The records of Early's of Witney were deposited with Oxfordshire Record Office in April 1991, through an agreement between Oxfordshire County Council and the Trustees of the records, and were given the accession number 3253. Accession 4111 was deposited in July 1996, 5022 in July 2002 after the closure of the firm, 5465 and 5472 in October and November 2005 respectively, 5607 in January 2007, 5797 in December 2008, 5962 in August 2010, 6184 in June 2013, 6198 in August 2013, and 6265 in April 2014. The original catalogue was completed in February 1992 by Alison Scott, and the collection was recatalogued, with additions, in June 2007 by Hannah Jones with further revisions made in 2010. The collection was once again revised and recatalogued in 2014-15 as a result of another large deposit of material following the death of fomer Joint Managing Director J. Brian Crawford (abbreviated to JBC throughout the catalogue). A concordance of old and new reference numbers is given at the end of the catalogue.
The records are predominantly 20th century with some 19th century ledgers and correspondence. However, the collection includes the records of the Blanket Weavers' Company of Witney which was incorporated by Royal Charter in 1711. The majority of these records of from the 18th century. Edward Early purchased the Blanket Company records in 1847 which explains their existence alongside the Early's material, although forming a discrete unit.
It is important to note that the sections the records have been divided into do not necessarily reflect departments that existed within the company. When the records arrived in the record office they had no discernable order and the originating departments of the documents were obscure. Therefore the most likely adminstrative or financial divisions were chosen.
The collection is organised in the following sequence:
B1/1 Records of the Blanket Weavers' Company of Witney
B1/2 Early's Manufacturing and Financial Records
B1/3 Early's Social Activities
B1/4 Company History
B1/5 Company Property
B1/6 Records of Edward Early & Son, Blanket Manufacturers
B1/7 Records of Marriott & Sons Ltd, Blanket Manufacturers
B1/8 Site and Building Records
B1/9 Trade Union Records
B1/10 Business Development Records
B1/11 Local History
B1/12 Warlord Contract Carpets Limited
B1/13 Closure of Firm and Redevelopment of Site
Below is a brief history of Early's in order to put the records into perspective, giving catalogue references to documents where appropriate.
Brief History of the Company
As has been said the Blanket Company was the precursor to many of the Witney blanket companies. It was essentially a regulatory body: arranging apprenticeships (B1/1/PL/1-18), ensuring quality control, generally overseeing blanket making in Witney. It also held courts at which members could be fined for infringements of bye-laws and the court books recording these survive (B1/1/A/6-7). The Master of the Company had overall control and a number of Earlys and Marriotts held this post (as can be seen from section B1/1/F/2-106 in which all the Masters from 1711-1829 are listed).
The Company lost many of its functions in the face of increasing industrialisation at the start of the 19th century, and it was then that the family firms began to expand. It is worth remembering that a number of members of the Early family ran different business operations in the 19th century. It is most likely that there was business between them and this explains many of the letters (B1/2/C2) and bills (B1/2/F18) in which Early appears to trade with Early.
In 1851 the firm became John and Charles Early & Co when John Early (1783-1862) took his son Charles into partnership, but by 1864 Charles had sole control. The period of expansion in the late 19th century resulted in Charles Early as sole owner of Witney Mill, Woodford Mill and New Mill, taking over Edward Early & Sons in the process (B1/5/18D/84). Such consolidation paved the way for the firm to become a limited company in 1910 (B1/2/A1/1) although attempts to gain a Royal Warrant in the same year were unsuccessful (B1/2/C7/2).
The 20th century saw further progress, for example, in relation to the workforce, profit sharing was introduced in the 1920s (B1/2/PL11) and a Works Council was set up by James Harold Early in 1942 (B1/2/A6/1-2) and, in relation to production methods, the Fiberweaving process was adopted in 1964 under licence from the American inventors (for photographs see B1/2/P2/26-27 ). But there were problems too. The Second World War caused man-power problems (B1/2/C6/3 and B1/2/PL2/44) although it also meant additional contracts and there was a grave financial crisis in the 1950s (well documented in the correspondence files B1/2/C4) ). However this was followed by the amicable merger with Marriott & Sons Ltd in 1960, resulting the firm's lengthy title Charles Early & Marriott (Witney) Ltd, and nine years later there were the celebrations connected with the tercentenary of the company (B1/4/3A-4P) - 300 years since Thomas Early (1655-1733) was first apprenticed to a weaver, and later inherited a blanket business from his old master.
The company changed its name to its present, more manageable form of Early's of Witney at the AGM of 22nd June 1981. In December 1984 Courtaulds, who had held approximately 30% of Early shares since July 1984, sold their holding to an investment company Clayhithe plc. In April 1990 Grovewood Securities plc, a property company, made a successful bid for all the issued shares of Early's of Witney plc. As a property company Grovewood were not interested in the textile manufacturing business or the Early's name and they offered these for sale. However, before they could be sold Grovewood went into receivership. It appeared as though the company would be forced to close down but the receiver disposed of the company and its name in a management buy-out which was completed in January 1992.
Following this, Early's continued with a staff of 160 and experienced a partial recovery, mostly due to strong American sales. In 1999 Early's was taken over by Quiltex, one of Early's biggest customers, but sales continued to fall and the company went into voluntary liquidation in 2002. The factory closed in July of that year and the remaining 72 staff were offered the opportunity to relocate to an alternative Quiltex factory in Derbyshire.
N.B. A glossary of blanket-making terminology can be found at p.196 of Plummer & Early, 'The Blanket Makers', 1969.
Further details on all aspects of the blanket industry in Witney can be found at www.witneyblanketstory.org.uk .
Given the long association of the Early family with Witney, researchers may find it helpful to also consult the following collections:
F17 Early family of Witney
P13 Diaries of Charles William Early
P18 Diaries of Janet Dolton Early
P21 Deeds for Blanket Hall, Witney
P442 Research notes of J.B. Crawford
Plummer, A., R.E. Early. The Blanket Makers, 1669-1969: A History of Charles Early & Marriott (Witney) Ltd. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1969
Cavell, J. A History of the Early Family of Witney. Witney: J.B. Crawford/ The Early's Archive Trust, 2010.
Available: 7th May 2015
Turton, A. (editor). Managing Business Records. Oxford: Butterworth Heinemann in association with the Business Archives Council, 1991 is also a useful source for its explanation of business and accounting records.