Witney Blanket Project website logo Witney Blanket Project website logo

The Witney Blanket Weavers' Company

The brass seal matrix of the Witney Blanket Weavers' Company. The word 'Wavers' is not a mistake, but the Witney dialect pronunciation of 'weavers'.
The brass seal matrix of the Witney Blanket Weavers' Company. The word 'Wavers' is not a mistake, but the Witney dialect pronunciation of 'weavers'.
The Witney Blanket Weavers' Company was the local trade guild, created in 1711 to regulate the blanket weaving industry in Witney.

The aims of the Company
There were many reasons that persuaded the master weavers of Witney to form this Company, the main one being to prevent poor quality cloth being dispatched from the area, which they thought would give other local weavers a bad name. Another important reason was that they needed to set a limit on how far out from Witney cloth could be woven and still have the 'made in Witney' hallmark. This limit was set at a 20-mile radius. Records do not show where all the weavers lived or worked, so it is not possible to tell if the maximum bounds of the charter were ever strictly observed.

A report by the Commissioners of Trade made in 1640 recommended that Witney should have a guild to deal with the problem of fraud in the clothing industry. A trade recession in 1669-1670 caused local weavers to address a petition to Lord Clarendon about the possibility of a guild being formed in Witney for the blanket weavers in order to protect their business. Nothing came of this, however and over thirty years passed before they raised the issue and tried again.

The granting of the Charter

The Charter of the Witney Blanket Weavers' Company.
The Charter of the Witney Blanket Weavers' Company.
In 1711 Queen Anne finally granted the blanket makers the Charter they had asked and waited so long for. There are no records that specifically state where the Charter was given or who received it on behalf of the weavers. What we do know from records held by the Early family is that the Charter was paraded into Witney accompanied by music from a band, the master weavers following on horseback carrying it and the tuckers walking behind them.

This new Charter stipulated who were to be the first officers of the Company. The High Steward was to be the Earl of Rochester, whom the Queen called 'my well loved cousin': he was in fact her uncle. He was an old man and died not long after accepting the post. The master weavers then had the option to pick their own High Steward. They chose a very influential local landowner, Simon First Earl of Harcourt, who held a large house at Stanton Harcourt, a small village about four miles from Witney.

The portrait of Queen Anne given to the Blanket Weavers' Company by Earl Harcourt.
The portrait of Queen Anne given to the Blanket Weavers' Company by Earl Harcourt.
The Earl was on good terms with Queen Anne, but he had also contrived to keep friendly with the Stuart family, who were the deposed Royal family in exile. This was rather a shrewd choice by the master weavers, who possibly wanted to keep a foot in both camps. The Earl was very generous to the master weavers and in return for accepting the post he presented them with a painting from his own collection, a fine portrait of Queen Anne painted by Sir Godfrey Kneller. Up until this day the Harcourt family have collected paintings of British monarchs and the only one that is missing from their collection is a portrait of Queen Anne which has never been replaced. This painting hung in the entrance hall of Early's offices until they closed permanently in 2002; it is now in the keeping of Oxfordshire Museums Service.

Besides the High Steward, Queen Anne appointed the first Master of the Blanket Weavers' Company, an elderly weaver called John White. He too died after a short space of time and again the blanket weavers had to pick a new leader. This time a younger fellow-worker was elected to lead them and Thomas Early became Master. Alban Redgate and William Marriott were elected to be his two wardens.

Activities of the Company

The Blanket Weavers' Company's silver tankard, probably used at official meetings.
The Blanket Weavers' Company's silver tankard, probably used at official meetings.
On completion of the Blanket Hall, the Company's new headquarters, in 1721 all aspects of the day-to-day running of the company were moved there. The inspection of woven cloth was rather complex: it was checked for over- or under-stretching (on both weft and warp) and checked for width and length. Each stockful would also have to be the correct weight. The weaving was checked for faults, as was the finishing work done by the tuckers. If the woven cloth failed any of the inspection checks the weaver or tucker would be fined.

Deputations from the cloth industry had been frequently made to the Crown and Government over many centuries. For example, Edward III had been asked to encourage the making of cloth in England in the 14th century. He applied an embargo on raw wool being exported from England. This in turn kept the price of wool down because it reduced the size of the market. Later Governments were in favour of more open trade with overseas markets and started to alter the laws of the wool embargo. The Blanket Weavers' Company sent deputations to the Government asking that wool should still be a prohibited export.

John Marriott's Master's sash, made in 1760 from blanket material.
John Marriott's Master's sash, made in 1760 from blanket material.
The Company also contributed to the Government in times of need. For instance, when Bonnie Prince Charlie invaded England from Scotland in 1745 with his Jacobite Army, it gave thirty guineas to equip a company of thirty men to serve in the Yeomanry under Viscount Harcourt (it seems as if the Harcourt family had now come completely round on the side of the reigning king and that both he and the Company of Blanket Weavers wholeheartedly supported the Crown). In later years, when invasion of Britain's shores was threatened by Napoleon, money was sent on numerous occasions to help in the defence of the realm. As things were getting dangerous for England again in 1797 when the fleet mutinied at The Nore, the Company was horrified and sent 50, 'for the purpose of bringing to public justice such lurking traitors as may have fomented and excited the mutiny'. In 1838 a large donation was also given to the Radcliffe Infirmary in Oxford.

The Company had a large warehouse in London (at one time it had two), with their own 'Lodge Keepers and Porters'. In these buildings would be kept vast amounts of finished blankets ready to be sold, either to the home trade or export. Having these large stockpiles of blankets also enabled master weavers to help each other. For example, if John Early had an order for 120 stockfuls of 'point' blankets, but only had 97 in the warehouse he would be able to take 23 stockfuls of the same type from one of his fellow weavers to complete the order. He would then pay the weaver concerned the price he had obtained. This was all possible because of the tests and inspections that all woven cloth had to pass before leaving Witney.

The end of the Company

The Blanket Hall in the late 19th century, after it had ceased to have any connection with blanket making.
The Blanket Hall in the late 19th century, after it had ceased to have any connection with blanket making.
From the beginning of the 19th century the number of independent master weavers in Witney declined as the industry became concentrated in the hands of a few large companies, and the membership of the Company declined with them. It imposed the last fine on one of its members in 1811 and by the 1830s was holding only two meetings a year. The Blanket Hall was sold off in 1844 and the Company records end in 1847 without even a final meeting to wind it up.

References
Plummer 1934
Plummer and Early 1969
Townley 2004