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A study of the textile industries of Mere.

by M.F.Tighe

There is little to suggest to-day that Mere was anything more than a typical small country town dependent upon agriculture for its existence.  Indeed, the basic economy was throughout based upon farming, but up to the end of the XIXc there were important textile industries, themselves based originally on locally grown fibres, which contributed substantially to the town's prosperity.  Of the four major textile fibres only one, cotton, was not processed in Mere at some time.

It may perhaps seem a misnomer to talk of the textile manufactures of our town as industries.  The word conjures up visions of Blake's dark satanic mills, but it was not until the beginning of the XIXc that anything approaching a factory was built in Mere. What we are discussing for most of our history was exclusively a domestic industry, with production being carried out on a small scale in the home, basically by members of the family.   This, of course, brings to mind another image, of cosy activity round the family hearth, far removed from the rigid discipline of the factory.  Both ideas are equally removed from reality;  what factories there were were quite small ones, while domestic production involved working in highly cramped conditions in the home under poor lighting with the inevitable dust and waste spreading over the entire household and economic pressures forcing everyone in the home, from infant to the old, to work long and unbroken hours.   We have to dismiss from our minds the Utopian visions of William Morris and at the same time accept that the undoubted evils of the Factory system  have to be interpreted in the context of the general social conditions of the time, rather than against the background of our own days.

One result of the predominance of domestic manufacture is an almost complete absence of any physical traces of these early industries until the XIXc - nothing survives to thrill the industrial archaeologist.  The student has to rely entirely on surviving documentary evidence.  In only one instance, but that a most important one, has any commercial documentation survived; account books were almost certainly never kept in the first place.   A number of sources have been used for this study.  The most fruitful have been the probate records preserved at the Wiltshire Record Office [WRO]; various other documents there have also yielded useful information, as have the notes of T.H.Baker. 

From early mediaeval times the mainstay of the English economy was the wool trade, and this has been a major pre-occupation of economic historians ever since Eileen Power's magisterial study of the 1920's.   Unfortunately the importance of wool has overshadowed all the other textiles and there is little published work on their history.

The sheep in mediaeval times, and indeed far later, was one of the most important features of the agriculture of Southern England;  it provided meat and - often not appreciated - milk for cheese making; its dung was a vital factor in maintaining the fertility of the arable lands, and its fleece provided not only for the clothing of the community but also a valuable cash crop to be turned into cloth for sale on the London market for both the home and export trades.  It was in the areas on and around the chalk downs and the limestone of the Cotswolds that sheep farming and the resultant wool trade were at their peak.   It is not the function of this paper to examine the wider aspects of wool, but Mere was well placed to participate in this important activity.

It is paradoxical that although the wool trade was a domestic activity, it was the first industry, apart from milling, to explore the possibility of applying power to production.   An essential stage in the production of woollen cloth is fulling - the washing of newly woven cloth in a mixture of Fullers Earth and more noxious substances such as "sig" to clean it of grease, and thoroughly pounding it to shrink the fibres to their final state.   Originally this process was done by trampling the cloth underfoot in vats of liquor; in Scotland the mills where this was done continued to be called "walking" mills, and the name persists to this day.   There was an outbreak of creative technology around the XIIIc which produced the windmill, and had a strong impact on the building and other trades; unfortunately the economic depression around the time of the Black Death called a halt to this phase of development, and there was little further inventiveness until what we have come to call the Industrial Revolution.  One of these great contributions of the XIIIc was the development of the fulling mill, where the tramping feet of the peasants were replaced by hammers activated by cams on the shaft of a water wheel, and these mills rapidly established themselves throughout the wool producing areas.  They were quite small and simple structures, and none have survived in their original form, though their widespread existence is revealed by the persistence of "fulling mill" or "tucking mill", its other name, as a place name.

It is here that we find our first reference to Mere as a cloth producing area.  An account roll of the Manor of Mere for the Earl of Cornwall in 1296 [1] lists rent of 28/8d  for "uno molendino fullonico" so that we know that Mere was then in the forefront of technology.  We do not know when it ceased operation, but its existence became imbedded in local tradition as having been near the present sewage works.  Significantly, a mill is shown in Andrews & Drury's 1773 map of Wiltshire  at the bottom of Rook Street and this can only be the fulling mill.  By the time of the 1848 Tithe Map the site held merely a cottage, and to-day it is an overgrown coppice by the river's edge.


By the XVIc, however, when we have the benefit of the Probate Inventories [2] we at least know the names of some of those who worked as fullers. When Thomas Coke died in 1578, his effects included 3 pairs of fullers' shears, a shearing board, 2 vats and a fullers press, with a rack for stretching cloth in the back side of his premises.  He had a stock of alum, madder and "brassol", probably Brazilwood, kept in the hall of his house rather than in his workshop.  The last two items are dyestuffs, indicating that he dyed the finished cloth as well as fulling it. Also he had 4 pieces of "carsis", presumably kerseys, in stock, as well as a small quantity of wool and yarn.  In 1680 Wm. Kendall described himself as a fuller when entering into a bond, and John  Hooper seems to have been a fuller in 1618. In 1655 John Hooker left to his son John "all my sheares and Handels within my shoppe with all things pertaining so that he do use and keep my occupation"; these handels were the frames in which teasels were mounted to draw across the cloth to raise the nap prior to the final process of shearing.

Fulling was a specialised trade, requiring the capital investment in the mill; it was also the final process in the production of cloth, so it is quite likely that the fullers may have been in a good position to merchant the cloth; this would account for Coke's having cloth in stock.  The weaving process was so fragmented that there would certainly have been entrepreneurs somewhere to co-ordinate the trade.

The first process, of course, was the spinning of the yarn.  Here we find that most of the farmers, large and small, had a certain amount of wool in stock, and not only the farmer's households but also a number of others had "turns", or spinning wheels.  The carding of the wool and the spinning of it into yarn were widespread cottage  occupations - Robert Curtis of Woodlands in 1634, a small farmer, had 2 bags of wool and some yarn, produced on the 2 wheels and  2 pairs of cards he owned. Significantly the wheels are described as "wool turns", indicating the specialisation from linen which was already established.

