Kidderminster: the Factory Town

Image: The Carpet Manufactory of Messrs Brinton and Lewis, Kidderminster (c.1860). R W Boodle, Worcestershire Scrap Book, vol. II (1903).

Image from: Local Studies and History, Birmingham Central Library

In the 1860s the Kidderminster carpet industry was inextricably linked with steam power. It developed a skyline of industrial chimneys as it developed into a factory town. Local carpet making reached its high point of prosperity after World War II in the 1950s and 1960s. In the 1970s foreign competition ended the boom and companies faced falling profits. Some survived by restructuring or merging with their competitors whilst others went bankrupt and closed.

Kidderminster in the mid 19th Century

Image: An image of a Kidderminster Factory showing evidence of the application of both waterpower and steam power in the weaving process. Mid 19th century. R W Boodle, Worcestershire Scrap Book, vol. II (1903).

Image from: Local Studies and History, Birmingham Central Library

In the 1830s new industrial processes, Tapestry warp printing and Chenille Axminster weaving were introduced in Kidderminster. The carpet industry expanded and by 1851 the town had a population of 17,000. The application of steam power was slow, partly because of the availability of water power for spinning and the persistence of handlooms in weaving. The creation of the Stour Vale Mill Company in 1855 which was financed by Lord Ward enabled small companies to link their spinning machines and looms to a large steam engine. A combination of the power loom and the increasing use of female labour led to male unemployment, increased trade union activity and strikes.

The Aftermath of the Great Strike of 1828

Image: Richard Godson, QC, MP. Godson was a prominent barrister in early 19th England. He came to local prominence after the Great Strike of 1828. Later in the year eleven carpet weavers were charged with several offences, including assault, riot and tumultuous assembly. Godson acted as their defence barrister, securing the acquittal of most of the defendants. His success gave him heroic status amongst the carpet weavers, but he condemned any violent action and called for reconciliation between masters and men. He was approached to stand as an MP for Kidderminster following the elections to the reformed Parliament of 1832 and was elected as a Radical. Godson’s political opinions moved away from radicalism towards the modernising conservatism of Sir Robert Peel, the new leader of the Conservative Party, factory owner and MP for the Borough of Tamworth in Staffordshire. In January 1835 Godson lost his seat in the general election.

Image from: Bewdley Museum

The 1828 Strike was a disaster for the weavers and almost completely ruined the carpet industry in Kidderminster, as much trade was diverted elsewhere, in some cases permanently. Furthermore it soured labour relations even more between the two sides, certainly for the foreseeable future.

Tension remained even in August 1830, when a dispute at William Cooper’s factory resulted in mob violence against several of the manufacturers involved in the 1828 strike. The industry was even slower to recover after a further downturn in trade, resulting in several manufacturers going bankrupt, including John Broom, owner of the vermilion painted front door. It was only in 1835 that the industry managed to stabilise, with six companies owning more than 100 looms apiece. As late as 1839, however, an Assistant Hand Loom Commissioner claimed that the strike was still a dominant influence in the town.

The moral condition of the weavers has been gradually deteriorating ever since this struggle. Rents in the town have become lower, and the effects of the strike are severely felt”

The Great Strike of 1828

Image: Brussels Street Cottages, Kidderminster. These terraced houses show examples of the type of homes occupied by weavers in the early 18th century.

Image from: Bewdley Museum

As early as 1789, the Kidderminster weavers, already noted for their independent nature, went on strike against a wage reduction proposed by the masters. An even more ill tempered dispute in 1817 resulted in the use of troops to keep order, called out on the request of the then Town Clerk, George Hallen. This strike was the first time that broadside poetry was used as propaganda, showing the true intentions of the weavers quite clearly.

See our masters how they bind us

In the midst of slavery;

See the tyrants how they drive us,

To death or liberty.

