This section of the website is organised under five main headings, as follows:
- Farming and the livestock market
- Pre-industrial wool and weaving
- Town-centre businesses and professional services
Farming and the livestock market
The information included here mainly covers the period from around 1800 onwards (though for information about the wool sector in earlier times see the next heading, below).
One of the main elements is a webpage and linked set of documents which together make up an ‘Account of the Farms and Farmers of the Parish of Axminster since the Agricultural Revolution; Including Smallridge, Westwater, Weycroft & Wyke’ which can be accessed by clicking here. This provides information on who was farming the roughly 90 farms which can be identified in the parish, over the period from the 1830s onwards (and earlier where records have been found).
In addition, there are (or will shortly be) background items covering a range of topics including:
- Axminster and the London butter market, from the 1780s to the mid-19th century
- Flax growing in East Devon in the late 18th century
- The decline in cider making
- Axminster’s livestock market
Pre-industrial wool and weaving
By the time that Thomas Whitty started to make carpets in Axminster in 1755, Devon had been a leading centre for sheep farming, wool production and cloth making for over 200 years, based on roots which go back at least 400 years before that.
This part of the website deals with:
- An overview of early sheep farming, with particular reference to Devon
- Natural wool colours
- An overview of wool and cloth production in Devon prior to the 1830s
- Types of cloth produced in Devon
- The process of turning a sheep’s fleece into woven cloth in the pre-industrial era
In this context the pre-industrial era means the period before the 18th / 19th centuries, when textile production was characterised by widespread small-scale craft spinning and weaving, as opposed to the large-scale capital-intensive industry that developed primarily in Yorkshire in the 19th century. There was a period of 50 years or more when the two systems operated in parallel, but the direction of change was clear, and from the late 18th century onwards Devon’s textile industry was in clear decline.
In the specific case of Axminster the weaving of hand-knotted carpets provided some relief from this decline. Nevertheless, the process which was employed (basically intensive hand labour relying on children and young women) was a craft process rather than an industrial one, and when the carpet factory closed in 1835 that marked the end of commercial weaving in Axminster for 100 years.
It was not, however, the end of the textile industry in 19th century East Devon: the Coldharbour wool spinning mill at Uffculme, which operated on an industrial rather than a craft scale, opened for business at the very end of the 18th century, and for a long time continued to supply yarn to weaving factories in Somerset. It is now a working museum.
Early sheep farming
Sheep were among the first animals to be domesticated, possibly second only to dogs. Although all of the sheep that have ever been farmed in the UK were introduced, having been domesticated elsewhere, their owners found here a combination of conditions that suited their flocks well. Indeed sheep and their wool provided the foundation for the wealth which became increasingly widely spread throughout England in the 15th and 16th centuries. Flemish and Italian weavers were considered the most skilful and demanding, and they became good customers for English wool, which developed a reputation for quality based on being of a directly comparable fine-ness to continental wool, while being longer. This extra length made English wool particularly suitable for worsted production.
From the 14th century evidence can be found of three basic types of sheep being kept in England.
- A few were of a type whose ancestry can be traced back with reasonable confidence to the Bronze Age. The closest surviving breed to this ancient type is the Soay, a small, short-tailed, coloured-wool sheep which survived in the Western Isles of Scotland.
- Numerically, the largest group comprised polled (hornless) white-faced animals which produced predominantly white wool. Some sheep of this type had been brought to the UK by the Romans, but there had very probably been earlier introductions of similar animals before that.
- The third distinct group comprised relatively small, horned and black-faced sheep with quite long coarse fleeces. Those animals, whose modern descendants include the very widely farmed Scotch Blackface breed, almost certainly had Asiatic origins, but had been brought to England by Norse and/or Saxon settlers.
During this early Medieval period wool was of secondary importance to sheep farmers, whose primary concern was to produce milk from which they could make cheese, which in turn represented an important winter food. After milk and wool, sheep were valued for their manure, and finally for their meat.
