Whilst researching my Staffordshire family roots at the county Record Office, my cousin passed me a note showing that my ancestor Elizabeth Doughty in 1808 owned a flax oven on which she paid towards the parish Poor Relief. This fitted with the occupation of another Doughty, James, recorded at his marriage as ‘flax dresser’.
With a long-standing interest in a wide variety of textiles and their uses, I was intrigued by the above information – until my cousin handed me this note I didn’t know that flax, the raw material for making linen fabric, was ever grown in Staffordshire. Before investigating further, there are a couple of questions that are worth answering first:
What are flax and linen? And, why are they important?
A field of flax in Leicestershire
Flax is one of a group of plants that may be cultivated for their fibres. Hemp and jute are others, though perhaps less versatile. Flax can be harvested for either its seeds, which today are a health supplement but in the past were used to produce linseed oil, or for its fibres, which when suitably processed can make linen, a generic name for a wide range of different weights and qualities of fabric. These are identified by specific names such as cambric and sailcloth. Linen is strong, giving it a long working life. It also possesses the ability to absorb more than its own weight of water. When this happens the yarn swells up effectively sealing the weave of the fabric and lending a waterproof quality to the cloth.
Why are flax and linen important?
Our modern range of textiles, with such a variety of synthetics and diverse blends of natural fibres, may blind us to a time when just two were widely available: wool and linen. (Silk is excluded from this discussion because it was imported and only available to the wealthier classes.)
Wool has been studied in detail, its importance to our national economy symbolised by the famous ‘Woolsack’ in Parliament. By contrast linen has been termed an ‘invisible’ industry. My surprise at finding that flax had been grown in Staffordshire made me want to understand this local production in the context of a wider national market, to see whether it was only an invisible cottage industry worth only a paragraph’s mention. I hope the following will show that it deserves to be seen as important both to national interests and international trade.
Since ancient times linen could form a considerable part of both men’s and women’s clothing from the finest handkerchief or woman’s shift through shirts, dresses, waistcoats or petticoats, caps and aprons to outerwear such as waterproof overcoats for wagon or coach drivers.
Linen thread sewed even woollen garments together and was also essential to make lace.
It also fulfilled a wide range of needs in the home: bed linen, towels, table cloths, mattress covers of coarser cloth and other furnishings (assuming one could afford such goods as tablecloths or lace!).
Efforts to estimate how much linen was needed for these uses are hampered by the records, or their lack, which survive but contemporary sources’ estimates vary between 6.25 yards per capita per annum in 1738 and 13.3 yards p.c. / p.a. in 1756. The discrepancy between these estimates may be accounted for partly by increasing general prosperity but is chiefly due to differences in the figures on which the estimates were based.
Beyond these uses are the commercial, e.g. cheesecloths; the military, e.g. tents, and the industrial: whilst the higher figure above includes sacking within the per capita estimate, it doesn’t include linen used for making wrappers, tarpaulins, fire hoses, ropes and cords, canvas, carpeting and in the production of paper. Though the use of linen to make paper will not be explored in detail in this article, it is worth noting that deeds, leases and conveyances survive which mention paper mills in several areas of Staffordshire. These include an ‘ancient mill’ known as the ‘paper mill’ at Tyrley near the Shropshire border, a paper mill at Elford, near Lichfield, and also at Shugborough in 1693 regarding conversion of a paper mill to a walk mill, plus a reference to a John Moorcroft, ‘paper maker’ in 1730.
However, a further vast amount of flax at the coarser end of production must have been used to produce sailcloth for both windmills and ships.
Between 1500-1800 there was a huge expansion of seaborne trade in Europe which in turn led to the development of larger ships with more complex sail arrangements. This can be illustrated by two sets of figures: 1. The English merchant fleet increased from approx. 50,000-60,000 tons in the 1530s to well over 300,000 tons by the end of the 17thC and over 1 million tons by the 1780s (and note that these figures don’t include Admiralty vessels.) 2. Early trading ships with a single square sail on one or two masts became three masted vessels with a dozen or more sails. Together they must represent an increased demand for sailcloth and as an island nation with an expanding network of colonies, this demand must have continued to rise until steam began to replace wind as a method of propulsion.
Imagining the enormous quantity of sailcloth that would be needed is a challenge which I hope to make more possible with an example based on a ship within the national consciousness – HMS Victory.
Begun in 1759, her suit of sails numbered 37 but she carried spares to a total of 59. The fore top sail has survived and weighs an estimated 370kgs but was not one of the largest sails on the ship. Nevertheless multiplying its weight by 37 & converting it to imperial measures, to give a crude but minimum estimate means that the basic suit of sails weighed over 600 hundredweight (cwt), whilst the total of 59 sails weighed over 960cwt. The widely accepted yield of 50 stones (sts) of usable fibres per acre of flax cultivated can be used to calculate that about 100 acres of flax needed to be grown to produce just 37 sails the size of the foresails. The Somerset town of Crewkerne claims the distinction of making HMS Victory’s sails but mills as far apart eventually as those of Scotland, Ireland and Dorset counted the Admiralty amongst their customers.
