By Stephen Mills
It’s easy to think that in earlier centuries, like so many others, our little workaday village had little to do with the outside world. It’s true that many villagers didn’t stray too far – it’s only a generation ago that a visit to the bright lights and shops of Gloucester was a day out to remember! However, this only paints part of the picture, as Eastington was once well-known (both nationally and internationally) for the range and quality of the cloth produced in its mills.
The name ‘Hooper’ has come up in several previous articles, and it was thanks largely to the efforts of two generations of the family that woollen cloth produced in Eastington’s mills found a place in some of the most prestigious exhibitions around the world. Under the management of Charles Hooper, and later, his son, Charles Henry Hooper, Eastington cloth went on to win both praise and awards.
The Hoopers must have appreciated the effectiveness of good advertising and invested a lot in promoting their wares at major exhibitions. The first we know about was the remarkable Great Exhibition, held in the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park, London, in 1851. Even today, everyone knows about this – it was probably the most successful, memorable, and influential cultural event of the 19th century.
The ‘Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations’, to give it its full name, displayed 13,000 exhibits and was visited by over six million people – it’s thought that a third of the entire British population visited at some point. The exhibition was the first ever international exhibition of manufactured products and inspired a series of similar fairs in other cities. Eastington cloth was displayed and promoted at many of these.
At the Crystal Palace, half the exhibition space was given over to British manufacturers, and the other half to foreign countries. Textile and woollen products were exhibited in the part known as Bradford Court.
Hooper’s entry in the catalogue of exhibits describes:-
cloths, wool-dyed, woaded, piece-dyed, etc. Single-milled cassimere. Patent elastic trousering and gloving material.
The last one is particularly interesting and hints at the competitive market that Charles Hooper was operating in. Unlike many of his local counterparts, he was not averse to trying out new ideas, one of which was the successful development of an elasticated material used initially for gloves, and later, for making trousers. As the material became more established, it became known widely as ‘Hooper’s Lustres’ and its use spread to the manufacture of great coats. So novel was this elasticated material that Hooper was awarded a prize medal in the exhibition’s Woollen and Worsted section. It was noted that:
only two novelties had been produced in the preceding decade, one of which was the newly-developed elastic gloving cloth developed by Charles Hooper.
The material was to prove very popular in the clothing trade for several decades. It’s not clear which of his mills were directly involved, but it seems likely that at least part of the manufacturing process was carried out in the tall central building of Fromebridge Mill. At the time of the Great Exhibition, amongst other textile workers recorded at the mill, the 1851 census noted the presence of “elastic winders”. It’s such a unique occupation that there has to be a link.
Eastington-made cloth was destined to be promoted at a series of major events in the years following the Great Exhibition. For example, 1862 saw the opening of The International Exhibition, or Great London Exposition, in South Kensington, where types of cloth produced in our village included superfine black, scarlet, coloured cloth, doeskins, and elastics. Clearly, the elasticated fabric was still in demand. The exposition featured over 28,000 exhibitors from 36 countries. Eastington cloth must have been viewed by countless thousands and garnered a lot of interest.
However, on a personal front, not all was going well for Charles Hooper (but that’s a story for another time).
Others events followed that included the Vienna Universal Exhibition, or World Fair, of 1873, and a major show in Paris in 1878. In Vienna, Charles Henry Hooper displayed examples of Eastington-made West of England Superfine Broadcloths, Military and Hunting Cloths, Doeskins, Cassimeres and other Trouserings, Carriage Lining and Livery Cloths, Beavers, Meltons, Venetian, and Kerseys (names that now mean little to most of us!).
In August 1878, the Stroud Journal reported on Hooper’s success at the Paris exposition, noting that the judges had:
found Hooper’s exhibit that included his elastic cloth and a diagonal coating woven under a new patent, by far the most remarkable in the place.
Eastington cloth made it beyond Europe to several major events in the USA. 1876 saw the opening of the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia. Charles Hooper & Co’s products were located in the main exhibition building and included an array of lengths of woollen cloths, broadcloths, military cloths, and skins, all in a hanging display.
This was followed in 1893 by The World’s Columbian Exposition, or the Chicago World’s Fair, organised to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ arrival in the New World in 1492. It was the biggest fair yet, and no less than forty six countries had pavilions there. Remarkably, more than 27 million people visited during its six-month run. Hooper and Eastington were once again represented with a display that included:
West of England fine cloths: coatings, trouserings, serges, military (scarlet), naval (blue), carriage, livery, cricket and tennis, billiard, piano, printers’, gloving cloths. Speciality: Hooper’s “warpless elastic cloths.”
The exposition was a great success but it ended on an unexpected note as the city’s mayor was assassinated two days before it finally closed.
So, our village may lack grand houses and celebrity residents, but the name ‘Eastington’ was once well known and respected by those who knew the difference between their Cassimeres and Kerseys!