As society became gradually richer, however, (and as cattle became more widely kept) the spotlight fell increasingly on wool, and the cloth which could be made from it. As cattle became more widely kept they pushed sheep keeping up-slope onto hillsides and higher ground. Given the tendency of sheep to suffer from foot rot on wetter land, this development was no bad thing for the sheep themselves, and the golden age of English sheep keeping (in the 15th and 16th centuries) saw the keeping of large flocks of sheep on the chalk downlands.
Distinct breeds as such did not exist at this time, but recognisable local ‘types’ developed to suit the natural variations in climate and pasture quality, and the origins of all these types can be traced back to the three original populations described above. By the 16th century sheep were generally described by reference to the county from which they came, and differences in both the animals and their fleeces became increasingly clear. It is perhaps surprising, therefore, to learn that monastic records do not reveal any evidence of active breeding with a view to improving wool production or quality.
This information, and much of the following analysis, comes from a paper by M L Ryder written in 1984 and entitled ‘Medieval Sheep and Wool Types’. This can be found on-line, together with two other papers by the same author from 1964, on the website of the British Agricultural History Society (bahs.org.uk: run a search there where author = Ryder).
By the 18th century the various county types were sufficiently differentiated to see in them the origins not just of most modern sheep breeds, but also of several others which have since died out. One point which is worth making at this point is that the different sheep types, like modern breeds, had fleeces with distinct characteristics based on their varying proportions of different fibre types (both hairs and different wool types). Whereas selective breeding and improved nutrition can affect the length of the wool which is produced, it cannot change a sheep which is characterised by a short-wool fleece into one that produces a long-wool type.
It would probably also be helpful to say something here about the way that different breeds of sheep are categorised. Although it can seem as though every different authority has a bespoke way of grouping breeds, these categories are usually based on the type of wool that the sheep concerned produce, and the conditions under which they thrive, usually combining these two very different features into a hybrid classification system. However, there is plenty of scope for disagreement over whether (for example) an adaptation to moorland habitat makes a sheep a mountain breed, or just a hill one.
The British Wool Marketing Board classifies all current British sheep breeds and their wool types under seven headings: fine wool breeds, medium wool breeds, cross-breeds, ‘lustre’ wool breeds, hill breeds, mountain breeds and naturally coloured breeds. (Their website, britishwool.org.uk, has photographs, descriptions and wool characteristics for all but the most obscure of modern-day breeds raied in Britain, organised under these seven headings.)
Although most mountain breeds have longer fleeces and produce longer staple and coarser wool than lowland breeds, there are plenty of exceptions to this general rule. The ‘lustre’ wool breeds also produce particularly long-staple fleeces.
Other authorities use the face colour of the sheep and the presence or absence of horns as additional ‘organising principles’ when classifying breeds.
The main breeds which had emerged in Devon by the end of the 18th century included the Exmoor, the Bampton, the Dartmoor and the South Devon, though by that time some leading farmers were starting to introduce other improved varieties, such as the Leicester (a long-woolled variety), the Southdown (a short-woolled sheep better adapted to meat production) and the Merino (characterised by very short but very fine wool), into their flocks.
This process of cross-breeding and improvement eventually resulted in the emergence of a larger number of recognised breeds, albeit with only small differences between some of them. In the case of the Bampton breed, after being extensively crossed with the Leicester it lost its name and its very local identity, and was transformed into the Devon Longwool (see below). By the 20th century the following breeds were recognised as native to Devon:
- Devon Closewool: a white-faced polled (hornless) breed producing relatively short medium quality wool suitable for making cloth or carpets.
- Exmoor Horn: a white-faced horned breed producing similar wool to the Devon Closewool.
- Devon Longwool: a white-faced polled breed incorporating genetics from the Leicester as well as the Bampton to create one of the relatively few true long-wool English breeds, producing wool a bit coarser than the Lincoln breed.
- South Devon: similar to the Devon Longwool, but with a finer fleece.
- Dartmoor: similar to the Devon Longwool, and appreciably larger than the Exmoor.
