Home   Bury St Edmunds   News   Article

Subscribe Now

Bury St Edmunds historian Martyn Taylor explains how wool laid the foundations for the town’s success





Interestingly, Shakers Lane in Bury St Edmunds derives its name from ‘shackage’, moveable pens that allowed sheep to graze the leavings of a previous crop such as turnips.

Whilst it is an accepted fact the Abbey of St Edmund in medieval times were large landowners and provided employment for much of the town, as time progressed the wool trade came to the fore. After all, this was the primary industry of the medieval economy. In Bury, the coverlets made here were a speciality.

Shakers Lane got its name from moveable pens used for grazing sheep
Shakers Lane got its name from moveable pens used for grazing sheep

The clothiers of the town were master cloth-makers employing a large workforce. They carried out shearing, scouring and an initial cleaning to clean dirt off, then sorting took place. The wool was then straightened via carding using teasel - a tall spikey plant – to draw out the fleece’s natural fibres, or combing using large metal combs to untangle the wool. It was given to the spinners to spin the wool while still in its ‘grease’ ( lanoline) as the yarn was less likely to break using drop-spindles. With the advent of the spinning wheel in the 14th century these were superfluous to requirements.

The wool was washed yet again to remove the grease then dyed using natural occurring plants such as woad.

The spinners produced a yarn thread which was set on frames by the weavers, the vertical being the warp, the horizontal, weft. On completion of the weaving, the last obnoxious process in medieval times involved ‘walking’ the woven product in urine, known as fulling, to tighten it up. Finally, another wash and you could call it cloth.

The wool plaque in St Andrew's Street
The wool plaque in St Andrew's Street

Also in the past the cloth was put on ‘tenterhooks’, being stretched out to prevent shrinkage. The cutter would complete the whole process, trimming and shaping the cloth. Whilst the job of the alnager, an officer of the crown, was to inspect the cloth ensuring it met with standards prior to being sold.

As time went on, some work for weavers and spinners was outsourced, women taking on this role working in their own homes and getting paid ‘piece work’ - the more you produced the more you were paid!

Between 1354 and 1530 there were 86 vocations in the town, the highest number associated with the wool trade, so not surprisingly the earliest guilds reflected this. The Candlemas Guild, which would evolve into the Guildhall Feoffment still with us today, being the most notable. This ruling elite, known as burgesses, with power brokers such as Jankyn Smyth and John Baret, who had married into the rich Drury clothier family, were not necessarily involved directly with the wool trade but certainly benefited from the wealth it created within the town. Both contributed to the internal fabric of St Marys Church.

After the Abbey’s dissolution and the granting of the town’s first charter in 1606 by James I/VI, there were two wool-halls in the town, ne near the Market Cross owned by the 37-man Corporation that now ran the town, the other the Clothiers Wool-hall where today’s Woolhall Street is (the plaque in St Andrew’s Street South probably moved from here). Free from the religious constraints exerted on them by the Abbey, they would eventually start to enjoy the new-found freedom of non-Conformism, yarn merchants such as Samuel Cumberland and John Corsbie attending the Independent Chapel (now the United Reformed Church) in Whiting Street. Here they exchanged ideas and intermingled.

Clayton Schofield Wool Warehouse in Guildhall Street
Clayton Schofield Wool Warehouse in Guildhall Street

Though preferring St Mary’s Church, James Oakes - ‘Mr Bury St Edmunds‘ of his day – inherited a yarn business from his uncle, Orbell Ray, who had many combing sheds occupying land in St Andrew’s Street South.

James went into partnership with William Buck, but with the downturn of the wool trade at the end of the 18th century because of an influx of Flemish weavers, imported textiles and the Napoleonic wars, Oakes went into banking, his fine house in Guildhall Street reflecting this. Buck went on to partner Benjamin Greene to form a new venture that would sow the seeds of the Greene King brewery. The fantastic diaries kept by James Oakes detailing life at the end of the 18th century and beginning of the 19th century are a fabulous resource for future generations.

Lavenham is acknowledged as the best example of a wool town in England, with its fine timber-framed properties, however these exist today only because the wealthy of the town left after the decline of the wool trade. This resulted in these houses not being Georgianised by ‘the better sort of people’ as they were in Bury. The last wool merchants trading in Bury were Clayton Schofield, of 70 Guildhall Street, his yard at the rear and Eastern Wool growers in the 1960s also in St Andrew’s Street South.

Martyn Taylor
Martyn Taylor

-- Martyn Taylor is a local historian, author and Bury Tour Guide. His latest book, Bury St Edmunds Through Time Revisited, is widely available.