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A History of Carmarthenshire

Lloyd, Sir John E., (Ed.). 2 vols., Cardiff, London Carmarthenshire Society (1935, 1939).

With the kind permission of the publishers sundry extracts from this book have been extracted by Gareth Hicks.

Here is a list of the book's contents and contributors.


The Woollen Industry

By A B Jones & B L Davies

Any attempt to recount the history of the woollen industry in Carmarthenshire, or indeed elsewhere in Wales, would require a volume to itself. Its beginnings go back to very remote times, for we learn from the laws of Hywel Dda that it existed even then. The Norman consolidation, the rise of the monasteries, and the later immigration of the skilled Flemish weavers into West Wales were factors that greatly fostered its development during the Middle Ages.

With the advent of the Tudors came a new policy in economic affairs, and there is much more information about the Welsh woollen trade. Their aim was to build a strong state, an aim to be helped by fostering home industries, and especially those which played a prominent part in the export trade. As a result, during the 16th and 17th centuries the Welsh woollen industry gradually throve so as to reach a certain stage of development, and then remained stationary. It was during the 18th and 19th centuries that the increasing mechanisation of the industry brought about a complete reorganisation and distribution of the trade within the county.

There was no real change in processes from the end of the 14th until the second half of the 18th century, when the water wheel was used to operate the carding and spinning machines for the first time. Further changes in the methods of working and in the organisation of the industry were, however, brought about with the coming of the factory system during the latter half of the 19th century.

It will therefore be convenient for our purpose to regard the industry in Carmarthenshire as falling into two periods, the first from the 15th century to the middle of the 18th, and the second from the latter part of the 18th to the close of the 19th century.

1.

Carding, spinning and cloth weaving were among the domestic arts of the early Welsh. From local supplies of wool the native hand looms wrought a rough kind of cloth or blanket called brychan with other articles of clothing and domestic necessities. After the introduction of the fulling mill by the Flemings in the 14th century, Welsh cloth began to be manufactured on a considerable scale. In the homesteads, particularly in the peasant homes during the long winter nights, carding, spinning, and weaving continued as part of the domestic routine, while the cloth was sent to the local pandy, or fulling mill, for scouring, dyeing and finishing. A large woollen export trade grew up between Wales and England. So important indeed did the export become throughout the country, including Carmarthenshire, that Carmarthen town was one of the three, and later, with the passing of the Ordinance of the Staple of 1353, the only staple town through which wool was sold to England. The cloth trade became most flourishing during the 15th century, so that Welsh cloth was found not only in the fairs and markets of Wales, but also in the towns of the border counties, as well as at the great cloth fair of St Bartholomew in London.

From the literature of the 16th century, it may be gathered that the woollen business at this time was carried on along two different lines, namely, through the old town guilds and as a domestic pursuit in the homestead. That there was a guild at Carmarthen at this time is certain, and there may have been guilds in other towns. They had elaborate rules and all the craftsmen underwent a long and thorough period of apprenticeship. The guilds produced a greater variety and a better quality of goods than the peasants in their homesteads. Some of the best known products of the guilds were 'friezes, cottons, carsies, plaine and fine clothes,' and 'high cotton fryses.' These materials were disposed of in a number of ways, as in the Middle Ages; they were either sold at local fairs and markets direct to the consumer, or were sent to Oswestry and Shrewsbury, and frequently from thence to London. Welsh cloth was often sold undyed but cloth intended for export would be dyed at Shrewsbury before being sent to London or Bristol. The export of Welsh woollen goods was , however, not to England alone, for Welsh cloth was sent to Spain, Portugal, Normandy, France, Italy and some of the Low Countries.

Although on a much less organised footing, most of the activities of the woollen trade were carried on throughout the county in homesteads and farmhouses, not withstanding great antipathy on the part of the guilds. The sheep were reared on the hillsides, and much of the annual clip of wool would be used to meet the requirements of the farmers and their dependants. Carding and spinning were part of the domestic routine, for most homes could afford a pair of hand cards and a spinning wheel, and a 16th century writer asks, 'Wherein can a woman better skill than in spinning and cardinge, or what can a child better do than pike wool or winde yarn ?' A loom was a more costly speculation, and as a rule the cloth was woven in a lean-to shed by the weaver's house. The fulling mill, or pandy, generally found in a central position on the bank of some stream, served all the weavers of the neighbourhood. Clothiers went round the countryside buying surplus products; they disposed of them to the best of their ability in very much the same way as the guild products, to the great annoyance of the guild members. Accounts of the scattered country weavers outside the town are naturally lacking, but the industry was of considerable importance, even if of a domestic nature, and it was common practice for people engaged in one of its many branches to do so in conjunction with agriculture.

