Grout’s silk factory or textile mill at Great Yarmouth was founded in Norwich in 1806 to 1807 by brothers, George and Joseph Grout, and their partner, John Bayliss, to manufacture black silk crepe. The material, at that time, was used exclusively by royalty and the aristocracy and had to be imported from Italy. English manufacturers had been trying unsuccessfully for 200 years to make it. John Bayliss was in charge of the process. We know little about him and we still do not know how he worked out the process. The first factory was run by George Grout in Norwich, while Joseph ran the financial and sales from London. Bayliss built a dyeing and finishing works in Enfield, Middlesex. They registered their company as Grout, Bayliss, Makers of Black Mourning Crepe. The firm expanded into Great Yarmouth sometime between 1807 to 1815, first on a site on North Quay and then, by the end of the Napoleonic War, at a site on the former barracks on St. Nicholas Road.
The first reference to the Great Yarmouth factory is in Palmer’s Perlustration, where it is stated that the company had a small factory within the North Gate. In 1832, at a parliamentary enquiry into the British silk industry, the employment of children was a concern, and Joseph Grout said that the shortage of children limited the extent of his works. Children aged between nine and twelve years of age soon became accustomed to the employment discipline of a silk mill. There would have been many children in Great Yarmouth who filled Grout’s requirements and there was no other textiles competition in the town. Wages were low, but would have been of help to the town’s poor families.
Raw silk was imported from India, Italy and China. It was soaked, sorted and divided according to quality. After sorting it was wound. In 1851, there were about 80 women engaged in this task, each earning four to six shillings a week. The wound silk was then thrown or twisted. Forty females did this work, many less than eleven years old, earning between two shillings and sixpence and seven shillings and sixpence a week. The silk was wound from larger to smaller bobbins, making the warpers’ job easier. At Grout’s this was done by steam power. The silks were now ready for weaving by older girls in the weaving house. The winding, throwing and weaving were all done by machine. The woven silk was then crimped and dyed, producing the crepe.
On 27th May 1832, the factory suffered a major fire with the south mill being completely destroyed, however the north mill was untouched. Much stock, including about 600 large rolls of silk and about 60 dozen shawls, was lost. The south mill was rebuilt and a watchman installed, who fired a sawn-off shotgun at 9pm each evening as a sign that all was well. Workers living nearby set their clocks by it. The popularity of black crepe for mourning was enhanced when Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, died and she wore black mourning crepe until her own death. Crepe was also used by others. Undertakers carried crepe wands and sashes, door knockers were decorated, and horse pulling biers were adorned with it. When national heroes, such as Lord Nelson, were buried, the processional route was lined with yard upon yard of crepe. From 1852, no member of the Grout family had any connection with the company, however it retained the name Grout and Company. At its height the firm employed 3,500 people. Grout’s later diversified into making items such as silk stockings, neckwear and parachutes, before finally producing bandages for the National Health Service. During the Second World War, Jacquard looms were used. When the factory was damaged by enemy bombs, many staff and families moved to the Joshua Mardle factory in Leek, Staffordshire, returning after hostilities ceased. The factory closed in 1972 after an acrimonious sit-in. Grout’s bandaging moved to new premises on Harfrey’s Estate in 1975, becoming part of the Smith and Nephew Group. It finally shut down in 1996, bringing to an end almost 200 years of textile production.