Excerpt from: The History of Taunton by Toulmin and Savage

The History of Taunton

Originally written by Joshua Toulmin, D.D. and published in 1791

A new edition by James Savage 1822


VALE OF TAUNTON DEAN: The Vale of Taunton Dean comprehends the following parishes namely Taunton, Wilton, Trull, Pitminster, Angers-Leigh, Corfe, Orchard-Portman, Stoke-Saint-Mary, Ruishton, Thorn-Falcon, Bishop's Hull, Bradford, West-Buckland. Ninehead, Wellington, Sampford-Arundel, Hill-Farrance, Oake, Staplegrove, Norton Fitzwarine, Cheddon-Fitzpaine, West-Monkton, Kingston, Cotheleston, Bishop's Lydeard, Heathfield, Halse, Ash-Prior's, Fitzhead, Milverton, Langford-Budville, Thorn-Saint-Margaret, Bathealton, and Runnington. The Vale is bounded on the north by the Quantock hills; on the west by Brindon-hill; and on the south by the Blackdown hills. Towards the east and northeast it has no mountainous boundary until it reaches the Polden hills, a distance of twenty miles from Taunton. P.7





This town has been noted for its woollen manufactory, in which it carried on for a number of years a very large and extensive business. Its trade may be traced back for four hundred and eighty years to the reign of Edward III, to whose wise counsels belongs the glory of first bringing the woollen man factories into this kingdom. Previously to his reign, though England was famous for the growth of wool, it does not appear that the people knew how to make it into cloths, unless of a very coarse kind called friezes. Our wool was exported to the Netherlands, and enriched that country, which gave occasion to the institution of the order of the Golden Fleece by the duke of Burgundy. The king availed himself of the opportunity, which offered through the increasing intercourse between the two countries, in consequence of his marrying the daughter of the earl of Hainault, to send over, without suspicion, emissaries to the Netherlands to ingratiate themselves with the Flemish manufacturers. Every allurement was thrown out to this class of men, who in their own country earned with hard labour a poor and scanty maintenance, to invite them to transport themselves and their art to England. On the fair prospect of living in a superior style, enjoying a proportional profit of their labour, and forming conjugal connexions with the best families, numbers came over bringing with them their tools and their trade. Royal protections were granted to encourage their settlement. One was given by the king at Lincoln, the 23d of July, 1331, to John Kemp of Flanders, a weaver, and a like protection was afforded by the king at Westminster the 3d of May, 1336, to fifteen weavers of Zealand who came here to exercise and teach their art. One who settled in Gloucestershire and was peculiarly eminent as a clothier had the surname of Webb given him by the king. [1]

The persons who left the Netherlands, coming some from one part, and some from another, made no sensible want of hands in their own country, but collected together here, they formed a great number. It was judged best, in order to prevent on any discontent, a general resolution of returning, and to diffuse the benefits of their art over the kingdom, to disperse them into different and remote counties that they might establish in each different manufactories. The making of fustians was set up in Norwich; of baize at Sudbury; in Suffolk of says and serges; at Colchester in Essex of broad cloths; in Kent of kerseys; in Devonshire of cloth; in Worcestershire and Gloucestershire of Welch friezes; in Wales of cloth; at Rendal in Westmoreland; and at Halifax in Yorkshire of cloth; in Hampshire Berkshire and Sussex; and of serges at Taunton. The manufactory was greatly promoted by the discovery of fuller's earth of superior quality to any in Europe. A new accession of foreigners, and the advancement of the woollen trade in England, were the consequences in another period of the cruelties of the duke of Alva whose tyranny drove over more Flemings to settle in this country. [2] 

The woollen manufactory, since it was introduced and established in this country, and has become the staple trade of the kingdom, has suffered great changes and fluctuations. The wars of the emperor Charles V occasioned in the reign of Henry VIII a great stagnation of trade. The merchants could not venture into Spain for nearly a year, and the goods sent from the different counties to Blackwell hall for sale found no vent: few or no merchants were disposed to purchase their warehouses being filled with cloths lying on hand. The labourers of consequence were thrown out of employ and great discontents arose especially in Suffolk, where they would have fallen into some riotous acts if the duke of Norfolk had not wisely appeased them. The merchants were summoned to appear before Cardinal Wolsey, who in the name of the king reprimanded them in an angry tone for not purchasing the goods brought to market, and threatened them that his majesty would open a new mart at Whitehall, buy of the clothiers and sell again to foreign merchants. To which menace one of them pertinently replied: “My lord the king may buy them as well at Blackwell hall if it please him and the strangers will gladlier receive them there than at Westminster.” “You shall not order that matter,” said the cardinal;  “and I shall first send into London, to know what cloths you have in your hands, and that done, the king and his counsel shall appoint who shall buy the cloths, I warrant you.” With this answer the Londoners departed. [3] 

