Global connections: past and present
We have examined 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.
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 start of the turn of the century in the face of competition from the modern textile factories of northern England. Whilst the large-scale manufacture of woollen 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.
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.
Local entrepreneur Pryce Jones used the improved communications and distribution systems associated with the arrival of the railway to establish Britain’s first mass mail order company in the late nineteenth century, which also sold flannel goods to European royal households, the German army and customers as far afield as America and Australia.
This new form of commerce pioneered by Pryce Jones had also been made possible by technological developments in the manufacture of flannel, with the introduction of power looms leading to the construction of large mechanised multi-storey textile factories in Newtown. The development of industry was accompanied by the immigration of workers from other textile production centres outside Wales, with the population growing by 1,200 in the decade from 1871.
However, by the end of World War One the town had entered a period of slow decline. At the turn of the century competition from Lancashire and overseas saw the Newtown mills closing one by one. Although the last significant mills struggled on for a few years after the war, the destruction of the largest factory, the Cambrian Mills, in a fire in 1912 marked the effective end of woollen manufacture as the staple trade of the town.
Right: Former textile factory in Commerical Street, Newtown.
Sheep farming, however, remains a highly significant part of the agricultural economy and culture of mid Wales, with wool from the region’s sheep farms collected at Britain’s second largest wool grading depot located in Newtown. The depot is operated by the British Wool Marketing Board (BWMB), the last Agricultural Commodities Board in the UK, whose role is to provide its 45,000 farmer members– whether they have 50 sheep or 50,000 - with a standard price through collective sales and bargaining power within the international wool market.
Through the Wool Board structure, even the smallest-scale sheep farmer in mid Wales becomes an interconnected part of a global wool production network stretching across countries and continents – but ultimately grounded through a series of place-based interactions and processes. The Global-Rural project has been investigating these connections linking Welsh sheep farmers to the global woollen trade by attempting to follow the journey of Newtown wool, from sheep to shop.
Some of our findings can be read here