Henry Hollins - The Cotton Lord, Slavemaster

People ask me why I haven't done anything on the Pleasley Mills. My usual answer is because I haven't found anything interesting about them. They've been the subject of 'Most Haunted' on TV and yes, they look the epitome of the dark satanic mills of the industrial revolution era. The problem is though, the only historical information that is available in the local library are economic analysis and accounting records of the hosiery business that operated out of there. Not very interesting at all. Of course there is my page on Pleasley Forge that pre-dates the Hollins/Viyella hosiery business.

There were two curious fires though within a relatively short space of time. The first burnt down the Upper Mill in the early hours of a snowy Christmas Day, 1840. Unfortunately, the mill had just been refitted with new machinery and was vastly under-insured, culminating in a huge loss for the company. 300 local jobs were lost as a result. The cause of the fire was never discovered but it was reported that Henry Hollins had received an anonymous letter stating that, 'if he didn't take great care, the other mill would would be burnt and that it would be useless to rebuild the one destroyed as the same fate would befall it'. Five years later, in late September 1846, after the Upper Mill had just resumed full production again, the Lower Mill was burnt down! Interestingly, there was an unkown Nottingham artist on hand who put oil to canvass and painted a graphic picture of the fire, anonymously.

Was it revenge and retribution? Decide for yourself after reading this account of the Hollins' v Walker family, which, incidentally, came to a head just months before the first fire, after a Nottingham neswpaper printer produced a handbill appeal to the public to raise legal funds to fight Messrs Hollins.

In 1838 Messrs Henry Hollins (father and son) proved to be the epitome of the cruel, merciless Victorian 'Cotton Lords'. The story begins with Mr John Walker, whom, after becoming unemployed in 1837, could not support his 5 children and so in July 1838 placed them in the employment of the Hollins' Langwith mill. It became apparent very quickly that the children were not suited to the heavy work and after Hollins' deductions, the wages were below that verbally agreed such that they were no better off. The agreement was:

Mary Anne, aged 17........5/6 per week.

William, aged 15.............4/6 per week

Thomas, aged 15.............4/- per week

Alfred, aged 10...............2/- per week

Frederick, aged 9.............1/9 per week

Total.............17/9 per week.

However, after the first week their total pay was 13/6, falling to 12/3 then 11/11.Their pay was then halved due to the water wheel breaking, remaining so for 5 weeks. Walker complained to Hollins but was told that the children were contracted for 1 year and must remain in his employment. Hollins continued to underpay the children until the end of October when the father removed them from Hollins' employment. Henry Hollins then prosecuted the children and the 4 boys were sent before Mansfield Magistrates. Ironically, Samuel Unwin, a fellow hosier at Sutton in Ashfield was one of the presiding magistrates who recommended a compromise but Hollins would have none of it insisting the children be returned to the mill. Unwin withdrew from the court as a consequence of Hollins' refusal to compromise but his replacement was less sympathetic to the chidren's plight. Despite there not being a written contract, the children were ordered to return to the mill to complete the 12 months, however, Walker refused to send them back. After 6 months a warrant was issued to take the children to Southwell House of Correction for 3 months hard labour. Two of them were put to work on the treadmill.

Walker then wrote to the prominent Nottingham MP, Thomas Wakefield, a social reformist liberal who forwarded the case to Lord John Russell, Home Secretary, stating that ...."I know of no case which would give the Chartists stronger ground to complain of the inequality of the Law as regards the rich and the poor and the tyranny of the Cotton Lords....."

As a consequence of the letter and the failure of Hollins to produce any written evidence to the Home Office, the Home Secretary wrote to the Mansfield Magistrates instructing them to withdraw the boys from the house of correction, to issue a pardon and return them to their father. He stated that in the absence of written evidence any oral submission to court should have been made under oath.

The Mansfield Magistrates were so aggrieved by the overruling that they appealed to the Home Secretary to reverse his decision suggesting he might save face if he instructed the children to return to the mill otherwise his decision would "...hold the office of the Justice of the Peace up to contempt....".

The Home Secretary's office replied to the Mansfield Magistrates in a penciled note that ".....Lord John Russell desires Magistrates to be informed he considers such condition attached to the pardon most inadvisable, as being unusual, inconvenient and perhaps ineffectual.

Hollins' solicitor then renewed the threat of further proceedings against the children unless they returned to the mill.

Walker, with help from the press, then published a handbill outlining the children's plight to the public, hoping to secure funding to defend his children in court. However, the handbill seems to be the final chapter and Henry Hollins, slavemaster, cotton lord was beaten! Below is a torn copy of the handbill.

In 1841, following the first fire, exhausted Henry Hollins the senior retired, leaving day to day management of the business and the rebuilding of the Upper Mill with his 25 year old son, William, whose benevolence and skilled leadership introduced a complete change for the better in the working conditions and treatment of the employees at the Pleasley Mills. In 1842, shareholder and Liberal social reformer, Charles Paget, of Ruddington Grange, became the largest shareholder after his father died leaving him his share. However Charles was engaged in public affairs but despite his absence was wise enough to see that William Hollins was an excellent manager of his investment. In 1844, the year Charles Paget became High Sheriff of Nottinghamshire, he made William Hollins a partner. In 1846, after the death of partner, Sam Siddon, the Siddon part of the name was dropped and the company became known as William Hollins & Company in respect of the success William had made of the business. In the early 1850's, Charles Paget bought 201 acres of land near the mills in Pleasley Vale, called Stuffin Wood Farm, from Chesterfield gentleman, Robert Malkin and began plans to build Stuffynwood Hall on the hilltop for his son Joseph. In 1857, Charles Paget was elected Whig Liberal MP for Nottingham and campaigned in parliament for the building of schools so that the poor could educate their way out of poverty, similarly, William Hollins was of the same mind, building a school, mechanics institute and library in the hamlet of Pleasley Vale for the Williams Hollins Company employees and their families.