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.

To continue reading this article you will need to purchase access to the online archive.

Buy Online Access  Buy Print & Archive Subscription

If you have already purchased access, or are a print & archive subscriber, please ensure you are logged in.

Please email digital@historytoday.com if you have any problems.

 

X

Get Miscellanies, our free weekly long read, in your inbox every week