Portrait of Bampton, Devon, in the Eighteenth Century

By Tom McManamon

Cloth, Wool, and Leather Manufacture

A petition was presented to the House of Commons in 1697 by the woollen manufacturers of Bampton against plans to make Bridgwater the only port of entry for Irish wool, as Bampton had been adequately served by the Port of Minehead. On 12 March 1698, the Bill to encourage the woollen manufacture in England and to restrain the export of woollen manufactures from Ireland was in the House of Lords. A petition from Bampton supporting it, signed by John Tristram and 124 others, was read. On 27 January 1700 another petition went from Bampton to the House of Commons stating that the sole dependence of the town and adjacent parts was upon the woollen industry which was decaying by the export of raw wool, and its prohibition in Flanders which was producing its own linens.

The merchants and clothworkers of Bampton and Dulverton sent another petition on 20 December 1704 complaining that the agents of foreign wool buyers were "projecting to get their hands on the Irish wool to the prejudice of the woollen manufacture and the ruin of all the staple ports for wool". Another petition on 26 April 1714 urged the opening of the Port of Watchett for the importation of wool from Ireland. Ports were often restricted in the kind of goods they could handle.

Sometime between 1712 and 1720, an Inn known as The Royall Oake was pulled down during a riot. It had belonged to one Joseph Quash, an Exeter postmaster who was in the throes of bankruptcy. Neither the reason for the riot, nor the location in Bampton of the Inn are known, but the plot of land including outbuildings was rather optimistically valued at £200 or more. In 1719, the Combehead estate was sold for £120 and comprised a house and 150 acres!

Sometime in 1730 there was a local dispute involving the weavers. Nothing is known of it apart from an entry in the Bampton Baptist Church Book which is kept at Regent's Park College, Oxford: "Brother Brewer was called on for some disorder in the late tumult because they would not abate their wages, during which violence broke out". During the disagreement, Mary Reed hit one Ruben Brock.

Another petition was read in the House of Commons on 10 February 1735 from the masters and workmen in the woollen and silk manufactures of Bampton, complaining of the unlawful export of raw wool from Great Britain and Ireland, and of Irish woollen goods being exported to foreign countries. (This meant less wool for local clothworkers to turn into cloth or garments). That matter was referred to a Committee which was already considering a similar petition from London.

On 11 March 1746 the woollen manufacturers from Bampton and adjoining parishes presented another petition complaining of the decay in the woollen industry caused by the export from Great Britain and Ireland of unmanufactured wool. That one was referred to the Committee enquiring into the causes of smuggling!

In May 1738 there was a riot in Tiverton, centred upon a Mr. Grimes who had stumbled upon a way of making a fast shilling. He was buying serges which had been returned by the cloth merchants to the sergemakers and selling them back to the merchants. The merchants did not mind - they were making extra profit from the deal, but the sergemakers saw the matter in a different light. They gathered from Bampton and all the outlying villages as far away as Bradninch, and attacked the home of Mr. Grimes, The Red Lion on Pound Hill, Tiverton. They broke in and took and destroyed the serges they found, then set about finding the subject of their wrath. They eventually found him hiding in the oven of a bakehouse in Pound Hill, and carried him off to the mayor. Many special constables were sworn in to deal with the matter, and they pushed the rioters to the top of Exeter Hill where another fight took place. Many were wounded, but the affray ended with the death of a Bradninch man who had been hit with a policeman's stave, and had crawled into a field and died.

The wool trade had been showing signs of failing nationally for some time, for two Acts of Parliament in 1667 and 1668 sought to give the trade a boost. The 1668 Act seems to have been drafted by a master of alliteration, stating that "no corpse of any person shall be buried in any shirt, shrift, sheet, or shroud, or anything whatsoever made of or mingled with flax, hemp, silk, hair, gold or silver[!], or in any stuff or thing other than what is made of sheeps' wool only", and affidavits had to be sworn and attested to that effect. Between 1687 and 1712, most of the swearing in Bampton took place before either James or John Style, who also had to travel to the nearby smaller villages for the event. The penalty for flouting the law was a fine of £5.0.0. on the estate of the deceased, and another £5.0.0. on anyone who had anything to do with the funeral. The Acts were abolished in 1814.

It was during the eighteenth and seventeenth centuries that the wool trade was at its peak, and much of the Bampton we see today is a fitting epitaph to those wealthy days. By 1772 however, the trade was beginning to fade, although a directory published in 1793 stated that whilst the main industry in Bampton was the manufacture of serges, there was very little trade in the town. The wool and cloth trade had virtually died out by 1820, although a number of cottages still had a loom from which they supplied the wool factory in the town. The site of any such factory is unknown.

A leather trade was operating in Bampton alongside the wool trade for some centuries, although on a smaller scale, - William le Tannere was recorded in the Tax Roll of 1332. It seems that dealers in bark were responsible for the destruction of large areas of oak woods in the area, for a joint petition from the tanners, curriers, and other leatherworkers in Bampton, Tiverton, and all the towns of north Devon was heard in the House of Commons on 17 May 1717, stating that for a long time great quantities of oak bark had been exported to Ireland and elsewhere, and that there was not enough bark left to carry on their trades. That was referred to a Committee with orders to consider the laws relating to the felling of timber at such time only when the bark will run.

Four cottages in Castle Street, since incorporated into one large building at No. 6, were a leatherworks, and The Old House in Frog Street was a tannery. It had a bark mill where bark stripped from young oak trees was used in leather processing called tanning, in which animal skins were soaked for up to a year in some four dozen pits, in a liquid containing tannic acid obtained from the oak bark, resulting in them being converted into a tough leather. These traders became known as Tanners, whilst those involved in the bark trade were called Barkers. The gardens of a cottage opposite The Old House had been converted into a fellmonger's yard by 1790, a fellmonger being a dealer in animal skins.

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