The Coventry Woolstead Weavers account book: some interpretive notes

Joanna Innes, Somerville College, Oxford  (June 2009, links checked June 2013)

Italics in the text below indicate points at which further research might clarify matters.
See end of text for status in relation to copying and use of these notes.

As the opening pages of the book explain, the City of Coventry claimed power under its charter to set up what they call companies or fellowships, what we standardly call ‘guilds’. There had been one for silkweavers and worsted weavers, but in 1703 they decided (it’s said) that the mix was having the effect of allowing unskilled people to practice one or another form of weaving as they pleased, which was debasing the quality and reputation of the local product – a very standard concern for the period, and one of the characteristic objects of early industrial regulation. So they decided to split the two companies, to ensure that practitioners are appropriately trained. (London barbers and surgeons split in the mid-eighteenth century for an analogous reason.) The account book gives the company’s accounts year by year (some years are missing), from 1704 through its early years as a trade society, through its transmogrification into a probably partly political dining club, and then into a purely social club; the book was completed in 1983.

Coventry City Archives apparently holds books of the preceding joint company 1653-79; also a minute book of this company, until 1980, deposited in 1982, also of other city companies, notably the Weavers’ Company, which could be used to create a broader context for this. Unfortunately the City Archives don’t have any records of the separate silkweavers company, so we can’t see how they fared in the eighteenth century.

The City set out the basic rules about officers of the new company – master and assistants – and when they were to be elected. They also named the first officeholders. All this allowed the Company to get started and to perpetuate itself. They also empowered them to make all reasonable orders and rules – but this is so vague they must have been relying on the example of other companies, or the preceding joint company, to establish some sense of what these reasonable rules might be.

Judging from the accounts, the Company functioned initially, as such companies often did, as trade society, semi-political body and social club. Initial members were presumably worsted weavers; the leading lights being masters. Journeymen (probably the ‘young men’ mentioned from time to time) were encouraged to take up their ‘freedom’, for which they qualified on completion of an apprenticeship. (On lists, those called Mr are probably masters; those not, journeymen). Admissions were taxed under the Stamp Act of 1694, and there are numerous references to that. Apprenticeships (‘bindings’) were registered. Those accorded the freedom thereby gained the vote in Coventry City elections, which gave the Company latent political significance.  Members were charged dues (‘quarteridge’), and fines were imposed on ‘delinquents’ (apparently people who hadn’t paid their quarteridge fees or for dinners by the due date — that seems to be what a ‘back diner’ is). Fees were also charged for admissions to freedoms and at bindings, or when a master died or ceased trading and his apprentice had to be ‘turned over’ to another master. This income served to support an annual dinner and other ceremonies and festivities. The Company was served by a ‘somner’ (summoner?), and a clerk. They spent some money on charity. A payment to a ‘strange journeyman’ will probably have been charity to someone from another town who’s come looking for work. Sometimes in the 30s they give charity to ‘prisoners’, probably prisoners for debt. Initially, they also undertook a diverse range of other activities, which can be traced through the annual list of payments.

The graphs which follow provide a (rough) count of admissions to the freedom and bindings per decade for the first century of the Company’s existence. It is clear from these that the Company was closely allied to the trade through to the 1720s, but that that link rapidly attenuated thereafter, and became effectively defunct at mid century.

Fig 1

I’ve also roughly calculated annual totals of admissions and bindings, shown below together with ‘turnings over’ for the period in which the Company was geared in to

Fig 2

the trade. Since the point at which fees were paid is dated, it would be possible to break these figures down still further, to look at seasonal patterns.

At times, different forms of admission were recognised – there’s a period in which some (probably non-trading) members are said to be admitted as ‘love brothers’. Masters to whom apprentices were bound, and the term of binding (usually but not always 7 years) is also given; my impression is that as the link to the trade declined it became more common for those apprenticed to be apprenticed to their own fathers. Since both members, apprentices and masters are named, it would probably be possible to build up a nominal database tracing (some) people’s movement through different statuses.

In the early years, the Company spent some of its income on trade-related activity. It’s not clear whether it was in a trading connection or otherwise that they imposed fines for breaches of orders, listed under general receipts. Probably their powers weren’t sufficient to deal with all offences they wanted to act against, so we also find them incurring legal expenses from prosecuting people at law for unspecified offences, I would guess trading without being free. They brought some prosecutions at the Assizes. These are probably traceable in assize files at the National Archives. Though this activity is especially concentrated in their early years, in1720 they’re still spending some money looking out for ‘journeymen strangers’.

