SILK WEAVING IN SOMERSET

Extracts from the Silk entry in A History of Somerset:

… the silk industry does not seem to have become active in the county until towards the close of the 18th century, when Cunningham (i) considers it ‘possible that the migration of silk-weaving to Taunton was due to London employers endeavouring to evade the regulations of the Spitalfields Acts’.  The introduction of silk weaving into the town in question dates, according to Toulmin (ii), from 1778, when the industry was begun by Messrs. Forbes and Wasedale.  Elsewhere in the county, however, silk-throwing had been practised for some years prior to this date, for in 1773, when, we are told, ‘three-fourths of the throwing mills in the kingdom were standing still,’ establishments of the kind at Bruton and Wells had ‘almost stopped’.  Messrs. Vansommer and Paul, silk mercers of Pall Mall, purchased in 1781 from Mr. Noble of Upper High Street, Taunton, a brew-house and premises, together with the right to use the water from a mill belonging to a Mr. Pounsberry, and started the manufacture of thrown silk.

In 1783 the property had passed into the hands of Mr. Wilmot of Sherborne, in partnership with Mr. John Norman of Taunton, who became the sole proprietor of the undertaking on the death of Mr. Wilmot in 1787.  In 1791 from 300 to 400 young persons were employed at Bruton silk reeling.  John Dutch, silk throwster, was carrying on his industry at Glastonbury in 1793.  Young, on his Northern Tour, relates that there was ‘a little in the silk way’ being carried on at Wells, which gave employment to a few children.  In 1808, there were ‘a few manufactories in the silk and woollen lines’ at Kilmersdon.   At Taunton, meanwhile, the silk trade continued to flourish. There were 32 looms for weaving at the mill belonging to Mr. Norman.

… The crape manufacture, which afterwards spread to Shepton Mallet, Croscombe, and Dulverton, had been started in Taunton in 1775, under the auspices of Mr. Leney, acting on the advice of Sir Benjamin Hammet. In 1822 there were 800 looms in the town, with an additional 200 in the neighbourhood.  In 1833 Messrs. Nalder and Hardisty were silk throwsters at Taunton, also weaving crape by power looms, and sarsnet and velvet by hand looms.  Eighty persons were employed at the silk-throwing establishment of Mr. John Hendebrouk at Taunton in the same year, three-fourths of the number being women.

In 1830 Messrs. H. Smith & Co. had a mill for silk and crape goods at Dulverton, worked by the Barle stream, Messrs. Leathes and Knowles being engaged in silk throwing at Ilminster.   Similar establishments were at work at Over Stowey, Milverton and elsewhere.   In 1831 there were silk factories at Bruton, Milton Clevedon, and Pitcombe, forty-five women and only one man being employed in the industry at the latter place.  In the parish of Kilmington the families of the agricultural labourers were largely employed in silk-winding.

… The raw silk, which was chiefly Italian, very little Bengal and China silk being employed, was sent to Milverton from London and Coventry to be thrown.  Women and children were almost exclusively employed in these mills, no man being engaged except a carpenter and a foreman; there were also a few small boys.  Many of the employees worked at home, the wives and mothers winding and preparing the silk for the mills, where it was carried by the children.  At one time, Mr. Lamech Swift, silk throwster of Milverton, had 300 hands at work, with 5,500 spindles; in 1831 there were only sixty persons employed, for whom work could scarcely be found on three or four days a week.

The decline in the trade was attributed to the low prices solely obtainable for thrown silk, this in turn being caused by the reduction of the duty on foreign thrown organzine from 5s. to 3s. 6d. and of that on foreign tram from 3s. to 2s., which was effected in 1829.  The great influx of foreign silk goods also had an unfavourable effect upon the prosperity of the home manufacture.

… Mr. John Sharrer Ward was employing 230 hands at his silk mill at Bruton in 1831, where his father and himself had carried on the business for over sixty-five years.  In 1823 this mill had given employment to over 800 persons.  There were then 15,700 spindles at work.  The numbers had declined by 1831 to 7,000.  Here as elsewhere throughout the West of England, fine Italian silk was chiefly used for throwing.   Women and children were mostly employed, at an average weekly wage of 2s. 3d.

… The silk industry was represented at Bruton in 1839 by Messrs. Ward & Saxon.  In 1859 there was a small silk-throwing industry at Wincanton, women and children being chiefly employed.  Crape and velvet have been manufactured from time to time in various localities; the crape trade of Shepton Mallet was spoken of in 1831 as ‘considerable’.  In 1856 Messrs. Hardesty & Phillipps were engaged in the same industry at Yeovil.  The modern silk industry of the county is represented by Messrs. J. Kemp & Sons, Evercreech, Bath; Messrs. James Kemp & Son, Darshill, Shepton Mallet, and by Messrs. Thompson & Le Gros, Merchants Barton, Frome; while at Taunton Messrs. Calway and Drillien are silk-throwsters at the East Street and Tancred Street Mills.

  

  1. Cunningham, English Industry and Commerce
  2. Toulmin, History of Taunton