The Cambridge Tapestry Co

Tapestry cartoon from which a tapestry would be woven
actual size of each panel 26in wide x 78in tall

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On January 4th 1900, Walter and Marian (Marie) married and went to lodge in Freewaters Cottage in Ickleford, Herts. Walter took up a teaching post in Hitchin – probably at the Literary and Mechanics Institute whilst Marie Witter, who was an expert needlewoman, carried out orders for embroidered trousseaux. She started teaching embroidery and needlework to the village schoolgirls at weekends and during holidays. As the girls left school they went to work with Marie Witter full time. During this time Walter interested local boys in the art of making beaten brass and copper work.

Their son Carr was born in 1902 and gradually the cottage began to bulge with school-leavers, needlecraft and metalwork so, in 1904, a workroom was put up in the meadow beside the cottage to house the 25 – 30 men and women employed in the business. A second building was then built in 1906 to create a workshop for the brass and copper work and a forge for the wrought iron.

The tapestry workroom was built with a platform at one end dressed with large curtains. Examples of the tapestry work was hung on the wall of the workroom. An article in ‘the Bedford Guardian’ dated 1909 described one item as a “Jacobean quilt for a state bed – 9ft x 7ft in size, made of stone coloured velvet and worked with an elaborate floral design in red and blue”.

Every year an exhibition of students’ work was held at the workshops and items were sold to friends, family and neighbours.

In 1908 a number of embroidery items were entered into the Franco-British exhibition and 5 bronze medals were won by the girls at the Ickleford Industries.(The Bedford Guardian, 1909)

The Gobelins Tapestry Workshop, (a world famous tapestry company) also exhibited at the Franco-British exhibition in 1908 and sometime between 1911 and the outbreak of World War 1 the Witter’s were visited by Monsieur Gonnet, head of the Gobelins tapestry workshop in France. He came with his wife and two daughters and, as a result, two of Gobelin’s most experienced weavers were sent over from France for six months to teach the Ickleford girls the art of hand-loom weaving and restoration. This provided another avenue for the weavers in Ickleford.

The earliest tapestries coming for repair in Ickleford were first washed in the nearby river Hiz. The repairs became the most skilled of all the work done by the girls at Ickleford and these were carried out to a very high standard. Local gentry frequently came to visit The Industries, which soon became widely known.

1915 brought an increase in business in Ickleford, but now female labour was in short supply and so was large loom space. As a result, in 1916, the Cambridge Tapestry Company Ltd was founded, with four directors, including Frank Tibbenham who Walter Witter had worked with during the lean times just before the First World War and the company moved to Cambridge.

The company bought the big house in Thompson’s Lane, Cambridge, (No. 30) which had ‘very adequate’ outbuildings at the back for tapestry workrooms. At this time there was little work for girls in Cambridge so the Cambridge Tapestry Company was a welcome addition to the area although supervisors were brought from Ickleford to maintain standards.

The company remained at Thompson’s Lane until it ceased trading in the early 1940s. However, during the economic slump of the late 1920s Thompson’s Lane was sold to Magdelene College. Part of the building was then rented back from the college. This enabled the company to continue trading at a difficult time.

Curiously, in 1943 part of the garage premises at the rear of Thompson’s Lane Cambridge with entrance to Quay side, was sublet to the ‘the Secretary of State for air’ as part of the war effort!

In the 1920s much of the work done by the Cambridge Tapestry Company consisted of repair and restoration work on tapestries from many of the great houses around the UK and Ireland.

Amongst the records is a letter to the Castle Office in Kilkenny, Ireland discussing the restoration of 4 panels from the Castle. Unfortunately the panels are not described and no records remain to confirm what was being repaired.

Tapestry chair cover (RG10)

In addition to restoration work, upholstery design and manufacture accounted for a significant proportion of the work undertaken by the girls of the Cambridge Tapestry Company.

Click here for more examples of the tapestry work of The Cambridge Tapestry Company Ltd

{insert image of Carr Witter at Cambridge}

Sadly in 1928, Walter Witter died after a long illness and Carr Witter, Walter’s son took over the business as Managing Director. Although Carr was not an artist, he had grown up in the atmosphere of the business and his knowledge of tapestry and tapestry restoration was far ranging.

