A History of the County of Wiltshire: Volume 6. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1962.
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INDUSTRY SINCE c. 1500
The fortunes of Wilton which formerly had been built on a multiplicity of crafts and trading activities, gradually came to depend upon the only surviving craft of any importance, namely that of the textile industry. From the 16th century onwards the relative importance of cloth-making was in all probability much greater than it had been in the past, and the affairs of the town were henceforth largely dominated by rising families of clothiers. The cloth was still fulled in the mill in Washern acquired by the abbey in the reign of Richard II; in the 16th century this mill with the rack meadow and tenters was farmed by local clothiers (fn. 1) and to it the weavers of the neighbourhood brought their cloth to be fulled. Net profits were reckoned at about £6 a year. When in 1545 the mill was pulled down by Christopher Willoughby, Henry Crede, the tenant, with the support of Sir William Herbert, the owner, was sufficiently powerful to bring the case before the Star Chamber. There the plaintiffs emphasized the loss to the people of the neighbourhood, who had depended on the mill for their livelihood. (fn. 2) But there is no evidence that the mill was ever rebuilt. In 1536 a Wilton clothier, Walter Gray, was leasing the mill at Quidhampton from the Abbess of Wilton, (fn. 3) and possibly after the destruction of the other fulling mill in Washern, this remained the only one in operation in Wilton and the suburbs.
There is little evidence about the kind of cloth made by the men of Wilton in the earlier 16th century, or indeed at any period before then. Boys were apprenticed to weavers without at first any indication whether they were to learn broad weaving to supply the broadcloth industry, (fn. 4) and it was only in the later 16th and early 17th century that specific reference was made to apprentices in broadweaving; (fn. 5) by the end of the 17th century, when the clothiers and weavers of Wilton received their charter of incorporation in 1699, (fn. 6) there was no doubt about the supremacy of the broadweaver, for with very few exceptions all the records of admission to the fellowship specified the entrants as broadweavers. (fn. 7) The development of the broadcloth industry in New Salisbury, however, seems to have taken place in the 16th century, (fn. 8) and since in the early 16th century Wilton cloth was being marketed by the merchants of Salisbury together with their own cloth, and exported overseas through Southampton, (fn. 9) it appears likely that the Wilton industry was developing along the same lines, and at about the same time, as that of her more powerful neighbour. Merchants of Salisbury such as William Webb (fn. 10) and Thomas Coke (fn. 11) were also freeholders of Wilton, where their influence would have been felt, and there can be no doubt that Wilton lay within the economic orbit of Salisbury.
None of the Wilton clothiers was of the first rank of importance, but within their own more limited sphere it was the clothiers who largely dominated the affairs of the borough; between these clothiers and the weavers of the town there must have been an increasingly sharp social cleavage, which showed itself in the exclusion of all but clothiers and gentry from the more important town offices. The returns of the lay subsidy of 1540–41 on landed possessions and goods show that Margaret Clement, widow of the clothier William Clement, (fn. 12) was one of the three chief landowners of the borough, while six out of the ten liable for subsidy on their goods were representatives of the chief clothier families of the borough, the Macks, the Grays, the Sharps, the ApEvanses, the Credes and the Rodmans. (fn. 13) The office of mayor was held fairly continuously by one or other of the clothiers, (fn. 14) particularly in the second half of the 16th and in the early 17th century; it was for example held seven times by William Gray between 1558 and 1604, three times by John Twyford between 1564 and 1578, five times by Walter Sharp from 1574 to 1602, three times by Richard Rodman between 1567 and 1586, twice by Thomas Hayes in the twelve years before 1590, and six times by Walter Gray between 1582 and 1613; even more invariably the office of coroner was held by one or other of these clothiers. The only weaver who rose to prominence in town affairs during this period was a certain William Hughes.
There are indications that the 16th-century cloth industry of Wilton attracted some new families to the borough. Elys ApEvans, a clothier, was elected a burgess in 1538–9, and although his immediate antecedents are not known his name shows that he was Welsh, and a stranger to Wilton. It is significant that in 1591–2 John Brook, son of John Brook of Frome (Som.), was apprenticed for eight years to Walter Sharp, clothier of Wilton, and by 1625 he was described as clothier and gentleman, and burgess of Wilton. In the mid-16th century various members of the Potycary family acquired property in Wilton and entered the ranks of the burgesses: between 1554 and 1557 four of the family became burgesses. A few of the 16th-century clothiers were descended from families which had been long established in the borough and prominent in its affairs; the forebears of John Mack and Thomas Hayes had been officers of the borough at least from the mid-15th century, and the Rodmans of Bulbridge had amongst their ancestors John Rodman, Mayor of Wilton in 1462; Richard Crede, farmer of the fulling mill at Washern, was elected burgess in 1493–4, and was succeeded in his possessions at his death in 1517–18 by his son Henry; (fn. 15) Anthony Crede was elected burgess in 1526–7, while John Crede, the elder, and John Crede, the younger, were successively prominent in town affairs between c. 1530 and c. 1600. But the Sharps and the Grays, perhaps the two most important of the clothier families of Wilton, were not established in the borough before the second decade of the 16th century; William Sharp, elected burgess in 1511–12, was the first of nine members of his family, all of whom became burgesses over a period of nearly 200 years; Jarvis Sharp died c. 1695; Walter Gray was elected burgess in 1513–14, and John Gray, the twelfth member of this clothier family to become a burgess of Wilton, died c. 1683.
