The Exeter Cloth Dispatch Book, 1763-1765

We thank Dr Todd Gray for giving us an exclusive insight into the findings behind his new book The Exeter Cloth Dispatch Book, 1763-1765 from the Devon and Cornwall Record Society.

The destruction by fire of the Royal Clarence Hotel in Exeter in 2016 has led, inadvertently, to what has been hailed as Devon’s archival discovery of a generation.

During the summer of 2017 I had a trip to the Metropolitan Archives in order to complete research on the hotel for a monograph for English Heritage. I found I had exhausted my list of documents an hour before the archive was to close and turned to a supplementary list of other manuscripts of potential interest.  One of them was described as a Georgian merchant’s pattern book with connections to Exeter.

My first reaction on opening the volume was amazement: the colours are rich and as vibrant as when they were made in the 1760s.  The number is extraordinary: there are 2,475 individual pieces.

Most significant of all, it was clearly a volume dominated by Exeter if not exclusive to it.  Days later I was able to confirm that the book was the only surviving collection of original samples of Exeter cloth, the greatest export from the county of Devon from the fifteenth to the early nineteenth centuries. Millions of pieces of woollen cloth were produced but only a handful of samples survive in collections across England and the continent.

Within days I brought a proposal to the Devon & Cornwall Record Society, an educational charity which publishes documents, to publish a full-colour facsimile of the manuscript.  The difficulty was that there is no expert on the cloth industry of either Exeter or Devon.  My solution was to bring together twelve specialists who were interested in aspects of the cloth industry and commission contributions from them which, brought together, would explain what is a truly fascinating manuscript.

The Georgian originator was identified: Claude Passavant was a Swiss émigré who also brought carpet and tapestry making to Exeter.  He shared the city with a number of other immigrants, most notably the Baring brothers. Subsequent research has shown that a considerable number of cloth manufacturers were also non-conformists.

For hundred of years Exeter had acted as a funnel through which much of Devon’s cloth was sent to European markets.  It also finished the cloth, particularly in the dyeing process.  The city’s economy was built on cloth-making and the samples are noted as being either a duroy, shalloon, Sandford, long seconds, etc.  The volume hints at the vitality of the industry as well proves the high quality of the cloth itsel

By luck `bale books’ survive for these years: we were also able to include in the volume photographs of these records which match the cloth book notations with custom officials’ recording of the cloth and their market destinations.        

The eighteenth century was the height of Exeter’s cloth industry. By 1800 the city had been bypassed and London took over: the East India Company cut Exeter’s economic lifeline.  It was already losing out to other parts of England and by the 1830s the rest of Devon also found cloth-making was no longer economically viable. Passavant’s volume is thus a reminder of Exeter cloth at its zenith.  The manuscript was overlooked, ignored or unrecognised for generations but its recent publication has brought back to life an industry which was once the very heart of Exeter and Devon.  

DR TODD GRAY MBE is Research Fellow at the University of Exeter and the author or editor of a number of volumes on Exeter and Devon.

The Exeter Cloth Dispatch Book, 1763-1765
Edited by Todd Gray
9780901853639, Hardback, £22.75 or $31.20

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