Almost immediately Carr faced a crisis at the Cambridge Tapestry Company Ltd. In 1929 the world slump began. By this time approximately half of the company’s trade was with America. The directors were faced with a very serious problem, whether to make their workers redundant, or, as they were trained and skilled in the craft, to try and retain them and hope for a revival of trade.

In 1930 it was decided to try to keep the work force going by making stock (needlework upholstery for Tibbenhams reproduction furniture) but a big cut had to come in the Cambridge staff and Ickleford dwindled to nothing.

Tapestry panel made for Lord Fairhaven of Anglesey Abbey (MP23)

In 1931 a major commission from Lord Fairhaven of Anglesey Abbey, Lode, Cambridgeshire provided welcome business for the company. He ordered a tapestry panel to be designed and woven picturing an aerial view of his country house and the surrounding countryside, with a border of flowers, birds and animals all to be found in the grounds.

Also, in 1931, the Cambridge Tapestry Company Ltd, was employed to restore some of the Castleboro panels created by Lady Carew and hung in Girton College Cambridge. These were originally worked on a satin ground, but within a few years of their installation in the Reception Room the natural fibres in the fine silk warp must have perished, partly as a result of the varying levels of temperature and humidity and partly under the force of gravity, compounded in no small measure by the weight of the densely embroidered areas. The Cambridge Tapestry Company Ltd cut out the needlework and skilfully applied it to a cotton or linen twill with such success that “…it is difficult to tell without close inspection that the embroidery has been transferred.” (Girton College Annual Review 2011, p28)

Bedfordshire Guides County Standard

In 1932 The Cambridge Tapestry Company Ltd was approached by the Bedfordshire Girl Guides to make their County Standard. This appeared for the first time at the Jamborally in Ampthill Park at Whitsun, 1933 when it was dedicated by the Bishop of St. Albans. This was used until 2004 when a new standard was introduced.

The design cost five guineas and the materials and embroidery £26. The Coat of Arms those of Bedford, the wavy lines are the River Ouse and the silver circles the Guide County badge. The lace bobbins represent an old Bedfordshire industry. (source: Girlguiding Bedfordshire)

Tapestry commissioned by Queen Mary for George V
Actual size:10ft x 8ft

In January 1934, H.M. Queen Mary honoured the company with a visit. She was impressed with the panel created for Lord Fairhaven and by the restoration work undertaken by the weavers of the Cambridge Tapestry Company. In February of the following year a panel was commissioned by Queen Mary and friends of King George V to celebrate the Silver Jubilee of his reign. Visits were made by Carr Witter to Windsor Great Park and Belvedere Castle to take photographs and make sketches of key landmarks to be included in the tapestry.

A cartoon was created from the sketches and photos by Clifford Barber, who joined The Cambridge Tapestry Company Ltd as a young artist, there he was trained in the drawing-office, in the techniques of painting for tapestry weaving. Professor Wace, Deputy Keeper in the Department of Textiles in the Victoria and Albert Museum (1924-1934), and the College of Heralds provided advice on the heraldic aspects of the design and verified the authenticity of the design.

Unfortunately King George V died just before the tapestry was completed but Queen Mary took a keen interest in its production and on completion it was hung in the Guards Chamber Appartments of Windsor Castle in a position specified by the King before his death.

Before taking its place in the Guards Chamber at Windsor Castle, the tapestry was exhibited for a week at Messrs. Spink & Son Ltd at Kings Street, St James’ London.

In 1936 Clifford Barber wrote two articles which appeared in ‘The Master Key’ magazine. The first provides a detailed descripition of the elements that make up the Silver Jubilee Tapestry:
(click here to see a copy of the article).

The second provides a detailed description of the processes involved in the design and production of any large scale tapestry using the Silver Jubilee tapestry as an example. This article also describes the type of loom used by The Cambridge Tapestry Company Ltd
(click here to see a copy of the article).

