First World War: As the soldiers faced bullets, customers of Braintree firm Warner & Sons still dreamed of luxurious silks

Walter Godfrey was a Braintree-born trooper with the Essex Yeomanry and died on October 7, 1918. Pho

Walter Godfrey was a Braintree-born trooper with the Essex Yeomanry and died on October 7, 1918. Photograph: Warner Textile Archive - Credit: Archant

While workers from an Essex firm found themselves in Hell on the western front, some of the company’s customers continued to enjoy a life of luxury as the First World War raged. STEVEN RUSSELL reports

A white, pink and silver version of Warner & Sons' Avebury silk tissue, from 1917, which was used in

A white, pink and silver version of Warner & Sons' Avebury silk tissue, from 1917, which was used in a dress for Queen Mary. Photograph: Warner Textile Archive - Credit: Archant

It is, admits archivist Kate Wigley, pretty incongruous. As Britain’s soldiers fought for freedom during The Great War, mired in mud and fear, life for many of the country’s affluent residents remained as comfortable as ever.

So on one hand we have brave Private Herbert Watson – a local footballer and cricketer of note; a man who sang in the church choir, and the first silk weaver to fall in the war. On the other, we have customers of the firm for which he worked still ordering expensive linings for fur stoles, dress silks and upholstery fabric.

A luncheon at the plush Savoy hotel in 1917 was even the setting to launch the company’s three-pile velvet – an extravagant luxury very few people could afford to commission even in peacetime.

This invention featured three different cut-pile heights that created a sheen and texture not previously seen in woven cloth. Warner & Sons’ creation was later shown at the 1925 International Exhibition of Modern and Industrial Art in Paris.

A Savoy lunch! During wartime! “I know,” agrees Kate, who’s from the Warner Textile Archive in Braintree. “I think that shows the juxtaposition of what was happening.”

But we shouldn’t think the firm was turning a blind eye to the deprivations and dangers of life in France, Belgium and elsewhere, and instead counting the profits flowing from its rich clientele. It wasn’t like that.

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The impact of the conflict would have been felt keenly in the mill, which saw a number of its key weavers depart for the front. Some never came back.

Frank Warner, the man in charge, simply had to be pragmatic in shepherding the business through unpredictable times. If there was work to be had, they’d take it with gratitude.

“When a son or husband was away at war, women working there were still generating a living by dyeing or spinning or setting up looms – bringing in income at a difficult time,” explains Kate. The boss’s efforts in securing work was seen locally as vitally supportive.

“The books were not well-balanced during the war – they were scraping by – which is why they carried on weaving the luxury fabric. It kept the workers employed, which was also important for morale.”

The thoughts of Frank Warner clearly stretched further than Braintree, too. In 1916, the year before that upmarket luncheon, he’d started to experiment with Japanese silk and its potential to be used for bullet-proof vests.

Frank laid between 15 and 20 loose layers of the silk and found this slowed a bullet more effectively than quilted fabric. Bullet-proof vests using this technique did not go into production, but proved successful in tests against rifle and revolver bullets.

Kate says Frank had strong feelings about what was happening across the Channel “and I think that’s what started his work on trying to create a bullet-proof vest. He wanted to do something about saving lives. He paid pensions for people who were killed and for families in difficult times. He tried to support them.

“His father, Benjamin, had actually set up a pension scheme when Warner moved into Braintree from Spitalfields.” The Warner & Ramm partnership had split in 1891, leading to the formation of Warner & Sons. “It was Daniel Walters (Braintree) that went into liquidation and Warner & Sons purchased them,” explains Kate. “Benjamin continued to pay a ‘pension’ which was in support of the changeover while he was buying the business from Walters.

“They were a family who were keen to make their mark in the town and be seen as supportive.”

During the 1914-18 conflict, Warner & Sons also helped with the war effort by investing time and money in producing silk used by artillery howitzers. It included noil cloth, made from the short fibres left after silk was spun.

Silk was essential for making cartridge-bags that held the explosive charge for the big guns. It was the only cloth that could guarantee complete combustion; it did not leave ashes when it burned. Had any fragments remained, they could have reignited when the next charge was laid. Not good.

As well as taking away some of the firm’s men, war made its presence felt in other ways. Warner & Sons was a relatively busy factory throughout the conflict, though output was reduced and it depended on supplies of cotton, wool and silk being sent to Britain.

In 1916 the Government sought the views of Frank on the future role and prospects of the country’s textile industry.

At the time he was president of the Silk Association of Great Britain & Ireland, and felt the two roles were in conflict. As a result, he resigned from this advisory role a year later. When Queen Mary learned of it, she wrote a letter to Frank, expressing her sincere regret. (The firm had long been a supplier to royal households.)

In August, 1917, the Office of Works requisitioned the firm’s head office in Newgate Street, London. Warner & Sons had 48 hours to leave the building so it could become the Admiralty Pay Office.

Thanks to employees working round the clock, Newgate Street was packed up and new premises rapidly secured 50 yards away.

So what had business been like before war was declared?

“It was very buoyant,” says Kate. “Lots of orders from the aristocracy and the ‘higher’ end of society – special orders that cost a lot of money to make only a few metres of fabric: a lining for a coat or a jacket, for instance, where they’d be ordering only four metres, say, and you’d have to set the whole loom up just to make those things. Very opulent spending, really.”

Business managed to carry on after the outbreak of hostilities partly because of Frank’s foresight.

