150 years of sewing: The Corfe tailors of Winchester

Edward Corfe's shop

This photograph was taken by William Savage in 1875. It was clearly intended to document the Black Swan Hotel, which features in the very centre of the image. In taking this photograph, though, Savage also unwittingly preserved the shop front of Edward Corfe’s tailor shop as it was during its heyday at 64 High Street. This photograph was probably not intended to preserve the façade of Edward’s shop, but the fact that it does makes the story of this Winchester tailor come alive and reminds us that, often, the stories that seem the most mundane are some of history’s most exciting tales.

Edward Corfe was born in January 1824 to Robert Corfe and Mary Miller. He was baptised on 16 January at St Swithun-upon-Kingsgate, where records indicate his father had been baptised too, many years earlier. The thirteenth century church abuts the Kingsgate, which is one of only two medieval gates that has survived into the modern period. The other is, of course, the Westgate which is now a museum in the care of the Hampshire Cultural Trust.

Robert Corfe was a tailor based in College Street—where it is thought Edward, and quite possibly Robert himself, was born. We know from his marriage license that Robert’s father, also named Edward, was a tailor himself and it would not be unreasonable to assume that Edward Corfe the Elder was also based in College Street. This not only makes Edward (at least) the third generation Corfe tailor, it also suggests that the Corfe family were tailors in Winchester from at least the mid-eighteenth century. Indeed, the exact date comes from an advert in Warren’s Winchester Directory of 1900 which states that the business was established in 1750, during the reign of George II!1

Warren’s Winchester Directory (1990)

The 1841 census finds Edward at the College Street shop, apprenticed to his father. His brothers, Robert and Thomas, had also been apprentices under their father but by the time of the census, Robert had completed his studies. Pigot & Co’s Directory of 1844 lists Robert and Edward together as being tailors and drapers at 18 College Street, which is the first time that the exact location of the Corfes’ business is pinpointed.2 Edward’s prominence in the business suggests that Robert and Thomas had moved on at some point in the early 1840s, but, unfortunately, they could not be found on subsequent census records so what they went on to do is lost to history. It also suggests that Robert the Elder had one eye on retirement, something he achieves by 1851, when he is recorded on the census of that year as living with his wife and daughter in the countryside.

Edward was left the family business, and he is found at 18 College Street in 1851, living with his younger brothers—William, an architect and surveyor, and Alfred, who had just turned nine. Gilmour’s Winchester Directory of 1854 gives us additional information about the business.3 It records that Edward was not only living and working out of College Street, he also had a shop on the High Street—Number 96 High Street, to be precise. It is unclear exactly when this second shop was obtained, and whether it was while Robert was still at the head of the business. What this second shop demonstrates though, is that business was booming for the Corfes, and they were determined to grow and expand it further.

Master's Winchester Directory (1881)

An advert for Edward’s business appeared in Masters’ Winchester Directory of 1881 which sheds light on exactly why they operated out of College Street for as long as they did. The Corfes were tailors to the “gentlemen of [Winchester] College,”4 and it is probably that they had been so since 1750. The advert also demonstrates that the Corfes could produce a number of other goods for their customers, which suggests that the High Street shop was key to attracting clientele outside of the College.

The High Street shop remained at Number 96 for at least a decade and moved to its final address of number 64 at some point between 1865 and the time of Savage’s photograph. The shop remained at its High Street address until the 1890s when Edward retired and his son, Charles Edward Corfe, took over the business with his wife, Jane. The High Street address appears to have been maintained for a little while but, eventually, the business moved to 19 Southgate Street. Warren’s Winchester Directory of 1900 has a wonderful advert that shows that Charles and Jane took up the business equally and with gusto.

However, the business did not last forever. Warren’s Winchester Directory of 1913 shows that the Corfes were no longer tailors and drapers within the city—although the Southgate Street address was still occupied by a tailor. For 150 years, the Corfes had been in Winchester, outfitting its citizens. While, undoubtedly, the family’s most famous member is Edward’s daughter, Beatrice, whose art captured and preserved some of the city’s now-lost architecture, the story of the Corfe tailors is certainly one well worth revisiting and remembering.

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1 “Warren’s Winchester Directory, 1900,” University of Leicester Special Collections Online, 122.

2 “Pigot & Co.’s Directory…, 1844,” University of Leicester Special Collections Online, 102.

3 “Gilmours’ Winchester Directory, 1854,” University of Leicester Special Collections Online, 43.

4 “Masters’s Winchester Directory, 1881,” University of Leicester Special Collections Online, 188.

5 “Warren’s Winchester Directory, 1913,” University of Leicester Special Collections Online, 393.

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