Unravelling Newtown’s Connections to the Global Woollen Trade

I’ve been busy since my last blog post trying to unravel Newtown’s role within the global woollen industry – both historically and in the present day. This provides an example of how globalization is impacting on rural places as local actors, such as farmers or even the sheep themselves, become an interconnected part of global production and consumption networks where it becomes harder to locate where something actually comes from.

Former textile factory and now Newtown Textile Museum.

Former textile factory and now Newtown Textile Museum. Source: Global-Rural Project

For Newtown and its hinterland, the wool and textile industry has played a key role in shaping the social and economic landscape for over two centuries. Dubbed the ‘Leeds of Wales’, Newtown lay at the heart of the Welsh flannel industry during the nineteenth century, which at its peak saw woollen goods manufactured in Newtown, and branded and marketed as from Newtown, sold both throughout the UK and to customers around the world.

The Welsh flannel industry had, however, fallen into terminal decline by the turn of the century in the face of competition from the modern textile factories of northern England. Whilst the large-scale manufacture of wool products has long since ceased, Newtown continues to function as an important node within the contemporary global woollen industry, which now connects sheep grazing on the hills of mid Wales to clothing factories in China.

Wool Town

Newtown historically developed around textile mills that processed the wool produced by the region’s sheep farms, replacing the domestic handloom weaving commonly practised in rural homes.  By the 1820s, Newtown was the largest production centre for woollen flannel fabrics in Wales with the town’s location on the River Severn providing power for the textile mills and forming a transport corridor along which the canal and later the railway were to be built; opening up new export markets for Welsh flannel.

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Left at 10, returned to die – so why is Robert Owen the prodigal son of Newtown?

St. Mary’s Church, which dates back to the 13th century, is the burial place of Robert Owen (1771-1858), one of the great social reformers of the industrial age.

Owen was a highly influential figure in both British and international political thought. In many ways Robert Owen’s views and actions provided a fundamental challenge to the values and beliefs of the age he lived in.

Robert Owen Statue, Balloon Street, Manchester

He was a radical thinker, secularist, utopian socialist, communitarian, and staunch campaigner for social reform. His ideas informed early British socialism, provided building blocks for emerging ideas about class and class conflict, universal education provision, the co-operative movement, workers’ rights and the conditions of labour and the emerging trades union movement.

He was an influential figure, evidenced by the memorialisation of his life in various places. For example, the sculpture to the left should be recognisable to anyone living in Newtown. But this is not the original, which is found in Gas Street, this is a replica. It sits outside of the Cooperative Bank Headquarters in Manchester.

So what is the significance of this man from Newtown for Newtown and the wider world?

Robert Owen – Early life and influences

He was born in Newtown on 14th May 1771, the son of a local saddler. Even before he left home, at the age of ten, he began developing the views that were to define his life. Indeed some might argue much of his life’s work was informed by a reflection upon elements of the community he was born into; self-contained, co-operative, mutualistic, close to nature, and providing for him a basic school education from a young age.

For example, realising that had he been born in another country his religious beliefs would have been different led him at the age of 14 to declare that his religious feelings had been replaced “by the spirit of universal charity – not for a sect or a party, or for a country or a colour – but for the human race, and with a real and ardent desire to do them good”. This sort of insight, that where you are born, how you are brought up and how you live are the biggest factors in determining what sort of person you will be, factors over which most people have no control, is reflected in his moral philosophy and later works.

Owen left Newtown to live with his older brother in London and soon entered the drapery business, first in London and then in Manchester (which was rapidly becoming one of the centres of the global cotton industry) where he became involved in the intellectual and philanthropic life of the city. At the age of twenty-one he became an under-manager of one of the largest spinning mills in Manchester. Here he was to witness first-hand the social consequences of the Industrial Revolution.