Even by the early XVIIc references to woollen weaving are few.  In 1587 Edward Alford is a broadweaver; he has a wool turn and 2 linen turns, but tantalisingly his inventory refers merely to "all his working tools" without describing them. It is significant, though that he apparently wove broadcloth, the well known West of England product; we also have in 1690 Thomas Stafford,  a serge weaver, another Western speciality.   Stafford had 2 looms and their fittings, but significantly he also had a comb pott and a pair of combs; these indicate that rather than using the carded wool of the ordinary cloth weaver, he combed his own "tops" of long fibred wool as in worsted weaving, and that he carried out the process in house rather than farming it out to woolcombers.  Unusually, he had a separate "press house", with press and sets of papers for pressing;  in stock he had 8 pieces of worsted & 10 of serge.  It is hard to see the use of about 40lb of pinnes! 

Broadcloth weaving until the invention of the flying shuttle by John Kay in 1733 would have required the employment of a second weaver to throw the shuttle through the shed, as the loom was far too wide for the weaver himself to pass it from side to side.William Longyer, described as a woollin weaver, in 1636 had one loom, with a chain of warp set up on it and a very small amount of yarn.  In 1618 Thomas Hawker, again of Woodland , described himself as a woolweaver, but there is no reference to looms or weaving materials in his inventory.

A feature of most of the traditional cloth areas is the "weaver's window" - long lines of windows in the upper floor of cottages to give light to the weavers operating in the loft.  Significantly these do not appear in Mere; any there may have been have been swept away in the many series of rebuildings the town has seen.

In an area where cloth was an important commodity one would expect to be able to identify one or more clothiers, the merchants who both organised the supply of raw materials to the weavers and the marketing of the cloth, usually through the monopoly market at Blackwell Hall in London .  Such traders are conspicuous by their absence, and this, and the paucity of weavers, point to the relatively small importance of wool in our local economy even in Tudor days.  The probability is that what weaving there was was largely for the local market, and that the wool from the local sheep went largely to the more established cloth making areas, either as wool or as yarn.  Moreover, the paucity of weavers in Mere as compared with those engaged in the finishing process hints that the fulling mill may have served a far wider area than just the parish of Mere.  We do, however, know of the existence of one local merchant specialising in woollen cloths, to whom we will return later.  

The woollen industry, for reasons too complex to go into here, underwent radical changes during the XVIIc and in the West of England these led to its concentration into Devon , the Cotswolds, and NW Wiltshire.  It continued in Horningsham and Crockerton, and in Salisbury in a specialised form, but basically it ceased to exist South of the River Wylie - the great barrier of the Plain.  Certainly it seems to have gone completely from Mere.

We had, however, a potent successor to wool in the second of our "Silver Threads" already established.  The belt of well drained soils over the Greensand, which ran from the end of the chalk at Mere West and South through Somerset into West Dorset was eminently suitable for the cultivation of flax, and this provided the basis of the economy of that belt for centuries; indeed in Chard, Crewkerne and Bridport industries owing their foundation to flax survive to this day.   Mere was at the Eastern extremity of this belt  and as a result was one of the first to lose the flax based industries, which survived longer in Bourton, but for centuries flax was the foundation of its prosperity.

Flax is a long stapled fibre derived from the stems of the flax plant, Linum usitatissimum, which was widely cultivated in the area; in recent years it has been grown again locally, but nowadays only for the seeds, the source of linseed oil. For this use the heads only are harvested, and the remaining stems have no textile use. For the production of flax the whole plant had to be pulled from the ground, the stems  steeped in water to rot away the softer fibres and then stooked to dry.  After this the stems were "scutched" - beaten to separate the individual fibres - and "heckled", or combed.  The resulting bundles of fibre were then spun into yarn on wheels similarly to wool, and passed to the weaver, if necessary after dyeing.  The final process was "bucking", where the finished cloth was bleached by boiling in slaked lime and an alkaline lye, producing what we know as linen.

Linen, however, is a generic term for all the flax based fabrics, ranging from coarse heavy sailcloth to the finest damask tableware, and, as is usual, various districts specialised in different types.  Mere does not seem to have produced either end of the scale; in addition to a certain amount of dowlas, a coarse fabric eminently suitable for making working smocks, and cheesecloth, a simple plain weave cloth for wrapping foodstuffs and bag-making, its prime product was bed-ticking, a strong tightly twill woven fabric familiar to us to this day, with its narrow blue band woven into the warp.  Mere seems to have been the most important source of this material in the country.  Shakespeare was familiar with some of these linen products:-

Hostess: I bought you a dozen of shirts for your back

Falstaff:  Dowlas, filthy dowlas; I have given them away to bakers' wives and  they have made bolters of them

            Hostess:  Now as I am a true woman, holland of eight shillings an ell                  [Henry IV PT I, Act III]


If the references to woollen workers have been sparse, we have a wealth of information about the linen workers of Mere, and it is obvious that by the XVIc they far outnumbered the former. Amongst the probate inventories there are many which show what considerable substance they had and give a picture of their operations; in most cases their descendants still live in the town.

A good example is Thomas Harcourt of Wolverton whose house was a modest one but well furnished by the standards of the day.  When he died in 1677 he had in his workshop 3 looms, 2 turns, or spinning wheels, swifts to wind the yarn on, 3 hatchells and other tools.  Above the shop in the loft were the warping bar and scarme for preparing the warp threads for the looms, a laborious process, and in the kitchen were a furnace, a bucking vat for bleaching, and a dye kettle, together with scales and weights.  To feed the looms he had nearly 1,500 pounds of yarn of various grades, 200 pounds of dressed flax, and an unspecified quantity of undressed rough flax; in addition 100 pounds of tow [the broken and matted fibres, residue of scutching] "at spinning".  Completed, he had 7 pieces of tick plus one chain of warp awaiting starting.   He had four sons, who will probably have worked with him, and one can see that the entire operation from raw flax to finished cloth was carried out under the same roof, apart from sending some flax or tow out for spinning.

Thomas left the three looms and so on to his son Valentine, who died in 1701.  By then the 3 looms had become 5, with all the appurtenances.  He had nearly 3,000 pounds of yarn in stock, valued at 166, 2 completed pieces of dowlas and two of tick, seven chains in progress, and 9 worth of flax in house or out at spinning, and 19 in book debts.  He left the entire operation apart from one loom to his wife, who presumably carried on the trade.