However rough this calculation is, nevertheless taken with the previous estimates of individual need and unspecified amounts for commercial, military and industrial uses, it becomes clear that as a country we consumed vast quantities of linen each year. One 18thC English merchant in 1756 reckoned that the annual consumption was 80 million yards, which he described as comprising 30m imported from Europe, 12.2m from Ireland, 12m from Scotland and 25.8m yards being home produced, with 3550 cwt of yarn being required to make 1 million yards of linen cloth.
At which point, it’s time to consider the nature of home production and some of the changes which occurred over the centuries.
Flax was grown mainly in an arc stretching from N. Ireland in the west, through Scotland and N. England, then across the northern European plain, including N. France, Flanders, Germany, the Baltic countries and Russia. Where soil and other conditions are suitable, it can also be cultivated both north and south of this, though possibly mainly for household and local use with the quality of the crop influenced by these variables. In drier climates hemp is a less fussy crop whose products though less useful for clothing, are good for industrial products such as rope.
‘Household use’ refers to small-scale production by a farmer of just enough flax to be spun by his wife, daughters and servants for the household’s own needs, even if sometimes it was woven in another household within the community. This type of production is described by a Dutch commentator in the early 19thC and by English writers in 1738 and 1789
“Though it be considerable it is not easy to estimate the whole quantity of hemp and flax which are spun in private houses in Derbyshire, and afterwards woven into cloth. In some cases nearly as much is manufactured as is sufficient for the use of their families.”
In my opinion the same can reasonably be expected to have taken place in Staffordshire in the same way for reasons as given below.
Flax could be fitted in well with small-scale farming and indeed as a crop was considered as providing useful employment for labourers during quieter periods in the farming year. It was a labour intensive crop, well-illustrated by the estimate that 1 acre of flax needed 82 man days for weeding, far more than other crops, such as rye needing the least at 21 days. It also depleted the soil with 19thC writers recommending it ought not to be grown in the same soil more than once every 10 years.
The ‘Invisible’ Industry
If this was all that happened in Staffordshire then it’s unlikely that there would be any surviving evidence for it, as the 1738 observer wrote
‘Tis true the English manufacture …. Is not publically known, or at least not so much taken notice of as the Scotch or Irish, but the reasons of this is very plain: in this country most of the linen we make is made by private families for their own use, or made and consumed in our country towns and villages; and that part of it which comes to London is brought hither by land carriage, so that it is seldom heard of, but among our manufacturers and dealers in linen.’
It is only my opinion, but though the flax cultivated in Staffordshire may have only rarely been included in production that is visible through official records, I feel that some at least must have been grown for commercial end use. Evidence for that opinion rests on three specific pieces of information:
- In 1691 a flax yard at Rugeley was sold for £51 1s 5d. The value of this sum is difficult to determine because it depends on the purchasing power of money at the time and how long a person must work, say, to buy a loaf of bread but comparing it with a separate yet roughly contemporary sum may suggest its worth. The 1710 will of Richard Doughty the Elder, husbandman, at Penkridge includes an inventory of his household goods which included ‘linnen’, his personal apparel plus some farm implements, five sheep and a lamb which are collectively valued at £4 11s 9d. The flax yard is thus sold 19 years earlier for more than ten times the value of the estate of a man who appears to have all the necessities of life at the time. However, it seems a significant sum which was unlikely to have been spent to purchase one family’s household processing space. We shall look later at the wider political and national context against which this sale took place.
- In 1789, when James Doughty married Ann Hogkis at Penkridge the vicar, Rev.Stafford, records James’ occupation as ‘flaxdresser’. Similarly I think it is unlikely that this would be stated as his job if it was only an off-season filler. Exactly what his job entailed is also worthy of more detailed explanation below.
- As already shown at the opening of this article, Elizabeth Doughty’s 1808 Poor Relief assessment included a ‘flax oven piece’ and ‘flax building’. These sound like facilities dedicated solely to flax processing, and though their exact construction is almost impossible to determine there will be more about this later also. The fact remains that an area of Penkridge today is still called The Flax Ovens, though it’s now a modern housing development.
Each of these scraps of evidence will now be explored in turn to understand the wider world in which they happened.
1691 Sale of Flax Yard
This took place during the reign of William III and Queen Mary. Most significantly England was at war (1689 War of Grand Alliance) and to finance it, the government increased the duty payable on imports including most kinds of linen, with France being especially singled out for heavier duties than anywhere else, double those in the 1660 Book of Rates. Also at various times after 1678, there were total prohibitions on the import of all French goods whilst France was the enemy.
