The Origin of Axminster Carpets (1889)

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Author(s): Hine. James; Year published: 1889; Origin: DA Transactions; Pages: 331–337
Topic(s): carpets and industry; Location(s): Axminster

By James Hine, F.R.I.B.A. (Read at Tavistock, August, 1889.)

Devonshire was, and has ceased to be, a great manufacturing county; which is tantamount to saying, I think, that there was more enterprise and activity amongst the people of these western parts in the olden time than the present population develop.

Exeter, Tiverton, Totnes, Ashburton, and other towns, were busy manufacturing centres, where kersies, fine hose, and serges were largely made; and even in this electric-lighted century we should be ready to recognise thankfully that we are indebted to the Cistercians of the so-called “dark ages” for the introduction of the only one of these manufactures which has continued to this day in Devon. Not only were the great factories busy hives, but the private spindles and looms, in the homes of cottagers throughout a large portion of the county, showed what a comparatively small proportion of “idle hands” were available for a certain mischievous agency. There was a very general reliance on and employment of local talent and skill in every branch of industry and art.

The armourer was the most renowned of ancient craftsmen, because he was the fashioner to the human figure for all heroic exploits.

In almost every parish there was a clever smith, whose brawny arms worked for all the neighbours round about, but whose most ingenious and beautiful wrought-iron work was to be seen in the church and castle – a kind of work which few village smiths can now do, and which is centralized in about a dozen big workshops in all England.

In the towns were workers in gold and silver – not merely nominal gold and silversmiths, of which we have such a multitude, but the actual makers of ornaments for knights and ladies, church plate, and bowls, cups, and spoons for private houses. Mr. Brooking Rowe has discovered that even in the little town of Plympton there were goldbeaters in the middle ages. There was a celebrated silversmith, John Jons by name, at Exeter in the sixteenth century.

Every town had its mechanist and clockmaker. There was a famous clockmaker, named John Barnet, at Tavistock, rather less than two hundred years ago.

“That is best which liest nearest” was the motto of our forefathers, who, as a rule, built their churches and houses of local stone and timber, and employed the most skilful man of the parish – Snug, the joiner, generally – as foreman.

We think with pride of Cookworthy’s china manufactory, in the last century, at Plymouth, and then with regret at its removal to Bristol. Nor can we forget the subsequent reversion to barbarism when the commonest pots and pans were made on the spot where Cookworthy’s modelling and Bone’s enamelling were so exquisitely performed. But we rejoice in the successful revival of the ceramic art, in different parts of Devon, which has resulted in the production of a large variety of articles of great beauty, both in form and colour. Indeed, this is almost our only note of congratulation, that whilst the manufacture of textile fabrics has nearly died out (except at brave little Buckfastleigh), the ceramic art not only flourishes but progresses in Devonshire potteries.

The town of Axminster, which it must be admitted has now a somewhat sleepy appearance, a century ago found busy employment for a considerable portion of its population in the manufacture of the most durable and beautiful carpets ever made in England, and which almost vied in excellence with the productions of Turkish and Persian looms. The inventor and first manufacturer was Mr. Thomas Whitty. His great-grandson, my cousin, Mr. Henry Heudebourck, of London, has shown me Mr. Whitty’s manuscript account of the origin of Axminster carpets, which I am not aware has ever been printed, and which, though a very simple record, I have thought might be of some interest to members of this Association.

Previous to his discovery in carpetry Mr. Whitty was a cloth manufacturer.

“It was in the year 1754”, says Whitty, “that, being in London, I was at the house of Mr. Treek, an ironmonger, when I saw in his warehouse several bales which, appearing not to contain any goods in his way of business, I enquired what their contents were. He told me they were Turkey carpets which he had imported, and, if I had the curiosity to look at it, he would show me one of the best and largest Turkey carpets in England. Accordingly he took me into a large room, and showed me a carpet thirty-six feet by twenty-one, the sight of which greatly surprised me. I had some little knowledge of figure weaving, but could not conceive by what means a carpet of so great a breadth could be woven in figure without a seam in it. After I had seen this carpet I could not keep it long out of my mind, without, however, being able to form the least idea of the method of doing it.