In Dorset, which influenced East Devon, the two most local breeds were the Dorset Horn, which is similar to the Exmoor Horn but with the unusual characteristic of being able to breed year-round, and the Dorset Down, which had been selected for its meat production, and which produced much shorter wool that the main Devon breeds. By the early 19th century the Dorset Down was the main breed of sheep to be found in East Devon, much in evidence on the Blackdown hills and other upland pastures.
By the end of the 20th century the Devon Longwool and the South Devon, which had always been very similar in type, had merged into the Devon and Cornwall Longwool, and the Dartmoor had split into the Whiteface Dartmoor and the Greyface Dartmoor. All three of these breeds are classified by the British Wool Marketing Board as producing ‘lustre’ wools largely for use in carpet manufacture due to their length and coarseness. All three, together with the Devon Closewool, also fall under the aegis of the Rare Breeds Survival Trust, reflecting their greatly reduced popularity among commercial sheep producers.
Natural wool colours
Most sheep now seen in the English countryside produce white wool, but there are still breeds which produce brown, grey and black wool. In Medieval times many woollen garments were made in their natural colours, and were not dyed at all. The cream-and-brown habits made by and for the monks of Newenham Abbey provide a case in point.
When lambs are born, it is their hair which determines whether they are white, black or brown. It is far from unusual to see a white sheep with black lambs, but this state of affairs does not last. As a black lamb’s wool grows through its hair, it is likely to turn rapidly from black to white (or at least like its mother).
Most English lambs are like their mothers, and are white from the outset.
Others start pure black, and develop a different colouring as they grow.
A few breeds produce a fleece that is predominantly coloured. Their lambs also change over time.
Wool and cloth production in Devon prior to the 1830s
Although sheep were widely kept throughout Devon by the 12th century, there is not a great deal of evidence to suggest that at that time Devon was much involved in the wool export trade on which England’s wealth was based, and the cloth made in Devon was apparently considered somewhat inferior, being based on the coarse wool typical of moorland and upland breeds of sheep. Devon also suffered disproportionately in the Black Death, which adversely disrupted the county’s economic development. A good overview of the industry is provided in W G Hoskin’s history of Devon (originally published in 1954, and subsequently revised and re-issued several times), from which several of the facts cited here are taken.
One of the factors which helped to change Devon’s fortunes was the invention in the 13th century of the water-powered fulling (or tucking) mill, which made the process of cleaning up the woven cloth much easier and much less labour-intensive (a particularly important consideration where the population had dropped steeply). The widespread availability of rivers and streams throughout the county encouraged the adoption of this technology, which spread rapidly. One of the earliest tucking mills in Devon was established at Dunkeswell in 1238, and the evidence of persons and places bearing the name Tucker, not least around Dalwood and Kilmington, provides further support for this statement. Even so, the cloth made in Devon was still somewhat coarse. The decisive shift in Devon’s fortunes came in the late 15th century when the county’s weavers switched from their more traditional cloth to the production of kerseys (see below for a brief explanation of cloth types).
The centre of gravity of Devon’s textile industry was on and around the moors and on the hills of mid-Devon, where the population of sheep was concentrated. The main spinning and weaving centres were towns such as Ashburton, Buckfast and South Molton, and much of the cloth was finished in and around Exeter.
Axminster’s weaving heritage was fostered by, but not limited to, the efforts of the monks and lay brothers of Newenham Abbey, who kept large flocks of sheep on Abbey grange farms (including Shapwick, for which evidence of sheep keeping goes back to at least 1167), and had a fulling mill of their own. However, it should be borne in mind that the soil and climatic conditions around Shapwick have much more in common with the downland of southern England, where the national woollen business was centred, than with Dartmoor, where Devon’s was.
The demand for kerseys was such that in 1599 the historian John Hooker noted in his ‘Synopsis Chorographical of Devonshire’ that (in his opinion) Devon had more sheep than almost any other county in England. Soon after Hooker’s observation Devon’s weavers again switched their focus, from kerseys to serge (again, see below for a brief explanation of cloth types), and made Exeter one of the most important centres of the English wool and cloth trade.