It is of interest that whereas Thomas merely had yarn of unspecified origin, the bulk of Valentine's yarn is specified as being "hambora".  We encounter several variations on this spelling in different inventories, but they are all variants of " Hamburg ".   It is apparent that by the early XVIIc the various flax based industries of the area had far outstripped the capacity of the local fields to produce sufficient raw material to feed them.  Indeed, it is noticeable that none of the probate inventories of farmers so far studied have yielded any reference to flax as a growing crop. We know that many landlords were wary of flax as a crop which could starve the land if grown in too great a quantity, and anyway, Mere was right on the edge of the suitable land.  By the end of the century the weavers seem to have been heavily dependent on imported raw material from Northern Europe .  To this day the vast majority of flax processed in Belgium is of Baltic origin.

We have seen Edward Alford as a broadweaver; by 1678 the family, as well as being millers and blacksmiths, were heavily engaged in the linen trade. Christopher, who died in that year, had a very substantial house of six domestic rooms comfortably furnished.  In the shop he had 2 looms, each with pieces of tick on them, swifts, hatchells and spooling turns, with the usual warping bar in the loft. Quantities of yarn and tow were scattered around the house & loft, though only a small amount of flax. Significantly the yarn included 30 lb of blue yarn [for the ticking stripe].Amongst the barrells in the buttery were 3 pieces of fine tick @ 3.10.= each and 4 of coarse tick @ 2.10.=, and 4 remnants of dowlas.  Another piece of tick was "out at weaver" so he apparently sub-contracted some of his work; he was owed 5 for 4 pieces of dowlas "at Redden" - whether this is the name of the debtor or the cloth was out for dying is obscure.  He had a separate bucking house with a vat for the bleaching.

In few cases were the family entirely dependent on their weaving. The Harcourts had 3 1/2 acres of wheat in the ground; Valentine had 3 cows & calves, 2 sheep and a mare.   George Rogers alias Ball in 1645 had 2 looms and the usual appurtenances, but also 5 cattle, 3 colts and 2 pigs and a considerable quantity of cheese.  He left a loom to each of his 2 sons, one of whom was probably the Hugh Ball alias Rogers who in 1668 had 3 looms, yarn valued at 70, 4 pieces of tick and flax both in house and at spinners.  They must have been a family of some importance locally for two of them to have been buried in the centre of the nave of St. Michaels in the early 1700's.

Not all the weavers were of such substance.  In 1628 Edith Harris, widow, had one loom and a warping bar, each with some blue chain on them, a couple of turns, some 20 spools of yarn and a small amount of loose yarn & tow, but her whole effects were valued at under 10.  There are quite a few cases of weavers with but one loom, and it is to these that the larger operators would have contracted out their work. There are cases in the overseers accounts of the purchase of looms to give to paupers - 1 seems to have been the going rate for a loom.

As in the case of the woollen industry, such a large number of small independent weavers called for some form of commercial nexus if anything wider than the local market was to be tapped.  We are singularly fortunate that in Mere we have quite a lot of knowledge on this aspect.   That same Duchy account roll of 1295 which tells us of the fulling mill names only one tenant by surname - one Thomas Harding, the earliest identification of any Mere surname;  the family could be found in the area right into this century, nearly all as farmers.   James Harding, however, born in 1655, became a cloth and tick merchant and was a substantial member of the local community; he owned Benjafield Farm, North of Milton-on-Stour, and on his death in 1725, by which time he was described as a gentleman, left an annuity for the poor of Mere charged on part of the farm.  His son, also James, born 1688, continued and expanded the business; not only did he deal in ticking, but he also bought and sold woollen cloth from other parts of the West of England, and indeed from Essex and Yorkshire and built up a substantial trade with Hamburg, Portugal and the American colonies.   Whilst he continued to own Benjafield, and also acquired substantial other landed estates at East Mark, Yarlington & North Cadbury in Somerset, we know that he lived in, and operated from, a double fronted two storey house in the Square at Mere, with substantial warehousing at the rear, probably leased from the Longleat Estate.  By 1810 this had become the "White Hart" inn, though it was to have a relatively short life as such, being bought by Charles Card in the 1860's and redeveloped as a private house; its present use as a Chinese takeaway is a long way from its origins.  Few people can imagine it as the centre of such substantial foreign trade.

A simple slab in front of the altar rails of St. Michaels records "Hic jacet Jacobus Harding, Armiger, obiit 21 Feb AD 1775 aetat 87".  A press report at the time[3] said that his estate was reputed to be 300,000; though one has to think that this was a serious exaggeration he had undoubtedly built up a very substantial fortune.  He had gradually withdrawn from business, and seems to have been a lender of capital locally.  He left no immediate family; his sister had married in 1718 Thomas Beach of Fittleton, and the bulk of his estate was left to her son William Beach, whose daughter married Michael Hicks in 1779.  This Michael assumed the additional name of Beach, and ultimately his family, as Hicks-Beach, became the Lords St. Aldwyn; for some time, however, members of the family retained a connection with Mere.

At sometime in the early XVIIIc James Harding took into his employment as a clerk one Henry Hindley;  there is a tradition that he came from the Wigan area of Lancashire .  Whilst at first sight this sounds strange, one has to remember that at that time Wigan was the centre of the fustian trade, which was of course linen based originally, and it is likely that this Henry was the brother of a James Hindley, also from Wigan, who was a flax merchant in London, so that it is quite feasible that if Harding was looking for an assistant he could well have been in touch with James to find one.  

By 1751 Henry Hindley was trading on his own account, having borrowed 800 from Harding and a further 600 from the rector of Silton; he continued to manage Harding's business for him, but as his employer gradually withdrew from the business he took over his contacts; he also retained a business relationship with Beach, who retained ownership of Harding's house.  Hindley operated from the next door house in the Market Place, now the bakery, which also had substantial warehouse space at the rear.  He continued trading till his death in 1783, though he did not leave anything like the fortune that his former employer had.  By this time the linen trade was in decline, though his son Henry Plucknett Hindley carried on the trade, and was indeed a tick maker of some repute at Wolverton, though this business also finally collapsed.  Henry's grandsons, who had moved to London , returned to the area, both marrying daughters of the Maggs family in Bourton and becoming the well known engineers there.  Strangely, the Wigan family had been blacksmiths and engineers.

