Today, the village where I live musters around 500 souls but roll back the years and more than three times that number lived here. The place was a hive of industry with spinning mills, comb making and jet working factories.
At the bottom of my street there is a huge building, now empty and crumbling away that was used for spinning and carding wool. Built in 1827 to replace an earlier building, it presents an imposing front which was the family’s home together with workshops behind for spinning and carding wool. What you might call a Queen Anne front and a Mary-Jane behind.
Initially the work was done by hand and often in the workers’ own homes but by the mid-19th century after yet another change of ownership, the newcomer modernised the mill and installed spinning, carding and combing machines. These were powered by water from a canal that runs alongside the building and on through the village. The workers at the mill ranged from age13 to 70. During the late 18th and 19th century this mill churned out finely combed and spun yarn later used in carpet and cloth manufacture.
The working of jet – a type of lignite – was another local occupation from the 16th century onwards. By 1800 there were six jet mills in the village, three of which had been seized from the Marquis de Puivert (he didn’t fare too well during the Revolution) and sold on. The mills produced jewellery and rosaries for export throughout Europe, the Middle East and America. Again, the canal running through the village powered the jet working machines for cutting and polishing the stone although the finer pieces were finished by hand using a mix of powdered limestone and charcoal from willow trees. As jet became less sought after the industry fell into decline and by the end of the 19th century was finished. The mills remain, some converted to other use, some left empty.
Our third industry – dating from the Middle Ages in this region- was the making of combs. In the village there were 10 comb-making establishments employing around 300 people. Originally the combs were made of boxwood but as that material became scarce holly, service tree, hawthorn and beech were used. Later, in the mid-19th- early 20th century ivory and horn were introduced. One factory alone produced, in a year, 42,000 boxwood combs and more than 21,500 ivory ones and all that through the labour of 8 men, 1 woman and 3 children.
As hair-style fashions changed the demand for these combs lessened and today the combs are mainly found in the brocantes and at car boot sales.