Needle Making

 Forge Mill Needle Museum 



Steel produced in the Black Country was used for needle making at Redditch, just south of Birmingham, was world famous for its needle industry. Up until the 16th century, needle making had been carried out by local craftsmen like the blacksmith, to meet with the local demand. Needles would be made from sheet iron cut into lengths which was hammered and rolled into the thickness required. The points were filed by hand and the eye created by first flattening the head and then punching a hole through it. The result of this slow process was a poor quality needle. At this time the best quality needles were being made abroad from high quality steel. However, political unrest in Europe meant that some of the foreign needle makers emigrated to England. The new skills they brought into the country meant that the industry began to grow.

In the Redditch area the first needle made was recorded in 1639 and the craft soon spread to neighboring villages and reached Redditch itself in 1700.

In the 17th and 18th century needle making had developed into a cottage industry. Some workers carried out all the stages of needle production, whilst others specialised in certain areas. By 18th century new machines were introduced to increase productivity to meet the demand from a growing population and a world wide market. By 1850 these machines were incorporated under one roof – the factory system.

By 1866 there were nearly 100 million needles produced in Britain, and by the end of the century the Redditch district had a virtual monopoly on production. Also, because of the  access to the British colonies, it had also become the world’s centre for needle manufacture. In fact, the story goes that when the Japanese started making needles they named a suburb of Tokyo “Redditch”, just so they could legitimately print “Made in Redditch” on their needle packets.

It seems that the use of water power to polish the needles since the early 1700’s, had given the Redditch area a technical advantage over the competition. The needles they produced were inexpensive and of a higher quality than were produced anywhere else. The other manufacturers were unable to compete and eventually closed down, some even moved their whole firms, and workers, to the Redditch area to start again.

Redditch was renowned world wide for its high quality needle production, and one story says that a foreign manufacturer once sent a hypodermic needle to Redditch claiming it was smaller than any they could produce. It was sent back to the manufacturer with a Redditch needle threaded inside it !

Forge Mill Needle Museum tells the story of Redditch’s needle history. The mill itself started life as an iron forge, but by 1730 had been converted to needle scouring. In 1828 a major rebuild was undertaken and a Barrelling Shop and Stone Crushing Mill were added. In 1870 a steam engine was installed to aid the water wheel in times of drought.

The Needle Museum shows all the processes of manufacture, which began with the steel wire from the Black Country being cut and strengthened. Needles were, and still are, produced two at a time with both ends of the wire being pointed before being split into two needles.

Up until the introduction of the automatic pointing machine, in around 1870, needle pointing was done by hand. This was the best paid job in the factory, but it was also the most dangerous. Slivers of metal could fly up and blind the pointer, or the grindstone itself could shatter and cause fatal injuries. Not only that, but the pointer was always inhaling dust from the needles and the grindstone, and would often contract a crippling lung disease called “Pointers Rot”. It is not surprising that the life expectancy of a pointer was no more than 35 years.

After the double pointed needle left the pointer, it would have two eyes punched in it, before being split in half. The needles were then hardened in a furnace before being polished in the scouring mill. The mill is still powered by a waterwheel which is fed from a stream once known as “Red Ditch”, for which the town got it’s name. It was called Red Ditch because it flowed through, and was stained by a thick red clay. After scoring the needles were glazed and dried in sawdust in the Barrelling Shop.

The tradition of needle making in the area continues, with Britain’s only manufacturer producing over 400 million needles a year in Studley. The museum has a large collection of needles which is brought up to date with a Redditch surgical needle, used to stitch some of the thermal barrier tiles on the space shuttle Columbia.

Forge Mill Needle Museum

Needle Mill Lane,Riverside, Redditch, Worcestershire. B98 8HY.

Tel: 01527 62509  




Well  known throughout Europe, if not the world, as the seat of the manufacture of needles, pins, fishhooks, fishing tackle, harpoons, sail hooks, sailors' palms, sewing machines, knitting pins, and bodkins. Formerly, only a chapelry or hamlet to Tardebigg, from which it was separated in the year 1855, the little village (which derived its name from a small stream tinged with the red colour of the marly soil) gradually grew up from a few cottages under the shadow of Bordesley Abbey. This was a Cistercian Monastery, founded in 1138 by Maud, daughter of Henry I, and many interesting remains of the old establishment have recently been exhumed, of which an account has recently been published in a handsome volume, by R. S. Bartleet, Esq., at whose expense the excavations were carried out. At the Dissolution the monastic lands were granted to Lord Windsor, and the Baroness Windsor is still the lady of the manor and patroness of the living.