Three of Hindley's letter books, much mutilated, covering various periods between 1762 & 1775, have survived and are in the Wiltshire Record Office.   In 1963 they were the subject of a detailed study by the respected textile historian Julia deL. Mann, published by the Wiltshire Record Society; they give some fascinating insights into the working of the linen trade of the time.[4]

Whilst both of the Hardings, father and son, and Hindley were predominantly ticking merchants, they continued to deal fairly heavily also in woollen cloths.  It may well be that it was in this area that they first went into trade, and that, having well established connections they continued in that trade even after the surrounding area did not supply their stock.   We find Hindley buying West of England cloths from as far afield as the Cotswold area to fill the orders he has from abroad.

What to our modern eyes is the strangest aspect of their trade is the very considerable overseas element that it contains.  Bearing in mind that Mere is far from any sea port or any established mercantile centre, and that it was only in Hindley's time that the turnpike brought through road traffic into the town rather than along the edge of the Plain above it, it is about the last place where one would have expected to find a merchant dealing on an everyday basis with the Baltic and with Portugal, but this was the situation.   How this originally came about we do not know, and can only assume that it was in the days of Harding senior, and that he was originally an exporter of woollen cloth to Lisbon and to the Hamburg market, with ticking being added to their trade.

The nature of the trade into these two areas differed.  In the case of Hamburg , cloth and ticking were supplied from Mere through local agents there.  Through these agents, Hindley purchased both raw flax and linen yarn in very considerable quantities for import.  He maintained an open account with these agents, settling the balance from time to time by by drawing or accepting bills.  His letters give fascinating insights into the development of international trade before the advent of a fully developed banking system;  he himself had an account with his neighbour, Hoare, but this seems to have been on a personal basis only and he did not use them for his overseas trade, which was all settled by bills of exchange, bought and sold by agents in London and abroad.

The Portuguese trade was radically different, as exports could not be matched against imports of flax and yarn, the only trading commodities of direct local interest here.  The exports were of cloth and tick, and the Portuguese economy, which had suffered severely from the great Lisbon earthquake, was not in a postion to provide ready cash to pay for purchases.  Frequently Hindley would purchase wine to have shipped back to England for sale, but another item in which he dealt, in large quantities,  was olive oil - as much as 6 pipes [about 750 gallons] in one consignment.  This was not an epicurean trade;  the oil would have been for use in woollen manufacture, to replace the natural oils lost by the wool in the cleansing processes.  The Portuguese had exchange controls which in theory prohibited the export of gold, and on occasions he arranged for small parcels of bullion to be secreted in return cargoes for settlement of accounts.   By 1774 Hindley is making it quite clear that he does not wish to take on any more customers in Lisbon for the cloth trade.

Although the West country flax based trades owed their origin to the locally grown raw material, production very soon seems to have outstripped the local crop, leading to heavy dependence on imported materials.  We have already noted the appearance of Hamburg yarns in the late XVIIc probate inventories; one wonders at the significance of the reference in the case of William Hooper in 1694 to 4 worth of "the outlandish Hamborg yarn" - was it only just coming into use, or do we have an example of pre EEC chauvinism?

In the 1760's Hindley is arranging with his Rotterdam agent for shipments of flax through Southampton, Poole or Weymouth , or even Lymington, where Dutch ships were going for salt.  This reminds us that for quite a long time the wool trade continued through ports such as these - wool shipments continued through Lyme Regis to quite a late date.   Dutch or other neutral ships were favoured, to avoid the additional duty payable from there if an English ship had been used; moreover insurance on Dutch ships was at 11/2% as against 6% on English bottoms - a reflection of war risks.  On one occasion he was even prepared for his flax to be shipped via Bristol . However, the use of these ports seems to have been dropped, with a heavier reliance on the Hamburg trade.  From there, the pattern developed of shipment by English ship to London . This had to be a seasonal trade, as the Baltic rivers froze in the winter - a matter of some moment to Hindley, who wanted his shipments in the very early spring at the latest.   In London the cargo was transferred to barges which took it up the Thames & Kennet to Newbury, then the head of navigation and an important inland port. From there it had to come overland to Mere; sometimes carriers were used, particularly Edward Hatherell of New Barn, Andover, but he also quite regularly arranged for local farmers, such as William Maidment and the Jukes, to go with their wagons to Newbury to collect his goods.  The loads were very substantial ones, and the yard in Market Place must have been a hive of activity. 

In 1762 Hindley is buying large quantities of yarn through his agents in Hamburg, but insisting that it must be shipped by April, as there is little sale for it in Mere after  mid-May.  This reflects the fact that during the summer most of the weavers were employed in farming, and that weaving was a winter occupation. There are frequent references to shortage of finished cloth as all the labourers are engaged in the harvest. In August 1774 all the workmen are out in the fields haymaking, and even at the end of October that year, there having been a long harvest, there are now plenty of apples, employing many workmen making cider.

Flax continued as a local crop, and indeed Hindley spoke highly of the quality of West of England flax.  In 1763, when a spring drought was threatening the harvest here, he was making enquiries in Lincolnshire to see whether that county could produce an equivalent product, though nothing seems to have come of this.  However, there was never enough to meet the demand, and it appears that only about a third of the material was locally grown; already the Irish linen manufacturers were a force to be reckoned with, and they competed with the local buyers for supplies.   Throughout, he was insistent upon using the best quality yarn, and had narrowed his choice of foreign suppliers down to a very few where he could count on getting the best.

A curious survival in the tick trade was the practice of specifying the finished product by its width expressed in the mediaeval measure of the "nail".  This was 2 1/4", one sixteenth of a yard or one twentieth of an English ell.   The most common width was 13 nails wide, 29 1/4", and was frequently specified merely as "nails".  For a long time this width remained as a standard one for bed-ticks.  All ticking had a narrow coloured stripe, usually blue but occasionally red, in the warp chain, and this practice continues to this day.   In Mere it was generally woven on three treadle [or heddle] looms; there was occasional demand for a more substantial tick woven on four heddles, but Hindley recommended those wanting it to look for it in the Fordingbridge area.  However in 1809 the trustees in the bankruptcy of Edward Butt sold at auction about 26 pieces of four needled tick.[3]

Hindley's letters occasionally give us little insights into daily life.  On August 4th. 1770 Harding has been very ill and confined to his bed for 2 months, Writing to his London agent, Hindley "begs the favour of you to buy him some portable soup made from beef, about 5s worth, and to send it per Andrew's flying wagon; I think he has wagons set out almost every day". In settling the agent's account with Hamburg   on the 13th he adds on 5s for the soup, which had presumably arrived.  In June 1773 he asks a London friend to buy him a good second-hand harpsichord for up to 25 guineas; apparently he was successful, as in his will the instrument is left to his wife.