After this the woollen manufactory revived [4] and the trade between England and the Netherlands, if we may believe Camden, amounted in his time to above twelve millions of gold ducats. But in 1564 it was almost entirely sunk. This was owing to the artifice of Cardinal Granville, who had persuaded the governess of the Netherlands to prohibit the importatation of English cloth. This led the English to settle a cloth staple at Embden in East Friesland. But by the influence and management of a new ambassador from Spain, the two nations were reconciled, and it was agreed that the treaty of commerce made in the time of Maximilian 1 called intercursus maynus should be observed on both sides. [5]

New encouragement and support were afforded to the woollen manufactory in 1622 by a commission which passed the 21st of October for re-establishing it. [6] But the sources of commerce lie deeper than in the language and promises of acts of state and national ordinances and must be sought in the wants of mankind and the freedom of their mutual intercourse. [7]

Some years after this the war with Spain, breaking out in 1655, operated greatly to the disadvantage of the woollen trade. Before this, we find, that Taunton serges were in great reputation and demand, as fashionable wearing, being lighter than cloth, and yet thicker than many other stuffs. But such was the effect of that war that “trade,” says my author, “long since complained of to be dead is now lamented generally as buried though hereafter it may have a resurrection.” [8]

This hope was afterwards realized; for trade revived and was carried to a great extent after our civil distractions were composed. William III gave his utmost countenance to every undertaking that promised its advancement: several amendments were made and many useful manufactories were established. [9] By the year 1704 trade arose in Taunton to a very flourishing height for we are told that eight thousand five hundred persons were weekly employed in making its cloths. [10] The population of this town about that period was so great and rapid that it was called the nursery for queen Anne's wars but the number of its inhabitants would scarcely have been so considerable had not the state of trade been prosperous.

The circumstance which gave Taunton the advantage in point of manufactory invited clothiers to settle in it, and drew on it the envy of other towns, was the peculiar tenure of its estates. For every mortgage being entered in the Castle books, which was a security against frauds money, could be borrowed there above a hundred and thirty years ago at five pounds per cent. [11]

Since this the manufactory hath undergone great changes; of this the different sums with which the receivers for the county, at different periods, contracted to supply the town weekly afford a proof. From 1727 to 1 734, the cash delivered, on contract to the tradesmen, for bills of exchange, amounted to one thousand five hundred pounds per week and the trade seldom produced at the same time less than five hundred moidores (six hundred and seventy-five pounds) from Falmouth. For ten years from 1734 to 1744, there was not more than about three hundred pounds in cash delivered weekly; and for the next seven years from 1744 to 1751, it did not amount to more than two hundred pounds per week. [12]

The woollen manufactory of Taunton is now reduced to a low ebb, whilst in other places, and in the north particularly, it has greatly flourished. There is not at present, (1821) it is believed, more than ten or twelve looms employed in this trade, and not above six or eight persons as woolcombers. The decay of it here must therefore be sought in causes that have had a local operation. Contested elections, by no means friendly to industry, it is highly probable, have proved particularly prejudicial to a trade, which at times could admit of no delay, in the execution of orders for goods, that must be ready for the sailing of ships, and the seasons of foreign fairs. The mischief of their influence, in this respect, was particularly felt in the continued and violent opposition of the year 1754. The demand for its goods was then great; but through the idleness and drunkenness of the season, it could not be answered. The orders, being returned to the merchants, were sent for execution to other towns; with which the intercourse, thus opened was continued. The high price of labour, affixed to some particular articles, at the first invention. though then an encouragement to ingenuity and industry, eventually has operated to the general detriment of trade. It furnished some of the more careful and provident labourers with the means of becoming manufacturers themselves and of setting up looms in their own houses The number of competitors was thus greatly multiplied, who not having capitals, that would enable them to give credit,and to carry on business with ease, were obliged, by abatements on the price to procure a speedy return for their goods. The value of the articles being thus reduced at market, a reduction of wages necessarily followed. This could not be effected without warm struggles between the different classes of manufacturers; nor, when carried, without bringing on a deterioration of the quality of the goods, which must sink their estimation in foreign markets. The taste of those markets has also changed. and a preference at them, is given to woollen goods of a different kind. or to the various articles of the cotton manufactory. But the decline of the woollen trade of Taunton must be also ascribed in a great degree to the advantages which the manufacturers in the north have derived over us from the introduction and use of spinning machines which would have been peculiarly useful here not only to secure the exact and true execution of this part of the trade but to supply the want of hands for conducting it which for a number of years was very sensibly felt.

