Wool and Cotton Industry

Wool and Cotton Industry

The two textiles that held greatest sway in the history of the UK textile industry were, of course, wool and cotton. Although Warwickshire is some distance from the main textile producing areas of the country, several woollen mills were established in the county, and a small number of cotton mills also operated for periods of time.

Wool had played a significant part in Coventry’s industrial history. With abundant grazing land nearby, supplies of wool were readily available, and a thriving trade in wool ensued. In Medieval times, Coventry was one of the country’s most important cities in England, with its wealth based on textiles particularly the production of Coventry cloth in a (non-fading) shade of blue, which came to be known as ‘Coventry blue’. The various processes (e.g. weaving, fulling, shearing, dyeing) all took place in Coventry, and the practitioners of each skill protected their interests by forming guilds which sought to provide training and to maintain standards of work. The outcome was a highly regulated and protected trade. A list of Coventry guild members in 1449 names 57 weavers, 64 tailors and shearmen, 27 fullers and 37 dyers, as well as the mercers who dealt with finished products. These were broadcloths and a range of other other wool-based products. All this, of course, occurred before the main period of industrialisation, and evidence of the industry has long since disappeared. Perhaps the most significant reminder of the guilds is the Drapers Hall, Bayley Lane, re-built several times, with the current building opened in 1832.

The arrival of the silk ribbon trade brought a major shift of emphasis in Coventry’s textile activity, with a diminished role for wool and yet there are some interesting examples of woollen mills being established in Coventry and elsewhere during  the industrialisation period. The ‘North Warwickshire Worsted and Woollen Spinning and Weaving Company’ was established by Lord Leigh in Hill St., Coventry in 1862 with the specific aim of reducing hardship for ribbon weavers in the downturn of the 1860’s. It was later re-named Leigh Mills in recognition of this, and was expanded in size in 1910, producing a range of worsted coatings, from fine tropical to heavy winter cloths, as well as other textiles (e.g. dress serges and all-wool taffeta shirtings). Interestingly, the 1906 OS map for Coventry shows Leigh Mills in Hill Street as manufacturer of ‘silk, worsted, cotton’. It seems as though some of the textile mills would be able to shift the emphasis of their business by installing different equipment within the shell of a building.

This happened with Nuneaton’s two most notable woollen mills, Fielding and Johnson (Anker Mill) and Lister’s. Anker Mill was in fact started in 1861 as a cotton mill – the Nuneaton Cotton and Spinning Co. Ltd – on the initiative of a group of Lancashire mill-owners. It was re-constituted as the ‘Trent Cotton Milling and Manufacturing Co.’ in 1877, only to close 1886. It was then taken over by Fielding & Johnson of Leicester (a wool processing firm) and it became one of Nuneaton’s major employers, supplying wools of every description to firms and consumers.

Lister’s Mill, Attleborough was originally built in 1858 as a cotton mill by Thomas Townsend. On Townsend’s death in 1892, it was taken over by Lister’s & Co of Manningham, Bradford for the manufacture of velvet and worsted plush. Worsted plush is a soft woven cloth with a thick pile used extensively in furniture manufacturing. The mill received several extensions – 1898, 1919, 1920 – to create a very large site.

A very early (c. 1790) example of a worsted mill in the county is the Collycroft Mill, Bedworth, built by Sir Richard Newdigate, of Arbury Hall. With detailed contemporary illustrations to hand, a model of the mill was created which is now housed in the Science Museum.

Warwick was an unlikely location for the worsted industry, but the six-storey Parkes Brookhouse & Crompton mill opened in 1797 was one of the largest factories in the Midlands at the time, with links both to the Hinckley hosiery and the Kidderminster carpet trades. It did not last for long, going through a number of changes of use including a brewery and a wagon works, before being demolished to make way for the Sainsburys development in the Saltisford.

An even more unlikely enterprise was the use of water-powered Rock Mill, Warwick, for cotton spinning. Built by Benjamin Smart in 1792 for that purpose, it seems as though the cotton spinning soon became an adjunct to corn milling, and that by the 1830’s the processing of corn had taken over entirely. The impressive Rock Mill still stands, now converted to residential use.

Wool and cotton were, of course, used extensively in the hosiery and knitwear industries, and these are explored in a separate section.

Textile Design: A Warwickshire resident

One unusual Warwickshire connection is the residency in the county of Tibor Reich, renowned textile designer, who emigrated from Vienna to Britain in 1937. Having studied Woven Textiles at Leeds University he moved to Warwickshire and established his works in the Clifford Chambers Mill (an old flour mill), near Stratford upon Avon, where he initially wove all his designs on restored looms. He wanted to introduce modernity, curiosity, colour and texture into British homes and his fresh, imaginative, deep-textured designs (of fabrics, carpets, rugs) had an immediate impact. He worked in wool, cotton and rayon. His designs went on to adorn Windsor Castle, Concorde, Coventry Cathedral, and the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. He also donated his collection of model cars (> 20,000!) to the Coventry Transport Museum.

Wool and Cotton Industry: further information

Hulton, M‘True as Coventry Blue’. A description of the city’s early woollen industryThe Coventry Historical Association
Victoria County History of Warwickshire Vol 8Available online (with information both in the Medieval and Modern sections)Victoria County History, London
Available at this link
Lee, P and the Nuneaton local and family history groupA fine collection of information and photographs of Nuneaton’s industriesAvailable at this link
The Weaver’s House, Spon St, Coventry
A terrace of six cottages in Spon Street built in 1455, with one of the cottages restored to re-create the home of John Croke, a Coventry narrow-loom weaver as it might have been in 1540. Hours of opening on the website Available at this link
SitesThe surviving wool and cotton locations are recorded on the WIAS database under TEXTILESAvailable at this link