Silk ‘throwing’ was already established in Watford at the Rookery Silk Mill in the 18th century; an industry fuelled by the town’s proximity to the Port of London and the estates of the Earls of Essex and Clarendon, local gentry and professionals. The mill, dating from the 1770s, was named after rookeries in the nearby elm trees. The proprietor’s large house and rows of small workers’ cottages were located by the mill, off Rookery Road; later renamed Riverside Road.

The first mill occupiers were Edward Crutchley and John London. Several years later Mr. Paumier, a Huguenot, bought the mill and by 1806 he had passed it to his son-in-law, William Harty. In 1826, a young entrepreneur, Thomas Rock Shute, took ownership and under his direction the Rookery became the largest and most prosperous silk mill in Watford.

Watford Observer: The Rookery, 1891. ‘Artistic licence’ comes to mind: a large sailing ship on the river Colne?!The Rookery, 1891. ‘Artistic licence’ comes to mind: a large sailing ship on the river Colne?!

At that time, children as young as five or six were working in the Rookery from 6am until 7pm and each stage of silk production demanded that they stood. If they weren’t tall enough, they were given stools, beaten with canes and fined a penny an hour for absences. Few could write; their only prospect of learning was at Sunday School. In 1832, a Bill was introduced in the House of Commons limiting the hours of child labourers, the outcome being the Silk Mill Enquiry Board which triggered the Factory Act of 1833, banning children under nine from working. Nine to 13-year-olds were subsequently ‘limited’ to 48 hours’ work; and 13–18-year-olds to 69 hours. A ‘concession’ was that child labourers were entitled to two hours’ schooling each day. Absolutely inconceivable nowadays.

The Rookery thrived under Thomas Rock Shute until he died in 1873 whilst in Inverness. In 1874 the mill was bought by James Hart & Son and continued to produce silk until 1881, when it ceased production as a result of cheap imports and changing fashions.

Watford Observer: The Rookery, early 1900sThe Rookery, early 1900s

Around 1883, the Rookery was taken over by Watford Steam Laundry Company and provided services formerly undertaken in laundresses’ homes. Old silk producing equipment and machinery were dismantled, workers’ cottages sold and the main building converted into a laundry with up-to-date appliances and machinery powered by the river Colne. A 16-foot wheel drew water and pumped it into tanks in three wash houses. Everyday clothing was dealt with in the first wash house, shirts and collars ‘glazed’ in a non-chemical process. Flannels, laces and delicate fabrics were handled in a second wash house and large contracts, such as clothing from schools, were washed in a third. The drying rooms, connected by a lift, had large open windows where clothes were dried year-round. There was a folding room, an ironing room and a packing room with racks. A company clothes’ ‘hamper’ was loaned to each customer. Manageress Mrs. Fayolle trained the staff who handled seven to eight tons of clothing each week. In its heyday, Watford Steam Laundry and its adjacent dye works, French cleaning and carpet beating departments, employed 400-500 people.

Watford Observer: Watford Steam Laundry’s Folding Room, 1891Watford Steam Laundry’s Folding Room, 1891

In the late 1800s, Dr Alfred Brett, Medical Officer of Health for Watford Urban District, inspected the laundry and reported that ‘care was given to sanitary matters in avoiding all causes of spreading disease by infection.’ Around 1906, the steam laundry was taken over by Mr.  J.A. Ross, who sold the Rookery site and established new premises at Sydney Road.

Then along came John H. Crowley, a pianoforte manufacturer who produced uprights and baby grands in the Rookery, renamed Quality Works. When his London factory was requisitioned during World War I, he manufactured aeroplane parts. Mr. Crowley was conductor of the Watford Conservative Choir, winners of a national competition at London’s Queens Hall in 1933. His pianos had a first-class reputation and were exported to New Zealand and the United States. But in the 1930s, the wireless (radio) transformed family entertainment. Mr. Crowley responded by opening a shop called For Most Matters Musical opposite the Plaza Cinema by the Pond. My father, who learnt the piano as a child at home in Haydon Road on a Watford-made Crowley upright, recalled the shop. ‘Mr. Crowley sold records but such was his dedication to classical music, he refused to market those we could now describe as being in the top 20.’ Mr. Crowley stuck to his principles and was forced to close in the mid-1930s.

Watford Observer: Keyboard of a Watford-made Crowley oak-cased upright piano, courtesy of Rob Tayler, All Instruments Ltd., Westbury, WiltshireKeyboard of a Watford-made Crowley oak-cased upright piano, courtesy of Rob Tayler, All Instruments Ltd., Westbury, Wiltshire

The old mill building was badly damaged in a fire many years ago and the area, once known as Rookery Village, is now a base for engineering firms. Silk Mill Road, The Rookery flats and The Rookery Stand at Watford Football Ground are the only reminders of a once-thriving industry.

  • Lesley Dunlop is the daughter of the late Ted Parrish, a well-known local historian and documentary filmmaker. He wrote 96 nostalgic articles for the ‘Evening Post-Echo’ in 1982-83 which have since been published in ‘Echoes of Old Watford, Bushey & Oxhey’, available at and Bushey Museum. Lesley is currently working on ‘Two Lives, Two World Wars’, a companion volume that explores her father’s and grandfather’s lives and war experiences, in which Watford, Bushey and Oxhey’s history will take to the stage once again.