To these causes it is conceived may be traced the decline of the woollen manufacture in this town. It is however a pleasure to those who feel an attachment to its interest to reflect that though that trade has greatly declined the town has not wholly lost its weight and importance as a town of trade.



Among other sources of employment for the poor, and as causes giving a new and increased though a different motion to the springs of trade in this town, must be mentioned the erection of silk mills and the introduction of silk-weaving.

The art of making fine Italian organzine, or thrown silk, out of fine raw silk which was formerly bought with our money ready wrought in Italy, was first discovered with the utmost difficulty and hazard and introduced into this kingdom by sir Thomas Lombe. The brother of this gentleman, whose head was well turned for mechanics supported by sir Thomas's fortune, went to Savoy, to make a discovery of the structure of a large and curious machine there, by which all the organzine silk was made, and which was guarded with the utmost jealousy from the knowledge and inspection of other nations; for the king of Sardinia made it death to discover the invention or to attempt to carry it out of his dominions. Mr Lombe, after a long stay and great expense in that country formed means to see this engine so often, and to pry into the nature of it so narrowly, that he made himself master of its structure and of all the different part and motions belonging to it. After his return to England Sir Thomas Lombe, under the protection of a royal patent, in 1718 erected a machine on the same plan at Derby. It was three years in building and contained twenty six thousand five hundred and eighty six wheels. and ninety-seven thousand seven hundred and forty-six movements. A water wheel gave motion to all the other wheels and movements, of which any one might be stopped separately. This wheel went round three times in one minute, and worked, every time, seventy-three thousand seven hundred and twenty-six yards of silk thread. One fire-engine conveyed warm air to every part of the machine, and one regulator governed the whole work.

The whole term of fourteen years for which the patent was granted, through the various difficulties attending so new and great an undertaking, was almost expired, before the manufactory could be brought to perfection. On this account on January the 28th, 1732, Sir Thomas Lombe applied to parliament to take his case into consideration, and to grant him a further term of years for the sole making and using the said engines, or such other recompense as to the house should seem meet.

To prolong the term, or to grant a new term, was considered as a measure which would invest the patentee with a power to disturb all other inventions, any way resembling his own, and prevent the nation's making any benefit of his invention. A bill, therefore for granting fourteen thousand pounds to sir Thomas Lombe, as a recompense for his introducing the machine for working Italian organzine passed and received the royal assent, the 3d of April 1732.

‘Hutton, in his History of Derby, gives a somewhat different account of the introduction of this machine and of the machine itself:--

“The Italians had the exclusive art of silk-throwing, and consequently the absolute command of that lucrative traffic. The wear of silks was the taste of the ladies; and the British merchant was obliged to apply to the Italian, with ready money, for the article, at an exorbitant price.”

“John Lombe, a man of spirit, a good draughts-man, and an excellent mechanic, travelled into Italy with a view of obtaining the secret By perseverance and bribery, he acquired the whole; when his plot being discovered, he fled, with the utmost precipitation, on board a ship, at the hazard of his life, taking with him two natives, who had favoured his interest, and his life at the risk of their own.

“Arriving safely with his acquired knowledge, he fixed upon Derby as a proper place for his purpose, where he erected the present works.

“Being established to his wish, he procured, in 1718, a patent from the crown to secure the profits during fourteen years. Mr Lombe soon after died, as was supposed by poison, administered by an Italian woman, sent over for the purpose of destroying him. He died a bachelor, and his property fell into the hands of his brother William, who only lived a short time. These works then became the property of his cousin Sir Thomas Lombe. This was about 1726. In 1732 the patent expired when Sir Thomas petitioned parliament for a renewal pleading “that the works had taken a long time in perfecting, and the people in teaching,and that there had been none to acquire emolument from the patent.” But he omitted to inform them that he had already accumulated more than eighty thousand pounds by means of his machinery.

“Government, willing to spread so useful an invention, gave Sir Thomas fourteen thousand pounds to suffer the trade to be laid open, and a model of the works taken which was for many years kept in the Tower and considered a great curiosity.”

