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Celia Fiennes in Exeter - 1698

At the age of 36, in the year 1698, Celia Fiennes, a non-conformist Scot from an aristocratic family embarked on a journey on horseback across England. It was unheard of for a woman to make such a journey at that time, especially when there was more interest in visiting the antiquities of Southern Europe. The following is her entry in her journal for when she passed through Exeter. She took the trouble to find out about the manufacture and trade in woollen cloth, for which the city was famous and carefully describes the process.

Celia Fiennes is often quoted in Exeter histories, but this is the first time the whole of her writings on the city have appeared on the web. I have changed the spelling to that of modern English.

Journeying from Cullompton, Celia Fiennes wrote.....

"From thence 10 mile to Exeter up hills and down as before till one attains those uppermost ridges of all which discovers the whole valley, then you sometimes go a mile or two on a Down till the brow of the hill begins in a descent on the other side; this City appears to view a mile distant from one of those heights, and also the River Exe which runs to Topsham; where the ships comes up to the bar; this is 7 mile by water, from which they are attempting to make navigable to the town which will be of mighty advantage to have ships come up close to the town to take in their serges, which now they are forced to send to Topsham on horses by land which is about 4 miles by land; they had just agreed with a man that was to accomplish this work for which they were to give £5 or £6000, who had made a beginning on it.

The Woollen Trade

Exeter is a town very well built the streets are well pitched spacious noble streets and a vast trade is carried on; as Norwich is for coapes callamanco and damaske so this is for Serges - there is an increadible quantety of them made and sold in the town; their market day is Friday which supplies with all things like a fair almost; the markets for meat fowl fish garden things and the dairy produce takes up 3 whole streets, besides the large Market house set on stone pillars which runs a great lengthon which they lay their packs of serges, just by it is another walk within pillars which is for the yarn; the whole town and country is employ'd for at least 20 mile round in spinning, weaving, dressing, and scouring, fulling and drying of the serges, it turns the most money in a week of anything in England, one week with another there is £10,000 paid in ready money, sometimes £15,000; the weavers brings in their serges and must have their money which they employ to provide them yarn to go to work again; there is also a Square Court with penthouses round where the Malters are with malt, oat meal, but the serge is the chief manufacture; there is a prodigious quantity of their serges they never bring into the market but are in hired rooms which are noted for it, for it would be impossible to have it altogether.

The Fulling Mills

The carriers I met going with it as thick all entering into town, with their loaded horses, they bring them all just from the loom and so they are put into the fulling-mills, but first they will clean and scour their rooms with them - which by the way gives no pleasing perfume to a room, the oil and grease, and I should think it would rather foul a room than cleanse it because of the oil - but I perceive its otherwise esteemed by them, which will send to their acquaintances that are tuckers' the days the serges comes in for a roll to clean their house, this I was an eye witness of then they lay them in soak in urine then they soap them and so put them into the fulling-mills and so work them in the mills dry till they are thick enough, then they turn water into them and so scour them; the mill does draw out and gather in the serges, its a pretty diversion to see it, a sort of huge notched timbers like great teeth, one would think it should injure the serges but it does not, the mills draws in with such a great violence that if one stands near it, and it catch a bit of your garments it would be ready to draw in the person even in a trice; when they are thus scoured they dry them in racks strained out, which are as thick set one by anotheras will permit the dresser to pass between, and huge large fields occupied this way almost all round the town which is to the river side; then when dry they burl them picking out all knots, then fold them with a paper between every fold and so set them on an iron plate and screw down the press on them, which has another iron plate on the top under which is a furnace of fire of coals, this is the hot press; then they fold them exceeding exact and then press them in a cold press; some they dye but the most are sent up for London white.

Dying the Cloth

I saw the several vats they were a dying in, of black, yellow, blue, and green - which two last colours are dipped in the same vat, that which makes it differ is what they were dipped in before, which makes them either green or blew; they hang the serges on a great beam or great pole on the top of the vat and so keep turning it from one to another, as one turns it off into the vat the other rolls it out of it, so they do it backwards and forwards till its tinged deep enough of the colour; their furnace that keeps their dye pans boiling is all under that room, made of coal fires; there was in a room by it self a vat for the scarlet, that being a very chargeable dye no waste must be allowed in that; indeed I think they make as fine a colour as their Bow dyes are in London; these rollers I spoke off; two men do continually role on and off the pieces of serges till dipped enough, the length of these pieces are or should hold out 26 yards.

