The Cloth Trade and the Lead Local Clothiers

John Leland after being sent by King Henry VIII on a tour from 1539-40 of every college and religious house in the country looking for books for the royal library after the dissolution of the monasteries (the first and only King’s Antiquarian!) wrote an account of what he had seen. In it he wrote, ‘Al the towne of Bradford standeth by clooth making.’ Not that Bradford was a large place. In 1559 it was described as ‘an upland town with a scanty population’ and so not in need of a school! The average population in the immediate area from 1580 -1630 was 1,500-1,600 and of these not more than half lived in the town. However in the next two centuries the population grew as the cloth industry attracted labour. The biggest increase was in the last quarter of the 17th century when it grew from 2,545 to 4,110.

The Methuens were not mentioned in a list of the chief landowners in Bradford in 1605 and did not arrive in the town until the 1620’s-30’s. However they soon became prominent through being the first to introduce from Holland the skill of making the finer cloths on which the fame and fortune of the town was built. By the late 17th century John Aubrey, the greatest antiquarian of that era and a Wiltshire man, in his notes on the history of cloathing (the cloth trade) in his Natural History ofWiltshire, singled out Paul Methuen as the greatest clothier (clothmaker) of his time, noted the year of his death, 1667, and described him as a worthy gentleman. Needless to say there was much new building in what is still called Newtown,which began to be developed in the 1690’s towards the end of John Hall’s time.

A century later with the invention of the spinning Jenny (c1776) and scribbling mills (c1790) which mechanised the process, Bradford lost its pre-eminence to its namesake in Yorkshire but up to that time it reigned nationally supreme, though Trowbridge at one time led “in the riche market of clergy and ladies’ cloths, kerseymeres and fancy pieces.” The Brewers were its leading clothiers and Aubrey said of William, the then head of the family, ‘Mr Brewer of Troubridge driveth the greatest trade for medleys of any cloathier in England.’ In Bradford as owners of the main mills, the Halls along with others who lived by rivers had benefitted from the shift from the cities to the country market towns and villages in the late 13th century, where rivers such as the Avon could supply large quantities of water, used for cleaning the wool and felting the cloth (fulling,) and for motive power in general before steam.
The Brewers, Methuens and Halls are all named in an interesting document of 1674, which is a bond of obligation given by William Brewer to Paul Methuen and John Hall indemnifying them against expense incurred in employing three ‘Dutchmen by nation or of Powland.’ This is the first documentary evidence for the use of foreign labour, though the links of the local cloth industry with the continent went back a long way. Under Edward III in the 14 th century the licensed markets for wool, the staples, were at first in Flanders. But by a statute of 1353 ten staples were established in England linked with one across the channel in Calais. The nearest to Bradford were Winchester and Bristol. Edward also encouraged discontented cloth workers from Flanders to settle in this country. Henry Tudor before he became King, when he lived with his aunt the duchess of Burgundy in Flanders, saw how much money they made there from making cloth out of English wool. So he also as King encouraged cloth manufacturers to come from there to the West Country. John Aubrey claimed that several houses built for them in Seend were particularly fine. ‘I know not any village so remote from London that can shew the like.’ Aubrey also noted that Walloon names such as Goupy were found ‘in the country hereabouts.’ John Aubrey said he did not know why the Walloons moved from there to Trowbridge. It is interesting to note that there are still families in Seend, Corsham and Trowbridge called Guppy, the modern equivalent of Goopy. The bond of obligation of William Brewer’s was needed in case the men mentioned in it fell on hard times and had to be supported by the parish. By it they became a Trowbridge responsibility!
The Halls were certainly fortunate with their mills because the lime in the water of the Avon ensured the wool became white when cleaned in it, as it did in Salisbury. Seend and Winchester were not so fortunate. The iron in the water in both turned wool yellow and the industry eventually declined in them as a result. In Bradford, the right water together with rich pasture for sheep nearby ensured generally good property and land values in the area round it, especially with the growth in prosperity after the Restoration of the monarchy at the end of the civil war.