Some of the Wilton clothiers were also wool producers; local supplies of wool, even if insufficient to meet the needs of the textile industry, were not negligible, and after the dissolution of the abbey the sheep and pasture rights of the abbess and her community passed as a rule into local hands. George Crede, presumably a member of the clothier family, possessed rights of common for 100 sheep at Quidhampton in 1567. (fn. 16) In the first half of the 17th century the Twogood family of Bulbridge leased all the sheep downs and pastures in Bulbridge, Washern, and South Ugford. (fn. 17) Occasionally the General Entry Book of the corporation recorded sales and purchases of sheep; in 1541, for example, it was noted that Walter Gray, Stephen Sharp, and John Mack had each purchased 50 sheep from the mayor and his brethren. Furthermore the Credes and Grays with their leases of the fulling mills were able to add to their profits by fulling the cloth of their fellow clothiers; thus in 1539–40 John Rodman acknowledged a debt to John Crede, who had milled ten cloths for him; Walter Gray not only fulled but also dressed and finished cloth, for in his will he left four pairs of shears used for cloth finishing. (fn. 18)
However varied in scope, the enterprise of these Wilton clothiers was always on a small scale when compared with that of some of the great figures of Malmesbury, Bradford-on-Avon, and other places in the county. John Twyford, one of the leading Wilton clothiers, only employed his own family servants in his business; (fn. 19) nor was a net profit of £6 on the fulling mill of Washern a very considerable one. (fn. 20) While it is true that by the reign of Charles I, the Gray and the Sharp families had both entered the ranks of the gentry, this was exceptional and the great majority remained petty clothiers, important only in their own limited sphere.
The history of the unnumbered weavers of the town is of necessity obscure; nor is it possible to say to what extent fresh recruits were drawn into the industry through the ranks of the apprentices. In 1527 the mayor and burgesses re-iterated the normal obligation of the burgess to refrain from taking away a journeyman, apprentice, or servant from a fellow burgess, (fn. 21) and in this case the undertaking may well have been rather more than a formality in the face of a definite shortage of labour. Surviving apprenticeship certificates, more numerous after 1552, usually required seven years apprenticeship for weavers, (fn. 22) but the evidence is not sufficiently complete for an estimate of the numbers who were thus recruited. The clothiers of Wilton do not appear to have had more than two apprentices each at any given period; some of the apprentices were drawn from the parish foundlings, (fn. 23) but most of them appear to have been the sons of the weavers, who were at the time engaged in the industry. There was considerable continuity in the weavers' craft, certain families continuing from father to son from the 16th to the 18th century; the Rays, the Glides, and the Tarrants were amongst the more important of these families of weavers. (fn. 24)
The available evidence suggests that most of the weavers worked for the clothiers and received wage payment; (fn. 25) as was normal, they were often remembered in the wills of these clothiers. In 1628, for example, William Sharp bequeathed £5 to be administered by the chamber of Wilton on behalf of the poor weavers of the town. Some weavers prospered, however, and eventually entered the ranks of the lesser town officials; William Tewe was town constable in 1550; from 1559 onwards for many years a certain Walter White was intermittently town bailiff and serjeant of the mace; William Tarrant acted as queen's bailiff in 1595 and succeeding years; Roger Tarrant was queen's bailiff in 1585 and Steward of the Guild Merchant by 1591; Michael Ray was Steward of the Guild Merchant in 1611, Elias Glide acted as constable in 1631 and steward in 1669. The Tarrant family prospered greatly in the 17th century, and one of them, Roger Tarrant, became a warden of the fellowship of clothiers and weavers. But these represented only a small minority of the numerous groups of weavers, who served the industry, and most of whom lived and died in obscurity.
