Based on a talk entitled – Woven in Kidderminster: A History of the Town’s Carpet Industry by David Mills, former Production Director at Brinton’s Carpets.
Brinton’s are one of only five carpet manufacturers still operating in Kidderminster, down from twenty in the 1970s. The industry once employed over 15000 workers, that is now less that 1000.
Mr Mills gave some background to the Kidderminster Carpet Museum. Although there had long been calls for a museum to be established, the manufacturers during the mid-20th century would not fund one. It was not until the 1990s that one was housed in a redundant church. However, in the mid-2000s Morrisons, the supermarket chain, bought the Stour Vale Mill to transform it into a supermarket. Much of the front of the building was listed and was not suitable for retail use, so an agreement was made with carpet museum that they could occupy this space. Heritage Lottery funding was obtained in 2012 and now the museum is up and running with two looms in operation.
Kidderminster had long been associated with cloth production owing to the availability of water from the Rivers Severn and Stour and wool from the sheep on the nearby hills. Initially, Bewdley was the main town in the area, famous for cloth caps. When Louis XIV of France revoked the Edict of Nantes, which gave freedom of religion, particularly to Protestants in a basically Roman Catholic country, in 1685, a large number of Huguenots fled the country, some coming the England settling in Norfolk, London, Wilton in Somerset and Kidderminster. In the mid-17th century, Kidderminster was known for producing “stuff”, a coarse thickly wove cloth. This was often used as a floor covering although it was thin and rather flimsy. John Broom and John Pearsall developed a thicker cloth called “Kidderminster Carpet”, which was still not very hard wearing. The two went to Brussels and brought back “Brussels Carpet” where the yarn was looped over wire.
A Huguenot weaver from Wilton developed a cut-pile carpet. Broom and Pearsall brought this method to Kidderminster and the town boomed. Carpet Masters would own the looms and buildings and weavers would work in small workplaces producing some 25 yards of carpet a week for which they were paid 1/- (shilling, 5p) a yard. Out of their 25/- they had to pay rent and provide a living for their families. However, some money seemed to be left over because the pub trade also boomed at this time!
In 1772, James Brindley brought the canal to Kidderminster which meant access to the docks, particularly Liverpool and the export market. The Masters became very prosperous and built large houses on the outskirts of the town but the weavers remained being paid the same until 1828 when they proposed a reduction to 10d a yard. Despite the fact that Trade Unions were illegal , the workers combined and went on strike for 21 weeks but were eventually driven back to work.
In 1851, Erastus Brigham Bigelow from Massachusetts brought the first power loom to the Great Exhibition. The Masters would not pay for the technology but John Crossley of Halifax did and greatly prospered. Belatedly, Kidderminster bought power looms which necessitated larger factories which changed the skyline of the town. The Earl of Derby put up £20000 for new buildings. Then the following year the railway arrived making export even easier.
In 1880 Halcyon Skinner, again from the USA, developed a new method, the spool loom, of making Axminster carpet which used far less yarn. Brinton’s in Kidderminster developed another eve cheaper method using a “gripper loom”. By the end of the century, Kidderminster was still a prosperous town. The bosses realised the Axminster looms were lighter and could be worked by women. The Unions fought the introduction women into their male preserve resulting in the Dixon Riot in 1884. However, again the bosses won the day.
In 1908, the industry went into depression because of the dumping of carpets by the USA in Europe. During WWI carpet production was turned over to providing war materials, particularly blankets. However, the carpet industry resumed and rode out the depressions of the 1920s and 30s. In particular, Art Deco designs and carpet for the great ocean liners were profitable. Again in WWII, production ceased and Brintons produced over 800,000 of Jerry Cans. After the war, the demand for carpets was huge and Kidderminster boomed again. Trade Unions ensured the workers were on good rates and women were earning as much as men.
In 1956 the first tufting machine arrived in Kidderminster from the USA. A loom could produce 20 to 30 rows a minute, the new machines up 1400 rows a minute. At first they could only use rayon which was nowhere as good as wool, then nylon which got a bad name because of static electricity problems, but these issues were resolved and wool was able to be used. Plain carpets were now, and still are, the norm so the patterned types were a minority market. Overseas and domestic markets declined as foreign manufacturers, particularly China, stepped up production. Brintons still operates with 50% of its turnover in the USA. Cruise liners are still a major market for them, they recently carpeted the new ship, “Britannia”. They produced the largest carpet in the world for the new Hong Kong airport. However, abortive attempt to set up a Chinese operation and the banking crisis resulted in the family losing control of the business to a hedge fund.