They sent quite a number of trade-related petitions to parliament, most of which I can trace in the Commons Journals (see, text now available only via a commercial database, through subscribing institutions).  In 1708, they complained that people dealing in cheap Irish yarn were undercutting their own investment in stocks of more expensive English yarn. In 1710 they again petitioned parliament concerning calico, in conjunction with other towns (some of their coordinating activity is noted in the accounts). I assume they were worrying about competition from Indian imports; they also complained about the effects of the war on money-supply. 1711 and 12, times were still hard, more petitions (which I haven’t traced, unless one was about the election): 1712 one thing it seems that they were upset about was that wallpaper was becoming fashionable and replacing the older fashion for cloth wall-hangings. 1720 they complained about calicoes again – there’s a copy of that petition in the Bodleian, and also in the on-line subscription database ‘Making of the Modern World’). They also wanted the duty on soap taken off, 1721. In 1729, they and lots of other towns were again fussing about Irish yarn, and smuggling of Irish woollen goods. Their last petition was sent in 1733, probably against Walpole’s excise bill (there was also a lot of petitioning going on in Coventry about a proposal to create a new parish church at this time). This was as much a political as an economic matter, being a stick which Walpole’s opponents used to beat his administration.

The Company began recruiting the occasional elite member from 1714, when Lord Craven was admitted; later, 1737, Lord Euston (son of the Duke of Grafton) – both families with political pretensions in the city (perhaps not an accident that in each case the date was close by an election). The Company clearly had some big celebration when Grafton went off in 1723 to become Lord Lieutenant of Ireland.

The advent of these bigwigs may have helped to make the Company feasts attractive to a different class of people – but it’s only from 1739 that we find a number of Esqs and Gents admitted, and the balance of the membership (which was anyway shrinking) also began to tilt in favour of those who were at least ‘Mr’ if not more. It seems to be pretty clearly political in character by 1803, where there was a whole entry about the contested election, in which it was said ‘the Independent Blues of this City succeeded in defeating the most abominable coalition (of the Corporation and Drapers Company) by returning Peter Moore esq as their representative’. Thereafter freedoms stopped being recorded – is this a change in recording practice, or does something change such that the Company could no longer admit people to the freedom?

The major shift in the Company’s character seems to have come quite abruptly in the late 20s, its effect being to reduce the Company’s engagement with the trade – though arguably there was a decline in the late 1710s, preceding the terminal fall; also, it took a generation for the crash to work through completely. In the mid 20s the Company seems to be have been going quite strongly still, having a membership of about 150 compared with their original 50. They were still recording quite healthy numbers of bindings, and showing some interest in the fortunes of the trade. Much of their sociability was still trade-related: linked to bindings and so forth. But then, as the tables show, both admissions to the freedom and then recording of bindings fell away sharply — though the membership tailed off and changed character more gradually. The pattern of spending suggests that from the 1730s on, though, they were mainly a dining club.

Benjamin Poole, in his 1852 history of Coventry, reported on the Company as follows. It then had 24 members, including three magistrates and five lawyers. Other members were master manufacturers in different trades, or gentlemen of independent means. He wrote: ‘Being without income, it would appear that the only motive this company can have for continuing embodied is, that is enables a number of gentlemen to preserve a select and agreeable association, the chief attraction of which is, that they assemble once a year to partake of the hospitality of the master…’


Mike Walker’s 1986 Cambridge thesis, ‘The extent of the guild control of trades in England c.1660-1820: a study based on a sample of provincial towns and London companies’, provides some general context: Coventry is one of six towns to which he devotes especial attention.

He says there was a general revival of interest in guilds in the late seventeenth century, but many of them seem to have been in trouble in the 1720s, though some endured and may even have experienced some revival in the later eighteenth century. He suggests that problems in the 20s may have reflected a general economic malaise: poor harvests raised food prices and affected demand for other goods, there was lots of sickness, and generally a slow down in population and economic growth that was common across Europe (A.J. Little wrote a perhaps too schematic account of this in a book called Deceleration in the Mid Eighteenth-Century British Economy (London, 1976). (As Walker notes, either bad times, or good times which made masters chafe against restrictions, could be bad for guilds, though: there’s no mechanical relationship. He also notes that masters could chafe against restrictions in hard times too – when they might want to take on more apprentices in order to get premium money). Among symptoms of malaise, he notes a growing number of bankruptcies among smaller masters. He says that judges were inclined to be more cautious about upholding guild rights than they had been in the late seventeenth century, making the guilds’ position harder to defend. The impact of party politics on admissions to the freedom may also have had an effect in some places – though overall he judges economic factors to have been more important than legal or political ones.


