Article drawing on 19th century Western Times material about Crediton's wool and shoemaking trades.
In the last quarter of 1882 a series of articles appeared in the Western Times under the above title. The unnamed author wrote about the wool and shoemaking trades going back to the beginning of that century and thus he or she gives a good picture of life in Crediton during the 19th century.
At the beginning of the century, or as the author puts it "at the time of the French Wars" the wool industry was in full swing. Carts "were continuously running" between Crediton and Exeter with pieces of cloth “to be converted into clothes of different quality”. The cloths, mainly serges, were mostly produced by hand labour, but at the mills at Fordton water power was used. Hemp and sail cloth was also produced at Fordton.
At the beginning of the century “looms were not an uncommon piece of furniture to be seen in many cottages and houses”, but increased mechanisation saw the trade fall off and by the end of the 1820s it was in terminal decline with no clear prospect of a replacement trade. Weaving did carry on in Crediton up to the 1850s, but work was scarce and prices very low. Most of the work was done by women by this time and they took their loads to the Exeter market on foot. In the days prior to the arrival of the railway it was considered “ordinary” to walk to Exeter and back in a day. By 1882 the people of Crediton were far less hardy as a walk one way was “considered a hard task”.
The latter years of the wool trade were hard times for the town. Many men migrated to the North of England to find work, many others were on parochial relief. The author described the case of one man:-
A mechanic while at the Crediton races in 1832 saw his son in danger of being run over. In jumping forward to prevent the accident he got knocked down himself and injured his hand so severely that he was compelled to apply for relief. He was supplied with his "billet" directing him to place his services, minus one hand, with the relieving officer, who employed him on his own land; but when the weather prevented him working outdoors this officer set the man to separate white oats from black which he had mixed. This process was continued as long as the weather prevented outdoor work. Such was the wasteful system of the time.
It was in the 1830s that the shoe trade began to prosper as a replacement for weaving, but for some time there were too many “masters” employing too few men and therefore wages were low. However, the boot and shoe trade did make progress because, unlike the woollen trade, the industry kept pace with mechanisation.
At that time recently qualified apprentices in the boot and shoe trade found it difficult to find work and so many of them either set up in business themselves or left Crediton to find work. In those days apprentices started at as young as 10 years of age, but because indentures were expensive “scarcely half were bound”. They were simply hired out to serve the master shoemaker for a number of years. Their hours were 6 a.m. until 9 p.m. or, in the height of summer, until dark. They were allowed a half hour for breakfast and tea and 1 hour for dinner. They were given no wages in the first year, 1 shilling (5p) per week in the second, 2 shillings (10p) per week in the third etc. until they had served their time. For many years the apprentices would be employed at “closing” and it not until the later years of their time were they entrusted to make shoes.
In the 1830s there was rarely enough work to go round, so many men would try to find employment in nearby farmhouses. Despite this many boys were brought into the trade. Times must have been hard in those early years, because our author tells us that there was little profit for the masters as well as the boys. On market and fair days the stock would be sent out by carriers and the shoemakers would follow on foot. A walk as far as Hatherleigh or Chulmleigh and back in a day was not uncommon; a statement which almost defies belief, even allowing for the hardy nature of the folk of those times. Exeter market, on Fore Street was also a regular trip.
Between 1830 and 1840 a Mr Traies, the son of a Crediton tradesman, moved to Birmingham and set up a shoe business there. He regularly sent materials to Crediton to be made into boots and shoes as labour was much cheaper than in the Midlands.
After 1840 something like factories were starting to emerge and over the next quarter century the trade began to flourish and wages steadily improved.
Competition was still fierce and many “small masters” went under, but by this time one or two of them had started to branch out and expand. One enterprising local trader marked his shoes with the names of important people such as Buller, Cleave, Tanner or Medland pretending that his wares on display were “misfits” for the gentry and thus of a superior quality. These items were to be sold at a reduced rate on a first come first served basis.
In the following decade prospects rose rapidly, probably, our author tells us, it was due to the repeal of the corn laws and the spread of the railway. The industry in Crediton however was still not mechanised.
