Shoddy and Mungo


When I was a young girl, the “rag and bone” man came round regularly, with his horse and cart, to collect old clothes and unwanted household items, which he sold on. We could hear him coming from the top of the street and Mum would rush around collecting the bags of woollen clothes that she had put on one side for him.  I remember his loud call of “anyragbone?”, which sounded like a single strangled word, and I remember the noise of his horse and cart on the cobbles. In return for the waste, the rag and bone man gave out “donkey stones”,  a type of scouring block, used to adorn stone steps and window sills. Donkey stones were about the size of a large bar of soap, made from coloured or white powdered stone, bleach and cement and, when being used, they needed to be wetted before they were scoured over stone surfaces to smarten them up. They were originally used in textile mills to provide a non-slip surface on greasy mill steps, but were soon taken up for domestic use. No proud housewife left her steps unadorned, though my Gran preferred cardinal red paint to donkey stone.

I was also sometimes sent a distance of just a few hundred yards to the local rag mill, with a paper carrier-bag full of discarded woollen clothing (buttons removed, as they wouldn’t grind) and walked freely through the mill to the sorting point, where the foreman would examine the contents and give me thre’pence or sixpence for my trouble. There were no guards on the machines and I was expected to be careful going past. It is only in later life that I realised that the mill was owned by my Hemingway distant cousins…and that their business was shoddy and mungo.

The Shoddy Industry

The Yorkshire woollen industry began to struggle during the early 19th century, during the Napoleonic War, due to trade embargoes restricting raw wool imports, resulting in there being insufficient wool to meet the demands of existing cloth makers. Enterprising business owners needed to find a solution.

The shoddy and mungo industries are essentially waste wool industries. These days the word “shoddy” is used to describe work of an inferior nature. However, the shoddy industry originally arose in 1813, in the woollen districts of the West Riding, where the first rag machinery was used to shred various waste woollen products into fibres, which could be mixed with a quantity of virgin wool to make new fibres that could, in turn, be woven into cloth. This process and the cloth it produced became known as “shoddy”.

The first development of shoddy cloth is credited to Benjamin Law of Batley, although there may have been a small number of other West Riding manufacturers starting up at about the same time. Law acquired fabrics collected by “tatters”. The tatter collected waste fabrics from industry such as roller cloths from spinning mills, plus woollen clothing, blankets, tailor’s waste and the waste from cutting piano felts and so on. Benjamin Law then had them ground up by “rag machines”, which were originally intended, not for shoddy production, but to grind “thrumbs”, or hard bits of worsted waste. Malcolm Haigh tells us:

Benjamin Law was a clothier born in Gomersal who moved to Batley as a young person. In 1807 he tried to start Shoddy Manufacturing in Batley, but needed special machines to shred the old woolens before working into new cloth. Brighouse & Ossett were the centers for this work. Benjamin Law could not get his machine to work properly and contacted Benjamin Parr, a clothier & engineer. The result was an improvement but broke down a lot. He decided he needed to consult with a more experienced engineer and took his machine to Joseph ARCHER a blacksmith & machine maker at Ossett, a village at that time renowned for its engineering skill. Joseph suggested upright conical teeth and constructed a machine which was a success. This was around 1813.

History of Batley 1800-1974; Malcolm Haigh

This Joseph Archer was a younger son of my sixth great-grandfather, John Archer (1696-1757) and his wife Mary Scott. The whole family were blacksmiths and machine makers.

Similar rag machines had already been used in London and elsewhere to make ground up fillings to be used in upholstery and saddlery, in a process similar to grinding cotton and linen to make paper…and the process of making new fibres from old, for weaving cloth, was an extension of this.

Rag “picker” or grinding machine

The original rag grinding machines had not been patented so they were copied and developed over a number of years within the West Riding. Typically, ten to fourteen thousand teeth, revolving at  600-700 revolutions per minute, tore the rags into fibres. Coarse set teeth were used to grind the “soft rags”, such as stockings, flannels, carpet wool, etc into shoddy. The finished product might be duffels, tweed, mohair, velvets and blankets among many other types of cloth.

