Shropshire Star

How Bridgnorth toiled to offer up gift to their Queen

For the diamond jubilee of Queen Victoria, Bridgnorth sent a beautiful gift, the fruit of over four months of toil by 14 women hand loom weavers, and the subject of many a royal walkover ever since.

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Women carpet weavers at Southwell's with the diamond jubilee carpet they created.

It was a spectacular rich crimson woollen carpet which was originally underfoot in the Throne Room at Buckingham Palace, and remains in the royal collection to this day.

But before being presented to Her Majesty, the people of Bridgnorth were given a chance to see it.

With the sad passing of Queen Elizabeth II, Britain's longest reigning monarch, Bridgnorth local historian Clive Gwilt has highlighted the town's part in honouring the reign of the previous longest reigning monarch, whose 60 years on the throne was marked by national celebrations in 1897.

The 1897 Diamond Jubilee carpet.

Victoria had been sovereign for 63 years and 216 days at the time of her death in 1901.

"On June 5, 1897, the diamond jubilee carpet made for the Queen was put on exhibition in the Drill Hall in St Mary’s Street for all the townsfolk to see," he says.

"Admission fees of £22 16s 10d were given to the Bridgnorth and South Shropshire Infirmary. The carpet was made at H & M Southwell Ltd’s factory and measured 18ft 2ins by 16ft 5ins. It contained 4,294,600 stitches."

Alas, in contrast to the spectacular design of the Bridgnorth carpet, which had many elements, a dip into the royal website reveals that today the Throne Room at Buckingham Palace has a red carpet which is essentially plain.

So where has the Bridgnorth royal carpet gone? It turns out it has been moved to a different location within the palace.

Lily Spicer of the Royal Collection Trust tells us: "I’m afraid we are unable to confirm for certain when the carpet was moved from the Throne Room, but it may have been during the reign of George V and Queen Mary when Queen Mary undertook considerable works at the palace.

"The carpet currently decorates a room in Buckingham Palace that is used for operational purposes."

Southwell's carpet factory in Bridgnorth

If you want to see it in situ, the RCT's website has a picture of it – we can't bring it to you ourselves as it is not available for media use.

As for the details of the carpet, the RCT describes it thus: "It was a crimson carpet with crowned animals at corners, representing the Empire, including a tiger, kangaroo, beaver and elephant, representing India, Canada, South Africa and Australia with a VR (Victoria Regina) monogram in the centre. It had borders of oak leaves and pink and mauve flowers entwined with blue ribbons and foliage.

"Designed by Herbert George on behalf of members of the royal family, it took 14 women four months to make. Once completed it was exhibited at South Kensington. The carpet was subscribed for by the ladies of England and presented to Queen Victoria on the occasion of her diamond jubilee."

It was by no means the last carpet Bridgnorth made for royalty, as Clive says that at the end of the First World War the firm also presented a victory carpet to the palace.

The turn of the 19th and 20th centuries were a golden age for carpet making in Bridgnorth. One 1907 guidebook for the town says its chief industry is carpet weaving “and the fame of Messrs. H. and M. Southwell’s carpets, including Brussels, Wiltons and Axminsters, has spread far and wide... Many carpets have been specially made here for the late Queen Victoria...

"Most of the carpets in the Houses of Parliament were supplied by this noted firm.”

Finely woven Axminster and Wilton carpets were shipped to every far-reaching corner of the world from the Far East, to America and Australia, and the best London hotels bought carpets from Bridgnorth.

As for Southwell's, by the 1930s the factory occupied a huge frontage on the river, and the company was one of the largest employers in the town.

But in 1944 it was sold off to the Carpet Manufacturing Company Ltd.

In the 1970s the carpet industry began to experience fierce competition from abroad and in 1971 a programme of rationalisation began within the company. Departments were closed, and ironically a “Bridgnorth” shed was opened in the company’s Kidderminster works.

The writing was on the wall, and in 1977 the factory closed. The buildings were demolished and houses were built on the site.

Bridgnorth's long carpet-making tradition came to a complete end in 1983 when the Debron carpet tile works in Friar Street was closed by parent company Carpets International.

But its link to the diamond jubilee of Queen Victoria remains. It was an event that brought great excitement to Bridgnorth just as it did to other towns across the West Midlands.

Old faded pictures remain of Bridgnorth's town centre bedecked in bunting and of dignitaries planting a tree alongside its leaning castle.

And, in a corner of Buckingham Palace, a little piece of the Shropshire town remains to this day.