chapel Lane. The older part is used for storage and workshops, and the newer part has recently been converted into accommodation for students. The engine house stands next to the five- storey building, along with its chimney.
There is a café next to the engine house. This has copies of old newspapers framed on the walls, giving historic reports about the mill. It is open most days.
The mill pond (no longer with water in) can be seen by the side of the older part of the mill, on Chapel Lane.
Site visited by A. and S. Bowden 2022
Park on Chapel Lane, or if you are visiting the café you can use the car park.
Galgate Silk Mills, Galgate, Lancashire. Heritage Assessment. Oxford Archaeology North, June 2014 (available online as a pdf document)
Galgate in Focus, Ruth Z Roskell
Lancaster Guardian 1971 (on the wall on the interior of the café)