In a previous article about the Whitfield Syke Mill at Embsay, we related how it had been transformed into a late Victorian health resort, where the sisters Betsey and Mary Tattersall ran a guest house and tea rooms. Here, with the help of Upper Wharfedale Heritage Group, we look at the mill’s links with the Navvy Mission Society

Sisters Betsey and Mary Tattersall remained at Whitfield Syke, serving teas, even after the resort’s owner, Thomas Parkinson, closed down the resort and sold the mill buildings to the council in 1905 as the construction of the reservoir was well under way.

As the navvies (the construction workers) arrived and set up camp, the Tattersall sisters showed an unusual sympathy for these itinerant workers and their families, who were so often regarded by Victorian society as social outcasts. The sisters became active supporters of the Navvy Mission Society, a national charity that provided essential welfare services to the navvies.

The charity had begun locally when the Rev Lewis Moule Evans (formerly the curate of Otley and then vicar of Leathley), joined forces with the formidable Elizabeth Hart Garnett (1839-1912), daughter of the vicar of Otley, and herself a clergyman’s widow. They were concerned for the welfare of the navvies building the Lindley Wood Reservoir in the Washburn Valley during the 1870s.

The Mission grew quickly – the late Victorian period was witness to a huge programme of large-scale construction projects across the country, such as reservoirs, railways, sewage works, bridges and tunnels.

The navvies travelled from one project to the next, often bringing their families with them, and usually living in the tin shacks of the shanty towns which were thrown up next to each construction site. It was a tough life. Most of them were illiterate, and their children received little or no education. The men received no sick pay, no pension schemes, no holiday pay. If bad weather stopped work, again the men received no pay.

Because they did not live permanently in one parish, they could not even claim poor relief.

Indeed, 20 years before the foundation of the Navvy Mission Society, the navvies working on the Barden reservoir (between Eastby and Bolton Abbey) were driven to desperate measures when their wages were stopped for a fortnight.

Destitute and starving, 100 of them marched into Skipton one Wednesday in October 1857, begging for money and food at the gates of Holy Trinity Church. The local authorities finally gave in and provided £5 to feed them and their families.

In the summer of 1878 Reverend Moule came to Barden Moor to set up a branch of his society there, but died of tuberculosis in December. Mrs Garnett carried on his work, and established Sunday services, a Temperance society, day and night schools, and a reading room at Barden.

The Navvy Mission Society provided a Christian missionary to the navvy community, based on training volunteer navvies to become lay preachers. They also provided savings and pensions schemes, first aid classes, soup kitchens, food and clothes parcels, literacy classes, and libraries.

Mrs Garnett edited a quarterly newsletter to help the navvies keep in touch as various members of their families moved around the country, often splitting up in search of work. She was a familiar sight at many of the navvy camps, investigating working and living conditions, so she and other ladies of the society could campaign tirelessly on the navvies’ behalf, pestering employers, local authorities, the church authorities and the government to help improve their lives.

They quickly gained the support of the Church of England authorities, various members of the nobility and Parliament, and the patronage of the Bishop of Ripon, and the Archbishops of Canterbury and York.

As the building of Embsay Reservoir progressed between 1904 and 1910, the society was allowed to rent the little building which had once been the warehouse for the old Whitfield Syke cotton mill.

They converted it into a base for their charity work – a reading room and schoolroom were set up inside, and it was also used as a chapel for worship. JR King was appointed as a missionary preacher, and he lived at Rose Villas in Embsay. He was later succeeded by J Langley who lived at Heather Cottage, Whitfield.

A Craven Herald reporter visited the site in March 1906 and was very impressed with the accommodation provided for the navvies at Embsay. The old three-storey mill building had been turned into a dormitory capable of housing 150 of the 200 or so men employed on the site. The facilities included baths, toilets and a dining room.

This was sheer luxury for men used to living in rough tin shacks, tents and wooden huts. They were so pleased they nicknamed the building “The Majestic” (although some also called it “Bill’s apartments” after the site supervisor, William Smith).

In 1906 The Craven Herald reported on a huge Christmas tea party organised by the Navvy Mission Society at Embsay – 67 children attended with their parents, and gift parcels were sent to the 11 children who couldn’t attend. Refreshments were laid on by Mary and Betsey Tattersall, with help from other local ladies, no doubt appreciated almost as much as the entertainment provided by Mr Wigglesworth on his banjo and fairy bells!

A year later the charity’s efforts were more serious as a long bout of bad weather had stopped work, and the navvies were suffering great distress. The Navvy Mission Society joined forces with local charities around Skipton to organise food and clothes parcels. Soup kitchens were set up at the Devonshire Hotel and at the Hole-in-the-Wall Yard in Skipton town centre.

The Navvy Mission Society later expanded to work with munitions workers during the First World War, and with construction workers as far abroad as Italy, Scandinavia and Canada.

The society finally merged with the Christian Social Union to form the Industrial Christian Fellowship in 1919, a charity which still operates. Few today have heard of the Navvy Mission Society, but happily there is a memorial to Elizabeth Hart Garnett in Ripon Cathedral.

All that’s left of the Whitfield Syke Mill today is the former cotton warehouse, which had later become the Mission Building. Because it had been a place of worship, it was left standing when everything else was demolished. It is believed to be the only surviving building left in the country that has associations with the Navvy Mission Society, but is now in a sad state of neglect and disrepair.

Thanks go to Sue, Jennifer and Tony Stearn, the Friends of Otley Museum, Phil Jump of the Industrial Christian Fellowship and the Lambeth Palace Library for their help in compiling this article.

For a copy of the Upper Wharfedale Heritage Group’s report on Whitfield Syke, contact or order via the website Copies cost £12.