Hat Making in Oldland Common
We now say ‘mad as a hatter’, but for the hat makers of Oldland Common, it was the mercury used to improve the preparation of the fur used for making hats and the fine dust in the felt making which caused them to have ‘hatters shakes’ and a form of depression. But drink may have been just as much a hazard. The hatters would drink to quench the tickly particles of fur. Ironically one of the Hicks family from Court Lane was christened ‘Sober’.
We would expect that coal mining or agriculture would be the largest employment in Oldland Common in the early nineteenth century, but surprisingly most of the villagers were hat or felt makers, making up almost half of the working population at the time of the 1841 Census.
The hat-making was mostly carried out as family-run businesses in their own houses or workshops, with narrow windows to reduce drafts for the felt making. At busy times the whole family including young children would be employed. Important families were:
Allsop, Amos, Andrews, Bailey, Bennett, Bowyer, Brown, Bryant, Chandler, Clark, Colborne, Conolly, Cook, Curtis, Davis, Drew, England, Flook, Fowler, Francombe, Fudge, Hallier, Hicks, Holder, Hollister, Howse, Isles, Jarrett, Lacey, Lowe, Maggs, Morgan, Ody, Pullen, Roach, Short, Simmonds, Scully, Skidmore, Skuse, Smith, Spill, Stone, Taylor, Turner, Williams, Wiltshire
These families frequently intermarried and keenly guarded their independence and the skills in hat making.
How they made the hats
Most of the hats were of felt construction with beaver or rabbit fur. As well as Oldland Common, the villages of Frampton Cotterell, Winterbourne and Rangeworthy were important centres possibly because of access to the imported beaver fur from Bristol, large nearby rabbit warrens, a source of clean water and low labour costs. Most of the hats were part finished and sent to Bristol or London for finishing. Many of the lower cost felt hats were exported to be worn on plantations by slaves.
Hat making was relatively well paid but the hatters had many children and often went through a slump in trade. Ann Fry of the Quaker family, wrote in 1812 of her visit to the area ‘…we again proceeded to Cabra-heath (Cadbury Heath) and Wollard’s Common (Oldland Common)…amongst the hatters…from the anxiety they labour under to provide for their numerous offspring, it is feared their good desires are too frequently overpowered thereby. From the high price of bread they have been compelled to begin upon their potatoes before their usual time, which it seemed would not carry them through the winter as heretofore’
By the middle the century, local hat making started to decline, not because of any change in the demand for hats, which were worn by everyone outside the home, but for a number of separate reasons. The local hatters staunchly opposed the introduction of non-union labour, they failed to mechanise their processes, the abolition of slavery reduced the demand and finally fashions changed with the introduction of silk hats – these were made of woven silk on felt or gossamer bodies, scoffed at by the felt makers as ‘rag and resin’ but led to dramatic decline for the hat makers of Oldland Common.