Kidderminster Carpet Museum Worcestershire
PUBLISHED: 00:16 15 February 2011 | UPDATED: 18:52 20 February 2013
New uses forold buildings
After decades of hard work Kidderminster will finally have its carpet museum, fittingly, in the former Woodward Grosvenor carpet mill. Yet its not the only old building that seen changes over the years as Debbie Graham reports.
Standing in the empty Stour Vale Mill on Green Street you can feel Kidderminsters carpet history oozing out of the brickwork. Half close your eyes and take a step back to the Victorian era. In the half-light of a winter morning you can almost see the children, as young as 10, scuttling up and down beside the chattering looms and spinning wheels. Imagine the busy streets outside full of shouting as the workers unloaded bales of wool and loaded the finished carpets onto a steady stream of horse-drawn wagons.
Carpets to Kidderminster were like jute to Dundee or cotton to Lancashire; an integral part of its heritage and the sole reason it developed into a thriving Victorian industrial town. In 1900 kidderminsters population was around 24,000 and almost every family in the town would have been dependent on the industry for its livelihood.
Back then, around 15 factories were producing carpets in the town.
A lot has changed. Kidderminster is a shadow of its former self, says Charles Talbot, from the Carpet Museum Trust. The town pre-1965 has altered beyond recognition.
Charles is a founder member of the Carpet Museum Trust, and a descendent of one of the towns carpet royal families. In 1980, after a lifetime in the industry, Charles got together with Kenneth Tomkinson and Stephen Quayle (who have sadly passed on) to campaign for a carpet museum in Kidderminster. Thirty years on, the Trust finally achieved the funds needed to bring their dreams to fruition, thanks to a 1.9 million grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund.
The museum will show the history of the industry and what it does and how it does it and the history of Kidderminster because they are one and the same, says Charles.
After the deaths of his co-founders in the early 1990s, Charles had a tough time stirring up interest, and funding, and in 1992 defeat looked imminent. However, in 1997 Charles decided that the dream of a carpet museum should not be allowed to die. With the help of new volunteers, the backing of some of the biggest carpet names, such as Brintons, and, in 2000, the founding of an active Friends Association, new life was breathed into the campaign.
The first task was to ensure that valuable historical records and archives were not destroyed or thrown out. An archive centre in the MCF Complex on New Road was set up and, today, has hundreds of carpet patterns and other documents. Soon the archive started to bulge at the seams new premises were needed.
When Woodward Grosvenor moved out of the Grade II listed Stour Vale Mill the Trust acquired the lease. Its an important building in the history of the town. Here the whole carpet, from wool fleece to finished product, would have been manufactured. It was the advent of steam-powered looms in the 1850s that propelled Kidderminsters carpet industry into a world-leading business a status it held for the next 100 years and more.
Built in 1856, Stour Vale Mill was one of the earliest purpose-built factories. Weaving, which was once done in workers homes and loom shops small factories dotted around the town was industrialised on a massive scale with the new power looms.
Historian, Melvyn Thompson, is a former carpet industry engineer, who joined the Trust in 1997. I think it would have been a great time. Kidderminster would have all of a sudden started to build factories and the town and the canal would have been a hive of industry as raw materials came in. The whole town would have been buzzing with builders.
Over the course of 20 years from the late 1850s there was a major building programme that saw 12 major factories built. As you approach the Stour Vale Mill you get a taste of this industrial heritage when you pass remnants of other Victorian buildings, all a stones throw away from the canal, the towns vital transport link.
Kidderminster had been known for its cloth since the Middle Ages. There were two main types: Kidderminster Stuff, a heavy woven woollen material for use as wall, bed and floor coverings; and Bombazine, a woven mixture of silk and wool, commonly used for mourning clothes.
It was mourning that made the fortune of one of Charles Talbots ancestors. In 1817, cloth-maker George Talbot the Elder made a fortune out of bombazine when Princess Charlotte died suddenly. His whole stock of mourning clothes sold out almost overnight. Ever after that he was always known as Bombazine George, chuckles Charles.
