The "West of England Cloth" Factory
and the Tale of the Victorian Factory Owner and his Runaway Daughter.

Soon after we moved to our old farmhouse on the southern border of Somerset, we were told of a mill which once stood in the field opposite. We could find little trace of it when we searched, just a few old stones amongst the brambles and nettles.

Living in, and renovating, an old house (Court Farmhouse) arouses the curiosity about the past; of the people who lived there and the manner of their lives. For the first three years we were so busy with the house in all our "leisure" hours that we had no time to look beyond it, but gradually, as we began to know the villagers we heard snippets of information about "The Factory" as it was called. We discovered that this ancient village (recorded as part of the property of the Bishop of Wells in 1206 - a gift of King John) had progressed from rural poverty to relative prosperity in Victorian times. This was largely due to the work provided by the Woollen Factory. Built in the early 19th century, four storeys high of local stone, the factory was large and conspicuous; standing on the edge of the village beside a spring, one of many which fed the River Axe, a short walk further down in the valley, it used the water to power the machinery. The product was West of England Cloth - a strong, dense, napped woollen cloth capable of keeping out the wind and wet of the West Country; important in the days before weather proofing.

In addition to the 12 farms of the village and surrounding area, the Factory employed a large proportion of the population, which grew from 764 inhabitants in 1802 to 1,062 in 1851; this period being the heyday of the cloth production. They walked to work in clogs, made by the cobbler in the village, and the children went too. It is said that at one time 600 people were employed there, including the man who took a cart round the village every day to collect the urine from householders willing to save it! Their annual payment for this was a length of cloth. The urine was used in the scouring (cleaning) and possibly the fulling or milling (thickening by controlled shrinkage) of the cloth. It may also have been used during the dyeing but, since all the records have been lost, we do not know whether the dyeing was done here. In any event the dyes would have been 'natural' since synthetic dyes had not yet been discovered. Teasels were grown locally and used to 'nap' or raise the fibres on the face of the fabric. These still grow wild in a nearby field and down by the river.

The Victorian owner of the mill was a pillar of local society, Mr Samuel Ousley Bennett. He and his wife Mary Jubilee, whom he married in 1829, prospered and raised a large family of eleven children, all born between 1830 and 1850. Samuel and Mary enjoyed the love and respect of their children - proof of this is shown in a letter from Susan, their fourth daughter, written in 1888 from Sioux City, Iowa, United States of America:

"Dear - dear Father how I long to see you, and what would I give to have a talk with Mother angel Mother - and I crave her forgiveness for all my wayward and self-willed actions and words that children should never utter to Parents, indeed I could live more contentedly could I but have had her blessing - and now dear Father send me yours. 

 I know we all have your devoted love and best of wishes, and I hope your life may be spared many years, so that we may enjoy the honour and privilege of possessing a good and righteous earthly parent, one that indeed commands our love and respect".
Samuel Bennett

Susan writes longingly of her father's nice fresh vegetables and "the monster gooseberries that used to grow on the home bushes". Apparently fresh fruit was scarce in Sioux City in 1888 and they depended largely on canned and bottled fruit. Judging by Susan's remarks about her "wayward and self-willed actions" and also by the behaviour of her youngest sister, bringing up children was as difficult in those days as it is today.

To see the actual letter, click here.

Victorian Melodrama
Lavinia Rebecca, the youngest daughter of Samuel and Mary, born in 1850, fell in love, at the age of 18 with a Mr Bacon, the son of a Publican (shock, horror!) from a town some ten miles away. Father did not approve, so the young couple decided to elope. In true Victorian melodramatic style, Mr Bacon rode up to the farmhouse (Church Farm) on horseback at dawn, stopped beneath Lavinia's bedroom window, from which she leapt onto the horse and galloped four miles into Chard, the nearest town, to St Mary's church. Lavinia even had a bridesmaid, her friend who lived opposite, who also rode to town on horseback. (Can you imagine this on silent film with accompanying music on the piano?). The event must have been well planned in order to find a vicar willing to perform the ceremony at that hour!

Meanwhile, back at the village, Father had discovered that his youngest daughter was missing, so saddled up and grabbed his shotgun (accompanied by a roll of notes on the piano...) and rode into town. TOO LATE!! They were already married. "Never darken my doorstep again!" The young couple went to London where Mr Bacon became a hansom cab driver and they presumably lived happily ever after, since it was Lavinia's grand-daughter who told this tale to me.

By 1850 the woollen trade had gone to the North and the Factory closed. By the 1860's the community was described as being more like a decayed town than a rural village. Susan, in her letter, writes of the pleasure at hearing from her father that the Factory may be utilised again, but for what purpose she does not say. Four years later her father died (1892). My research could uncover no more information about the Factory until 1914 or thereabouts. The oldest inhabitant of the village recalls going there during the First World War for dances where the owner played the melodium. The old building was also used for band practice in 1935. It was demolished during the Second World War and the stone used at the aerodrome in Somerset.

 


 

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This page revised 07 May 2009

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