He kept in touch with a jeweller, Frisquett, in Lothbury, and asks him to carry out commissions such as the purchase of lottery tickets and fishing lines;  later his children appear to lodge with Frisquett.

Not only the weavers had their smallholdings.  In Feb 1779 Hindley is writing to Wm Chafin Grove inviting him to start procedings against Farmer Wickham for putting his sheep into Mere Mead against the local customs.  We learn that Hindley has just under two acres of ground in Mere Mead, and is obviously concerned at the trespass, to the extent that he has twice had Wickhams' sheep impounded.  Although one would have expected butter to be a readily available commodity in Mere, on two occasions Hindleys buys barrells of it for himself and Harding from a farmer near Margam in South Wales , through a great nephew of Hardings.

By Hindley's death in 1783 the decline of the local industry had set in, and it seems that his personal fortune was very small.  By this time the various inventions which changed the entire face of the textile industries, and were spearheading the Industrial Revolution, were having their effect, so that ultimately the trade was to move to the industrialised area of Scotland and Ireland .  In Scotland , mechanisation of the various flax dressing processes had progressed throughout the XVIIIc, and by 1770 there were some 250 Scottish mills engaged in this work, with a capacity of nearly 3,000 tons of flax pa.  The Wessex trade was much slower to adapt - at Grove Mill at Burton Bradstock a stone tablet announces that "This flax-swingling mill, the first introduced in the West of England" was erected in 1803 - this in an area at the heart of the sailcloth trade, where substantial govenrment subsidies were being paid for growing of flax.  Nearer to us, at Bourton the Maggs family had embarked on the building of factory style mills, but Mere was so much on the edge of the traditional linen area that it had been slow to react.

However, while Hindley's son was continuing the tick business on a small scale at Wolverton, a new name appeared on the textile scene in Mere.  For centuries the Jupe family had been substantial farmers in the area, and a number of them had also been in the linen business.  In 1765 John Jupe was born in Gillingham and became a "linman" - a word which appears to embrace the commercial side of the trade as well as actual weaving.  So far it has not been found where he originally operated from, though it is known that he rented Wolverton farm for some years, and it could be that he succeeded Henry Plucknett Hindley there when his trade had collapsed during the Napoleonic Wars; as all his children were baptised in Mere it would seem that he was in the parish by 1806.  He married Ann Maggs of the Bourton linen family, and their children were to play dominant parts in the economic life of Mere through the next century, in farming, in textiles, and by the marriage of his daughter Ann to Charles Card, in retail trade.

By the end of the XVIIIc machine dressing and spinning of flax had become well established elsewhere in the country, and according to some sources it was around the turn of the century that John Jupe took over the old grist mill at Lordsmead and built Mere's first factory there, complete with bell, still in existence, for summoning the workers.  He installed the new 8hp. water wheel which survived until World War II, to power it.  There is however, some doubt as to just when these developments took place; in 1825 & 1833 John Jupe is paying rates for "the factory", presumably Lordsmead[5]; the factory returns of 1838 do not mention any mill, though there is machine spinning by the 1840 return, and T.H.Baker dated the installation of water power to 1837.  John's eldest son, Henry, born in 1800, joined him in the business, and at the age of 21  is already described as Mr. Henry, tickman and manufacturer on affiliation papers.  In Pigot's 1830 directory both John and Henry are shown as tick manufacturers, but by 1838 John would seem to have retired, as Henry alone appears, as flax spinner & tickmaker. By 1834 John, apparently retired, is rated for Deans Orchard, where he is living in 1841; by 1851 the wheel has come full circle and he is living in Hindley's old house in Market Place, where he died in 1855, leaving Lordsmead house and mill to Henry; he had acquired several other properties around the town which were left to other members of the family.

It seems fairly certain that it was only the spinning processes which were mechanised; the Factories return of 1850 reports that there were 500 spindles installed there.  The Handloom Weavers Commission report referred to there being some 500 looms in operation in Mere and its neighbourhood; this must include a fairly wide area, as only 50 weavers, male and female, appear in the 1851 census.  These weavers continued to work either in rooms in their cottages or in sheds attached to them, and the report gives their average wage as 11/= to 11/6d per week.  A surviving billhead[6] of Henry Jupe in 1848 announces him as "Flax spinner, & Linen, Tick & Cheesecloth Manufacturer".  By then he is the last man in the trade, and he seems to have given up the business around 1860; he was living at Lordsmead in retirement in 1861, with his wife Anna, who was Henry Hindley's granddaughter.  Their daughter Rose Anna married James Lander, and their descendants live at Lordsmead to this day.

If Henry Jupe's retirement marked the end of one textile era in Mere, it overlapped another, of which his brother Charles was the main protagonist, and which was to last throughout most of the XIXc and was to be a truly factory based trade. 

In the latter half of the XVIIIc changing fashions and greater prosperity throughout the country had led to a vast expansion in the demand for silk.  Silk weaving, apart from a few isolated small concerns, was concentrated on the Spitalfields area of London and parts of the Midlands and Cheshire .  The first stage in production was the cleaning of the filaments imported from Italy and the Middle and Far East , and their "throwing" or spinnning into thread for the weavers.  This process was originally a manual one performed by young girls, who alone had the dexterity to handle the very fine fibres.   Early in the 1700's John Lombe had, by devious means, obtained details of a newly invented Italian machine to speed the process, and had installed it in his new mill in Derbyshire.  Use of these machines spread, but the process remained heavily dependent at all stages on the availability of a large force of girls for its operation.   The increasing demand led the throwsters to establish new undertakings in various parts of the country where labour was cheap, and Wessex , with its notoriously poorly paid agricultural labour force was ideal for this. 