“After a long time of puzzling to no purpose I awoke one morning with a strong impression on my mind that I knew a method of doing it, and if I could examine a Turkey carpet I should see if my ideas of it were right. Accordingly I communicated my thoughts to my wife, and asked her if she knew whether there was any Turkey carpet in our town. She told me Mrs. Forward had one that I might see, so after breakfast I went up to Mrs. Forward’s, and desired a sight of her carpet, which she readily granted.

“By the sight of this carpet I found that my ideas were in some measure right, and on a thorough examination of the structure of it I was convinced of the probability of doing it, although still much at a loss, particularly as to working a carpet of so great a breadth.

“After this my mind was almost continually employed about it, and my spare time in making little trials in one of my broad looms. At length, on the 25th April, 1755 (being our Fair day, while our weavers were keeping holiday), I made in one of my looms a small piece of carpet, about seven or eight inches square, resembling as near as I could the Turkish carpets. This further convinced me of the possibility of doing it, but not of doing it quickly enough to answer any purpose in trade. Soon after this I went to London, taking with me my little essay in carpetry, and showed it to some of my friends there, who all agreed that if I could make carpets like the specimen and sell them at the price of Turkey carpets, it would become an interesting branch of trade. But there lay the difficulty which was yet undiscovered – what I could afford to sell them for, as all my ideas hitherto went no farther than a horizontal loom, which would have been a very spare and tedious way of working; but this difficulty Providence soon removed in an unexpected manner.

“Whilst I was in London I saw an advertisement from Mr. Parrisot, who carried on a manufactory of carpets at Fulham (which had been lately introduced from France under influential patronage), complaining of the want of due encouragement from the public, and saying that if he was not better supported he must decline the manufacture, and the youths who were apprenticed to it be returned to their parents.

“The reason of this I afterwards found to be that his carpets, though deemed handsome, were sold at such an exorbitant price that few cared to buy them. This afterwards turned to my great advantage when I could serve them much cheaper.

“This manufacture I had scarcely ever heard of, but considering if I could obtain a sight of it (as it was on the same principle as I was desirous of attempting, though upon a much finer scale), it might be of essential service in removing the difficulties I yet laboured under, and I determined to attempt seeing it

“Accordingly I left London for Fulham, to breakfast there; and putting up at an inn, ordered a pot of coffee, and chose to have it in the kitchen, that I might be in the way of hearing anything that was talked of. I had not been there long before two men came in to have a pot together, and fell into some discourse about the carpet manufactory, which gave me the wished-for opportunity of enquiring about it, when one of the men told me he had a son who was an apprentice to Mr. Parrisot, and mentioned the uncertain circumstances they were under. I then asked him if strangers were admitted to see the work; to which he answered he did not know; but if I desired to see it he would go and ask his son. He soon returned, and acquainted me that I might be admitted, and that he would conduct me there. Accordingly I obtained a view of everything I wanted, by which all remaining doubt was removed from my mind, and I was thoroughly satisfied I could go on with the manufacture, only the Fulham carpets were so much finer than I had formed any idea of, that I had not at that time the least idea I should ever rival them.

“When I came back to Axminster I immediately began to prepare a loom and materials for making a carpet, and on Midsummer-day, 1755 (a memorable day for my family), I began the first carpet I ever made, taking my children and their aunt Betty Harvey to overlook and assist, for my first workers. When the manufacture was thus begun many gentlemen came out of curiosity to see it, and professed their desire to encourage it by ordering carpets. Among them one of the first was Mr. Cook, of Stape, near Beaminster, who ordered a carpet from the first pattern. When I took this carpet home I met Mr. Cook at Beaminster; and he desired me to open it to show to a gentleman then with him. It was Mr. Twiniker, of the Temple, London, steward to the Earl of Shaftesbury. He was much pleased with the sight of it, and told me he should be glad to render me all the service he could for the encouragement of a new manufactory. Accordingly he mentioned it to Lady Shaftesbury, who was a liberal encourager of arts and manufactures. Her ladyship desired him to request Mr. Cook to spare her that carpet, saying she wished to have the first carpet of the manufactory, although she might expect to have a much handsomer one when it was come to greater perfection. Lord and Lady Shaftesbury were so well pleased with that carpet that they and their family have been since some of our best customers.

