A history of Halesworth, Suffolk, UK, through the ages.


Volume 1


Halesworth Market and Craft Industries

It is difficult to visualize when Halesworth changed from an agriculturally based village into a craft town. Recent archaelogical excavations indicate that craftsmen were working to glaze the church from a site behind the present Barclay's Bank about 1090 as stained glass and lead used to fix it in position was found in a pit there. Some sherds of 11th and 12th century pottery were also found at the same dig, which suggest there were trading links with places outside of Halesworth.

As a natural extension of the craft workshops, we find that Halesworth was developing into a small market town by the 13th century. During the early Middle Ages there had been a rapid increase in the number of markets for which charters had been given by the King. It was not possible for a town to hold a market without this special permission, and between 1227 and 1310, over 70 markets were brought into use in the County of Suffolk. Halesworth gained its market through a licence sought by Richard de Argentine in 1222, he was Sheriff of Suffolk and Lord of Halesworth Manor. Other markets opened locally at Kelsale, Middleton, Sizewell and at Saxmundham. A charter of Henry ll confirmed one at Walberswick, and markets at Leiston and Aldringham opened in the 14th century.

Such a market was a commercial advantage to the towns folk of Halesworth, as it brought both traders and buyers into the town. The more to visit the local market, the greater would be its prosperity. The countrymen walked or drove their carts in from the surrounding villages, bringing eggs, butter, cheese, livestock, vegetables and fruit to sell to the townspeople.

The traders set up their stalls in the market area to sell pots, pans, clothes, shoes and other manufactured goods which might not be made in the town. An important part of the market was the 'Flesh Market' where the butchers sold meat, often called the Shambles. Out of this activity the lord of the manor reaped benefit by gathering the rents or tolls which were charged on the stalls or on the items being sold. He would also, when granted the 'Assize of Bread and Ale', be responsible to ensure the high quality of each of these very important commodities, and be responsible for setting the price of each. Richard de Argentine also obtained a licence for a fair at Newmarket in 1227, which was a new town being developed.

Industries such as leadworking, spinning and weaving were being carried out in the small houses near the church. Lead fishing weights were cast in sand moulds in a pit near the Angel Inn. Local fishermen were bringing fresh fish into the town, and the spinning of woollen yarn is indicated by finds of lead, bone and clay spindle whorls.

Perhaps the most marked evidence of change was the growing trade in wool. East Anglia was a great grazing area, and wool was one of its chief products. Although we could produce fine wool, we were not so skilled as others in the craft of cloth manufacture. So the wool was bought by foriegn agents, exported to Flanders and France where it was spun, made into cloth and then sold back again into England.

Weaving was still undertaken in this country, usually using the vertical loom in the 13th century. The weavers worked hand in hand with the clothiers who finished the cloth. Documents of 1380 refer to the 'Tenter field' in Halesworth, where the cloth was dried by stretching it between large hooks called 'tenterhooks'. The phrase of being on tenterhooks, or of being very uneasy, comes from this practice.

The cloth would be dyed, then, using the prickly dried teazles from the plants which were grown by the river, the nap of the cloth would be scratched and raised, so that it could be evenly cut with large scissors to make the surface of the cloth smooth and soft. It would now be ready for sale.

Other written evidence points to the use of animal skins to produce leather from sheep, oxen and cows, which were reared at the Halesworth Manor. There was sufficient raw material available as part of the market was rented in 1375 by butchers. The parts of the animals not sold as meat were sold to tanners who would wash the skins or hides as they were called, in the Town River. They would cut off the horns and hoofs, for a number of horns have been found in the river itself and on the riverbanks of the Thoroughfare. The horns would normally be used whole as drinking vessels, or opened flat to make windows for iron lanterns. The hides were cured, dried and sold to cobblers and leatherworkers for shoes, coats, making leather drinking vessels and many other uses.


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