During the manufacturing process, not all of the shoddy fibres could be used for spinning, if they were too short…so the waste was baled up and sent to Kent to be used as manure in the hop fields.

Health of the workers

Rag sorters, such as these, were considered to be  the bottom rung of the industrial process.

The fine dust that was produced in the process found its way into workers’ lungs and caused health problems, known locally as “shoddy fever”, which was characterised by sore throats, high temperature, headaches, coughs, shortness of breath, asthma and bronchitis. Infestation with fleas was a particular problem amongst mungo sorters, so bungles of rags were first disinfected so as to destroy parasites.

The process

First the reclaimed wool was roughly sorted and scoured, using soap and alkali, to remove dirt and grease. Sorting was an important job as it could reduce the cost of dyeing. Rags were sorted into hundreds of different qualities and colours and manufacturers would even buy reclaimed material according to the colour they wanted in the finished product.

The second process was “willeying”, originally using a toothed “teazer” machine which tore up the wool through many teeth-covered rollers placed one behind the other, to open up the wool…but later using a specially designed “shake willey” machine, with teeth that beat out the dust and dirt and mixed the wools before they were put through the teazer.

The shoddy wool was then blended with virgin wool in varying proportions.

Twenty or thirty years ago, it was a common practice for the weavers and spinners to be called from their proper occupations to assist in “blending”, as the term is, and this without any remuneration, excepting a largess of beer to allay their thirst, and fortify them against the shoddy fever. 

History of the Shoddy Trade; Samuel Jubb: 1860

…and an American manufacturer commented in 1890:

 … in some parts of Europe, especially in Yorkshire, manufacturers are enabled to get more poor material into yarn than in any other part of the world, for the simple reason that they are highly skilled in the art of combining.

Scribbling and carding then took place on a machine originally known as a “devil”. The scribbler was the first part of a group of machines known collectively as the carding engine. Regular and even quantities of wool were passed through rollers called “swifts” which had wires graduated from coarse to fine that separated out any hard knots of wool, and then the fibres were passed over the “doffer roller” which stripped the fibres from the “swift” and delivered them to the “carder”. The carder disentangled and intermixed the fibres to produce a continuous web or “sliver” suitable for subsequent processing. The fibres could then be spun and woven, regardless of quality. Yorkshire spinners obtained the reputation that they could ‘spin anything with two ends’.

Wool Carding machine

After weaving, the fabric was “fulled” or “milled”, which is a process of shrinking and felting the fabric to make it thicker. Then the nap – the soft fuzzy surface on wool cloth – was raised and trimmed and the cloth went through a brushing machine. Cloth drawers or finishers inspected the completed cloth and made any necessary repairs.

Adding dye can take place at any one of three times:

  • After cleaning but before spinning. This is known as “dyed in the wool” and is generally the most color fast.
  • After spinning.
  • After the cloth is woven, but before it is fulled.


Within ten years, Law and his partner Parr developed a process of shredding “hard rags”, comprising mainly tailors’ shreds, coats, trousers, caps etc. They needed machines with shredding teeth set closer, to tear the rags into a finer-ground product called “mungo”. Mungo rags might contain a small proportion of linen and cotton rag along with the wool. Mungo rags might also be made from old or new fabrics. The price of mungo therefore fluctuated more than the price of shoddy.

Machell Brothers Shoddy and Mungo Mill Dewsbury, 2016, now converted into flats.
By Tim Green from Bradford (Shoddy & Mungo) [CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons]

Rise in the use of Shoddy and Mungo

As the industry grew, it is likely that all but the very best woollen cloths made in Yorkshire contained some proportion of shoddy or mungo, but that did not, in itself, mean that those cloths were inferior. Such fabrics included suiting, overcoat cloth and all qualities of tweed. However, some manufacturers took advantage of the cheapness of shoddy and mungo, making poor quality cloth with a large proportion of reclaimed fibres especially at times when the price of new wool was high. Using reclaimed wool could bring the manufacturing price of cloth down by 25% to 50%. For those manufacturers who had scruples about the amount of rag fibres they used in their products, Benjamin Gott, a leading textile manufacturer of Armley Mills, Leeds, advised, in the 1860s:

