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Joseph Wippell was the seventh child of a long established farming family from Thorverton, north of Exeter. He married his cousin Jane in 1802, and the couple made their way to Exeter, for Joseph to pursue a career in trade. He decided that as woollen exports were in a slump due to the Napoleonic Wars, he would go into the grocery trade. An astute move, for even in bad times people have to eat.
An advert in Trewman's Exeter Flying Post, 27th May 1802 wrote:
'Joseph Wippell, grocer and tea dealer, begs to inform his friends and the public that he has taken Mr Thos Bickham's Grocery trade and continues to carry it on in the same house nearly opposite Milk Lane, further he assures them that the orders they may favour him with will be executed on the most reasonable terms. Joseph Wippell has just received a fresh assortment of genuine teas and new sugars well worth the attention of the public.'
The new enterprise was at 175 Fore Street, roughly where British Home Stores is now. Joseph and Jane produced six children, moving his family to St David's Hill as business prospered.
Their eldest son Joseph Jnr, married Elizabeth Pearse and was set up in a drapery business by his father.
Trewman's Exeter Flying Post, 7th August 1834 announced:
'Woollen Draper, 219 High Street, Exeter, 1st August 1834--Wm Arden respectfully announces his retirement from the above business and takes this opportunity of expressing his best acknowledgements to the Nobility, Gentry and Public for the distinguished patronage with which he has been liberally honoured and solicits continuance of the same for Mr. Joseph Wippell Jnr whom he with confidence recommends as his successor.'
Business was good, but the young Joseph wanted to grow the business, so he decided that the best way to do that was to develop new enterprises. He quickly established himself in tailoring, as a funeral director and a decorator of churches. He was described as a 'mercer and church decorator' in 1847. Wippell developed links with the Royal Worcester Company so that he could offer encaustic tiling and marble work. It was in 1851, that Wippell's displayed their services at the Great Exhibition. Soon after, the business was renamed, J Wippell and Company, and continued to operate from the High Street. When Joseph Jnr retired in 1879, one of his nine children, Henry Hugh took over the business.
Britain was a confident country at this time, with an expanding Empire. Invention and innovation drove business, and Henry Hugh Wippell was no exception. There was in the late 19th century, a period of Church of England building and restoration. This was the era when some lovely Norman and later church interiors, had a shall we say, Victorian makeover. As a founding member of the Exeter Gas and Light Company, Wippell gained contracts to install gas lighting into church premises and then other institutions. Many schools were church aided so he secured Royal Patent Letters on the design of school furniture.
A fire in the High Street, in 1882, destroyed property stretching back to Cathedral Yard. This was an opportunity for Henry Hugh to buy the incinerated site and build an architect designed four-storey shop and factory. He also purchased land and buildings around the city for his expanding manufactory. Never a one to shun progress, Wippell's were the first business in Exeter to install a telephone and one of the first to install electric light. In 1887, Wippell's opened their first London showroom in Charing Cross and then in 1902, the business was registered as J Wippell and Company Ltd.
Henry Hugh Wippell married twice, and sons from both unions eventually joined the board of Wippell's. He became well respected in the city and was elected Mayor of Exeter in 1909-10 before dying in 1912.
The 1914-18 war saw two of Henry Hugh's sons join up along with many of their skilled craftsmen. This however, did not prevent Wippell's from supporting the war effort by manufacturing uniforms. After the war, the company expanded to Manchester and London, and travelling representatives were located around the country. Wippell's representatives made frequent trips to the USA and Canada to establish trade links. By 1922 there were two generations of the family in the firm, when Joseph Howard Wippell joined his father Joseph Wippell and uncles. Joseph Wippell died in 1928, but his brothers Ernest Henty and Donald Hugh continued to run the business through the economically difficult 1930's. The company's reputation for quality church craftsmanship had been recognised, and the Diocesan Advisory Committee recommended Wippell's, for many contracts.
The advent of World War Two meant many shortages of materials, and other resources, which were reserved for the war effort. Wippell's were contracted to make parachutes, rather than cassocks, and signal equipment and parts for torpedoes replaced crosses and chalices. Wippell's premises at 55 and 56 High Street and Cathedral Yard were lucky to escape the bombing even though there was much damage all around. However, their branch at 244 High Street, alongside Devon and Somerset Stores was destroyed by incendiary bombs. The firewatch had managed to remove many incendiaries, but when a large cluster fell together, they could not prevent an inferno. A high explosive bomb that fell in the street added to the fire by blasting out the windows, and fanning the flames.
After the war, continuing shortages meant that the repair and restoration of church premises were hampered, but gradually things improved and the outfitting of the clergy resumed in the late 1940's as many fabrics came off ration.
Through the 1950's and 60's changing fashions meant new styles of ecclesiastical accoutrements. The growth of higher education created a demand for University robes and the quality joinery that Wippell's were famous for, saw an expansion into fitting out banks, university buildings and other public works. It was in 1983, 100 hundred years to the day after Wippell's moved into their High Street, Cathedral Yard premises that the company moved out, to their present Buller Road head office. And 1989 saw the 200th anniversary of the founding of William Arden, Woollen Drapers that Joseph Wippell turned into one of Exeter's oldest, still trading firms.
Sources - Wippell's website. Exeter Burning by Peter Thomas and my memory.© 2005 David Cornforth - not to be reproduced without permission
The entrance to Wippells. Wippells headquarters in Buller Road. An advert from before the First War.
If you have a photo relating to Wippell's, and would like to share it, please contact me on the email address at the foot of the page.
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