The Industrial Development of Braintree

The development of Braintree and Bocking through the great days of the Medieval wool trade to world-wide industrial fame with Crittalls and Courtaulds started with the growth of the Roman settlement.


Development around the crossroads of the A120 “Stane Street” and the Chelmsford/Norwich roads created the junction now known as the White Hart, during the Roman era. The Roman Town had much in common with the town today – a Market Town with evidence of metal working, whose importance was based on its communication with other important Towns.

Middle Ages

The town survived on farming in the Saxon period and the population was based around Chapel Hill. In 1199 the Bishop of London, who was Lord of the Manor and maintained a country palace near Chapel Hill, succeeded in securing the granting of a Market Charter for a weekly market and an Annual Fair. The market continues to add a vital element to the commercial life of the district and attracts visitors from outlying villages. The “satellite” villages grew up in the Middle Ages at a distance from Braintree that a man could drive animals or a full cartload to market and back between dawn and sunset.

Bradford Street and the Woollen Trade

The Bradford Street area provided accommodation and sustenance in its guest houses and inns where pilgrims on the journey from London rested on their way to Bury St. Edmunds and Walsingham.

The wool trade probably existed in the area as early as 1300 with fulling mills on the rivers Brain, Pant and Blackwater. By 1452 the Braintree Bailiffs “Certified that the Art or Mystery of weaving woollen cloth was exercised there”. Weaving was carried out in cottages and the cloth, once woven, was taken by the clothier to be fulled at the water mills of the Brain, Pant or Blackwater rivers.

In the early 16th century, Flemish weavers moved into the area, many settling in the empty pilgrim hostelries of Bradford Street. The skilled Flemish weavers introduced a fine new cloth called “Bays” and “Says”. This superior quality cloth led to the fame of Bocking, and to this day in the United States of America, certain types of cloth are known as “Bockings”. Much of the area’s production was exported, principally to Spain and Portugal, where it was popular for Clerical robes.

Wool Halls, where weekly sales of wool and cloth were bought and sold, became a feature of Bradford Street. In the seventeenth century the local weavers bravely introduced a “Teasel Gig”, a machine which finished cloth by rolling it over the heads of teasels and so cutting out the laborious hand raising of the nap. This process was resisted in other parts of the Country because it reduced the number of jobs available, but its adoption in Braintree and Bocking helped create the area’s pre-eminence in the trade – giving it the vital edge of quality and price over its competitors.

The time houses which still line both sides of Bradford Street bear testimony to the wealth created and the skills of the work force.

The Ruggles, Nottages, Savills and the English’s all became wealthy landowners from the prosperity brought from generations of success in the wool trade. However, periods of hunger and distress were frequent in the Cloth Towns as their market was dependant on communications with foreign customers.

The very quality of the cloth meant demand was soon restored right up until the end of the eighteenth century when, over on the Portuguese export trade, the rise of the cotton industry and the revolution in Northern textile production methods finally caused the decline of the wool trade. This was to provide the raw materials of skilled labour at low cost and abundant water power to open the way for the Silk Industry to thrive.

George Courtauld, the great grandson of a Huguenot refugee, broke with family tradition to become a silk throwster in Spitalfields in 1775. He became a manager of the firm he was indentured to, and for them, set up a water powered silk mill at Pebmarsh in 1799. He immediately bought a mill to run himself and in 1809, with a partner named Wilson, took over an old flour mill in Chapel Mill.

The partners quarrelled and the mill failed, but one of its employees was Samuel Courtauld the Third. In 1816, at the age of 22 years, Samuel set up a silk throwing business in Panfield Lane, and by 1818 he was doing well enough to build a large new mill in South Street. This proved a financial disaster and he was forced to buy out Savill’s cloth fulling mill in Bocking. The skilled work force had no alternative but to accept lower wages, which soon produced profits which Samuel Courtauld re-invested wisely in a mill at Halstead and a steam powered factory at Bocking in 1826.

In 1843 Samuel Courtauld brought back Chapel Hill Mill and in 1859 a three storey mill was built on the old site. Winding, throwing and power weaving were begun, and the population of Braintree and Bocking found themselves in the forefront of the industrial expansion of the nineteenth century.

The “New Mills” site in South Street became the home for Walters, and later, Warners handloom silk weaving. These mills produced some of the finest silks in the world; velvet and brocades for Royal palaces and State occasions up to the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II were all woven in Braintree.

The Coming of the Railway

The wealth of the area led to a body of local businessmen meeting in February 1824 to promote the idea of a railway to link Braintree, Witham and Maldon, but it was not until 1848 that these far-sighted gentlemen were rewarded with their rail link.

The new transport communications changed the face of Braintree and the lives of ordinary people. The carriage of coal made the homes of the people more comfortable and led to a thriving coal trade; around Railway Street there were eight coal yards by the end of the century. The easy transport of lime, timber, slate and cement encouraged house building in the growing town. Between 1850 and 1900 the area of meadows around the station north to the Market Square, i.e. Manor Street, Victoria Street, Fairfield Road and Albert Road, all became built up into an urban factory and housing area.

The introduction of the railway helped the agricultural trade to transport crops and grain and to bring hops and barley into the Town for the brewing trade. The Corn Exchange brought merchants out from London, and the cattle pens erected in the Goods Yards brought cattle and buyers from all over the country.

From blacksmiths and small agricultural tool making units in the latter part of the last century, grew the iron making industries of that period. From these small beginnings grew the large engineering firms which spearheaded Braintree’s industrial growth into the twentieth century.

Inventive engineers, steeped in the traditions of devising new machinery to meet the ever demanding requirements of the agricultural and textile trades, found a ready work force to produce their ideas. The male work force was far out-stripped by the number of women employed in the textile industry.

Joseph Bradbury was the son of a talented engineer at the Walters silk mill who started manufacturing tools for the cycle trade. He commenced his career working in a cottage in New Street about 1896, moving to a larger workshop, also in New Street, thereafter. His diversification into the embryo “Car Parts” industry led to the success of Bradbury’s, now F.K.I. Bradbury. New Street was also the home of Lake’s, later Lake and Elliot, founded in 1892. William Lake began making parts for the rapidly growing cycle trade.

In 1884 Francis H. Crittall developed the first casement windows in metal, based on the Tudor casement. Crittall built up a company which had worldwide significance, with Braintree men starting factories in America, Canada, Australia and South Africa. Crittalls were successful in securing contracts for prestigious projects worldwide, and at the time of writing, remain one of the district’s most important employers.

Small Scale Industry

Along with the rise of our major industries wool, silk, man made textiles, agricultural markets and engineering, numerous small industries flourished in cottages and backyard workshops. Matting was made in Bradford and Manor Street. The tall building opposite the Post Office was home to the boot and shoe factory. A flourishing brush factory operated in the High Street. Strawplaiting employed a workforce of over one thousand (mostly women and young children) during the early part of the 19th century.


The willingness of the employers and workers of Braintree to diversify in the changing economic and social conditions, enable the Town to survive the decline of its trade and industry, enabling it to rebuild again and again to face new challenges. The loss of Courtaulds in 1982 seemed an insurmountable blow and yet, in seven years, the Town’s economy is growing strongly, with new industrial parks opening, a new shopping centre and vastly improved communications.

Other Museums & Heritage Centres

Bocking Windmill
A fine post mill with a two-storey brick roundhouse, recently restored and a rare example containing much original equipment, which is preserved although not working. Believed to date from around 1721, it was moved to its existing site from further down the hill in Bocking around 1829. Climb to the top for magnificent views. Guided tours available.
Open 1000 to 1700, May 7 & 13 and 1400 to 1700, May 28, June 24, August 27 & 30th September.
Tel 01376 541339

Coggeshall Museum & Heritage Centre
Small independent museum featuring exhibitions and photographs of Coggeshall’s industrial, agricultural and social history. Large collections of Coggeshall lace, working loom, archaeology, Coggeshall bricks, video foortage of ‘old’ Coggeshall, computerised postcard show. Displays are changed each year. Tours of village for groups by prior arrangement (small charge per head).
Open 1415 to 1645, Sundays and Bank Holidays, April – October, other times by appointment.
Tel 01376 563003

