The Flax Industry

The Flax Industry

in and around Yeovil


For centuries flax had been grown in the fields surrounding Yeovil and was a major local crop. The steady decline of the flax industry received a boost at the time of the Great War since flax was needed for covering the aircraft frames for the nascent Royal Flying Corps.

See also - Bunford Flax Factory and Preston Plucknett Flax Works


The following account is reproduced here courtesy of Richard Sims.

Flax Growing in and around Yeovil

Developments 1909-1920
The 1909 Development Act was intended to give financial assistance to agriculture and rural areas. The cultivation of flax was one of the crops chosen. Development Commissioners were appointed under the Act to see if flax growing could be made viable again.

One of the Commissioners visited Job Gould in 1911 seeking his advice on the subject. Consequent to that visit was the setting up of the British Flax and Hemp Growers Society in July 1913. Early that year some 45 acres of flax were sown in the parishes of Bradford Abbas, East Coker, Preston Plucknett, Odcombe and Middle Chinnock; the Yeovil area having been chosen because of its long history of flax growing.

The 45 acres of flax sown yielded a harvest of 103¼ tons of flax straw and 9¾ tons of flax seed. Around the same amount was grown the following year. On harvesting, the crops were bought by the Commission and taken to the Abbey Farm of Thomas Hawkins, at Preston Plucknett, for processing. Heavy wooden rollers were used to press out the flaxseed (linseed) oil before the flax was retted in tanks of warm water, specially built for the purpose. It was decided that to make this practicable, the farmer would simply grow and harvest the flax, with it then being sent to separate processing units, such as at Preston Plucknett.

As the acreage of flax was increased in 1916, there was a need to recruit workers to process it. Advertisements for dressers and hacklers appeared in the local papers and later on in the year another for 20 women to pull the flax. The British Flax and Hemp Growers Society was also considering extending their factory at Abbey Farm, to include a new scutching machine, advertising for workmen for scutching and retting. This resulted in the new factory at Bunford.

To help with the harvesting of the flax, some 60 boys from Bristol Grammar School, many of whom cycled from the city, were brought down to South Petherton, camping there.

The following year the Society was advertising for farmers within ten miles of Yeovil to plant 400 acres of flax, for which they would pay £7 per ton. This needed an increase in the number of people needed to pull the flax. Some 400 women were needed for five weeks of the harvesting. They were paid 30/- per acre with accommodation and food provided by the Women’s Land Service Corps. In the end, over 100 women were lodging at Barwick House courtesy of the Messiter Estate. In addition, 105 soldiers from the Home Service Battalion of the Yorkshire Regiment were billeted in the surrounding villages from which they were transported by motor vehicles to the fields. It had been hoped to use a flax pulling machine from Ireland, but a shortage of spare parts prevented that from working. New depots at South Petherton and Lopen had been opened where de-seeding and dew retting would take place before the straw was taken to Abbey Farm for processing further.

With the uncertainty caused by the Russian Revolution on the supply of flax, it was decided by the Government to take over all flax growing, offering a fixed price of 25s to 35s per stone. The aim was to increase the supply of flax needed for covering the aircraft frames for the newly emerging Royal Flying Corps as well as the usual shirts, collars and cloth. Thus, from 1 January 1918, the Preston Plucknett and Bunford factories came under the control of the Board of Agriculture, Flax Production Branch, with Jesse Crumpler of North Coker in command.

South Somerset Textile Industry
In 1918 it was intended that a further increase in the amount of flax grown would be made and there were adverts placed to recruit farmers. In the event, some 3,460 acres of flax was grown.

To harvest this amount, some 1,000 workers were required. This was a complex task with preparations being completed in June. Weeding of the crop was undertaken by 120 local Boy Scouts and local women. Pulling needed some 2,000 or more women to be taken from Universities and Colleges. 563 were billeted in a tented camp at Barwick Park, 217 at Ilchester, 238 at Lenthay, Sherborne, 110 at Milborne Down, 74 at Gillingham, 514 at Hinton St. George, 268 at Wellington, 228 at South Petherton and four camps in Bridport with 85 in each. In addition, at Dorchester, use was made of 300 German POWs, who also helped in the preparation of the camps.