Then rise like men in bravery,

To gain the cause or die;

We will be free from slavery

And have our liberty

In 1825 the weavers association sent financial support to striking weavers in both Bradford and Wilton, demonstrating their high organisational ability and political radicalism.

On 15th March 1828, the masters published their intention to reduce the payment for one yard of Brussels from one shilling to 10d (old pence). The weavers promptly called a crisis meeting in order to declare a strike. The resulting dispute lasted five months, featured highly in the national press and almost ruined the carpet industry in Kidderminster.

Both sides pursued a vigorous propaganda campaign either in the press or by means of broadsheet verses. One of the first of these, The Carpet Weavers true tale, was inflammatory even at the outset of the dispute and complained of the masters’ opulence compared to the poverty of the weavers.

Potatoes, oatmeal, you must eat,

No dare to think of butchers’ meat;

While they to noblemen aspire,

In equipage and rich attire.

Of nineteen broadsides published during the strike, all but two were on the side of the weavers. Indeed, many of them compared the poverty of the weavers with the wealth of the masters.


Some of our masters then you’ll see;

Were weavers then as well as we;

But now they’re rich, and we are poor,

Scarcely can we approach their door.

Their horses, gigs and chariots too,

Countryseats and farms also;

But yet with all they’re not content,

But on more mischief still are bent

Some of these poems became increasingly strident in tone, such as The Carpet Weavers Determination.

Then rise like men in slavery,

To gain the cause or die,

Stand to your colours, keep your ground,

And gain the victory

The first verse to put the masters’ case claimed to be from a moderate weaver, one Luke Cranbourne, although it is doubtful whether he actually existed.

Why to ourselves should we be blind,

And call our masters so unkind?

The times have chang’d, we plainly see,

Profits have chang’d- and so must we

This caused a sensation in Kidderminster and resulted in a further flurry of more broadsides from the weavers’ side, not all of them strident in tone but some even slightly humorous or wistful.

To ridicule I’ve no pretence

I wish, poor Luke, you had more sense,

And look to Him who rules us all,

And never thy poor mind enthrall

The propaganda became more embittered when the Rev. Humphrey Price got involved on behalf of the weavers. Born in Kidderminster, he was parson at Christchurch, Barton-under-Needwood, near Lichfield. Although undoubtedly well intentioned, his verses only exacerbated the situation and served to prolong the dispute. He was to pay a heavy price for his involvement, eventually serving one year in gaol, and his mental state was later called into question. The second of his numerous verses was penned in the guise of a carpet weaver’s wife.

Hush thee, my babe! thou wilt not see

Thy mother sink in misery;

Thy father too- all gone his bloom,

And his heart’s blood upon the loom

His third poem, A Kidderminster Weaver’s Wife’s Dream, resulted in a charge of libel against Price by John Broom, descendant of the owner of the first carpet factory,  was widely thought to be the owner of the house mentioned in the following verse.

Because he said- now I will build

Myself a spacious house, and gild

It for my daughter, wife or son,

And paint it with vermilion?

By July the carpet manufacturers were advertising for workers outside the area, which caused great resentment among the striking weavers. Carpet factories were set up in other towns such as Bridgnorth and Stourport. The strike eventually ended in August when the weavers were forced, through starvation, to accept the masters’ terms for a return to work. Their attempts to mobilise the whole country behind them had ended in ignominious defeat when the dispute did not receive the expected amount of support from other workers around the country. In order to make up for lost production, the hated twelve to twelve shifts were promptly introduced by the masters, at reduced rates.

Working Conditions in Kidderminster Carpet Factories

Image: Interior of a carpet factory. Though this photograph dates from the early 20th century, it provides some indication of the potential hazards which a factory worker could face in the 19th century.

Image from: Bewdley Museum

Conditions were hard for workers in the weaver’s home or in the larger carpet factories. The number of looms in any one place could vary between four, the most usual figure, to as many as sixty-six. The larger factories were usually arranged in multiples of four.

