Background to the Local Wool Industry

Professor Jennifer Tann

Much of the Gloucestershire landscape would appear very different were it not for the wool trade and the woollen industry. The ‘wool’ churches of Northleach, Winchcombe, Cirencester might be less grand; the gracious houses on the valley sides might not exist, for many were built by clothiers with money from the trade. And in the valley bottoms, while there are still many mills, there were even more in the period 1750-1820.
The “five valleys” of Stroudwater, together with the Little Avon/Doverte Brook and the Ewelme/Cam contained almost 200 Mills in the industry’s heyday during the early Industrial Revolution.

But it all started long before then. A domestic industry had grown up in the countryside, wool being spun and woven in cottages for local use. To make it warmer and also more weatherproof, some of the woven cloth was thickened by being walked on in tubs or troughs, with fullers earth and water. This was the fulling process. By the early middle ages, the woollen industry had developed significantly in major towns, including Gloucester and Bristol, both of which had craft guilds. The mechanisation of fulling in the 11th century led to the woollen industry migrating to the countryside – to faster flowing streams and rivers which could generate the waterpower required for fulling mills – and away from the controlling craft guilds. A pair of 19th century fulling stocks can be seen at STT’s display in Dunkirk Mill.

Early fulling mills were owned by monasteries – the Abbot of Winchcombe had three fulling mills on Abbey estates; a development from the extensive wool trade conducted by the Abbot. Lay landowners were quick to follow suit, early medieval fulling mills being widely distributed along river valleys in Gloucestershire.

Tudor times

By Tudor times Stroudwater and the two major river systems south of the Frome, had many mills clustered along them. Much of Gloucestershire’s broadcloth was exported in its undressed, white, state from London and was recognised as a significant source of income for the Crown – and a subject of state regulation. Gloucestershire clothiers were ambivalent on state intervention: petitioning for controls during recession and ignoring them when times were good (usually getting away with it). One of the pieces of state legislation consistently ignored in Gloucestershire, was the adoption of the powered gig mill to raise the nap or surface of the cloth with teazles. A gig mill can be seen at Dunkirk Mill.

Stuart times

A detailed and unique picture of the scale and distribution of the early Stuart woollen industry in Gloucestershire is given in a muster roll of 1608 which lists names and occupations. By this time the Gloucestershire woollen industry was firmly concentrated on the Cotswold scarp and the total recorded population of many of these industrial villages and hamlets was higher than elsewhere.
A new, lighter, woollen fabric called Spanish Cloth, consisting of two or more colours, was being made by some Gloucestershire clothiers by 1620, mainly in the southern area.

By the mid-17th-century the prime water power sites for mill construction in the main river valleys were all occupied, capacity growing through the addition of further pairs of fulling stocks. Many were double mills. The concentration of mills along the Frome was greatest upstream of Stroud, where the gradient of the valley was steeper. A typical mid 17th-century mill estate might include a gabled mill building – almost indistinguishable from the clothier’s house nearby. A fine painting of Wallbridge (in the Museum in the Park) shows a 17th-century gabled mill, together with dyehouse and dwelling house complex (although painted at the end of the 18th-century).

King and State

The 17th century was a turbulent period for the woollen industry. It suffered at the hands of the state in the period leading up to the Civil War, London merchants only being permitted to buy white, undyed cloth as a result of the ill-fated Cockayne Experiment. At the outbreak of the Civil War clothiers were suspected of favouring the Parliamentary side. In 1642, the King authorised Prince Rupert to commandeer all cloth in the chief areas of Gloucestershire and have it sent to Cirencester. Whether most clothiers were paid seems doubtful, since they had to go to Oxford to collect it. Trade conditions were difficult for the rest of the 17th-century.