You must make up your mind to do as the first people in the trade do; put a certain quantity of shoddy in your black cloths up to 11/- a yard, but not so much as will interfere materially with the strength. This you must do or you cannot compete with good houses…I know the use of shoddy is very objectionable to you, but if the spirit of competition drives you to it, you must do it or be driven out of the market…I see no other course.

H. Heaton; ‘Benjamin Gott and the Industrial Revolution in Yorkshire’: Economic History Review, III, 1931

…and in his paper on the Shoddy trade, David Jenkins of York University said:

There is no denial that sometimes products were over adulterated, thus giving shoddy the bad name it acquired in some quarters. Some products suffered deterioration of reputation in certain markets but generally there is evidence to show that manufacturers recognized the tight-rope they walked. Their success and reputation depended upon judging a fine balance between price and quality.

1990: Transatlantic Trade In Woollen Cloth 1850-1914: The Role Of Shoddy; David T. Jenkins, University of York

As the shoddy and mungo industries grew, they became the mainstay of the woollen produce of Batley, Heckmondwyke,  Dewsbury and Ossett, the centre of the “Heavy Woollen Industry”. By 1873, Batley alone contained between 50 and 60 shoddy or mungo mills with about 3000 power looms engaged in weaving the shoddy cloth. Women began to be employed in great number either as rag pickers or tending power looms:

…females are chiefly engaged in tending power-looms, intermixed with a few young and adult men. Female labour has been in great demand in the heavy woollen district since the introduction of power-looms; and the result is that this kind of labour now receives about twice the remuneration it formerly did. Men’s wages, though advanced, have not progressed in anything like a corresponding ratio; females who are proficient at the power-loom can earn, in full employ, eighteen shillings per week.

On the Shoddy Trade, by Samuel Jubb (1873)
Power looms in an English Mill 1820.
From:  A History of the United States; published in 1913

Tens of thousands of tons per year of waste cloth began to be imported from Europe, particularly from Germany and Denmark, but also from France, Switzerland, Norway, Sweden, Austria and Holland, mostly arriving in Hull and almost all being destined for processing in the towns of the West Riding. In Berlin, there were a number of manufactories employed in the shoddy industry, in enterprises set up by people from Batley and Dewsbury…and one of my Archer ancestors (George Archer) was credited with starting up a shoddy business in the USA.

The coarse rag-cloth was sold on to the United States and Canada and used locally for making blankets and army uniforms…but because of the manufacturers who greedily used too much reclaimed wool, the name “shoddy” became known as the word for “inferior” products or workmanship.

Writings of Sir George Head

In “A Home Tour through various parts of the United Kingdom in 1837“, George Head described his visit to the manufacturing districts of the West Riding. This extract describes his visit to Dewsbury:

The town of Dewsbury is not only celebrated for its manufacture of blankets, but also for a novel business or trade which has sprung up in England, in addition to the arts and sciences, of late years—namely, that of grinding old garments new; literally tearing in pieces fusty old rags, collected from Scotland, Ireland, and the Continent, by a machine called a “devil,” till a substance very like the original wool is produced: this, by the help of a small addition of new wool, is respun and manufactured into sundry useful coarse articles: such as the wadding which Messrs. Stultze and Co. introduce within the collars of their very fashionable coats, and various descriptions of druggets, horse sheeting, &c.

