Our Heritage

History of Warner & Sons

Benjamin Warner, founder of Warner & Sons

Entrepreneurial Beginnings 1840s-1850s

The founder of Warner & Sons, Benjamin Warner, grew up in the textile industry. Inheriting the family business of building Jacquard loom harnesses aged only eleven years old, upon the death of his father, Benjamin Warner was raised surrounded by the instruments of weaving. His mother, Ann Warner, led the family company until Benjamin Warner was old enough, and experienced enough, to take on the management of the business.

In 1857, Benjamin Warner was in the position to expand. His first major purchase was the card-cutting and Jacquard machine-making firm of Alphonse Burnier. Warner purchased the stock, equipment, and thousands of designs. Burnier remained to pass on his industry knowledge for a month after the purchase. By 1861, Benjamin Warner employed 33 women, and 12 men.

Expansion and Partnerships 1860s-1890s

Building upon his success, Benjamin Warner led partnerships with several like-minded businessmen in the late-nineteenth century. First joining forces with William Folliott, a prominent figure in the silk weaving industry, for two years in 1867.

Quickly following this venture, Benjamin Warner collaborated with Charles Sillett and Wager Charles Ramm, launching Warner, Sillett and Ramm in c.1870 as furniture silk manufacturers.

Sillett became unwell within the first few years of the partnership and retired in 1874, passing away shortly afterwards. While Benjamin Warner had invested the largest sum of money in the partnership, the remaining partner, Wager Charles Ramm, had been working in silk weaving from 1849 and had a vast knowledge of the trade.

‘Adamite’.  Attributed to Owen Jones, 1874, handwoven silk.

‘Stalbridge’, Originally manufactured by Keith & Co, and then produced by Norris & Co, before transferring to Warner & Sons production.

Charles Norris & Co. 1885

Warner & Ramm developed a prosperous business, and were able to boost their increasingly high standing in the silk manufacturing industry through the acquisition of the firm Charles Norris & Co in 1885.

Norris and Co had a long history of supplying silks to royalty, and it is likely that this purchase was the catalyst for Warner & Ramm to begin providing textiles to Queen Victoria.

When Warner & Ramm acquired Norris & Co the assets also contained what remained of the dissolved furniture silk manufacturers Daniel Keith & Co which Norris & Co had acquired in 1868. Furthermore, the assets also included those that remained of Messrs Wilsons of Wood Street, the firm credited with introducing the Jacquard loom into the UK in 1816, who Keith & Co had purchased in the early-nineteenth century.

Through the purchase of Norris & Co, Warner & Ramm were able to obtain the designs of three individual companies in one action.

Warner & Sons 1891

The partnership between Wager Charles Ramm and Benjamin Warner was dissolved in 1891.

Benjamin Warner’s two sons, Alfred and Frank, had undertaken extensive training in silk manufacture, and it was at this point that they joined the company with their father, which was then styled as Warner & Sons; silk manufacturers and upholsterers warehousemen.

The Duchess of Teck visits Warner & Sons in 1893 in London with her daughter, Princess May. Warner & Sons were commissioned to weave the white silk for the wedding dress of Princess May, who married the future King George V.

New Mills, Braintree, from an advertisement for Daniel Walters & Sons in 1877.

Daniel Walters & Sons, Braintree 1895

Throughout the nineteenth century, Daniel Walters & Sons had been the dominant firm in furniture silk manufacture. In the 1850s, while Benjamin Warner was building up his company, Daniel Walters & Sons employed more than two hundred people at their large mill in Braintree, Essex. In 1822, Daniel Walters had purchased Pound End Mill in Braintree from Samuel Courtauld III, and it was from this site that Daniel Walters & Sons established their specialist manufacture of furnishing silks. By 1875, Daniel Walters & Sons had built one of the first, and largest, factories in the UK for the weaving of silks, known as New Mills.

In 1894, a deal was made between Daniel Walters & Sons and Warner & Sons, whereby the latter would acquire the factory buildings, equipment, textile samples and artwork of the former. Warner & Sons paid £77,653 in 1894 to acquire Daniel Walters & Sons, the equivalent of approximately £7 million in 2022. Warner & Sons moved the majority of their business to New Mills, Braintree.

The British Silk Industry 1907 – 1912

Benjamin Warner continued to take an active role in the management of Warner & Sons until his death in 1908. His obituary in the Drapers Record announced; ‘The deceased gentleman had not been inaptly styled an artist in silk; he took delight in the production of beautiful goods which would reflect credit on the workman no less than on the country of their origin. Until the day of his death Mr Warner maintained an interest in the welfare of the silk industry.’

Benjamin Warner’s sons, Alfred and Frank, took on the management of the company upon their father’s death, with Frank Warner leading the business for the first part of the twentieth century. Frank Warner continued his father’s legacy of advocating for the British silk industry as an examiner for silk weaving at the City and Guilds London Institute, frequently giving lectures on developing education on silk manufacturing and designing, and was President of the Silk Association from 1910-1917.

Exhibitions would play an important part in the promotion of Warner & Sons, and furnishing fabrics more broadly. Firms would often display their most elaborate and technically complex designs at these trade showcases.

A significant exhibition that Frank Warner was responsible for organising was The Silk Exhibition in 1912, held in Knightsbridge to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Silk Association. The exhibition included a diverse mixture of 60 exhibitors that featured displays on the rearing of silk worms, Jacquard loom processes, furnishing designs and companies that manufactured finished products.

