The Thornton Woollen Mill, St Petersburg

Catching a tram from the less salubrious end of Nevsky Prospekt in St Petersburg and travelling southwards through suburbs, where the colourful Baroque edifices of the city centre fade to more monotonous shades of industrial grey, there is a stop just as the road bends to run alongside the river Neva. Looking out from here over the water you can see the gaunt façade of the Nevsky Manufacturing building. Eighty years ago my great- grandfather, Willie Brooke would also have done just this, but he would have known the same building only as the Thornton Woollen Mill.

In 1900, after answering an advert in the Huddersfield Examiner, Willie Brooke left his job as a wool percher and went with his wife, Lucy, and his three-year-old daughter, Nellie to St Petersburg to take up office as mill manager under the two Thornton brothers who owned the mill. He was far from the first such emigrant. The mill began operating in 1860 and the Tsarist regime had been enlisting British capital and technological resources to help develop industries in Russia throughout the nineteenth century.

Although the left bank of the Neva was quickly developed, the absence of any bridges outside of the city centre meant that the right bank remained relatively isolated. In her history of the mill written in 1925, Marietta Shagenyan gives this description:

'At the time it was a complete wilderness. Only at an oblique angle to the ford, not far from the church of Michael the Archangel there rises up a tall rectangular fortress standing in splendid isolation and surrounded by its extensions and outbuildings. This fortress is the factory owned by the Englishmen 'Thornton'.

In winter ice floes came down the river from Lake Ladoga making crossings hazardous and increasing this 'splendid isolation'. However, these difficulties did not diminish the mill's importance. Wool was bought by a. third Thornton brother in Bradford and then sent to Russia where it was made into all types of woollens and worsteds. The mill compound was the size of a small town housing over 3,000 Russian workers and English stall. As Dorothy Shaw, who grew up there as a boss finisher's daughter recalls, 'We lived on the top floor of a three-storey brick apartment block which held six bosses families and their servants. Our servant was illiterate, like most, but a very good cook. There was a butcher's shop in the compound and a grocery store as well as lots of itinerant traders selling meat, poultry, fish, bread, cakes, fruit, milk, lace and fancy linens'.

Life, though, was not always peaceful. During the 1905 revolution the mill was occupied. by workers until Cossacks were brought in to keep the peace. Nellie Brooke had fond memories of their presence there, 'they had the run of. the bale room. They were so jolly, giving us rides on horseback and bursting into wonderful song all of the time. They gave daring demonstrations on their horses because they were so bored, whilst we were not allowed out of the compound because of the fighting close by'.

In response to this insurrection the Thorntons removed all workers with revolutionary connections but, despite this purging, incidents were not uncommon. In November 1907 local newspapers reported a robbery at the mill in which a foreman and his nephew were shot dead. Bateman Thornton, in a letter to his mother in England describing the incident writes, '... this is a new curse with a vengeance. It is more like the backwoods than life in a civilised town ... I am ashamed to say we turned from examining the corpses with their fearful wounds without any horror. The long training in the brutalities of the last two years have left us hardened to such occurrences'.

With the onset of the First World War the mill's fortunes began to decline. Growing discontent filtered down through the workers, fuelled by revolutionaries and opportunists. Many- foreign industries closed down during the period, but the Thornton Mill was fortunate to remain open, converting operations to produce clothing and blankets for the army. Russian soldiers were nursed at the mill hospital and their saturnine disillusion with the war must have aggravated the general feeling of restlessness amongst the workers. When the revolution of February 1917 began, riots and strikes broke out throughout St Petersburg and the mill became a focus for insubordination, despite the indifference of the Thorntons themselves.

The American writer, Negley Farson, who was engaged to mill owner's daughter Vera Thornton at the time, writes in his autobiographical account, The Way of a Transgressor, of driving through angry mobs of revolting workers from the city centre and arriving at the Thornton family house to find them taking tea:

'They might have been sitting down in Kent somewhere. The Englishman's wife, a Russian herself, asked us how many lumps we wanted. "Yes", said the Englishman, when we told him what we had seen, "the office phoned me. AIl the shops are closed, but l think it will blow over by tomorrow"'. However, Farson awoke the next day to witness vast streams of people heading across the frozen Neva from the factories lining the opposite bank towards the mill.

Despite protestations of the English management, the more radical sections of the crowd succeeded in persuading the workers to revolt and they poured out onto the Neva. From that time control in the city became increasingly difficult and keeping the mill producing against this backdrop of near anarchy was ever harder. The workers had little idea of what freedom meant, but most of them took it as an invitation not to work. They elected their own Soviet, which immediately demanded an eight-hour day and increases in wages far beyond that which the management could pay even if they had wanted to.

By September 1917, Nellie Brooke remembered that the final exodus of British families had begun, 'We made it to Bergen, but then had to wait three weeks for a boat to reach us. My father stayed on until the very end (the following Easter). Then he was thrown into the dreadful Peter and Paul Fortress. Eventually the Americans got him out and onto a troop train to Murmansk. He brought nothing out with him and came back to England penniless and with no job.'