“In the summer of 1756 I received an order from Mr. Twiniker, he enclosing at the same time the first proposals of the Society for Promoting Arts and Sciences, of giving a premium for the encouragement of making carpets in England on the principle of Turkey carpets, with a hand pointing to the proposals of giving £30 to the person who produced the best carpet on that principle not less than fifteen feet by twelve; and £20 for the second best of the same dimensions, Mr. Twiniker adding, ‘It could do you no harm to receive this premium next year.’ Accordingly, in March, 1757, I produced a carpet to that noble Society sixteen feet by twelve and a half, which I valued at £15. Mr. T. Moore, of London, produced another of the same dimensions, which he valued at 40 guineas. The Society were convinced, on examining both carpets, that although Mr. Moore’s was made of the finest materials, yet that mine was best in proportion to its price. They therefore recommended to Mr. Moore and me to take £50 and divide it equally between us, which we agreed to do. I sold my carpet to Boucher Cleeve, Esq., who afterwards parted with it to Mr. W. Compton, who was one of the dealers who were desired by the Society to examine the carpets and give their opinions as to the merits of the claimants. Mr. Cleeve told me he bought it for the sake of promoting the new manufacture by showing it to his friends, but in Mr. Crompton’s shop a much greater number of the principal people would see it than in his house. When Mr. Crompton paid me for it, it was agreed for me to make as many as I could, to send to his warehouse. In consequence of this I had during the ensuing year orders for as many carpets as I could procure hands to make.

“In the summer of 1757 the Society again offered their premiums, with this restriction, ‘That those who had already received premiums for making carpets could not be admitted as candidates unless they produced three carpets at least of the aforesaid dimensions’. In consequence of this advertisement I endeavoured to produce three carpets, and as Mr. Moore’s was not excluded on account of the high price of his carpet, I made one of mine a fine one, at twenty-four shillings a square yard, in order to show that I could make a better carpet than Mr. Moore at a much less price. These carpets were exhibited in March, 1758, when Mr. Pasavant, of Exeter, was my only competitor. He produced a fine carpet, about sixteen feet by twelve, made by some of Parrisot’s French hands, which he valued at 80 guineas. Its price was so exorbitantly high that it occasioned some debate in the Society; but as their proposals were ‘for the best carpets produced’, and not for the best in proportion to price, the Society again recommended an equal division of the premium, which Mr. Pasavant and I agreed to.

“His producing a fine carpet and valuing it so high was a great advantage to me, as it occasioned my fine carpets to be looked upon as cheap – no one being able to see such a difference in its goodness and beauty as there was in the price. In consequence of this I had during the ensuing year a demand for fine carpets as fast as I could make them.

“The Society then proposed their third and last premium for making carpets, to be produced in March, 1759, with this further restriction, ‘That those who had already received premiums for making carpets should not be admitted as candidates unless they produced six carpets at least, of which every one should be judged superior in goodness in proportion to its price to any produced by any other person.

“This stimulated me to try to my utmost ability, and accordingly, in March, 1759, I produced the six carpets, of which several were fine ones and of large sizes. The only competitor was Mr. Jesser, of France (Mr. Moore and Mr. Pasavant declining), who produced one carpet.

“When Mr. Jesser came to see my carpets he candidly acknowledged that he had no right to the first premium of £30, which was without any debate adjudged to me by the Society.

“These repeated successes so advanced the price of my carpets that I had a constant and almost uninterrupted demand for many years, which has continued with but little variation as to demand, and with no diminution as to reputation, to this day.

“These memoirs of the carpet manufactory I give to my son, Thomas Whitty, by him to be transmitted to his children.

“Signed, Thos Whitty.
“April 16th, 1790.”

Axminster carpets continued to be made in that town until 1835, when the looms were removed to Wilton.