12 things that made the Cotswold economy pt 1: Glove-making

Demand for Cotswold gloves stayed high until the 1900s

Demand for Cotswold gloves stayed high until the 1900s - Credit: Creative Commons/Wikimedia

In the first of our series on things that made the Cotswold economy, Hermione Taylor looks at the hardworking women behind our glove-making industry

In 1729, an apprentice from Burford was hauled in front of the Justices of the Peace for committing serious misconduct. They had robbed their master, had altogether ‘very much misbehaved’ themselves, and were eventually found ‘guilty of severall great misdemeanours’. After some deliberation, the apprentice was dismissed from their post – to the great relief of their master.  

Intriguingly, this apprentice was training to be a ‘glover’. Although the term is unfamiliar to us today, the Cotswolds once boasted a powerful glove-making industry, which sustained several local towns. And even more intriguingly, the delinquent apprentice, Elizabeth Webb, was a woman. Although largely forgotten today, the Cotswolds glove industry was the making of many Cotswold towns. And who was making these gloves? Women.  

Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire

The construction of Blenheim Palace in 1705 meant the industry kept up its royal connections, and Woodstock stayed at the forefront of fashion - Credit: Creative Commons/Wikimedia

The Cotswold glove-making industry has a long and fashionable history. The first Cotswold gloves were made of thick leather, and became popular with nobility who came to hunt in the Royal grounds at Wychwood Forest. Rumour has it that Elizabeth I even sported a pair of local deer-hide gloves when she was held prisoner in Woodstock Palace. The construction of Blenheim Palace in 1705 meant the industry kept up its royal connections, and Woodstock stayed at the forefront of fashion. The 1700s saw a trend for lighter, more decorative gloves emerge and the Cotswolds again thrived: water from the Cherwell and Glyme rivers developed a reputation for making leather particularly soft. Business stayed strong into the 1800s, and census data shows that the populations of Woodstock and Charlbury soared as people moved to take advantage of jobs with local glove manufacturers. A story from the 1860s even recalls a delighted factory owner having the church bells rung in celebration of a bumper order for 30,000 pairs.  

St Mary Magdalene Church, Woodstock, where the bells were once rung to celebrate an order for 30,000 gloves

St Mary Magdalene Church, Woodstock, where the bells were once rung to celebrate an order for 30,000 gloves - Credit: Hermione Taylor

Although the misbehaving Elizabeth Webb had a short-lived gloving career, work as a ‘gloveress’ provided steady income for thousands of women and girls in the Cotswolds. Paid work for women and girls in the 1700 and 1800s was more common than we might expect, and girls would learn the trade from the age of eight or nine. Gloveresses were usually flexible ‘outworkers’, working from their homes or gardens. Bundles of gloves and thread would be delivered to their houses, and pay for the last completed batch would be rolled up inside. This work often had to be squeezed around childcare and domestic tasks, and memories from Woodstock residents tell us how women would meet together in the evenings to share light and cheer each other along. Though outworking disappeared over a century ago, it feels as though we have come full circle: it is remarkable how relatable this set up seems today after our spells of working from home!  

Woodstock, Oxfordshire

By the 1800s, the Woodstock glove industry was employing 70 men as leather cutters but over 1,500 local women and girls to hand-sew the gloves - Credit: geograph.org.uk

Working full time, an outworking gloveress could probably finish about three pairs of gloves a day. This may not sound a lot, but the sheer size of the female workforce meant that huge quantities were produced. In fact, a typical glove factory employed many more women than men: by the 1800s, the Woodstock glove industry was employing 70 men as leather cutters but over 1,500 local women and girls to hand-sew the gloves. Leather cutters worked in factories, and their ‘skilled’ work paid well – they could bring home around 31 shillings a week, around three times the pay of an agricultural labourer at the time. Homeworking gloveresses, on the other hand, could expect to bring home between 8 and 12 shillings – a huge gender pay gap.  

Burford, Oxfordshire

Minutes of a Burford parish meeting in 1818 announced that the town intended to tackle poverty by designating someone to teach ‘one person in every poor family to make gloves’ - Credit: Creative Commons/Wikimedia

These low wages were just a third of male earnings, and almost certainly underestimated the skill required in the intricate hand sewing of gloves. But there is a more optimistic interpretation: by bringing home as much as a male farmworker, gloveresses could double a family’s take home pay and provide a bulwark against fluctuating farming wages. It also gave women and girls access to significant income to spend, and with it, a greater say in family and community decisions. The Cotswolds economy at the time was still heavily reliant on agriculture, and the stability provided by the gloving industry was well recognised. Minutes of a Burford parish meeting in 1818 even announced that the town intended to tackle poverty by designating someone to teach ‘one person in every poor family to make gloves’. 

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Despite its importance, very little trace of the glove-making industry still remains. Demand for Cotswold gloves stayed high until the 1900s, buoyed by orders from the army, who wore thick, white leather gloves until the First World War. But by the 1930s, factory production began to take off, meaning that there was no longer any need for the female hand-sewers, and that leather cutting became a mechanised process. As production methods changed, so did fashion. Styles like driving gloves became steadily less popular over the post-war years, and by 1960, Woodstock’s glove factories had all closed.  

River Glyme

The River Glyme: water from here, as well as the Cherwell, developed a reputation for making leather particularly soft - Credit: Creative Commons/Wikimedia

But if you look closely, some remnants of the gloving industry can still be seen. Woodstock today boasts a Glovers House, Glovers Close and Glover Mews, and you will find plaques next to some grand residential properties on Oxford Street which reveal their surprising manufacturing past. There are also tell-tale Glovers Yards, Glovers Lanes, Glovers Courts and Glovers Ways all over the Cotswolds, immortalising the thrumming industry of the glove factories that once stood there. But no trace remains of the thousands of female outworkers. Was their work at home all too easily overlooked? Was ‘Gloveresses Close’ too much of a mouthful? Whatever the case, not a single street or building name remains today to mark the thousands of female workers.  

Oxford Street, Woodstock

Oxford Street, Woodstock: once the site of several glove factories - Credit: PL Chadwick/geograph.org.uk

Though little trace of their work remains today, there is a heartening piece of evidence to suggest that their role wasn’t so overlooked at the time. In 1851, a Woodstock woman, called Elizabeth Money visited London’s Knightsbridge. She had travelled to the Great Exhibition, the towering glass palace set up to showcase the splendours of the Victorian age. The exhibit was a resounding success – when the writer Charlotte Bronte visited, she described how ‘it seems as if only magic could have gathered this mass of wealth from all the ends of the earth’, and over six million visitors attended.  

But Elizabeth Money was not one of them. She had travelled for business, and was there to represent her family, who were owners of one of the biggest glove-making factories in Woodstock. Elizabeth took up her stand, and displayed ‘gloves made from lamb-skins’ and ‘fawn-skin riding gloves for ladies’ to visitors from all over the world. Given the thousands of women and girls driving the industry, how fitting it was that a woman presented the fine glove-makers of the Cotswolds to the world. 

Opening of the Great Exhibition

Opening of the Great Exhibition - Credit: Creative Commons/Wikimedia

If you would like to learn more about the Cotswold glove industry, you can find some fantastic resources here: 

The Woodstock Glove Industry, T Schulz, oxoniensia.org/volumes/1938/schulz.pdf

Woodstock: Economic history, british-history.ac.uk/vch/oxon/vol12/pp360-372