This City does exceedingly resemble London for, besides these buildings I mentioned for the several Markets, there is an Exchange full of shops like our Exchanges are, only its but one walk along as was the Exchange at Salisbury House in the Strand; there is also a very large space railed in just by the Cathedral, with walks round it, which is called the Exchange for Merchants, that constantly meet twice a day just as they do in London; there are 17 Churches in the City and 4 in the suburbs; there is some remains of the Castle walls, they make use of therooms within side for the assizes; there is the two bars besides, being large rooms with seats and places convenient, and jury roome; here is a large walk at the entrance between rows of pillars; there is besides this just at the market place a Guildhall the entrance of which is a large place set on stone pillars, beyond which are the rooms for the session or any town affairs to be adjusted; behind this building there is a vast Cistern which holds upwards of 600 hogsheads of water which supplies by pipes the whole City, this Cistern is replenished from the river which is on purpose turned into a little channel by it self to turn the mill and fills the Engine that casts the water into the trunks which convey it to this Cistern; the Water Engine is like those at Islington at Derby as I have seen, and is what now they make use of in diverse places either to supply them with water or to drain a marsh or overplus of water.

The Exe and the Quay

The River Exe is a fine stream; they have made several bays or weirs above the bridge which casts the water into many channels for the conveniences of turning all their mills, by which meanes they have composed a little island, for at the end it again returns into its own united channel; those weirs makes great falls into the water it comes with great violence, here they catch the salmon as they leap, with spears; the first of these bays is a very great one; there is one below the bridge which must be taken away when the navigation is complete, for they will need all their water together to fill it to a depth to carry the ships, for just by the bridge is the key designed, or that which now is already they will enlarge to that place; just by this key is the Custom House, an open space below with rows of pillars which they lay in goods just as its unladen out of the ships in case of wet, just by are several little rooms for Land-waiters, etc., then you ascend up a handsome pair of stairs into a large roome full of desks and little partitions for the writers and accountants, its was full of books and files of paper, by it are two other rooms which are used in the same way when there is a great dealof business; there are several good Conduits to supply the City with water besides that Cistern, there is also a very fine Market Cross.

The Cathedral

The Cathedral at Exeter is preserved in its outside adornments beyond most I have seen, there remaining more of the fine carved work in stone the figures and nitches full and in proportion, though indeed I cannot say it has that great curiosity of work and variety as the great Church at Wells; its a lofty building in the inside the largest pair of organs I have ever seen with fine carving of wood which runs up a great height and made a magnificent appearance; the Quire is very neat but the Bishops seat or throne was exceeding, and very high, and the carving very fine, and took up a great compass, full of all variety of figures, something like the work over the Arch-Bishops throne in St. Pauls London, but this was larger if not so curious; there was several good Monuments and Effigies of Bishops, there was one of a judge and his Lady that was very curious their garments embroydered all marble and gilt and painted; there was a very large good Library in which was a press that had an anatomy of a woman; the tower is 167 steps up on which I had a view of the whole town which is generally well built; I saw the Bishops Palace and Garden; there is a long walk as well as broad enclosed with rows of lofty trees which made it shady and very pleasant, which went along by the ditch and bank on which the town wall stands; there are 5 gates to the town; there is also another long walk within shady trees on the other side of the town, which leads to the grounds where the drying frames are set up for the serges.

From thence I passed the bridge across the River Exe to Chudleigh, which was 9 mile...."

Sources: The Journeys of Celia Fiennes, Sixteenth-Century Exeter by W B Stevens.


Callamanco - a glossy woollen cloth checkered or brocaded in the warp so that the pattern shows on one side only.
Damask - a reversible fabric of linen, cotton, silk, or wool, with a woven pattern.
Coapes - cape
Serge - a woollen cloth using both long and short wool. It is 'fulled' to thicken it.

Coal - because of a lack of wood, the importing of coal from South Wales and Newcastle expanded. By 1688, 8,126 tons of coal were imported and 6,540 tons of culme (coal dust) which was more usually used for heating the vats.

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