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Early's

'Earlywarm' brand blanket label.
'Earlywarm' brand blanket label.

Dates of operation: 1669

Origins and history
The history of the different members of the Early family in the blanket industry is complicated but well documented: there were several branches of the family who were involved in the business, sometimes in partnership and sometimes as business rivals. The family also tended to use the same Christian names through many generations, which can sometimes make distinguishing individuals difficult.

The first Earlys involved in the trade

Painting depicting the Early family tree (the names are written onto the tree), which hung for many years in the company offices.
Painting depicting the Early family tree (the names are written onto the tree), which hung for many years in the company offices.
Richard Early, born about 1630, is the earliest member of the family known to have a connection with the textile industry in Witney. He was a 'man-mercer', selling clothing. His son Thomas (1655-1733) became the first weaver in the family, apprenticed in 1669 to a Mr Silman; he was fortunate enough to be left his master's business in his will. Thomas was Master of the Witney Company of Blanket Weavers in 1711-1712. His grandson, also named Thomas (1734-1809), is recorded as the first person to use the flying shuttle in Witney, probably about 1800.

The early 19th century
Edward Early (1775-1835) was using the north-east portion of New Mill as a spinning mill, in partnership with his brother John (1783-1862) and their brother-in-law Paul Harris. According to the 1838 Assistant Hand-loom Weavers' Commission, there were no less than four companies in Witney belonging to members of the Early family: John Early and Co. had 70 looms, Richard Early had 25, John ('King') Early 30 and Edward Early 35 [1]. Already the Earlys were the most important manufacturers of blankets in Witney.

Edward Early and Sons

Edward Early and Son advertising sign, dating to after the merger with Charles Early and Co.
Edward Early and Son advertising sign, dating to after the merger with Charles Early and Co.
Edward Early had a son, also called Edward, who entered the blanket making business, and the firm of Edward Early and Sons was prominent in the Witney industry for much of the 19th century. They concentrated on handloom weaving and mop-making at their factory at West End, Witney [2] and also leased Farm Mill from before sometime 1841 until the early 1860s [3].

During the 1850s there seems to have been considerable rivalry between Edward Early and Sons and John Early and Co. despite their close family ties, to the extent that in 1859 the notepaper of the former stated that they had 'No connection with any other Firm by the name of Early', but this situation had eased by 1860 [4].

Charles Early and Co.

Plaque outside Witney Mill, 1934. It reads, '1670 CHARLES EARLY AND COMPANY LIMITED 1934'.
Plaque outside Witney Mill, 1934. It reads, '1670 CHARLES EARLY AND COMPANY LIMITED 1934'.
It was Charles Early (1824-1912) who brought the various Early companies under one ownership, although in a piecemeal fashion. He was apprenticed aged 15 to his father John and was the last apprentice bound to the Company of Blanket Weavers [5]. By 1851 he was a partner in John and Charles Early and Co., which was based at Witney Mill.

Charles inherited the business when John died in 1862 and by 1864 it was known as Charles Early and Co., a name it retained until 1960 [6]. By 1860 Charles had started to install power looms at Witney Mill and in March 1888 bought the neighbouring Woodford Mill and an adjacent flour mill, transforming the Witney Mill site into the main production centre for the company [7].

As early as 1866 Charles had acquired an interest in part of the south-west half of New Mill, which he bought outright from the Ecclesiastical Commissioners in 1883 [8]. He acquired the remaining part in 1894 from Walter and Thomas Early and Co., bringing New Mill entirely under his control. About the same time, he also took over Edward Early and Son's business in West End, Witney, which was run as a subsidiary company, as well as Henry Early's mill at The Captains, also in West End [9].

Thomas and Walter Early and Co.
In 1874 the north-east part of New Mill was inherited by three of Edward Early's children, of whom one was Walter Early (1849-1894). Walter set up a spinning business there with his brother Thomas and they were also involved in mop-making in Bridge Street, Witney [10]. In addition, Kelly's Directory of 1891 lists 'Thomas and Walter Early, woollen manufacturers, West end' [11]: the location of these premises is unknown but it may be the building resembling a blanket mill that behind numbers 62 and 64 West End.