In 1691, Gloucestershire JPs wrote to the Privy Council, pointing out that the unemployed workmen were starving. Two acts were passed in 1726 and 1727 to regulate the woollen industry, including requiring magistrates to approve wages. Gloucestershire clothiers were said to have treated the orders with contempt. A new act was passed in 1756 and weavers threatened to throw any of their fellows who said they were satisfied with their wages into the masters’ mill ponds. Then they struck work for six weeks. Major General James Wolfe, better known for his campaign in Canada, was sent in command of six companies of infantry to restore order. A massive riot took place in and around Wotton in 1766, which resulted in the execution of three men, many others being transported. While clothiers complained loudly about the conditions of trade, the Clutterbuck, Peach, Wathen, Paul, Halliday and other families were not put out of business. The people who suffered most were, inevitably, the smaller clothiers and textile workmen who had little or no capital to fall back on.

Organisation

Daniel Defoe described the organisation of the industry in early 18th-century in which the clothier ‘put out’ wool to be spun in the surrounding villages, had the yarn returned and distributed to weavers in nearby cottages. He continued. “It was no extraordinary thing to have clothiers in that county worth from £10,000-£40,000 a man, and many of the great families, who now passed the gentry in these counties have been originally raised from and built-up by this truly noble manufacture.” Some of the great clothing family names were already significant players in the industry by the mid 17th century and continued in the trade through the early industrial revolution. The Webbs, Capels, Arundels. Sewells, Clutterbucks were mill owners of considerable wealth. Clothier families intermarried: Jasper Clutterbuck of Kings Stanley (d.1782) married the daughter of a Clothier as had his father. The most upwardly mobile marriage was between Nathanial Clutterbuck and Mary Clifford, co-heiress of Frampton Court.

Smaller clothiers neither owned nor rented a mill but owned tools of the trade and carried out some of the processes themselves. They, too, owned the materials at all stages of manufacture, but sent their cloth to be fulled and dyed on commission at local mills. The weaver often had few possessions; living in his own or in a rented cottage. He worked long hours and walked to the clothier’s mill or workshop to collect a heavy chain of yarn. One Painswick Clothier had to mortgage his loom, three beds and other goods to repay a debt to £20.

Clothier’s Houses

Many 17th and early 18th century clothiers lived in houses near their mills, their gabled dwellings looking much like some of the adjacent mills, as wealth was accumulated. Houses were remodelled and some clothiers moved away from the valleys to live in grander, more spacious houses on the hillsides. When Wortley house, formerly the home of the Osborne family of Monks mill, Alderley, was advertised for sale in 1776, it was said to be “fit for a gentleman or a Clothier”. One of the most intriguing clothier’s house was New Mills, Stroud. It was unusual in that house and mill were a continuous range and deliberately designed so that the boundaries between the two were not obvious, giving appearance of an elegant country seat.

Industrial Revolution

The years 1790 to 1835, were characterised by innovation and risk-taking; optimism and expansion – and business failure. In these years, the Gloucestershire woollen industry was transformed from one when reasonably prosperous broad weavers could join the ranks of the smaller clothiers to one in which the capital required for setting up in business was too great for this to happen. Business success demanded organisational skills, knowledge of new processes and machinery, besides a knowledge of markets. In all, nearly 200 mills, from small single-function premises to larger more complex ones, were in operation for some years of the early Industrial Revolution.

The typical Gloucestershire woollen mill at the end of the 18th century comprised fulling stocks, a gig mill and, perhaps, a dye house and shear shop; the Hooper family rebuilt parts of their mills in Eastington between 1798 and 1808 and there was a major rebuild in the Stonehouse mills between 1790 and 1800. Stanley Mill, built from 1813 at an ancient fulling mill site, was partly iron-framed with an elegant cascaded interior structure, unique in the world. Cam Mill was rebuilt in 1818, while the greatest investor of all was Edward Shepherd of Uley, who is reputed to have to have spent £50,000 on his Great Factory and associated buildings by 1833. In periods of business optimism corn mills were adapted or new small water powered mills built in the remote upper reaches of valleys. On the whole, such mills never became fully fledged factories and, when hard times came, they were amongst the first to fail. By the early 19th century Yorkshire competition was being felt but there is little evidence that Gloucestershire clothiers were slow to adopt new machinery at this stage.

