Lying on the south bank of the famous River Mersey, a body of water coveted by the Beatles and the infamous Confederate blockade runners of the 1860s, Stockport’s Hat Works, inside Wellington Mill, dominates the otherwise awkward and hectic skyline. A post-Thatcherite, post-industrialist, grey and brutalist symbol of Northern neglect, Stockport is popularly considered as a mere dormitory town for the larger city of Manchester, 8km (5 miles) to the north. Yet, Wellington Mill, which houses the only museum dedicated to hatting in the United Kingdom, remains a source of industrial and cultural pride for a township that has a dark and undedicated history.
The site of the Hat Works represents the sum-total of Stockport’s history, wedding the locus of its sprawling geography with the material culture that placed Stockport at the beating heart of the British Empire’s expansive reach. The museum itself opened in 2000, after its last hat making workshop closed in the 1997, ending over 400 years of hatting.
Such a history, typically, begins with a rebellion against the tyrannical Henry II by Baron Geoffrey de Constantin in 1173. Amidst ongoing bloodshed and carnage, Henry II reasserted his claims over Stockport Castle, before his dynasty allowed it to fall into disrepair in the 14th century. Incidentally, the site of Wellington Mill is exactly where Stockport Castle once defiantly stood. A township defined by revolt, radicalism and industriousness effectively combined its history of trauma with a whim for hope; something conveyed quite profoundly by the museum itself. Two squeezed floors of dormant machinery, glass cabinets filled with all varieties of hats and material culture including pin badges and jacket patches, and other symbols of the Industrial Revolution imitate a densely packed physical space that visually and spatially resembles a hatting workshop floor. A floor that brought cultural and industrial renown, and more importantly hope, to Stockport after a long time struggling against agrarian Northern norms.
The opportunity to tactilely and olfactorily interact with the machinery, turning handles, creasing material and plugging holes, breathing in energy and life centuries-gone, gives the visitor a chance to transcend time and space. We can become the hatter of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, equipping either the song-and-supper-room frequenters of Victorian London, such as Charles Dickens and William Makepeace Thackery, with top hats, or the British Armed Forces with shakos for the Asante Wars. Though, we can escape their unfortunate fate of mercury poisoning, something the Hat Works enjoys playing up with wacky and lurid signs, and successfully so. This goes especially for children who are enchanted by the Mad Hatter of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, through the Family Fun Zone.
The mill itself, constructed only in 1830 by a calico-printing merchant, lies at the intersection of the old Coach Road to London and the newly constructed turnpike to Manchester. The site itself, as well as hosting the crumbling ruins of Stockport Castle, is where Bonny Prince Charlie crossed southwards unto Derby during the Jacobite Rising, to cheering crowds; it is where the regicide John Bradshaw changed coaches to London to sign the death warrant of King Charles I; it is where Friedrich Engels stopped to take in the dense, smog-filled scenery that greeted him, before labelling Stockport the “most duskiest, smokiest hole” in all of industrial England. The historical significance of the Mill cannot be overstated, which is unfortunate as by centralising the exhibits on material culture, the Hat Works ultimately devalues such a wild and somewhat darkly romantic history.
Nevertheless, the Museum retains a level of emotional clout that sticks with the residents of Stockport. The power of physical place as well as the centrality of the Hat Works to the experience of growing up as a Stopfordian, culminates in an unspoken and collective recognition of its importance. An annual visit to the free-admission Hat Works remains a staple for all primary schools in the Stockport region. Though, the power of the Hat Works can perhaps be best gauged by a conversation with my Nana. Born in 1945, she lucidly recollects her grandad taking her to get his flat caps dyed semi-regularly. With an estranged smile of knowing, she suggests that visitors knew neither how nor why this was important, but that it just was. The museum is and remains testament to that.
Aside: The Hat Works is undergoing exciting changes. You can still visit the shop, however the museum is currently closed to visitors.
The shop opening hours are:
Monday and Tuesday: closed
Wednesday to Friday: 10am to 4pm
Saturday and Sunday: closed
Address: Hat Works Museum
Wellington Road South
Parking options: The nearest car parks are Heaton Lane (near Mersey Square) and Grand Central (near the Railway Station). Parking charges apply.
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Jake Sheppard is a PhD Candidate at Manchester Metropolitan University. He holds his BA and MA degrees in Politics and Modern History from the University of Manchester. His current project is: 'Race, Nation and Memory in the Atlantic World: the CSS Alabama and the Anglo-American Commons, 1862-1914'.