Owen travelled to other cities, including Glasgow where he met Caroline Dale, the daughter of a mill-owner in New Lanark, Scotland. Owen proceeded to successfully negotiate for ownership of the mill and the hand of Miss Dale in marriage in 1800. The industrial village of New Lanark would become a testing ground for his theories.

New Lanark

Image: New Lanark, The JR James Archive, on Flickr

New Lanark and “A New View of Society”

It was at New Lanark that Owen put into practice his ideas on how society might be transformed. He set out to prove his argument that “character is formed for and not by the individual” (i.e. that the right environment would produce good, rational and humane people) and that education was the means to achieve this end. His first task was “to supercede the evil conditions with which the population was surrounded by good conditions”. New houses were built for the workers, the conditions in their workplace improved including shorter working days and establishing a Sickness Fund and free medical care, preventing children under 10 working in the mill, building a school for the children of factory workers (including what is credited as the first infants school), and a new village store. This latter used the principles of shared benefit and bulk purchasing to lower the prices paid by, and increase the quality of goods available for the workers.

A New View of Society

Owen’s experiments at New Lanark Mills were a success both financially (profits went up) and socially, becoming internationally famous with visitors from all over Europe coming to see the social experiment in action. In 1813 he began writing a series of essays setting out the principles he espoused. Drawing on his philosophy and experience as an industrialist he wrote and published “A New View of Society” in 1816, which became a rallying call for widespread social change and collective forms of social organisation and property ownership.

Owen put forward plans for “villages for the poor and unemployed” operated on principles of mutual co-operation and profit sharing.  In 1825 he bought land in Indiana, USA with the intention of creating a new utopian community, New Harmony. The following year an Owenite community founded on communal ownership of property, and equal distribution of wealth was established at Orbiston, Lanarkshire, and in the 1840s he tried again at East Tytherly, Hampshire. These were not economic successes but both provided concrete examples and exercises in learning to live in radically different ways, to challenge and change the prevailing social order.

Legacy

Owen’s ideas were taken up by others, leading directly to the establishment of the Co-operative movement; he was also involved in the formation of the first trade unions.

In 1858, sensing that his life was coming to an end, Owen returned to Newtown. He died there on 18th November. He was buried in St Mary’s churchyard, next to his parents, where his tomb remains.

Owen’s ideas continue to inspire millions throughout the world.

In many ways Owen’s experimentation, for all its determinist and paternalist undertones, provided the bedrock for later political and social movements that tried and try to imagine a world that works differently.  His ideas and his real world social experimentation have influenced generations since his death, often reinterpreted for the times. For example in the 1960s, Jim Griffiths, the first government Minister for Wales, had a view to transform the landscape and economy of mid Wales through the building of a whole new town of 70,000 people there. This would be named “Treowen” (Owen’s town) in honour of Robert Owen. While this radical experiment never came to pass it was the cause of the expansion of Owen’s original small co-operative community, of Newtown, in the 1970s.

This blog was written from material jointly prepared by Marc Welsh of the Global-Rural project, and David Pugh of Newtown.

From Yosemite to Antarctica via Burundi – Business Stories from a Small Rural Town

For a small town in rural mid Wales, Newtown can boast of having been home to a surprising number of globally successful companies since the mid-nineteenth century.

Source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3APryce_Pryce-Jones.gif

Sir Pryce Pryce-Jones of Newtown, founder of first mail order company

Local entrepreneur Pryce Jones began exporting Welsh flannel in the 1850s via road and the newly-arrived railway. Coupled with Rowland Hill’s postal reforms of 1840, and the dramatic increase in use of the British postal service, these transport connections allowed him to establish the first successful mail order company in Britain. Customers included Queen Victoria and products were sold as far afield as America and Australia. These connections to the global textile trade continued into the twentieth century, as Carno became the base of manufacturing operations for the fashion and home furnishings company Laura Ashley following its relocation to Wales in the 1960s. Laura Ashley became a major local employer during its 1980s peak up until the quintessentially British brand was acquired by the Malaysian MUI Group in 1997, leading to large-scale job losses as production was moved to Asia.

