Traditionally this was the most important industry in Moreton, with a fulling mill recorded as early as 1297, but from various causes it declined to being not much more than a memory by the mid-19th century.
The first stage after the shearing of the sheep was the preparation of the wool for the spinner by combing it with teazels or special wool combs – wooden bats with rows of metal pins to ‘tease’ out the strands. The patron of the Woolcombers guild in Devon was Bishop Blaze, who is depicted with a wool comb – there is still a Bishop Blaze pub near the quay in Exeter, and there used to be one in Moreton near the church. The following excerpts from Treleaven’s diary show that the tradition was still respected in his day, though most of his references to woolcombers are to the deaths of old men.
Mon. Feb. 3rd, 1800. St. Blase. The Woolcombers in honour of their Saint and Patron, had a dinner at their Club House (Ring of Bells). In the afternoon the Union Flag was hoisted at the Club Room window, and the afternoon was spent with the greatest decorum.
Thur. Feb. 3rd, 1803. The Woolcombers had a Dinner at their Club House (The Dolphin Inn) in honour of Bishop Blaze.
Sun. Feb. 13th, 1803. Died aged 62 Anthony Tallamy, Woolcomber, he was honoured with the Title of Bishop Blaze, and appeared in that character on several public occasions.
Sat. May. 25th, 1816. Died in the 57th year of his age William Batershill, Woolcomber, but for the last 12 years he had been a chaise driver.
The order of procession for the grand celebration of the defeat of Napoleon in 1814 included ‘The Golden Fleece, carried by Jason, in Grecian attire, on horseback, shepherd and shepherdesses, four sheap sharers in a cart, adorned, shearing, four wool-winders, sorters, washers, Bishop Blaze on horseback, woolcombers, and quill-winders, also horses laden with serges’..
The main product of the wool industry in Moreton was serge, for which the town was famous. There was a fulling mill for finishing the serges in the Wraybrook just above the foot of Lime Street (later known as Millbrook). In 1698 Celia Fiennes wrote an account of a journey from Newcastle to Cornwall. In the section about Exeter she gives an interesting account of the wool market there and the process of fulling the serges in Exeter: At Moreton, the serges may have been stretched out on the gorse bushes above the mill, rather than on fixed frames with ‘tenterhooks’ as in Exeter. The same year the inhabitants of Moreton presented a petition to the House of Lords against the import of cheap serge from Ireland:
‘Petition of Gentlemen, Freeholders, Traders, and Other Inhabitants of Moretonhampstead in Devon.
The trade of the town, which consists in serges, has been much decayed of late by the multitude of serges made in Ireland, and the growth of that trade there, being much cheaper made by reason of the low price of wool and provisions and labourers, whereby they undersell the English and encourage foreigners to lay their stock out with them, who formerly were obliged to have all their serges from England; so unless a remedy be found, the English trade will be wholly lost, and the poor increased beyond the power of maintaining them.’
This petition had little effect, and woollen manufacture continued its slow decline although serges were still made in the town. As predicted the number of poor did greatly increase, and Brice’s Grand gazetteer for 1759 contains the following remark :-‘Moretonhampstead, most commonly called Moreton, is a very populous town. The share the inhabitants have in the woollen trade helps to maintain their numerous poor. The trade consists much in the washing of wool in which they boast an art peculiar, and a quality in the water most fitted for the purpose, not excelled if equalled anywhere. They make a good quantity of serges which are sold in Exeter market’. The industry started to decline towards the end of that century, mainly because of competition from the coal-fired mills of Yorkshire (whereas Moreton only had water power, and not a great deal of that). Soon after 1759 woollen manufacture ceased altogether, and a new use was found for the mill and its hammers as a paper mill.
The organisation of the woollen industry
The woolcombers and the weavers who made the serge in Moreton were mostly poor people working in their own homes, spinning and weaving, financed by more important people (usually described as ‘sergemakers’) who provided the financial backing for the later stages of finishing and marketing the cloth.
A list of cloth merchants and manufacturers insured with the Sun Fire Office between 1726-1770 give the following names in Moreton:
- John Bridgman, sergemaker, 1750 and 1761 John Bridgman jr. sergemaker, 1771
- Joseph Edwards, sergemaker, 1740
- Abraham Jackson, sergemaker & woolcomber 1749, 1798
- Jabez Jackson, sergemaker, 1798
- James Jackson, sergemaker, 1764
- William Marwood, sergemaker, 1742
- William Parr, sergemaker, 1755, 1757
- Edward Pethybridge, sergemaker, 1748, 1756
- Thomas Puddicome, sergemaker, 1770
- George Smale, sergemaker, 1756, 1765; Robert Smale, sergemaker, 1770
- Richard Varder, 1752
- Joseph Webber, sergemaker, 1771
- Alexander Whiteway, clothier, 1730
- William Whiteway, clothier, 1757
These men were in most cases insuring both their homes and their business premises (sometimes the same), also sometimes houses owned by them but occupied by others (sometimes the weavers). With the prevalence of thatch and the risk of fire in Moreton, it was obviously necessary that cloth and wool in store had to be properly insured. The values were usually £200-300, but the clothier carried £400-500 insurance, finished goods being obviously worth more.
