Torrington as a borough dates from the late 12th century and in its early days the town flourished on its markets and fairs. Agriculture was Torrington’s primary industry when the main essential was the cultivation of land and the production of food.
The 14th century saw the beginning of the great woollen industry in England and by the 15th century ‘Devonshire kerseys’ had become famous. Local place names reflect the manufacture of woollen cloth: Tucking Mill meadow, Staple Vale, Rack Park (fields where cloth was stretched out on racks to dry).
Glove making developed during the thriving wool industry in the 17th century and replaced it as Torrington’s major employer in the 19th century. By the 1830s some 3,000 women were employed in the making of kid, chamois, beaver and other sorts of gloves for the London and foreign markets. ‘White’s Gazetteer’ of 1850 lists the names of 13 glove makers in the town. As the smaller establishments disappeared, machines began to be introduced into the larger ones, at first worked by hand on the premises and then by hot air, steam and gas engines. In the 1880s one factory alone had more than 600 employees, both in the factory and as outworkers. By the 1940s there were three glove factories in the town, the last of which closed in 2010. The large imposing Grade II listed building in Whites Lane, the former Vaughan Tapscott glove factory built in 1884 in the style of a grand chapel, was closed in 2002. Since then it has stood forlorn and increasingly derelict.
Many of the old local crafts and trades that were carried on in Torrington have long since disappeared. (See list in ‘Torrington Uncovered’ p.66).
In the second half of the 20th century the main factories in Torrington employing a large proportion of the town’s population were the Dairy Crest creamery, the North Devon Meat factory and Dartington Glass. The presence of three fairly large, labour-intensive employers was a strength from the 1960s to the 1980s but by the early 1990s had become a weakness – too many eggs in too few baskets – and all three were badly affected by the recession.
There had been a dairy at Taddiport since 1874 but in 1993 the milk factory moved its production elsewhere which meant the loss of 134 jobs. Other businesses occupied parts of the building for a while but it has stood empty and vandalised for many years and plans to demolish it and build on the site have come to nothing.
In its heyday, North Devon Meat which opened in 1967 was the largest meat factory in Europe and employed 400-500 people. In the early 1990s 100 workers were made redundant and then part of the building burnt down in 2001 when 250 people lost their jobs. The company was taken over by St Merryn Foods based at Bodmin in Cornwall.
In 1992, during the recession, Dartington Glass had to put its staff on short-time but, after numerous management buy-outs and reductions of the workforce over the years, Dartington Crystal, as it is now known, continues to be a major employer in Torrington.