The origins of the factory based tweed industry in Dumfriesshire are to be found in the domestic wool trade, notably in handloom weaving of coarse cloth and plaiding. The existence of textile skills in the community and the success of firms in the hosiery trade were important growth factors. Tweed weaving in Dumfries dates from 1846, when Robert Scott & Sons took over a large factory, formerly a sawmill, at Kingholm Quay on the Nith, about a mile south of Dumfries. At the outset fine-yarn spinning for the hosiery trade was the main activity, but shortly after the opening of the factory John M'Keachie, a damask weaver in Maxwelltown joined the firm and supervised the experimental weaving of tweed.
By this time tweed was already well known and the
traditional designs had become popular with rich and poor alike.
Scott's invested substantial capital in tweed production and
development was rapid. The firm built a second tweed factory,
Nithsdale Mills, in Dumfries, in 1857.
In 1866 the partnership erected an enormous plant, Troqueer Mills, on the Maxwelltown side of the Nith. The firm of Walter Scott & Sons now owned all three tweed mills in Dumfries and employed 1,400 workers on 35,000 spindles and 400 looms, producing 10,000 yards of tweed each month. Most of the raw wool was imported from Australia and New Zealand. At this period the firm was the largest manufacturer of tweeds in Scotland.
Another big development took place in the mid 1880s when Samuel Charteries, who had worked on the commercial side of the tweed industry, and Robert Spence, a former designer, took over St Michael's Mills, a smaller factory built around1868. In 1885 they purchased the Rosefield estate, adjacent to Troqueer Mills in Maxwelltown and built Rosefield Mills, one of the largest tweed factories in Scotland. The mills housed 180 power looms, and by 1906 this huge plant employed over 700 people. By now the entire Dumfries tweed industry had shifted to the west bank of the River Nith and was concentrated in the two firms of Walter Scott & Sons and Charteries, Spence & Co.
The wool used in these mills was largely imported from New Zealand, and the finished product was sent to London, Glasgow and Manchester, and from there onto Europe, America, India and Australia. Some tweed was sent direct from Dumfries to France, Russia and the United States.
These developments in Dumfries radically altered the regional woollen industry. Many of the small, water-driven mills disappeared, although a few survived into the twentieth century and some were extensively altered and enlarged to assimilate the technical changes which the introduction of steam power demanded.
Dumfries experienced a period of economic prosperity in the 1870s and 1880s brought about by its tweed industry. Queen Victoria and the Royal Family had made Scottish textiles internationally fashionable. The town was now one of the largest tweed producers in the world with four mills and a workforce of almost 2,000. The wages paid to these workers raised the standard of living in the town. As well as the new tweed weaving factories, a whole range of impressive public buildings were built in the town.
A direct result of the growth of the tweed factories was the plan to build another bridge across the river. Much of the Town Council's effort during the early 1870s was spent in raising funds, and supervising the design and building of the bridge. It was a very popular project as it allowed the mill workers to cross the river to their work without having to walk along the length of the riverside. They did not have to rise so early in the mornings and could return home for lunch. The new Suspension Bridge was opened on New Year's Eve, 1875 with much public celebration.
The majority of the small tweed mills had either closed or been converted into hosiery factories before 1914, and when the First World War broke out the remaining mills were turned over to the manufacture of khaki and French army blue cloth. Sadly they were never to regain their markets, and tweed production had ceased altogether by 1930.
The companies involved in the manufacture of tweed in Dumfries were -
Robert Scott & Sons, Kingholm Mills
Founded in 1846, it had 200 workers.
Robert & Walter Scott, Nithsdale Mills
Founded in 1857 by Robert Scott's sons, the partnership ended in 1866. It had 352 workers.
Walter Scott, Troqueer Mills
Opened in 1866, it had 532 workers.
John Henderson, St Michael's Mills
Opened in 1868, it was a small enterprise, employing about 50 workers.
Charteries, Spence & Co., Rosefield Mills
Opened in 1885, this was the largest tweed mill in Dumfries with over 700 workers.