Tiverton Wool Trade No 2 of 5 on the history of this Devon town
By the 16th century, the Devon town of Tiverton was a major player in the wool trade and famous for the manufacture of kersey, a type of coarse twilled woollen cloth. Central to the town at the end of Fore Street is Angel Hill – a hub where Tiverton's old streets meet to cross the River Exe. From here you can look down to the bridge which, by the 13th century, had replaced a nearby ford, one of the two which gave Tiverton the medieval name of Two-ford-town.
EXE BRIDGE. The medieval timber bridge was rebuilt in stone in 1570 and widened in 1818. The five arches made flooding worse in the 1960s and the fine old bridge was replaced in 1968.
The Raised Walkway at the top of Angel Hill probably dates to the 17th century. Some of the arches led to cellars where wool was stored. One was used to store sand to stop horses’ hooves slipping, another a windlass with which waggons could be hauled up the steep hill from the bridge.
THE GREAT HOUSE is a Tudor merchant's town house of exceptional quality, built 1603-14 in Beer stone with a cross passage panelled in oak. Its owner, George Slee (c.1555-1613), a farmer's son from Coldridge, came to Tiverton to seek his fortune. He married Peter Blundell's niece Joan Chilcott and soon had a thriving business.
When Slee's original house was destroyed in Tiverton's first great fire in 1598, Slee's daughter, Eleanor, was one of the 33 people who died. As a result, he left money for ALMSHOUSES built next to his house in her memory. In 1612, a second great fire started near this spot. After this, Slee was one of the townsmen who lobbied King James I for a Charter, so that the people could take responsibility for their own affairs. Tiverton received its CHARTER in 1615. The seal depicts the town's main features – church, castle and town, two bridges over the Exe and Lowman, with a woolsack at the centre.
CHILCOTT’S SCHOOL was built about the same time by Slee’s brother-in-law and fellow merchant, Robert Chilcott (c1560-1609) with money his uncle, Peter Blundell, had left him.
St Peter Street was also the chosen street for other merchants' houses in the 16th and 17th centuries. John Greenway had a house where No 24 is today. Opposite, on the site of No 17, was Mr Bidgood's house, a house built by Samuel Foote (1625-91). Foote was the the most important merchant in his day. He owned the Great House and gave it as dowry to his business partner and son-in-law, Robert Burridge (1647-1717). In Tiverton Museum there are lead seals from bales of cloth, with the merchant's mark, a naked foot, used by Foote and Burridge.
ST PETER'S CHURCH is a merchants' church. John Greenway (c1460-1529), the first and perhaps most important of Tiverton's merchants, built the South Aisle, a Chantry Chapel and a stunning new Porch crowned with the Courtenay Arms, his patron, in the early sixteenth century. Other merchants built the North Aisle. Merchants' marks can be seen on the capitals. Many lie buried in the Church.
The Wool Chapel was close to the Church. The weekly market of wool brought in by packhorse and yarn from the country spinners, could see as much as £2000 change hands. The sheep market was next to it, for Exmoor Horned sheep and Bampton Notts (not horned). Across the road, the old Lamb pub sign survives, although the pub itself closed in 1976.
TIVERTON CASTLE, beyond the Church, was left in ruins after the Civil War. Peter West (1656-1726) purchased it with 'old' merchant money. He built a new wing in the late 17th century.
© Copyright of Lifechart 2008
Merchants' Trail was devised, researched and written by Tiverton Civic Society and commissioned by Mid Devon District Council, with Heritage Lottery Funding. Design and production was by Lifechart. Directions and medallions were by local schoolchildren. Full acknowledgments and further information is available at www.tivertoncivicsoc.org.uk.
Size shown is inside frame measurement
Mounted on 40mm deep wooden frame
159mm square with 350-word feature
Size shown is approx. image area
All prices inclusive of VAT. P&P additional.