One witness at the Children’s Employment Commission in 1843 described the typical carpet factory as “large, regular, well-proportioned buildings of two or more stories, divided longitudinally into two, three or more departments by brick partitions, each containing four looms, two on either side”  There was the ever present hazard of fire, even before the arrival of power driven looms, because of the close proximity of large piles of combustible yarns to candles, the only form of lighting. Privies were provided outside in the yards but workers were encouraged to use urine bins in the actual workplace, with no regard to the privacy of workers of either sex. Urine was a valuable commodity in the production of dye and the stench from the urine bins must have been appalling, especially when combined with the smell from the tubs of starch, which was used for coating the backing yarns.

A master weaver could work whatever hours he pleased as his working week was geared towards the Fall Days, Thursday and Saturday. After being paid on a Saturday, he often took the remainder of Saturday off. Sunday was naturally a rest day and Monday had traditionally been a rest day in the handloom period, known as St. Monday. This meant a long weekend, sometimes even extending into Tuesdays. Consequently, in order to complete his “piece” in time in order to be paid, a weaver was forced to work extremely long hours towards the end of the week. Joel Viney, a weaver, told the Factories Inquiry Commission just how long these hours could be. “I have known men to work from three o’clock in the morning till ten at night”

These practices prevailed even in the larger carpet factories, as the weavers had their own keys to the building and could work whatever hours they pleased, much against the wishes of the carpet factory owners. When special orders had to be filled quickly, hours could be even longer, with the use of twelve hour shifts worked back-to-back by two different shifts. These shifts were commonly known as “Twelve to twelve” and were extremely unpopular with workers.

Weaving was often a family affair. Wives and adult unmarried daughters were employed as bobbin winders and children were employed as draw-boys or girls, such was the demand for labour towards the end of the eighteenth century. Weavers often needed to have several looms in use, usually in blocks of four. They resorted to advertising for apprentices from elsewhere in Worcestershire, as shown by a letter to the Evesham Overseers of the Poor in 1808:

I take the liberty to inform you that I have been informed that you have several boys to put out as apprentices, if so, be pleased to let me know of what ages and sizes they may be and on what Terms, if there may be any from the age of ten years to fourteen.

Draw-boys served an apprenticeship before becoming a master or fully qualified weaver. For the last two or three years of an apprenticeship, if the lad was good enough, it was normal practice to pay him on half-wages as a half-weaver, using his own loom virtually unsupervised. In this way, the master weaver could get more work done. Apprentices were strictly supervised, in common with apprentices from other industries.

Girls never became full apprentices but were destined to become adult bobbin-winders or spinners, usually in the larger carpet factories. Their days as draw-girls were as long and arduous as that of the boys but they also had to contend with the amorous advances of fellow workers or their master weaver employer. One witness to the 1842 Factories Commission claimed that hundreds of draw-girls’ lives had been ruined by unwanted pregnancy over the last twenty years.

The Kidderminster Carpet Industry and the Wider World

Image: Advertisement for Thomas Harris, Furnishing, Draper & Carpet Dealer, 9 New Street, Birmingham. Kidderminster carpets were sold from this warehouse in one of Birmingham’s most important streets. W West, History, Topography and Directory of Warwickshire (Birmingham, 1830).

Image from: Local Studies and History, Birmingham Central Library

Good transport links enabled Kidderminster carpets to be sold regionally in Birmingham, elsewhere in the West Midlands and Britain and overseas. Transportation was improved with the arrival of canals in the late 1770s. By 1789 a route to London by canal had been opened up and this had a great effect on the volume of trade with the capital. By 1800 most of the carpet manufacturers had both agents and warehouses in London, many of them operated by family members. Family members often started their careers as travelling agents for the family firm, securing orders. Henry Brinton started his career in this way in 1816, travelling firstly to Ireland.

