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Huddle at mill

One school in Wrexham was so enthused by a visit to a Cheshire mill that it has become an annual fixture. Jacqueline Yallop looks in on the historical and hands-on benefits of the trip

Martin Roddis, from St Joseph's RC School in Wrexham, is energetically pummelling a wet towel. After a few minutes, he carefully unrolls it to reveal a small piece of felt. "See, it's a lizard. Obviously," he announces, holding the design up to his classmates. Next to him Hayley Barraclough is trying to stop her felt from stretching - "it's not much like a heart anymore, it's more like an abstract" - while further down the room there are students poised over looms and others screenprinting with bright dyes.

The textiles workshop at Quarry Bank Mill, in Cheshire, is going down well.

Everyone is concentrating hard. But this is a Year 9 history group, in the throes of tackling the Industrial Revolution. Should they be having so much fun? "It shows you what they had to do," explains Hayley Barraclough. "We can try something like felting, starting with the ordinary wool, and see the processes." With a visit to the mill afterwards, the intention is that getting hands-on experience will help make sense of the massive 19th-century machinery. "The big looms in the mill are going too fast to see what's happening," says textile co-ordinator Val Bryant. "But after trying it here on the handlooms, they understand. You can read about it or see it on videos, but there's no substitute for doing it yourself."

In a two-hour workshop, everyone gets to try each of the three skills: felting, weaving and screen-printing. There's no consensus as to which is the best, but manipulating the "gloopy" printing dyes through stencils is definitely an attraction. Even teenage boys are impressed: when demonstrator Elizabeth Craig peels off her paper to reveal the kind of prints the students can make, 13-year old Leon Mayo gasps: "Oh cool!"

Fortunately for the students, trying things out doesn't extend to sampling the brutal working hours in poor conditions of 19th-century apprentices.

But the tour of the mill and nearby village, helps bring all this home.

Founded in 1784, Quarry Bank was one of the UK's first water-powered cotton mills. Since there were not enough local people to provide a workforce, over 1,000 children were brought in between 1790 and 1847 to live and work as apprentices.

Outside the Apprentice House, the St Joseph's group wait alongside the immaculate kitchen garden to be summoned by the school bell. There's a scramble when it rings. "I've never been so excited at going to school," enthuses Jessica Tatton. But inside, the dark schoolroom is less inviting.

Standing by the open fire, the costumed interpreter gets the class to behave like a Victorian one: straight backs, no smiling, no eye contact, silent, demure. The "Day in the Life"experience, aimed at key stage 3, gets the group to consider the lives of children as young as eight or nine governed by their indentures. Another option - "Workers or Slaves?" - raises questions about child labour and the value of the apprentices to the mill.

In the mill itself, the KS3 tour - focusing on "power, people and processes" - looks at the growth of the factory system and the social changes which accompanied it. There's a chance to see Britain's most powerful working water wheel in full flow and the magnificent steam engines which replaced it. But it's the intimidating clatter of the looms which makes most impression. Having come to terms with manipulating their own heddles and shuttles on the handlooms, the St Joseph's group appreciates the skill of the original weavers. "It's much better going round having tried it ourselves first," explains Anna Williams.

* Quarry Bank Mill prices - mill: pound;2.75; Apprentice House: pound;2.75; Textiles Workshop: pound;3.25 (all prices per student)


Quarry Bank Mill Styal, Cheshire, SK9 4LA

Tel: David Watts, 012625 445888 Email:

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