b_960_960_16777215_00_images_landscape__0010_Decline_of_the_Cloth_Trade.jpgWhen it came, the end of Exeter’s centuries-old woollen cloth trade took place within just 100 years. War played its part in the industry’s downfall. First the American Revolutionary War (1775-1783) cut through the trading links that Exeter had enjoyed with Continental Europe as France, Spain and the Dutch Republic all took the side of the American revolutionaries.

Then came a series of protracted and expensive wars with Napoleon’s France (1793-1815). By the time these ended, Exeter had suffered 40 years of painful separation from the buyers of its woollen cloth.

The competition

However, war wasn’t only to blame. In fact, it just served to quicken a decline that had already begun. Exeter’s main problem was that it failed to keep pace with its competitors.

Exeter’s golden age began with a change in fashion favouring the serge cloths that it specialised in, and it ended by a further change in popular tastes. From the 1720s new woollen cloths known as ‘stuffs’ began to attract demand. Their manufacture was based in Norwich, in the east of England. Stuffs were a finer weave than Exeter’s serge cloths, and cheaper too. They were also versatile and could be combined with linens and silks to make new fabrics.

These advantages meant that Exeter and its cloth were abandoned by the old trading partners in Spain, Germany and the Netherlands.

A second competitor also rose to challenge Exeter. Beginning in the 1750s, the cloth trade of towns in West Yorkshire including Bradford, Leeds, Wakefield, Halifax and Huddersfield was part of an industrial revolution. By using machines in all parts of its production, and by concentrating work into factories, the Yorkshire cloth industry was able to produce in massive quantities, more quickly and far more cheaply than had ever been possible before.

By contrast, Exeter remained in a bygone age. In 1800, its woollen cloth was still being made in ways that had not changed greatly for several hundred years. The work was still carried out largely by hand in small city workshops and in farms or cottages in the country. To modernise would have required machinery, factories and coal, but this meant money and ambition – two things that Exeter’s tired woollen cloth industry lacked.

In the end

Manufacture of woollen cloth continued to decline. By 1861 fulling, which had been one of the most common trades in the production of woollen cloth, employed just 13 men. The city’s proud part in the nation’s history of cloth-making was nearing its end.

The industry may have withered, but it left a legacy. Tuckers Hall, the place where you are standing, continued to be the home of the Incorporation of Weavers, Fullers and Shearmen long after these trades vanished. With the Incorporation and with this building Exeter’s long association with the woollen cloth industry has endured.

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