Magazine article History Today

The Thornton Woollen Mill, St. Petersburg

Magazine article History Today

The Thornton Woollen Mill, St. Petersburg

Article excerpt

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 facade 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 nine-teenth 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 staff. 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 found 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. …

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