This silk throwing industry differed radically from its woollen and linen predecessors.  In the first place, the fibre being processed was of a different nature - fantastically fine, so that some 30 threads would only be 1mm thick in all; one can readily realise how suitable the work was for children and young people, and that as they grew up they lost the dexterity required.  By its very nature, the raw material was thus very valuable, and every ounce needed to be accounted for;  even the waste fibres were capable of being spun into a coarser thread.  As a result, home working was out of the question, and for the first time the whole operation had to be carried out on the employer's premises; this spelt the final end of the domestic system and henceforth all production was factory based.

Moreover in the case of wool and linen the entire process from preparation of the original fibre through to weaving was vertically integrated and all carried out in the same district, with ownership of the materials generally lying with the spinner or weaver, with the clothier or merchant arranging for the marketing of the cloth.  In the case of silk it was just one stage of the process that was carried out by the throwsters, and they did not actually own the silk on which they were working, but worked basically by processing for the weavers elsewhere on a commission basis.   They were thus sheltered from the marketing requirements, but by the same token were at the mercy of the weavers for work.  This left them wide open to competition, both from the large number of concerns which had been established in this country and also from competition from abroad. It is not surprising that the history of the XIXc industry is littered with the bankruptcies of throwsters.

The first throwster near Mere was at Gillingham, where around 1769 Stephen Hannam, a local Quaker who owned the Town Mill, realised the potential and established the Gillingham Silk Company, which became a thriving concern until foreign competition led to its closure in 1895.  Hannam had an arrangement with the Borough of Lambeth to take girls from their workhouse, at the age of 8 to 10, to be apprenticed to the age of 18.

Some 10 years earlier a Whitechapel silk throwster, John Sharrer, set up a similar operation at Sherborne.  On his death in 1769 the business passed to his nephews George Ward & William Willmott.  While they had a factory at Sherborne, they set up a number of decentralised "silk houses" throughout Wessex .  Eventually the two split the business; Willmott continued at Sherborne, Cerne Abbas & Stalbridge, while Ward was based at Bruton, with silk houses at Kilmington & Maiden Bradley where the buildings still survive.  In 1824 Ward took over a large woollen mill at Crockerton, using water power and employing a large labour force; he became bankrupt in 1849 when the Crockerton mill was sold.

The Sherborne business of Willmott continued until 1885, when it failed, though a new company was formed as silk weavers rather than throwers, continuing up to recent days, having diversified into fibreglass.  At some stage Willmott established a silk house in Mere.  The first reference so far traced to this is the sale advertisment[3] in Nov 1814 of "a cottage and garden in Water Street with the Silk House and garden adjacent, let to Mr Thomas Willmott, silk throwster".  The Silk House is still referred to on the sale of a neighbouring property in 1834.   In 1825 Thos. Willmott is rated on a house, garden and silkhouse; in 1830 it appears that the liability for rates became that of "Mr. Maggs"; In 1831 it is "now Hy Maggs", but from 1832 to 1834 it is in the name of Charles Jupe.  The silkhouse was a row of 8 cottages when it was burnt out in 1861, but the cottages were rebuilt and still stand as an attractive feature in North Row. In 1841 an auction was advertised[3] of a building, 100 ft long & 20 ft wide, then used as a silk house, "well situated for trade in the town, in the occupation of Messrs Jupe &  Butt, with room for employing 120 hands, with a plentiful supply of water" These dimensions come close to those of the "Silk House" cottages in North Row, which Maggs had acquired  from Willmott, who we know was concentrating his activities from the scattered silk houses into his Sherborne factory.

The original silk throwsters were easily open to competition from local people who realised that it was a trade where entry was easy once a number of young girls had learnt the art and could be enticed into working for them, and it seems that this happened in Mere.  In Piggot's 1830 directory is the entry "Maggs & Co Silk Throwsters";  in 1819 Isaiah Maggs is rated on  watermeads, land and "Factory at Hinks Mill ", though the "mill adjoining factory" seems to have remained in the occupation of one Francis Webb, Maggs is also rated on a mill, which could have been either Lordsmead or the old fulling mill site. This Isaiah [1749/1827], was a tickmaker at Silton and obviously of considerable substance. He had one son, Henry, who seems to have inherited his father's estate [hence the appearance of the names of Isaiah & Henry at the silkhouse], and five daughters; one daughter, Ann, married John Jupe and another, Emma, married Frederick Butt, a member of another of the local linen families. Henry left no children, and on his death in 1840 he left his many properties in the area to different relatives.  Amongst these were his sister Anne, wife of John Jupe, and their children - Henry & Charles amongst them - and another nephew Ambrose Butt.

Thus we have the Maggs/Jupe connection firmly established in the old silk house and at Hinks Mill.  However, an unlocated second silk house appears. Whilst the Jupe family had all been members of the established church, Charles, John's youngest son, born in 1806, although brought up in the Established Church, with a reputation for enjoying secular delights, became engaged to Hannah Forward, a member of a strongly non-conformist Zeals family, and himself became an Independent, ultimately becoming a mainstay of the Congregational Church. On 13th June 1829, with three others, he obtained a Meeting House Certificate for Independents "at our silk house in Church Street , Mere". This is an enigmatic address; no building has been identified in Church Street remotely like those usually employed as silk houses.  A possible clue is that in 1853 the Band of Hope held a grand tea in "Mr. Charles Jupe's old tithe barn" - was this the long since demolished barn in Castle St ?   Whose silk house was it, and why did it exist in addition to those of Maggs?  What was the purpose of another Independent Meeting House, when the Congregationalists had been established in Boar Street for 30 years?    

Charles Jupe himself lived in Dewes House after his marriage in 1833 to Hannah Forward, a member of another of the old linen families.  We know that he was in partnership with Ambrose Butt, his batchelor cousin, and it seems a reasonable supposition that originally the senior partner was Isaiah Maggs, followed on his death by his son Henry.  When the latter died in 1840 he left the Leasehold of Hinks Mill, then occupied by his two nephews, with all machinery and fixtures, to them.   This, like Lordsmead, was an old grist mill, with a substantial house beside it, and it seems that the firm established themselves there during the 1830's.  Very considerable capital investment was made there, including a 10hp water wheel and the building of a substantial new factory building to the North of the road. Some years ago all this new building was demolished, and we have no trace of what machinery was used there.  However Mrs. Joan Mills remembers playing in them in her childhood, and that there were two very large holes in the floor at first floor level which had to be avoided.  Now we know that the Lombe throwing machine was a two storey affair, round which the operators worked at both levels, which would have needed just this kind of arrangement, so it is inferred that there were at least two of these machines there. In the mill there was also living accomodation for a number of girl employees, who appear in the 1851 census; they were all born locally, and there is no suggestion that Jupes employed workhouse apprentices from elsewhere - this practice, anyway, was prohibited at around this time.

