Wool and Cloth

Trading began in Westbury when Walter Pavely, of Broke, obtained a royal charter to hold a weekly market and an annual fair in 1252. For over 600 years from then, wool was the basis of Westbury’s trade and prosperity.

Raw wool was exported to Flanders and Italy up to the fourteenth century, when the Hundred Years’ War disrupted this prosperous trade. At this time the techniques of spinning, weaving and finishing began to be practised locally, encouraged by Flemish immigrant weavers who settled here.

By Tudor times, Westbury woven broadcloths were being sent to agents in London. During the Industrial Revolution of 1790 to 1840 the old cottage or domestic system slowly gave way to the factory system. 

In 1790 Westbury’s annual cloth trade amounted to £100,000 and the Napoleonic Wars kept the mills busy until about 1815. Then followed a period of depression. Dilton Marsh weavers demonstrated against low wages in 1817, and in 1826 William Cobbett, who could see nothing good in Westbury because it was a “rotten” borough, found unemployed weavers, who had applied for parish relief, set to digging fields by the parish overseere for 9d a day. Riots took place and Yeomanry troops were called out to restore order in 1822 and 1830. 

All the Westbury mills in turn became bankrupt; the biggest, the Angel and Bitham Mills of Overbury and Matravers, failing in 1847. To make matters worse, the vicar of Westbury reported in 1846 that the potato famine caused much distress. No wonder these years became known as “The Hungry Forties“!

It was as this time that Abraham Laverton first leased, and then bought, the Angel Mill in 1852. He also bought the Bitham Mill in 1856. Between then and his death in 1886 his firm became one of the most prosperous in the West of England, and its fine quality cloth became famous.

Eventually by the middle of the twentieth century the only surviving cloth mills in Wiltshire were in Westbury and Trowbridge. Production continued in Westbury under the Laverton name until 1968 when the Angel and Bitham Mills closed.

Taken from an original account by Mr W T Watkins BA