By the 1850s orders were pouring in to the point that traders could not cope with demand. There was no time for training and so young men were migrating to other towns and then returning with the necessary skills. These young men returned with rumours of sewing machines, which were “pooh-poohed as nonsense”. Word was that these machines had been brought to Exeter by Samuel East who was an agent for them. Around 1858, John Elston who by this time had become a major employer, was the first to introduce machinery to the town. His attempts were met with prejudice and hostility from the workforce. The husband of the first woman to be asked to use one of the new machines; for machining was woman’s work, was horrified and said “the introducer [of the machine] might as well bring in a plague as such a machine”.
However, Mr Elston was not daunted; at the suggestion of Mr East he persuaded his own daughter to be the first to learn it, Mr East believing that “there would then be a rush of young persons eager to do the same.” The plan worked exactly as anticipated. Other employers soon followed this example.
It was from this time that the trade in Crediton really prospered. Wages for the women machinists increased by between 50 and 100%, also hours were reduced.
Workers were now much better off and attention turned to education. Children were regularly sent to school at Penton, but few stayed on after the age of 10 or 11 years and many were taught “closing” to lead them towards the employment they almost all would go into. There was no longer any need for youngsters to leave the town to find employment. At this time almost all production was boots.
Back in the 1830s Mr George Elston had been the first to make a breakthrough in quality, and about that time had gone into the wholesale trade. Orders had begun to come from a distance and even “Colonial” orders obtained. By 1840 he had built an established business, but it was John Elston who set up the first factory and from that point much business was attracted to the town. He obtained the backing of a number of “gentlemen of standing” and was therefore able to expand his business and take advantage of the introduction of the sewing machine. Workmen were attracted to the town, but most did not remain here long, because although wages had improved they were not good enough compared to elsewhere.
Crediton had by now established itself as the centre of the trade in the West of England; “a second Northampton”.
In 1859 a new name, Mr Samuel Gimblett, arrived in the town, and his arrival caused a great deal of commotion. Mr Gimblett had established a trade with Australia and his business grew rapidly and with it employment.
Gimblett was a Cornishman who had been shipwrecked on his way to Australia with a shipment of boots, all of which were lost. He set up business in Melbourne in 1853, but returned to England in 1856. He first set up business in Plymouth, then decided to head for Northampton, but was delayed at Crediton and decided to stay. Gimblett’s boots were different. Made for the Australian market, they had square toes. They were “Wellington” or “laced” boots, and heavily nailed or braided. His factory quickly expanded and by 1859 he was making “Balmorals” and “spring-sides”. With Gimblett concentrating on the Australian market, this still left John Elston with the greatest share of the home trade.
Two Crediton men, James Long and Frederick Barry, were considered exceptional makers of “women’s best boots” and could command a high wage. (Others were not so fortunate and in general wages were still low.) “So celebrated were these two workmen that young men took regular instruction from them.” In 1863 John Burridge was credited with obtaining a 20% rise in wages and so, once again, strangers were attracted to the town.
In 1863 Mr W. H. Adams came to Crediton from Australia and brought a new system of “riveting” which was to completely change the business in the town.
Mr Adams was looking to manufacture boots for the miners of Ballarat in Australia. He first visited London and it was there he saw the new “rivet” style of manufacture, which had replaced the then traditional “hand sewn”. Under the hand sewn system the men went into the factory at the beginning of the week to take home the material to be made in to boots. Under the riveting system the men came into the factory to work.
Mr Adams bought “a large quantity of machinery” with the aim of starting up this new type of work in Crediton. At first the men had little confidence in the new system, also for some time there was doubt about the quality. “It could never produce the better kind of work.” However, in time it became the accepted way of making boots. The workers on riveting earned better money although it was harder work and required less skill.
The author said that in the 20 years since 1863 vast improvements had been made, back then it took 15 minutes to “finish” a pair of boots, whereas with the modern machinery 80 pairs could be “finished” in an hour.
At first there had been no duty on boots imported into Australia, but increases in duty rising from 5% to 20% eventually made it too expensive to export to the other side of the world and the last cargo had been sent in 1871.
The boot and shoe trade did continue in the town into the 20th century. The 1870s and 1880s may have seen the very peak of the industry, but it was still thriving at the time of the Boer War where it was said that the armies on both sides were wearing boots made in Crediton. The last factory in Crediton, run by Harry Elston, held out until 1914 in the face of extreme competition from Northampton. It is said that if he could have kept the business going until the outbreak of the First World War and been able to supply boots to the British Army the trade might well have survived in Crediton. We will never know if that would have been the case, nor will we know what Crediton would have been like if it had survived.