Gloving in Tintinhull and the local area.
By Denny Robbins March 2007
The word ‘glove’ has Anglo Saxon derivations and the Saxon Lord would often use a glove as a symbol of his authority. In Tintinhull such a symbol may have been used to herald the opening of the 13 day fair, organised by the local monastery and held on consecrated ground, usually on a saint’s day – in the case of this village, in July.
Historically gloves were highly valued and often given in payments or as presents. In Tintinhull in 1265 Christina, daughter of Eustace the carpenter, rented 40 acres of land for the” price of a pair of gloves”, that is for 1d! They were customary gifts to reapers, especially if the wheat was thistly! As late as 1914 ‘glove money’ of 2/6d appeared on a harvest wages bill.
Locally we have a fine tradition of gloving. As early as 1212 this occupation was recorded in Ilchester and was first mentioned in Tintinhull in records of 1280. It was a major occupation in the Yeovil area from at least the C14th. In 1327 a Lay Subsidy Role for Tintinhull records the names of John Glover and John le Scynner, surely workers in the leather industry at a time when surnames reflected your trade! In 1378 an Act of Parliament allowed leather gloves to be exported. Then in 1382 gloves were permitted to be exported from Bristol free of taxes. In 1439 the Churchwardens of Tintinhull ordered ‘oil for clouting leather’, it was literally beaten into the skins. Local prosperity was assisted by Edward IV putting a ban on imported gloves in the C15th, a ban which lasted until the C19th. By 1793 gloving had become “a great trade”! Circa 1834, 300,000 dozen pairs of gloves were made annually in the Yeovil area!
Sheep were raised in large numbers in Somerset, but for wool and not, primarily, for their skins. In 1766 Parliament encouraged the importation of finer skins, sheep and lamb, from Spain, the north of Italy, the Cape and even some from Russia.
Until C19th the whole process of dressing was carried out by individual craftsmen; he was responsible for the preparation of the raw skin by removing its outer covering of hair and wool, and for the tanning, dyeing and finishing. Practically all of these stages were carried out by hand, mostly using nature’s products. Then it could take up to a year to produce a piece of leather, today modern machinery can do it in days.
The influence of the Franco-Prussian War, the coming of the railways (1840-1865) and the Agricultural depression of the 1870’s, which released labourers from the land to work in the factories, meant a period of great prosperity for the industry. In the early C19th some 20,000 people were employed in the industry within a 20 mile radius of Yeovil. In 1822 of the 858 families in Yeovil 680 earned their living from the industry. Glove making remained the principal industry in Yeovil until the end of the C19th and continued to thrive until the middle of the C20th. “In 1952 the area was responsible for 50% of the glove production in England” (K.E.Tulk 1952).
The C19th trade occupied whole families – father was a cutter,
sons were apprenticed,
his wife and daughters sewed.
Girls sewed from the age of 7 and were probably employed before that to “tie off the threads” left by the sewers. They generally worked for and were paid by a woman.
It was a trade that relied heavily on women, many working part time, to produce the goods. It functioned largely as a “cottage” industry, with the women and girls working from home, supplied by a “bagwoman”. In 1827 women were paid by the completed dozen pairs of gloves, earning 2/- to 3/- per week.
Boys, from the age of 10, were employed in the factory, pressing out the thumb pieces or packing. Later they were apprenticed to the cutters.
In 1826 Mr. J. Winter of Stoke sub Hamdon invented a treadle sewing machine which meant that gloves need no longer be sewn by hand.
In 1856 fully employed glove cutters earned 25/- to 30/- p. week
Leather dressers earned 21/- to 24/- p. week
Dyers earned 20/- to 25/- p. week
Leather parers earned 18/- to 21/- p. week
Women workers earned 4/- to 6/- p. week
Girls under 14 earned 1/- to 2/6d p. week in 1875
Apprentices earned 15/- to 20/- p. week
In 1875, Robert Southcombe, whose brother Richard had already established a factory at Stoke, opened a glove factory in Tintinhull, to the south of the village. They began making fabric gloves, but soon changed to leather. In 1899 they acquired the business of Thomas Ensor and Sons of Milborne Port and became known as Ensor and Southcombe. At the turn of the C20th they introduced the manufacture of gaiters and spats which did well until the 1930’s. The Tintinhull factory joined the larger concern of Southcombe Brothers in 1895 and in 1908 it was called the Tintinhull Glove Co. Ltd. Mr Estcourt Southcombe, of The Limes, took control of the factory and proved to be a great village benefactor, providing terraced worker’s cottages, the Working Men’s Club and a Recreation Ground for his staff before his death in 1946. In 1965 it was acquired by Southcombe Bros. of Stoke sub Hamdon and was managed by Robert Southcombe II.
The Tintinhull censuses make interesting reading:-
In 1851 there were 99 women and girls employed in the glove trade, the youngest being Elizabeth Shearstone, a girl of 8.
In 1861 there were 73 women and girls employed in the glove trade, the eldest was 64 and the youngest 9 year old Georgina Stone of 48 Farm Street (a property that no longer exists and probably sited opposite Tintinhull House). A 13 year old lad is also mentioned.