The key processes in the manufacture of a piece of broadcloth were:

  • Wool  Preparation:
    • scouring with urine (known as seg) at the clothier’s premises
    • Picking by the willy, or devil to open the fibres
    • Dyeing (for some cloths)when dry
  • Yarn manufacture:
    • Willying
    • Scribbling
    • carding : a carding machine, consisting of rollers covered with wire was patented as early as 1748, it wasn’t until the 1790s that improved versions were widely adopted
    • slubbing
    • spinning: the early jenny was hand-operated but it wasn’t long before clothiers began to install them at mills. By the 1820s some spinning jennys in Gloucestershire had 80 spindles
  • Weaving:
    • warping: winding out the warp yarn into a ‘chain’ for the weaver
    • sizing: covering the warp with size – a form of glue
    • weaving: while the flying shuttle was adopted in Yorkshire from the 1760s, it doesn’t appear to have reached Gloucestershire until the 1790s, probably because Yorkshire looms were narrow and Gloucestershire ones broad. Some of the larger clothiers built hand-loom weaving shops at their mills
  • Finishing:
    • Scouring
    • fulling/milling: the fulling process remained more or less unchanged, using stocks, until the 1840s when the milling machine was introduced. After fulling the cloth was stretched on racks on the valley sides to dry, although by the 1830s a number of the larger mills had ‘air stoves’ – long cloth drying rooms which were ventilated by the circulation of air
    • gigging
    • shearing: hand shearing required huge skill and shearman was the highest-paid of all textile craftspeople. The first patents for improvements were granted at the end of the 18th century and a flurry of patents were taken out by Gloucestershire men in the period to 1825
  • Dyeing and pressing:  some dying was undertaken by the larger clothiers and some by independent dyers such as Bowbridge Dyeworks, Peter Watts of Wallbridge, and Hawkers at Dudbridge, all of whom dyed on commission, usually specialising in particular colours. Hot pressing gave a gloss to the cloth; a patent being taken out for the process by John and William Lewis, of Brimscombe, with William Davis in1819.

 

Power Systems

The high dependence on water power meant that, while the mills further downstream had a greater volume of water when it arrived, it sometimes didn’t arrive till lunchtime. Mills higher upstream had access to the water earlier in the day; but there was less of it. Waterpower engineering had become an art by the Industrial Revolution: waterwheel design and millwrighting – power transmission- besides engineering works to optimise the fall and volume of water at each site. Millwrighting wasn’t an occupation created by the Industrial Revolution, but a survival from an earlier age.

There are no descriptions of the kinds of waterwheels in Gloucestershire mills until well into the Industrial Revolution, but it is likely that the majority were simple wooden breast-shot wheels. Iron wheels became more common from the mid-19th century, some being made by Ferrabee at Thrupp.

Because of Gloucestershire’s relatively good endowment of waterpower, there were not very many animal-driven mills, although horses turned the machinery for a clothier at Berkeley and a 26 foot diameter two-horse wheel was itemised in the sale of a Uley clothier’s effects in 1807. There was also horse-powered workshop in Vicarage Street in Painswick.

The first steam engine to be erected in a Gloucestershire woollen mill was ordered in 1802 and between then and 1837, 35 new and one second-hand Boulton & Watt engines were ordered by Gloucestershire woollen manufacturers. It is clear that most clothiers initially used steam to supplement waterpower rather than to supplant it.

Woollen industry workers

At the beginning of the Industrial Revolution cloth finishing processes were largely undertaken by men who worked in mills or workshops, the gig mill needing the assistance of a boy. Preparatory processes were women’s work, also assisted by a child. As the spinning jenny increased in size some women’s work was lost and yarn preparation was undertaken by a man with two children, while the prior machine scribbling and carding was done by a child. Weaving was cottage-based undertaken by a man with the assistance of a child. Unlike the early cotton and silk mills in the north, many of which were dependent on the labour of pauper child apprentices from workhouses, there is no evidence of the use of this kind of labour in the Gloucestershire woollen industry. Child labour was part of the family economy and children probably came into the mills as part of a family unit.

