The Woolen Trade in the 17th and 18th Century

This is an excerpt from a book published in 1923 by Joseph Hoyland Fox, called "The Woollen Manufacture at Wellington, Somerset; Compiles from the Records of an Old Family Business." It describes a major woolen trade route, from Minehead on the western coast of Somerset (for the import of cotton from Ireland) to the port at Topsham on the east coast of Devon where ships exported wool and cloth to markets in Europe. 

pp. 8 - 11

The early history of this serge business carried on by our ancestors takes us back to the latter part of the seventeenth and to the eighteenth centuries, and it is interesting to try to picture the conditions of life during this period, not only in England, but in the world beyond the sea. 

The means of inter-communication were very different from what they are at the present day. In our own country the roads were very bad, and the ordinary way of going from place to place was on horseback. To travel by ' post-chaise ' was a very expensive luxury, and there were few public conveyances before the introduction of the mail-coach in 1784. For carrying goods there were heavy stage wagons drawn by six or eight horses, and other stage vehicles, travelling very slowly, for the use of those who could not afford horses. It appears that as early as 1673 coaches ran between London and Exeter, making the journey in five days. The roads were infested by highwaymen and robberies were frequent. The mail coaches were first introduced by John Palmer, manager of the Bath Theatre in 1784. The first coaches from London to Bath took two days ; as they used the same horses, but the plan of having relays was soon introduced. As the system extended, it was found needful to improve the roads, and the turnpike trusts were started with the tollgates. Prior to the days of the mail-coach, the letters were carried on horseback at an average speed of 3 miles per hour. As they did not travel by night, letters must have taken about five days from Wellington to London; our forefathers, on horseback, about four days to go to London or to Falmouth the ladies riding behind on pillions. 

All goods for London and the continent were shipped from Topsham, on the Exe, and wool was brought over from Ireland to Minehead. Veiy little went to any great distance by road, probably some goods were carried by wagon as far as Bristol, but by far the greater part went by wagon through Exeter to Topsham, for transit by water. 

Early in the eighteenth century, two or three daily papers had been started in London, followed by the Times in 1785, but the early papers were only half-sheets, printed on one side, and can have contained very little information. Our ancestors at Wellington may have taken in some small weekly news sheet, published in the West, but Wellington being on the main road, they were not dependent on that, as many travellers on horseback would be passing through, who would carry a certain amount of news ; many Friends also would stop at Wellington. It is probable that a good many of the latter were entertained at the houses of Peter Berry, Thomas Were, Nicholas Were, and others of the Were family. Thomas Were's three daughters and five of 
Peter Berry's were married to Friends living at a distance from Wellington; the young men probably making the acquaintance of their future wives whilst being hospitably received at their fathers' houses. 

The large trade that was done with the Continent at that time was carried on in spite of such disadvantages as the heavy postage, 3s. 4d. for each letter; the enormous cost of the transit of goods ; the difficulty of collecting debts ; the risk of bad debts ; and the interference with trade by the frequent wars in which England was engaged. In the earlier part of the century by far the greater portion of the goods the Weres manufactured was exported to the Continent, and was mostly sent to Dutch ports, or to Ostend, Hamburg, or Altona, and thence distributed over the Continent. There were about eighty towns with which they traded, in some of them having several customers. A list of these towns is given in an Appendix; Holland, Belgium, Germany, Austria, France, Italy, Russia, and Spain are all represented. There were four customers at Botzen, the capital of Sud Tyrol, as well as three at Verona. The goods for these places were shipped to Ostend, Hamburg, or Altona, and probably carried up the Rhine as far as Frankfort. Thence by wagon over the 
Brenner Pass, the great high road for the goods traffic between the North and South of the Alps from the time of the Romans to the nineteenth century. The cost of transit from Ostend to Botzen and Verona must have been very great, but as the goods were shipped at Topsham f. o. b. there is no means of ascertaining the expense of the land carriage or of the customs duties, which I have reason to believe were considerable. 


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