The felt hat industry of Bristol and South Gloucestershire, 1530-1909

  • Christopher John Heal

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy (PhD)


This thesis reconstructs the felt hat industry of Bristol and South Gloucestershire from its arrival in the region about 1530 until its local demise in 1909. It is a reinstatement and interpretation of a local industrial powerhouse largely neglected by Bristol's historians. The extent and influence of the trade through its ownership, employment and markets, and the lives of its workers, is discussed. No previous work has investigated the subject. There were studies of the early London hatters (Unwin, 1900-1904), those in the north west (Housley, 1929 MA; Giles, 1959; Turner 1986 MSc), and a national perspective, emphasizing one dominant firm (Smith, 1980 PhD).1 Early manufacture around the city soon led to a dispute over civic monopoly. Until the eighteenth century, the feltmakers of South Gloucestershire serviced the Bristol wholesalers and became the admired princes of the 'rough' trade.' At the acme, about 1,000 men were employed to make hats that satisfied the city's merchants in their domestic arrangements and in their overseas trade, principally in the colonies and in the slave business. About 1800, London interests displaced those of Bristol; the low-wage, high-skilled village workforce became a dependency of the capital. Through all this time, the men had a determined commitment to unchanging craft skills and a firm control of craft entry. The industry died as a backwater after enervating fights against legislation, innovation, capital and mechanisation. Few British institutions, let alone industries, can offer an historical view covering nearly 400 years of English development. The regional felt hat trade brushed against, and was sometimes in conflict with, much of the national regulation and taxation of markets and employment, and gives a particular and often surprisingly refreshing perspective. The reality on the ground, away from broader theory, is often unexpected.'
Date of Award2012
Original languageEnglish
SupervisorRichard D Sheldon (Supervisor) & Evan T Jones (Supervisor)

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