The clacking of hand loans was once a familiar one in Lapford. It is likely that there were once 20 or more looms in the village for the weaving of woollen cloth
—most commonly, serge.
Serge was Devon’s primary export commodity in the boom years of the counties textile industry in the C17 and early C18. Hundreds were employed in the various processes of manufacture and many more in sheep farming to meet the demand for wool. Lapford was one of several Devon villages where serge weaving developed as a cottage industry.
Wages were poor—in the 1851 census for Lapford five weavers were also listed as paupers—but for most it was enough to put food on the table and avoid the need for financial aid or the “indoor relief” of Lapford Poorhouse.
[box type=”info” style=”rounded”]What is serge? Serge is a type of twill fabric in which the horizontal yarn (weft) is passed over two, then under two, stationary yarns (warp) that are held under tension on a loom. This produces serge’s characteristic diagonal ridges on both sides of the fabric. [/box]
Weaving usually took place on the upper floor of cottages where the light and ventilation was best. Once woven the serge would have been washed. Two story linhays—commonly found in Devon for the storage of hay— were used for the drying and stretching the cloth. The longest linhay in Lapford was at the back of the row of cottages between Heathfield and The Forge and was known as “The stretch”. It was a cob and thatch building that ran along the southern edge of today’s Playing Field (then “Backfield”). It would have been long enough to handle the popular long scarlet serge cloths (24yards by 31 inches) known a ells. Washing processes could significantly shrink cloth, and with it weavers’ profits, so the stretching process was important. It involved attaching cloth to frames, or “tenders”, using tenderhooks.
Depending on the type of yarn used it may have been necessary to “full” Lapford serge to interlock fibres and improve waterproofing. The fulling process, locally called “tucking”, involved scouring and pummelling cloth. It may once have been performed manually in the village but small small tucking mills were available locally at Zeal Monochorum or Middlecott near Morchard Bishop.
By the mid 1850’s the fulling of Lapford serge is more likely to have been performed by the larger mills at North Tawton, South Molton or Exeter. Lapford Mill was a grain mill and there is no record of it being used for fulling although other grain mills were adapted to power both milling and fulling processes. It is possible that local wool would first have been combed as this could avoid the need the need for fulling altogether. This variety of serge was known as Worsted and was used for army uniforms and suits.
Looking up the main village street with Heathfield on the left followed by the four demolished weavers cottages.
Of the six cottages known as Weavers Cottages only two now stand. The “stretch” is long gone as is the wooden “Penthouse” at the end of the Smithy where horses were shoed. The 1909 map below shows the row before this demolition. An earlier 1840 map suggests the linhay had not then been built. It also shows cottages 1-4 and Heathfield combined. Was this part of the row being used to house a number of looms together in a factory setting?
In his book Memories of Old Lapford, Eric Challice recollected life lining in this row. He was too yoong to remember weaving but remembers the linhay, the groove on the floor worn by a loom treddle and the finding of weaving materials in the roof void.
Commencing with “Heathfield” and ending with the “Forge” there are seven dwellings in this row. Next to “Heathfield” lived the two Miss Martins and Ella their niece. The Martins carried on a dressmaking business and employed Minnie Beer as an apprentice. Minnie lived at Holywell Cottage with her parents. Next, Samuel and Mrs. Rounsefell with their family, Kate, Ethel, Jane, William, Henry and George. The three sons died in their teens.
My own home and family came next. My parents Samuel and Nellie Challice, my sisters Edith Sybil, Della Mary Cornwall, myself Eric Wm Hy, and my brother Arthur George. My father was the village blacksmith and Samuel Rounsefell was a railway signalman. Mrs. Elizabeth North, a widow, with her daughter Polly were our next neighbours. Mrs. North was employed as a non-resident housekeeper by the Kelland family.
The cottage next on, situated between Mrs. North and the “Forge” residence had been occupied by a number of different tenants. – Mrs. Betty Heale, a widow, with her son, Abram. Abram was a ploughman, and added to his meagre income by haircutting for men and boys. After the death of his mother, Abram moved to Exeter where he had brothers. Mr. and Mrs. Lawrence moved in from a cottage at Forches Cross to be nearer their daughter, Mrs. Samuel Rounsefell. Mr. Lawrence had been a farm worker. Mrs. Lawrence before her marriage had been a Challice. On the death of Mr. and Mrs. Lawrence, the cottage was taken over by Ann Challice, a cousin of my grandfather – William Challice. Ann, a spinster, had been living in Bristol, but in the eventide of her life had come home to Lapford. Ann was the eldest daughter of George Challice – Miller – of Lapford Mill. Ann died the 22nd. Feb. 1907 and-is buried in Lapford Parish Churchyard amongst her family. For some time before her decease, Ann had a niece, Mary Preece, also from Bristol, living with her. Mary, at Anna death, returned to Bristol.
The property known as the “Forge”, comprising of house, smithy and ancillary buildings was owned by my grandfather. He with my grandmother, Mary, and my aunts Ada and Emily lived in the house. My grandfather and father conducted the blacksmithing business until my grandfather retired in 1914 and my father took over. An exchange of residences was made at this time