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Exeter Cathedral holds farewell evensong for Wippell & Co.

29 September 2023

Clerical outfitters, based in Devon, closes after 234 years

©Ella Foster Exeter Cathedral

Dean Greener leads the service at Exeter Cathedral, on Tuesday

Dean Greener leads the service at Exeter Cathedral, on Tuesday

MORE than two centuries of dressing the clergy, university members, and others were celebrated with a special evensong in Exeter Cathedral on Tuesday.

The outfitter Wippell & Co., which was based in the Devon county town, closed its doors this month (News, 26 May), after supplying cassocks, gowns, and mortarboards for 234 years. Its customers included universities in the UK and overseas, members of the Anglican Churches, the Church of Scotland, and Free Churches from Australia to Sweden.

The company blamed its demise on lockdowns, which created “difficult” trading conditions. Over the past two years, it said, it had lost hundreds of thousands of pounds through cancelled graduations and other face-to-face events. All its 44 staff faced redundancy.

Tuesday’s service was attended by employees, and some of its 40 pensioners, as well as by clergy, many of whose own robes had been made by Wippell’s. The firm’s chairman, Robin Richardson, said that it was “just wonderful” to see the cathedral’s Priest-Vicar, Canon Ian Morter, chatting to the woman who had made his surplice, and that it was “really heart-warming” to see the pensioners and current staff come together.

“I think it is excellent of Exeter Cathedral to put on such a lovely service — not just as a dedication to what the company has done, but for the individuals as well,” he said. “It’s an incredibly sad day, and I want to pay tribute to all my colleagues. Most people, including incredibly skilled embroiderers, seamstresses, and cutters, have worked here for decades, with many approaching retirement age. I want to personally acknowledge everyone’s dedication and craftsmanship.

“We are grateful to Exeter Cathedral for their support, and will, of course, always be grateful to our own staff for their hard work, commitment, and understanding. Some of these people have worked with Wippell’s for more than 50 years, and all have played an important role in the successes and well-being of the company over the last seven decades.”

The service, led by the Dean, the Very Revd Jonathan Greener, included a prayer of thanksgiving for the work of Wippell’s, which, “for one tenth of the Christian era . . . [had] adorned and beautified our places of worship and clothed and vested their ministers”.

The Dean said the cathedral community was saddened when it learned that Wippell’s was to close. “It is an organisation that holds a significant place in Exeter’s ecclesiastical history,” he said. “We hope that our thanksgiving evensong will go some way to marking this company’s remarkable contribution to church life, across the UK and, indeed, worldwide, for more than two centuries.”

Wippell & Co. opened in 1789 as a grocer and tea dealer, but soon added funeral services, and selling fabrics and tailoring. In the 19th century, it expanded to meet the upsurge of restoration and building in the Church of England, eventually running outlets in Exeter, Manchester, Westminster, and New Jersey in the United States.

The company is one of the oldest manufacturers in England. It was the first business in Exeter to install a telephone, and the first to convert from gas to electric lighting. Today, it still has the address Exeter PO Box 1.

During the world wars, the company switched to supplying military equipment, including parachutes, signal devices, and torpedo mechanisms, and, during the pandemic, it made scrubs and face masks for the NHS. It has also made costumes for Madame Tussauds, the US TV company HBO, TV shows, including Coronation Street and Emmerdale, and the theatre, including the long-running musical Sister Act.

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