During the late sixteenth century the Were family of Wellington began producing serge as a cottage industry. In the early seventeenth century, Edward Fox married Hannah Were and soon took over the serge trade. Typically, the wool industry thrived in areas used for sheep farming, such as Somerset, and Taunton serge was particularly popular. The Were family established the Tone Mills in 1754, and over the next seventeen years, expanded rapidly. Thomas Fox, after learning the textile trade abroad for three years, entered the business as a partner and in 1772, formally founded the company as Fox Brothers. In the 1790s, Fox Brothers purchased a complex of buildings in Tonedale known variously as the “Old Town Mills” or the “Old Flour Mills” allowing them to bring their production under one roof. This move facilitated an increase in both quality and quantity, while cutting costs as other production was brought in-house; basket weaving, joinery, book binding and metalworking was all carried out on the site. A full history of the Fox Heritage can be found here.
The Tone Works was the dyeing and finishing works established by Fox Brothers at the confluence of the River Tone and the Back Stream. The site is shown on the Tithe map of 1839, and the works was enlarged and altered over the next 80 years. In 1912 the site was described as having “perhaps the largest Indigo Dye House in England”. The site continued in production until the 1990’s. Fox Brothers, who had produced scarlet serge for the British Army prior to 1884, were instrumental in introducing the recognisable khaki dye to military uniforms. It is alleged the colour was approved by the Prince of Wales and the War Office. During the First World War, 8,000 miles of khaki cloth were produced for clothing, alongside 70,000 pairs of Puttees per week, and production of Puttees both straight and spiral continued until the early 1980s when they were still worn by a number of old colonial forces. The Tone Works is a near-complete example of a nineteenth century cloth dyeing and finishing works, which developed between the 1830s and the 1920s. It retains all of the component buildings associated with the dyeing and finishing of worsted and woollen cloths, together with the machinery and fittings required for those processes. Sitting on the banks of the River Tone, the mills originally derived its power from water wheels. Later with the introduction of steam and then electric power to the mill complex, the water was used as a vital component of the cloth finishing process, and was managed more carefully with the introduction of a reservoir and sluice gates.
The Tone Works in its present form is an exceptional example of a textile finishing complex in the South-West, with a range of surviving structures unparalleled in England, complete with machinery, water management system and power generation plant. It is currently derelict, and English Heritage have recognised it is nationally important, but at extreme risk though the organisation accept that “comprehensive restoration and reuse would not prove commercially viable” due to the size and state of disrepair of the site.
Photographs from the sister mill can be found here.