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Nelson Historical Society Journal, Volume 3, Issue 6, October 1980

Putting the Record Straight — Nelson's Early Woollen Mills — Thomas Blick & Joseph Webley

Putting the Record Straight
Nelson's Early Woollen Mills
Thomas Blick & Joseph Webley

That Thomas Blick was the father of the New Zealand Woollen Industry is an undisputed fact. The story of the establishment of his mill in Upper Brook Street in June 1845 and the subsequent operation off and on for the next 12 years has been well documented by historians. Elsewhere in this Journal appears an article which tells the fascinating story of Blick's early beginnings. There has always been a grey area in the history of the Nelson Woollen Industry from 1857 to 1876 and after ten years research the writer hopes now "to put the record straight," as regards those years which till today have been ill recorded, if at all.

Thomas Blick lived in Tetbury Hill, Stroud, Gloucestershire until he left for New Zealand in 1842. Among his fellow Baptist worshippers and near neighbours, was Joseph Webley who, in 1857, received a letter from Blick asking him to consider coming out to Nelson and managing the Brook Street mill. Webley had a very good position as manager of a large mill in Stroud but the temptation was strong, and in October 1857 he set sail from London together with his wife and five children on the ship Cresswell of 575 tons arriving in Nelson on February 9th, 1858.

A short time later Joseph Webley, then aged 43, entered a partnership as Blick & Webley, for we find in the pages of the Examiner of the time, references to the mill in Brook Street and to the cloth from it under the title of Blick & Webley. So as to be near his workplace, Joseph Webley purchased a newly built house in Brook Street from William L. Wrey, later prominent in the Dun Mountain mining scheme.

The partnership was from all accounts amicable but when Thomas Blick died in November 1860 his sons did not wish to continue in partnership, so this was dissolved and Joseph Webley removed all the plant and machinery to new premises in Bridge Street opposite Trask Gates. The new factory was much more modern with machinery purchased in Sydney installed and steam power used for motivation.

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At this time Joseph Webley's elder brother was persuaded to emigrate and help in the mill. This Webley (James), and his five children (including the author's grandfather), left the English Channel on May 5th, 1861 and arrived in Nelson, August 31st. The trip was a nightmare, the ship being dismasted in a gale on July 5th off the Cape of Good Hope. Passengers did not disembark in Nelson for a few days, no reason is given. The ship was the Sir James Pollock of 570 tons. On his arrival in Nelson James Webley and Joseph Webley commenced as Webley & Sons, Steam Cloth Works.

The firm continued to trade successfully and established a very high standard of production earning a good reputation not only in New Zealand
Joseph Webley and his wife.– (Nelson Provincial Museum).

Joseph Webley and his wife.
– (Nelson Provincial Museum).

page 28but also abroad. The tweed cloth from their looms won a Silver Medal at the first Dunedin Exhibition and subsequently a Bronze Medal at Vienna, a Silver Medal at Christchurch and another at the Nelson Exhibition.

Though historians like Broad and others have apparently ignored or not researched Webley Cloth, the Nelson newspapers certainly saw fit to record their pleasure at the continuation and improvement of the mill and its products. The Examiner for instance, on February 12, 1859 carries an article referring to the fact that the manufacture of cloth in Nelson from wool grown in the Province has again been commenced, twice in the article is the name of Blick & Webley referred to. Also in the same issue a Joseph Webb, Tailor, of Trafalgar Square, advertises Nelson Cloth.

Numerous references are to be found in the files of the Colonist to Webley's Nelson Cloth. In March 1871 an article tells of the supply of an additional 100 yards to the Government for Volunteer uniforms. Again in 1872 a letter to the Editor extols the virtue of Nelson Tweed by a very satisfied Scottish sportsman.

Early Nelson Directories and Bartholomews Directory show advertisements for Webley Bros. Steam Cloth Works, Bridge Street, Nelson. Joseph Webley operated the mill with his sons and nephews until his retirement in 1871. His family carried on for some years but competition was becoming strong with the establishment of first the Mosgiel Woollen Mills followed by many others from 1871 onwards, and the Nelson Mill began to feel the pinch.

In 1876 Webley Bros. found the going too hard and no longer economic, so they ceased business. The buildings and land at Bridge Street were sold to a Mr S. Kirkpatrick who commenced his jam factory, and later moved to Vanguard Street. The machinery was sold to the Kaiapoi Woollen Company. Joseph Webley spent a short time working for them and supervising the installation of his machines.

The writer's father, S. S. Collier, was on a visit to the Kaiapoi Mill in the late 1940's and was shown some of the machines from the Nelson Woollen Mill still being used.

Webley's Nelson Cloth was of a very high quality tweed which compared favourably with English and Scottish products. During the factory's thirty-odd years existence, quality steadily improved, the cloth progressing from a tough wiry tweed suitable for work clothing to the fabric of later years sought after by good tailors of suits for town and country wear.

Some Biographical Notes on Joseph Webley

Joseph Webley, the woollen manufacturer of Nelson, was born at Tetbury Hill, in the village of Avening, Stroud, Gloucestershire, England, in 1815. His parents were Rev. Samuel b. 1782 and Hannah Webley.

Joseph was to have been a Baptist minister as was his father and he was page 29trained for the ministry, but he became a lay preacher. He learned the woollen trade and took the post of manager of a large woollen mill.

A plaque commemorating Samuel Webley's 37 year ministry in the Avening Baptist Church is placed on the wall of that building.

Joseph Webley was the first in New Zealand to manufacture really fine quality tweed as opposed to coarse cloth.

His first wife, Esther Tilling, who he had married in Stroud in 1840, died in Nelson 23.9.1884. Shortly afterwards he re-married, this time to Anne Elizabeth Poynter who died in Nelson in 1933.

In 1859 Webley and Blick sponsored a family named Mills to come and work at their mill. This family emigrated from Stroud.

Joseph Webley died in Vanguard Street, Nelson at his home, 27th June, 1891, aged 76, peacefully and of old age. His obituary is in the Colonist of June 29th, 1891. He is buried at the Wakapuaka Cemetery, Nelson.

His will was curious and interesting, detailing among other things a half tester bed which must have been rather big. His estate was divided amongst his widow and five children, Joseph, Joshua, William, Sarah and Ellen, many of whose descendents still live in Nelson to this day.

Postscript: Miss Hughes-Sparrow has found this quotation which forms a fitting conclusion to the two articles on Nelson's pioneer wool manufacturing.

From the New Zealand Herald, 17 February, 1875.

Woollen Trade Pirates

The advances that have been made in perfecting the manufacture of woollen clothes at Nelson have been so considerable and the quality of the articles produced so excellent, that more than one Home firm (to their shame be it mentioned) have shipped out to the Colony large quantities of cloth marked "Nelson tweed."

The difference between the real Nelson tweed and the spurious shipments from London and Liverpool is that the former is all wool and the latter all, or nearly cotton.

The material of the one will hold together for years, while the latter betrays its poverty and falls to pieces in a few weeks.

So again we learn that the woollen manufacturers of Dunedin are being pirated in England and sold in England as "Otago pure Merino wool manufactured in New Zealand," all of which is very dishonest, but it nevertheless proves this much: That woollen goods of a certain class manufactured in the colonies are preferred, both in England and other places, to those of British production.