The most interesting interpretative question the account book throws up is, why did the Coventry Worsted Weavers Company’s character change in the way that it did? Mike Walker’s discussion suggests that other than merely local factors may have been operating – but some other Coventry companies (Weavers and Clothiers, judging from an annotation to their book, Silkweavers) seem to have retained their engagement with their trades for longer, so there’s probably also something particular to this trade, or to the affairs of this company, to be explained. Even if the pattern was more general, it’s of interest to probe the records of a particular company to illuminate the mechanisms by which change played out.

One hypothesis we should evaluate would be the one Walker opts for: that problems lay largely within the trade. Trades in general may have been in difficulties, as he says, and we might also consider the possibility that the Coventry worsted trade was in even worse difficulties than others. Another possibility under this same general head would be that, while the trade wasn’t doing so badly, for one reason or another, trying to regulate it through a company ceased to be attractive. This could have been because the people running the company lost interest, or because the people they were trying to regulate became more resistant (though regulators and regulated were certainly overlapping groups). An alternative avenue of explanation would be that guilds got taken over for political purposes: politicians co-opted them. Given that admission to the freedom in Coventry did bring national voting rights with it, that possibility needs weighing. These explanations might interact: it could be that it was because politicians co-opted guilds that they ceased to try to regulate the trade; or it could be that regulation ceased for other reasons, leaving the guild a mere shell, open to being adopted for other purposes.

For all that we might want to know about the history of worsted weaving in Coventry, however, unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to be very well documented. All the standard printed sources quote the same remarks, apparently from an eighteenth-century history, an impressionistic rather than systematically empirically grounded source. What is generally said, on this basis, is that broadcloth weaving was doing very badly in the 1690s, but newer lighter styles of cloth were picking up: in the words of the Victoria County History in ‘the early part of that century the manufacture of new cloths, including tammies, shalloons, and calimancoes…[was] providing much employment’. Silk, especially silk-ribbon weaving is said to have developed at much the same time; pioneering silk manufacturer William Bird was mayor in 1705; this industry was dominant by the late eighteenth century, while watchmaking also developed. (See to the same effect Poole’s History of Coventry, and Ronald M. Berger, The Most Necessary Luxuries. The Mercer’s Company of Coventry 1550-1680 (Philadelpia, 1982), pp. 79-82).

No one seems to have done the kind of work that would make it possible to be precise about dates or proportions. In the 1780s and 90s (according to a list of Coventry apprentices about which I say more below), the total of apprenticeships seem to have run at about 140-200 a year. If they were running at that level (perhaps lower?) earlier, then the worsted trade at its peak may have been accounting for a very significant proportion of all apprenticeships. Some decline as a result of growth in other sectors wouldn’t be surprising.

The industry may well have fared worse than this. An interesting article by Patrick O’Brien, Trevor Griffiths and Philip Hunt, ‘Political components of the industrial revolution: parliament and the English cotton textile industry, 1660-1774’, Economic History Review 1991) explains that imports of Indian calicoes and other light cloths probably accounted for about a third of the domestic market at the end of the seventeenth century. It was against this that domestic producers petitioned. They gained some legislative protection in 1701 – but more from the effects of war, which disrupted the East India Company’s trade. The end of the war therefore brought renewed calls for protection, which partially succeeded in 1721: some but not total protection was granted. But by that time Scottish and Irish linen industries had taken off, providing a further source of competition. This story fits well with the Company’s history of petitioning: the threats they identified from time to time were probably real threats. It perhaps also fits patterns in the recruitment of apprentices – which one would expect to provide a more sensitive indicator of economic health than admissions to the freedom. (In the 1710s, note too the rise in apprentices being ‘turned over’, which may suggest masters going bust. And one wonders about those prisoners for debt in the 1730s – were they failed worsted weavers? It might be possible to trace this, if they applied for release under insolvency acts). None of this is to say that the English worsted industry as a whole foundered: it did better in Norwich and parts of Yorkshire, in both cases continuing to grow to the end of the century and even later. But perhaps the Coventry producers weren’t competitive.

Nonetheless, it seems improbable that Coventry worsted weaving collapsed entirely, as one might conclude from Company records alone. The clearest indication that it did not is supplied by Coventry Apprentices and their Masters, 1781-1806, Joan Lane (ed.) (Dugdale Society, Stratford on Avon, 1993) – based on a register started following disputes about who had been duly apprenticed following the 1780 election. This lists 7 boys as having been apprenticed to worsted weavers, of whom 4 were clearly poor – apprenticed by parish overseers or a charity. 14 worsted weavers’ sons were apprenticed to other trades. So there were clearly still some worsted weavers around then – though from this evidence they may have been few and poor. But 6 worsted weavers sons were apprenticed to ‘weavers’ (not further specified), as were a vast number of other boys – the largest single category. Whether these were silkweavers, woollen or worsted weavers may be impossible to determine.

