The tapestry factory in Tavira

The Marquês de Pombal and Industrial Development

The aftermath of the Great Earthquake of 1755 left much of Portugal and especially the Algarve in ruins. It also left Portugal under the dictatorial rule of that enlightened despot, the Marquês de Pombal.

Pombal was as efficient as he was ruthless, and he made many enemies in the course of his 21 years in power, and the influence of those enemies had a lethal effect on Tavira’s tapestry factory.

As the output of the Brazilian gold mines diminished, Pombal determined to reduce Portugal’s dependence on Britain for manufactures and made efforts to reform and kick-start the Portuguese economy. For example, he encouraged the wool industry of Covilhã and Portalegre and the silk workers of the royal factory of Rato.

He also recognised that the Algarve had intrinsic potential and urged its realisation against the growing economic power of neighbouring Spain, and he brought all of the tuna fisheries (the armações) into one business, called the Companhia Geral das Reais Pescarias do Reino do Algarve.

He also designed a scheme to award financial loans to starter businesses, and the means by which those loans were assessed was through the new Junta do Comércio. The policy of Pombal and the Junta do Comércio was to sponsor the foundation of factory units, even though some applicants had only the work skill and the will to succeed. What they needed most was capital, which would see them over the first years of work, and guarantee survival against unforeseen risks and impatient creditors. Pombal designed the process accordingly.

The Concession of the Permit
By order of the Marquês, the Junta do Comércio met on June 9, 1774 to analyse a petition presented by Pedro Leonardo Mergoux and Teotónio Pedro Heitor to establish in Tavira, or in another place of their choice in the Algarve, a factory of tapestries made from wool, silk and cotton, of the kind which were imported from Europe and Asia.

The principal clauses in the proposal were that the Junta would lend six “contos de réis”, reimbursable without interest after 10 years. The Junta would put up three contos immediately, and the balance would be lent in the second year.

The factory would employ six apprentices, who would be matriculated by the Junta, and it would be exempt from import dues on its prime materials, and export dues on its finished products. The factory inspector would be the assistant superintendent of customs for the Algarve, José Viegas de Andrade.

The Junta advised the king to make the loan, and the warrant was issued on May 31, 1776.

Why Tavira?
Mergoux had visited the town in 1772 and selected it in 1776 for his factory because of its port facilities, and as the foods in the town were attractively cheap, it would be inexpensive to employ local apprentices.

The factory itself was located in the street now called Travessa da Fábrica off Rua dos Mouros, and Mergoux rented gardens which stretched beyond the present railway line.

There is to this day a garden door near the level crossing, marked Horta da Fábrica. The garden was used for the washing and dyeing of the wools and cottons, and there were simple houses for the looms.

As stipulated in the contract with the Junta, Mergoux employed six apprentices, two of whom later worked at the royal tapestry workshop at Mafra, which is where the equipment of the Tavira factory went after its closure.

Pedro Mergoux was the real master, and the designs on the fabrics were executed with good taste, and he taught the apprentices at the same time. Factory inspector Andrade reported that the quality of the wool, cotton and silk thread was superior to that of imported tapestries and was also much cheaper.

Only two specimens of their work are known, one is in the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga in Lisbon and the other in the Museum at Figueira da Foz, which is signed at the bottom ‘Tavira’. The piece at Figueira measures 9.30mx3.40m and, because of its size, had been cut in two and has now been repaired.

The factory survived for a maximum of only three years, and its closure was directly attributable to the failure of the new government to honour its contract with Mergoux.

The Death of the Tavira Factory
When King D José died on February 24, 1777, there were 191 factory units under the sponsorship of the Junta do Comércio. But after his death, the regime changed completely. Pombal was dismissed and ordered to keep away from Court.

His enemies included the new Queen, D Maria I, and the reversal of fortunes led to the rehabilitation of those he had arbitrarily imprisoned, many of whom now came to occupy positions of power. Whether a policy was beneficial to the country was no longer important – if Pombal had approved it, the new regime opposed it.

The Tavira factory had been founded in the dying years of Pombal’s regime, and its association with Pombal was in fact its death certificate. The recommendation of the Junta do Comércio was followed during the first year of the factory’s existence, but after the death of the king, it was ignored. The second amount of three contos was never paid, the old promises were never kept.

Making a last attempt to keep his factory in production, Mergoux made a final application to the old Junta do Comércio, now renamed Junta da Administração das Fábricas do Reino e Obras das Águas Livres. He requested payment of the second half of the loan which he had been promised, demonstrating that he had done as promised in the original agreement.

The Junta considered this appeal on August 23, 1779 and recommended to the Queen that Mergoux’s petition be accepted. But the essential second part of the loan was never granted. There is no doubt that this factory had the potential to succeed, if it had been granted the finance as originally promised.

It was with a certain disappointment that Andrade wrote on July 17, 1780:
“…they saw that with the lack of the promised investment, they could not survive; and they closed the factory and sent back the apprentices to their homes; and the factory is no longer working.”

The sadness of his words becomes more evident when he stressed that the French weaver (Mergoux) had dedicated himself to the garden he had rented for the working of his factory in order to keep himself and family, and to honour the debts he had contracted. Even though he had no way of influencing the decisions of the crown, Andrade added that it was not necessary to allow this industry to die.

“Noble families, with means, seeing the fabrics made with good taste, and at a reasonable price compared with those from abroad, should buy them to decorate their houses, and so should the Royal Palace, where there is still a need after the old ones were burned in the fire after the Great Earthquake of 1755.”

The powers that be were not moved, and the government of the new Queen allowed this and many other small industries to die, being concerned only to ensure the survival of the big city manufacturers, especially those in Lisbon.

After the failure of the factory, Mergoux moved to Luz de Tavira, where he grew vegetables for his living. His wife died in 1787, and he died 10 years later. Both were buried in Luz.

Many historians have written that the government of the new Queen ensured the politics of economic continuity and industrial development. But the history of this small factory in remote Tavira contradicts that viewpoint. And we can only regret that, because of the Queen’s hatred of the Marquês de Pombal, an opportunity to make Tavira even more famous, as a centre for high-class tapestries, was allowed to fail.

By kind permission of the author, the above article and images are taken from the booklet ‘A Fábrica de Tapeçarias de Tavira’. My thanks to Dr José Carlos Vilhena Mesquita, of the University of the Algarve.

|| Associação dos Historiadores do Algarve
It is now almost 18 months since the eruption of the pandemic caused us to pause our activities. There has been recent news about a lifting of the regulations covering cultural meetings; and in the hope that the regulations will be eased further, we are making plans to commence both our musical and historical activities.

It is not yet clear how and when the restrictions will be relaxed, but our plans include the first cultural meeting programmed for October 18 (Tavira) and October 19 (Lagoa); the first historical meeting for October 26 (Lagoa) and October 29 (Tavira).

We have planned our first concert for October 24.

As and when restrictions are relaxed on the wearing of masks out of doors, Peter will be able to resume our historical walks around Tavira. Clearly, we shall have to observe current regulations regarding hygiene, and it may be that prior registration will be required until life returns to normal. We shall publicise any further developments as they happen.

By Lynne Booker
|| [email protected]

Lynne Booker, along with her husband Peter, founded the Algarve History Association. [email protected]

Tavira – Detail of the lower right corner of the tapestry in the Museum at Figueira da Foz
The woodcut of Pombal – Marquês de Pombal 1699-1782
(artwork by Manuel dos Santos Cabanas)
Jacob recognises the coat of Joseph – Detail of the tapestry in the Museum of Ancient Art, Lisbon
Cover of the booklet “The Tapestry Factory of Tavira”