By the early 19th century, foreign exports had become vital in the growth of the carpet trade. In 1809, Henry Woodward and Company of Church Street was commissioned to carpet the Blue Room, now known as the Oval Office, in the White House. Kidderminster manufacturers were amongst those who campaigned vigorously for the removal of the Orders in Council, originally introduced to cut-off trade with Napoleon by the British Government, but thought by many to have a detrimental effect on trade with America. In the case of the Kidderminster carpet industry, this was not necessarily so, America accounted for only 10% of their trade, but an accurate picture of the extent of commerce with any one area was impossible as a lot of business was conducted through middle-men.

The Kidderminster Carpet Industry and the Wider World

Image: Kidderminster Church, Worcestershire. Engraved by Sands from a drawing by J P Neale for the Beauties of England and Wales. This print shows commercial activity on the banks of the River Stour. A factory or warehouse is visible to the right of the church. Early 19th century. R W Boodle, Worcestershire Scrap Book, vol. II (1903)

Image from: Local Studies and History, Birmingham Central Library

The entrepreneurs of Kidderminster were always aware of the greater world outside, as John Broom showed when he “borrowed” ideas from Belgium for his development of the carpet loom. Throughout the hand-loom era, the carpet manufacturers always had their eye on their competitors in Scotland, Axminster and Wilton.

Although raw materials, especially wool, came from the surrounding areas, such was the demand for carpets by the end of the 18th century that it was necessary to import raw materials from further away. Spinners and yarn agents visited the carpet manufacturers, usually on Mondays, from as far as Yorkshire. Transportation of raw materials was eased by Kidderminster’s position on the River Stour and its proximity to Bewdley, a major inland port on the River Severn which provided an outlet to the wider world. Goods were transported by water and then pack-horse.

Technological Changes: the Jacquard Loom

Image: Dobcross Kidderminster Loom at Naylor’s Pike Mills, Kidderminster (early 20th century). These looms were manufactured by the Hutchinson, Hollingsworth Company, Dobcross, Oldham Lancaster. The photograph shows the multi-shuttle box, the Jacquard cards and the cordage of harness from the Jacquard. The image also belt drive which connects the loom with the power source.

Image from: Bewdley Museum

By 1825, the Jacquard punched card system, a French invention, improved the process of carpet weaving. The punched cards were used to select the coloured warp ends and could be reused. However, this system did have some limitations, especially for the smaller loom shops, which were unable to accommodate the extra mechanism. The Jacquard eventually replaced the mounture, the original mechanism of the Brussels loom, and made the lives of the apprentices, especially draw-boys and girls, much easier.

Technological Changes: the Brussels Loom

Image: Brussels Carpet Loom. This machine was too large to be used by weavers in their homes. The Useful Arts and Manufacturers of Great Britain of Great Britain Vol. II (London, SPCK, 1846?)

Image from: Science, Technology and Management, Birmingham Central Library

The Brussels loom, which replaced the Scotch loom, was described in 1828 as “the greatest piece of machinery he had ever seen” by John Gast, the London trade unionist. Although he undoubtedly had his own reasons for exaggerating at this time, there is no doubting the complexity of the machine and the dexterity and skill required to operate it. The most concise description of the process comes from somebody who was probably a former weaver.

“The box of bowls was fixed on the top of the loom framing; the tail went from the box horizontally some distance over the right hand of the loom; the neck and harness descended immediately from the box of bowls and the simple cords were attached to the tail cords, just outside the right of the loom, and fastened to the ground at the bottom end. There were 1300 of these simple cords, and it was by grasping with the hand and drawing down selections of them that the desired colours were raised by the neck and harness for producing the pattern”.

Technological Changes: the Scotch Loom

Image: Kidderminster or Scotch Carpet Loom.  The Useful Arts and Manufacturers of Great Britain of Great Britain Vol. 2  (London, SPCK, 1846?)