In 1871 there were 75 women and girls employed in the gloving trade; Mary Cole of 30 Vicarage Street was the oldest, at 78, whilst both Mary Gowler of 49 Church Street and Bessy Palmer of 33 Vicarage Street were the youngest, aged 11. Robert Southcombe, Glove Manufacturer, aged 35 and resident at Wisteria Villa, is the only male mentioned. This census predates the opening of the factory so could Robert Southcombe have already established a good cottage industry of female workers here?
The 1891 census paints an entirely different picture, remember the factory had now been open for 16 years, there had been an agricultural depression and the railways had arrived! There were 27 women employed of whom the oldest was Honor Tucker, aged 71, living at 3 Townsend, with 13 the youngest recorded age. Robert Southcombe, now 54, and his two sons are recorded as ‘glove manufacturers’ and count among the 24 males employed, most of whom have their actual trade noted. The eldest was Mark Darch of 2 Cross Tree Cottages who, at 69, was a leather parer.
During the 1914 / 1918 War the factory was largely engaged in the manufacture of officer’s gloves and khaki puttees. In its latter days it manufactured all types of gloves in grain, leather, suede, doeskin, astrakhan, and various fabrics, both lined and unlined, for ladies men and children. It exported a reasonable percentage of its products to many parts of the world.
Preparation of the skins.
The traditional way of curing the skins was a nasty, smelly and unhealthy job. Firstly the wool had to be removed. The skins were sprinkled with salt, thrown into pits of water for a day or two to remove the dirt. They were then removed and painted on the inside with an amalgam, the principal ingredient of which was arsenic. They were thrown back into the pit for another day, taken out and the hair and wool was removed by the “beam men” who used to wrap sacking around their legs to protect them from the arsenic laced water, a process known as ‘pulling’. They were frequently “pulled” to produce a finer quality skin. The removed hair was graded and used for weaving, in the manufacture of blankets, stuffing for furniture etc. The skins were then soaked in lime and water for about 18 days, in pits some four feet deep and each holding up to 70 skins. The lime solution got stronger over the 18 day period. Finally they were soaked in a mixture known as ‘pure’ a combination of dog dung, collected from the streets and sold for a pittance, bran and hot water. Originally bare footed young boys ‘trod’ them in pits in the ‘yard’, but later this was done by machinery.
The skins were now ready for further “washing” and “pulling”. Another “treading” followed, this time with yolk of egg in vast quantities. In 1828 the accounts of a leather dresser detailed 17,000eggs to the value of £44.12.6 whilst in 1960 21/2 gallons of egg are listed in the ingredients for dying sheep skin.
The skin was now ready for dyeing, the light colours being reserved for the best; a defective skin was usually dyed black. Historically wood dyes were used; Australian bark was used for tan coloured gloves. But in 1897 coal tar dyes were discovered and became widely used. Thin gloves were immersed in vats of dye whilst heavier gloves had the colour brushed on to them as a heavy dusty paste.
Paring was the next stage, firstly with the ‘crutch’ knife that fits under the shoulder and then with the smaller hand ‘paring’ knife.
The ‘sorter’ then made the decision ‘what type of glove’, ‘how many to a skin’.
This decided, the skins are ready to be made into gloves and need ‘cutting’. An oblong piece of leather is cut and inserted into a punch of the appropriate size, this is driven by a hand press. The same punch marks the stitching holes for the ‘points’, the three rows of stitching running down the back of each glove. The men’s work is now finished and the ladies step in, either sewing at home(cottage industry) or in the factory.
Finally the gloves were put on a hot last, finished off, ironed, polished and packed in boxes in dozens.
Historically, the mortality rate in the industry was quite high; with the high temperatures and confined working spaces; ‘consumption’ was very prevalent. And the hours were long in the 1920’s girls worked from 5am to 8pm, with an hour for lunch, and then may have taken 10 dozen gloves home to ‘tie off’ the ends for 21/2d per dozen.
Men were the mainstay of the work force, even though it was dependent on the women for the sewing. The male ‘cutters’ were often self employed, working in a shed in the back yards of their homes. This was an experienced job; initially cutters served a 7 year apprenticeship, but by 1934 it was down to 4 years. Tintinhull fathers would insist that their sons followed this route into manhood.
The Rice family are an excellent example of this succession in the trade. George Henry Rice was a cutter in the early C20th. He had 9 offspring of whom 7 followed him to ‘the factory’ – Frederick, Wilfred, Cyril and Sydney were apprenticed as cutters whilst Hilda, Beat and Mildred were also employed there.
Lewis Rice, grandson of George, worked in the factory, aged 15 in 1940, after completing Grammar School. He was set to ‘sort and pack’ and did a 60 hour week for 9/6d. 9 months later he was working in ‘the yard’, with the wet skins and the awful stench, for a princely £2.9.6, but it was “heavy, filthy, degrading work” and he quickly escaped for the adventures of WWII! At this time, he recalls, the Tintinhull factory employed some 30 - 40 cutters and some 40 – 50 ladies upstairs making the gloves.
In 1980 about 580,000 dozen gloves were produced by 10,000 workers locally, the use of machinery had a huge influence on production! But, sadly, during the C20th the industry was hit by competition from the Far East and by the manufacture of synthetic leather. The former caused the Tintinhull factory to close in March 2001 after providing valued employment in the village for 126 years. The building, off Montacute Road, has since been converted to housing.