The South West Textile Industry
Textile production was an industry that dominated the culture of the South West, and especially Devon, from the medieval period right up to the nineteenth century. It is such an industry that our mill has its deep roots and heritage in, stemming right back to the 17th century when the Were family rose to prominence in nearby Wellington.
Owing to the temperamental nature of our climate, the English population has forever had to place especial importance on the production of cloth for clothing. Accordingly, the people have utilised the country’s unique topography – from its endless winding rivers to its green rolling hills – to nurture the textile industry. The area was the perfect setting for the breeding of sheep, the fulling of wool, and the hand-made production of fine quality cloth.
Dominance in such an industry allowed us to trade with country’s on the continent right through the middle ages, no other nation on the continent had such all-round proficiency in every stage of the process. It led to the formation of strong links in peace time with merchant houses of such European nations as France, Spain, and in particular, Holland.
The transition from woollen ‘kersey’ cloth manufacture – composed of fibres running in different directions, giving it a softer yet weaker quality – towards worsted ‘serge’ production, marked a pivotal point in the region’s industrial history and allowed for serge makers in the region to gain a competitive advantage over other clothiers in the country.
This is where the Were family of Wellington came onto the scene. They were part of a bunch of serge makers on the Devon Somerset border who had quasi-centralised co-ordination of production (owing to the Quaker affinities, and connection to meeting houses most of them had), that allowed for proficient development of industry whilst keeping the workers living standards comparatively high.
In turn, providing that the country was at peace, the serge makers exported their worsted cloths throughout the continent – allowing the port settlements of Topsham and, especially, Exeter to become some of the most important ports in the country.
With an industry so well developed, it would prove fertile ground for the expansion of production when Thomas Fox took over the Were business through marriage to Thomas Were’s daughter.