Image from: Science, Technology and Management, Birmingham Central Library

Improvements were constantly being made to the hand loom throughout the hundred years or so prior to the 1830s. The first loom to be introduced was known as the Scotch loom and was relatively simple in design compared to later developments. It consisted mainly of four pieces- two long planks of wood and two thick rollers or beams. The latter were suspended across upright planks, one at the top and one at the bottom. Grooves in the ends of the warp, which were divided into parcels of ten threads, were used to keep the threads perpendicular. The whole process was later simplified by a barrel attachment. Carpets woven on this type of loom were actually two-ply patterned cloths joined together in the weaving process. The pattern appeared on both sides and so the carpet was reversible.

Washing and Winding

Image: River Stour, Kidderminster. Remains of brackets for a platform which was used by dyehousemen to wash wool looking towards Green Street, Kidderminster.

Image from: Bewdley Museum (photograph by F Johnson, 1979)

Weavers were completely responsible for the whole weaving process from bobbin to completed carpet, with the help of their half-weaver apprentices and draw-boys or girls. The completed carpet was always delivered to the factory counting house on set days of the week, known as Fall Days, which were usually Thursdays and Saturdays. The weavers, who were paid by the yard, were always males who had served their apprenticeships and often fiercely independent. In turn they were responsible for paying the workers under them and their own fuel and lighting. Although the factory owners usually owned the actual looms, it seems that the weavers did not have to pay any rental for these.

Washing and Winding

Image: Carpet Dyehousemen washing skeins of woollen yarn after dyeing in the water of the River Stour, Kidderminster.  J Knox Ferguson, <i>Old Kidderminster</i> (n.d.).

Image from: Bewdley Museum

Each of the larger factories had its own warehouse and dye-house, often with direct access to the river Stour for washing the dyed yarn. The process was potentially hazardous for the dyehousemen. One observer watched them “standing on little platforms over the river balancing gaily coloured skeins of yarn in the water on long poles to cleanse them loose from dye with the skill of acrobats”. The yarn was then dried and wound onto bobbins by female bobbin winders, before being collected by the independent weavers.

The Factory System

Image: Remains of Kidderminster’s first carpet factory at Mount Skipet.

Image from: Bewdley Museum (photograph taken in 1981)

As carpets became larger and more ornate, it eventually became necessary for larger or more looms to be used, and it was no longer possible for them to be housed in individual weavers’ homes. Some carpet factories were sometimes converted from other textile factories. In 1832, the carpet firm of John Broom, a descendant of the first John Broom, went bankrupt. The auction catalogue of the sale of his effects demonstrates very clearly both the wide variety in sizes of loom-shops and the numerous types of loom used at this time. Looms were generally manually operated with the occasional aid of water power.

Handloom Weaving

Image: Carpet Weaver. N Whittock et al, The Complete Book of Trades (London, Marshall and Co., 1837). The image shows the type of handloom for carpet making which was used before the advent of technological change and the factory system

Image from: Science, Technology and Management, Birmingham Central Library

Carpet weaving was originally conducted in the homes of independent weavers, who employed either apprentices or draw-boys and girls to help them. It was possible to weave carpets in several smaller pieces and therefore weaving could take place both in the smaller homes of the individual weavers as well as in larger factory buildings. Factory owners also wished to retain control over the patterns, quality control and any petty pilfering, which was a common problem.

Conditions were hard for all except the factory owners, who moved into large homes on the edge of the town, so fostering discontent with the workers,6 which came to a head in the strike of 1828.

6 See Gilbert, N, Ridiculous Refinement for a fuller account of these houses.

The Origins of Carpet Making in Kidderminster

Image: Cartouche from John Doharty’s Plan of Kidderminster of 1753. The image displays the importance of carpet making in the town by the mid 18th century.

Image from: Local Studies and History, Birmingham Central Library.

