Wool & Cloth - Rise & Fall

Wool & Cloth – Rise & Fall

Wool & Cloth – Rise & Fall 150 150 Frome Heritage Museum

Cloth making was an important local industry. Frome with its river and close proximity to the sheep areas of the Mendips, Cotswolds and Salisbury Plain, developed in Mediaeval times as an important centre for the making of cloth. Between the 15th and the early 19th centuries, this made the town very prosperous, and it was this prosperity which is now reflected in the many buildings surviving from that time. The wonderful Sheppards Barton houses were built as a kind of weaving co-operative, a very early precursor to the great industrial developments in the North of England. Until 1856 natural dyes were used for colouring the cloth. The whole Trinity area was originally fields known as the ‘woadground’ or ‘Wade ground’ from the plant used to make blue dyes. During Napoleonic times Frome was famous for its blue cloth for army uniforms; 160 miles of blue tunic cloth were produced in 1801.

But the Napoleonic War only delayed the inevitable for the wool mills and cloth merchants of Frome. Modern machinery was not available in the area, and hand-made garments could not compete on price with machine-made items. The Frome looms were cumbersome and the spinning wheels slow. When spinning jennies did appear locally, weavers, fearful for their jobs, tried to smash them up as early as 1781. Eventually, weaving and dyeing were virtually wiped out and the population plummeted, poverty was rife and many families emigrated to Australia and Canada. A lack of investment locally meant the nation chose to buy the cheaper and lighter cloth produced elsewhere.  Many mills closed as the trade steadily declined. Tucker’s, the last fabric mill of ‘The Finest West of England Cloth’ at Wallbridge shut in 1965.