George Stedeford - village tailor

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The Melhuish Family

The Melhuish Family - village tailors

Meet the Melhuish family (with whom the writer of this article has a family connection.) - village tailors in central Devon for many generations. The picture is full of interesting details - not one but two sewing machines, the tailor's iron - one of a set all differently shaped according to their purpose - three men sitting cross-legged on the table but most importantly, look at the group as a whole, working in close proximity and passing garments back and forth between them as the work moves through the processes leading to completion - one specialising in making buttonholes, another attaching collars, another pressing seams and so on.

In earlier time, tailors visited their clients in their own homes so the terrible conditions under which the actual work was carried out were seldom revealed. In this picture, we see an entire family huddled as close to the window as they can get, struggling to complete military uniforms for delivery in less than 24 hours.

Making military uniforms

Making military uniforms

Ready-made clothing is so easy to obtain today that we have forgotten how our ancestors coped with the problem of obtaining decent clothing. Old wills frequently show bequests of clothing - in Issue 22, we published the will of Mary Stentiford which distributed her wardrobe around her family in great detail; in Issue 28, you can read William Emmett Stentiford's will which disposed of his clothing to his brother before mentioning goods or property of any other kind.

There is a tailor among the English Stentaford ancestors of Eric Stentaford - a John Stentaford who, in 1800, was working in the port of Dock in what was called a "Slop Shop". These were the very first shops selling ready-made clothing (or "slops") for men; their customers were itinerants such as sailors or emigrants who simply could not wait around for "bespoke" tailoring. 

Until the end of the 19th century, working women would have made their own garments or, for special occasions, enlisted the help of the village dressmaker who also made stays and bonnets. Fabric was used and re-used and skilfully repaired if damaged, before being cut down to make children's clothing. Even so, women did visit men's tailors because they provided an essential service - they had the facility to bleach out colour and to dye garments black - absolutely essential following a death in the family.

Men's shirts were made at home. These were long garments, the back tails being drawn up between the legs as an alternative to modern underpants during the day. At night, the front and back tails were let down and the same garment was used as a night shirt. The village tailor provided suits for weddings (which a man would continue to use on Sundays for years after), working trousers and waistcoats. Stockings for all the family were knitted at home and boots, shoes or clogs came from the village shoemaker.

The 1851 census gives a figure of 599 for the population of the village of Atherington and its environs. No less than 5 tailors served the needs of this comparatively small population - Robert Gibbs, George Loosemore and Richard Slee all had tailoring businesses of their own, providing competition for George Stedeford, who in the absence of a son of his own, took his grandson Thomas Beer into partnership in his declining years. Two dressmakers - Mary Ann Govier and Sally Loosemore were on hand to cut down adult clothing for children or to provide finery or mourning clothes for the women of the village.

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  Last modified:
30/09/2005