Pushed from their aristocratic pedestal, the Brookes settled in. Southport, trying to rebuild their shattered lives. But already the pieces were beginning to fragment. Thorntons offered Willie a post as mill manager in Cawnpore in India and, with few other options available, he accepted. Lucy however refused to go, still shocked after their unanesthetised removal from the opulence of St Petersburg and reluctant to expose herself again. Willie died alone in India in 1925.

Shadows of her formative years spent in the Thornton mill remained with Nellie. She had been educated in the mill school until she was eleven, and even after that when she boarded at Eastbourne, she always returned to Russia for her holidays. Now in England she trained as a nurse, but soon affirmed her old bonds by marrying the manager of the Bradford office of Thorntons in 1923. However, the past could never he recreated and her disillusionment was clear. Once when asked. close to her death in 1981, to recall her post-Revolution memories she implied, 'Herbert Thornton went on to run a mill in South Africa and Vera married a Finn. But they’re all dead now. It was all such a long time ago'.

Under Communist rule the mill was renamed. 'Red Mill' and directed by a man called Suboch, who had moved to St Petersburg from Riga before the revolution. Marietta Sshagenyan describes Suboch as a man with impeccable Communist credentials: 'His parents were poor peasants owned a tiny plot of land and had six children. As soon as he reached the age of seven he shared that: classical fate of very poor- people – he became a shepherd. She also describes a new undercurrent manifesting after the revolution. Alcohol problems were common, as were fights and other social disorders resulting from the 'drunken delusion of freedom'.

After this very little is known about the mill. Archive material exists from 1925, 1930 and 1937, but is hand written and difficult to read or translate. Access to foreigners was virtually impossible. but with the slight thawing of East-West relations during the 1960s, William Coates, who was born in St Petersburg and whose father worked at the mill, was able to make a return visit. In his description it was called Fabrika Telmann and much of the compound was unrecognisable, ‘Gone was the high fence, gone was the high gate and watchman's hut we passed through in the old days. High trees obscured all sight of the mill, but I could still see the top of the main chimney just above the trees ... Gone were the stables where the Thorntons kept their fine horses for transporting their produce into town'. The mill was still however predominantly rural and he talked to an old employee who remembered it in the time of the Thorntons.

The collapse of Communism and the increasing sense of openness within Russia prompted my sister and I to make an ancestral pilgrimage of our own . Our only clues as to the mill's whereabouts were the name, and a memory of an old photograph of the mill which used to hang on grandmother's wall. At the time we were not sure that the building had even survived the siege of Leningrad during the Second 'World War. Our apprehensions were premature since it soon became clear that the mill had been very important, as Georgi Priamursky, Director of the State Museum of History of St Petersburg, explained, 'The Thornton Mill was a big employer here. Furthermore, Thorntons made all the blankets for the railways which means almost everybody would have known about them’.

From the tram stop across the river the mill looks virtually as it did eighty years ago. The trees William Coates describes still obscure most of the frontage and only one chimney, rather than three, rise sky- wards, but distinguished arched windows still delineate the ends of the main building as they did in my grandmother's youth. It seems we had come just in time as some of the older parts had recently been demolished and a group of workmen told us that more changes were to come.

We followed a muddy track round behind the mill and here things had been altered significantly. The mill now lies in a suburb of St Petersburg. Where workers and mill families once lived, a labyrinth of concrete now stands, housing new offices and mill extensions. The fields and forests, where girls played tennis and boys played cricket in the fin de siècle ambience of colonial summer nights, have been replaced by the harsher texture of Soviet planning.

Pre-occupied workers switching shifts ignored us as we passed through the austere, modern entrance. High on the wall, a marble plaque commemorated a letter from Lenin inciting the workers to strike in 1895: 'Above all comrades do not fall into the trap so cunningly prepared for you by Messrs Thornton ... We must keep a watchful eye on the employers' manoeuvres aimed at reducing rates and with all our strength resist every tendency in this direction, for it spells ruin for us ... Turn a deaf ear to their pleading about business being bad: for them bad business only means less profit, but for us it means suffering and starvation ...'.

Marietta Shagenyan notes how, ‘In 1907 witnesses said that for a stranger to get into the Thornton factory was almost impossible’. A similar situation prevailed in 1993. Despite revolution giving workers the freedom to own company shares, it did not give strangers the freedom to enter. Protestations of our translator, softening of East-West relation- ship, claims of researching family history all crashed against an iron curtain of non-co-operation. Two revolutions separated my great-grandfather's time in St Petersburg and our return visit, and although the building still remained, it was clear that any other associations were lost a long time ago.

  • Martin Varley is a freelance journalist and author of 'After the Holocaust' in The Great Outdoors (May 1993).