ABOUT WITNEY BLANKET HALL

WITNEY BLANKET HALL

WITNEY BLANKET HALL was built in 1721, and for its first 150 years everyone knew what it was: the home of the Company of Witney Blanket Weavers and the principal public hall in the town. But over its second 150 years, as the Hall was roughly pummelled and partitioned into brewery, lemonade factory, engineering workshop, horse slaughterer’s, ironmonger’s shop, architect’s office, births & deaths registrar’s, driving test office, dancing school, and, latterly, gentleman’s house... It gradually dropped out of public view. Of course, it has stood as it always has done, four-square on the High Street, but only vaguely recognised or not at all.

Witney Blanket Hall has had many uses over its 300 years, but the street frontage has remained substantially the same.

   The Company of Witney Blanket Weavers had been granted a charter by Queen Anne in 1711 to better regulate the craft of Witney blanket weaving, and by 1720 they were sufficiently established to buy a narrow plot of land between the High Street and the River Windrush, and build themselves a fine new Hall. ‘A delightful version of local Baroque’ as Pevsner puts it, and one of the most prestigious buildings in the town.
   Downstairs was a warehouse to which every blanket woven in Witney town came to be weighed and measured, while upstairs was the Great Room where the company members met to regulate their trade, and admonish those weavers who failed to observe the rules. At the back of the Hall was a range of buildings where they brewed their beer and cooked their dinners, housed their servants and, mended their machinery.

   And down by the river was a small urban garden with fruit trees, probably herbs and vegetables for the kitchen, and certainly room to pitch a pavilion in which Witney’s good and great could sit down to feasts to commemorate the death of kings and the birth of princes.

Wool & Water & Ingenuity = BLANKETS!

   Of course, blankets had been made in Witney long before the building of the Blanket Hall. Henry of Blois, Bishop of Winchester, brother of King Stephen and grandson of William the Conqueror, built himself a splendid house in Witney from where he could direct his large estates and, in particular, his sheep flocks. 
   Henry exported much of his wool to Flanders (modern Belgium), but he seems to have established weaving as an important trade in the town. Over the following centuries, the numbers of sheep around Witney and the importance of the weaving trade kept growing. At that time, and for centuries afterwards, Witney wove mostly heavy, well-milled cloths used for coats. Even as late as 1814, Lord Sherburn could write:
   
‘Mr Early, I want a warm great coat very much and I should like one of a light warm Witney Blanketting and a light brown colour; the last I had was so heavy I could not wear it. I should like to know the width and price. If you will execute this commission I will send you a brace of Hares.’

   Witney also wove wagon covers, and tilt cloths. These were oiled woollen squares used to cover the cargo on barges, and were the forerunners of modern tarpaulins.

   However, by the 17th century, Witney was specialising in weaving blankets, and by 1677, Dr Robert Plot, in his monumental The Natural History of Oxfordshire, could say: ‘For Improvements, ’tis certain that the Blanketing Trade of Witney is advanced to that height, that no place comes near it.’

   Plot wrote that there were 150 looms in the town, and that the attendant trades of sorting, scouring, spinning, weaving, and finishing provided work for 3000 people. He puts the successful establishment of the trade down to what he calls ‘the abstersive nitrous water of the River Windrush’ and ‘a peculiar way of loose Spinning the People have hereabout.

Dr Robert Plot

   The good Dr Plot might be right, but on the other hand he might have been swayed by Witney blanketmen with a good tale to tell. Perhaps the truth is that a few weavers set up in Witney, infrastructure (suitable buildings, labour, machinery builders) developed, and so the weaving trade developed. Just as saddlers came to Walsall, needle-makers to Redditch, and steelmen to Sheffield.

   At any event, carts were soon trundling regularly down to London carrying Witney blankets for sale to merchants at Blackwell Hall. (An interesting aside is that Blackwell Hall was established as London's cloth market in 1397 by that most famous of Lord Mayors... Mr Richard 'Dick' Whittington.)

Old Blackwell Hall

   As Plot put it, Witney blankets ‘are esteemed beyond all others’, and were already being exported to North America through the Hudson’s Bay Trading Company. Dr Plot mentions that there was a good trade in duffields, or blanketing cloth, ‘that best please the Indians of Virginia and New-England, with whom he Merchants truck [trade] them for Bever, and other Furrs of several Beasts.’ But, says Plot, the colour ran, and the Indians were not happy... 