By around 1750 the wool industry was starting to get more developed in and around Bradford, and the years 1767 and 1773 saw the development of the ‘spinning jenny’ and the ‘flying shuttle’ respectively. These two technical innovations in particular signalled the beginning of the end for run-of-the-mill cottage spinning and weaving.
Throughout the latter half of the 18th century the East India Company (EIC) was the main buyer of Devon cloth, reportedly buying two thirds of the county’s output as ‘long ells’ (see below for an explanation), with the cloth being finished and dyed in London. The EIC then used its monopoly position in trade with India in particular to sell the finished product. This trade peaked at the very beginning of the 19th century. Even so, ‘Road Transport Before the Railways’ (Dorian Gerhold, Cambridge University Press, 1993) tells us that although all of the cloth was transported from Devon to London by road, this still only required six wagons a week in 1803, which puts the scale of the industry into some sort of context.
By around 1830 hand weaving had declined to almost nothing in Devon, and in 1833 the EIC lost its monopoly privileges. This really marked the end of the road for Devon as a large-scale cloth-making centre.
Types of cloth produced in Devon
Reference may be found (here and elsewhere) to the following types of cloth produced in Devon.
- Devonshire shalloons: A loosely woven worsted cloth, twilled on both sides.
- Druggets: A coarse woollen fabric, felted or woven, and either self-coloured or printed on one side.
- Kersey: A coarse but lightweight cloth, made using both long and short woollen fibres. Kersey gave way to Serge (see below) in the 17th
- Long ells: A fine white serge (see below) made in unusually long lengths. The warps and wefts used combed and carded wool respectively, and the resultant cloth was a twill weave. Mainly made for the export trade (via the East India Company).
- Perpetuanas: Durable woollen fabrics with a twill weave.
- Serge: A coarse but lightweight cloth, first made around 1615, but widely used by the 1680s, made using both long and short woollen fibres. The resultant cloth was a twill fabric, often used for military uniforms and similar.
From fleece to cloth
The main processes involved in turning a sheep’s fleece into a woven cloth are as follows:
- Shearing or fellmongering.
The dyeing process can take place at various points, usually between scouring and carding; or between combing and spinning; or between spinning and weaving; or after weaving.
Before scouring was developed as a technique for cleaning the wool (see below for details), a process known as fulling (or tucking) was used, which involved pummelling the cloth in a bath of stale urine and/or Fuller’s earth before rinsing it in clean water. Initially this process was carried out after the cloth had been woven, though later it was also used prior to spinning. Dying could only take place after the fulling process had been completed, because otherwise the pigments would not attach themselves to the wool due to the residual natural grease (or lanolin).
Not all wool is got by shearing. Historically some was got by plucking loose fibres from the sheep’s back; and some (known as ‘slipe wool’) was, and still is, recovered from the skin of sheep that have been slaughtered, as part of the fellmongering process. Because a dead sheep cannot struggle, slipe wool fibres are longer than those that would be obtained by shearing the same sheep whilst alive, and slipe wool was historically valued for the weaving of stockings.
Sheep shearing was until the 20th century a wholly manual task, carried out with hand shears not unlike a pair of domestic scissors. After the fleeces from a flock have been collected together, they are sorted and graded according to the quality, length and cleanliness of the wool fibres. Historically this was done by a merchant known as a wool stapler, who then supplied different grades and mixtures of wool to different sorts of weavers.
Scouring results in the removal of grease, salts, dust, burrs and other foreign materials. It is an important process because poorly scoured wool will not dye evenly. It starts with the scrubbing of the fleece in soap and soda at a variety of temperatures and in a sequence of tubs. After the clean fleece has been rinsed, it is dried in hot air. Fleeces which are particularly dirty may sometimes be treated with an acid solution, and if there is any risk that the fleece might be carrying anthrax spores (for example), it can also be sterilised at the end of the scouring process.
Wool is then either carded or combed, depending on its future use. Combed wool is used to make worsted cloth, and most other wool is carded.