To grasp the importance of these increases in duty it’s necessary to know that linen was the second most important manufactured import in total value, coming after groceries, which comprised goods such as sugar, spices, tea etc. Furthermore, France had supplied over 1/3rd of the total imports of linen during the 1660s.
Demand for French linen was still such that linen smuggling became a profitable activity, possibly equating to one third of the legitimate trade, but that would be another story. Other European countries, especially Germany who seized the chance to increase production and develop linens to rival those of France, continued to supply the English market, but production in England increased considerably.
This rise in production was an unintentional result of government decisions, a by-product rather than the purpose of government, which remained concerned with raising funds for a succession of wars, yet they were to have considerable consequences for linen production in the British Isles. Initially duty increases were not protectionist because the government’s revenue depended on imports continuing to arrive. Nevertheless these higher duties from 1690 onwards helped to produce the right conditions for English linen production to develop beyond its local and domestic limits into an industry capable of replacing imports squeezed out by over-pricing consequent upon those rising duties.
Such a response would not have been possible without that base of traditional skills already existing amongst agricultural communities and linen could be said to have become an infant industry, part of national commerce, by the time the Rugeley flax yard was sold in the late 17thC. An assessment made of the same owner’s property in the Civil War period (1643) compared with the 1691 sale suggests (assuming that the same plot or part of it is being referred to!) that the 1691 price was more than 15 times the earlier 1643 valuation – so it would appear that considerable development with the necessary capital investment must have taken place.
Past attempts at encouragement
Though it has already been noted that high duty on linen imports was not originally intended to be protectionist, they amounted to such and this came to be understood eventually. Historically there had been earlier efforts to encourage the growth of a commercial linen industry in England, by legislative requirements to cultivate flax and hemp from 1533 and intermittently up to 1675. These were largely in vain, though a modest amount of encouragement resulted from a change in the way that these crops were tithed after 1652.
It is also thus possible that the above change in tithing may have played a part in the establishment of whatever size of flax processing operation was being run in the yard at Rugeley. From the 1690s entrepreneurs grew more aware of changes in market conditions arising from duty increases on linen and they appreciated the potential benefits which might be gained from them by other parties, apart from replenishing the State coffers. Such an entrepreneur may have been the purchaser of the Rugeley yard.
To summarise, it is my opinion that it is within the context of these national concerns and financial decision-making, that the sale of the Rugeley flax yard can be seen as a snap-shot of that point in time when linen production nationally became a business that we might recognise as an industry.
James Doughty ‘flaxdresser’
Let us now turn to James Doughty, (d. 1836), who is described as ‘flaxdresser’ when he marries at Penkridge. James was baptised in 1759, also at Penkridge, apparently the youngest child of Richard Doughty and his second wife, Elizabeth Grateley.
In order to improve understanding of James’ occupation, it’s necessary first to examine as briefly as possible some of the events and developments which occurred in the almost one hundred years that passed between the sale of the Rugeley flax yard and James’ marriage, all of which had a bearing on the environment in which he lived.
England continued to be at war: the War of the Grand Alliance 1689-97 was followed by the War of the Spanish succession (1701-13); the War of the Austrian Succession (1740-48), the Seven Years War (1756-63) and finally the American War of Independence commenced in 1776, i.e. over 40 years at war during that 100 years.
Duties on linen of most types doubled twice between 1690-1790 to help pay for these military campaigns. As an aside, they no doubt also had an impact on demands for linen to supply army needs such as tents.
It’s now necessary to consider one of linen’s rising competitors as a useful textile. Until the American War of Independence, Britain had been receiving raw cotton from the plantations on the main land of the American continent. Cotton, which formerly had been imported from countries such as India, had been found to be well-suited to the southern part of North America and with slave labour to work them, these plantations had made rich families of their owners. This cotton was spun, mechanically following the 1764 invention of the ‘Spinning Jenny’ by James Hargreaves, which was improved by Richard Arkwright with his water frame (patent registered in 1769) and who established the first water-powered mill at Cromford, Derbyshire in 1771. The cotton yarn was woven in England (mainly Lancashire) and when re-imported to America was charged duty – this charge on a product made from crops they had originally grown rankled particularly and formed one bone of contention, though admittedly a relatively minor one, between colonial America and His Majesty’s government, thus contributing to eventual war.
Prior to the Declaration of Independence in 1776, cotton had begun to replace linen at least in apparel, but with the reduction of raw cotton imports during the war, linen experienced a resurgence of importance, which coincided with other factors to stimulate home production, (though as will be seen, that term ‘home’ also acquired a new meaning during this period).
