OXFORDSHIRE BLUE PLAQUES SCHEME

Charles EARLY (1824–1912)

Blanket manufacturer

Witney Mill, Mill Street, Witney

Charles Early was born in 1824 at West End, Witney, into an established family of blanket makers whose ancestor Thomas Early, apprenticed in 1669, went on to become the first Master of the Blanket Company in1711. Charles was apprenticed to his father John, and then sent to London to work for his uncle. There he met and married Sarah Vanner, daughter of a silk weaver, merchant and banker in the City. At the age of 26 he returned to Witney to run the family business. In the next 60 years he brought blanket making in Witney through the industrial revolution, turning Early’s into an integrated, commercially successful, mill operation.

Charles started to modernise Witney Mill which his father had leased from the Duke of Marlborough in 1825: from 1875 he leased Woodford Mill, then a fulling mill, and finally bought both mills in the 1880s. He installed the first self-acting spinning mules at New Mill and introduced power-driven looms in a weaving shed. He built many of the buildings, including a boiler house in the yard with the landmark mill chimney of Witney Mill in 1896. He extended an existing building (then of three storeys) along Mill Street but in 1905 it was destroyed by one of Witney’s notable fires (not uncommon in textile mills before electric light and sprinklers). After the fire, the building was rebuilt, with sprinklers, as the existing two-storey building now developed as apartments.

Charles Early lived much of his life at Newland House where he died in 1912. He is buried with his wife in Tower Hill cemetery. He had been a Justice of the Peace, a keen temperance reformer and a dedicated local Preacher for 60 years. There is a memorial to him in High Street Methodist Church and the organ was given in his memory.

The business continued to prosper for several generations. Early’s blankets were famous all over the world but the demand for blankets declined in the late 20th century as the duvet became popular. Trading still continued under the Early name at Witney Mill until 2002. The plaque was placed there to commemorate both the man and the mill which was the town’s last blanket factory. The mill buildings and the site are now a residential development known as Woodford Mill.

  • Sources: speech made at the unveiling ceremony by Keith Crawford, great-great-grandson and last family director of the firm; Oxford Dictionary of National Biography article by Anne Pimlott Baker

The plaque was unveiled at the former Witney Mill, Mill Street, Witney on 24 April 2009 by the Rt Hon David Cameron, MP for Witney. Members of the Early family were among those attending.

Plaque to Early

Oxfordshire Blue Plaques Board

CHARLES EARLY
1824–1912
expanded the family business
here at
WITNEY MILL

Early’s traded here until 2002
This was the town’s last
blanket mill.

West Oxfordshire District Council

© Oxfordshire Blue Plaques Board

 

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