The History of the Suffolk Wool Towns
Today many people regard Suffolk as an agricultural county, and are surprised to learn that for six hundred years south-western Suffolk, with the adjoining part of Essex, was a major industrial region specialising in the production of woollen cloth. The crucial period for the emergence of this trade was the 13th century. Already by 1200 the defended boroughs of Bury St Edmunds and Sudbury were regarded as cloth-making centres, but by 1300 the industry had spread to smaller towns and surrounding rural parishes, where costs were lower and commerce was less regulated. This period also saw the adoption of the horizontal loom which produced a tighter weave and demanded more skill than the earlier upright version. The reasons for industrial growth at this time are not easy to pin down, and the persistent belief that Flemish weavers imported the trade is a troublesome myth. Nor were the rivers of the region specially ideal for driving fulling-mills. It has been argued that textile industries tended to take root in pastoral areas when population levels were high and freely owned smallholdings were commonplace. These were certainly useful preconditions for finding a labour force wanting extra work, and they applied to Suffolk, but other factors were needed to propel economic ‘lift-off'- like the density of pre-existing markets, pools of expertise in major towns, the favourable attitudes of principal landlords and, perhaps above all, the initiative of key individuals. While this brief survey concentrates on the woollen industry in south-west Suffolk, we must point out, in passing, that the northern and eastern parts of the county, and adjacent parts of Norfolk, grew hemp and flax on a large scale to support another domestic industry producing linen, sackcloth and canvas.
When the Crown levied a national tax in 1327, south-west Suffolk displayed a noteworthy proportion of occupational surnames clearly linked to the cloth-trade. Names like Webb, Webster, Dyer and Fuller occurred 65 times in the county, but of those 43 per cent were listed under the southern hundreds of Babergh and Cosford. In the early 14th century, the town of Clare with its excellent records showed striking economic development, and Hadleigh was already the region's principal manufacturing centre. Yet, in spite of this surge, even more remarkable was the growth in the second half of the century, after the Black Death had killed between a third and a half of the national population in 1348-50.
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