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Moving the blankets

Horse drawn dray in Witney High Street taking a consignment of blankets from a mill to the goods station near the church (copyright Stanley C. Jenkins).
Horse drawn dray in Witney High Street taking a consignment of blankets from a mill to the goods station near the church (copyright Stanley C. Jenkins).
As blankets are a comparatively lightweight commodity the Witney blanket industry was able to rely upon horse transport for many years. Packhorses and, later, horse-drawn waggons were used to convey loads of completed blankets to London, where the Witney Blanket Company provided warehouse facilities. In the 1670s, Dr Plot recorded that blankets and other textile products were sent 'weekly in waggons up to London'. In the reverse direction, these same vehicles were employed to carry 'fell-wool from Leadenhall and Barnaby Street'. In the following century, Arthur Young mentioned that 'four or five' broad-wheel waggons travelled from Witney to London every week.

Improved transport links
The 18th and early 19th centuries saw many improvements in transport. In 1766, for instance, a meeting held in the Crown Hotel at Witney resulted in an application to Parliament for powers to construct a turnpike road from Witney to the River Thames at Newbridge. The main road from Witney to Eynsham was improved and widened at about the same time, while the toll bridge at Swinford was opened in 1769 to replace an earlier ferry. Similar improvements took place in water transport, the River Thames being linked to the Midlands via the Oxford Canal, which was completed by 1789.

These new road and waterway links formed part of a useful local transport system that enabled coal and other heavy goods to be brought by boat to wharves at Cassington, Eynsham or Newbridge and then conveyed by road transport to Witney or other destinations. Meanwhile, long distance road journeys could be made by a network of stagecoach services which linked towns such as Woodstock, Witney and Burford with London, South Wales and other parts of the country

The Witney Railway

A train of blankets bound for Maples department store in London seen at Witney goods station advertising its load.
A train of blankets bound for Maples department store in London seen at Witney goods station advertising its load.
The Victorian era was a period of rapid and unprecedented change in Witney and the surrounding area. In particular, the construction of the local railway system represented a feat of engineering that far exceeded anything that had gone before. The southern section of Oxford, Worcester and Wolverhampton Railway was opened on 4th June 1853, the station at 'Handborough' being used as a convenient railhead for Witney.

The idea of an east-to-west cross country railway linking Oxford, Witney, Cheltenham and South Wales was first proposed during the 1830s, and was raised at intervals during the Railway Mania years of the middle 1840s, when various schemes were put forward. These early projects were all failures, though in the late 1850s a local company was formed with the aim of constructing a modest branch line to Witney.

The Witney Railway was purely local venture which, with strong support from the Witney district, was incorporated by Act of Parliament on 1st August 1859 with powers for the construction of a line from Yarnton, on the Oxford, Worcester and Wolverhampton Railway, to the town of Witney, a distance of 8 miles 14 chains. The supporters of the scheme included landowners such as Walter Strickland of Cokethorpe Park and Henry Akers of Manor Farm, Black Bourton, together with bankers and brewers such as James and William Clinch, and tradesmen such as Malachi Bartlett, the Witney builder. There were no blanket manufacturers among the initial subscribers, although Charles Early subsequently joined the board of the Witney Railway and, as a director, he served the company for many years.

Aerial photograph of Mount Mills showing trains in Witney goods station in the bottom left corner and the warehouse which enabled blankets to be loaded straight into trains (copyright Aerofilms Ltd).
Aerial photograph of Mount Mills showing trains in Witney goods station in the bottom left corner and the warehouse which enabled blankets to be loaded straight into trains (copyright Aerofilms Ltd).
Construction started in May 1860, and the railway was opened on Wednesday 13th November 1861. From time to time extensions to the Witney Railway were proposed. In the event, an extension was built by a new, Cheltenham-based company known as the East Gloucestershire Railway, which opened a line from Witney to Fairford on 15th January 1873. On the same day the original Witney Railway terminus was replaced by a new station on the extension - although the old station remained in use as part of an enlarged goods depot, from which most of Witney's blankets were to be dispatched for nearly the next hundred years. In 1900 Marriott's Mount Mills opened on a site adjacent to the station enabling blankets to be loaded directly onto the trains.