New Mill burnt down in 1883; the fire was thought by some at the time to be the work of Thomas Early who was considered to be eccentric or even insane. His part of the mill was though, heavily insured. In 1892 Charles Early recorded that he advanced Thomas and Walter 800 for a new building but only two years later bought their part of the mill for 3000 when Walter committed suicide [12].

Richard Early and Henry Early
Another branch of the family were involved in making blankets at Worsham Mill, which Charles' cousin Richard Early bought in 1864. When he died in 1874 it passed to his son Arthur, but Arthur became ill and the mill was leased for 21 years from 1877 to his uncle Henry Early, who made blankets there. It is possible that he also made cycles too, because when the mill was transferred to Pritchett and Webley the transfer document included 'the goodwill of the business of woollen and cycle manufacture' [13].

Henry had also acquired the factory on Woodgreen, Witney, and made blankets there from the 1860s until his business failed sometime in the 1890s - he is recorded as a 'woollen manufacturer' in Kelly's 1891 Directory [14] but does not appear in the 1903 edition. It is possible that his premises were just too large to be economic [15]. In addition, it was probably Henry who made blankets at The Captains, a small mill and warehouse in West End, Witney (very near Edward Early and Sons' West End factory).

Worsham Mill was transferred to Pritchett and Webley in 1896 [16], while Charles Early and Co. acquired the Witney premises of The Captains, probably at the same time.

The 20th century

Advertising sign for 'Earlywarm' brand blankets, first half 20th century.
Advertising sign for 'Earlywarm' brand blankets, first half 20th century.
Charles Early and Co. became a private limited company in June 1910, formally absorbed their subsidiary company Edward Early and Sons in 1921 [17] and became a public limited company in 1951. In 1960 it merged with James Marriott and Sons to form Charles Early and Marriott (Witney) Ltd. In 1963 Courtaulds Ltd acquired a large shareholding in the business, which brought new ideas and technology to the industry, especially the use of artificial fibres [18].

Charles Early and Marriott (Witney) Ltd. changed its name to Early's of Witney in 1981. In December 1984 Courtaulds' sold their holding in the company to Clayhithe, which brought in new management. Grovewood Securities made a takeover bid in March 1990 which succeeded after it was approved by Clayhithe, only for Grovewood to go into receivership a year and a half later, putting Early's into receivership with it.

Advertising booklet for Early's of Witney.
Advertising booklet for Early's of Witney.
A management buyout in December 1991, with substantial help from external investors, kept the company running, but it was barely profitable and the investment companies wished to realise the capital of the buildings and land that they had invested in. In 2001 Delta Steel bought the shares of the investment companies and in turn sold the land that Witney Mill stood upon to one of its holding companies, Aster Holdings. Despite assurances that all money earned from the sale would be used to relocate the factory in the area, Early's was closed down on the 19th of July 2002. The Early's name and weaving machinery was acquired by Quiltex and moved to Derbyshire, finally ending Witney's long association with the blanket industry.

Products and operations

Early's 'Witney Point' blanket label.
Early's 'Witney Point' blanket label.
Early's produced mainly blankets, which from 1925 were mainly marketed under the 'Earlywarm' brand; their range included point blankets for the North American market. They also made a wide variety of other products over the years, which included rugs, horse blankets, duffels, wadmill floor coverings and, at the West End factory, mops, horse collar linings, tiltings and flocks. At Witney Mill a few Jacquard looms made elaborately patterned rugs for export to South Africa and South America from about 1890 until 1920 [19]. From the mid-1950s the range of products increased to include electric blankets and cellular blankets (made from cotton for hospitals and woollen for the domestic market). 1965 saw the introduction of Fiberweaving machines, as well as German knitting machines for making cellular blankets.

Following the introduction of Fiberweavers much effort was put into maximising their use through new product development. These included, among other things, the very successful 'Warlord' range of carpet tiles for commercial applications (made from resin-impregnated artificial fibres), padding for corn plasters (made for Scholl), incontinence pads, slipper cloth (for the uppers of domestic slippers) and capillary matting.

Premises
Over the years the various branches of the Early family have occupied, owned or part-owned New Mill, Witney Mill, Farm Mill, Newland Warehouse and Mill, Woodgreen Mill, 55-56 West End and 'The Captains' (also in West End); after the merger with Marriott's in 1960 their combined premises expanded to include Worsham Mill and Mount Mill.