Treleaven chronicles the mechanisation of the weaving process in Moreton, including two nasty accidents, one (1830) at Mr Dicker’s mill at North Bovey:
Wed. June 5th 1799. Mr. White of Ashburton took Mr.John Mardon’s house, and enters on it at Mid-summer next, he has several Spinning Jennies, and has bought One-Mill at the bottom of Long-meadow, where he is going to erect a Machine for Carding and Scribling Wool.
Thurs. June 27th, 1799. Mr. White’s Machine at One Mill sat to work, several Children employed, and likely to prove a benefit to the Town
Nov. 29th, 1802. This Evening a melancholy accident happened at One Mill, Mr. Wm. White’s factory. A Girl of Richard Hutchings’ aged 12 working at the Mill going too near the Axle of the great Cylinder, it caught the sleeve of her apron and broke her left arm in a most shocking rnanner, the flesh and bones of her arm were broken from the elbow to the shoulder to such a degree, that at first an amputation was thought necessary, and Mr. Patch, of Exeter Surgeon, was sent for, but on consultation they thought there might be a possibility of saving the arm and every method that could be devised was taken for that purpose .
Fri. Feb. 14th 1806. Last night about 8 o’clock a fire broke out at One Mill factory, belonging to Mr. Wm. White which nearly burnt the whole building, with part of the machinery. It cannot be accounted for how it happened, but generally supposed by accident. The house &c was insured.
Sat. Mar. 27th 1830. Mary Yandell (an apprentice to Mr. Westlake) who was at work at Mr. Dicker’s factory, North Bovey, imprudently putting one of her hands too near the scribling Machine, it was instantaneously caught in, and the flesh and tendons of her arm lacerated in a shocking manner; fortunately part of the machine broke, otherwise her arm must have been broken to pieces.
The people involved in the wool industry
The trade directory for 1793 lists 9 wool-combers, 7 serge-makers and a ‘sizer of worsted chains’, but there are no entries in later directories for these categories. Significantly eleven of the 35 feoffees listed in 1793 were either sergemakers or woolcombers. In 1823 and 1830 there were two ‘worsted-manufacturers’ (one also a woolcomber) but we have no later listings of these occupations. The nearest trades were Isaac Billett who was a rope and twine maker from 1823-1857 (also Ferris, Frost, Bovey in 1826-40) and Robert Marwood who was a basket-maker. The same picture appears from the occupations listed in the Census. In 1841 there were about 35 weavers (many elderly women but sometimus also their daughters); in 1851 there are only a handful of elderly weavers, several described as ‘retired’ or ‘pauper’.
The parish register of baptisms records the occupation of the father only after 1812, but the presbyterian records sometimes include this from earlier years. The only appearance of serge-makers or weavers in the baptisms is for the family of George Mardon, sergemaker, in 1792-1801.
Treleaven reports the deaths of a number of personalities of the woollen industry – here are a few of them.
Thur. Jan. 31st 1799. This day died after a few days illness, Mr. Thomas Puddicombe, at the advanced age of 97 years, formerly a respectable Serge-Maker of this town, but had declined business for some years. It is remarkable that he retained his sight and reason to the last.
Mon Oct. 28th 1799. Died this morning John Berry Weaver aged 78 years he has left a widow aged 76; they had been Married 58 years, and had 13 children, 6 of them now living; they have had 51 Grand-Children, 45 of them now living. He lived in the same House that he died in 68 years, – Work’d for Mr. Wm. Smale and his father upwards of 50 years and had been Sexton to the Presbyterian Meeting House 34 years.
Wed. Feb. 24th 1802. Died suddenly of an apoplectic fit, in the 50th year of his age Mr. Boetius Wrayford. He was a man universally esteemed, and his death will be sensibly felt by a number labourers that he constantly employed in the Woollen line.
The deeds of Greenhill House throw some light on the woollen industry in Moreton. They show that Samuel Lightfoot the elder, feltmaker, became a tenant of the house in 1689, and later bought the property, which remained in his family until 1861. Samuel was the son of John Lightfoot, feltmaker, which carries this trade back further in the same family. During the 18th century the small buildings behind the main house were tenanted by weavers and sergemakers.
Click here for Celia Fiennes’s eye-witness account of the handling of serges in Exeter in 1698: