Thursday, February 2, 2012
For around 200 years between the 1770s and the 1970s, carpet-weaving was a major industry in Kidderminster, a trade stimulated by the construction of the Staffordshire and Worcestershire Canal, which, completed in 1771, provided a vital transport artery. The business was initially based around hand-looms, and the Kidderminster weavers were at first reluctant to adopt power looms. After the 1850s, though, power-loom-weaving was introduced, and manufacturers built a number of large mills in the town to accommodate the new equipment. Since the industry declined in the late-20th century, Kidderminster has been redeveloped – there seem to have been major upheavals in the 1960s and 1970s, with a new ring road, which, I have to say, has made parts of the town centre very unfriendly to pedestrians. A number of the carpet mills survive, though, and most impressive they are, even when glimpsed behind 1970s shops when one is trying to dodge dashing objects making their way around the town centre.
These factories are not on the vast scale of the multi-storey mills and warehouses of northern England, Titus Salt’s Saltaire, for example. But they’re impressively long, with fronts of dazzling polychrome brickwork in which the varied colours of window surrounds, cornices, string courses, and similar details makes a pattern of masonry, not quite as intricate as a carpet, but nearly so.
This is the front of the mill built for the Victoria Carpet Company in 1869. The architect was T D Baker, a local man, and he seems to have been very confident in his handling of the blue brick and white Stourbridge brick, with which he contrived arched window openings, banded pilasters, and cornices. The overall form is classical, with a centre bay topped by a triangular pediment. But the decoration is a very Victorian hybrid – the mixture of dentils and zig-zag courses in the pediment conjures up an unlikely mixture of classical and Romanesque. The overall impression is one of solidity, but the wayward ornamentation hints that the people inside are up to making something decorative.
These buildings are a tribute to the industrialists of 19th-century Kidderminster, who must have liked the idea that they could build structures that were decorative and solid and durable. It was partly about putting up an impressive front – the weaving sheds around the back would have been much plainer and were no doubt tough, noisy environments in which to work. But the monumental factory facades suggest a pride in good work and must have been effective advertising, as decorative and hard-wearing in their way as the carpets made inside.