b_960_960_16777215_00_images_landscape__0013_Exeter_Map_Line_Drawing.jpgBefore Exeter's Cloth Trade history can be told, one question needs answering: What was it that brought the woollen cloth trade and Exeter together to form such a successful partnership?

Exeter was a well-connected city. A successful industry needs demand for its output. Demand for woollen cloth came from domestic markets – the biggest being London, and from foreign ones – the most important being France, the Netherlands, Portugal and Spain.

In a time before railways and tarmac roads, the sea provided the quickest and most reliable way to ship goods over long distances. This placed Exeter in a good position. It stood at the head of a sheltered and navigable estuary. Turn east from its mouth and in a few days you could reach London or Holland. Turn west and the Atlantic Ocean opened the way to Portugal, Spain or even the Americas and Africa. Go south and within a day the French coast would emerge on the horizon.

But the city’s advantages didn’t just lie in it being a port. Exeter also held an important strategic position as the first point upriver at which the Exe could be forded in relative safety. This made it an important point for people, communications and trade going east or west. These geographical advantages allowed Exeter to become a busy commercial city upon which the whole of the South West peninsula came to rely. By the year 1000 the city was not only exporting the region’s woollen cloth, but other goods including tin and leather. In return it also became the importation point for many foreign goods in high demand; the most significant of them were wines and spirits. Over much of the next 800 years Exeter’s good connections were to serve the woollen cloth trade well.

A County of Sheep

For Exeter’s woollen cloth trade to flourish, a reliable source of its raw material was needed – wool. It was no coincidence, then, that the city sat surrounded by countryside which was intensely used for sheep farming.

Devon may have contained few very large farms, but it did have thousands of smallholdings, most of which kept modest-sized flocks. Together these farms supplied the wool which met the demands of the expanding local cloth trade. So successful were its farmers in ‘growing wool’ that in 1600 it was said that for every one person in Devon there existed three sheep. At this time, the size of Devon’s total flock exceeded those of every other English county.

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