Urban Exploration - Tonedale Mill
The Fox family's interest in woollen fabric began in the early 1700's, when Edward Fox married into the Wellington based Were family, making Fox Brothers one of the earliest entrants into the UK wool industry. At this time the company was a cottage industry, mainly producing woollen serge known as 'Tauntons'. The early British woollen industry naturally established itself in areas where sheep were farmed, as was the case in Wellington, Somerset.
Taunton serge was the most suitable use for the wool from the sheep that were native to the western counties, which was long, deep stapled and fairly coarse. According to Toulmins History, in the 17th century Taunton serge was in very great request as 'fashionable wearing', being lighter than cloth, and yet thicker than many other stuffs.
The company was officially founded by Thomas Fox in 1772, after taking over the family business. At this time, it is believed that the company employed up to 450 people in and around the area. During the Industrial Revolution in the early 19th century, the company brought the entire production process in house. With the wool sorting, spinning, drying and weaving processes all under one roof, the Fox family were able to exert more control over quality and increase production. Not only was the total production housed on one site, but ancillary crafts also took place at the mill. These included basket weaving, to produce the baskets used for holding wool and yarns; joineries, for the wooden requirements of the site; book binding, to produce record and accounts books; as well as metal forges and workshops, to produce and maintain the machinery.
Influenced by the Fox family's Quaker faith, the company was enlightened in the care of its workers, building housing and schools for employees in Wellington. Fox Brothers was also one of the first employers to have a pension scheme. At its peak the company employed nearly 5,000 people, owning and operating nine mills and factories in Somerset, Devon, Galshiels and Oxfordshire. One of the most notable satellite mills was that of William Bliss Sons, which was acquired in 1917. Located in Chipping Norton, the William Bliss site was one of the grandest mills in England, complete with reading room, chapel and cottages for workers. The main Tonedale site in Wellington was the largest integrated mill site in the South West of England, covering 10 acres of land and forming the hub of Fox Brothers' woollen manufacturing 'empire'. From here the cloth was despatched locally by horse drawn cart and around the world by sail, from the Devonshire port of Topsham.
The Fox family even had their own legal tender from 1787 until 1921; according to locals, the Wellington branch of Lloyds bank is to this day known as the Fox branch. From the late 19th century into the 20th century, production became increasingly focused on fabrics for the British military. During the Boer War, Fox Brothers developed the new serge drape mixture know as 'khaki', which eventually led to the demise of the British Army's traditional 'Redcoats'. During the First World War, Fox Brothers completed the largest ever single order for textiles: 852 miles of cloth supplied to the Ministry of Defence. This was used to make 'puttees' - spiral leg puttees were used by the military as a part of the regular soldier uniform. The fabric woven by Fox Brothers has changed greatly over the last two centuries.
archive books illustrate how the coarse woollen yarns and often rough touch of the fabric has changed to the soft handling flannel still produced by Fox Brothers today. The Fox archives themselves are of recognised historical importance and include over 400 volumes containing business documents and samples dating back to the company's establishment in the 18th century. In 1988, 150 volumes were listed by the Royal Commission on Historical Manuscripts and described as one of the finest collections of business records of this date that we have examined. In recent years Fox Brothers has won two Queen's Awards for industry. The first in 1966, the year the award scheme was founded, for our export sales, and the second in 2006, for manufacturing the world's lightest weight wool and cashmere flannel. Today the company is focused on producing a range of luxury woollen and worsted fabrics for the most discerning and demanding clients in the world. Many of the people who work at Fox Brothers have followed their fathers and grandfathers into the business, so knowledge, craftsmanship and heritage are at the heart of the process.