Braintree District Museum has an important archive relating to the international Courtauld company which began in Braintree. On display in the museum are items from this collection including crape mourning outfits and items associated with the production of crape, the material that made the company famous. Other highlights of the gallery include a Courtauld Taylor and Courtauld Loom and personal items of the family.
George Courtauld, a gifted engineer, established in 1799 a silk throwing business in a water-powered mill at Pebmarsh. Samuel Courtauld III, George’s eldest son, took it upon himself to transform the family silk business into one of the greatest industrial stories of the 19th century. With his cousin, Peter A Taylor, they founded Courtauld & Taylor in 1817 and in 1818 bought Pound End Mill (located on South Street, Braintree and is still visible today). The cousins were soon in search of larger mills due to the expansion of the business, as a result Pound End Mill was rented to Daniel & Steven Walters. Convinced that water-power would prove the key to expansion the cousins brought the last Essex baize mill in Bocking during 1820.
It was in 1825 when Samuel’s brothers George Courtauld and John Minton joined the firm that the family decided to start making crape (crimped silk gauze), the material which would make the company famous. As the fashion for mourning spread through the growing middle-classes, encouraged by Queen Victoria after the death of Albert, this resulted in the enormous success of the firm that later became known by mid-19th century as Samuel Courtauld & Co. The company pioneered the production of man-made textiles including rayon, and revolutionised fashion and also ‘wash day’ in the homes of millions.
The silk industry brought enormous wealth to the Courtauld family and they used this to endow buildings, schools, parks and gardens through Braintree and the Essex district during the 19th – 20th century. This included Manor Street School, which the museum is housed in, William Julien Courtauld Hospital and Braintree Town Hall. The cloth trade was crucial to Braintree’s development and prosperity in the 19th century.
The Courtaulds were known for being non-conformists and this can be particularly seen in their concern for social justice. The Courtauld’s built not only houses for their workers but were also one of the first companies in the country to employ a nurse and fund a crèche for working mothers. Samuel Courtauld IV is known for setting up a Trust to allow the Tate Gallery, London, to purchase works by 19th century French painters. In addition he gave his own collection of post-impressionist art to the University of London and endowed the Courtauld Institute for the study of Art History