Wool and Cloth Production
In the early days of Quakerism many Quakers were engaged in farming, including the Fells at Swarthmore Hall. In areas where early Quakers were concentrated, such as the North of England, East Anglia and Somerset, sheep rearing was an important component, though there were usually cattle and various crops, as well as sheep. Farms were usually small family concerns.
Some Quakers traded in fleeces. They bought raw wool from the scattered farms and passed it on to other Quaker families who worked at home to comb, spin, dye and finish the wool. Some homes also had the facilities for weaving. (George Fox, the founder of Quakers, was the son of a weaver).
Early Quakers were always at risk from bailiffs, because they refused to pay tithes to the church. Their goods were often confiscated (‘distrained’) in lieu. Farmers were particularly vulnerable, because their possessions were very difficult to conceal. Their implements and animals were often distrained, which made their livelihoods precarious. By contrast, combing, spinning and dyeing were easier to sustain, so many Quakers became small artisans in the cloth trade.
The eighteenth century was a time of transition for the cloth trade as larger organisations grew up beside the smaller domestic concerns. Small businesses became established in the towns such as the Wilsons’ weaving shop in Kendal. The Crewdson family owned a mill where wool was processed. Businesses were often expanded through the alliance of families, often through intermarriage. These businesses provided employment for local people and offered more protection, as a business could continue even when some of the stock had been distrained to pay off debts.
In Somerset Edward Fox married into the Were family, who were an established wool producing family. They produced a woollen serge, which became renowned and was known as “Tauntons”. In 1772 Thomas Fox took over the business from his father and founded Fox’s Woollen Mill, which employed over 450 people. Houses and schools were built for the Fox employees in Wellington, Somerset and they were amongst the first employers to have a pension scheme for their employees.
John Hustler (1715-1790), a prosperous wool merchant, was particularly active in promoting fair business practices. In 1752 he gave evidence to a parliamentary committee dealing with the false practices of wool growers and in 1764 he was to a large extent instrumental in pressing parliament for legislation against the closed-shop activities of domestic textile workers. When the Worsted Committee was formed in 1777 he was elected chairman and represented the interests of his fellow tradesmen for many years. In 1780 Bradford’s market facilities had become outdated and tradesmen and farmers were being forced to take their business elsewhere. John Hustler and others built a new market hall and shops. It was then possible for finished rolls of worsted cloth to be sold from these premises. Hustler is credited with the transformation of Bradford from a small town to a prosperous city.
In Ireland in 1685 two Quakers John Bancroft and Abel Strette decided to settle beside the Griese River in County Kildare where they established a farm. As in England cottage industries of spinning and weaving grew up as the fleeces from their sheep were used. Later wool and flour mills were built and the Quaker village of Ballitore was born. Looms were often bequeathed in Irish wills of this period. Woollen mills were also built in other parts of Ireland. By the 19th Century over 2,000 people were employed in wool production in Mountmellick, County Laois.
In order to help their fellow Quakers to remain in business wealthier Quakers began to lend money to woolgrowers and workers to help them finance the purchase of sheep and equipment. In due course this money lending grew into banking. John and Henry Gurney, sons of an East Anglian wool merchant in Norwich, founded Gurney’s bank in 1775. (This bank became second only to the Bank of England in its wealth.) In 1788 the Crewdson family founded Crewdson’s bank in Kendal.
Although Quakers were not as significant in the wool and cloth industry as they were in other sectors, they were well represented. As in other fields, they helped to promote good business practices, and better conditions for workers.