Control Techniques also relocated to Newtown, this time in the 1970s to one of the purpose-built industrial units offered by the Development Board for Rural Wales (DBRW) as part of a growth pole strategy for tackling depopulation in the region. The company are a leading manufacturer of variable speed drives and power conversion technologies for use in a range of industrial applications including manufacturing automation. This specialism led to their being bought out by the US-owned multinational Emerson, but Control Techniques has been retained as a distinctive brand within their portfolio. Control Techniques continues to be based in Newtown where around 500 staff are currently employed.

Exemplifying trade through communication (Pryce Jones), lifestyle branding (Laura Ashley) and technical specialism (Control Techniques), these companies illustrate the different ways in which businesses from a small rural town have been able to compete within the global economy. They also highlight how global trading has been a (fickle) boon for the town itself; bringing employment, income and a sense of place-based pride and identity during different historical and developmental periods, but at the same time exposing Newtown to new forms of vulnerability and risk as seen, for example, through the impact of factory closures due to global competition. But if these global companies are the exception, how then are smaller businesses from Newtown currently fairing in an increasingly global market?

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Cha cha cha changes

We’ve moved. Or more accurately one of the reasons for there being little added to this blog for a while is we have been creating a website about the Assembling Newtown project – www.assemblingnewtown.org .

ScreenHunter_152 May. 16 14.31ScreenHunter_153 May. 16 14.40

This is basic site and very much a work in progress but over the next year we will use it to update on the sorts of things we’ve been looking at, the research we’ve been doing with people in the town and starting to put together some stories about the town, its history and thinking a bit more about its future.

We are also wanting to use the website to allow people in Newtown, or in some way connected to it, to contribute information, images and insights to the project.

There is some content on the site already but we will be adding significantly to this in the coming months.

In terms of recent work – we’ve been interviewing various people and groups, we’re in the middle of running a project with a local primary school, we’ve run a focus group at NPTC, and are trying to gather in one place a selection of key quantitative data about the town. We are also preparing to conduct a social media survey of younger people in the town, and a larger household survey of Newtown that will be conducted during the summer.

Further info about these and outcomes of the research will be posted on the assemblingnewtown.org website. Please have a look.

Newtown, (local) food town

With Christmas fast approaching my mind has inevitably turned to the important questions of food and drink: what to eat, what to cook and where to source my edible goodies from – with a growing number of Christmas food fairs and farmers markets to choose from in the run-up to the big day.

Newtown is a relative newcomer to this trend for local food events, holding its second annual Food and Drink festival earlier this year to showcase “the finest local food, drink, music and entertainment”. The weekend event — jointly organised by Newtown Town Council and Mid Wales Food and Land Trust — was staged in Newtown’s Town Hall Grounds and featured a range of food and drink exhibitors including representatives from Newtown’s twinned town of Les Herbiers in France, as well as demonstrations by ‘regional chefs’ and food-themed activities for children.

With exception of the visitors from France, stallholders at the festival were generally from closer to home based either in Newtown itself or the surrounding 50km radius, taking in parts of Montgomeryshire and the borders. However, some individual producers were drawn from a broader geographical area extending to near Aberystwyth in the West, Cardiff in the South, Rhyl in the North and parts of Shropshire to the East. This spread is illustrated in the diagram below and raises some interesting questions about what we mean by ‘local food’?

Food Festival exhibitors

Map produced by Anthonia Ijeoma Onyeahi

Kevin Morgan argues that the “globalization of our industrial food system has created so much physical (and cognitive) distance between producer and consumer, and between products and places” (2011, p215) that food has largely come to be viewed as anonymous or placeless. Continue reading

More than Money – What’s in a Guitar?