Staff involved in the production of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee Tapestry were:

Weavers: Ellen May Nichols; Sylvia Corby; Ethel Millicent Lander;
Dorothy Maud Pettit; Elsie Doris Blunt; Alice Evelyn Haylett
Supervisor: Hilda M Lister

Coronation thrones commissioned for George VI and Queen Elizabeth
(the late Queen Mother)

After the death of King George V in 1935, The Cambridge Tapestry Company Ltd was commissioned to embroider the coronation thrones for the coronation of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth (Elizabeth the Queen Mother).

More detailed pictures of the designs, taken at the time the chairs were commissioned, can be found here

Announcing the takeover of Cambridge Tapestry Co.

Even though the Coronation helped to stimulate trade the tapestry and needlework business did not pay its way and Carr Witter had to resort to drastic measures in 1939. All of the canvases and designs together with a stock of wools and silks were donated to Lady Smith-Dorrien, of the Royal School of Needlework who had been a great supporter of the company.

This effectively marked the end of The Cambridge Tapestry Company Ltd, but Lord Fairhaven and Louis Clark (of the FitzWilliam) were anxious to keep the nucleus of weavers together.

They did this under the direction of Arthur Baldrey and they renamed the company, The Tapestry Company. Clifford Barber also remained and designed another smaller panel for Lord Fairhaven, which can also be found in Anglesey Abbey. This could be the Fairhaven coat of arms created by the ‘Cambridge Tapestry Weavers’ in 1939 currently in Anglesey Abbey but not sure!

A further panel was started of Glamis Castle, but only about one foot was woven by 1942 – materials were non existent and the company was disbanded. Another casualty of War!

Staff at The Cambridge Tapestry Company

Unfortunately, details of people who worked for The Ickleford Industries and the Cambridge Tapestry Company are few and far between. Some of the staff who worked in the design office are detailed below.

Arthur Baldrey was one of the key members of staff who remained with the company throughout it’s existance. He joined the office staff as a school leaver but rose through the ranks. By 1934 Arthur was a Director of the Cambridge Tapestry Company and he was still there when the company was wound up in the early 1940s.

Clifford Barber was another key member of staff. He joined the Cambridge Tapestry Company as a young artist, where he was trained in the drawing-office, in the techniques of painting for tapestry weaving. Clifford went on to play a major role in the design of several of the major original works created by the Cambridge Tapestry Company: The Anglesey Abbey tapestry designed for Lord Fairhaven; The Windsor Castle tapestry, commisioned to celebrate the silver jubilee of King George V and a third tapestry commisioned for Glamis Castle, which unfortunately was never completed due to the demise of the company.

Kenneth Baldwin-Smith was another designer who worked for the Cambridge Tapestry Company for a period of time. He was also involved in the design of the Anglesey Abbey tapestry. (source: Ashley Baldwin-Smith – great grandson of Kenneth)

Weavers of the Ickleford Industries and The Cambridge Tapestry Company

At its height some newspapers reported that the Cambridge Tapestry Company employed up to 160 girls and 40 designers (Birmingham Mail 20/11/1934).

These are the names of staff known to have worked at either the Ickleford Industries of Applied Arts or the Cambridge Tapestry Company

Miss Lilian Burrows
Miss May Burrows (later married Tom Newbury)
Miss K Mckenna
Miss Nellie Brown
Miss R Allbone
Miss M Dilney
Miss M Palmer
Miss M Clements
Miss M Barnes
Miss D Olney
Miss Ivy Tooley
Miss Ethel Smith
Miss M Hudson
Miss E L Shaw
Miss Madeline Warren (Secretary to Walter Witter)
Miss Freda Chamberlain
Miss Ena Chamberlain
Miss Eveline Chamberlain
Miss Hilda Chamberlain


It is not known whether all those who took part in the Concert and Tableaux held at the Ickleford Industries worked for the Industries but it seems likely that many were employed by the Witters.

Those who took part included:
Miss L Tarrier
Miss N Tarrier
Miss P Izzard
Miss W Izzard
Miss A Izzard
Miss W Olney
Miss D Olney
Miss E Hibbert
Miss K Morgan
Mrs Bennett
Mrs Wells
G P Roberts
Miss E Tarrier
Miss M Walker
Miss T Bygrove
Miss E Hackle
Miss K Norman
Miss R Walker
Miss M Farr 

Copyright: M. J. S. Price, 2012-22 All Rights Reserved

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