Mechanisation and Thomas Hiliker
The mechanisation of the woollen trade gave Trowbridge a head start over its rivals, and because there were 17 factories and 3 dye houses operating in the town, Trowbridge became known as “The Manchester of the West“.
The opening of the Kennet and Avon canal in 1810 brought cheap coal into the town, which enabled factories and mills to adopt steam power, important as the river Biss flow was too weak to power machines. It is during this surge of mill building that the remnants of the castle site were removed and were likely recycled into other buildings in the town.
The introduction of mechanisation caused problems amongst the workers, and the shearman who finished the cloth were the most organised and vocal protesters. Littleton Mill in Semington was actually burnt down, and Thomas Hiliker (or Helliker, spellings vary as is often the case with old names) was hanged in 1803 for his alleged part in it. Although he was a sympathiser and was involved he was widely believed to have been made a scapegoat. He has since become a trade union martyr and his story has passed into local folklore – his large tomb – paid for through public subscription – can be seen in the churchyard of St James’s Church.
A contemporary transcription of Thomas Hiliker’s last letter – on display in Trowbridge Museum
The new factories created a massive migration of people from villages into the town, which in turn led to many other businesses catering for this influx to start up. Thomas Usher began brewing beer in Back Street in 1824 and Abraham Bowyer, a bacon curer, grew to be a major producer of meat products, sausage rolls and meat pies. Other local businesses such as Chapmans mattresses and Hadens (engineers) developed because of this newly industrialised landscape.