Witney is a busy town which became famous all over the world for its blanket making. It has an impressive Buttercross and Town Hall in Market Square, a large green leading to its parish church which dominates the view. Witney’s main street runs for nearly a mile to the green with a variety of stone buildings.
Situated on the River Windrush the water from the river is said to have particular qualities which contributed to the softness of its blankets.
In 1669 Thomas Early started making blankets at Witney and the family continued here for over two hundred years. In the 1930’s there were over five hundred looms and over one thousand people working in the industry. By the time Thomas was thirty years of age his blankets were famous, and he presented a pair edged in gold fringes to James II when the King visited Oxford in 1688. In 1711 the Witney weavers were granted a Charter by Queen Anne.
Blankets were exported to the Indians of Virginia and New England in the United States of America. At the Great Exhibition in 1851 John Early showed a patterned blanket which won him a bronze medallion and a certificate signed by Prince Albert.
The imposing Buttercross was built in 1683 at the point where three roads meet. It has thirteen stone pillars, a steep roof and four gables. The central pillar is thought to have been the column of the original preaching cross. Richard Ashcombe left £50 to the Bailiffs of Witney to be ‘bestowed and layed out in the building of a house over and above crosse of Witney’. The roof is topped by a clock turret and a sun dial which were placed there as a result of a bequest made by William Blake of Cogges. For many year’s women from neighbouring villages sold butter and eggs from stalls sheltered under its roof.
The Town Hall stands opposite the Buttercross. It dates to the eighteenth century and replaced an earlier building which stood on the site. It is said that it was designed by Sir William Chambers who also designed the town hall in Woodstock. The upper floor is supported on Tuscan columns and grain was sold under the arches until the new Corn Exchange was built in the seventeenth century.
Market Square leads to Church Green which is a wide spacious area with lime trees and stone buildings on each side.
St Mary’s Church was re-built in the first half of the thirteenth century. It incorporates parts of the nave and north porch of a Norman church. Its Early English tower and spire rises up 156 feet making it a landmark which is visible for miles around. Inside it has monuments to the Wenham family who were blanket makers in Witney, and the churchyard has the grave of Sergeant Major Patrick Moulder whose service during the Napoleonic Wars included the battles of Corunna, Vittoria, Toulouse, and the final defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo.
Witney is a market town which has many reminders of its wealth from blanket making, and a range of stone buildings.