25 June 1811: The Throckmorton coat challenge

These days we’re so used to machine manufacturing that we can pluck a coat off the rack and not stop to think on the processes it took to get it there. But in 1811, the technological advancements brought about by the industrial revolution were viewed with open-mouthed wonder.

That year, having probably had a little too much wine, a wealthy Berkshire clothmaker by the name of John Coxeter boasted to Sir John Throckmorton at a dinner party that, thanks to his super-modern Greenham Mills in Newbury, “in 24 hours, I could take the coat off your back, reduce it to wool, and turn it back into a coat again”.

“Go on then”, replied the baronet. If Coxeter could make him a hunting coat from sheep to finished article between the hours of sunrise and sunset of 25 June 1811, he would reward the cloth maker with 1,000 guineas.

Rising early on the allotted day, Coxeter got straight down to work on a pair of bemused Southdown sheep. The European Magazine in 1817 wrote that “…the sheep were shorn, the wool spun, the yarn spooled, warped, loomed, and wove; the cloth burred, milled, rowed, dyed, dried, sheared, and pressed and put into the hands of the tailors by four o’clock that afternoon…”

The tailors, led by James White, hadn’t been idle that morning. The baronet’s measurements had already been taken, and as soon as they got the cloth, they knuckled down with needle and thread. At 6.20pm, the finished coat was placed on Throckmorton’s shoulders, who had possibly just bought the world’s most expensive coat. It had taken just 13 hours and 20 minutes.

The assembled throng of 5,000 spectators were delighted, and were happier still when the poor old sheep were roasted whole and served up to them with 120 gallons of strong beer paid for by the newly attired baronet.

The Throckmorton coat, or Newbury coat as it is sometimes called, was a wonderful example of Britain’s unsurpassed manufacturing genius, and was even exhibited at the International Exhibition of 1851.

For 180 years, the record stood until the feat was once more undertaken in Newbury in 1991, when an hour was shaved off. In 2011, on the 200th anniversary, another attempt was made to break the record, which failed by two hours.

You can see the original Throckmorton coat on display at the Throckmorton ancestral home of Coughton Court in Warwickshire.