From a lecture given by James Hine F.R.I.B.A at Tavistock in August 1889
The town of Axminster, which it must be admitted has now a somewhat sleepy appearance, a century ago found busy employment for a considerable portion of its population in the manufacture of the most durable and beautiful carpets ever made in England, and which almost vied in excellence with the productions of Turkish and Persian looms. The inventor and first manufacturer was Mr. Thomas Whitty. His grandson, my cousin, Mr. Henry Heudebourck, of London, has shown me Mr. Whitty's manuscript account of the origin of Axminster carpets, which I am not aware has ever been printed, and which, though a very simple record, I have thought of some wider interest.
Previous to his discovery in carpetry, Mr. Whitty was a cloth manufacturer. "It was in the year 1754, " says Whitty, "that, being in London, I was at the house of Mr. Treek, an ironmonger, when I saw in his warehouse several bales which, appearing not to contain any goods in his way of business, I enquired what their contents were. He told me they were Turkey carpets which he had imported, and if I had the curiosity to look at it, he would show me one of the best and largest Turkey carpets in England. Accordingly he took me into a large room, and showed me a carpet thirty-six feet by twenty-one, the sight of which greatly surprised me. I had some little knowledge of figure weaving, but could not conceive by what means a carpet of so great a breadth could be woven in figure without a seam in it. After I had seen this carpet I could not keep it long out of my mind, without, however, being able to form the least idea of the method of doing it.
After a long time of puzzling to no purpose I awoke one morning with a strong impression on my mind that I knew a method of doing it, and if I could examine a Turkey carpet, I should see if my ideas were right. Accordingly I communicated my thoughts to my wife, and asked her if she knew whether there was any Turkey carpet in our town. She told me Mrs. Forward had one that I might see, so after breakfast I went up to Mrs. Forward's and desired a sight of her carpet which she readily granted.
By the sight of this carpet I found that my ideas were in some measure right, and on a thorough examination of the structure of it, I was convinced of the possibility of doing it, although still much of a loss, particularly as to working a carpet of so great a breadth.
After this my mind was almost continually employed about it, and my spare time in making little trials on one of my broad looms. At length on the 25th of April 1755 (being our Fair Day) while our weavers were keeping holiday, I made on one of my looms a small piece of carpet, about seven or eight inches square, resembling as near as I could the Turkish carpets. This further convinced me of the possibility of doing it quickly enough to answer any purpose in trade.
Soon after this I went to London, taking with me my little essay in carpetry, and showed it to some of my friends there, who all agreed that if I could make carpets like the specimen and sell them at the price of Turkey carpets, it would become an interesting branch of trade. But there lay the difficulty which was yet undiscovered - what I could afford to sell them for, as all my ideas hitherto went no further than a horizontal loom, which would have been a very spare and tedious way of working; but this difficulty Providence soon removed in an unexpected manner.
Whilst I was in London I saw an advertisement from Mr. Parrisot, who carried on a manufactory of carpets at Fulham (which had been lately introduced from France under influential patronage), complaining of the want of due encouragement from the public, and saying that if he was not better supported, he must decline the manufacture, and the youths apprenticed to it be returned to their parents.
The reason of this I afterwards found to be that his carpets, though deemed handsome were sold at such an exorbitant price that few cared to buy them. This afterwards turned to my great advantage when I could serve them much cheaper.
This manufacture I had scarcely ever heard of, but considering if I could obtain a sight of it (as it was on the same principle as I was desirous of attempting, though upon a much finer scale), it might be of essential service in removing the difficulties I yet laboured under, and I determined to attempt seeing it.
Accordingly, I left London for Fulham to breakfast there; and putting up at an inn, ordered a pot of coffee and chose to have it in the kitchen that I might be in the way of hearing anything that was talked of. I had not been there long before two men came in to have a pot together, and fell into some discourse about the carpet manufactory, which gave me the wished-for opportunity of enquiring about it, when one of the men told me he had a son who was an apprentice to Mr. Parrisot and mentioned the uncertain circumstances they were under. I then asked him if strangers were admitted to see the work; to which he anwered he did not know; but it I desired to see it he would go and ask his son. He soon returned and acquainted me that I might be admitted, and that he would conduct me there. Accordingly I obtained a view of everything I wanted, by which all remaining doubt was removed from my mind, and I was thoroughly satisfied I could go on with the manufacture, only the Fulham carpets were so much finer than I had formed any idea of, that I had not at that time the least idea I should ever rival them.
When I came back to Axminster I immediately began to prepare a loom and materials for making a carpet, and on Midsummer Day 1755 (a memorable day for my family), I began the first carpet I ever made, taking my children and their aunt Betty Harvey to overlook and assist, for my first workers.