The many vicissitudes of the Wiltshire cloth industry in the 16th and 17th centuries have been discussed elsewhere. (fn. 26) The evidence of the Wilton industry points likewise to considerable periods of poverty and unemployment during this same period, and these are reflected in the steps taken for the relief of the poor in the 17th century. (fn. 27) At the beginning of the 17th century both Salisbury and Devizes had sought to exclude foreign competition by means of guild organizations, (fn. 28) but it was not until 1699 that the same step was taken in Wilton. In 1666 the mayor and burgesses had petitioned for the grant of two annual fairs to help them to recover their lost trading, especially in clothing, (fn. 29) but the poverty of the town had not materially changed as a result of this grant. In 1699, therefore, the mayor, burgesses, and inhabitants of Wilton and the neighbourhood sent another petition urging the inconvenience and hardship which had long arisen from the numbers who entered the industry without apprenticeship; the ancient by-laws of the crafts of clothing and weaving had proved ineffective to stop the flood of outside competition and the petitioners, therefore, sought a charter empowering them to make by-laws and restrict the entry to members of the fellowship. (fn. 30) The charter was granted in 1699 and applied to Wilton and the district within three miles of the town. (fn. 31)
The many certificates of admission to the fellowship, (fn. 32) while they may be incomplete, show that at least 37 Wilton weavers and 25 weavers from the surrounding neighbourhood entered the fellowship in 1699. The weavers from outside Wilton came mainly from Quidhampton, Bemerton, Netherhampton, Fisherton Anger, West Harnham, East Harnham, Odstock, South Burcombe, Ditchampton, Barford St. Martin, Milford, and Wishford. The clothiers entering the fellowship in 1699 included 2 from Wilton, and 7 from Fisherton Anger and West Harnham; 3 of the 7 from outside Wilton were, however, described as clothiers and weavers, and may have been little more than prosperous and independent weavers. In 1700 and the eight years following some 16 weavers from Wilton and 34 from the surrounding neighbourhood were admitted to the fellowship, and on balance it appears that the greater number of weavers came from the country districts rather than from Wilton itself. Records of admission have survived intermittently for the whole of the 18th century and up to 1809, but they are not sufficiently continuous and the subsequent history of the fellowship cannot accurately be traced.
Despite the many vicissitudes of the cloth industry in the 17th century, Wilton displayed an astonishing vitality in the various attempts which were made to preserve the prosperity of the town. It was not without significance that in 1631 Wilton had been selected as one of the fourteen Wiltshire centres for cloth inspection. (fn. 33) Apart from broadcloth manufacture, attempts were made to stimulate the industry in other directions; according to one source the finest linsey wolseys were made at Wilton; (fn. 34) flannel was manufactured at Wilton also, for when in 1710 Peter Bathurst of Clarendon was trying to capture the constituency of Wilton, he threatened to withhold supplies of blue clay in Clarendon Park on which the flannel makers of Wilton depended. (fn. 35) In the later 18th century Wilton, in common with other centres of the county, developed various lines of fancy cloth in addition to the older established manufactures. In 1811 Salisbury, Devizes, and Wilton were mentioned as considerable manufacturing centres of fancy woollens. (fn. 36) Thus at the opening of the 19th century, within modest limits, Wilton industry was thriving and giving employment to considerable numbers of artisans. Details of the assessment of a parish rate in 1810 show that some 69 weavers were living within the parish itself, together with a number of woolcombers, spinners and shearmen, while dyehouses, spinning and weaving shops had been established all over the town; (fn. 37) the leading clothiers of the town were the Townsends, the Haywards and the Randalls, and it has been shown elsewhere that as many as 200 looms were employed in 1810. (fn. 38)
But the great weakness of the Wilton industry lay in its failure to adapt itself to new conditions of power spinning in the late 18th and early 19th centuries; Wilton industry acquired none of the early Boulton and Watt engines. (fn. 39) The returns of the factory inspectors in 1838 showed that while Wilton had two woollen mills, there were no engines and only one water wheel of 12 h.p. (fn. 40) The years after 1815 also witnessed the revival of French competition; from this time onwards a rapid and apparently final decline of Wilton's cloth industry took place, so that by 1840 only 10 of the 40 surviving looms were in actual operation. (fn. 41)
One firm, that belonging to the family of Naish, which had manufactured cloth in Wilton since 1800, turned in c. 1860 to the manufacture of superfine woollen pressed felts. In 1960, as E. V. Naish Ltd., this firm employs in the mills in Crow Lane some 80 people and continues to produce high quality felts, particularly for use in pianos. (fn. 42)
The name of Wilton has survived in the history of the industry of this country by reason of its connexion with carpet manufactures. The introduction of the carpet industry into Wilton in 1741 is fully described elsewhere; (fn. 43) under the patronage of Lord Pembroke the secrets of French manufacturing processes were introduced into the town in the 18th century; the industry survived the revival of French competition after 1815, and in 1825 bought out the rival Axminster line. The failure of the private carpet manufacturers in 1904 was followed by the founding of the Wilton Royal Carpet Factory with the assistance of Lord Pembroke, so that Wilton retained its pre-eminence in the 20th century, and its name is still a byword in the carpet industry. The present (1960) carpet factory replaced the original one burnt down in 1769. (fn. 44)