State of Trade 1790 to 1835

There was little to challenge to woollen cloth’s supremacy over worsted for men’s clothing: “The country squire still wore usually blue on Sunday and Stroud water Scarlet on Monday.” But this market was not growing and, with mechanisation, fewer mills could meet the demand. It became clear that, to survive, a business capability was essential, and even this could not guarantee success. 140 woollen manufacturers are listed in Gell and Bradshaw’s 1820 Directory, but this excluded a number of smaller businesses. In 1825 the weavers struck for better pay. Edward Shepherd of Uley gave in to most of the demands and encouraged his fellow manufacturers to do the same but the strike dragged on into the autumn in Stroudwater. In December a number of country banks failed, and the industry was plunged into deep depression. The panic of 1825 sealed the fate of many of the smaller businesses. 16 firms went bankrupt in 1826, nine, from Uley and Wotton-under-Edge. By 1828 the West of England woollen industry was said to be on the decline. Some cloth manufacturers, such as William Marling of Ham Mill, showed optimism and continued to generate profits but when the factory inspectors visited the southern Gloucestershire cloth making area they found many empty mills and much destitution.

Labour unrest

The Gloucestershire textile worker was more vulnerable to the adoption of machinery than his/her Yorkshire counterpart because of the greater specialisation in different crafts. There were different reactions to machinery in the three main south-western textile counties; the gig mill and shearing machine prompted the “Wiltshire Outrages” whereas there was little disturbance in Gloucestershire. Gloucestershire Shearman, unlike their Wiltshire and Yorkshire counterparts who resorted to violence, took the legal route and sought to prohibit the use of shearing machines for fine cloth. But the petition was presented to late and the machines were introduced relatively peacefully.

The flying the shuttle was designed for the narrow loom. This explains its earlier adoption in Yorkshire than the West of England. It was adopted by a Stonehouse clothier in 1793, and prompted a deputation of weavers to him, resulting in the clothiers agreeing to sell the shuttle to weavers. But, to control entrants to the trade in the early 19th century, handloom weavers sought Parliamentary action to endorse the old regulatory statutes requiring apprenticeship. The Peace of 1802 (from the French wars), and the reduction in demand for military cloth, led to many weavers depending on parish relief. In 1806 it was said: ‘ many before… (the peace)… could have good beer in their houses and a sack of flour, who cannot have anything of the kind now”. The threat of weavers’ riots was sufficiently serious for the clothiers to seek action in 1802 which led, in 1809, to the repeal of the old statutes. While Luddites were burning some Yorkshire mills, the only sign of tension in Gloucestershire was the sending of a letter by one ‘E. Lud’ to John Lewis of Brimcombe, threatening to burn down his mills if his workers were not better paid.

In 1825, despite trade being good, the weavers struck for a pay rise to compensate for the harder and longer hours required in weaving fine-spun yarn. It was a well organised strike and membership of the Stroud Valley Weavers Union increased in a few days from 400 to 5000. In 1826, with the onset of depression, out of a total population of around 6000 in Bisley, only 658 were in full work. One way in which some manufacturers sought to continue in business was through the payment of truck – payment in kind or in vouchers. This was particularly prevalent in Chalford. The minor depression of 1834 prompted strikes against individual factory owners:Edward Shepherd of Uley, William Playne at Longford Mill and Playne and Smith at Dunkirk Mill who apparently paid lower rates than those at Stanley Mill. The factory inspector summed up the situation; manufacturers were diminishing in the West and increasing in the North.

The adoption of power looms led to great distress for the handloom weavers. The labour market was overstocked with weavers and, in a recession, the unemployed in any village could run to hundreds. The governor of Horsley prison noted in 1840 that weavers were grateful for their daily food and left prison with regret, not knowing where the next meal would come from. The most strongly favoured remedy was migration or emigration. Only one money-paying master was left in Chalford. Population decline in the Ewelme valley was severe whilst in Stroudwater it was most marked in Bisley and Painswick

Concentration and decline

In the early part of the 19th-century the larger Gloucestershire clothiers were up-to-date, perhaps even ahead, in the adoption of machinery. New developments in machines for wool preparation and cloth finishing continued in Gloucestershire, a stream of patents coming from the Ferrabees’ Ironworks in Thrupp. But there were few developments in either spinning or weaving technologies. Until the spinning mule became self acting for wool (as distinct from cotton) the carriage had to be returned and the yarn wound onto cops by the operative. So it is highly likely that mules in Gloucestershire in the 1830s and 40s were not self acting, but hand-operated. However, they had many more spindles than the largest spinning jenny and were therefore more productive. The self-acting mule was adopted by some of the more advanced firms in Yorkshire in the 1850s, but was adopted more slowly in Gloucestershire; there was one at Cam Mill by 1867.