The first true carpet was woven in 1735, and became known as Kidderminster Carpet. This was a flat carpet with no pile and although its popularity was short-lived Kidderminsters course was set. Even Bombazine George turned to carpets and by 1838, George and Henry Talbot and Sons was the third largest carpet manufacturer in the town, with 157 looms and 323 employees bombazine was long forgotten. Right up to the 1960s Kidderminster was the place for carpets.
The two post-war decades the 1950s and 60s were the industrys finest, says Melvyn. The after-war boom in the carpet industry was tremendous because for five years the world had not had Kidderminsters excellent woven carpets. Kidderminster was regarded as the woven carpet capital of the world, there was no question about that. I always say Kidderminster could not make enough in the swinging 50s and 60s, he says.
Melvyn started life as an engineer apprentice in 1953, having been brought to the business of carpets through his father, who worked as a loom tuner from the 1920s. It was very common for whole families to be employed by one company. My father got me into it, as you did in those days. Kidderminster was very much a one trade industry town but more to the point if you as a family were a Brintons family, then all your people worked at Brintons.
As with so many other industries, cheap imports started to take over the market and in the mid-1970s the industry went into decline. But it is still a carpet town as Charles points out proudly: Unlike many other manufacturing towns we are still manufacturing. We have still got six companies of very differing sizes working. Of course the numbers of people they employ are a shadow of former times, but its still there.
Asked why he is so proud and passionate about Kidderminster and its heritage his answer is a simple its my life. Like so many people in Kidderminster it is also the story of his family and the town and that surely is why the story of Kidderminster proud past needs preserving. For as Charles puts it: If you dont know where you have come from you dont know where you are going to.
Carpets from Kidderminster have covered the floors of:
The Oval Office in the White House
Queen Victorias House,Osbourne, on the Isle of Wight
The Eiffel Tower in Paris
The Russian Tsars Summer Palace, Tsarskoye Selo, near St Petersburg
The Queen Mothers suite at Dover Castle
Caesars Palace Casino inLas Vegas
Trump Tower in New York
A carpet-related business
Sadly Kidderminster has lost many of its historic buildings in a sweep of modernity in the latter 1960s but one that has survived is the undertakers Edwin Harris and Sons in Crane Street, where the original 1800 office remains. Life, for this old building, started as a builders merchant supplying the fast-growing Kidderminster carpet industry with tradesmen and materials. Present owner Elizabeth Hughes says that the undertaking part started as an inevitable sideline, as builders they would have had access to carpenters, stone masons everything you need for a funeral and would have been the obvious people to ask. Elizabeth has original documents for the funeral business dating back to the 1900s.
One thing that stands out is the high number of child deaths. In an age before vaccinations or antibiotics, and at a time of industrial growth and when child labour was relied upon, death rates of children were sadly much higher than today. Nowadays Edwin Harris solely concentrates on funerals the building side of things long gone but the old 1800 office remains. We dont want to take it down as it is a part of old Kidderminster, says Elizabeth.
Tel: 01562 822625; www.edwinharris.co.uk
Carpet millionaires Grand house reborn
In the 1700s a grocer from Bewdley decided to branch out into a rather different business. Samuel Skey started trading in vitriol and sulphuric acid, two chemicals used to make dyes for the textile and carpet industry. As Kidderminsters carpet industry grew so did Samuel Skeys wealth and by 1755 he had amassed enough of a fortune to purchase 270 acres of land from Lord Foley.
Here he built Spring Grove House. Since 1973 the land and house have been the site of West Midland Safari Park. Over the years Spring Grove House has housed the park cafeteria and offices, and became a popular venue for corporate entertaining and meetings. Then in December 2007 a terrible fire ripped through the building razing it to the ground. It took up to 50 firefighters to bring the blaze under control, with water being drawn from the Hippo Lake when the engines ran dry. Despite the outstanding effort by services, the fire ripped through Spring Grove House to leave just four walls standing, says Wendy Jackson, spokesman for WMSP.
In the autumn of 2010 Spring Grove House reopened after an extensive rebuild which cost 5 million and ran two years over schedule. The wait was worth it though. The finished product is stunning with a safari theme throughout. There is nothing else like it in the county. Kidderminster carpets have been used wherever there is carpet and if you are ever invited into the administration offices have a look at the wonderful leopard-print carpet. Colour has been used to tremendous effect we reckon Samuel Skey would have been impressed.