There is no certain record of the period when the needle trade found out the little place and extended it so greatly, but early in the last century needle-making was carried on in the neighbouring parish of Studley and soon found its way to Redditch, by which time the names of Hemming and Bartleet had made the vicinity famous for its manufacture. Some estimate may be formed of the extent to which the trade has grown from the fact that at the present time it is calculated there are about 200 millions of needles produced every week in the entire district, which includes Astwood Bank, Studley, Alvechurch, Feckenham, Hunt End, Crabs Cross, &c., giving employment to some 10,000 persons. The superiority of the Redditch needles is recognised all over the world. The Germans and others have competed for the inferior sorts of needles, but themselves send to Redditch for the best article. Formerly the steel-dust created in the grinding of the needles was very destructive to the lives of the workpeople, but an ingenious contrivance for carrying off the dust was invented a few years ago and the process is now much more harmless.

The principal manufacturers of Redditch are Messrs.


Hemming & Son                                               Baylis & Sons

Bartleet & Sons                                                Harrison & Co.

H. Milward & Sons                                           Kirby, Beard and Co. 

S. Thomas & Sons                                              Allcock & Co.

James & Sons                                                   Booker Alfred & Co.

Holyoake & Son                                                Locke & Mills  

J. Perkins & Sons                                 

The condition and prospects of the trades are on the whole very satisfactory. The Workshops Regulation Act is now applied to the district, and as very large numbers of women and children are employed in the several manufactures it is believed this piece of legislation will have a favourable effect on the rising generation by restricting their hours of labour. Redditch has been represented at the Paris Exhibition this year by Messrs. Bartleet & Sons, Milward & Sons, Boulton & Sons, and Kirby, Beard & Co., each obtaining a silver medal except Messrs. Milward & Sons, who, however, obtained a bronze medal. Sewing machine needles were exhibited by Messrs. Bartleet & Sons, suitable for all the different machines amongst their complete assortment of needles and fish hooks, which obtained a silver medal.

Also by Mr. William Heath, of Crabs Cross and Messrs. Townsend & Co., of Huntend.

Mr. Heath's productions were honourably mentioned and Messrs. Townsend & Co. received a medal.

With such an increase of trade as Redditch has experienced, of course the town and its institutions have expanded in proportion. At the beginning of the present century there were but 1.000 inhabitants, whereas at present they are not far short of six times that number, and there is so great a demand for houses both here and at Studley, that no sooner is one vacant or a new one erected than a dozen applicants are in the field for it, and of course rents have gone up in proportion. This is partly attributable to the influx of labourers employed on the Evesham and Redditch Railway. Within the last half-a-dozen years, factories, warehouses, dwellings, and new buildings of all descriptions, have been erected, and new streets would have risen much more extensively if the land had not been chiefly leasehold. The new Gloucestershire Branch Bank was put up last year, besides which there are the Stourbridge and Kidderminster Branch Bank, and the Post Office Bank. A new County Police Station was erected in Evesham Street in 1863. Bromsgrove was the post-town for Redditch until the early part of 1867, when it was found requisite to make the latter a post-town of itself. It is not long ago that the town was left in Egyptian darkness during the winter months, but gas works are now established, and 5s. 6d. per thousand is charged to private consumers - a somewhat high figure, where the consumption in the manufactories must be very large. There is a Literary Institution and a Reading-room for working men; also a Land and Building Society. The highways in Redditch and eight or nine surrounding parishes are managed by a Board which meets every six weeks at the Unicorn Hotel. There is a Petty Session every Wednesday at the new police station, where also is held the Small Debts Court bi-monthly.

The Health of Towns Act was adopted here in 1859 (the same year as the branch railway from Barnt Green was opened) and the Local Board meets once a month; but the sanitary arrangements are still far from complete, the town not being thoroughly drained, and some blundering has been done in the work.

Redditch boasts of one of the best Rifle Corps in Worcestershire (formed in 1860, by R. S. Bartleet, Esq.) numbering nearly ninety privates and eight officers; Captain, V. Milward, Esq., and Mr. W. Avery Lieutenant. The working classes are well attended to: they have their Saturday evening entertainments, their friendly and temperance societies, their benefit building society, their clothing clubs and their allotment gardens. These latter belong to the Baroness Windsor, consisting of about 400 allotments of ten roods each, let at 1s. per rood, which is paid annually at the Unicorn Hotel, when prizes are given to the best cultivators. There is also a public recreation field of four acres, the use of which is given to the town by the Baroness Windsor. Then there are National, Infant, and Ragged Schools; Roman Catholic, Baptist, Independent, Wesleyan, United Methodist and Primitive Methodist chapels and schools. In the last century there was a Quaker congregation at Redditch; but when they "died out" I know not.

Lastly, the church is a great and excellent feature of this rising town. It is of ample dimensions, accommodating 1.500 people, there being 800 free seats; it is generally of good design and execution, but poor in detail, probably for lack of funds, but is infinitely superior to its predecessor and the insertion of several stained glass windows as well as some good carved wood adds greatly to the appearance of the building. Value of living, £300; vicar, Rev. G. F. Fessey; patroness, Baroness Windsor.





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