While power looms were adopted by leading Yorkshire woollen manufacturers by the late 1820s and early 1830s, only four were recorded in Gloucestershire by 1835. By 1840, while there were power looms in major Stroud mills, none are recorded in the mills on the Ewelme or Little Avon rivers. This is not necessarily an indication of decline, for the power loom was much slower in woollen than worsted weaving; broadcloth, as its name suggests, being wider. What did disadvantage West of England manufacturers was that there was no local manufacturer of power looms and mill owners had to buy from Yorkshire. By 1840 there were some 1054 factory-based looms in Gloucestershire, but the majority were handlooms. By 1850 there were 224 power looms in Gloucestershire and from the 1860s power loom adoption increased markedly.

Fulling mills were gradually replaced by the rotary milling machine, which had been developed in Wiltshire in 1834. By the 1850s, John Ferrabee was manufacturing milling machines at Thrupp, but fulling by stocks continued in use into the early 20th century, sometimes being used in conjunction with with milling machines.

Milling and raising made the greatest demands on available power and, by the mid 19th century water, alone, could not alone provide this for the larger factories. Peter Playne calculated the water horse power of his four mills in 1848 and in the same year the power requirements of all the machinery. There was a shortfall. He estimated that Dunkirk Mill waterwheels generated 28 hp, but the machinery required 51hp. By 1850 Gloucestershire woollen mills had 806 hp in steam and 1485 hp in water; 11 years later, steam horse had increased to 1079 hp.

While, as in earlier periods, there were seasonal and cyclical trade fluctuations, they were accompanied by industrial concentration and eventual decline. Meanwhile the woollen industries in Yorkshire and Scotland expanded. Various estimates of total factory numbers are probably all too low; 133 Gloucestershire woollen mills were recorded at work in 1831; and the number had fallen to 77 by 18 41. Some 15 manufacturers failed between 1835 and 1841, the most well-known bankrupts being Hicks of Eastington in 1835, and Edward Shepherd of Uley in 1837. Many clothiers who failed had smaller businesses. Others, such as the Playnes and Marlings built up their firms by employing good business practices and living within their means. People were puzzled: “It appears to be a strange fact that the masters are breaking and the men are in rags, yet there is as much cloth made as ever.” By 1850, 80 mills were employing just over 6000 people.

Gloucestershire cloth manufacturers produced exhibits for the 1851 Great Exhibition which were said to be representative of the usual goods produced, rather than a display “got up expressly for the occasion”. The jury believed that they had misunderstood the object of the Exhibition. By 1862 manufacturers seem to have understood the role of international exhibitions rather better and eight woollen manufacturers were awarded medals. In that year, Henry Mayhew published a detailed account of manufacturing processes at Lodgemore and Fromehall mills, with detailed descriptions of the processes, the operatives and their appearance. The visitors remarked on the great manufacturing artists “who think it worth their while to devote some five months continued labour to the production of a single piece of perfect broadcloth”. By 1870 the number of woollen factories had fallen to 28, employing just over 3800 people.

It seems clear that Gloucestershire firms were unwilling to learn of changes in demand. The great increase was for woollens at the cheaper end of the market, while the middle classes had come to expect more frequent changes in fashion. In Leeds the ready-made clothing industry brought fashionable suiting within the pockets of the less well-off yet, while Stroud developed a ready-made clothing industry, it was not supplied with locally made fabrics. Meanwhile, the Scottish tweed industry flourished and, while some Gloucestershire firms began to make tweeds, they were introduced too late. Some Gloucestershire firms attempted to attract one or more textile designers from Scotland, but this was an inadequate response to the need for a change in manufacturing culture .

