200th anniversary of the death of Greenham Mill owner
One of Newbury’s best-known historic figures died two hundred years ago this month.
John Coxeter was born in 1772 in Witney and came to Newbury in the early 1800s for a business venture which soon failed. Bailed out of bankruptcy in 1805 by his father- in- law John Collier of Witney, John Coxeter was installed as manager of woollen mills in Greenham (with John Collier junior as a partner). This injection of cash allowed for the mills to be modernised with new and better equipment. Coxeter was so proud of his state-of-the-art wool processing and weaving machinery that he bragged to local businessman and farmer Sir John Throckmorton that his coat could be removed, carded into loose wool, and re-made into a coat all within one day.
Sir John Throckmorton took John Coxeter at his word, and challenged him to make from sheep’s wool shorn at sunrise, a coat that could be worn to dinner at sunset the same day, placing a wager of one thousand guineas, a huge sum, to that effect.
Coxeter rose to the challenge, and on 25 June 1811 at 5am, two of Sir John’s sheep were shorn by shepherd Francis Druett, and the wool given to Mr Coxeter at Greenham Mills, where the fleece was carded and spun into yarn which was then woven into cloth.
By four o’clock in the afternoon, the rich damson- coloured cloth was handed to Newbury tailor Isaac White, whose son James, an excellent craftsman of some repute, had cut and sewn it into a hunting-coat in less than two and a half hours – a performance worthy of the Great British Sewing Bee – but without the advantage of the sewing machine, which would not become widely available for many years.
Sir John donned his new coat in time for dinner, to the cheers of a 5,000 strong crowd which had assembled as word of the wager spread and caught the public imagination.
News of this astonishing feat spread far and wide and helped to assure Newbury’s reputation as a major player in the emerging woollen and textile industries at the very start of the Industrial Revolution.
One might have thought John Coxeter’s future fortunes were assured, but sadly this proved not to be the case.
A descendant of John Coxeter, Derek Collier of Midgham, who has researched his famous ancestor, believes a downturn in the economy post-Waterloo, and some poor business decisions on the over-production of blankets for troops, contributed to John’s second bankruptcy in 1816. This time John was not rescued by his father-in-law, and one of the two mills closed with the loss of over 100 jobs.
Later that year, on 28 August 1816, John Coxeter died at the relatively young age of 43, and was buried at Witney. His widow Elizabeth and two oldest sons John and William tried to carry on with some sort of blanket-making business at Greenham, but without success, and the machinery was put up for sale in the following year. Elizabeth had to leave the Mill House which John had built for his family; she died in 1876 at a ripe old age and is buried in Newtown Road Cemetery.
In June of this year local artist Luke Clift’s painting of the Making of the Newbury Coat was hung in Newbury Town Hall, having been lent by its current owner Sir Peter Michael to Newbury Town Council. The painting depicts many of the people who took part in the event, including John Coxeter (standing behind the shepherd Francis Druett), his sons John and William, and Sir John Throckmorton.
West Berkshire Museum owns the original scissors used by James White to cut the cloth – but not the original Newbury Coat, which is on display at the Throckmorton family home of Coughton Court in Warwickshire, now owned by the National Trust.
The event has been re-enacted several times since 1811, most notably at Newbury Show in 1991 when the time taken to make the coat was improved by just under an hour, and again in the summer of 2011 over two days at the Corn Exchange, when local MP Richard Benyon proudly donned the new coat.