Skip to main content

THE WOOLLEN INDUSTRY IN HAY UP to the present nothing has been recorded in detail about the woollen industry in Hay-on-Wye largely because the available information is so widely scattered and often in private hands. As a result Geraint Jenkins in The Welsh Woollen Industry makes only passing reference to the Hay factories and Minchington in his paper in the 1961 issue of Brycheiniog merely mentions their existence without comment. However, from the numerous but scattered references to the Hay mills discovered by the author in the past few years, it has become clear that the woollen industry in Hay was much more important than has previously been imagined. The mill was started by a THOMAS HOWELLS towards the end of the 17th century but little is known of his ancestry. It seems likely, however, that he was the son of JOHN HOWELLS of Leintwardine in Herefordshire close to the Radnor border and that he was the nephew of a GEORGE HOWELLS who was baptised in Hay church in 1740 thus establishing THOMAS' connection with the town. About 1760 he and his brother WILLIAM and their father left Wales for London to train and work as clockmakers and it was there that he met and married SUSANNAH BEASLEY in 1772. Shortly after this in 1775 they came to Hay where THOMAS set up shop in Castle Street as a watch maker and is so recorded in Peate's Clock and Watchmakers of Wales, changing over to woollen manufacture shortly afterwards. Unfortunately THOMAS HOWELLS does not seem to have kept a journal nor have his accounts books survived so it is not certain when he changed from clockmaking to wool-weaving, but it would probably be before 1780. Certainly his skills as a clockmaker would be invaluable as he would have had to design and build his own machinery at that time. It is possible that he may have absorbed some of the weavers made redundant from Howell Harris' abortive experiment at Trefecca. According to THOMAS HOWELLS' great-grandson, W. D. Howells the distinguished American novelist1 who visited Hay in 1883, there were then three separate mills in the complex. The first, embodying the sorting, washing, dyeing and carding of the raw wool together with the spinning and weaving sections, was in premises on the north side of Castle Street, now occupied by H. R. Grant & Sons, Newsagents and Stationers. The present shop was used by THOMAS for his retail business and the old mill building stretched out to the back as far as Belmont Road, being described by W. D. Howells as 'a well preserved stone edifice of four or five stories', still well-preserved nearly 100 years later. It suffered from the grave disadvantage of having no stream anywhere near to drive a water wheel, so all the processes there must have been hand-operated. Nevertheless it was still in use