Forge Mill Needle Museum
Richard Cavendish unthreads the history of this Worcestershire museum.
The Redditch area of Worcestershire, south-east of Birmingham, was the world's major needle-making district in the nineteenth century, turning out some 3,500 million needles a year in the 1870s. There's a story that a pushy foreign manufacturer once sent a tiny hypodermic needle to Redditch, claiming it as the smallest needle in the world. It was swiftly sent back to him with a Redditch needle threaded inside it.
All that has changed, though Needle Industries at Studley still has an annual output of around 400 million needles. Another survivor is Forge Mill, a needle-scouring works until it closed in 1958 and now a unique and lively-minded museum, set among green fields close to the River Arrow. After the mill shut down, the buildings and machinery were maintained by volunteers led by a formidable civil engineer named Geoff Rollins, who sadly died a year before money from Redditch District Council enabled the museum to open in 1983.
Needle-scouring began at Forge Mill about 1730, but most of today’s machinery dates from the nineteenth century and is powered by water from a stream called the Red Ditch, from which the town originally got its name. There are two amiably battered-looking red-brick buildings with the big overshot waterwheel rumbling between them to drive the machinery, which organised parties can see in action. Wheels turn and iron beams (named 'whee-whaws' from the noise they make) push the heavy wooden scouring paddles ('runners') to and fro over 'setts' or bundles of need- les tightly wrapped in sack- cloth, each sett holding up to 60,000 needles with soap and grinding powder to polish them clean and shiny. It is a soothing, repetitious sight, like watching the sea, though it was a hot and gloomy place to work and the museum has been driven to all sorts of laborious precautions by today's Nervous Nellie safety regulations.