The effects of the American War of Independence continued beyond the final withdrawal of British troops in 1783. Both Britain and the new United States of America had reasons for reconciliation after the Treaty of Paris: the USA relied on Britain as its most important trading partner and Britain remained keen to prevent the French gaining influence there. However, with the outbreak of War in 1793 between Britain and France, Britain introduced a ban on neutral powers (including the USA) from trading with France and this became one of the contributory factors to the War of 1812 between Britain and the USA.
Thirdly, rise of protection
It is a natural small step to move from considering imports of raw cotton to examine the equivalent trade in importing foreign flax, both raw and unprocessed flax and flax spun into yarn. The duty increases on linen between 1690-1705 that have already been noted were levied equally upon these commodities making them costly to English manufacturers who used them.
In addition as already noted earlier, flax can be harvested either for seed or fibres, meaning that unlike corn where a proportion of the yield becomes next years’ seed, a farmer must buy seed for the next crop of flax. So it was a deliberate encouragement towards the importation of flax seed / aka linseed when all duties on this were abolished in 1717. The same act of Parliament also removed the 5% export duty on British linen exports, which had been described officially as ‘a discouragement to the said manufacture which employs many thousands of the poor of this kingdom’. Subsequently in 1731 duty on the importation of undressed flax was abolished with the specific aim of stimulating the production of sailcloth.
Duty continued to be levied on imported yarn until the 1750s, being lowered in 1752 to put British producers on a more competitive standing with other nations, before their final abolition in 1756, belatedly following the abolition of duty on flax and yarn from Ireland in 1696 and Scotland in 1707 (following the Act of Union on 1 May 1707).
Linen samples with ‘Made in Ireland’ label, produced for export to Portugal
Whilst the above abolition of duties begins to have the appearance of intentional protection of British linen production, that this was not entirely so can be seen with a system of ‘drawbacks’ – an elaborate scheme allowing linen importers who re-exported their goods within a fixed period to recover most of the duty originally charged. This arrangement was naturally unpopular with British businesses who sought protection for colonial markets as well as that at home, but it was not abolished at this time.
A ‘stimulating’ diversion
Before proceeding with this train of developments, we shall take a detour to consider a curiosity which may be found following a link on the Wikipedia entry for ‘Flax’. It seems to be a letter, originally printed in The Champion, no.385, May 4 1742, from a farmer experienced in the growing of flax and calculating ‘the Vast Advantage —– arising from the Cultivation of one Acre of Ground sown with Flax-seed’. He quotes the yield to be 50 stone, (though claims to have known it to be as high as 100 stone) and details this as ‘25 stone of fine Flax fit for making Cambrick, 12 ½ stone of an inferior sort and the last 12 ½ stone of the coarser sort’. He continues by explaining the anticipated yield of spun yarn from these respective grades of flax and to estimate the resulting quantity of woven yardage with the retail value of the final products.
It is all stated in such minute detail that it seems very plausible – until the signature is reached: ‘Samuel Homespun’.
At which point the modern mind, used to present-day tactics of ‘spin’, jibs a little. Is this genuine? Is ‘Samuel Homespun’ an alias for a bona fide landowner attempting to recommend his prosperous business to others of his kind? Or is it an inventive alias attached to a disingenuous piece of government propaganda?
Without ever knowing either way, this cannot be seen as anything other than an attempt to encourage the increased sowing of flax as a crop with an assessment of the financial rewards as the ‘carrot’, regardless of who presented it for publication.
Back to protection
In 1743, the payment of ‘drawbacks’ became partially offset by introducing a system of bounties on exports of specified British (England and Scotland) and Irish linens, paid for out of the still rising duty on imported fine linen. Having seen that export bounties had been a small stimulation to home production (‘home’ now includes Scottish and Irish linen as well as English), bounties related to quality were improved and despite a lapse in 1753, were re-introduced in 1756, then extended to further types in 1771 and 1781. They remained until 1832, shortly before James Doughty’s death in 1836.
At this point, with the introduction of bounties payable on exports, formal government protection of home production of linen can truly be said to have begun.
A further stimulus to English linen production came in 1767 when £15,000 per annum, raised from that year’s duty increases was reserved to provide a ‘Fund for the Encouragement of Raising and Dressing Hemp and Flax in this Kingdom’.In 1770 £8,000 p.a. out of this fund was specifically reserved for growers in England but without a procedure to make payments it lapsed. This was revived in 1781 with a system for claims to be made via the Justices of the Peace of every county (to establish the veracity of the claims) and the Board of Trade.
Though in principle this was a reasonable way to fund increased cultivation of flax, intended no doubt to limit dependency on imports, in practice the operation of the scheme was less than satisfactory. At least, this would undoubtedly be the opinion of a particular group of Staffordshire farmers who submitted their claims for a share of the bounty.