During the early part of the 16th century, there was great hostility between the guild members in the towns and the individuals in the countryside interested in the trade. This hostility is apparent in the statute enacted in 1542-3 (33 & 35 Hen VIII, c.11) which states that the 'cloth makers that dwell within......, Carmarthenshire, Cardiganshire, and Pembrokeshire, have used in times past to make.....Welsh frise....and Welsh cotton to the great profit of all the king's subjects of this realm,' but that now 'foreigners, husbandmen and grasiers dwelling in the country...do make their owne wool frises and cottons after the most false and deceytful manner that may be.' In an effort to safeguard the interests of the trade and the craftsmen, the mayor and burgesses of Carmarthen, on April 26, 1574, granted a charter for the incorporation of a company or fraternity of weavers, as the company that had been previously incorporated had fallen into abeyance on account of 'negligent or willfull officers.' This had resulted in ' the greate impoverishment enpairing of the said artificers, and the great decay, abuse and syncere practice of the said arte, misterie, science and occupation of weavers for want of good orders, decrees and statute between them and the orderly mean for condigne punishment of the offenders according to their deserts.' They appointed a master and two wardens to supervise the guild and to carry out regulations according to the rules of the council.

A month later, on May 24th, 1574, the Tuckers' Company was formed. It appeared 'to the Maior, burgesses and Comminalite that the Tuckers, cloth workers, fullers and shearmen within this town, being manie and not incorporated, for lack and want of corporation and rulers, governers and orders in the same and of the residue, have of late occasioned the impoverishment, hinderance, and decay, not only of the misterie, science and practice of fullinge, tuckinge, clothe working and shearinge, but alsoe of the poore and honeste artificers living onelie uppon the same. Whereupon the wealthiest and richest men within the saide town, not being brought up in that trade and exercise, have entered and encroached uppon and occupied the said art, misterie, and occupacone, their greedie covetous and unsatiable mynds being such, that they exercised, kepte and maintained in their houses, private, base and most unskillful workmen, to the great hinderance and utter impoverishment of the honest cunninge and best artificers and occupiers of that trade and misterie, whereby much deceit and shame hath been used, had and practised the said art and misterie.' Two masters and wardens were chosen to see that the rules and laws for their trade were carried out. Great efforts were thus made by the guilds to keep up the old rigid system of apprenticeship and to prevent the development of the industry outside.

Carmarthen, at this time an important centre for wool and woollen yarn, provided convenient supplies for the weavers of the town. The wool collected from the hinterland was brought to market, either by the farmers themselves, or by wool dealers, to be sold at the common beam under the supervision of an official appointed by the council. In 1575, there were complaints about the diversity of weights used, and the council, in an endeavour to prevent the sale of wool in secret places, ordered that no wool was to be weighed ' save only at the common beam, and by the common balance and weight thereof appointed by the Mayor and remaining within the Guild hall.' In this manner an effort was made to stabilise the trade and to standardise its products.

The 17th century saw a further consolidation and steady growth of the industry, but it could in no way be compared with the increasing prosperity of the trade in Western and Eastern England, for the Welsh woollen manufacturers lacked the enterprise shown across the border. At this period, the local records, church registers, and borough records yield the first glimpse of the distribution of the industry in the countryside beyond the confines of the boroughs. In a list of the king's mills in England and Wales drawn up in 1608, there is a reference to a fulling mill at or near 'Pulkenbed (Pwll Cymbydd) infra forestam de Glincothe' in Carmarthenshire. There are references to a tucker at Llangennech in 1614, fullers, tuckers, hatters, felt makers, and cloth merchants at Carmarthen, a weaver in the famous cloth district of Llangeler and Penboyr in 1650, a weaver at Cynwyl Elfed in 1662, dyers (1609), weavers (1641 and 1678), and tuckers (1654) at Kidwelly, a weaver at Llangyndeyrn (1679), and a weaver (1683) and dyer (1688) at St Clears. Such a distribution indicates a fairly scattered disposition of the industry within the county at this time.

