From the late 1700s, Exeter’s woollen cloth production went into terminal decline. A combination of changing fashions, competition and war meant that by the time Queen Victoria came to the throne in 1837 the trade was dwindling. Membership of the Incorporation of Weavers, Fullers and Shearmen was also falling. By 1840 it numbered just 75 freemen, and by 1857 this had slipped to below 40.

A further problem confronted the Incorporation: its membership was ageing. Instead of seeking an apprenticeship in a dying trade, young men looked for work in other parts of Exeter’s changing economy, including engineering and the railways. By contrast the Incorporation received a trickle of older men who had once worked in the woollen cloth industry and who now wished to join – often to allow them a chance of accessing one of its many charities.

In 1870, Benjamin Twiggs joined the guild. He was the last freeman ever to become a member. He was aged over 60 and had served his apprenticeship in the woollen cloth industry in the 1820s. By 1890 the Incorporation contained just two freemen. In 1894 the last of these, William Norman, died aged 88. With him went the centuries-old link between direct experience of working in the wool trades and membership of the Incorporation.

However, the Incorporation did not disappear. Since the 1700s it had been inviting a few outsiders to join and by the late 1800s these non-apprenticed men outnumbered the freemen. After 1870 membership of the Incorporation was restricted to just 26 members – the number it took to fill the traditional positions of Master, Warden and the Court of Assistants. Most members were now drawn from local businesses and had few, if any, links to the woollen cloth industry.

The list of Masters from the time includes tobacconists, a brewer, engineers and a tea and coffee merchant.

The Incorporation continued to function through the first half of the 1900s, but only as a shadow of its former self. Its charities remained, although awards were no longer restricted to members of the cloth trades and their families. Helping with the schooling of boys from Exeter’s poorer families became a focus, especially where this education was a practical one in manufacturing.

Members of the Incorporation continued to meet formally twice a year in what were known as Halls; once in May to elect a Master and Warden, and again each November 5th for a dinner. But these events carried little of the pomp and pageantry that had once been connected to the Incorporation. Finally, when the austerity of the Second World War began to bite, even these festivities were suspended.

Exeter’s Incorporation of Weavers, and Shearman began the second half of the 1900s in an uncertain position. Its trades had vanished from the economic life of the city, while its membership was small and met only occasionally. Perhaps, if it had not been for Tuckers Hall, the Incorporation would have slid quietly away. But the building gave the Incorporation a home, and its preservation gave its members a reason for continuing.

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