Further evidence that weavers apparently distinct from increasingly dominant silkweavers were still at work is supplied by figures from the city Council Order Book, cited in the Victoria County History. These give numbers of freemen admitted in different occupations in 1640 and at various dates in the eighteenth century, graphed below. All the years in which the count is reported were election years in Coventry, so the shape of the graph probably says something about electioneering and not simply about population or economy. But weavers other than silk weavers (or at least, not described as silkweavers) clearly remained a significant (if decreasingly significant) group.

Fig 3

If not silkweavers, were they woollen (broadcloth) weavers, or worsted weavers? The Company’s 1720 petition suggests that the broadcloth trade was then all but extinct. But this may have been an exaggeration. For what it’s worth figures for admissions of freemen in the seventeenth century, cited by Berger, suggest that through most of the seventeenth century the Weavers Company was admitting freemen at much higher levels than the Worsted Weavers Company ever did – so they could have fallen off from their historic position of strength and yet still had a real presence. Or the position may have improved after 1720. Notes in ‘Access to Archives’ on the Weavers Company book 1772-1915, held in Coventry City Archives, suggests that, in contrast to the Worsted Weavers Company, the Weavers and Clothiers still had some involvement with apprenticeship through the 1780s, and even into the early nineteenth century, which might (or might not!) mean that latter were presiding over a more buoyant trade. Given these various possibilities and uncertainties, unless further indications can be found, it seems hard to be sure from what branch of the cloth industry these other weavers might have come. I don’t know if the order book breaks down other kinds of weavers further. If so, it might be possible to compare what’s in the Company books with what’s in the City books, and get a clearer idea of how the Company’s fortunes mapped on to general trends in that way. Possibly insurance records might shed some light??

This is all quite murky. All that I would (tentatively) conclude at this stage is that, over and above such general problems as afflicted manufacturing industry generally in the 1720s-40s, the fortunes of the Coventry worsted industry may well have declined particularly both at the start and again at the end of the 1720s, as local producers lost heart in the face of foreign (and domestic) competition. The relative prosperity of silkweaving and watchmaking may have encouraged a shift of local resources into those sectors. The speed and extent to which the Company disengaged from apprenticeship don’t seem fully accounted for by this, nonetheless. Depending on quite how sharply and rapidly the trade declined, something larger or smaller remains to be explained. Loss of heart – or loss of funds making it impossible to continue regulatory activity on the old basis – may explain the rapidity of the change of focus (note that 1729 they seem to have had a whip round to make it possible even to pay for their dinner). There could at the same time have been changes in the structure of the trade: perhaps some masters started taking on lots of young apprentices, and resisted Company attempts to regulate them. The fact that other companies – the Weavers and apparently the Silkweavers (judging from an annotation to their book) – were still engaged with apprenticeship in the later eighteenth century suggests that changing policy on the part of the corporation e.g. doesn’t seem likely to be the explanation.

I suspect in sum that a combination of general and trade and locally specific economic decline, and resultant loss of heart, lay behind the Company’s change of function – which may have been part of a general pattern, but also seems to have been particularly marked and complete, by comparison with what happened to other local companies. It doesn’t look to me as if the Company got politicised and that it was that which wrecked it as a trade company. It seems to have lost its trading functions before it acquired new membership and other functions. If it were serving as a political instrument, one might moreover have expected it to have been creating more freemen than before, not fewer. It may however have taken on some political function subsequently (as the 1803 comment suggests). Or it may quickly have become a purely social club – its members (or clerk) being simply particularly provoked by developments in 1803. It might be possible to investigate the Company’s politics further, if there are surviving pollbooks in years of contested elections, against which names of Company members could be matched. There was certainly one in 1741.

Summary of possible lines of further enquiry

Internal to the book – building up a nominal database, and conducting further analysis of patterns; also looking more closely at patterns of spending

Company minute book – this might shed more light

Legal records – might illuminate the prosecutions mentioned; also could see if worsted weavers figure among prisoners for debt

Other corporation and guild records – might make it possible to see what was happening with freedoms more generally, and to see to what extent declines in company membership mirrored or did not mirror city trends; order books might also illuminate city policy in relation to the companies and freemen

Insurance records – if ‘weavers’ aren’t broken down in local records, conceivably insurance records might shed more light on the structure of the local economy Pollbooks – cross-referencing to these might make it possible to determine whether the Company had a clear political complexion



One thought on “The Coventry Woolstead Weavers account book: some interpretive notes

  1. Pingback: The Coventry Woolstead Weavers account book | Guilds - Coventry

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