Colne Valley Postal History Museum
A private museum housing more than 90 post boxes from 1859 – 2005 plus working stamp machines, postal uniforms and hundreds of artefacts.
Open 8th/9th September 2008 other times by appointment only.
Tel 01787 474412

Dorothy L Sayers Centre – Witham
Dorothy L Sayers a theologian and Dante scholar perhaps best known for her novels including Lord Peter Wimsey. Dorothy L Sayers lived in Witham from 1929 – 1957 and her house is just a few yards from the library. The DLS centre contains copies of her novels, plays translation, essays and pamphlets.
Access to centre is by appointment only.
Tel 01376 519625

Earls Colne Heritage Museum
Located in a renovated Victorian Water Tower on the site of the Old Atlas Works, the museum houses a permanent exhibition covering historical landmarks, and details the development of the village from earliest times to the present day. Temporary exhibitions provide the opportunity to display different aspects of Earls Colne.
1400 to 1600, Saturday & Sunday, November to Easter & 1400 to 1600 Wednesday & Sunday & 1000 to 1600 Saturday Easter to October.
Tel 01787 224370

Feering and Kelvedon Local History Museum
Feering and Kelvedon local history from the Stone Age to the 20th century is interpreted through displays of archaeology, social history and photographs with occasional temporary exhibitions.
Open 1400 to1700, Monday, March – October except Bank Holidays and Saturday 0930 to 1230, other times by appointment.
Tel 01376 325266

Finchingfield Guildhall and Heritage Centre
The Heritage Centre is situated in a small room within the 15th century Guildhall and covers the history of the village; local family history research and various artists who have visited, such as Lucien Pissarro.
1400 to 1600 Sunday

Finchingfield Windmill
A small post mill, dated 1755. It has 4 spring sails (without shutters), a tailpole and one pair of millstones. It is not workable, because of its location among trees and cottages, but is opened once a month in the summer by the Finchingfield Society.
Tel 07887 662177

Halstead and District Local History Society Museum Collection
This Museum is closed at present and is due to open in 2007. Please contact Braintree District Museum for further information.
Tel 01376 325266

Rayne Station Centre
Rayne Railway Station was built in 1866 and was one of the busiest on the line, until it closed to passengers in 1952. Renovated in 1994 it is now the Visitor Centre and Ranger base for the Flitch Way. The rich heritage of the Flitch Way is revealed in the Exhibition.
Open 1300 to 1600 Sundays’ exhibition only. Booking Hall and Public Toilets open daily.
Tel 01376 340262

Ridgewell Airfield Commemorative Museum
A private collection of wartime memorabilia dedicated to the brave men of RAF 90 Squadron and the 381st Bombardment Group of the US Amy Air force who operated from Ridgewell airfield during the dark days of World War 2.
Open 11am to 5pm, 2nd Sunday of each month from April to September.
Tel 01787 277310

The Cottage Museum – Great Bardfield
Recently renovated and refurbished 16th century charity almshouse housing village museum collection of farming and domestic artefacts. Rural crafts of straw plaiting and corn dolly making are explained and a display features the celebrated Great Bardfield artists of the 20th Century. Also newly designed 16th century bower garden.
Open 1400 to 1700 Saturday, Sunday and Bank Holidays from Easter – End September, other times by appointment.
Tel 01371 810919

Warner Textile Archive – Braintree
A unique record of the history of textile manufacture and design since the 18th Century, taking the visitor on an exciting visual voyage of discovery from Warners unique three-pile velvets, the intricate woven silks of Owen Jones, cutting edge designs of the 1920’s and 30s through to the iconic designs of the 20th century.
Open 1100 to 1600 Wednesday – Saturday. Group visits & researchers by appointment Monday – Friday.
Tel 01376 557741

Witham Heritage Centre
Situated in the Town Hall, with Town Council offices and the Visitor Information Centre, the Heritage Centre houses a display of the history of Witham.
Open 0900 to 1230, 1300 to 1630 Monday to Friday and 1000 to 1600 Saturday.
Tel 01376 502674