Carding is the process of mixing long and short staple fibres, and different colours of fibres (and different types of fibres, not just wool), to create a homogenous mixture which can then be spun and twisted into a yarn. In pre-industrial times this was a manual process using a pair of flat boards with teeth to mix the fibres. Carding is now a fully mechanised process which uses complex wheeled plant to achieve the same outcome.
Combing is used on fleeces with long and lustrous fibres. As with the process of combing human hair, the objective is to get the fibres all aligned with each other. ‘Slipe wool’ (see above) could be combed while still on the skin.
‘The Young Tradesman; or Book of English Trades (A new and enlarged edition)’ (Whittaker & Co, London, 1839, accessible in full via the archive.org website) gives a description of the woolcomber’s task, broadly as follows.
He (the woolcomber) would receive fleeces from the wool-stapler, and his was the first process in the manufacture of flannel, serge and several other cloth types. He washed the wool, and once dry he combed it with heated combs. Each woolcomber could at that time supply about 10 spinners and six weavers. Wool for making stockings was usually combed from the fleeces of dead sheep; other wool was shorn from the living sheep.
The same source explains that the spinner (typically female, and still at that time using a spinning wheel in her cottage), would take fleece from the woolcomber and hold it in her hand, using the spinning wheel to draw it out to a finer thread, which was wound onto a spindle. When the spindle was full, the thread was transferred to a reel and taken off in skeins. These threads were then wound together (plyed) before weaving.
The pre-industrial cloth weaver used both hands and feet to control his loom (most weavers were men). After mounting the warp (length-wise) threads, he used a shuttle to pass the weft (transverse) thread from side to side. Different materials (e.g. flax or silk as well as wool) could be used for warp and weft threads if required.
By contrast carpet weavers worked on two distinct webs which were woven at the same time. His loom had two thick rollers, and the warp was divided into sets of 10 threads. The pattern, which would be pinned to the frame for easy reference, was divided into squares, and each square was further divided by 10 vertical and10 horizontal lines: one for each thread on the row. This would tell him which colour to use for every stitch. By working on a series of squares, more than one weaver could work simultaneously on the same carpet. After weaving, the carpet was ‘sheared’ so that its pile was even.
Finally, the ‘Young Tradesman’ (see above for details) explains how the dyer used mainly vegetable dyes to add colour to either wool or woven cloth. After the wool had been cleaned the dye was applied by soaking the wool or cloth in a brass or copper cauldron. Below are five illustrations from the ‘Young Tradesman’: the woolcomber, the spinner, the weaver, the carpet weaver and the dyer.
There were two water-powered grist (corn) mills at Weycroft (in Axminster parish, a mile or so north of the town) when the Domesday Book was compiled in 1086. So when Weycroft was taken out of commission in 1977 it had been in existence for about 900 years, possibly longer.
The Domesday Book (see the Links page of this website) also records grist mills at Smallridge and Undercleave (in Axminster parish), and others in Membury and Kilmington.
Over time the mill at Weycroft became the main local mill, serving farms from all over the adjoining area. Even today it is possible to see how roads, lanes and tracks converge on the mill from all directions.
Later further water-powered mills were established at Millbrook and in Axminster itself, close to the foot of Castle Hill.
An article in ‘Devon & Cornwall Notes & Queries’ (Summer 1974, Vol XXXIII Part II pages 51 to 52) about water mills in East Devon gives some information from the 16th to 18th centuries, including the following:
- In 1533 there was a lease between Richard Gylle, Abbot of Newenham and James Nott and R and T Wyvell for two water grist mills.
- In 1537 Richard Gylle leased the mills to William Ackyn.
- Late in the 16th century an unauthorised tenant was expelled from a corn mill.
- Leases from 1637 and 1659 (before and after the Civil War) show W Clarke and W Aninge in possession of the grist mills.
- In 1663 Sir W Petre purchansed a grist mill and fulling mill from John Venning for £5,000 (an immense sum in those days).
- In 1676 Samuel Clock was the miller at Lord Petre’s mill.
