The weaving history behind Axminster Carpets
- Credit: Jim Holden
Delving into the past with Chris Hallam
In 1754, Thomas Whitty made a trip to London which changed his life forever.
He was a cloth-weaver based in his hometown of Axminster, but business was tough. While visiting a warehouse in the capital, however, he saw a selection of colourful Turkish carpets and was inspired. Was there any way he might be able to manufacture such carpets in Axminster himself?
Despite a few false starts, it was only really when Whitty started using vertical looms (as opposed to the more traditional horizontal variety) like those he had seen on a visit to a second factory, this time run by a French firm, that he achieved real success. Employing young girls, mostly teenaged or younger, Whitty’s business was further boosted by his success in winning a prestigious manufacturing award. Both Axminster and Thomas Whitty were soon major names in the lucrative world of carpets with examples of their output installed in a range of distinguished Georgian addresses such as Chatsworth House, Kingston Lacy and Blickling Hall. In 1789, the Axminster factory was boosted by a high-profile visit by King George III himself, accompanied by Queen Charlotte who placed an order for some carpets herself before leaving.
By this point Thomas was an old man and he died in his late seventies in 1792. During the next 20 years, the business was inherited first by his son, then by his grandson, both also called Thomas. Neither proved long-lived, however, and when Thomas Whitty III died in 1810, his younger brother, Samuel Ransom Whitty inherited the company at the age of just 26.
Samuel Ransom Whitty’s time in charge saw a number of big successes. A particularly good commission occurred when George IV ordered three Axminster carpets for three rooms in his famous Brighton Pavilion. Another notable coup occurred in 1827 when the largest and perhaps grandest carpet yet was delivered to the Sultan of Turkey.
Disaster struck in 1828 when a major fire started in an adjoining malthouse and subsequently destroyed or at least damaged almost the entire Whitty family’s carpet and stock. It was not quite the end: a new factory was built and prestigious and lucrative orders soon followed from Windsor Castle and Goldsmith’s Hall. But, by now, the business was struggling. The new factory building was more expensive to run, payments from customers were coming in late and competition from overseas rivals was stifling business. In 1835, after 80 years, the factory closed down after Samuel Ransom Whitty was declared bankrupt. Everything had to be sold off. It seemed to make a sad end to the story of carpet production in Axminster.
But it was not the end. Nothing happened for a full century until one day in 1935 a man got into conversation with a vicar on a train. The man was Harry Dutfield, a Scots-born carpet manufacturer living in Kidderminster. Dutfield was travelling to the London Motor Show intent on buying his first Jaguar car but his conversation with the vicar distracted him. No carpets had been made in Axminster since soon after the 1828 fire, the cleric told him. Listening carefully, the young businessman soon began to formulate a plan. Moving his own company to Axminster, he relaunched Axminster Carpets Ltd. He persuaded Southern Railway to lease him land on which to build his new factory. The business proved a success. In time, Dutfield semi-retired, leaving the company to his son, Simon. Harry died in 1999.
In 2005, the 250th anniversary of carpet production was celebrated. The 21st century has presented its own set of challenges, however. In 2013, the company went into administration before being saved. In 2020, the same thing happened again. Today, Axminster Carpets remain a famous and reputable manufacturer, well-known and highly regarded for their ability to provide high-quality carpets throughout the world. The name ‘Axminster’ is now destined to be linked to the word ‘carpets’ in the popular consciousness forevermore.