Eight men submitted claims, signing declarations which survive in the 1786 Quarter Sessions as to the size of the crop, measured in stones (14 lbs = 1 stone), the place where it was grown, including the name of the actual plot of land and the year in which it was grown. Jos. Atwood of Sedgeley was particularly quick to react to the possibility of gain, growing 200sts of flax there in 1782. Likewise, Edward Ash of Cannock grew on land at Wyrley, 40sts of flax and 8sts of hemp in 1782.
As news of the bounty spread, others joined in, one Richard Phillips of the Ashmores recording a flax yield of 559 ½sts at Wednesfield in 1784! There is also a Richard Hellett of Penkridge who produced 112 ½sts of flax and 4sts of hemp in 1784.
Sadly news of the bounty appears not to have been accompanied by essential details on the claims procedure. Despite swearing to the aforementioned details at the Midsummer Quarter Sessions in 1785, and the submission of their claims by the Deputy Clerk of the Peace for Stafford to London, payment was not allowed by their Lordships at Whitehall on the grounds that the claims were too late.
To a degree it is reasonable that one year’s bounty fund can only be paid out on the relevant year’s crop and then either the fund is exhausted or the account is closed, so that another can be set up for the next year. However, the farmers must have felt aggrieved at the disallowance of their claims, having put effort into the cultivation of a crop that was, as noted earlier, both labour-intensive and exhausting to their land. With the hindsight of history, it’s impossible not to sympathise with them and to feel that not much has changed in the relationship between ‘them’ and ‘us’.
Whether the bounty scheme suffered more from flaws in either its claims procedure or inadequate information about claim-making, it stands as a conscious effort by government to increase English production of flax, though a very over-due one, not least when considered alongside the stimulus noted earlier to flax cultivation and production in Ireland and Scotland by the 1696 and 1707 exemptions from duty, and the establishment in both countries of Boards of Trustees for Linen Manufacture respectively in 1711 and 1727.
To summarise this section: being at war, the temporary stalling of a developing cotton industry and the complex structures of duties and bounties together combined to create an environment within which British linen production could become a recognisable industry – one in which it appears that James Doughty was active, certainly as a dresser. No evidence has been found to show that he also grew flax, but this would seem very likely – perhaps his claims were submitted in time!
Interestingly, the claims returns submitted by Staffordshire growers revealed that the flax on which bounty was claimed had to be ‘dressed’, not simply grown and harvested, and meaning that all waste had been removed.
So what does the task of ‘flax dressing’ entail?
Basically, it means that the most arduous, time-consuming and unpleasant stages in preparing it for spinning have been completed. The stages are:
Pulling (harvesting): the plants are pulled from the soil complete with their roots in order to retain the maximum possible length of fibres. Nowadays this is done by machine but during the period under discussion this would have been exhaustingly hard work. Flax is pulled before its seeds ripen but if it’s to be used for making linen any immature seeds bolls have also to be removed by a process known as rippling;
Retting (rotting) is the next process where bundles of flax are generally placed in water in order to facilitate the separation of the fibres which are desired from those which are waste. Retting can be done in different ways: in a pond, 4-5ft deep, roots down, which is quickest (10-14 days) but very smelly; in a flowing stream or river, less smelly but takes a little longer, and in both cases weighed down by heavy rocks; or simply spread out in fields – the slowest method but believed at the time to produce the finest quality of result. Retting in water required the dresser to be expert in knowing when to lift the flax out – too soon and the fibres won’t separate, too late and they will become rotten and useless. Retting in water was a hard and unpleasant but skilled job. Flax retting pools can still be identified in places such as Somerset and I speculate that the River Penk would have provided a suitable place for this step in James’ locality;
Drying: after retting the flax needed drying before the next process. It seems likely that this is the point where flax ovens, as mentioned in the third scrap of evidence listed previously, are useful. To avoid interrupting the description of processing, they are an element which will be discussed further later;
Scutching is the process after drying where the loosened stem is removed from the fibre, achieved by laying it on a wooden board then beating it with a wooden knife. It was one of the first jobs to be mechanised with the introduction of water-powered scutch mills in the 18thC, the first in Ireland was established around 1740;
Beetling then separated the scutched fibres into finer strands, a process which also came to be done with water-power.
It was then ready for spinning, though a further process is performed known as hackling / heckling. This involves separating the longest and finest strands for spinning from the shorter outer fibres, known as ‘tow’, and combing them to align and smooth them, adding a slight twist to produce what is known as a ‘roving’, which the spinner then twists to produce yarn. Tow can also be spun but produces coarser yarn.
It seems plausible to interpret the division of processing between the flax dresser and the spinner to be made after beetling with hackling being part of the spinner’s skills. This division appears to be supported by a description that with the eventual mechanisation of flax spinning, factories had more workers preparing fibres than actually involved in spinning.It would therefore seem that anyone wishing to claim a bounty on flax they had grown would have needed either to do all the early stages with his own labourers or to have access within his locality to other help – we might surmise to a skilled flax dresser, such as James Doughty is declared to be in 1789.
