The once wealthy industrialist William Maunder Hitchcock (b.1822) lived in Lapford for the last 25 years of his life until his death in 1894. He boarded quietly with James and Mary Crook at remote Little Hole, Lapford away from public life.

Those who met him during his years in Lapford may have been unaware of his past esteem and influence on the local economy. The Hitchcock family had risen from innkeepers in the coaching town of South Molton to rich woollen mill owners. They ushered in industrialisation which, in serge making villages such as Lapford, appeared to herald a rapid decline in cottage manufacture. The disappearance of the Lapford communities of Holywell and Calves Bridge are also associated with the Hitchcock family.

Were the Hitchcocks really to blame for the disappearance of two small communities in Lapford and a once thriving cottage industry ?

Higher Mole Mill, South Molton. It was managed by Hitchcock, Maunder & Hitchcock until 1866. It later became a shirt and collar factory. It has since been converted for housing.

William Maunder Hitchcock was born in South Molton in 1822.  His father, William snr (b.1779) part-industrialised serge manufacturing in the town. At Moles Mills he installed machinery powered by a 14ft wheel to replace the tucking mills that had “fulled” the town’s cloth since the 14th century. Weaving remained a manual process but he brought about efficiencies by moving some production from homes into the factory environment of the mill. For serge weaving villages such as Lapford industrialisation was blamed for the decline of the cottage manufacture. Livelihoods were being lost and industrialisation was sometimes opposed with violence: in 1833 William’s family were lucky to escape from an arson attempt on their home and factory. In reality the international serge market was in rapid decline as other textiles became fashionable. The efforts of mill owners like William Hitchcock served only to stave off the inevitable end of serge making.

Hitchcock, Maunder & Hitchcock

William’s mother was Frances Maunder who came from a Morchard Bishop farming family. Sheep farming and serge making were inter-dependent. Three of the Maunder family formed a partnership with William’s father and brother, Francis. They traded as Hitchcock, Maunder and Hitchcock. Their serge was used for the making of coats, cloaks, army uniforms and blankets. It was exported to markets across Europe, America, China and the West Indies. For some markets Long Ells (serges 24 yards by 31 inches) were produced. After his father’s death in 1846 William joined a reformed partnership with his brother Francis and Robert Maunder who ran the large woollen mill at Exwick. The business also operated Heasley mill near North Molton.

‘Looming’ disaster

When William Hitchcock entered the family partnership in 1846 he had huge responsibility. Hundreds of local people depended on the business’s success, from sheep farming families to the families of spinners, weavers, burlers, woolcombers, fullers and sorters. Unfortunately for William the serge market decline was putting his business, and workers jobs, risk. History had already shown a frightening scenario. In 1743, a bad trading year, the London Daily Post had reported that in South Molton—

“200 had died in One Year of Poverty and Gaol Pestilence”.

Cloth had long been Devon’s principle product. In the C17 and early C18 the county’s cloth trade enjoyed a boom period. At its height it is said that 80% of Exeter’s population worked in the industry. 300,000 serges were exported from the city’s port each year making it the country’s third port behind London and Bristol. In Lapford there were probably at least 20 looms (see Lapford serge making Q&As) with articles supplied mainly to Exeter, Crediton and South Molton. But the Napoleonic War and the American War of Independence cost the industry several of its key markets. The tighter weave of Norwich mills became more fashionable and in the north of England textile manufacture was becoming fully industrialised and steam driven. The monopoly of the East India Trade company came to an end effecting export markets and at home a repeal of a law requiring burial in cloth reduced some previous ‘dead certain’ sales.

In January 1847, only a few weeks after William had joined the family partnership, the Western Times warned—

“The staple trade of our county is in great jeopardy”.

Lapford census records clearly demonstrate the ensuring decline in cottage industry serge making:

1851
1861
1871
30 weavers
(including 5 paupers)
1 yarn spinner
10 weavers
(and 7 former weavers)
1 weaver

 

Lapford’s looms disappeared within a generation bringing hardship to individuals and the community in general. The name of William Hitchcock was probably unpopular in the village- to the everyday weaver he represented change, industrialisation and the transfer of work from villages to towns. But were industry leaders like William to blame? The efficiency efforts of William and his father kept the local industry profitable for some time despite the large drop in demand for serge. Devon’s cottage industry may, arguably, have seen a more rapid decline without these efforts. Villages like Lapford were strongly opposed to loosing work to town woollen mills, but to save the county’s texile industry as a whole William, and other mill owners, didn’t do far enough. Failure to fully move and industrialise textile manufacture within mills, as in northern England, left Devon with an uncompetitive product.

Many of the forces behind the serge market decline, such as the war with France and America, were outside of William’s control. He did on occasion lobby the government including the matter of tea which was bizarrely linked to serge sales. England had fallen in love with tea and the government had fallen in love with tea taxes. Trading with China over tea was difficult as the Chinese wanted few English goods in return. For years the government had pressurised the East India Company to trade with serges to help prop up Devon’s economy and avoid potentially catastrophic poverty in the county. Consequently two in every three Devon serges went to the East India Company. But after 1813 free trade laws removed the companies previous monopoly and without government pressures to trade in serges the East India Company’s orders for Devon serges dramatically declined. William Hitchcock was amongst the signatories of a letter asking the government to reduce its beloved tea tax in the hope that tea imports might increase and give more favourable trading conditions for the export of serges to China. Here, and on numerous occasions, William fought for the prosperity of the serge industry and the livelihoods of local people.