One striking innovation of the trade was the introduction at Carmarthen town of the beaver and felt hat industry, for these hats were then becoming very fashionable. The new industry probably appeared around 1633, and in that year Lewis Lloyd, a hatter, petitioned to be a burgess of the town, and the council, 'finding our town destitute of such a tradesman, hath agreed to admit Lewis Lloyd to be one of the burgesses of the town and to execute his trade' ; he was to pay a certain fee and not to ' meddle with any trade or exercise any other mystery, but only the trade of a hatter.' The number of people engaged in the trade must have increased rapidly, for in 1651 the company of hatters and felt makers was incorporated. The guilds in the woollen trade were losing their influence, for, in spite of the Statute of Apprentices (1563), people were taking up trades without pursuing a course of apprenticeship. Such an irregular procedure greatly interfered with the regular artisans, whose petition of 1633 ran thus; ' Having been brought upp, educated and served seaven yeares apprenticeship within the said Corporation to the trade of hatter and felt makers,' and because ' handicrafts men are much impairde within the said Corporation, and the chiefest occasion thereof is grown that most men within the same have hitherto exercised and kept divers and sundry handicrafts their greediness such at once at their houses, whereby much slight and falsehood have been used and proclaimed and very few within the corporation be expert and skylled in any one particular crafte art or....amongst which the misterie or crafte of hatters or felt makers is one of the great discommoditie and loss of those which have been apprenticed and brought upp to the said crafte and their discomforte and disabilitie to take, and retain apprentices to learne the same to succeede them within the corporation in the said mistery or craft of feltmaking.'

Save for the introduction of the hat and felt-making trade, the industry continued unchanged. As had been customary, the women carded and spun in the homesteads and often failed to cope with the demand made for yarn by the weavers of the county. The weavers who lived in remote parts, away from access to the markets, worked at such wool as was available in their neighbourhood, and would have been idle and in danger of starvation, had they had no other means of subsistence.

2.

During the latter part of the 18th century, new machinery, driven by the water-wheel, which could card and spin automatically, was invented. It gradually penetrated into Carmarthenshire and a few small carding and spinning factories arose along the streams and rivers of the county. The tardiness with which this machinery came into common use caused little disruption in the domestic industry, for carding and spinning did not cease to be part of the household routine.

South Wales was at this period on the threshold of industrialisation, and an important role of these simple factories was to supply the women of the industrial areas with knitting yarn. The raw wool, as in past times, was mainly derived from local sources and provided the neighbouring farmers and their dependants with most of their woollen goods.

A perusal of local records for this period will show an increasing number of references to the distribution of the industry within the confines of the county. During the 18th century there are references to nine weavers at Llanelly between 1745 and 1800, to weavers at Abergwili (1795), Kidwelly (1753), Laugharne (1738), Llandebie (1746, 1751, and 1811), Llangennech (1757), Llanedi (1785), Pembrey (1705), Llanegwad (1799), and Penboyr (1793), while at Talley, tuckers and weavers are mentioned. Furthermore, clothiers appear at Kidwelly (1753), Llandebie (1760), and Pembrey (1704-5); there were felt-makers at Laugharne (1727), and Pembrey (1703 and 1710). 'A Pedestrian Traveller,' passing through Carmarthenshire in 1797, describes how the 'wool is manufactured in the county into all forms and colours, supplying the inhabitants with every vestment, even to his shirt'.

From these references one notes that practically all these woollen workers were concentrated in the south and south-east of the county. True, it was slightly before the great concentration on coal mining, but there was even then a far greater density of population along the southern seaboard than in the remote highlands to the north of the county. Curiously enough, the actual trade in Carmarthen town is hardly ever mentioned during this century, but it is interesting to note that, even in the town itself, persons carried on a textile trade in conjunction with another occupation, as illustrated by the local record which mentions the death in 1769 of one 'Mr Thomas Williams, clothier and officer of customs.'

As in the previous century, the woollen products were either disposed of at local fairs in the county, or sent to England. During the 18th century, various centres in Carmarthenshire became noted for particular products, and it appears that 'Langthorne' (Laugharne?) and 'Mydrim' had noted fairs for the sale of Welsh cloth and flannel, while the outstanding town for the sale of stockings was Llandovery. According to Pott's Gazetteer in 1810, Llangadock was 'chiefly engaged in spinning yarn and weaving it into a coarse woollen fabric worn by all the common people.'

Flannel was also used at this time, not only for articles of clothing and domestic requirements, but also in the construction of coracles. It was prepared with pitch and tar as a covering for the wooden shell of the coracle; when flannel was too dear, canvas was substituted. Donovan, who visited Wales in 1804, gave the preference to flannel; being 'of a more durable substance, (it) may be more easily prepared and keeps out the water much longer than canvas.' In the vestry books of the parish of Llanegwad, under date September 5, 1798, the following entry occurs; 'that John Harry overseer do purchase flannel and other things necessary to make a coracle for John Lot.' This was obviously a kind of subsidy to a poor man, and it should be noted that a great deal of parish relief was given in the form of woollen goods at this time.