The 1717 statement that English linen production ‘employs many thousands of the poor’ can be understood better after reading of the several stages of processing the raw material. I speculate that once a farmer enlarged a crop of flax beyond the immediate anticipated needs of his own household, wherever in England he was, he would have needed extra hands definitely to do the hard labour and quite likely the skills of an experienced flax dresser in an organising or supervisory capacity; and that person would have to be paid for his skills and experience. In this manner, the ‘new’ job of flax dresser may have appeared.
Arrival of mechanisation
As an aside, it is worth noting that though scutching and beetling mills appeared during the 18thC, the spinning of flax defeated early attempts to mechanise it, causing it to lag behind cotton in this respect. Sandwiched between some mechanised processes of preparation and the development of the (water) power loom, an army of spinners must have been kept employed, useful work for widows and unmarried girls (the origin of the term ‘spinster’ relates to this skill). It also appears that hand spinning and hand-loom weaving continued to be necessary into the 19thC in order to achieve the finest linen fabric.
Different weights of linen fabric
A former linen weaver turned optic grinder, John Kendrew is credited with the first breakthrough in applying the technology of cotton spinning to that of spinning flax in 1787. However, it’s important to emphasise that, though from this point onwards, technical developments in fibre and fabric production supersede protectionist strategies by government in the growth of British textile industries, capital investment is needed to purchase machinery and build mills, etc., and time is needed for new developments to permeate to all parts of the process and all places where it is performed.
The Flax Oven
In the context of capital investment, it seems appropriate to return to the topic of flax ovens! Early attempts to establish what one might look like were unsuccessful.
On the internet, ‘flax drying’ brings up, as one example, a rather folksy film of a man drying flax stems rather haphazardly over what resembles a barbecue more than anything else. With drying vegetable material shuffled about on wire netting spread over an open fire, the inevitable happens – the flax catches fire.
Though mildly entertaining to modern eyes, this method would never be practical with the volume of a crop such as Richard Phillips’ 559 ½st of flax or Richard Hellett’s more modest crop grown at Penkridge , nor with the risk of losing it all in a fire. Nor do I think that a typical bread oven would cope with a commercial quantity of flax. Trying to put myself in the position of an 18thC entrepreneur, I found myself pondering the principle of a malt house and wondering whether a flax oven might resemble it in some way. Whilst it’s true that barley is roasted to produce malt, perhaps a gently smouldering or damped-down fire below would be able to dry out flax fibres spread out on a floor above, or hanging up in bundles for the warm air to pass round and between them. In addition it would also represent a more efficient use of fuel.
A fragment of support for this theory, though admittedly without factual evidence for the way the flax oven was used during its working life, can be found in the formerly Staffordshire community of Bloxwich, (now part of West Midlands).
Bloxwich was an early site of Wesleyan Methodism, as founded by John Wesley in 1739. In 1795, Wesleyan Methodists in the town took out a 99 year lease, at 39s per half year rent, on a local flax oven for it to become their chapel, the said flax oven on Bullock’s Fold having been built to handle flax grown under the (previously mentioned) subsidy scheme revived in 1781. Setting aside the question of why it was available for rent (presumably redundant for an unspecified reason?), its description is interesting:
‘It is 18 feet 3 inches by 29 feet 3 inches inside and will contain about one hundred persons.’
As this building remained to be used as a Sunday school after a larger chapel was needed and was not demolished until the 1910s, I suggest that it was substantially built.
The account above supports the idea that the ‘flax oven piece’ and ‘flax oven building’ recorded with Elizabeth Doughty’s entry in the 1808 Poor Relief Rate assessment are evidence of the need for capital investment for flax processing on what was anticipated to be a commercially rewarding scale. It seems safe to assume that the flax oven was used for drying flax but also reasonable to suppose that another building would be needed for storage purposes, raw flax having considerable volume.
Thanks to research by another Doughty descendant, it appears that the Elizabeth Doughty, recorded in this assessment as a tenant of Sir E Littleton for her house, is the widow of Richard Doughty, who died in 1787. They were the parents of James ‘the flaxdresser’. James is also recorded in the 1808 assessment: as owner & occupier of a ‘house and garden’, this suggesting a degree of prosperity, notwithstanding raising a large family of at least 10 children.
James’ older brother Richard, bapt. 1741/42 at Penkridge, would appear still to be alive so it remains impossible to say whether the reference to the flax oven and flax piece as ‘Richard Doughty’s’ are acknowledging Elizabeth’s husband or her eldest son as owner. Given that they are not shown as James Doughty’s, however, a plausible interpretation is that this is the business at which James is working on a site with facilities developed by either his father or older brother, the latter who may or may not be working in the same business in an unrecorded capacity. Richard Doughty (the son) does not appear in the 1808 Penkridge assessment but perhaps lives in another community.
