River Wissey Lovell Fuller

Spinning a Yarn

August 2020

In the twenty years between 1769-89 at least 238 women spinners who lived in Norfolk were convicted of fraud under the Worsted Act of 1768. I have identified thirty-two of these women who lived and worked in and around our district. Their story gives a fascinating insight into the rural life and working conditions of women in the 18th Century.

In the 16th to 18th Century, Norwich was the centre of England’s worsted industry(1). Around the time in question this industry had about 500 male Norwich weavers who got their supply of yarn from the county’s male yarn makers. The yarn makers, in turn relied on male wool combers who prepared the wool to send to female spinners in cottages and homesteads across the county and beyond. The spinners, based up to 50 miles from Norwich, got their combed wool from local agents, These agents could be travellers or be based in shops or public houses in a spinner’s local village or town. Spinning in rural England was a female occupation (hence the use of the word spinster). Traditionally, women and girls would spin wool from local sheep and knit clothing for their family. If there was any surplus yarn, then they might take it to the local market to sell it for very much needed cash. As the demand of worsted woven materials from Norwich increased so the need for spun yarn of specialist wool grew. Thus, increasingly, a previously female domestic skill became part of a wider industrial process. Women, however, still had an independence based upon their spinning tradition; a tradition of firstly supplying their own and their family’s needs. So, they would take in the wool from local agents and keep some of the yarn or the wool itself for themselves. This behaviour was called short reeling false or short yarn (2) and was seen by the women as a perquisite (a perk) of the job. To their minds short reeling made up for the extremely low pay they received for their long, exhausting hours of work. This surplus secreted yarn could be bartered for goods from visiting peddlers or even sold to the local agent himself, thus widening the circle of collusion. This spinning system, called ‘Putting Out’ had existed in East Anglia for well over a hundred years. During this time, if a Master Weaver should want to bring a legal challenge against a spinner for under-supplying him, he would have to take out a private civil action;-which, just as today, was a costly and time-consuming course of action with no guarantee of financial return. So, while Weavers did complain of fraud from time to time, there existed a stalemate or a situation of ‘live or let live’. There was also the difficulty of a weaver’s agent having to deal with, measuring, and weighing numerous hanks of yarn from a multitude of spinners. Plus, an agent would be wary of challenging a spinner as it could result in their families and friends boycotting his shop or public house, if he had one, or the woman could simply get her wool supplies from a different source. This situation began to radically change with various Acts of Parliament which allowed spinners to be imprisoned and/or be publicly whipped and/or put in the village stocks. However, such draconian punishments did not change the women’s behaviour and the Masters, themselves, became concerned that such heavy-handed punishments were deterring women from spinning at all! Added to this, there was growing public revulsion at the flailing of women. Thus, in 1768, the Worsted Act was passed. Just as other Acts of Parliament of this period concerning Turnpike Roads, Land Enclosures, and Drainage Systems were written and presented by local landowners for their own benefit, the 1769 Worsted Act was written and promoted by Norwich’s Woollen Manufacturers Association. The Act introduced a sliding scale of punishments for the short reeling false or short yarn. Importantly, this Act changed a spinner’s traditional behaviour from that of a civil offence to one that was criminal. Thus, the Masters were distanced from the prosecutions which were now in the hands of Justices of the Peace. Further, the Act allowed for the recruitment of Inspectors who were empowered to enter the women’s homes and confiscate materials and equipment for measurement. These Government Inspectors systematically went around Norfolk’s towns and villages to identify those spinners who were short reeling false or short yarn. Neighbours were often on the look-out for such Inspectors and would warn spinners of their approach. But frequently there was no warning given and women found to be short reeling false or short yarn would be either given a warning by the Inspector or they received a summons to court to face charges resulting in a fine or, for repeated offences, a public flogging. Norwich’s virtual monopoly of the Worsted trade came under threat from the growing factory system of production of West Yorkshire/East Lancashire. By the early 1800’s, high quality Norfolk wool was sold directly to northern Worsted factory owners, for example at the Annual Thetford Wool Fair, while the City of Norwich itself became an importer of worsted cloth from these regions. Thus, spinning in our area returned once more to its home-spun status.

The 32 local women spinners convicted of fraud under the Worsted Act of 1768 September, 1776 Watlington: Margaret Fendike; Cockley Cley: Mary Roof; Oxborough: Sarah Hopkins; West Dereham: Ann Capps. Dec. 1781- June, 1782 Boughton: Mary Fincham; Crimplesham: Mary Morgan; Feltwell: Ann Price, Emily Esgut, Margaret Rolfe, Susannah Edwards; Foulden: Mary Bush, Mary Chelvers; Hilgay: Ann Ambrose, Elizabeth Rayner; Methwold: Ann Carter, Ann Pooley; Elizabeth Smith, Margaret Tudder; Oxborough: Elizabeth Wilkerson, Elizabeth Nelson, Mary Middleton; Southery: Frances Sterne; Wereham: Margaret Twiddey; Wimbotsham: Frances Doubleday, Mary Mapps. March, 1786 Swaffham: Mary Waller. June, 1789 Northwold: Elizabeth Read, Hannah Dent, Hannah Wright; Oxborough: Elizabeth Wortley. September, 1789 West Dereham; Sarah Jewell.

(1) Worsted: in the mid-sixteenth century this was yarn spun from long-staple Norfolk wool or the fabric woven from it. By the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries it came to mean any yarn spun from long-staple wool. Worsted was used for the manufacture of ‘high end’ woollen materials. (2) Women spinners could give short measure by reducing the number of threads in the spun yarn and/or reducing the circumference of their spinning wheel, which had a device to register each full turn, thus producing shorter hanks of wool.

Feel free to visit my local history blog at https://norfolknotesblog.wordpress.com/ Take care everyone, Jim McNeill, Stoke Ferry

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