Part of the Warner & Sons display showing a master weaver working a loom at the exhibition of British silk hosted by the Silk Association of Great Britain and Ireland at the Prince’s Skating Club, Knightsbridge, in June 1912. Warner & Sons had the largest stand of any company at this exhibition.

‘Directoire’ is block Printed by hand by an expert c.1932 at Dartford Print Works. This design required 70 blocks to complete the pattern.

Manufacturing Growth in the 1920s

Warner & Sons continued to grow its product development and manufacturing processes throughout the 1920s. In 1919, powerweaving was introduced at New Mills which allowed for the increase in production volume of certain designs.

The increase in demand for printed furnishing fabrics led to the purchase of a printworks in Dartford, Kent, in 1927 where handblocked cottons and linens could be manufactured.

Modern Design in the 1930s

When Frank Warner died in 1930, his son-in-law, Ernest Goodale, took over the management of Warner & Sons. Goodale would remain Managing Director for more than 30 years, leading the company through the challenges of the economic difficulties of the 1930s, and World War Two.

Goodale was instrumental in establishing the reputation of Warner & Sons as not only a manufacturer of furnishing silks and printed designs, but also of modern patterns suitable for new homes of the era.

The order for around 25% of all the furnishing fabrics used on-board RMS Queen Mary, the Cunard-White Star Line passenger ship launched in 1936 allowed Warner & Sons to promote their new geometric powerwoven fabrics.

Warner & Sons advertisement c.1936. Illustrating a selection of the designs used throughout the RMS Queen Mary.

Designed in c.1946 and produced as both a print and a weave, ‘Framlingham’ was displayed at the ‘Britain Can Make It’ exhibition in 1946 held at the V&A. The design showcases the post-war change in interiors textiles design from the bold simplicity of the 1930s to a lighter and more elegant style of design inspired by nature, but including more unusual motifs such as leaf skeletons, thorns and stalks.

Wartime Restrictions 1930s-1950s

During World War Two Warner & Sons were permitted to continue supplying furnishing fabrics for the international market; with USA and Australia being key customers.

When the Advisory Committee on Utility Furniture was initiated in World War Two, Warner & Sons were given the commission to manufacture the higher quality woven furnishing fabric for the rationing scheme.

Warner & Sons also adapted many of their looms to enable them to weave parachute silk, cartridge bag cloth, material for shell covers, and cap bands and arm badges for the Royal Navy.

After the war ended, Warner & Sons continued to manufacture the Utility scheme fabrics throughout the 1950s while rationing persisted. The 1950s was a period of recovery, with new optimistic designs proving popular with customers.

Events such as the ‘Britain Can Make It’ exhibition in 1946, and the Festival of Britain in 1951 allowed Warner & Sons to showcase their design aptitude after years of austerity.

Technical Developments 1960s-1971

Leonard St. John Tibbitts, grandson of Frank Warner, took over the direction of Warner & Sons at the retirement of Ernest Goodale in the 1960s. At the helm of the company until 1984, Tibbitts would be the final Warner descendant to manage the business. Tibbitts actively progressed the exclusive production of printed fabrics for high-profile decorators including Colefax & Fowler, Jean Monro and George Spencer.

The turbulent economic climate in the 1970s impacted many major industries in the UK. Warner & Sons were adversely affected by a decline in orders, competition from cheaper overseas alternatives, the rise in popularity of DIY, and the trend in minimalism in home furnishing. These issues combined to force the production of weaving to cease at New Mills in 1971.

St. John Tibbitts understood the value of the vast history of Warner & Sons, and the fabric samples and records that the company had retained. Tibbitts ensured that the collections built up over the course of more than a hundred years of trading were preserved. He employed the first Archivist at Warner & Sons, Hester Bury, who began a process of organising the archives.

St. John Tibbetts with owner of American textiles firm Greeff, Theodore ‘Teddy’ Greeff, c.1970

‘Frieze’ was designed in 1955 by Dan Rasmussen and was part of the first Warner & Sons and Greeff collaboration.

Greeff Fabrics c.1970s-1980s

Since the 1950s Warner & Sons had collaborated with American firm, Greeff to produce a series of designs to be sold in the USA and UK.

Greeff was founded by Theodore Greeff in 1933, and had begun a relationship with Warner & Sons early on to supply their American market.

This successful partnership led to Greeff acquiring Warner & Sons when the production at New Mills became unviable, and continued to develop printed designs and outsource woven fabrics.

New Beginnings for the Warner Textile Archive 2004 – 2020s

By 1990, the entire Warner & Sons operation had moved to Milton Keynes, the headquarters of Walker Greenbank PLC, who then owned the firm. Walker Greenbank retained the Warner & Sons collection until 2004, when they sold the archive to Braintree District Museum Trust, who had raised £2.6 million to save the collection for the nation.
The Warner Textile Archive was returned to Braintree, located in part of New Mills, where Warner & Sons had begun trading in 1895. Braintree District Museum Trust continues to safeguard the collection for the public and provide access to a vital aspect of textile manufacturing heritage. Through commercial licensing and collaborative projects, designs from the Warner Textile Archive continue to be seen at leading decorating businesses across the globe who value the breadth of design and historical significance of the collection.

Behind the scenes at the Warner Textile Archive.