The traffic handled
The Witney Railway enabled coal and other commodities to be brought into the town - with obvious advantages for mill owners such as Charles Early and William Smith. Steam power began to supplement water power, Witney's first purpose-built steam mill being opened by William Smith in 1866. The railways also provided cheap and efficient transport for blankets and other products of the local factories, and by the early 1900s Witney station was handling around 40,000 tons of freight traffic a year, roughly 33 per cent of this tonnage being in the form of inwards coal. In 1903, for example, the station handled 40,935 tons of freight traffic, including 13,793 tons of coal.

In addition to the huge quantities of blankets dispatched as freight traffic, Witney station also dealt with large numbers of parcels. Around 30,000 parcels were handled each year during the early 1900s, with receipts of 1,800 per annum. This figure had risen to around 80,000 parcels each year during the 1920s and over 100,000 annually by the early 1930s. Most of these consignments were textile products sent by Early's or other Witney blanket firms, while in the 1950s and early 1960s further traffic was generated by the Witney Blanket Company's mail order business.

The original timetable provided four trains each way, with up services from Witney at 8.15 am, 11.00 am, 4.50 pm and 7.35, and down services from Oxford at 9.00 am, 11.50 am, 5.40 pm and 8.30 pm. The journey time was 35 minutes in each direction, and the single third class fare was 1s 3d. The basic passenger service had increased to five trains each way by the early 1900s, by which time the line had been extended to Fairford. A handful of shorter-distance services terminated at Witney or Carterton, while the normal freight service comprised two goods trains in each direction.

A horse-drawn dray at Newland Warehouse being loaded with blankets for Witney goods station.
A horse-drawn dray at Newland Warehouse being loaded with blankets for Witney goods station.
Witney station served as a railhead from which road 'feeder' services radiated to surrounding villages and hamlets. In Victorian days, horses and vehicles were supplied under contract by William Payne, a local carrier, but these services were later provided by the railway company, using its own vehicles. In 1928, The Railway Magazine reported that the Great Western Railway had made arrangements for 'about one hundred country lorry services', which would enable farmers and traders to get their parcels and perishables to and from the railway, special collection and delivery rates having been fixed for distances of up to ten miles.

By the 1930s, Witney had become an important 'Country Lorry Centre', collections and deliveries being made to and from villages and hamlets such as Leafield, Stanton Harcourt, South Leigh and Minster Lovell. In addition, the railway provided cartage services within the Witney urban area so that blankets and other commodities could be conveyed to the station.

The decline of the railway

Fleet of lorries outside Smith and Philips' Bridge Street Mill with a consignment of blankets for a London department store, 1920s or 1930s.
Fleet of lorries outside Smith and Philips' Bridge Street Mill with a consignment of blankets for a London department store, 1920s or 1930s.
With the increase in road traffic, Witney lost its railway passenger services on Saturday 16th June 1962, but goods traffic was conveyed until November 1970. The last fare-paying passengers were carried on Saturday 31st October 1970, when a special excursion known as 'The Witney Wanderer' ran from Paddington to Witney. Over 450 people made this last journey, which marked the end of 109 years of railway history in Witney.

The railway carried large amounts of blankets until the mid-1960s, while coal was transported by rail until the final closure of the line in November 1970. Sadly, the blanket industry was itself in decline by 1970 and, in retrospect, it could be said that the demise of the railway coincided with the run-down of the Witney blanket industry as a major employer.

References
Belsten and Compton 1966
Belsten and Compton 1968
Jenkins 1975
Jenkins 1985
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A former worker from Smith's of Witney recalls that when he first started work at the mill the blankets used to be taken down to the station by horse and truck (79Kb).