The Brush Factory and the Thomasin family

The Brush Factory was one of Witham’s most important industries in the mid 19th century. It had developed from Matthew Thomasin’s wooden patten-making business of the early 1700s (Pattens were rather like clogs, worn outside the shoe).

The Works and the Yard were just off Newland Street (behind what are now numbers 67 and 83). In the Yard there were a number of buildings, including a mop manufactory and 15 or 16 houses, some of which were used for both living and working in.

The most essential raw material for brushes, bristle from wild boars, was imported from Russia. The completed brushes were despatched far and wide.

There were about twenty brushworkers in 1829, and fifty by 1841. It was skilled work. The Witham branch of the Brushmakers Society was particularly active. Like other similar groups, it was run by the members, whose contributions entitled them to receive sick pay and other benefits. They met first at the White Hart and later at the Swan.

The national Society was a pioneer of trade unionism, which was then illegal. Its members followed a 1,200 mile tramping route round the country, looking for work. If they did not find any on the whole route, they were paid ten shillings unemployment benefit. In the list, Witham was the first stop out of London, and the local branch here would help travellers and newcomers following the route.

William Kiddier, in his book The Old Trade Unions (pp.30-31), described an occasion when “the eyes of the Trade were on Witham.” In 1826 “The Society at Witham, with its 17 men, had for Secretary James Mount: one of the INTELLECTUALS. A name adopted by the Brushmakers for their best expounders of Trade Principles. The Witham Society sent James Mount as Delegate to London, where Witham was proposing new arrangements about sick pay and benefits. He slept 4 nights at the Clubhouse, April 11-14, 1826. A keen observer was Mount, and things he saw were dealt with in the Witham Society’s Circular. A lengthy document addressed to the Trade. Done in literary style. The collaboration of 17 Men – the Witham Society, all had their say, and James Mount put it together … The eyes of the Trade were on Witham.” In due course, the Society paid for some members to emigrate to America to find work, and Witham’s James Mount was probably one of them.

The tramping system meant that Witham’s brushworkers mostly came from other parts of the country. In 1841 four out of every five of them had been born outside Essex (compared with only one in every seventy of the farmworkers). The strange accents, tarry smells, and self-sufficient welfare system must have made the brush yard a mysterious place to local residents. Much of the work entailed dipping the separate sections of the brush into a tub full of hot tar. But by 1851 the tramping system was waning and half the workers were Essex men, with a third born in Witham.

The Thomasins themselves seemed destined not to fit in very well in Witham. This was quite common with factory owners – one of the several problems being that they usually paid more than the tradesmen, and especially more than the farmers. Also the factory owners were often nonconformists in religion (usually Congregationalists). The adherents of the Church of England considered themselves to be much superior to nonconformists.

A more particular difficulty for the Thomasins was their alleged association with the Witham Fires of 1828-29. There is a fuller account in my booklet “Men of Bad Character” in the books category. Jane Eleanor, the wife of brushmaker James Thomasin, was the aunt of Edmund Potto. Edmund was accused of starting the fires with which some of the farmers and tradesmen had been suffering. James Thomasin paid for defence witnesses, including James Mount, a brushworker. They all said that Edmund was not guilty but insane. Edmund was found guilty by the jury of sending a threatening letter, but not of fire raising. The judge scolded James Thomasin and said that he should have looked after Edmund better. Edmund was transported to Australia.

In the town, feeling was running high because the young boy James Cooke had earlier been hanged for arson when it seemed he was innocent. So for Edmund Potto not to be found guilty caused a lot of resentment, against the jury and against the Pottos and the Thomasins.

The arrival of the railway in 1843 probably increased the profits of local businesses. After James Thomasin died in 1845, his son George took over, buying more properties and also helping the nonconformist cause in local debates.

In 1850 Edward Cresy, a public health official, was sent by the government to make a survey of Witham. Thomasins’ yard was found to be in a similar state to the rest of the town. Mr Cresy wrote “The narrow yard, called Thomason’s is encumbered with several nuisances, dung-pits, &c., &c. There are 15 or 16 cottages, in some of which manufactories of mops and brushes are carried on; both drainage and ventilation are exceedingly defective, and every inch of space is encumbered with the rubbish belonging to the trades.”

George wasn’t deterred by this. Appointing Samuel Spooner as manager and ‘commercial traveller’ at the Works, he moved his own family away from the yard into the imposing Roslyn House, at the best end of the street (now 16 Newland Street). He described himself as a ‘gentleman’ when he completed the 1861 census forms. However his neighbour, Joseph Howell Blood, was the registrar, and wrote him down as ‘brush manufacturer’ instead. George has posthumously had the last laugh – his great-great-grandson, Mark Thomasin Foster, was High Sheriff of Essex from 2003-2004.

George died in his fifties in 1868, after trying to ‘doctor himself upon the homeopathic system’. Shops closed for his funeral and over fifty men and boys from the brush yard joined the procession. One of them, Thomas Farrow, had worked there for 55 years.

George’s assets were worth nearly £45,000 (about £2 million at today’s values) in addition to land and buildings. His young son James was set to be a stockbroker and not a brushmaker. So his widow, Mary Elizabeth, persuaded some of her sister’s family, the Adnams, to come from Berkshire and run the brush factory with Samuel Spooner, the manager.

So in 1869 it was “Messrs Adnams and Spooner’s brush manufactory”, who put forward a cricket team to play on the newly free Saturday afternoons under the Workshops Act. Not all of their opponents arrived and the Adnams won.
The directory of 1870 still gives them as “Adnams & Spooner, brush manufacturers”. However, they closed after three years, in 1871.

The two young men George and Ernest Adnams then left their father in Witham, and went to Southwold, on the Suffolk coast, to take over a brewery.

George was restless and moved to South Africa, where is said to have drowned (or, in some versions, was eaten by a crocodile). Another possibility is that he came back to England, and was the George Adnams who was recorded blind in the 1881 census, when he was living with his uncle’s family in London. I have not investigated this further.

To return to Ernest, at the Southwold brewery, it appears that in 1895 he received a handsome loan or gift from his aunt Mary Elizabeth Thomasin. In 1895 she and her son John George took out a mortgage for £2,000 on the Thomasin family’s considerable Witham estate. In the same year, John George acquired the Southwold brewery and transferred it to his cousin Ernest whose business was by then “Adnams and Co Ltd .”

The father of George and Ernest was another George Adnams. He stayed in Witham with his wife and daughters, and set up a fruit growing business. He was described in the 1881 census as “Farmer Of 120 Acres [with] 8 Men & 4 Women”.

He was also on the Committee of Witham’s Co-operative Society. He sold one of the family properties to the Co-op for their first Witham shop (at 85 Newland Street). To many of the townspeople that was a particularly unwelcome body, undercutting the regular shops.

George Adnams died in 1902, aged 84, and is buried at All Saints church (Holy Family).

 

 

Essex Weekly News, 24 September 1869

‘One result of the suspension of business on Saturdays at two-oclock, at Messrs Adnams and Spooner’s brush manufactory, under the Workshops Act, was a match at cricket between eleven of the firm and what was to have been eleven of the firm of Messrs. Johns and Co., fellmongers, Witham and Chelmsford’. The Chelmsford people didn’t turn up so the latter team consisted of two from the Witham firm and others from Witham. The brushmakers won with 98 runs to 61. G Adnams got 0 and E Adnams got 6.

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