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Sunday, 25. August 2019

The hand-loom weaving industry & its impact upon MidWales

Photo: Newtown Textile Museum

We were very grateful to Janet, Chair of the Newtown Textile Museum Committee, for standing in at short notice for Sally Rackham to give this talk on 16th May. Both Sally and Janet are daughters of Major Peter Lewis, of the Newtown Tannery, and both feel that the museum is part of their family's heritage.

Newtown was established by Roger de Montgomerie in the 13th century as a new settlement on the River Severn, away from Dolforwyn Castle, encouraging people to move from the borders. The town grew through the centuries, and by the 1800s the river was powering the mills for carding and fulling for the woollen industry

ore information can be found on the Newtown Textile Museum website at http://newtowntextilemuseum.co.uk/History.php

Increasing competition from the mills of Yorkshire and Lancashire, combined with catastrophic fires and other misfortunes affecting the Newtown mills, brought the local industry virtually to an end by the early 1900s although the last mill, Leeches in Mochdre, closed in 1962.

Spinning and weaving had been happening in barns and yards for centuries, and fulling mills could be found all over Wales (fulling = pandy in Welsh), from early treading baths to water-mechanisation. Janet referred to research currently being undertaken which has brought to light the 17th century trade in 'Welsh plains', woollen cloth which was used to barter in trade with west Africa. The cloth was used as clothing for slaves in the Caribbean and the southern states of America. The Spinning Jenny was invented in 1769s. Carding originally used teasels to prepare for spinning, and this was mechanised by the 1790s. The weaving process was difficult to mechanise, and the response to the increasing supply of wool and the demand for textiles was to employ more workers on the handlooms. The industry benefitted significantly from the demand for cloth and flannel during the Napoleonic wars 1799-1815. The local entrepreneurs responded to this surge in demand by building many factories such as 5-7 Commercial Street (the site of the Newtown Textile Museum). This surge is reflected in the rapid increase in the Newtown population from 990 in 1801 to over 4,550 in 1841. The census also shows a rapid increase in textile industry related trades cited as occupations. The Drapers' Company of Shrewsbury initially controlled the mid Wales woollen trade, but the opening of the Newtown Flannel Exchange (where the cinema is now) in 1832 saw the balance of power shift across the border.

The entrepreneurs who were key to Newtown's development at this time included the Rev George Evors (who invested heavily in factories, warehouses and dwellings), William Pugh (who funded thecanal being extended to Newtown and road development including the one from Newtown to Llandrindod Wells) and mill owner William Tilsley. The canal was completed in 1821, and the railway opened in 1859. In 1827 Longbridge was rebuilt to accommodate the increase in traffic associated with the woollen industry. The Royal Commission on Handloom Weavers (1838) indicated that at that time there were 78 factories in Newtown, but around this time there was a recession in the industry prompted by a decline in demand for woollen cloth and flannel and fear of mechanisation which led to worker unrest and active Chartist activity. ). However, by the 1860s, mechanised weaving had been introduced in three large new factories in the town, and once again the industry flourished. The quality of their product was not as fine and soft as the handloom flannel, and there continued to be a market for the higher quality fabric. The rise of the Pryce-Jones mail order warehouse, which opened opposite the railway station in 1879, transformed the town. With good transport connections, and the Post Office in the basement, Pryce-Jones exported flannel all over the world.

The Newtown Textile Museum building at 5-7 Commercial Street was one of the 78 handloom workshops identified by the Royal Commission in their 1838 report. Dating from the early 1830s, this factory was formed from a block of 6 back to back cottages, 1 up, 1 down, with a toilet in the back yard. Above the living accommodation were 2 open end-to-end floors housing the looms and ancillary processes. It is thought that weaving probably ended here by the early 1900s, although the cottages continued to be occupied until 1990.

However, difficulties in maintaining and developing the Grade II listed building and staffing the museum led to Powys County Council taking it on in 1990. A HLF grant to renovate the building including the cottages was successfully sought, and between 1995 and 2003 the Council undertook the refurbishment.. When the museum reopened, the cottages were included. By 2012 the Council was struggling to staff the museum, which opened rather patchily, and in 2015 a proposal was made to close it. A new group was formed with the support of the Montgomeryshire Community Regeneration Association. A Community Asset Transfer bid was made successfully, and the building was handed over on 10/6/2016. The group made significant efforts to spruce up the museum after the period of closure, and this continues throughout the winter 'closed' seasons. The museum opens 1/5-30/9. Access is a problem for the upper floors, and there are plans for a 'virtual tour' to address this. The Committee is hoping for full museum accreditation in the autumn.

The 1960s were a time of change for Newtown, which brought bad flooding, and then proposals for developments which led to the 'new town'. The Civic Society felt that it was important to try to save the industrial heritage in the Penygloddfa area of the town. The idea of a museum came from Peter Lewis, who formed a group to buy the building and to ensure that the history of the woollen industry was recorded and made available to the public. A private loan funded the purchase of the building and various grants and donations funded the adaptations which enabled the museum to open in 1967 but only on the top two floors Wool and weaving exhibitions on the 1st loom floor, and related interests on the floor above including tannery, clogs, and other artefacts attracted visitors and school classes. The late David Pugh's archives have proved an invaluable resource for the current Museum Committee to draw on, as well as other resources, such as AN HISTORICAL AND ARCHAEOLOGICAL STUDY OF THE INDUSTRIAL HERITAGE OF NEWTOWN, POWYS, MID WALES by Mark Walters (Clwyd-Powys Archaeological Trust, Curatorial Section, March 2003)