As with many large market towns, Newtown has various places where musicians can perform and purchase the tools of their trade or hobby.  One such place is Mid Wales Music Centre, an independent retailer established in 1987.  Selling various forms of musical equipment, including drums, amplifiers and microphones, it also stocks a wide range of guitars – including products by the Fender Corporation.   On a recent trip to Newtown, and keen to mix business and pleasure, I recently took the opportunity to play a few chords on various models of the famous Fender Stratocaster – possibly one of the most recognisable instruments of all time.  Indeed, the Fender Stratocaster is described by the Smithsonian Museum as an ‘American icon’ and ‘arguably the most successful and influential electric guitar ever produced’.  It may well be an ‘American Icon’, but the music created by the ‘unique’ sound of the ‘Strat’ (often described as bright, clean and twangy) has a global appeal – forged by such seminal artists as Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Buddy Holly, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Deep Purple’s Richie Blackmore and Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour, to name but a few.

Stratocaster headstock - Image by mrbill (Flickr) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], under Wikimedia Commons licence

Stratocaster Headstock – Image mrbill (Flickr) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, under Wikimedia Commons licence

With various types on offer in Mid Wales Music, each Stratocaster sports subtle differences in line with particular tastes.  Some differences are aesthetic (most obviously colour); some relate to the way the instrument plays and feels (such as the neck shape), and; some concern the manner in which the guitar sounds (including the type of wood used, and the ‘pickups’ installed).  But another notable difference is the place of manufacture.  Specifically, some of the Fenders in stock come from the US, while others come from Mexico.  Some of the options offered on Made in America (MIA) guitars are not available of Made in Mexico (MIM) guitars, and vice versa,  yet in some instances they are almost identical in terms of specifications and their sound (at least to these relatively inexperienced ears and hands); but differ substantially in terms of cost of purchase.  Specifically, MIM examples are usually (but not always) more modestly priced.  Why is this?  One reason is the perception that MIA guitars are not only of slightly better quality, but also that people are prepared to pay a higher premium for ‘authenticity’ –  for Fender guitars made in the place of their origin (i.e. the US).  As such they are widely viewed as being more authentic, with their higher price reflecting heritage.  In this way Fender guitars represent a clear example of what Marxist theorists refer to as ‘commodification’, whereby the amount these instruments are bought and sold for (the so-called ‘exchange value’) differs in line with cultural provenance.

And so, the customer in rural mid Wales is offered a range of transatlantic Stratocaster’s depending on their aural and ideological preference. They may be constructed in America, or in Mexico (where labour costs are cheaper), but there is more to this global network than this.  For example, the guitar may be built out of Ash, a native North American hardwood which is found and sourced anywhere between Nova Scotia in the north to Florida in the South.  Alternatively, the buyer may prefer a model made from Alder which Fender source from the Pacific seaboard of the US, between Alaska and California.   The guitar bodies are demonstrative of an East-West distinction, nationally, but the story doesn’t end here.  The rosewood fret board has likely come from South East Asia.  Historically, Brazilian rosewood was the preferred option – but this is now officially listed as an endangered species and is consequently unavailable to the scrupulous buyer.  Indeed Fender’s historical competitor, Gibson, has been accused in the past for breaking environmental laws when importing woods for its guitars.

Even where parts are ‘made in US’, the chances are that the raw materials are sourced on a global level.  For example, the pickups (the device that captures string vibrations and converts them to electronic signals) might come with a stamp saying ‘made in the US’, but the metal ores used in their production (including Nickel and Cobalt) may well have come from Canada, Brazil, South Africa or Russia.  Add into the mix tuners sourced from Japan or Germany, and it is readily apparent that not all Fender Stratocasters are equal, and that they are a truly worldwide brand.  What is more, many (if not all) of these permutations come together in a music shop in Newtown.

Sadly in my case, having played nearly every example of Fender ‘Strat’ Mid Wales Music had to offer, I was unable to come to a firm decision on an instrument which matched my sonic preferences and financial status.  And so I left the shop empty handed.

Happily, some weeks later I did find a Fender Stratocaster that met my criteria.   This one, however, was made in Japan…

JH