The pulled flax was taken to be processed at Yeovil, Dorchester, Bridport, Lopen and Taunton. While deseeding took place at Beaminster and West Chinnock.

With the war coming to an end, the long-term future of flax growing came under scrutiny. There was pressure to ensure that it had a business footing in future. The British Flax and Hemp Growers Society were still seeking grants to continue its programme started under the Board of Agriculture. There was a problem of recruitment of seasonal workers and complaints from local farmers that the Society was paying high wages and taking away workers from local farms.

In 1919, with the war over, the growing of flax was seen as a commercial operation, with the recruitment of seasonal flax workers down to the individual farmers. No women’s camps were arranged, with some farmers putting up tents and others providing lodgings on their farms. They also had to advertise for workers through the local labour exchange. With some 4,800 acres of flax being grown, it was expected that between 1,000 and 1,200 workers would be needed. They would be working in gangs and paid £3 10s per acre, based on the normal agriculture wage of 36/6 per week for men and 25/- per week for women. Camping equipment was to be provided but the workforce was expected to provide their own mess facilities, with farmers helping out. In the same year, an agreement was made with the GWR to lay a siding into the factory from the Yeovil-Taunton railway line.

After the War, the Ministry disposed of these factories to the private sector in 1920.

The Wessex Flax Factory Ltd.
In March 1920, the Ministry of Agriculture disposed of the Yeovil area factories to the investment bankers Pinners Hale, though the business was being run by Messrs A Mitchelson & Co Ltd. Wessex Flax Factories Ltd was formed to take over from Mitchelson. The new company had a share capital of £200,000 made up of 140,000 preference shares of £1, plus 1,130,000 ordinary shares of 1/- and 70,000 staff shares of 1/- while the Government also held 30,000 6% debentures. The directors were F Shearman (Chairman) of Tiverton, W. Harvey-Blake of Norton-sub-Hamden, T. Selby-Down of Castle Cary, Jesse Crumpler of West Coker who was the Managing Director and Archibald Michaelson, the Chairman of the Anglo-Continental Guano Company.

After the war, flax was still in short supply. Nationally the industry used 100,000 tons, of which 80,000 tons came from Russia, and in 1920 this shortfall was estimated to be 90,000 tons. This led the company to advertise for farmers to grow flax under contract, offering £16 per ton for straw and seed and at the same time they estimated the profit on their ‘Wessex Crown’ brand of products would be £40,000 per year. At the shareholders’ meeting in July, it was revealed that the cost of the enterprise was to be reduced to £28,000, in lieu of £97,000, due to the incomplete nature of the factories.

South Somerset Textile Industry
In 1923 the company was forced into receivership by the Government, as debenture holders, to protect their interests. However, it caused great concern with the National Farmers Union and the farmers who were owed money by the company. Meetings of flax growers were held in many places and most believed that the company ought to have gone into liquidation, since they felt that they would have had a greater chance of getting more of the money owed to them. Eventually, the growers received an offer from the Government, but this did involve a significant loss to each producer. As debenture holders, the Government had a claim on the freehold of the factories and were looking for a use for at least some of them.

Linen Industry Research Association
In 1923 a conference was held in London between the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research and a number of other interested parties. The outcome was a decision to develop a scheme for the bulking of the JWS pedigree flax seed, which currently stood at 16 tons.

In 1924, with no further progress having been made, the Linen Industry Research Association (LIRA) was asked to undertake the work for the year ending in May 1925. The factories at Bunford, Yeovil and Lopen were leased to them for that period. It was hoped that the factories, which were in a reasonable state of repair, would be able to deal with around 1,300 to 1,500 acres of flax in that time.

Growers in Somerset were found and payments arranged with some 192 acres sown. LIRA found itself in a position where it could not continue the process of seed bulking. It was considered essential to provide a bulk supply of the JWS pedigree flax seed for future use. Furthermore, it was agreed that the only place in which this could take place was Somerset, where facilities for retting and scutching still existed. It was not thought that private enterprise would be able to carry out the task, a reference to the failure of Wessex Flax Limited.