When the manufacture was thus begun many gentlemen came out of curiosity to see it, and professed their desire to encourage it by ordering carpets. Among them was Mr. Cook of Stape, near Beaminster, who ordered a carpet from the first pattern. When I took this carpet home, I met Mr. Cook at Beaminster, and he desired me to open it to show to a gentleman then with him. It was Mr. Twiniker, of the Temple, London, steward to the Earl of Shaftsbury. He was much pleased with the sight of it, and told me he should be glad to render me all the service he could for the encouragement of a new manufactory. Accordingly he mentioned it to Lady Shaftsbury, who was a liberal encourager of arts and manufactures. Her ladyship desired him to request Mr. Cook to spare her that carpet, saying she wished to have the first carpet of the manufactory although she might expect to have a much handsomer one when it was come to greater perfection. Lord and Lady Shaftsbury were so well pleased with that carpet that they and their family have been since some of our best customers.
In the summer of 1756 I received an order from Mr. Twiniker, he enclosing at the same time the first proposals of the Society for Promoting Arts and Sciences of giving a premium for the encouragement of making carpets in England on the principle of Turkey carpets, with a hand pointing to the proposals of giving £30 to the person who produced the best carpet on that principle not less than fifteen feet by twelve: and £20 for the second best of the same dimensions, Mr. Twiniker adding "It could do you no harm to receive this premium next year." Accordingly, in March 1757, I produced a carpet to that noble Society sixteen feet by twelve and a half, which I valued at £15. Mr. T. Moore of London produced another of the same dimensions, which he valued at 40 Guineas. The Society were convinced, on examining both carpets, that although Mr. Moore's was made of the finest materials yet mine was best in proportion to its price. They therefore recommended to Mr. Moor and me to take £50 and divide it equally between us, which we agreed to do. I sold my carpet to Boucher Cleeve Esq, who afterwards parted with by Mr. W. Crompton, who was one of the dealers who were desired by the Society to examine the carpets and give their opinions as to the merits of the claimants. Mr. Cleeve told me he bought it for the sake of promoting the new manufacture by showing it to his friends, but in Mr. Crompton's shop a much greater number of the principal people would see it than in his house. When Mr. Crompton paid me for it, it was agreed for me to make as many as I could to send to his warehouse. In consequence of this I had, during the ensuing year, orders for as many carpets as I could procure hands to make.
In the summer of 1757, the Society again offered their premiums, with this restriction: "That those who had already received premiums for making carpets could not be admitted as candidates unless they produced three carpets at least of the aforesaid dimension." In consequence of this advertisement, I endeavoured to produce three carpets, and as Mr. Moore's was not excluded on account of the high price of his carpet, I made one of mine a fine one, at twenty-four shillings a square yard, in order to show that I could make a better carpet than Mr. Moore, at much less price. These carpets were exhibited in March 1758, when Mr. Pasavant of Exeter, was my only competitor. He produced a fine carpet, about sixteen feet by twelve, made by some of Parrisot's French hands, which he valued at 80 guineas. Its price was so exorbitantly high that it occasioned some debate in the Society; but as their proposals were "for the best carpets produced" and not for the best in proportion to price, the Society again recommended an equal division of the premium which Mr. Pasavant and I agreed to.
His producing a fine carpet and valuing it so high was a great advantage to me, as it occasioned my fine carpets to be looked upon as cheap - no one being able to see such a difference in its goodness and beauty as there was in the price. In consequence of this I had, during the ensuing year, a demand for fine carpets as fast as I could make them.
The Society then proposed their third and last premium for making carpets, to be produced in March 1759, with this further restriction: "That those who had already received premiums for making carpets should not be admitted as candidates unless they produced six carpets at least, of which every one should be judged superior in goodness in proportion to its price to any produced by any other person."
This stimulated me to try to my utmost ability, and accordingly, in March 1759, I produced the six carpets, of which several were very fine ones and of large sizes. The only competitor was Mr. Jesser of France (Mr. Moore and Mr Pasavant declining), who produced one carpet.
When Mr. Jesser came to see my carpets, he candidly acknowledged that he had no right to the first premium of £30, which was, without any debate, adjudged to me by the Society.
These repeated successes so advance the price of my carpets that I had a constant and almost uninterrupted demand for many years, which continued with but little variation as to demand, and with no diminution as to reputation, to this day.
These memoirs of the carpet manufactory I give to my son, Thomas Whitty, by him to be transmitted to his children.
Signed: Thomas Whitty, April 16th 1790