Alloway and Southern Ayrshire FAMILY HISTORY SOCIETY Robert Burns Cottage, Alloway, Ayr
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Thursday, 19 February 2015

17 February 2015 - "The Fenwick Weavers"

Over 20 members attended an interesting talk on the "Fenwick Weavers" given by Jim O'Neill a director of the reformed Fenwick Weavers Co-operative Ltd.

Much research on the history of the Fenwick Weavers was carried out by John Smith who lived in the town, but who died before his booklet telling "The Fenwick Weavers Story" was published.  The idea for the research was triggered by a little girl's question as to why there were many memorials to the Covenanters, but none to the Fenwick Weavers.

The town of Fenwick lies on the road between Ayr and Glasgow - the land being boggy for agriculture it was weaving which became the main industry. Up to the 18th century, the life of the ordinary people was largely determined by local gentry and landowners. There was a strong Covenanting tradition in the Fenwick area, which introduced the inhabitants to alternative ways of doing things - and the need to keep them quiet.  From the mid 1700s there were a lot of ideas in the air - Thomas Paine was writing pamphlets, the future would bring both the American War of Independence and the French Revolution.

From 1758 in Fenwick, the hand-loom weavers met frequently at the village water pump where the women could gather around it without suspicion while the men met on the other side of the "Parliament Wall" and could be warned if they needed to disperse.  Although the enlightenment had improved the education system, the hand-loom weavers did not have an easy life.  With the threat of the industrial revolution the need to avoid paying too much for their raw materials and to obtain fair prices for their finished cloth became more and more of a problem.  Co-operation seemed the best solution and they decided to form a society where they would have collective power.

In 1761, sixteen weavers and apprentice weavers were afforded sanctuary in the Church to sign the Charter which had been drawn up for them by William Brown, Lawyer of Kilmarnock. The principles included honesty, fair pricing, majority decisions, regular contributions to a poor fund and member admission charge to the society of two shillings and sixpence (12.5 pence). This original charter can still be seen at the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh along with the full record books of the Fenwick Weavers Society which was gifted to the library by Andrew Fowlds MP, a descendant of one of the original weavers.  This establishes the fact that the Fenwick Weavers Society is now recognised as "the first co-operative worldwide for which there are full written records" by the International Co-operative Alliance.

The weavers were not only concerned with their working lives.  Loans were made to members - a forerunner of the Credit Unions we know today.  They had the idea of buying in bulk from Kilmarnock and then selling at a fair price to non-members as well as members in the village.  In 1769 the first "Co-operative shop" was set up and their records show there was only one year in which they made a loss.  In 1808 they set up a library.  John Fulton a local shoemaker, with the aid of books borrowed from the library, educated himself in astronomy and mathematics.  He went on to build one of the finest Orrerys in the world - by melting-down his mother's brass candlesticks.

In 1834 the society helped to set up a "Fenwick Improvement of Knowledge Society" which supported such things as the abolition of slavery and equal rights for women. In 1846 Frederick Douglass, an escaped American slave who later went on to become a prominent campaigner for the abolition of slavery, came to Fenwick where he gave speech to a large crowd.

The outlook for home weaving was becoming bad so the Weavers set up an Emigration Society in 1839. This successfully helped members to emigrate to many different parts of the World, carrying their co-operative ideals with them.  This led to the reduction of the population of the village from ~2000 down to ~500 and ultimately led to closure of the Fenwick Weavers Society by the remaining three members in 1873.

The most famous son of the village was probably Sir George Fowlds who learned the weaving business from his father.  After working in a drapery in Glasgow, George emigrated to South Africa.  However, he and his wife, Mary Ann Fulton, decided that life in South Africa was too harsh and in 1885 set off for New Zealand.  After founding a successful business he moved into public life where he put into practice the values and principles of the Weavers Society learned from his father.  He was elected to Parliament and joined the government as Minister for Education and Public Health in 1906.  In 1911 he resigned from active politics, but went on to be involved in a huge number of Societies such as the Red Cross, Auckland University and many more.  He was knighted in 1928 and died in 1934 with his remains returning to Fenwick for burial beside those of his parents.

George's father, Matthew Fowlds, born in 1806 and died in 1907, was one of the last active Fenwick Weavers Society members up to its eventual closing in 1873.  He achieved his centenary and a grand celebration was held at the George Hotel in Kilmarnock. 

The new Fenwick Weavers Co-operative was formed in 2007 and have a website at In this, they describe the work being done to maintain the old houses and the Heritage trail around the village.

John Weston

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