An effort was made towards the end of the 18th century and the early part of the 19th century to encourage the poor of Carmarthenshire who lacked a 'sufficient industry' to turn their attention to the spinning of yarn and the knitting of stockings. The Carmarthenshire Agricultural Society formed towards the end of the 18th century offered each year premiums to 'cottagers having nothing to depend on but their day labour, who, with the assistance of their wives and children living with them, such children not being above 12 years old, shall spin the greatest Quantity of Yarn from the first day of January to the end of the same year.' The five premiums offered by the society in this competition were won practically  every year by residents in the two parishes of Llangeler and Penboyr, the two parishes which have the most developed woollen trade at the present day. Such a scheme clearly illustrates the continued domestic character of the trade, and even the casual tourists of the period pay their tribute to the great industry of the peasants, and particularly of the women. Donovan says that 'every female is acquainted with the art of carding and spinning wool, which they knit into stockings, wigs, caps etc,' and that the women could card, spin, and knit about four pairs of stockings a week.

Even in the 19th century, the woollen manufacturers of Carmarthenshire were most reluctant to take up the factory system, notwithstanding that at that time the English woollen trade was prospering greatly with the increasing mechanisation. Although the power-driven carding and spinning machines had appeared within the county towards the end of the 18th century, the history of the woollen trade in the two parishes which still lead in the industry shows the reluctance to change. Llangeler and Penboyr had only four fulling mills at Pentrecourt, Dolwyon, Drefach, and Cwmpengraig at the end of the 18th century, and there were no factories for carding and spinning until the 19th. The first factory was set up at Cwmpengraig early in the century, and the second at Dolwyon in 1820, but these two had only machines for carding, the willying and spinning being done by hand. A third factory at Llwynbedw had spinning machines. Up to about 1850, the word 'factory' in Carmarthenshire simply meant a building where carding or spinning machines were driven by water power.

Weaving was still done by the hand loom. The 1831 census states that in Carmarthenshire there were 260 male weavers of over twenty years of age, 'engaged in weaving woollen yarns produced by domestic industry'; 'no more than 14 were found in any one place.' In 1850, the power loom was invented; as a result of this new invention and that of the new fulling machine, the industry flourished until the end of the century as never before. There was a rapid increase in the number of factories, and between 1860 and 1900 about 21 factories appeared in the two parishes of Llangeler and Penboyr alone. It was this period which saw the change from the domestic to the factory system in Carmarthenshire. The great development of mining and of the metallurgical industries in the south-east of the county and in Glamorgan provided a ready market for, and greatly encouraged, the woollen trade. On the other hand, with the specialisation in the mining and metallurgical industries, the woollen industry decayed in the south-east of the county, so that towards the end of the century practically every factory within Carmarthenshire was to be found to the north and west of a line drawn from Kidwelly to Llandovery, with a marked concentration along the Teify and its tributaries.

Two major types of factory appeared. They may for convenience be classified as a) rural general factories, and b) non-rural factories. The rural factory, usually situated at the junction of highland and lowland at about 500 feet above sea-level, near a stream, had fairly good access to the surrounding highland and to the industrial south. A good example is Llanpumsaint. Such a factory was in a central position for receiving the local supplies of wool, and also at a convenient point for obtaining supplies of the finer English wool. Although these factories would usually produce a wide variety of products, such as blankets, quilts, carthenni, tweeds, and knitting-yarn, --- grey flannel for miners and industrial workers made up 75% of the output. The non-rural factory was usually of a larger type, employing between 50 and 100 people; it had good railway or road facilities. Such were those at Carmarthen, Drefach, Pentrecourt, Newcastle Emlyn, and Henllan. These, like the others, produced a variety of products, but specialised in the production of fine flannel for shirting, mainly from fine English or foreign wool, for they used little of the coarser local wool. They disposed of their goods wholesale, rather than by the more or less retail system of the rural factories.

With the ever increasing production of machine-goods, the domestic industry gradually lost ground and passed into insignificance. A few veterans in the hand-weaving trade lingered on until the end of the last century and the beginning of the present in Northern Carmarthenshire, but with their passing there was no one to take their place.


See also Museum of the Welsh Woollen Industry, Drefach Felindre

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(Gareth Hicks   - 3 May 2009)

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