Axminster’s second carpet era
In 1937, 101 years after the bankruptcy and sale of the original Whitty carpet factory, carpet making returned to Axminster when Harry Dutfield moved here from Kidderminster with a small handful of trusted and skilled carpet makers with whom he had been working for several years.
William Henry (Harry) Dutfield had been born in Glasgow in 1908. Soon after he was born his family moved to Worcestershire, where his father worked as a carpet designer. In 1925 Harry started making rugs and carpets at home. The following year he moved into a factory in Kidderminster, but it caught fire and burned down. After that set-back he went into partnership, and opened a second factory under the name of Dutfield & Quayle. In 1929 they took on their first employee, and in 1931 they switched production to ‘gripper’ looms.
In the 100 years since the Whitty family had made hand-knotted carpets at Axminster, production had been transformed by the development of machine weaving. The first mechanised Axminster looms were developed in the US in the 19th century by Halcyon Skinner, and further development by Alexander Smith, another American engineer and entrepreneur. Most such looms were controlled by Jacquard punch cards, which determined the details of the designs which could be made.
Words and still pictures cannot adequately convey how early 20th century Axminster carpet looms worked, but if you click on the link you can watch a short video made by the National Wool Museum in Geelong, Australia.
In 1936, following a chance conversation on a train in which he learned that no carpets of any sort had been made at Axminster for 100 years, Harry Dutfield quickly spotted the marketing benefits of making Axminsters in their town of origin. He approached Axminster Urban District Council to see if there would be local support for reviving carpet making here. There was, and approval was quickly granted for the construction of a small factory near the railway station.
Pulmans Weekly News of 9 February 1937 ran a feature article entitled “Revival planned by new company: factory to be built at Gamberlake”. This reported that the new company was on the point of being established, and described the proposed factory as follows.
“Four bays of shedding will be erected almost immediately on a site acquired at Gamberlake and machinery will be installed towards the end of March. Production will probably begin early the following month on two looms of the latest Gripper Axminster type, and other looms will be added towards the end of September.
“A certain amount of key labour will be imported. Approximately 75 per cent male hands will be required, and it is proposed to train the younger employees, aged 20-25, to be weavers. In a few months the staff may number about 50. A 27” body carpet for fitting purposes will be the first type manufactured, and other types will be produced later.
“The factory, which will have all modern equipment, will be 132’ x 60’, and it will be conveniently adjacent to the main line of the Southern Railway Co. A siding will run alongside the premises, and special facilities has (sic) been obtained for the use of a roadway, which will be extended.
“The home market will receive the entire attention of the Company for a time. The carpet industry is at present in a flourishing condition. (…) An output of 1,000 yards a week will be the first aim of the factory. (…) The vogue for carpets in home furnishing and its use in motor cars and new cinemas has greatly increased the demand. One cinema recently constructed at Exeter alone required a mile of carpet. It is singularly appropriate that the industry to which Axminster has contributed so much in the past should be reclaimed for the town in the Coronation year.”
On 20 February 1937 Harry Dutfield, together with two leading Axminster businessmen, Sidney Owen Gill of Castle Mount (and Gill’s bakery and café) and Reginald John Luff of Latchmount (and Luff’s timber yard) established Axminster Carpets Ltd. Reg Luff owned the field at Gamberlake on which the factory was built, and the three of them remained directors of the company for many years, together with others who joined the board later. Harry and two associates (Norman Humphries and Jim Wright) then moved from Kidderminster to Axminster to install the first looms and to get production under way.
In an echo of Thomas Whitty’s achievement in 1755, on 12 May 1937 (Coronation Day) Harry displayed his first ‘Axminster from Axminster’ in the West Street showroom of W G Potter’s local furniture store. The recruitment of a local workforce then started in earnest.
The following year (1938) Harry’s father moved to Devon to be chief designer to Axminster Carpets, and Harry sold his share in Dutfield & Quayle, leading to the formation in Kidderminster of Quayle & Tranter.
By mid-1939 Axminster Carpets had 12 narrow looms and about 35 employees.
Following the outbreak of war the factory switched from making carpets to building stirrup pumps and then aircraft parts (for Vickers Armstrong and Rolls Royce among others). Most of the workforce has been called up to fight by then. In 1940 J H Shand, a precision engineering firm whose Lewisham factory had been bombed, took over part of the factory space to carry out their own war work. Harry Dutfield always acknowledged how much he learned about engineering and production from Shands. After the war Shands built their own factory in Axminster which further increased the town’s attraction as a place to settle for engineers and technically-minded workers.
In late 1945 and 1946 several members of Harry Dutfield’s pre-war workforce returned to Axminster, and carpet making re-started, despite severe shortages of wool.
