The man who made the town of Axminster synonymous with carpets – Thomas Whitty – was born in 1716. His family had lived in and around Axminster since the 16th century. In 1737 he set up his own cloth-weaving business and shortly afterwards married Sarah Ramp- son, with whom he had twelve children. Sadly four of these children died in infancy.
The business prospered until the mid 1750s. In order to support his young family, Whitty travelled to London to seek a fresh trade. Here, in the warehouse of a William Freke, he saw some carpets imported from Turkey. He marvelled not only at their vibrant colours but also their size and the fact that they were seamless. For a long time he puzzled as to how they could be made.
After much thought, Whitty had some ideas that he wished to try out. On Easter Fair day that year (25 April 1755), as his employees were away at the fair, he conducted some trials and succeeded in making an eight-inch square of ‘Turkey’ carpet. Although excited by his success he realised that he did not know of a loom that would enable him to make them economically.
Many years later, in a 1790 letter to his sons, Whitty described how he overcame this difficulty. By chance he saw an advertisement for a carpet manufactur- ing company in Fulham owned by Peter Parisot, a French immigrant. He tells how he went to an inn close to the factory with the hope of making the acquaintance of some of the workers. He started talking with a man whose son was an apprentice at the carpet factory and, through him, was able to gain access to the works. Whitty wrote: “Accordingly, I obtained a view of everything I wanted, by which every remaining difficulty was removed from my mind and I was thoroughly satisfied.”
Although he had seen how to make his carpets at the Fulham factory, he knew that the carpets made there were much too expensive and a cheaper method of production needed to be found. Although he reduced the number of knots per square inch, the labour cost was still too high. Thus, when he started to make his first carpet on Midsummer’s Day 1755, it was his own children, under the watchful eye of their aunt Betty Harvey, who were his first workforce. Throughout his life Whitty employed mainly girls of between ten and seventeen years. His competitors employed mainly men, so not only was he able to gain the advantage of lower labour costs but the girls’ fingers were much more nimble than those of the men, giving him an edge in productivity.
Thomas Whitty’s first carpet was to have been bought by a Mr Cook of Beaminster but was seen by the Countess of Shaftsbury who insisted on having it herself. Further orders followed and, in 1757 the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (the forerunner of the Royal Society for the Arts) ran a competition for the best value carpet submitted to them. Although the carpet submitted by Thomas Moore of Moorfields was judged to be the finest carpet – being made of the highest quality materials – it was very expensive (forty guineas). The one made by Thomas Whitty was deemed the best value in proportion to its price (£15), and the prize was divided between them.
Whitty’s prize-winning entry was bought by a William Crompton who, putting it on display in his warehouse in Charing Cross, received so many enquiries that he asked Whitty to supply as many carpets as possible for him to sell.
In the following year a similar competition was held and again Whitty shared the prize – this time with a Claude Passavant of Exeter. Interestingly, Peter Parisot moved his Fulham factory to Exeter in 1755 and the following year sold it to Passavant. As Whitty had observed in Fulham, the carpets made in Exeter, although very fine, were much too expen- sive. (The one submitted for the com- petition was valued at eighty guineas).
Exeter Carpets ceased trading in 1761. However, in 1759, in the final competi- tion, Whitty was the outright winner, and these successes ensured the reputation of his carpets and kept his factory busy for many years.
In the second half of the 18th century, carpets became fashionable as flooring in English stately homes and country houses. In order to fit the scheme of decorations, the architects of these houses often designed the carpet them- selves and Whitty was often the chosen manufacturer. Thomas Leverton, James Wyatt, Robert Jones and the Adam brothers were some such designers. Many of these carpets can still be found in the rooms for which they were made, such as at Blickling Hall (Norfolk), Chatsworth House (Derbyshire), Dumfries House (Ayrshire), Harewood House (Yorkshire), Kingston Lacy (Dorset) and Saltram House (Devon).
Whenever a special carpet was finished it was laid out first over the pews of the church Whitty attended (the Independent Chapel in Chard Street) before being paraded through the streets of Axminster to the sound of the Minster bells.
Such was his fame that on Thursday 13 August 1789 an event occurred to make it what Thomas Whitty described as “the most exciting day of my life”. King George III, Queen Charlotte and three of their children had been holidaying in Wey- mouth when the King sent word that he wished to visit the Axminster carpet man- ufactory in two days’ time. Amid much excitement the streets were cleaned and decorated as best they could.
The Royal party alighted from their car- riages at the George Inn and made their way to the factory along the street lined with cheering crowds. At the entrance they were met and escorted in by Thomas Whitty. He had picked twenty young women – no doubt the prettiest – who were dressed in white gowns with purple ribbons around their waists with the words ‘Long live the King’ inscribed in gold letters on them. The workers sang ‘God save the King’ before the Royal party walked around the workshop. They were much impressed and, before leaving, Queen Charlotte ordered some carpets and left a “handsome sum for the work- force”.
The visit enhanced Whitty’s fame even further and many more orders flowed from it, including, in later years, some from the Prince Regent for the Royal Pavilion at Brighton.
Sadly, three years later Thomas Whitty died and was buried in the grounds of the church he had devotedly attended all his life. The chapel was pulled down in 1875 but the United Reformed Church now occupies the site. Whitty’s grave may still be seen there. The original gravestone was damaged during the Second World War but was replaced by the present Axminster Carpet Company. At the time it was thought that Whitty had been born in 1713 but it was later established that the year was 1716, although the inscription has not been changed.
The business was taken over by his son, also called Thomas. Unfortunately he died in 1799 but his two grandsons continued the trade. Prestigious orders continued, including several for The Royal Pavilion at Brighton, Windsor Castle, Tatton Park and Powderham Castle.
This last one is interesting on several counts. Powderham Castle is the home of the Earl of Devon, the President ofAxminster Heritage (the charity respon- sible for this exhibition). This magnificent carpet, which can still be seen in the Music Room there, was made by Thomas Whitty Jnr in 1798 but not paid for until 1803 – four years after his death. Pay- ment, with interest, was made to his widow Susannah. Delays in payment of this nature were not uncommon at that time.
The year 1822 saw the making of what was probably the most magnificent of all the Axminster carpets. It was certainly the largest, measuring seventy-four feet by fifty-two feet and required thirty men to carry it in the traditional manner to the church in Chard Street. It was said to be extremely colourful, depicting a blazing sun, moon and stars. The cost was in excess of a thousand pounds, which in today’s values would have been more than a million pounds. Ironically, this carpet was made for the Sultan of Turkey – carpets from whose country had so inspired Thomas Whitty nearly seventy years before. It is believed that the carpet was destined for the Deftdar Palace on the Bosphoros, which belonged to the daughter of the Sultan Mustapha III. This palace no longer exists and despite many efforts the carpet itself has not been found.
On 23 January 1828, a fire started in an adjoining malthouse that destroyed nearly all Whitty’s factory, although his house alongside it survives to this day, and is currently the offices of solicitors Beviss and Beckingsale. Although the factory was rebuilt, the business never fully recovered and was declared bankrupt in 1835. The looms, designs and remaining stock were sold to Wilton Carpets the following year.
It was not until 1937 that carpet manufac- turing returned to Axminster, when Harry Dutfield opened the factory that still produces fine carpets today.