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Town of Trades

An invitation from the local council led me to Ross-on-Wye recently. Ross is a smallish town in Herefordshire, close to the border with Wales and near the Forest of Dean. It lies on top of a sandstone cliff with wonderful views over a horseshoe bend in the River Wye and contains many attractive old buildings, including the Market House of about 1670.

My enquiries into the history of the town took me to 1855. This was a nodal point in its history, because on 1 June in that year the Hereford, Ross and Gloucester Railway Company’s first train steamed into the new station at Ross, to wild celebrations from the local people. The railway had a connection at Gloucester to main line services to Birmingham, Bristol and London. The comparative isolation and self-sufficiency of the ancient market town would be permanently shattered by the new ease of transport of people and goods in and out.

A quick look at the town directories of the time showed just how well the people of Ross, less than 3,000 of them in the 1850s, were being served by merchants and craftspeople in a way that is inconceivable today. To be sure, many of the trades and professions in Lascelles’ Directory of Ross of 1851 are still immediately recognisable and still represented in the town: accountants, auctioneers, greengrocers, confectioners, insurance agents, builders, solicitors, stationers and the like, though we would not now expect to find 13 bakers, 11 butchers and 30 shoemakers in a place so small.

Many of the crafts and trades reflect the agricultural nature of the locality: apart from the agricultural machinery works, the cattle dealers, farriers and licensed horse traders, the one tanner would have used oak bark from nearby coppiced woods to prepare and tan leather for local use by those shoemakers and others; it was easily the smelliest trade in the local craft lexicon, so was sited on the edge of the town. The four woolstaplers bought up the raw wool from sheep farmers in the locality, cleaned and graded it and sold it on either to other middlemen or to cloth manufacturers (their name goes back another 400 years to the royal desire to put all the traders in key commodities in one place so he could keep an eye on them and tax them; that place originally was the staple and this epithet was later transferred to the materials being traded, as in “staple goods”, and to the merchants who handled them).

The building trades are well represented, with carpenters, masons, painters and plasterers all listed. But why are all five of the plumbers listed in the directory also the local glaziers? The link is in the origin of the word plumber from the Latin “plumbum” for lead: both skills involved working with the metal, since the glazier would have used it extensively in leaded lights and so on.

The one dealer in smallwares would seem to have had plenty of trade from the town’s 17 tailors, 3 hatters and 23 milliners and dressmakers, since smallwares was a name then for fabric items which would now form part of haberdashery: ribbons, bindings, braids and the like. No doubt the six straw bonnet makers also patronised him.

It’s a little puzzling at first sight how five maltsters could exist in a town in which there was only one brewer but most of the malt, made from local barley, would have been sold away. The two local coopers may have got some of their work from the brewery as well as from local cidermakers, but the directory doesn’t make clear whether these are indeed wet coopers who made casks that could hold liquids, or white coopers who made ones for transporting dry goods like apples or corn.

As befitted an important staging post on the coaching route, and a town famed as the starting point for river trips on the Wye (popularised by the Reverend John Egerton the previous century) there was no shortage of hotels, inns and taverns: 21 of them altogether, including the Green Dragon, the Man of Ross Tavern (commemorating Ross’s most famous resident, John Kyrle), the Royal Hotel and Posting House, and the Saracen’s Head. The 15 beer retailers, who no doubt also got their wares from the local brewery, were a lower class of house to the inns, being merely purveyors of beer (and cider hereabouts), not wishing the considerable extra expense of obtaining a license to sell spirits. You had no lack of choice among the beer houses: they included The Trumpet, the Odd Fellows’ Arms, the Game Cock, the Full Moon, the Old May-pole, the Red Lion and the Rose and Crown. Curiously, there was also a Railway Tavern four years before the railway came, perhaps named by an astute publican preparing for the rush.

The Hatter’s Arms was so called because the publican, William Scudamore, doubled as a hatter. Such doubling up, or even trebling, was not at all uncommon in such a small place. Coleman Levi was a watch and clock maker and a gold and silver smith as well as being the local pawnbroker; Joseph Evans was the postmaster, but filled in time as a basket and sieve maker, a clog and patten maker and proprietor of one of the local pleasure boats; Blake Thomas was “agent to the Ball Line of Australian packet ships”, secretary to Baker’s charity, agent to the Norwich union fire and life assurance company and a “news and advertising agent”; William Powell Hooper, as well as being steward to the manor of Galway and town clerk, was also “commissioner for taking acknowledgements of married women”.

Another pub worth mentioning was George the Fourth’s Rest. This last was named for a famous episode when George IV came through Ross-on-Wye in a stagecoach on 18 September 1821, but was held up by a wagon at the corner of the Gloucester Road and High Street which obstructed his way out of town, and was forced to stay a good deal longer than he’d intended. The then Butcher’s Arms on the corner where he impatiently waited to continue his journey was renamed to commemorate the incident. Shortly afterwards an edict came down from London that either a better road must be built or Ross would be struck off the coaching route. The town so much depended on its coaching trade that a new Gloucester Road was accordingly made.

While we’re on the subject of drink, one puzzling omission from the list of trades is anyone named as having anything to do with cider, as that drink was a famous product of Herefordshire, and continues so to this day (cider in England being, of course, a fermented alcoholic drink). Though cidermaking was largely a cottage-industry business at the time, being made in farm ciderhouses mainly for consumption by the farm labourers as part of their wages, quite a bit was made for sale to pubs, and a lot was made by travelling cidermakers with portable equipment who would set up in farmyards or pub courtyards and make cider for all comers from fruit brought to them. Some cider was certainly sold away to Bristol and thence to London or even sometimes abroad (literally being sold down the river, as this was the usual way of getting heavy goods out of Ross before the railway came). However, a later directory does list Thomas Parsons of Alton Street as being a cider retailer.

I haven’t even mentioned the two basketmakers, the cheese and bacon factor, the dyer, the organ-builder, the two ropemakers (the ropewalk survives), the four saddlers and harness makers, the two stay makers (for corsets, using whalebone), or the three wheelwrights ... not to mention the iron foundry, the several flour mills and the withy cutters down Wye Street who weren’t grand enough to appear in this directory. Ross then was certainly a town of trades.

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Page created 07 Jan 1996