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The Woollen Industry of Modbury

The production of woollen cloth changed little until the eighteenth century. Fleeces were first washed then sorted, followed by carding and combing to separate the lengths of the fibres (staple). The wool was then spun by distaff and spindle, the process being speeded up in the thirteenth century by the invention of the spinning wheel. Medieval looms were improved in 1773 by the introduction of the flying shuttle, although weavers were slow to adopt this innovation in parts of the West Country. To thicken and clean the cloth it was fulled by being soaked in water and fuller’s earth or potash. It was originally trampled on by ‘Walkers’, but in the twelfth century the water mills provided the power to drive hammers to beat the cloth. The cloth was then spread out on tenterhooks to dry. Dyeing might follow at this stage, using woad or madder for the more usual colours of blue and brown, and fixed by a mordant, usually of imported alum. ‘Teasing’ to raise the nap, and then shearing finally finished the cloth.

The Domesday Survey of 1086 lists 158 sheep in the ten manors of the parish, kept not only for their fleece, but for their milk, meat, manure, and the making of parchment from their hides. The first known evidence of the industry is in 1238 when Henry the wool carder of Modbury was accused of murdering Benedict the comber at the instigation of Benedict’s wife Agnes. By 1463 it is obvious that Modbury had developed into a thriving town. Among the occupations listed in a contemporary survey, Modbury is shown to be the centre of the cloth making business in an area stretching from Holbeton, Ermington and Plymstock in the west, Ugborough and Staverton in the north, and Aveton Gifford, Churchstow, Kingsbridge, and South Pool in the east. There were five merchants, one draper, and two mercers. Some organized the cloth production, and others the retail or wholesale trade, both local and overseas. There was one dyer (Steynour), one cloth finisher, seven tailors, one tucker (operator of the fulling mill), and eight weavers.

There are no identifiable remains of any buildings from the early years of the industry, but some Modbury field names give a clue to the siting of various activities. Tucker’s Brook at the bottom of Brownston Street might have produced the power for a tucking or fulling mill. A field called Yarnhay in the same area was possibly where the wool was sorted and washed, and Rack Park in Dark Lane would have been where the cloth was spread on the tenterhooks to dry.

The cloth originally made in Devon was a coarse fabric known as ‘straits’, but during the late fifteenth century a finer material known as ‘kerseys’ was developed. Many Devon towns grew wealthy through its production, and this led to the rise of the clothier. He was the middleman who oversaw every phase of cloth making from the purchase of the fleeces to the sale of the finished product to all parts of the county and beyond. During this period the wealthiest clothier in Modbury, Christopher Savery, established himself at Shilston, which lies to the north of the town. It was in the seventeenth century that the manufacture of serge in Modbury heralded the period of greatest prosperity for the town. There was a busy market for wool, held in the Round House sited at the bottom of Church Street. It was octagonal in shape, with a massive central granite column, and oak pillars supporting the roof, which was surmounted by the market bell.

In the eighteenth century numerous clothiers built fine houses in the classical style, reflecting their importance in the local community for both providing employment and acting as benefactors to the town. The register of the Parish Clerk in 1700-1 showed that there were four clothiers: Richard Colling, Humphrey Dowton, Jonathan Gest, and Pascoe Legassick. In the Sun Fire Inventories of Merchants and Manufacturers Property 1726 to l770 there are four entries for Modbury sergemakers. Richard Collins insured his house and goods for £600, Jonathan Gest £200, Philip Perring for £200, and Robert Wakeham for £1000. His house of brick and slate was insured for £250, his household goods and stock in hand for £350, a dyehouse of stone and slate with the goods and stock for £100, one house let to a woolcomber for £100, and a further house for £100.

Most of the production involved in sergemaking took place in the cottages of the workers. Independent weavers would buy the wool from the market, their wives would spin the thread, and the unfinished cloth would be sold on. Alternatively, the wealthy clothiers would finance and control all operations. Looms were often rented out by the Overseers of the Poor. It took approximately six spinners to keep a loom working. The whole town and the countryside around would have been employed in spinning, weaving, fulling, dyeing, drying of serges, and finishing. The finished cloth was taken by pack horse to Totnes, and then on to Exeter or Dartmouth where it was shipped to London. A business directory for London in 1823 lists five receiving houses at wharves in Tooley Street by London Bridge where Modbury wool was delivered.

The Perring family were to become among the wealthiest in Modbury. The first record is of a Philip Perring who is described in 1700 as a soapmaker and labourer, but their fortunes had improved by 1751 when his son Philip was a sergemaker. The next generation produced another Philip who followed his father in the family business. This Philip eventually bought Denbury House in Church Street together with most of the land between Moon Lane and Church Walk. Two of his brothers were to form the first known connections with the East India Company. In 1759 Peter Perring applied to join the Company as a ‘writer’ (junior clerk) in India, later becoming a merchant and member of the Council of Madras. Dismissed from the service in 1781 possibly for profiteering, he returned to Devon and bought the estate of Membland near Newton Ferrers. His brother John also joined the Company, and rose to be a judge in Bengal. A third brother, Thomas, became a London merchant. It was possibly through these three brothers that important contracts to supply the Company with serge from Modbury were won, and financial links with London were established. In the next generation John Perring became Lord Mayor of London and was created a baronet in 1808.

John’s brother, Richard, became the last big clothier of Modbury. He acted as a banker and issued his own notes. Following an investment of £20,000 by Sir John Perring he removed part of his operations to Ermington, where there was more space and a better water supply. Despite the greater efficiency of operations, the Perring concern could not compete with the expansion of the cloth trade which was taking place in Yorkshire, and in 1826 Richard Perring was declared bankrupt. Other smaller manufacturers of the town diversified and turned to making plush and hats, but the prosperity of Modbury suffered a blow from which it never recovered.

Author: Anne Scarratt