Kingston House, Bradford-on-Avon
However John Aubrey who had land at Broad Chalke in South Wiltshire wrote at that time that values were falling with ‘many forsaking the country for the towns.’ He complained that this was because of ‘the decay of the Turky trade’, (trade with Turkey: he was using the term loosely for that part of the Mediterranean area), and also the temporary growth in the use of silk as prosperity returned after the war and loss of international trade in wool as a result. There was too a conflict of interest between the manufacturers and the landowners who produced the wool, which was put frankly by Aubrey, “Our cloathiers combine against the wooll-masters and keep their spinners but just alive; they steale hedges, spoile coppices and are trained up as nurseries of sedition and rebellion.” The source of the bad feeling was the trade in wool. The manufacturers wanted to restrict exports of wool and the landowners wanted to restrict the import of it. Nothing changes over the protection of local interests on either side of the Channel!

So when John Hall acquired Great Chalfield from his Hanham cousins in 1673 it was a well timed deal, just at the beginning of the period of great prosperity for the area’s clothiers. Such were the fortunes made by the richest clothiers that they could marry into the aristocracy. John Hall married Elizabeth daughter of Thomas Thynne of Longleat. Indeed, as one of his brother in law’s executors, he erected the monument of Thomas Thynne in Westminster Abbey. Thomas had been murdered by Count Koningsmark in the streets of London in 1682. There is a note added to an early family tree of the Halls that our John Hall’s first wife had been the less well known Susan Cox of Wells.
Like many sons of the landed gentry then, John Hall would have received an early training in the law, quite possibly in one of the Inns of Court in London. He served as High Sheriff of Wiltshire in 1670 as a leading figure in the County and his name is on many legal documents of the period. The Methuens made greater progress moving into Corsham Court in 1745. As a family they extended their influence outside Wiltshire to London and beyond, with two generations providing ambassadors to Portugal and Spain.

John Hall’s lasting contribution to Bradford was the building and endowment of the men’s almshouseswhich still stand, with his coat of arms and an inscription Deo et Pauperibus, for God and the poor, on their front, dated 1700. In his will made in 1708, two years before he died, he provided in perpetuity an annual payment of £40 for the support of four old men who would live in them. This sum was to be provided as during his life by the income from a 100 acre farm called Upper Paxcroft in the parish of Steeple Ashton. (This is now a poultry farm.) The owner of the Hall was to nominate the recipients. We owe this information to a survey of the manor of Bradford dated 1734. The Duke of Kingston was by then its owner and had inherited his estate in the area from his mother. She had inherited all of John Hall’s estate. The Duke set up trustees and instructed how the almshouses were to be managed. Mr Horatio Moulton, the then owner of the Hall, in the 1890’s reroofed, repaired and re-endowed them with £1,050. John Hall had made a contribution to alleviating the poverty that was a growing problem in his day in the town. The other reminders of him are in Great Chalfield itself.

The two tangible memorials of his ownership of the manor house are both in All Saints Church next to it. The beautiful silver patten, chalice and alms plate he presented have hallmarks dating them to 1680 and a motto Deo et Ecclesiae, for God and the Church, surmounted by a shield of arms with elaborate mantling, three axes for Hall and barry (horizontal bars) of ten for Thynne. All three are still in use in the church for Holy Communion. So is the pulpit he gave to All Saints, with its three levels for the three orders of ministry: the laity, deacons and priests, (see right). As Patron, John Hall presented Rectors to the living of Great Chalfield in 1678, 1689 and 1707. The 3 decker pulpit is a John Hall item, the sounding board was added later in 1765.

The Hall family insignia, three axes, are on the gable of the barn at Great Chalfield, on a plaque dated 1752 placed there when it was extended at a time when farm income was improving from the rotation of crops which made continuous cultivation possible for the first time . In the northern part of the barn earlier cruck timbers remain. John Aubrey thought he saw the Hall family crest on the great barn in Barton Farm in Bradford but he was mistaken. That was never the property of the Halls.


Great Chalfield Manor, Great Chalfield, nr. Melksham, Wiltshire. SN12 8NH - Tel: 01225 782 239