The Bloxwich description of the flax oven sounds like a rectangular building from its measurements. Reference to the Penkridge 1840 tithe map shows a series of strips, nos. 2533-2538, and on two of these strips: 2634 and overlapping the boundary between 2537-38, there appear to be solid rectangles which look as if they represent buildings. One or more of these could be those recorded in 1808.
Later, in the 1851 census there are 3 families recorded as living at ‘Flax Ovens’. I want to propose the idea that these families may be living in ‘retired’ flax ovens/storehouses, just as the Methodists in Bloxwich had changed the use of a former flax oven. One of the households is that of James Daughty, (?Doughty) aged 71, an agricultural labourer, of Penkridge, with his wife Mary, age 63. Assuming this is the surname I believe it to be, he would seem to be James’ nephew, who was baptised in 1779. By the 1861 census there are 6 families listed as living at Flax Ovens.
The beginning of the end
Both the Bloxwich chapel and the speculated changed use of flax processing buildings becoming dwellings by the early Victorian era point to a decline in the British linen business.
It has already been noted that the bounties on flax cultivation lasted until 1832. However, by this time, cotton, whose early industry can be considered to have derived from the flax and linen skills already present in the population, was taking over. The American invention of the cotton gin in 1793 by Eli Whitney, to automate the removal of seeds from raw cotton fibres, contributed to speeding up the chain of processes in turning raw cotton into fabric. Linen was not able to match this rate as already noted, though the development of wet-spinning of flax, also mentioned earlier, helped considerably.
Cotton, however, was not only more amenable to mechanisation, the end product was easier to launder than its equivalent grades of linen. Have you ever heard the folk song:
‘Twas on a Monday morning, when I beheld my darling,
She looked so neat and charming,
In every high degree
She looked so neat and nimble-o,
Washing of her linen-o,
Dashing away with the smoothing iron,
She stole my heart away’
………………. and it takes his darling a whole week to finishing the laundering in time to wear it on Sunday! Linen, for all its excellent qualities, was what today can be described as ‘high maintenance’. Increasingly as cotton becomes ‘king’, linen seems to be relegated to the jobs it did well at the coarser end of the market, with which cotton did not compete.
Local production and manufacture
It is tempting to speculate that any flax grown and dressed around Penkridge would very likely be spun and woven not too far away. At least one student of linen manufacture in the 19thC states that there was little long distance trade in flax. One might imagine that this was just as true before the 1800s, if not more so. Transporting the dressed flax by road would, to my way of thinking, be an exercise in itself (even though we know it was imported by sea in this state) and there would be less profit to the grower and dresser if costs incurred by longer road journeys ate into the expected income.
The Victoria History of the County of Stafford reports that a sail-cloth merchant called John Tunstall had tried unsuccessfully to set up a ‘canvas manufactory’ at Lichfield in 1761. However by 1776 he was making sailcloth on a site at the west end of Sandford St and this is perhaps the business recorded as ‘strange for so inland a place’ by Boswell in his Life of Johnson. Tunstall’s son runs the business by 1784 and is recorded as a hemp and flax dresser in 1793. Described as a considerable business in 1811, one source gives sailcloth as the principal product of the city in 1817 and the Tunstall business is still being run in 1829. A William Sherratt owned a flax shop (I think at this time a ‘shop’ is a workshop, rather than retail premises) destroyed by fire in 1776 and later another Sherratt, Thomas, is a flax dresser. Two other flax dressers exist in 1818 and there are also ropemakers, presumably using locally grown hemp, in Lichfield. Linen is also produced at Tamworth and a linen manufactory is recorded at Uttoxeter, though it no longer exists by 1834.
No doubt a similar research exercise could be conducted for any county by examining surviving trade directories as well as the appropriate edition of the Victoria History series. Stafford was relevant to my personal story and has provided a convenient case study.
At this distance in time, it is difficult to know what quality of flax could be grown in Staffordshire. All my sources emphasise that the quality of the crop was the chief determinant for estimating the profits to be made from it.
Records of bounties paid between 1782-85, listed in stones weight and by county show that Somerset grew the most in 1782-83 with over 24,000sts and Berkshire the least with 124sts. Some counties grew none at all. Staffordshire sits in between with 1212sts in 1782-83, 6338sts in 1783-4 and 4884sts in 1784-85 – and as has been shown, not all claims to bounty were paid. Therefore these figures in all cases are valid only as representing successful claims. The actual amount of flax grown and processed would have been greater: by at least almost 560sts in 1784-85 in Staffordshire if Richard Philips’ crop alone had been included. It appears that by the 1780s at least enough flax was grown, processed and spun to produce in excess of 2 million yards of linen per annum. As there is no reason to think Staffordshire was singularly unlucky in having claims rejected, it might be said that the government’s encouragement to grow more flax was successful even if they didn’t always pay up for that increase!