   ... Until ‘an ingenious person of Witney’ had succeeded in making a colour-fast dye: so hurrah all round!

'An Ingenious Person of Witney'

   However, despite the ingenious person’s best efforts, not all was well in Witney: perhaps the success of the trade encouraged some weavers literally to cut corners, and offer under-size and under-weight blankets for sale. In 1709 a group of Witney weavers denounced some of their fellows who: ‘for their Private Lucre have Confounded the sizes there formerly made, and not made the Antient Lengths Breadths or Weights But have so Deceitfully and Slightly worked the same that the Value is only in shew, So that the Credit this Great and beneficial Trade hath obtain’d both at home and Abroad is by this means very much Lessened.’

   Nowadays we rather think that competition in a free market is more likely to drive up standards, but in the early 18th century monopoly was definitely the favoured route to goodness. So, in May 1711, Queen Anne granted to the newly established Company of Witney Blanket Makers complete jurisdiction over ‘all and every such persons, who are qualified by law as blankett weavers to use and exercise the art and mistery of blankett weaving in Witney’.

   The Company was not a company in a modern, commercial sense; rather it was a guild or trade association of individual master-weavers that had the power to regulate the activities not just of its members but of all weavers. The Company had the right to inspect every blanket woven in Witney or within 20 miles of it, to reject any that were not up to its standards, and to fine any transgressors of its regulations.

   At first the Company met where it could, but by 1720 had amassed sufficient fees and fines to build its own Hall. Accordingly, on 12th August 1720 (certainly a ‘Glorious Twelfth’ for the Company), forty two members signed an agreement ‘to bild up a hall ffor the waing [weighing] of blankits for the Company of blankit wafers [weavers] att ye house which was John Butlers that is to bild itt as soon as posable itt can be bilt.’

An agreement 'to bild up a hall'

   The intrepid forty two certainly steamed ahead; before Christmas 1721, ie in about sixteen months, they had bought John Butler’s house, knocked it down, built their hall, and held their first meeting in it. Today, after sixteen months would they have even got planning permission? 
   Alfred Plummer, who wrote copiously about Witney blanket making, calculated the cost of the Hall at c. £460, and at least its street frontage has changed remarkably little over the 300 years since it was built. 

   The Hall’s current Grade II* listing description would have been easily recognised by its first owners nearly 300 years ago:
   ‘Blanket hall. Built 1721: panel with arms of Witney Company of Weavers reads “Robert Collier Master 1721.” Limestone ashlar; gabled roof; lateral stack of stone finished in brick. Provincial Baroque style. 2 storeys; symmetrical 3-window range. Raised and segmental -headed keyed architrave to plank double doors set in heavy wood frame with overlights. Similar architraves to 9-pane sashes and 12-pane sash above door, all with thick glazing bars. 
   ‘Raised storey band and quoin strips; ball finials with gadrooned bases to corners and surmounting open pediment. Pediment has half-H apron blocks beneath cornice and clock in tympanum above arms of the Witney Company of Weavers. Roof surmounted by fine wood bell turret with cupola.’

The High Street frontage showing half the hall

   It is certainly a distinguished building, and probably intentionally so. The posh end of town was traditionally up around St Mary’s Church, and Church Green: the scruffier business end, where the weaving was done, was necessarily down by the river. The new Blanket Hall was by far the most prestigious building in this area, and (as visitors will find for themselves) passers-by seeing the master weavers meeting behind the tall, elegant windows of the Great Room upstairs could not fail to have been impressed by the clear importance of their trade.

   Events have always been most closely recorded by princes, and lawyers, and doctors, and all those who lived at least partly by word-craft rather than the practical everyday, and it is no surprise that neither weavers nor builders recorded a precise description of the Hall as it was designed and erected. But in the Company records there are innumerable receipts against work done at the Hall over the following decades. 

The famous one-handed clock

   There is a bill against ‘My Self & a Mann & prentises 4 days a reaparing a dining rume’, another for ‘2 men one day at the kitching Chimbly.’ And an avalanche of slates, plaster, ‘fire grats’, roasting jacks, ‘colours with oil’, strong hinges, and ‘a furness’. The receipt books suggest an ever-changing whirl of repairs and improvements as the Company of Witney Blanket makers found its feet, and prospered.