‘Hutton says “the number of wheels in Sir Thomas Lombe's machine is thirteen thousand three hundred and eighty-four. The movements (an indefinite word,) will bear a large deduction. What number of yards are wound every revolution of the wheel no man can tell, nor is the number open to calculation. The wheel revolves about twice in a minute. The superb fire engine, which blazes in description, was only a common stove, that warmed one corner of the large building. The regulator is a peg in the master wheel which strikes a small bell every revolution: near it is a pendulum that vibrates about fifty times in a minute. Twenty four vibrations of the pendulum is the medium velocity of the wheel.

“Although there are a great number of parts any one of which may be stopped and separated at pleasure, yet the whole extending through live large rooms is one regular machine which moves and tops together. Every minute part is attended with two wheels, one of which turns the other. If two are separated, the last stops of course, while the former moves gently on.

“The raw silk is brought in hanks or skains, called slips, and would take five or six days in winding off, though kept moving ten hours a day. Some are the produce of Persia; others of Canton coarse, and in small slips; some from Piedmont, of a yellowish colour, and some from China, perfectly white. The work passes through three different engines; one to wind; the second to twist; and the third to double. Although the thread is fine, it is an accumulation of many fibres. The workman's care is chiefly to unite, by a knot, a thread that breaks; to take out the burs and uneven parts, some of which are little bags fabricated by the silk worm, as a grave for itself when nature inspires the instinct of preparing for death. The bags are neatly closed up and hung to a thread as the last effort towards its own funeral, They generally moulder to a darkish dust; sometimes they are totally gone; but Mr Huttoa says he has frequently taken them out alive. The threads are continually breaking and to tie them is principally the business of children whose fingers are nimble. The machine continually turns a round bobbin, or small block of wood, which draws the thread from the slip, while expanded upon a swift suspended on a centre. The moment the thread breaks the swift stops. One person commands from twenty to sixty threads. If many cease at the same time, to turn it amounts to a fault.

The act of parliament for granting a recompense to sir Thomas Lombe left the way open for ingenuity and industry to avail themselves of the invention, and to erect similar works in other parts of the kingdom, which was done at Sherborne in Dorsetshire, and at other towns In 1781.  Messrs Vansommer and Paulm silk mercers in Pall mall London, purchased of Mr Noble of Taunton a large brew house and the adjoining premises situated in Upper High street, and of Mr Pounsbery, baker, a right to use the water of the contiguous mills. Here they erected a large building, within which extensive machinery was placed, with suitable wheels for making thrown silk out of fine raw silk, on the model of that at Derby. In 1783 Mr. Wilmot, the proprietor of a similar silk mill at Sherborne, and Mr John Norman of Taunton, purchased of the assignees of Messrs Vansommer and Paul this machine and the premises on which it was erected and continued to work it in partnership till the death of Mr Wilmot in 1787, after which time it became the sole property and concern of Mr Norman and is now (1821) the property of his son Samuel Norman of Wilton, Esq. It is an advantage belonging to such works that they employ a number of hands and of children from a very early period of life. The machine of which we are speaking generally supplies with labour from sixty to eighty persons.

Mr. Vansommer was not disheartened by the unfortunate circumstances which obliged him to relinquish his first undertaking. In 1781 he purchased some new buildings in Canon street and converted them into houses for carrying on the different branches of the silk manufactory, which afterwards became the property of Mr. John James of London. These works consisted of machinery, on a small scale, for throwing silk which was set in motion by a woman treading the large wheel; and of thirty-two looms for weaving. Mr James employed here about sixty persons in the manufacture of Barcelona handkerchiefs, tiffanies, Canterbury muslins, modes, Florentines, and ladies shawls. This establishment continued in some activity for ten or twelve years and was then given up.

It was in 1778 that the weaving of silk was first introduced into Taunton, by Messrs. Forbes and Wasdale, and the manufacture carried forward by them upon a small scale. In 1795 Mr Leney Smith of London was induced by sir Benjamin Uammet to commence here the weaving of crape and about the year 1806 the silk manufactory was much augmented by Mr Every. It has been constantly increasing since that period and is now carried on, upon an extensive scale by Messrs. Ingleby Jones and Co. of Wood street, London, and by Messrs Stokes Meat and Parsons of Gutter lane, Cheapside London/ The principal articles which are manufactured at Taunton are crapes, Persians, sarsnets, and different sorts of mixed goods, figured and plain. The gentlemen concerned in this trade have lately made great improvements in the variety and beauty of the several fabrics. The number of looms employed amounts to about eight hundred in Taunton and two hundred in the vicinity. There are about one thousand persons engaged in weaving, one hundred as winders, and two hundred as quillers. The throwing mills employ about five hundred persons, making in the whole about one thousand eight hundred persons.

