At our October meeting Keith Crawford gave a fascinating presentation on the “History of the Witney Blanket Hall”, enhanced by excellent pictures and humorous anecdotes. Keith is a descendant of the Early family, so much associated with blanket manufacture in Witney and has been responsible for the building for the last two years.
The weaving of broadcloth used in blanket manufacture started in Witney in the middle ages. By the late seventeenth century there were sixty master weavers and their journeymen with one hundred and fifty looms in the town and the industry provided employment for some three thousand people. Spinning was done by cottage outworkers as was subsequent washing and fulling of the woven cloth, which was returned to the master weavers for final blanket manufacture. Unfortunately quality control was poor with widespread bribery of those set to maintain standards. Leading weavers petitioned the crown and in 1711 Queen Anne granted a charter to the Company of Blanket Weavers. The company elected a Master and two Wardens annually, set standards, inspected finished blankets and regulated the employment of apprentices.
In 1720 the Company built a headquarters, The Blanket Hall, in the High Street on a plot running down to the river, with several out buildings and two cottages. The hall had facilities for weighing blankets and on the first floor a Grand Room for meetings and entertainments. A feature of the building to this day is the single hand clock, originally built as a bell clock in 1722 for the sum of about £21. The early years of the Company were relatively successful and many fine dinners were held in the Grand Room, lasting many hours. In 1784 it was the first building in the town to install gas lighting. Decline set in the early nineteenth century as the industrial revolution introduced mechanisation to the blanket industry and in 1837 the Company claimed it could no longer contribute to poor relief as the few remaining members were financing the Hall out of their own pockets.
The Grand Room was hired out for events and in 1847 a Brewery was set up in the rest of the premises by Joseph Early and William Smith and this changed hands several times. In 1884 the building was again the first with a new lighting source, this time electricity. In 1900 a soft drinks company set up in the Hall and various other small enterprises came and went until by the 1970`s the Hall was in a sorry state. Our speaker`s uncle Brian Crawford, bought it in 1976 and restored it and the outbuildings as private accommodation, with the Grand Room re-established in Queen Anne style. Following his death in 2011 the Hall has passed to a local Charity and leased to the “ Blanket Hall Community Interest Company” and they hope to open it to the public some time next year.