- In 1765 and 1770 J Anning paid rent to Lord Petre for use of the Town Mill.
- In 1780 H Scott was Lord Petre’s tenant.
Weycroft after 1838
In 1838 William Adams was the miller at Weycroft, and he also farmed some of the adjacent land. Then in the late 1860s Henry Morrish, a master miller, bought the mill, and lived there with his growing family. His son George Henry Morrish, who later took over the business, was born there in 1868.
In 1885 the water wheel and the old flat, circular grindstones were taken out, and replaced by two turbines and more modern roller mills. At the same time additional equipment was installed in a new brick-built extension. In 1911 wheat cleaning machinery and storage silos were added.
Weycroft Mill by Steve Thompson (thanks to Sue Clarke)
By the 1920s the mill employed about 20 men, raw materials were brought in via Axminster Station, and deliveries of flour and animal feed were made over a 10-mile radius, using horse power. The mill used to run 24 hours a day, 6 days a week, and on Sundays the by-pass sluice was fitted with an eel trap.
In 1925 George Henry Morrish invested in a steam-powered lorry, which significantly expanded the radius over which deliveries could be made. Then during the 1930s a petrol-powered lorry was brought in, and most of the horses were laid off.
In the Axminster Heritage Centre there are two detailed models which show the mill at this time, with the steam lorry in the yard. The smaller of the two models (1:100 scale) shows the whole mill complex, while the main model (at 1:12 scale) concentrates on the main mill building.
In 1941 a 60HP diesel engine was installed at Weycroft, reportedly the largest such piece of equipment yet in Axminster.
George Henry Morrish died in 1951, and the business was bought by Bakers of Colyton. The Morrish family continued to run the mill, but in the face of stiff competition from much larger mills, the throughput declined. After some further technical changes production ceased altogether in 1977. The buildings were converted for residential use in the 1990s.
There is a lot more very detailed information on both the mill itself and the model, in a booklet written by David Rowe, who also made the main (1:12 scale) model. The booklet provides a very detailed account of the layout and operation of the mill.
Millbrook started life as a grist mill, but was later converted to operate as a water-powered sawmill. In 1844 the miller was Edward Bussell, and he remained until at least 1866. Later the mill was taken over by the Heal family (who were probably the ones to convert it to a sawmill). They remained at Millbrook until at least the late 1890s.
The Town Mill (which, as noted above, operated as a fulling mill as well as a grist mill) was operated by Mr Dean in 1844. By then the Town Weir had been built, improving the control of the flow of water through the mill.
It is likely that the mill then referred to as Castle Mill in 1866 (when Mr Phillips was the occupant) is in fact the same mill. By 1878 the reference was again to the Town Mill (then occupied by James Boon, who had moved his business to Axminster from a textile mill in Uplyme), as it was from 1890 to 1906 when it was occupied by William Smyth, who also had a retail shop business in the town.
Town centre businesses and professional services
This section draws heavily on the series of trade directories published over the period from 1838 to 1939, to provide information organised by both street and by activity in the town centre (where almost all shops are still to be found). The town centre very largely coincides with the Conservation Area, for which a map can be found in the section of this website dealing with ‘Places’.
The research to date is organised under the following headings:
- Hotels, inns and pubs
- Bakers and butchers
- Food shops and wine merchants
- Medicine (covering surgeons (both human and veterinary), doctors, hospitals, pharmacists, dentists and others
Later it is intended to add information on drapers, hardware and other more general shops.
Industry and town-edge businesses
This section of the website deals with those manufacturing industries (other than carpet making) which were established from the middle of the 19th century onwards. Most of the early factories were located at the foot of Castle Hill, where water power was available. Later there was a cluster of saw mills and similar close to the railway station and on Woodmead Road, followed by the establishment of the the modern carpet factory. The information is organised as a series of discrete documents, starting as follows:
- Water powered industry at Axminster in the 19th century focussing on the foot of Castle Hill and processes other than brush making)
- Brush making in Axminster
- J H Shand Ltd
- Other engineering businesses