The partners seem to have built up a successful business which was prospering even at the time when their predecessors Willmott & Ward were in financial straits.  The trade always seems to have been a precarious one, easily open to entry by outsiders in good times, but subject to the vagaries of demand, tariff policy and foreign competition.   By 1848 Charles Jupe owned the copyhold of the Grange, in Water Street , the farmhouse formerly the Duchy bailiff's house, where he lived till his death, and had knocked down the farm buildings to build another factory.  This one, however, had no water power on site, and in the absence of any evidence of steam power being installed we have to assume that only manual operations such as cleaning were carried on there.

By 1851, when he was 45, with a 17 year old son Isaiah Maggs Jupe, Charles had already established an imposing business. The census shows him employing 3 foremen, 3 or 4 semi skilled men, and a labour force of 167.  Of these 3 were under 10, 9 boys & 60 girls under 15, and 49 girls under 20.  Of the total 151 women, only 5 were married, all over 37.

In 1852 Ambrose Butt died, leaving an estate of some 6,000 to his brothers and sisters; the copyhold of Hinks Mill would have reverted to Jupe, then the sole proprietor of the business . From then the Mill House was occupied by silk workers.

Some years after Henry Jupe's retirement Charles took over Lordsmead Mill as additional working space.  He installed woodworking machinery there to produce the bobbins, probably from local alder, on which the silk was wound. 

This acquisition, however, was a small one in comparison with the purchase in 1849 on the bankruptcy of Ward, of the latter's Crockerton works.  These had an area of some 9,000 sq ft with a new 30 hp water wheel.  He installed his brother-in-law William Forward there as resident manager.  By 1883 110 hands were employed at Crockerton alone - 6 spinning rooms, a doubling room, a winding room & a drawing room, all 68ft long & 19ft wide.

As if this were not enough, in 1874 Jupe built a completely new factory in Pound Street at Warminster, a long 2 storied building with two steam engines - one source refers to a gas engine. Work started there with 70 hands transferred from Crockerton, and at the peak over 160 were employed at Pound Street alone, using 2,000 swifts.

Charles Jupe died in 1883, probably the most influential man in the town.  His great memorial is the Congregational Church, but that aspect of his life must merit a study of its own.  The business was continued by his son, Isaiah Maggs Jupe, who had been living in Castle House, now under the by-pass, but moved to the Grange on his father's death.

Contemporary descriptions of such works are rare, and we are fortunate to have in the Warminster Journal of 24th March 1883[7] a description of a visit to Jupes' operations.  We learn that by then the raw silk came first to Mere, in the form of skeins of fine thread unwound from the cocoons in the place of origin, but requiring cleaning, which included removing the gum which had bound the threads in the cocoons,  and rewinding onto "swifts", graded according to size and quality.  From Mere the threads, wound onto the bobbins made at Lordsmead, were passed on to the Warminster factory, where some 160 operatives worked on 2,000 swifts, carrying out yet further sorting and cleaning.  Finally the silk went to Crockerton, where the final processes of throwing, doubling and spinning were carried out; the finished article was then run off the bobbins into skeins, still in the white state, to go elsewhere for dyeing and weaving.  We are told that the average weekly output was some 60 million yards of thread  To the 160 operatives at Warminster had to be added 110 at Crockerton, and as the 1881 census showed 190 employees in the industry in Mere, we can see that in all employment was given to nearly 500 people.  The reporter had not visited the Mere factories, and one suspects that in fact some of the later proesses may well have been carried out here as well as in the newer works.

The greater part of the labour force were still young girls, and this persisted to the end.  An analysis of the 1891 census for Mere produces the following categorised as sorters, parters, packers, washers, driers & labourers:-

                         AGE    Female    Male

                        10-14   42                    13 *

                        15-19   60                    1

                        20-24   25                    1

                        25-29   13                    2

                        30-39   8                     3

                        40-49   6                     2

                        50+     7                    5

                                   161                27  

            *9 of these are shown as part time scholars; probably most of the remainder of this age group should also have been so recorded                                         

Examination of the occupation of the heads of households where these workers lived give 90 of them as members of 50 households of labourers or farm workers, 18 in artisan or retail families, 13 widows & 6 others living alone, and 11 lodging, usually with families already involved in the silk industry.    In addition, as well as Jupe himself, there are 3 men in managerial capacities, 1 male foreman 1 female overlooker & some 7 workers who seem to be in more senior positions.

From this one can see that the silk industry gave employment to few heads of households, but rather supplemented the income of many working class families.  That is not to say that it did not make a quite substantial contribution to the welfare of the town.  The wages paid to the girls sound dreadfully meagre - memories of elderly residents some years ago refer to the part-time children getting 2/6d per week, and the grown girls possibly 7/= - but against the background of farm workers being paid about 10/= per week, one can see what a difference these few shillings must have made to the household budget.  Those families with 3 or even 4 children working in the mill were relatively well off.  There were, moreover few opportunities to do better other than by migration.

An interesting sidelight is thrown on social conditions in the mid XIXc by a book amongst the Parish records[8] , the "Silk Girls Book".  In the parish ledger, there appears for the first time on 4th May 1829 the entry "Silk Girls out of employ - 8.3.1" as a disbursement by the Overseers of the Poor.  A number of like payments follow at regular intervals, but with no details; from 8th Jan 1830, when the book starts, the ledger entries are supplemented by it, listing the names of those receiving this benefit, with the number of days lost by each, usually paid for at the rate of 2d per day.  Some 46 names appear under the first entry, and payments are made at this level until March, after when there are only occasional payments to some half dozen girls.  Presumably this was a time of local hardship due to lack of trade for the silk works.

