The Cloth Industry in Lacock
Early in Lacock’s history, the village was a flourishing town mainly due to its proximity to the London to Bath road; until the 17th century, Reybridge was the only bridge across the River Avon in the area, so Lacock was bound to be a thriving town. It became known for its wool and cloth in the 13th and 14th centuries, and this continued past the dissolution. In the 13th century also, there were some pottery and tile kilns at Naish Hill which provided floor tiles and pots for the abbey. By the 18th century, there were tanning pits near the Packhorse Bridge and the Tanyard only closed in 1928; as well as tanning and the older industries of spinning and weaving, many Lacock residents were chair-makers, and the farming community was also thriving.
In 1783, a new road to Bath, the present A4, was created and Lacock was no longer on a main route. It gave way to larger nearby towns such as Chippenham, in which bigger factories were built, and gradually the industries that were such a huge part of Lacock's growth and heritage died out. The cloth industry in particular suffered, and clothiers who prospered in the industry moved away from Lacock, settling in Chippenham and other parts of Wiltshire, where their trades could continue to develop. This meant that in the 18th century the industries changed significantly and by the 19th century most of the businesses in Lacock were other trades such as masons, carpenters and smiths, and the brewery at the wharf, the farming communities and other businesses.
In 1266 the Manorial Roll records payments made for spinning and weaving of tapet and russet. Russet was a type of coarse cloth and tapet is thought to be a form of carpet or decorative wall-hanging. Lacock was a good place geographically to flouish because of the readiness of the fullers earth, which was important for thickening broadcloth. Also the River Avon provided water to scour the cloths as well as the power to drive the fulling hammers. The growth of the town itself helped the cloth industry to grow alongside it. After the dissolution in 1539, the support of Lacock Abbey as a centre for industry ceased and the woollen industry went from being centralised and run by the abbess and nuns to a divided one between weavers, dyers and their apprentices.
The survival of the cloth industry relied on the survival and upkeep of Lacock's roads. Most wool was brought from local towns and the products that the clothiers made were sent to other areas, even travelling as far as London, so transport had to be good enough to cope with the products arriving in and leaving Lacock regularly.
The wool industry was generally a prosperous one, but like any other industry it was affected by the national state of affairs: a trade crisis of 1528-1531 caused many riots and left weavers and dyers very poor; many cloths were unsold or embezzled by the workers who resorted to crime to feed themselves. The wool trade was also subject to legislation such as in 1552 when there was a strict limit on the length, breadth and weight of broadcloth, and in 1555 when it was illegal for a country clothier to own more than one loom, or weavers to own more than two.
Also, broggers, who were brokers who bought wool from the graziers and sold it to the clothiers, made the price of wool rise. Ironically, another factor in the rising price of wool was the debasement of the coinage under Henry VIII and Edward VI, which Sir William Sharington was involved in with his frauds in the Bristol mint. So the owner of a grand estate and thriving wool town such as Sir William indirectly lowered the value of wool which one of his estates relied so much on for their sufficiency. Then, the enclosures and vagrancy legislations came into being in the late 16th century and it was generally a very poor period for the Lacock people. They then resorted to crime: in 1611, a clothier called William Miller was discovered to have broken the law prohibiting the keeping of looms outside a town, and in 1615 John Selfe was indicted for buying woollen yarn when he didn't intend to sell it.
However, the wool trade did pick up and there are lots of examples of clothiers throughout the 17th century doing well out of the businesses they were running.
In the 17th century, there was an independent dyer living in Lacock called Thomas Derrington who was a promiment member of society in Lacock: he had his own seat reserved in the church and was also a churchwarden. Another clothier of the 17th century was Isaac Selfe, who lived at Wick Farm but then rose in status, eventually becoming the owner of the Beanacre estate, and his son built Beanacre Manor in 1630. In Lacock, the dominant family in the cloth industry was the Colborne family.
The Colbornes lived, among other places, in Cantax House, a large house at the foot of Cantax Hill, and also at a nearby house in Church Street. The Colbornes had a large presence in Lacock and practised their trade for several generations before moving to Chippenham. They were a prosperous family, ending up as owners of an estate on the outskirts of Chippenham.
The Colbornes had good connections too, which must have helped with the development of the cloth business for them: the will of Samuel Mitchell of Notton in 1694 leaves his house in Notton to his grandson Thomas Colborne, who was the son of Thomas Colborne and Mitchell’s daughter Elizabeth. Mitchell also left his cloth mark called the Gold Cross to Thomas Colborne. This gave the clothier a financial advantage: it showed reputation, and could be sold for a considerable sum of money.
Inventories of the clothiers give us an insight into how they lived and worked. People tended to work in their homes rather than travel, so we can see which rooms in the houses were used for business. One inventory from 1690 goes through the majority of the house, mentioning chambers and other rooms as usual, and then goes on to note the value of the items in the wool loft. Houses belonging to clothiers had to be fairly wide to accommodate the broadlooms as well as having decent storage space for the wool and yarn. It is thought that the Porch House in Lacock probably belonged to a clothier early in its history, and this is suggested by the house’s wide proportions. The same can be seen at the house in Church Street.
The trade employed many apprentices and apprenticeships were made available to spinners, druggets, rugmakers, weavers, broadweavers, fullers and clothmakers. Between 1756 and 1776, the vicar of Lacock noted the occupations of the people who married at Lacock Church, and one fuller and over thirty weavers are noted as having married there. So the cloth industry was certainly prominent even as late as the second half of the 18th century.
The Colbornes and other clothiers, and the cloth industry in general are examples of the change in industry in Lacock, the decrease and increase in certain trades. Trades such as builders, carpenters, smiths and grocers stayed in Lacock and the workers continued to do the work for the Talbot family, but other industries outgrew Lacock. The main reason was probably the introduction of the new road in 1783, but it has also been suggested that the power supplied by the Avon was limited so did not cope with the rise in industry in Lacock; or possibly the landowners did not encourage the wool industry. It was becoming more mechanical as time went on as well: people were dubious about the machinery being used, and larger mills were built in bigger towns, and hand weavers began to be employed less.
The last clothier in Lacock, according to the census records, was Richard Perkins who lived at Pinnells Mill in 1851. He was retired by this point, and was aged 74. Some hand knitters and cloth factory workers still lived in Lacock, and some paupers who had previously been cloth weavers and cloth workers. So the industry in Lacock was definitely in decline by this point. Most of the people involved with the industry living in Lacock were retired cloth workers and others had either been superseded by the growth of machinery or moved to larger towns.
Ally McConnell, archivist