(We have provided a video of the Hatting histroy, click the image or text at the beginning of this sentence to open a separate internet page to watch the movie.)
The earliest felt caps were knitted in the round from yarn, then felted in troughs of fullers earth. This capping trade was carried on in Coventry from medieval times. Hatting spread to Atherstone in the 17th century. In 1672, Samuel Bracebridge, a "Haberdasher of Hats" (i.e. a merchant) was supplying materials to cottage feltmakers. Atherstone was well suited to the trade because of a plentiful supply of water and fuel.
In 1696 Joseph Hatton, feltmaker, wrote his will:
"In the Workhouse 2 poore old kettles & 3 Sorry Basons and Hattblooks & other old lumber"
Valued at 9 shillings and 4 pence.
Before factories were built, felt hats were made in small workshops in the yards behind houses in the town. Using a ‘feltmaker's bow’, the feltmaker would produce a bundle of wool, termed a "batt”. The batt was separated into two equal parts of a roughly triangular shape and pressed gently between a hurdle and a piece of leather. It was then taken to the "bason", an iron plate over a small hearth where the feltmaker pressed it, sprinkled water over it, and worked the wool gently so that it began to felt.
The two triangles were then folded together into a cone shape with a piece of cotton cloth inside to prevent the sides felting together. Using steam and pressure the men worked the felt form until it shrank to almost a third of its size. Next the felt hood was dried, stiffened and blocked.
Trimming was done by the women of the family, often outside on sunny days as most of the workers lived in the ‘yards’ where there was very little room indoors. By the 1790s a number of hatters workshops had become established in Atherstone and many families were moving into the town to work in the trade. A shortage of land was forcing the intensive development of the yards behind the houses. Narrow dwellings lined the yard and a hatters’ workshop often stood at the far end.
The hatters’ homes in Bingham's Row (Wildays's Terrace)
Census-taking started in1851 and this and subsequent records show that half the houses in Bingham’s Row had a hatter as the main breadwinner. Many had 2 or more occupants earning a living by hatting.
From the 16th to the early 19th century, hatting in Atherstone was a cottage industry, organised by five generations of the Bracebridge family. Cottage feltmakers collected wool from the Bracebridges, took it home and made it into hoods during the time they had to spare between tending their crops and their stock.
By the 1780s the Bracebridges had sold out to one of the most prosperous of the cottage feltmakers, John Wilday, who had taken an apprenticeship in London, and was also a banker. By this time specialised premises were developing. John Wilday's son, Joseph, set up the first purpose-built hatting factory in Atherstone.
After Joseph Wilday died in 1852, the premises were leased by Hall and Phillips.
Charles Vero's family had been hatters in Atherstone since 1786. His brother-in-law, James Everitt, was the son of a tallow chandler with a premises where the Somerfield supermarket is today. The two men formed a partnership on the eve of a voyage to Australia in 1851, where they set up a hat shop in Melbourne.
In 1855 Charles Vero returned and rented from W.S. Dugdale, a premises in the "South Backway" in Atherstone. Over the next fifty years, Vero & Everitt's factory expanded.
Machinery was introduced in the mid-nineteenth century, and Vero & Everitt filed several patents for improvements in the processes. Hats were exported all over the world from the factories built in the middle of the town.
Hall & Phillips relocated to Nuneaton. However, by the early years of the 20th Century there were a number of substantial hat factories in Atherstone:
Denham & Hargrave
F.J. Elliott & Co.
Thomas Townend & Co.
W.A. Hatton Ltd
Vero & Everitt Ltd
Wilson & Stafford Ltd
In 1986 only three remained:
Austin Aspden Ltd
Vero & Everitt Ltd
Wilson & Stafford Ltd.
Feltmaking in Atherstone ceased in March 1999, when Wilson & Stafford went into liquidation. Vero & Everitt Ltd continued to manufacture a small number of uniform hats in the town until the site was sold to ALDI.
Several empty factories still remain in the town, a reminder of the industry that gave Atherstone its identity and pride.
|Hat making scene|