Many serge weavers lived on the edge of poverty, even in full employment. But for their immediate masters, the serge makers, there was financial opportunity. Lapford serge-maker William Snell appears to have grown wealthy from the work of the village’s weaving community.
On his death in 1800 William Snell left a £1300 share of his estate to his three children (over £1 million today). The estate included a modern 6 bedroomed “Mansion House”. It is clear that William lived in relative grandeur compared to the village weavers whom he employed.
Where was William’s Lapford “Mansion”?
Land Tax records from 1798 record that William owned “Olden” and “part of Mill Estate”— his Will refers to it as “Oldings and Mill”. Sale particulars show that his land totalled at least 12 acres. The Olden surname was common in Lapford from the C16 to the late C19 and was invariably spelt Olding. The land referred to as either Olden or Oldings, and later as Old Den, is therefore almost certainly the same plot.
Left: the sale of William’s estate in 1800
The name Old Den still survives in Lapford today—a 1950’s wooden-clad bungalow (pictured right), built on part of William’s onetime estate.
Old Den was originally more extensive, reaching down the hill toward Lapford Mill. The “part of Mill estate” that belonged to William is most likely the continuing land below Old Den to the mill and the mill leat.
Right: Lapford, around the time of William’s death in 1800. His likely estate is shaded in green. This approximates to the 12 acres that he owned on his death.
The Mill estate included land between the mill leat and the River Yeo (part shown, in yellow) and the Mill Parks (shaded grey) which ran from the weavers cottages to the leat.
Intriguingly William’s estate runs between Lapford Mill and a row of weavers cottages giving the possibility that serge was woven by the top end of the estate and “fulled” at the bottom. Fulling involved waterproofing cloth by pounding it to interlock fibres. It was a process well suited to water mills.
Lapford Mill is known as a onetime grain mill, not a fulling mill, and there is no specific record of it handling textiles. But with numerous looms in the village it might be expected that fulling processes were performed locally. The purchase of part of the Lapford Mill estate by a serge-maker certainly suggests an intention to use the mill for cloth processes. It was not unusual for small mills to perform multiple functions – any process that could be water powered! In addition to the mill building (rebuilt after a fire in 1887), there was a second building backing the leat. This survived the 1887 fire but was nevertheless also rebuilt. Did the original building once house a second wheel, as at nearby Nymet Mill. If so was this used for fulling? We can only speculate.
There seems only once obvious candidate for William’s Mansion House— today’s Lowerfield House (then, known as Lower Mills). The house is mostly Georgian although some cob walls may have been part of an earlier farmhouse. The term ‘Mansion House’ indicates a place of residence, not a working farm. The large number of barns, if not for agricultural use, were perhaps used for the storage of serges and the cart house may have stored the vehicles used for their transport.
Higher Mill (now Barton View) and the Mill Parks were sold off by Samuel Challice in 1846. The miller at the time was George Challice whose son worked at Exwick serge mill—perhaps a further pointer to Lapford Mill’s association with the serge industry?
For centuries Lapford’s farming community had principally been divided on the basis of labourers, yeomen and clergy. But in Georgian Lapford money began to be injected from other industries, as typified by the building of Lowerfield. Stratification between rich and poor continued into Victorian Lapford. With the areas good hunting and fishing, properties like Lowerfield, Lapfordwood House, Hill House and Highfield became sought after by gentlemen of means. A period of village gentrification had begun!