Overseas cloth trade

For some 500 years the town and hinterland of Cullompton successfully made cloth and exported it to markets across the world. What made it unique in Devon was that it was able to adapt to changing production methods and market conditions for so many centuries.

The town’s Late Medieval trade comprised the selling of kerseys and Devonshire Dozens through Exeter to northern France and Brittany. At this time access from Exeter was restricted by weirs so Topsham served as its port. The Culm valley was producing Spanish broadcloth which was originally partly made with fine Spanish wool.

At the beginning of the eighteenth century much of the town’s cloth was sold in Tiverton, and from there it reached markets in the Netherlands. There were about 30 Cullompton cloth businesses insured with the Sun Fire Company in the 1700s. In the second half of that century, Exeter had regained its importance and cloth was sent on to customers in southern Europe. The outbreak of war in 1793 closed existing markets, and Cullompton’s cloth merchants turned to the East India Company which exported to China to exchange with tea. This trade, in a type of serge known as long ells, continued into the early 1800s. One of the town’s other trades was the making of woollen stockings.

Fascinating Fact:
William Upcott’s son John Samuel Upcott, who lived at the Manor House, was brought up in the family business. He wrote:”I was sent to Lisbon and Oporto in 1834 by my industrious, intelligent Father. I was also sent to Holland in 1835”.

Cullompton’s William Upcott was one of the few Devon merchants to successfully halt falling exports caused by the disruption of the Napoleonic wars of the early 1800s. He began sending his cloth to Portugal in the 1820s and continued to do so through the 1830s. The account book of Carlos Luis Ahrends, a Lisbon merchant, details such cloth exports in the Britannia, a Topsham-built ship.

At the end of the 1800s khaki cloth, and puttees, were produced for the British government to be used in military uniforms and this continued in the two world wars. However, the middle decades of the twentieth century saw Cullompton cloth fail to compete successfully withasynthetic fabrics and cheaper cloth produced overseas. Although clothing is still successfully produced in the town today on a small scale, the industry is no longer the dominant employer it was for many past centuries.

Fascinating Fact:
There is a port wine bottle belonging to William Upcott in the Sandeman Port Musuem, Oporto. Between 1636 and 1860 it was illegal to sell wine in bottles in England. Those who could afford it had their own bottles made, stamped with their name and then filled with wine.