However, Staffordshire’s comparatively modest crop might suggest that its geology and climate made it marginal in terms of what it could produce, either in quantity or quality. So it is plausible that the sailcloth business at Lichfield was based there because raw material of the appropriate quality could be obtained within reasonable distance. It would be nice to think that the Penkridge crop could have been turned into sails for ships!
However in 1834, a carpet manufacturers, Hitchcock and Sultzer, exists in Lichfield. My understanding is that woollen carpets can be worked over a linen base. The same source also mentions a paper mill at Lichfield ( maybe the one mentioned earlier) and another, owned by Isaac Newey, at Darnford Mills, Tamworth, so either of these industries could have been using the flax grown at Penkridge.
In the 1860s, linen received another small boost when the American Civil War between the cotton growing states of the south and those of the north erupted. This may account for the Victoria History stating that a considerable amount of flax was being grown in Staffordshire into the 1870s, with 194 acres (producing at least 9400sts, at the accepted rate of 50sts/acre) in 1871 as the highest.
Its decline after this may, if the significance of sailcloth demand is correct, be linked to the development of steam power for ships, though I understand that for a period sails were still carried even by steam powered vessels.
The final chapter in the story of ‘Flax in Staffs.’ would seem to be during WW2 with 1941 showing 234 acres of flax cultivation (11,700sts by the 18thC estimate, so possibly more by that date).A short black and white film (an American production filmed in Northern Ireland) of men working at flax processing in the 1940s can be seen on the internet.The exact uses for this flax may have been varied, especially at a time when clothing became rationed and the availability of imports was severely limited, but the unique properties of flax may have been needed for increased production of fire hoses following the Blitz or for covering the wooden bodies of new aircraft, like the Mosquito.
The fragmentary nature of the evidence described here is recognised as a weakness, if compared with more serious, full-time research. This account makes no claim to be exhaustive or complete. However, by focussing on some relevant parts of national legislation in the context of the wider international background, it has been my hope to demonstrate that one possible interpretation can be made of the sequence of these fragments, giving the people of Staffordshire who engaged in it, credit for their contribution to the business of making linen. That other interpretations could be made is true and I acknowledge that I have made speculations which remain to be proved, if and where possible.
If this amateur examination of the subject proved to be the spur to a more expert investigation, that would add worth to research that was commenced initially to colour in one branch of my family history.
Sincere thanks must go to the authors whose works are cited below & upon whose scholarship I have depended, also owners of websites consulted, and to an array of cousins, contacts and experts, (in alphabetical order): Margaret Bingham, John Branch, John Chambers (cdht), Bevan Craddock, Dudley Fowkes, Bob Maddocks, Marilyn Morris, Jennifer Reeves (National Art Library, V&A Museum, London) and the helpful staff at the Staffordshire Record Office and Lichfield Library, Local Studies section, for their assorted fact-finding, support and encouragement.
Citations and Sources
Clarkson, Leslie, The Linen Industry in Early Modern Europe, a chapter in Vol.1, The Cambridge History of Western Textiles, Ed. David Jenkins, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2002
Harte, N.B., The Rise of Protection and the English Linen Trade, 1690-1790, a chapter in Vol.2, The Textile Industries, Ed. S.D. Chapman, London, I.B. Tains Publishers, 1997
Solar, Peter, The Linen Industry in The Nineteenth Century, a chapter in Vol.2, The Cambridge History of Western Textiles, Ed. David Jenkins, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2002
The Victoria History of the County of Stafford, London, Archibald Constable, 1908, Vol.2, Industries section, and Vol.14, Lichfield: Economic History
Chambers, John (by email) at Chatham Dockyard Historic trust, The Old Surgery, The Historic Dockyard Chatham, Kent ME4 4TZ
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flax – The Produce arriving from one Acre of Ground sown with Flax-seed, 1742
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KwfIhPAcrcU&feature=related – 1940s USA educational film mainly showing processing of flax in 1940s Northern Ireland
 Chambers, J. see Citations and Sources
 Private family history researcher
 Penkridge parish records, SRO
 Private family history researcher
 Jasanoff, Maya, Liberty’s Exiles, Random House, 2011
 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flax External links Gentleman’s magazine, 1742
 Personal testimony
 Website: http://www.thebloxidgetallygraph.com/theoldwesleyanchapel.htm
 Textile Industries of Eighteenth Century Staffordshire, Staffs.C.C.
 Victoria History of the County of Stafford, Vol. 14, p.123(Lichfield Library, Local Studies section)
 History, Gazetteer & Directory of Staffordshire, 1834, White, W.
 Victoria History of the County of Stafford, Vol 2., p.222.