People don’t usually associate Devon with woollen cloth production yet in the 1700’s the county was the 3rd richest in England on the back of its cloth trade outranking the textile heartlands of Yorkshire and Lancashire. And why not? Our warmer climes and good grass make for good sheep producing good wool. It’s no surprise that by 1800 39 woollen mills existed in Devon employing 3000 looms with 3 out of 4 residents working in the industry.
North Tawton is at the geographical centre of Devon. Whilst isolated, history shows us a resilient and responsive town. With good wool at the root of its prosperity the community created a circular and sustainable economy where all other industry supported the rearing of sheep, processing fibre, turning it into cloth and clothing, making and mending its equipment as well as using the by products from these processes to create new enterprise. The censuses from 1820 onwards shows the town as having a tannery supporting leather workers, 12 shoe makers, 15 dress makers and clothiers and 22 tailors working alongside blacksmiths, engineers and of course agriculture.
The Woollen Mill existed initially as a corn mill with imprints of buildings in the current weaving sheds dating back to the 14th Century. We know North Tawton made cloth as part of a cottage industry during this time with 4 serge makers overseeing numerous looms in a home network with resources bought at market for each step in the process.
The creation of an independent fulling mill at the Mill site in 1558 suggests the town was creating large quantities of cloth. Fed up with the cost of sending it to the fulling houses in Exeter the Fulford family started their own in the town and this marks the start of the North Tawton becoming a wool town.
By the 1750’s the Fulford’s were the largest serge makers in North Tawton and embraced new technology to rent the Town Mills to create a large scale woollen mill employing around 600 people. Spurred on by the industrial revolution in the North the site developed a vertical mill system mirroring Arkwright’s Mills in Derby; the wool going in as raw fleece and coming out as finished fabric ready to be sold on – all on one site. Power came first from water and then from steam. At this point the mill became the largest employer in the area and the population of the town swelled to double the size it is now in 2015.
Fast forward to 1859 and the woollen industry in Devon has all but gone. Of the 39 mills only the Mill in North Tawton remains commercially viable and mill workers from all over the county have flocked to the town to find work. Its secret was building a strong community behind it and the town’s folk invested their skills in the cloth to create initiatives like the Devon Serge Warehouse where tailors turned the cloth into suits with a global reputation.
In 1880 the Shaw Family, well known philanthropic mill owners bought the Mill to add to their portfolio. It duplicated their ethos of creating and nurturing a community behind an enterprise to insure its success. They brought the railway to the town and increased the weaving sheds to the size they are now and changed the Mills power source to a hydro-electric plant that supplied electricity to the town This investment suggests fabric output was on a par to the Shaw’s Mills in Halifax some of the largest in the North.
The economic crash of the 1930’s saw the Shaw’s company fail and they closed the Mill in 1934. The town was devastated by the loss of employment and market for the raw resources. The looms were sold as metal to support the war effort and buildings were taken over by the Wool Board until 1992 as a Wool Grading Centre.