Cullompton. Report from the Industrial Archaeology Section

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Author(s): Hurley. Brendan; Year published: 2016; Origin: Section Conference Reports; Pages: 
Topic(s): IA; Location(s): Cullompton

Cullompton’s Industrial Past

Throughout the Culm Valley, the processing of wool cloth has been an important industry for centuries. The mills in Cullompton and its surrounding area are a physical reminder of this and other forms of manufacturing. As with other industries in Devon the early mills relied on water as a source of power whereas in other parts of the country coal supplied the motive force. A 400 year old leat provided a means by which water was brought into the town and used to drive the waterwheels of the Upper, Middle and Lower mills.

As was the case throughout Devon, tanning of leather was an important industry in Cullompton from at least the 16th Century. However it was on a greater scale and carried on for longer than in most other towns. The Selwood Brothers’ tannery in the south west of the town operated up until 1969 when the leather business was sold to a Yorkshire company. It survived two disastrous fires in the C19th and a further fire took place in 1958 when the scale of the operation can be judged from the fact that 100 men were put out of work. Other leather-based industries in the town included a leather dressing works which was founded in 1921 and employed over 110 people (closed in 1982) and a glove maker, Drevon and Brown.

Higher King’s Mill in 2010

Paper manufacturing is also a Culm Valley industry. Higher King’s mill to the East of the M5 has been the site of paper production at Cullompton for over 250 years. Originally the paper was hand made but a paper-making machine was installed in 1892 which continued in use for the next 80 years. Later machinery allowed a wider range of papers to be produced, the manufacture of which continues to the present.

A bell foundry owned by Thomas Belbie operated from 1746 in Shortlands Lane, Cullompton. This foundry cast bells that were installed in many of the churches in Devon including those in St Andrew’s, Cullompton. The business was moved to Exeter in 1850 by a later owner.

Cullompton was well placed for transport links being on the former A38 trunk road and adjacent to the main line railway. In 1844 the Bristol and Exeter Railway opened a station at Cullompton in the area that is now the site of the M5 services. The station was closed in 1964, a casualty of the Beeching recommendations. Whitton’s operating from Cullompton was one of the largest haulage companies in the south west. Originally a horse based enterprise it acquired a fleet of Sentinel steam lorries in the 1920s which carried paper products from the local mills to Bristol, returning with animal feed. The company ceased to be in private hands with the nationalisation of road transport in 1949.

In the twentieth century provision of gas and electricity became important to both domestic and industrial consumers. A company was established in 1920 to supply electricity in Cullompton. Its generating station in Tiverton Lane used a heavy oil engine to generate electricity at 210 volts. In order to meet demand in a larger geographic area, in 1927 the company was amalgamated with the Bradninch Electric Company to form the Culm Valley Electric Supply Co. The Cullompton Gas, Light and Coke Company supplied gas from the gasworks in Station Road from 1865 until nationalisation in 1949. Gas continued to be supplied from this plant until its closure in 1956.

Brendan Hurley

Photo from Wikimedia Commons – click on it for details

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