Those businesses which survived were leaner, more professional and highly mechanised and were beginning to diversify their product ranges and introduce new fibres such as vicuna and alpaca. There were still profits to be made but by far fewer firms. A directory of 1900 records 17 cloth mills, of which only Cam Mill was identified in the lower region; part of the factory was lit by electricity and a private railway system had been erected through the premises. Four mills survived in the Nailsworth Valley, while along the Frome, the surviving mills were all in the lower and middle area with no cloth mills above Brimscombe. Hooper’s mills in Eastington suddenly closed in 1906. Manufacturers that survived the post -World War 1 depression innovated in process, product, technology and work organisation, including diversification into non-apparel textiles at Longford and Lodgemore mills. In 1920 a merger took place bringing Longford, Cam, Lodgemore and Fromehall mills together under a holding company, the individual mills continuing to operate separately. Competition was keen and getting keener; there were colourful characters at each of these mills but superlative skills such as Ralph Bassett’s at Bowbridge were insufficient to stem the tide. To succeed, a 20th-century woollen mill required effective management and leadership. The manager needing “all the energy, foresight, and tact he can command”.

Firms were undercapitalised for the 20th century unless there were mergers and limited liability status. The close proximity of machinery manufacturers to Yorkshire cloth manufacturers clearly gave impetus to technological innovation. The Gloucestershire woollen industry was slow to respond to changes in demand for lighter fabrics and, when it did, it was a case of too little too late. Manufacturers was slow to diversify; the so-called “palmy days” for traditional broadcloth may have lulled firms producing these fabrics into a continued dependency on products which they had made for many years. The proximity of Leeds-based merchants with their intimate knowledge of markets, was an asset to Yorkshire textile firms. And Yorkshire manufacturers travelled to potential customers to learn of their needs at first hand, something most Gloucestershire manufacturers seem to have been reluctant to do. They were late, compared with Yorkshire, in recognising the importance of technical education for operatives. High tariffs in selected European countries and the USA made it well-nigh impossible for high cost West of England cloth to compete. By sticking to the top of the range in quality and price, and showing an apparent reluctance to adopt new yarns and fibres, woollen manufacturers in Gloucestershire seemed reluctant to change and, perhaps, did not have the heart for the new business environment of the 20th century.

The future of cloth manufacture in Gloucestershire for much of the 20th century was held by two firms: Winterbottom, Strachan & Playne and Marling & Evans. While there was some tentative moves towards rationalisation in both companies it wasn’t until after World War 2 that economies and horizontal integration were seriously addressed. Dyeing was transferred to Lodgemore and Cam and Bowbridge Dyeworks was closed. A first serious attempt to rationalise production in Winterbottom, Strachan & Playne mills was defeated in 1951 after an acrimonious general meeting. However, it became clear that demand for traditional high-quality cloth was not sufficient for the capacity of the mills and a work-study engineer was appointed in 1953. In the event the group decided to do what it believed it did best, at a level other companies found it difficult to compete with. It took until 1990 for a thoroughly radical solution to emerge to save the group. In that year Winterbotham Strachan & Playne was acquired by Milliken’s an innovative, USA-based company, and manufacture ceased at Longford Mill. On Mr Millican’s death, there was a management buyout creating W. S. P. Textiles Ltd in 2011 working to ensure the continuance of wool textiles in Gloucestershire.

In 1946 Marling & Evans rationalised production moving all the weaving to Stanley, with wool preparation and spinning being undertaken at Ebley. In the 1950s and 60s, Marling & Evans began to produce non-apparel cloth at Stanley Mill, including a fireproof cloth called Nomex, made under exclusive licence from the US patentees, but there was a lack of investment in this branch. In the early 1980s, the company decided to close Ebley Mill and move all operations to Stanley and in December 1989, the apparel side of the business closed, while Marling Industrial Felts continues.

Stroudwater is now the home and workplace for numerous artists and designers and craftspeople in contemporary textiles, including two trustees of the Stroudwater Textile Trust. And, while a number of mills have been demolished, particularly in the lower valleys, many have been conserved and new uses found for them. The Stroud Valley is now a heritage conservation area. And Longford Old Mill of 1712 is to become a textile centre for the Stroudwater Textile Trust. The textile landscape is a hugely valuable part of the heritage for everyone.