Weaving and Spinning in Bury St Edmunds
Bury in the Middle Ages
Bury was at the heart of the Suffolk cloth industry which flourished in the Stour valley from at least the 14th century. Most of the cloth sold by Bury merchants came from the villages along the Stour by far the most important was Lavenham which ranked fourteenth among English towns in the 1524 Lay Subsidy (Bury itself ranked only one place higher at thirteenth!). Cloth was produced at Bury too, and the 1477 bylaws of the weavers and linendrapers gild survive. The members of the gild met at the Guildhall on the feast of Saint Edmund each year and elected four gild wardens. There were regulations about apprentices and non-members of the gild were not supposed to do any weaving, even as a part-time occupation.
In 1361 a group of East Anglian merchants, including James Marham of Bury, sailed from Great Yarmouth with 2,000 marks-worth of woollen cloth intended for Norway. They were caught in a storm near Coft in Norway and the ship sank. The survivors managed to save much of the cargo with the help of the locals.We know of the incident because of the legal problems it produced: King Magnus of Norway claimed a share of the cargo and the Englishmen appealed to their own king for help. It is not known how the case turned out, but it shows the kind of international trading in which men from a town like Bury might participate.
In 1447 the Bury authorities ordered that cloth could only be sold at the Woolhall. The weavers were to form their own gild and no weaver could set up in business in the town until he had served a full seven-year apprenticeship, nor could he operate more than four looms.
The Tudors and Stuarts
Bury was still an important weaving centre, although it was beginning to become less so. As David Dymond says: it should never be forgotten that Bury was an industrial town of the first rank until the end of the seventeenth century.
Blackwood says that the decline took place because the Thirty Years War meant that Suffolk merchants lost their main export markets to Germany and Scandinavia, cold countries needing heavy cloth. The alternative market, the Mediterranean countries, wanted lighter fabrics. These were supplied by the New Draperies, introduced to England by Protestant refugees from the Netherlands. The Suffolk cloth industry failed to adapt to the new fashion and this sealed its fate.
The authorities made efforts to stave off the decline. Under an order of 1590 every cloth manufacturer was to have at least half his work carded, spun and woven by local unemployed. Each Saturday night every unemployed spinner was given six pounds of wool and was liable to prosecution if the work was not done properly. However by the 17th century it could be said that spinning was the only manufacture.
Norwich wool market
In the Middle Ages Suffolk was an important textile manufacturing region. By the 18th century this had very much declined, almost no cloth being produced. Instead the main work was combing wool and spinning yarn for the worsted manufacturers of Norwich.
The Bury yarn makers bought their wool from one or two wool halls in the town, most of it coming from the Midlands through Lynn and up the Lark by boat. The wool was sorted into grades and washed. It was then combed to draw out the fibres so that it could be spun.
Oakes combers had workshops behind his house in Guildhall Street: part of the building survives at the back, facing St Andrews Street. However most combers worked in their own small workshops in their homes. The wool was then distributed to women for spinning: Oakes alone employed over 1,500 spinners spread from Burwell in Cambridgeshire to the Suffolk coast. Most of the yarn was then sent to Norwich. The industry declined rapidly in the late 18th century as it was undercut by machine-spun yarns from the West Riding, and also by imports from Ireland where the cost of labour was much cheaper. The war with France which began in 1793 was the final blow.
The local press noted the decline and advocated self-help:
We are happy to hear that several ladies in this town have been in the habit of wearing stuffs of the Norwich manufacturers during the present winter, and of promoting the use of the same among their servants; very judicially considering that this means they will increase both the quality and price of spinning, and thereby afford great relief to the industrious poor of this neighbourhood.
Some spinners worked outside even in November!The same newspaper records that a Risby farmer, Mr Jaques, was thrown from his horse in Bury and his leg was broken: the horse had taken fright at some women who were working at their spinning-wheels in the street.
Bury was a key centre for marketing linen products, although few of the linen weavers actually lived in the town. In 1744 there was a severe outbreak of smallpox in Bury.Two linen weavers announced that they would conduct their business outside the town, at the Red House inn in Horringer. Three rivals at once announced that they would attend at Bury Market.(Curiously, the Red House had a reputation as a house of ill-fame, but this presumably had no connection with the decisions of the weavers!)
Defoe visited Bury in 1724, commenting:
Here is no manufacturing in this town, or very little, except spinning, the chief trade of the place depending upon the gentry who live there, or near it, and who cannot fail to cause trade enough by the expense of their families and equipages among the people of a country town.
Almost a hundred years later, the Duke of Grafton, the Lord Lieutenant of Suffolk, wrote that Bury was not a town of trade and that the principal employment of the lower classes is making worsted yarn.However, there was, of course, a range of other occupations in the town.
(extracts from A History of Bury St Edmunds by Frank Meeres)
You can also visit The Wool Towns website for more information on the surrounding towns of Clare, Hadleigh, Lavenham, Long Melford and Sudbury.