Lapford weavers had once been predominantly male – William Snell, John Challice, Roger Challice and Robert Challice are amongst the few Lapford weavers names recorded. As the industry declined William Hitchcock had to reduce weaver’s payments and they became too low to support a family. Work shifted to women who, despite being paid considerably less than men, used weaving to supplement the wages of their husband.  A hand-loom commissioners report stated—

“When this generation of weavers has passed away women will only find employment. There will be no weavers as a class. The work will be done (as in Devonshire) by the wives of agricultural labourers”.

By the 1851 census all Lapford weavers were women. The census for the Exwick Mill shows that the mills were attracting rural workers from a wide area. From Lapford came:
Jane Heard, 50 weaver
Mary Ann Heard, 14 wool sorter
Susanna Thomas, 20 hand loom weaver

Respect

For mill workers Hitchcock, Maunder and Hitchcock were generally respected as honest employers. Francis, like his father, was honoured with the mayorship of the town. In 1856 at the end of the Crimean War a thousand people marched through South Molton in a procession half a mile long. The factory worker’s children were given new bonnets and wokers proudly waved flags. The parade included a decorated loom and a banner read

“Success to the Power Loom weavers”

William must have been a proud man that day, but paradoxically the end of the Crimea war was bad news for the business. The Mole Mills had a wartime contract to provide the army with thousands of blankets, a contract that had kept the business afloat.

Bankruptcy

By 1866 the business was in real difficultly.The Exwick mill lay a burnt shell after a fire in 1861 and could not be rebuilt as it was only partially insured. William had steam-driven competition but Sooth Molton’s poor transport links made coal expensive and steam power uneconomical. The North Devon railway had not yet been built and South Molton still looked to Barnstable and the sea for its transport links. As other parts of the country converted to power looms the hand looms of Mole mills became old technology.

William’s modern East Street home, sold to pay off banking debts

Hitchcock, Maunder & Hitchcock was forced to sell Mole Mills and much of its other property and land holdings in South Molton. The sale included William’s prized modern home which he had built on East Street up hill from his mills. The sale particulars in the North Devon Journal read—

“A handsome modern residence in the town of South Molton now in the occupation of Mr. W. Hitchcock together with the splendid close of watered meadow known as Soper’s meadow and the stables and farm building therein. The residence contains on the basement commodious and dry cellarage, light and well ventilated kitchens, scullery, dairy and larder etc; on the ground floor lofty and well proportioned drawing, dining and breakfast rooms and library; on the first floor five bedrooms and two dressing rooms with servants apartments over the same.”

William retained a farmhouse at Parkhouse in countryside north east of the Mole Mills and farmed there in the later half of the 1860’s.

Life in Lapford

William’s association with Lapford was though his wife Mary Ann, daughter of Phillip and Mary Ann Kelland of Eastington, Lapford. Phillip Kelland died in 1862 and William was executor of the will. Phillip’s Eastington estate passed initially to William (though his wife) until such time as William’s children were 21. Given William’s financial difficulties the inheritance was fortuitous but the next few years were tragic for William, Having lost his business and house in 1866 he lost his wife in 1869, age 43, and eldest daughter Fanny, age 17, a few months later.

In the 1871 census William, then retired, was visiting the tenant of Eastington farm— it is not known if he was permanently residing in Lapford by this time— but by 1881 he was living with the Crooks at Little Hole and his children Louise (25) and William(21) nearby at Eastington Farm.

What was the reaction of Lapford villagers? Here was a onetime king of industry, associated with the disappearance of village livelihoods, now boarding with a simple thatcher and the bulk of his fortune lost..

Little Hole was a pleasant place. The house had 4 bedrooms with views across the valley. The Crooks had a 5 acre small holding with an orchard, meadow land, fields for produce, 3 bee hives, pigs, horses, chickens and a small diary. With James out thatching William probably did some of the day to day farm work.

William’s only son died in 1889 age 32 leaving just a daughter, Louisa Hitchcock. In 1893 she advertised for a woman to wait on an elderly man, presumably her father.

William died in 1895, James Crook and brother Francis died the following year. Francis like William lost his home and wealth and moved to boarded accommodation. When he died he left just £5. The North Devon Journal a had a few lines  reminding readers how the Hitchcock mills were “so well known in the last generation and added so greatly to the prosperity of South Molton”. There was no obituary for William.

Holywell and Calves Bridge

Louisa Hitchcock inherited the Kelland estate of her grandfather and what was left of the Hitchcock wealth.

Eastington House, buildings & land
Calves Bridge Cottage
Calves Bridge Cottage Cottage & garden
Holywell Cottage & garden

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