The Mill Series 2 – William Greg

Sunday night saw the introduction of another member of the Greg family in The Mill; William Greg, played by Andrew Lee Potts.

In the first episode we learn that William has taken over the running of Quarry Bank Mill, whilst his elder brother, Robert Hyde Greg, is in Manchester acting as an MP to fight against the Corn Laws. William is also a supporter of the Anti-Corn Law movement, and explains its impact on his new worker’s wages.

William Greg: Why doesn’t every man have a decent shirt on his back? Because the cost of bread is so high. Why is it so high? Because the grain grows on land owned by aristocrats who pass laws to keep it high. End the bread tax, end trade tariffs, we’ll expand our markets. Every man can afford a shirt again: they’ll be more employment, and higher wages. That’s what my brother Robert has gone to parliament to achieve…

The fictional William has a few difficulties to face; namely the presence of Daniel Bate, who is raising William’s daughter by Daniel’s wife Susannah as his own. Yet we see him undeterred to make progress in his new domain, pushing Daniel to improve his beloved beam engine to increase production in the weaving sheds (our very own looms were featured in Episode 1 in case you were interested).

Andrew Lee Potts as William Greg courtesy of Channel 4 Publicity Picture Library and Ryan McNamara
Andrew Lee Potts as William Greg courtesy of Channel 4 Publicity Picture Library and Ryan McNamara

Who then, was the real William Greg? Born in 1809 at Quarry Bank House, William Rathbone Greg was the youngest son of Quarry Bank Mill founder Samuel Greg and his wife Hannah. As with his elder siblings , he received a Unitarian education, and entered Edinburgh University in 1826, where he would have been a contemporary of Charles Darwin.

He followed in Robert Hyde Greg’s footsteps, taking his Grand Tour of Europe in the late 1820s, following which he joined the family business; Samuel Greg & Co in 1830. Samuel’s empire had expanded from just his founding mill at Quarry Bank, to five mills across the North West – his aim had been to build a mill for each of his sons; William was to run Hudcar Mill, in Bury. Unlike the fictional William, the real William never ran Quarry Bank Mill which remained under Robert’s control from 1834-1870, when it was passed to his son Edward Hyde Greg.

William Rathbone Greg in later life
William Rathbone Greg in later life

Unfortunately, unlike Robert, William was not well suited to the world of cotton manufacturing, and he wrote to his sister in 1833:

I am bothered with every manner of calamities, boilers bursting, hands turning out, goods not selling and all the other ills that the flesh of a manufacturer is heir to. I am wearying after the country and ambition is forever extended within me. I wonder how long philosophy or indecision will induce me to continue the dog’s life I am leading here. I never open a book…rise at 5.30 go to bed at 10 and toil like a galley slave all day.” (I wonder what his workers would have said about that…)

In the early 1840s, William and his brother Samuel Jr’s mills were hit hard by the economic depression, and their elder brothers Robert and John had to bail them out of trouble. Samuel Jr had proved so inept at managing his own mill (Lowerhouse in Bollington) that he took early retirement in 1846 and left the task of salvaging the mill to his brothers.

Samuel Greg Jr, William's favourite brother
Samuel Greg Jr, William’s favourite brother

As the youngest Greg brothers, William and Samuel Jr were very close, and spent their time together discussing poetry, philosophy, science and politics, and both enjoyed giving lectures to the workers and apprentices of Quarry Bank whilst they still lived at home – much like we see the fictional William jumping at the chance to lecture his workers on the evils of the Corn Laws.

Their closeness meant that Robert and John were able to persuade William that it was he who should take over the running of Lowerhouse Mill, despite his own difficulties at Hudcar. Whilst he was diligent, William had little business acumen, and even though he managed to get Lowerhouse back on its feet, in 1850 he had to sell Hudcar Mill at a great loss, and he retired from the family business.

Lowerhouse Mill in Bollington - courtesy of the Bollington Discovery Centre
Lowerhouse Mill in Bollington – courtesy of the Bollington Discovery Centre

William had taken after his mother, Hannah, inheriting her philosophical tendencies and literary flair, and became a leading essayist, reviewer, and political and social commentator. He wrote several essays supporting the Anti-Corn Law movement in the 1840s, and for six years after the closure of Hudcar he supported himself by writing alone, regularly submitting pieces for The Economist. William also published Creed of Christendom in 1851, which confirmed his position as a religious sceptic.

In 1856 however, he reluctantly had to accept a job offer of a post in the Board of Customs from Sir George Cornewall Lewis, and moved to Wimbledon, where he would remain for the rest of his life. In 1864 until he retired in 1877, William was comptroller of the Stationery Office.

What of his personal life? As we have already seen in the series, the fictional William Greg is the father of Susannah Bate’s eldest daughter, but in reality the father of Susannah Catterall’s child is unknown. The real William did go on to have five children.

In 1835 he had married Lucy Henry, the daughter of a Manchester physician. Together they had two sons and two daughters, but Lucy’s physical and mental health was poor, and so in 1842 in an attempt to restore her spirits the family moved to The Craig, at the foot of Wansfell in Ambleside. William spent some of the happiest years of his life in Wansfell, where he revelled in his love of the natural world, spending his time at leisure, albeit to the detriment of Hudcar Mill. Sadly Lucy’s mental health never improved and she died in 1873.

Lower Wansfell, Ambleside
Lower Wansfell, Ambleside

William soon remarried in 1874; his second wife was Julia Wilson, who was the daughter of one of his closest friends; James Wilson the founder of The Economist. William and Julia had been friends for decades, and in 1875 Julia gave birth to their son, who was to become Sir Walter Wilson Greg. William died at his home in Wimbledon in 1881, aged 72.

You can find out more about the characters in Series 2 of The Mill here:


One Comment Add yours

  1. Danika says:

    Great post!! I love reading about the fact & fiction of ‘The Mill’ 🙂 thanks Laura!!

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