We have a lot of water in Wales. I know it’s a cliché, but we do. Everywhere in the west of a northern continent does, whether it’s Seattle or Bangor; rainfall is a given. Mostly. It certainly is round here, and that means that there are lots of useful streams or small rivers:
roaring down from the hills, just begging to be used.
It’s not surprising that fulling cloth was done away from the house while other textile processes stayed at home, given one of the easiest and cheapest raw materials to obtain for fulling was stale urine, but it’s the sheer number of fulling mills that leaps out at you in Wales, once you know what you’re looking for.
I’d not realised it, but my house almost equidistant between two fulling mills, and that’s two even in my small area, two within three miles of my home. Well, they were fulling mills once; one is now a private house, and the other is a pub. The river in the shot above, the Ysgethin, is the one which flows (or roars, rather worryingly) close by the latter, and which provided power for the fulling stocks which were once there. The other was part of a smaller operation but was again situated next to a mountain stream – where cloth would once have been ‘walked’ – though there was evidence of two pits, possibly used for treading cloth, before the house was developed. The giveaway can be an element in a name: a pandy is a fulling mill (pl. pandai) – as in Tonypandy, for instance – but watch out for the mutation which changes the initial letter in some circumstances to a b, so you get ‘bandy‘ instead. In the case of the pub, the giveaway was some large information boards. I managed to walk past them several times without taking them in…
I shouldn’t have been surprised. There were hundreds of small fulling mills; every district had one, and many had several. In his magisterial book, The History of Wales / Hanes Cymru, John Davies notes that 111 were established in the country during the fourteenth century. They spread north and east from the south and, despite the upheaval of the rising of Owain Glyn Dwr, a further 62 were built before 1500. (Flemish weavers settling in Pembrokeshire have been credited with spearheading their development, but it’s not certain how significant their role actually was; moving fulling out of the house would have been a logical process.)
In my neck of the woods, Meirionydd, the first reference to a fulling mill is from 1545, when Maes y Pandy (note the name) near Dolgellau crops up in a legal document. Between then and 1700, there are records of a further 38 being established, and another 30 between 1700 and 1810.
Many fullers, like that fuller from Pompeii in the previous post, were part-timers: in this case, they were part-time farmers, with the pandy one of the farm buildings. And sometimes fulling mills were developed with existing corn mills, and the same person looked after both processes (as at Coed Trewernau in Powys, where a fulling mill and corn mill are recorded together in the 1630s). The domestic cloth trade was particularly important in Meirionydd as, incidentally, was sock and stocking knitting: ‘Almost every little farmer makes webs, and few cottages in these parts are without a loom’ wrote Arthur Aikin in 1797.
It’s not surprising that fulling was the ‘first woollen process to be mechanised’. The introduction of fulling stocks must have been generally welcomed: fulling using the feet was time-consuming, unpleasant, exhausting and damaging to the health. But it wasn’t a process from the industrial revolution of the nineteenth century, oh no: this mechanisation goes back as far as 1135 in Britain, with records of water-powered mills in Cumbria. Stocks went on to be in use until the twentieth century, and there is a film of some rather basic ones in use which can be seen at the National Wool Museum in Dre-fach Felindre.
They all work on the same basic principle. Cloth is put in the ‘box’ – you can just see it behind the stocks (D) in the picture above – and is pounded alternately by a pair of hammers, powered by the energy from water. The back of the hammers is shaped in such a way that the cloth is constantly turned, ensuring that it is completely fulled.
It’s not at all surprising that many fulling mills later developed into full-scale industrial enterprises. First fulling moved away from the home and into the mills, then prepping the fleece. This can be seen in the history of many. Take a mill at Cwmpengraig: carders, water-driven, were introduced into a building which had been in use as a fulling mill. In the 1820s, when it was known as Coedmor, a spinning jack of 40 spindles was added. It continued as a carding, spinning and fulling mill until 1878 when it was rebuilt as a ‘fully comprehensive mill’. It no longer exists as a mill, having been burnt down twice, most recently in 1951. (Fire was a constant threat; lots of grease from the wool and the machines; lots of timber in the buildings.) Trefriw, near Betws-y-Coed in North Wales, is another example – but one which is happily thriving.
And what of fulling stocks? Well, they were gradually replaced by rotary machines in which the cloth, ends sewn together to make an endless loop, passed between weighted rollers. The ‘rotary mill’ was patented in 1833, increased production and ensured more control over the process. But that didn’t necessarily mean that all fulling was a hugely industrial operation, as illustrated by this last image, from the county archives:
Meirionnydd Archives, Gwynedd Archives Service
The box in the foreground is the rotary milling machine, and the man is William Edwards, who was the fuller at Pandy Gwylan in Maentwrog: another fulling mill just a hair’s breadth from where I live. And this one is recorded as also having a ‘dye house’. That’s a whole other story!