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The men and women of Atherington (and the surrounding villages) who had earned their livelihood in Devon's Wool Trade turned out to be  resourceful and inventive - they had to be in order to survive. As the market for their hand-woven serge dried up, they found themselves with a considerable number of sheep on their hands - or, more precisely, on the hilly pastures of this area of Devon which are ideal for sheep rearing.

 

Glove motif from factory

They turned their attention to the creation of leather from the skins of their sheep - a skill which grew to become the basis of a whole new industry - that of glove-making.

The skins of sheep and lambs were prepared by men and boys at a number of places in the North Devon area to provide a fine, supple leather known as "Chamois" (pronounced "shammy" locally). It was variously described in the trade as "Doeskin" or "Buckskin" or, even, "Dog skin" to make it more desirable but in every case, it was leather produced by splitting away and removing the woolly side of the skin, leaving an inner layer of a fine, softly pliable material, which was ideal for making gloves . 

Glove motif from the factory wall, Great Torrington

 

The rural network set up by the wool merchants created the basis for another cottage industry. By the beginning of the 19th century the pack-horse trains still went the rounds of the villages around Bideford but now they brought gloves in kit-form and returned to collect up the finished product on behalf of wholesalers in larger places like Great Torrington and Barnstaple.

It was dull, repetitive work and hard on the hands. A woman working full-time, six days a week seldom earned more than 7 shillings for her efforts but in the economy of this part of Devon, that tiny sum represented a useful addition to the household economy.

The 1851 Census reveals that, unlike their sisters in Devon villages where life was based around crop-growing and milk production, many of the female inhabitants of Atherington were working women in their own right. The majority of the working women in the village were outworkers in the glove trade but Sarah Delbridge kept an Inn and the local post woman was Prudence Stedeford who, in her younger days, had been a single parent. There was a schoolmistress, two dressmakers and a number of women still working at the thankless task of spinning.

If the glovers were badly paid, then pity these poor spinsters who were at the very bottom of the labour market. As the 19th century began, to earn a single penny, a woman had to spin 1,150 yards of wool - for each lb of wool produced she would receive 9d and if she were really industrious, she could earn 2 shillings and 6 pence in a week. As late as 1851, more than 20 women in Atherington were still carrying on this work, glad of the chance to earn anything that would help to feed their families.

 

Gloves became an important fashion item during the early years of the 19th century and various fabrics such as silk and taffeta were introduced alongside leather. The style of glove became more elaborate as long, embroidered or buttoned cuffs were added.

Machine cutting revolutionised manufacture and by the 1860s this large glove factory had been established in Great Torrington, not far from Atherington.

Even after the introduction of the sewing machine, outworkers still continued to do the more tricky processes by hand at home, and well into the 20th century, vehicles, bringing in the weekly stint of piece work, were a familiar sight in the countryside around Great Torrington.

The Vaughan Tapscott glove factory

The Vaughan Tapscott glove factory,

Great Torrington

Now finally closed

April 2004

 

 

 

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  Last modified:
30/09/2005