Flax Industry Development Society Ltd.
Consequently, a body was to be formed to take over the Bunford and Lopen factories, with a view to them being in full production by 1926. This would allow the bulked seed to go on sale to the flax growing regions. £40,000 was needed, £15,000 of which was for the purchase of the factories. The balance would provide the working capital and the operation was to be supervised and assisted by the Ministry of Agriculture. The scheme was also aimed at increasing employment in the area. Bunford currently employed only 15 hands, whereas it was hoped to increase this to around 80, while Lopen was expected to employ a further 40 people.

As a result, the Flax Industry Development Society Ltd was formed, which was a not-for-profit organisation funded by the Government. At the same time, the Minister of Agriculture was registered as being the freeholder of both Bunford and Lopen factories.

The process of seed bulking continued for a number of years. However, 1932 saw an end to the experiment. The decision to discontinue production in Somerset was the result of a significant fall in flax prices in the previous year. The aim of increasing seed stock and providing flax which would be economically viable had been undermined by the Russians selling their flax at a very low price.

South Somerset Textile Industry
Closure of Bunford took place in August 1933 with Lopen following shortly afterwards. In both places, the loss of some 50 employees at each site was carried out over a period of months as the work ran down. The last chapter in this Government experiment was carried out in the auction room, with the sale of the Bunford and Lopen factories in 1934. While Lopen factory found a buyer, it was not until the mid-1930s that Bunford was sold to Aplin and Barrett for use as a creamery.


Yeovil Flax during the great war


The following five colourised photographs are courtesy of Alan Lawrie. His grandmother, Eunice Hillman (seated on the ground in the third photo below), lived in Weston Super Mare and was waiting to go to university in 1918. She was one of the 2,000 or more women taken from universities and colleges, and is almost certainly one of the 563 that were billeted in a tented camp at Barwick Park, since the photographs were taken by Witcomb & Son of Middle Street.


Photographed in 1918, the tented camp, believed to be at Barwick Park, accommodated 563 women flax workers.


Food preparation at the camp. It is likely that the two army personnel are soldiers from the Home Service Battalion of the Yorkshire Regiment who were billeted in the surrounding villages.


Young women flax workers pose in front of their tent. Unfortunately, the writing on the organisation badges the girls are wearing cannot be read.


Marching off to work in the flax fields.


A group of young women flax workers pose for a photograph by Witcomb & Son. Alan's grandmother, Eunice Hillman, is sitting on the ground at the front.




The following series of colourised photographs of young women working in the flax fields of Yeovil through to the processing of the flax, were taken by Horace Nicholls "on a farm in Yeovil" during the Great War of 1914-1918. These photographs are reproduced here under the terms of the Imperial War Museum's Non-Commercial License.


Pulling flax by hand.


Pulling flax by hand.


Pulling flax.


Pulling flax.


Flax pulled!


Collecting the pulled flax.


Collecting the pulled flax.

Collecting the pulled flax.


Collecting the pulled flax.


Collecting the pulled flax.


Collecting the pulled flax.


Skirting the flax.


Skirting the flax.


Carrying the skirted flax.


Laying out flax for dew ripening


Tying and stacking the flax.


A well-deserved rest.


Loading the flax onto a wagon.


Loading the flax onto a wagon.


Girl workers getting a drink from a pump on their way home.


Girl workers getting a drink from a pump on their way home.


.... and then, back at the Flax Factory


A girl holding a large bundle of flax.


Evening up the lengths of flax for breaking.


Breaking the flax.


Scratching the flax.


A girl with flax ready for spinning.


Weighing finished flax fibre.



Courtesy of Jack Sweet

Soldiers, probably of the Home Service Battalion of the Yorkshire Regiment who were billeted in the surrounding villages and civilian flax pullers, in the Yeovil area during the First World War. Photographed by Witcomb & Son of Yeovil.