Tiverton Wool Trade No 5 of 5 on the history of this Devon town
The Devon town of Tiverton, 'two-ford-town', owes this name to its location between two rivers and its fame to the industry – the wool trade – which developed alongside them in the Middle Ages. In its heyday (1500-1750), thousands found work in the manufacture of woollen cloth and merchants grew rich on their profits. Their heritage can be followed around the town today.
THE MAKING OF CLOTH. On what did a successful cloth industry depend? First, a ready access to wool from Devon and from Ireland via Barnstaple and Minehead carried to Tiverton by packhorse, mostly nimble Exmoor ponies. Local expertise developed the raw material. One wool-comber could supply eight spinners whose yarn enabled a weaver to make a piece of kersey cloth, the 'Devonshire dozen', 12 yards long and 12 pounds in weight.
The finishing processes were all-important and were controlled by the merchant clothier. Fulling mills driven by water-power from the rivers Exe and Lowman pounded the cloth to shrink and felt it. Traditional kerseys or, from 1660s, serges, were then stretched from tenterhooks on frames in rack-fields. They were hot-pressed, brushed with teasels, trimmed with huge shears, dyed, sealed and loaded. One packhorse could carry the work of twenty weavers to London in six days. In 1730 there were 2500 looms and 56 fulling mills at work.
For fulling, the cloth is pounded with huge hammers in a trough of water with urine or fuller's earth, so that it is shrunk and felted. This makes it better for wearing in wet, windy or cold weather. A working model in Tiverton Museum shows the process.
HOBBY HORSE MILL, just downriver from Lowman Green at Old Mill Court, was typical. Perhaps a Domesday flour mill, it was converted to fulling by 1622 and then back to a corn mill in c 1750. It was the last of Tiverton's old mills to close, in 1988.
SHARLAND'S COURT was once typical of where families lived and worked. The central yard was long enough for weavers to lay out the yarn for the loom, a process called 'warping the chains'. One sergemaker who organised the business, John Besley, lived next door at the house now the Four and Twenty Blackbirds Restaurant. The low-level footpath once led to the old ford.
LOWMAN BRIDGE, rebuilt after the 1612 fire in stone with two arches, was widened in 1772. A new bridge of three arches was built alongside in 1794 on the present site. The bridge was widened in 1851 and again in 1911 (as here) to take the statue of King Edward VII.
PETER BLUNDELL (c1520-1601) made a fortune buying cloth in Tiverton and selling it in London when Devon kerseys were in great demand at home and abroad. He never married but his generosity to family, friends and good causes was exceptional. His name was made by the Free Grammar School he founded for 150 boys (6-18 years) – outstanding in scale, design, cost and endowment.
© 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
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