The Cloth Trade Through Time

The Cloth and Clothing Trade

All along the Culm Valley there have been mills and factories making cloth for hundreds of years. Culmstock, Coldharbour, Bradfield, Bradninch, Willand,and Cullompton all played an important part in the story.

The Trade in Cullompton

Some 2,000 years ago there was Roman activity in and around what would become Cullompton but it was the establishment in 1257 of a weekly market that helped make the town a regional centre. The harnessing of power from the river Culm was crucial in developing cloth production as was the rural hinterland in providing wool. The Late Medieval cloth industry was based on home manufacture and Cullompton successfully shared in a burgeoning Mid Devon economy that used Exeter to ship its products overseas to the Continent including not just northern France but increasingly to Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, Portugal and Italy. Tiverton and London became important in marketing the cloth to foreign customers. John Lane is the best remembered of these Tudor merchants because of his benevolence in building what is still known as Lane’s Aisle in St Andrew’s Church. Exeter’s cloth production diminished in the late 1700s and nearly stopped in the 1800s but this was not the case with Cullompton.

Group of cloth workers 1912
Group of cloth workers 1912

Instead the town’s merchants embraced mechanisation. In 1841 there were 327 cloth workers in Cullompton which was about ten per cent of the population. William Upcott, operating at Shortlands, was then the dominant employer. Bradfield Mill had also been important in cloth production. Even within the Workhouse there was cloth being made. What makes this success so extraordinary is that nearly the entirety of Devon’s cloth industry, not only in Mid Devon but throughout the county, collapsed and disappeared. It had been Devon’s preeminent employer but continued to be so in Cullompton.

One crucial difference between nineteenth-century Exeter and Cullompton was that the Non-Conformists had become leading mercantile figures in the town. The Fox Brothers Company, which established a factory in Cullompton in 1890, was a Quaker family firm which had already been active in Mid Devon and further afield. Its cloth production included producing material for gentlemen’s suits most notably for Savile Row.

The town made leather in addition to cloth. There were tanneries in Cullompton as early as the 1500s and by the nineteenth century there were three (Crow Green, Lower King’s Mill and Court Tannery). Other mills were involved in producing paper and flour.

Modern Cullompton has retained the production of clothing on a small scale whereas its neighbouring towns have developed in different economic directions.

Fascinating Fact:
in 1958 a £250,000 tannery fire put 100 men out of work. White flame came out of every window reaching 100 feet high.

Important Cloth trade locations

The Fox Brothers factory, Located beside the lane leading to Court Farm, it was opened in 1890 for weaving. In 1904 it was busy producing winter clothing for the Japanese Army. During the First World War it produced khaki cloth for British army uniforms which replaced the scarlet tunics worn during the wars with the Zulus and Boers. The factory employed over 200 people. It was on what is now the Twyford engineering site and closed in 1981.

Shortlands, Located in Shortlands Lane, in the 1600s it was a dwelling house and owned by a succession of merchants but was extended into use for manufacturing cloth in the late 1700s. William Upcott introduced mechanisation and he became the main employer in the 1830s and 1840s. His descendants continued manufacturing cloth through to the early twentieth century. In 1960 the site was acquired by Tiverton District Council which demolished the buildings in order to build homes.

Sellwood’s Tannery (pictured) The tannery stood at the southwest end of the town. It was called Crow Green Tannery but generally known as Sellwood’s Tannery, after the family which owned it for much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The building was subsequently sold to the Tremlett family who operated it until its sale in 1969. The tannery’s history was marked by destructive fires in 1831, 1867 and 1958.

Bradfield Mill Located a mile from Cullompton in Uffculme, it was built and operated by Cullompton men. William Brown and John Fowler built the mill for cloth production in the late 1700s. Joseph Davy became a part owner in 1815. Seven years later fire destroyed the mill, it was subsequently rebuilt but the owners were declared bankrupt in 1834. William Upcott, who owned Shortlands, took over and it continued operating for another generation.

Higher, Middle and Lower Mills These were Double Mills, located on the leat, which made a total of six mills. They were also owned by William Upcott.

The Workhouse Located in Workhouse Green, it was also involved in cloth production and used the labour of the inmates. Those in charge of the institution, known as the Guardians of the Poor, included Joseph Davy and William Brown of Bradfield Mill and William Upcott of Shortlands Factory. Upcott acquired the building when it became redundant following the removal of poor law provision from Cullompton to Tiverton

Fascinating Fact:
Many weavers depended on poor relief in difficult economic times. In 1829 John Maunder, an unemployed weaver, turned the grinding stone and swept the streets in return for poor relief.