To ensure that key workers could be retained, Axminster Carpets set up a self-build scheme for 20 bungalows (at Dragon’s Mead, very close to the factory), under which the company provided a bricklayer, a carpenter and the materials, and the factory workers provided the site labour for a few hours a day after their shifts were over.
In 1947 new and wider looms (7’6” and 9’ wide) were installed. Most production at this time still comprised non-fitted carpets, stair carpets and rugs.
In 1950 Harry Dutfield spotted what he recognised as an opportunity. Unable to persuade the board of Axminster Carpets of the correctness of his vision, he nevertheless went ahead and acquired an old mill on the southern edge of Dartmoor, and established Buckfast Spinning Co Ltd. Before long the mill at Buckfast was supplying much of the yarn used by Axminster Carpets.
The 1950s was the start of a golden age for carpet makers in Britain. Once rationing ended and post-war house building really got into its stride, not least with the development of the New Towns, the demand for carpet, and then for fitted carpet, grew rapidly. When Harold Macmillan told the British electorate in the early 1960s that they had “… never had it so good” he was giving voice to a common perception that after a period of hard work which lasted through the 1950s, living standards really were rising. Indeed, carpet production in Britain doubled in the 1950s.
Always keen to ensure that they attracted and retained good workers, Axminster Carpets, established a pension scheme in 1951 and opened a canteen to cater to the needs of shift workers in 1958.
In 1959 and 1960 Harry Dutfield and Axminster Carpets got heavily involved in establishing Marlin Carpets, a new carpet making venture in New Zealand. It was as a result of the time that he spent in New Zealand that Harry got so interested in the Drysdale, a strain of sheep based on the Romney Marsh, which had been specifically bred in New Zealand to produce carpet wool. He even imported 2 rams and 30 ewes with a view to converting British farmers to their merits, but their impact was very limited: the economics of sheep farming in the two countries were quite different.
In the 1960s Axminster Carpets started to instal newly-developed 12’ broadlooms in the factory. These wider looms made it much easier to satisfy the ever-growing demand for fitted carpets.
The carpet factor at Axminster had already grown considerably since its early days, but in 1967 Axminster Carpets bought Buckfast Spinning Co Ltd and in 1968 set in train a further major expansion of the warehouse and packing capacity at Axminster. This was at least partly funded by the sale of the company’s one-third share in Marlin Carpets. It was at around this time that Harry’s son Simon joined the company as a junior manager.
A good impression of the company and of some of the people who made up the workforce at this time can be got from an item published in the local newspaper and reproduced here as ‘1969 Axminster Carpets feature’.
As the business continued to grow throughout the 1970s the workforce reached about 600, and production doubled again. Although the factory won many major contracts to supply carpets to large public buildings (hotels, airports etc), it was the supply of carpets to private homes which always provided the business’ bread and butter.
By the mid-1990s the workforce (including Buckfast) was about 450. Within the factory at Axminster loom technology switched from Jacquard (punch-card) control to computers, linking design direct to manufacturing and significantly raising productivity.
A second video showing how Axminster carpets are made in the 21st century can be found by clicking on this YouTube Link.
In 1999 Harry Dutfield died, and his son Simon took over as Managing Director. By then Simon’s son Josh was also working for the family firm.
In November 1999 Windsor Castle was badly damaged by fire. Amongst the artefacts to be lost were some of the last carpets made by Samuel Ramson Whitty, which he had supplied to George IV shortly before the original Axminster carpets factory went bankrupt. Axminster Carpets Ltd won the commission to replace some of these, incorporating substantial elements of Whitty’s original patterns into the modern designs.
Despite strong sales to prestige projects such as this, overall sales were falling by the 2000s, reflecting the slowing pace of house building nationally, and the growing fashion for wooden floors and under-floor heating, which in combination depressed the demand for domestic carpet. The banking crisis of 2008/09 further hit confidence in the economy.
As a consequence, in March 2013 Axminster Carpets Ltd was placed into Administration. In April some of the assets were bought by ACL (2013) Ltd. Although about 100 jobs were saved, about 300 were lost, including all of those at the Buckfast Spinning mill. In 2014 there was a serious fire in the underlay department at Axminster.
In February 2016, shortly before the death of Simon Dutfield, H Dawson Wool of Bradford bought a controlling interest in the Axminster Carpets business, and introduced a largely new management team.
This sale brought to a close 79 years of Dutfield family involvement in carpet making at Axminster, one fewer than the 80 chalked up by Thomas Whitty and his family in the 18th and 19th centuries. However, unlike in Whitty’s era, the end of family control of Axminster Carpets Ltd did not coincide with the closure of the Axminster factory, which continues to work.