DORSET historian Richard Sims’ book on Bridport’s rope and net industry is praised in the latest volume of the Industrial Archaeology Review.
The scholarly journal acclaims Rope, Net & Twine: The Bridport Textile Industry (Dovecote Press, £25) as “copiously illustrated… authoritative and attractive.”
Reviewer Mike Bone, who used to live in Dorset, and these days belongs to the Bristol Industrial Archaeological Society, says the book is “an invaluable guide to visitors and those researching particular sites or businesses.”
There are few, if any, other places in Britain that have been shaped for so long by one industry as Bridport has been by rope, net and twine. The trade probably dates back to the ninth century. Read Mr Sims detailed book and you’ll never look at Bridport and its surrounding villages in quite the same way ever again.
Dottery, for example, owes the existence of its corrugated iron chapel – its tin tabernacle – to the presence of Pymore Mill. The Gundry family donated the land on which the chapel still stands, partly to save workers from having to trek over to Bradpole to worship.
Likewise, when Pymore Inn was built in the 1850s, it had a shop, so there was no need to go into Bridport.
But some workers did walk formidable distances and work extraordinarily hard.
The Industrial Archaeology Review remarks on the “massive effort” that Mr Sims and Dovecote Press put into his book; “massive effort” is a hallmark of the Bridport textile industry.
Hard life of Mrs Hughes, 75
By chance, I was recently browsing through old copies of the magazine Picture Post, which published a feature about Bridport net-making on 21 July, 1951.
The journalist Juliana Crow tells the story of a Mrs Hughes, a 75-year-old outworker living in Bridport, who cannot remember the time when she could not braid. (‘Outworker’ means that she worked from home).
“As a young married woman she lived near Crewkerne, 11 miles away. Her husband’s wages were only 11s a week, but she could average £2.
“The money was hard earned.
“She had five children under six, but every Friday she sent her husband off to work, settled the elder children with neighbours, loaded the pram with the baby and the completed nets and walked to Bridport to collect her earnings and do her shopping.
“Then she walked back in time to get the tea for the children and to cook her husband’s supper.
“Often she had had no sleep the night before.”
It’s a shame there is no photograph of Mrs Hughes.
Mr Sims notes in his book that, after World War Two, Pymore Mill found it hard to recruit new workers.
He writes: “In 1955 only 50% of the available posts were filled. It would seem that the school leavers of post-war Bridport had no wish to follow their parents into the town’s staple industry.
“The mill was closed in June 1955…”
Pymore’s predicament is fleshed out by Picture Post.
“Girls, nowadays, don’t want to learn anything more after they have left school and a unskilled job in shop or office is good enough to fill up the time between school leaving and marriage.
“Net making is an art that must be learned and it keeps them in the factory and, they believe, out of the world. Those girls who are drawn to the industry are too few to supply all the nets that are needed.”
This was written, remember, in 1951, so it was prescient, if rather harsh and haughty. I don’t get the feeling that Juliana Crow would have much fancied doing a four-year apprenticeship herself.
But then, would anyone reading this now want to walk 11 miles with a pramful of nets and a baby?
The Spirit of Bridport
You could argue that Fra Newbery made a mistake when he sought – in his murals in Bridport Town Hall – to represent the Spirit of Bridport as a beautiful flaxen-haired young woman, working with twine.
Why not an older woman like Mrs Crabb (pictured below)?