The 1891 census reveals a development for which no other evidence has yet been found.  Charlotte Meade, a 47 year old widow, is "overlooker at silk weaving",  and 4 girls give their occupation as silk weavers; these are all in the Town tithing, where the enumerator was particularly precise, and it could be that some of the "silk workers" in the rest of the town may also have been weavers.  This is the first reference found to weaving as distinct from throwing, so that it may well be that Isaiah Jupe had decided to attempt to diversify.

By this time the throwing industry was in fairly desparate straits.  It had always been vulnerable, and since tariff reform in 1860 had been struggling.  These reforms had removed the import tariff on thrown silk, largely from France , without balancing abandonment by the French of their tariffs on imported silks, and it is hardly surprising to find strong opposition to Free Trade in all local political comment.  The mid 1890's saw the final demise of the industry locally.  The Sherborne and Somerset operations had already closed, and the Gillingham mill lingered on till 1895.   In Mere Isaiah Maggs Jupe finally closed all his factories in 1894, causing very considerable distress locally.  The linen trade had failed gradually over a long period, but the sudden final collapse of the silk industry must have been catastrophic, with few opportunities of other emplyment.  A reflection of this is the fact that the Duchy of Cornwall allowed a large number of cottages to decay around the turn of the century; these simply disappeared, though a small number of new ones were built by the Duchy and are readily recognisable.   It is also highly signigicant that virtually all of the old Mere families had members who migrated around this time - some to South Wales or London , but many to the New World and to Australia .

Not only were the people redundant.  Hinks Mill just fell into decay with no further use.  Lordsmead Mill likewise stood empty for a long time apart from use as a store by Waltons, until the growth of the Hill Brush Company gave it - and its wheel - a new lease of life.  The Crockerton factory likewise stood derelict, and was finally demolished in 1921.  Only the Warminster factory remained in industrial use; after standing empty for some years it became a shirt factory, & then a government wool store. Strangely, in 1925 it was acquired by Brocklehursts, the Macclesfield silk makers who wove silk there until 1958.

Isaiah Jupe left the Grange and went to live at Crockerton. However, the family connection with the silk trade did not end at once.   In spite of the whole Mere operation having been summarily closed, shortly after the Jupe name appears as the owner for some years from 1895 of the large former woollen mill at Malmesbury, which had been used for some few years previously for silk manufacture, where silk was thrown and "Mr. Jupe" obtained the contract for the weaving of the black silk squares which were part of Naval uniform.  Enquiries in Malmesbury have completely failed to obtain any further information about this operation, other than that C.W.Jupe was a local resident in 1903, and that the Wiltshire Silk Manufacturing Co was relatively short lived .  This Jupe can only be Isaiah's son, born in 1864, who was living in Crockerton in 1890, and presumably looking after the works there. It is curious that a new venture was undertaken in Malmesbury when so much potential was in existence in Mere.

The Mere Parish Magazine for Dec 1899 carried the news that the Water St. silk factory re-opened on November 27th with between 20 & 30 hands, winding, drawing and doubling, on machinery from Macclesfield, with power from a gas engine, and that there were vacancies for employment,  This venture was stated to be by the Wiltshire Silk Manufacturing Co. Ltd, with Mr. Charles Jupe as managing director, but it is not clear whether the Mere and Malmesbury operations were carried on together. However, the Mere venture seems to have been as short-lived as the other.  From this time the name of Jupe disappears from the Wiltshire scene entirely.

Whilst this was the end of some four centuries of textile production in Mere, mention has to be made of two small "tailpieces".  A note in the Parish Magazine in 1906 reports that the newly re-formed Royal Wilton Carpet Company had taken a lease of the old works at the Grange, which was being used by Waltons as a store, and started the hand-weaving of carpets there.  This was entirely manual work, the tufts being fed into the warp by hand.  Again, mainly girls were employed, at very low wages.  This use continued until 1939, when this works, with the other outstations at Downton & Tisbury, were closed.

In 1917 a Mrs. Denlow and her family came to Mere from Chard, where her husband, who had been killed in the War, had been employed by a lace making company.  She set up a small operation in a building at the back of the Ship Hotel, carrying out finishing repair work on lace made by the Chard company, Bowden & Co.  The lace came by train to Gillingham and on completion was returned to Chard.   Once more, it was work ideally suited for young girls, being very fine and requiring great dexterity. Up to 30 girls were employed at one time, earing up to 1 a week on piece work.  Again this business ceased around WWII, thus finally ending Mere's textile history.

What remains of these industries?  The fulling mill is a patch of scrub by the Shreen Water. The linen weavers did not need upstairs windows, but worked in downstairs shops; maybe some of the outhouses in our older cottages may be all that is left of the trade, but are quite unidentifiable.  Harding's house is the site of a Chinese takeaway, though Hindley's house, now a bakery, still graces the Market Place. One wall of the Crockerton factory remains, while the fate of the Warminster factory is unresolved. Only the corn mill building and the house remain at Hinks Mill, the flax factory at Lordsmead has been tastefully converted to a house, and at the Grange all that remains of the silk works is one wall overlooking Dark Lane.   All those who worked in the industry are long dead, and in all too few cases did they leave any record of their memories.  We can only conjecture and guess at the tools and machinery they used, and the only archival evidence remaining is that in Hindley's letter book.  Few visitors to our town to-day ever realise what was once the base of its prosperity, and that an international trade was carried on here.



1.  quoted & translated in Sir Richard Colt Hoare "The Hundred of Mere"

2.  Probate inventories in Wiltshire Record Office.

3.  MS notes of T.H.Baker, in custody of the vicar of Mere.

4.  Wiltshire Textile Trades in the 18th Century, Wiltshire Record Society 1964, &  WRO 372. 

5.  WRO 438/15

6.  Mere Womens Institute Scrap Book.

7.  Warminster Journal, copy in Warminster Library.

8.  WRO 438/35.


The writer wishes to thank the County Archivist , Mr. Stephen Hobbs, and all the staff at the Wiltshire Record Office for their great help during the researching of this paper.  For the section on the linen trade, and in particular Henry Hindley, he is indebted to the Wiltshire Record Society's edition of Hindley's letters, and to Julia de L. Mann's introduction thereto.  Thanks are due to the people of Mere for their recollections, and in particular to Miss Anne Lander, a direct descendant of Henry Jupe, for her advice on spinning and weaving.