Lord Foley, lord of the manor of Kidderminster, recognised the need for new housing for the carpet weavers who were now flocking to work in the town in the mid-18th century, and the potential of extra rental revenue for himself. Kidderminster became synonymous with carpet weaving. In 1753, John Doharty’s 1753 Plan or map of Kidderminster showed some 150 new houses, neatly laid out in courts, along with two buildings clearly marked as “Carpet Halls”. These can be identified as the first two carpet factories of any size, leased jointly by John Broom and John Pearsall. By 1758, these two buildings contained thirty-two looms between them4 . In 1788, the traveller John Byng described Kidderminster as flourishing, with a great demand for its products, meaning carpets, both at home and abroad5.

4 Gilbert, C.D, Kidderminster’s Early Carpet Industry, Transactions Worcestershire Archaeological Society, 1990, p.220
5 Ibid, p. 9

The Origins of Carpet Making in Kidderminster

Image: House on Mount Skipet, Kidderminster. This photograph shows a house before restoration in the 1980s which was occupied by a weaver in the mid-18th century, possibly by John Tanner or William Foster who are mentioned in a document of 1758.

Image from: Bewdley Museum (photograph taken in 1981)

In 1749 further developments took place, thanks to the entrepreneurial spirit of John Broom, then a leading stuff manufacturer. There are several versions of how he achieved this and it is difficult to prove any of them with a 100% certainty but all have more than a hint of industrial sabotage. He travelled to Brussels, Tournai, or Wilton and returned with both the plans for a new type of loom, the Brussels loom, and immigrant workers, settling them in the Mount Skipet area of the town. Whatever the truth of these stories, Pococke, a traveller, in 1751, noted that Kidderminster was now making carpets “the same as Wilton”3.

3 Ibid, p.5-6

The Origins of Carpet Making in Kidderminster

Image: Kidderminster (c. 1777) Thomas Sanders, Perspective Views of Market Towns within the County of Worcester (c. 1777).

Image from: Local Studies and History, Birmingham Central Library

Kidderminster had been a textile producing town since medieval times. During the reign of Henry VIII, its industry had been protected by statute, along with that of a number of other Worcestershire towns. By the seventeenth century, Kidderminster cloth was the only textile industry to survive and flourish because of the town’s ability to adapt to changing needs and tastes. Already famous for its broadcloths, the town rapidly gained a reputation for producing what was known as “Kitterminster Stuff”, which was used mainly for bed coverings and wallhangings1 .

By the early 18th century, this industry was experiencing a decline and enterprising stuff weavers started to look for a replacement product. In 1735, John Pearsall was the first person to introduce carpets, as we would recognise them, to Kidderminster2 . They were not floor carpets in the truest sense of the word but were more like wall hangings. Known as “Ingrain”, they later came to be known as “Kidderminster” and later as “Scotch”, when the process was exported to Scotland. Initially, their success was limited, due to stiff competition from Wilton carpets, thought to be superior products. Over a period of about fifty years, the production of this new type of carpet overtook the production of the more traditional worsted trade.

1 Marsh, A, The Carpet Weavers (Malthouse Press, Oxford) p.2 and Thompson M, Woven in Kidderminster (David Voyce, 2002) p.8
2 Smith, L.D. p.4

Made in Kidderminster: the History of the Carpet Industry

Image: Brinton’s Carpet factory, 1870

Brinton’s Carpet Factory, Vicar Street, Kidderminster, 1870. Print taken from a watercolour. By the mid-19th century Kidderminster developed into a factory town and one of the most important centres for carpet making in Britain. The Brinton family first began to manufacture carpets in the town in the late 18th century.

Image from: Bewdley Museum

Text: Gay Hill

Image Captions and Sections 16 and 17: Malcolm Dick


Kidderminster was a small Worcestershire town in the 18th and 19th centuries. It produced woollen cloth in the 17th century and developed as a location for carpet manufacturing in the 18th century. Gay Hill charts the early history of carpet making in the 18th and early 19th centuries and explores the working conditions and industrial unrest which accompanied Kidderminster’s transition from a small market town into an important centre for factory production.