The trade or occupation of the late owner, his life and habits, or the filthiness and antiquity of the garment itself, oppose no bar to this wonderful process of regeneration; whether from the scarecrow or the gibbet, it makes no difference; so that, according to the transmutation of human affairs, it no doubt frequently does happen, without figure of speech or metaphor, that the identical garment to-day exposed to the sun and rain in a Kentish cherry orchard, or saturated with tobacco smoke on the back of a beggar in a pothouse, is doomed, in its turn, “perfusus liquidis odoribus,” to grace the swelling collar, or add dignified proportion to the chest of the dandy. Old flannel petticoats, serge, and bunting, are not only unravelled and brought to their original thread by the claws of the devil, but this machine, by-the-way, simply a series of cylinders armed with iron hooks, effectually, it is said, pulls to pieces and separates the pitch mark of the sheep’s back—which latter operation really is a job worth of the very devil himself. Those who delight in matters of speculation have here an ample field, provided they feel inclined to extend their researches on this doctrine of the transmigration of coats; for their imagination would have room to range in unfettered flight, even from the blazing galaxy of a regal drawing room down to the night cellars and lowest haunts of London, Germany, Poland, Portugal, &c., as well as probably even to other countries visited by the plague. But as such considerations would only tend to put a man out of conceit with his own coat, or afflict some of my fair friends with an antipathy to flannel altogether, they are much better let alone: nevertheless, the subject may serve as a hint to those whom a spirit of economy may urge to drive an over-hard bargain with their tailor, or good housewives, who inconsiderately chuckle at having been clever enough, as they imagine, to perform an impossibility—that is to say, in times while the labourer is worthy of his hire, to buy a pair of blankets for less than the value of the wool. These economists my treasure up much useful information, by considering well the means by which materials may be combined to suit their purpose: for the “shoddy,” as it is called, may be, as occasion requires, mixed with new wool in any proportion; so as to afford, by the help of various artists, in this free country, equal satisfaction to all parties, whether the latter be tidy or dirty by nature.

As I was anxious to see somewhat of the above process, I walked from Dewsbury to the village of Batley Carr, on the river Calder, about a mile distant, where there are several rag mills, and paid a visit to one of them. The rags were ground, as they term it, in the uppermost apartment of the building, by machines, in outward appearance like Cook’s agricultural winnowing machine, and each attended by three or four boys and girls. The operation of the machinery was so thoroughly encased in wood, that nothing was to be seen, though it consisted, as has been before observed, of cylinders armed with hooks, which, being of different sizes, perform their office one set after another, till the rags put in at the top come out at the bottom, to all appearance like coarse short wool. A single glance at the ceremony going forward was quite sufficient to convey a tolerable idea of the business—a single whiff of air from the interior of the apartment almost more than could be endured.

I will not undertake to render intelligible to the other senses what is an affair of the nose alone—in other words, I will not attempt to describe an ill smell: first, because the subject is not agreeable, and next, because it is particularly difficult; indeed, I know not even whether it be a physical or a metaphysical question, whether or not a smell be, de jure, a noun and the name of a thing, having substance and dimensions, or whether it be an ethereal essence void of material particles—as it were the benediction of animal matter departing from the physical to the metaphysical world, and at that very critical moment of its existence, or non-existence, when it belongs to neither. But if the smell of the rag-grinding process can be estimated in any degree, and an inference drawn, by the quantity of dust produced, the quality of the latter at the same time not being forgotten, then some little notion may probably be given by stating, that the boys and girls who attend the mill are not only involved all the time it works in a thick cloud, so as to be hardly visible, but whenever they emerge, appear covered from head to foot with downy particles that entirely obscure their features, and render them in appearance like so many brown moths.

It is really extraordinary to observe, on taking a portion of shoddy in the hand as it comes from the mill, the full extent of its transmutation—how perfectly the disentanglement of the filament has been effected; although, notwithstanding its freshened appearance, time and temperature must have inevitably brought it nearer to the period of ultimate decay.