‘The throwing mills are those of Mr. Norman, in Upper High street; of Messrs. Balance and Co. in Eastreach, Taunton; of Mr. Blinkhorn at Staplegrove and of Mr. Swift at Preston. near Milverton.

It may be reckoned an advantage, which the town of Taunton has gained in point of trade, that besides the establishment of such works, it is become of late years much the resort of persons of independent fortune; great part of which, as far as concerns the necessary articles of life, must be expended in the town and its neighbourhood, and occasion a considerable circulation of cash, notwithstanding the ungenerous, if not mistaken, economy, which prevails, not only here, but in several other places, of purchasing many articles in the metropolis, to the discouragement and injury of home exertions and industry. The accession of genteel families to the town is much owing to the modern improvements, in various respects, which have taken place and which will be described in another chapter.


[1] In 1353 king Edward III removed the staple of English wool from Flanders and fixed it in several cities in England particularly at Westminster. Bristol was one of the first towns in the west where the woollen manufacture had been encouraged. Some of the Flemings settled at Taunton in 1336. From the person above mentioned whom king Edward named Webb a family of the same name lately resident in Taunton is supposed to hare been descended. A staple for wool was fixed at Exeter in 1354. West country plain cloths are first mentioned in the 13th of Richard II 1390 and their dimensions settled From Taunton the woollen manufacture was probably introduced into Tiverton but notwithstanding the vicinity of the towns we have no certain account of any progress made in the latter during the fourteenth century. Dunsfortts Hist of Tiverton p 28, 29.

[2] Ada Regia; or an Account of the Treaties in Rymer's Foedera vol i BVO p 195 and Fuller's Church History b iii p 1 ll US

[3] Grafton's Chronicle vol ii p 11, 67, 68.

[4] It may be inferred that the trade of Taunton was in a very flourishing state so as to rank with that of Bristol in the time of Edward VI for when lord Russell in a rebellion of the people of Cornwall and Devon was quite dispirited because he had not received the expected supplies for suppressing it from the court three merchants of Exeter Frestwood Bodlie and Periam assisted him with such a sum of money borrowed on their credit from the merchants of Bristol Lyme and Taunton as quite dispelled his lordship's heaviness Fuller's Church History History of Exeter p 89 Dr Toulmin's MSS

[5] Acta Regia vol iv p 71.

[6] Acta Regia vol iv p 319.

[7] In the 4th of James I chap 2 “An Act for the true making of woollen cloth mentions broad cloths commonly called Tauntons, Bridgwaters, and Dunsters. -- Dr Toulmin's MSS

[8] Fuller's Worthies of England p 18,19

[9] Gee on Trade and Navigation anew edition 1767 p 30, 31.

[10] Chamberlayne's Present State of England p 27.

[11] Yarranton's England's Improvement, by Sea and Land, 1677. “The manor of Taunton Dean in Somersetshire,” says this author is under a register, and there the land is worth 23 years’ purchase, although but a copyhold manor; and at any time he that hath 100 pounds a year in the manor of Taunton, may go to the castle and take up 2000 pounds upon his lands and buy stuffs with the money and go to London and sell his stuffs and return down his moneys and pay but five pounds in the hundred for his moneys, and discharge his lands. This is the cause of the great trade and riches about Taunton Dean. ( O happy Taunton Dean!) What gentleman can do thus with free lands? No, it is not worth sixteen years’ purchase all England over, one place with another; and if not timely put under a register it will come to twelve years purchase before long.” P. 27 and also p 31, 34, 100, 109 T.

[12] In the Gentleman's Magazine for March 1743, p. 139, 141 there is a paper copied from “The Champion” of the 3d of that month, entitled “The Cries of the Woollen Manufacturers in the West, particularly in Somersetshire and Devon, with the lamentable consequences of them. From the Vale of Taunton, between Taunton and Exeter. It may be concluded that at that time the woollen trade was peculiarly dull; but there is nothing in this paper that applies particularly to the state of it in Taunton. The discouragements which it states as affecting the manufacturers are general, not local; such as the smuggling of wool to foreign parts; the practice of truck, first, from the merchant to the serge maker and from the maker to all underworkers; the tax upon soap and candles; the ladies not wearing articles of woollen manufacture more than they did; the gentlemen of the court buying their clothes in France, the denial of letters of marque, and delay of convoys for the merchant ships and the prohibition of Spanish wool. One discouragement indeed was local, but that related to Tiverton only, which arose from the receivership of the land-tax being given to a serge-maker, through corporation interest, who having so much public money lying in his hands, forestalled the markets and could undersell all other trades-men.