“He was president of the Silk Association and saw what could be coming, and bought up a huge amount of silk stock in advance and warehoused it. They could carry on weaving that high-end product throughout the war.

“They still had ridiculous orders! – lovely orders. There was one woman who wanted two metres of hand-woven cream silk to line her first stole.

“We wanted to discuss that” – through the archive’s efforts to mark the Great War centenary – “because it’s a little bit contentious, but really interesting that was happening. Also, because Warner & Sons were just really good with silk. They were asked to print the [secreted] silk maps that went into coat linings and board games that were sent out.” (To help troops lost behind the lines or taken prisoner.)

“It was a good part of production. There were still curtains being woven for important houses, and things like that, but it was an important part and they were getting paid to do this ‘secret’ work.

“I would say it was more like a quarter of the turnover at the beginning. Towards the end, things were different. I’d say it then moved to three quarters of the business being war-related – at the very end, for the last push.

“And then, interestingly enough, straight back into the handwoven silks and things. There was not that long period, like after the second war, of them having to get themselves back together.”


Have a look!

There’s a chance to see close-up some of the sumptuous work carried out by Warner & Sons during the years of the First World War.

Wartime Luxury will explore the high-end commissions received by the firm between 1914 and 1918. Join Kate Wigley in the archive store and – through luxury silks and other pieces in the collection – discover a different side to factory life on the home front.

It’s on Thursday, October 9, from 11am to 12.30pm. It costs £5 per person. Call 01376 557741 to book.

A display in the archive gallery highlights the contribution of Warner & Sons to the war effort and the design commissions undertaken at that time. The gallery is open every Wednesday and on the first Saturday of each month.

The Warner Story

It begins in the late 1600s, with William Warner, a scarlet dyer in Spitalfields, London

As a boy, 19th Century descendant Benjamin Warner helped his mother with the family business of building Jacquard loom harnesses, and later studied design

In 1857, Benjamin bought a card-cutting and Jacquard machine-making firm. By 1861 it employed 12 men and 33 women. Three decades on, it had grown massively and built a reputation for creating beautiful fabrics

The firm, at that stage Warner & Ramm, from the mid-1870s started to supply quality printed fabrics, worsted, tissue, brocade and velvets

The take-over of Charles Norris & Co in 1885 included a warrant to supply silks and velvets to royal households. Warner & Ramm produced fabrics for embassies, palaces and stately homes, as well as fabrics for royal coronations, investitures and weddings

Benjamin Warner and partner Ramm had a bumpy parting of the ways in 1891. The 63-year-old brought sons Alfred and Frank into the business and Warner & Sons was born the following year.

In 1895 Warner & Sons bought the business and premises of Daniel Walters & Sons at New Mills in Braintree

Weaving stopped there in 1971

Today, the Warner Textile Archive, in New Mills, contains more than 60,000 textiles, 10,000 paper designs, pattern books, record books, photographs and documentary material

A ‘family’ mourns

In memory of its fallen employees, Warner & Sons created a stone memorial at its Braintree premises, New Mills. It was later moved to St Michael’s Church. Here is the roll of honour.

Arol William Compton: A private in The Essex Regiment. Died April 29, 1917, aged 24.

He lived in East Street, Braintree, and is remembered on the Arras Memorial at Faubourg, France.

Herbert Watson: A private in the Machine Gun Corps. He was the son of a silk weaver. Died on July 14, 1917. He was 27 and is buried at Sunken Road Cemetery, Fampoux, France.

Herbert was a silk weaver at Warners’ mill and was the first silk weaver to fall in the war, although several others had been wounded or taken prisoner.

He was well known in Braintree’s football and cricketing spheres, captaining the St Michael’s football club when the team won the North Essex League Cup of 1912-13. He was a member of Warner & Son’s cricket club and sang in St Peter’s Choir. He married Edith Mayn five days before Christmas 1913.

Frank Beresford: A private in The Essex Regiment. Also the son of a silk weaver. Died on August 11, 1917, aged 26. Frank was born in Bethnal Green and his family lived in Manor Street, Braintree.

He died of wounds he suffered and is buried in Brandhoek New Military Cemetery in Belgium.

George Grimshaw: A second lieutenant in the air force and the Macclesfield-born son of a silk manufacturer. Died on July 8, 1918. He was 24. He is buried at Macclesfield Cemetery.

Ernest Hodson: Born in Braintree. A rifleman in the Rifle Brigade. He and his father both worked at Warners’ mill. Ernest died on September 27, 1918, aged 31. He’s buried at France’s Vis-en-Artois Cemetery.

Sidney Turner: A private in the Machine Gun Corps who died as a prisoner of war in Germany on October 4, 1918. His age isn’t known. Sidney lived in Rayne, near Braintree, and is named on the village war memorial. He is buried in Berlin South-Western Cemetery.

Walter Godfrey (pictured below) was a Braintree-born trooper with the Essex Yeomanry and died on October 7, 1918. He was 38.

Eleven days later, a newspaper reported he’d been killed in action. He had been an official at Braintree Congregational Church. His father and a brother were also silk weavers, and another brother was a carpenter. He’d married in the autumn of 1904.

Walter is buried at Dadizeele New British Cemetery, Belgium, and is also remembered on the Braintree Congregational Church memorial.

At 11am on Remembrance Sunday – November 9 – representatives of the Warner Textile Archive will lay a specially-created wreath at St Michael’s Church in Braintree in memory of the employees who lost their lives in The Great War.