The shoddy thus prepared in the mill is afterward subjected to the usual process of manufacture, and together with an admixture of new wool, and the help of large quantities of oil, it is passed through the discipline of the carding machine, mules, &c., till a thread is formed, which latter is handed to the weavers. But, alas! there is no such thing as perfection in human nature, or the works of man!—notwithstanding all possible exertions, there are certain parts and particles appertaining to these fusty old rags that cannot be worked up into new coats, do what men will; and of which the shoddy, to do it justice, may be said to be wholly liberated and purified: such things, for instance, as the hides of ancient fleas that have lingered through a rainy season and died of rheumatism—and so forth. Yet, in the present day, such is the enlightenment of man’s understanding, that even all these, be they what they may, are scrupulously turned to account, being mixed up together with all the refuse, and that part of the shoddy too short to spin, packed in bales, covered with coarse matting, and thus shipped off to Kent as manure for hops. In this state, called “tillage muck,” it fetches about forty-seven shillings a ton. In a yard adjoining Raven’s wharf, which, though a mile from the town of Dewsbury, and the road to it extremely hilly, is the usual place of shipment, I saw a large heap of this compost which very much resembled—” horresco referens”—” I have a crawling sensation as I write”—the stuffing I have occasionally seen, nay, slept upon, in inferior mattresses. Workmen were at the time employed in lading a cargo of these bales; as well as the compost that lay in bulk in the yard, they were then heating most violently. Impressed, on account of the vessel, with an apprehension of fire, for never did I see goods put on board in such a state, I asked the man at the crane whether he did not think there was danger. After looking at me for some seconds with attention, his reply was at least emphatic—” I like, sir,” said he, “to see ’em sweat.”

This extract from “A Home Tour through various parts of the United Kingdom in 1837” by George Head is reproduced under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License from “A Vision of Britain through Time“.

The Shoddy Industry in America

It has already been mentioned that an early rag grinding machine was built by Joseph Archer of Ossett in about 1813. Another of the same Archer family became known for taking shoddy to the USA.

George Archer (1803-1875), the brother of my 3rd Great Grandfather, Robert Archer, is credited with having taken the manufacture of shoddy machinery to the USA in 1836.

In 1831, a Richard Ardict, living in the adjoining town of Dewsbury…believing that the United States offered business opportunities that were not apparent in England, bought of George Archer, of Ossett…a “ragpicker”, as it was then called, boxed it up, and shipped it for New York as a rice threshing machine, intending to follow it himself on the next vessel; but before the vessel carrying the machine had been fairly on its way, the British government was informed of the artifice and attempt to circumvent the act of Parliament prohibiting the export of machinery and tools.
In consequence of this violation of the statute, Mr. Ardict was arrested; but after he had been incarcerated for some time he was given his liberty upon the payment of a fine of twenty-five pounds sterling. He had, however, accomplished his purpose in getting his machine out of the country, and immediately sailed for New York, where he found his machine had already arrived safely. He moved it to Marlborough, Ulster County, Now York, and there started the first shoddy mill in this country in what was known as the Hepworth Mill. He carried on the business there for many years and then moved the plant to Esopus, New York.
Soon after the departure of Richard Ardict from Yorkshire for the United States, George Archer began to contemplate quite seriously the plan of doing likewise. He completed all necessary arrangements for this purpose and started for New York in 1836, his family following three years after. Profiting by the experience of his friend Ardict, and “knowing a trick worth two of that,” instead of exporting a machine contrary to the statutes of the kingdom he simply stored away in his baggage a complete set of drawings for the various machines used for the manufacture of woolen goods, including those for the construction of a ragpicker.
Shortly after Mr. Archer’s arrival he formed a co-partnership with a Mr. Bailey and a Mr. Ogden, under the firm name of Archer, Bailey and Ogden, and located at Little Falls, New Jersey. Mr. Archer’s part of the business was to build the machinery, while his partners looked after the manufacture of shoddy and cloth. This firm continued in business for several years, when Mr. Archer withdrew and moved to Paterson, New Jersey, where he engaged, alone, in the building of shoddy machinery. After being in Paterson for a number of years, he moved to Tuckahoe, New York, from there to Cohoes, New York, and finally settled in Marlborough, New York, where he continued to make shoddy machinery till the time of his death, in 1875, at the age of seventy-two.

The Technology Quarterly; Massachusetts Institute of Technology; 1906

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