Industries in the 15th to 18th Centuries

Industries in the 15th to 18th Centuries

Today, industry is almost always associated with towns. Everyone thinks of places such as Birmingham, Leeds, Manchester and Bradford, or in Kent, Erith, Dartford, Chatham and Sittingbourne as centres of industry, whatever other characteristics they may possess in addition. However, in Tudor, Elizabethan and Stuart Kent, industries were not concentrated in the towns, but were scat­tered over the greater part of the county. In the main, they grew up where the raw materials were to hand. The roads were so bad that the transport of heavy and bulky materials was extremely difficult and costly, and Kent is not well served by navigable rivers. Cloth-making therefore established itself near to the source of its raw material, wool and the great iron industry of the Weald grew up there because both the ore and the fuel for smelting it were readily obtainable.

The pattern of the distribution of industry did not, however, depend solely upon the ready availability of necessary raw materials. On many occasions in the 16th and 17th centuries groups of refugees fled to England in order to escape religious persecution on the Continent, and almost always they brought some industrial skill or technical knowledge with them. Thus, for example, silk-weaving came to Canterbury and market-gardening to Sandwich with the Walloon refugees about 1560-70.

The number of refugees who made their homes in ‘England between the 1560s and the 1580s, and who, by their skill and industry, contributed valuably to the country’s wealth and well-being, was certainly well over 100,000. Of these the majority settled in East Anglia, in London and in Kent. No precise population statistics are available before the first official census in 1801, when the figure given for Kent was just over 300,000. Two hundred years before, at the end of Queen Elizabeth’s reign, it was probably about 150,000, of whom the ‘strangers’ numbered a few thousand.

Map showing the location of industries in the 17th century
Map showing the location of industries in the 17th century

Most of the people in Elizabeth’s time derived their livelihood, directly or indirectly, from agriculture, which long remained the most important industry. Fruit-growing was on the increase, and hops were introduced during the 16th century, but on the whole Kent remained a county of mixed farming, with no very revolutionary changes. There was greater development of agriculture in the 18th century, and we shall therefore return to it in a later chapter.

The market-gardening industry was introduced into England by the Walloon immigrants who settled at Sandwich towards the end of the 16th century. At that time Englishmen were not much given to eating vegetables, and such as were required were largely imported from the Low Countries. Naturally the immigrant ‘Dutchmen’, as they were usually called, finding the soil and the climate suitable, re-established their market-gardening industry where they first settled. Cabbages, carrots and celery were their speciality, and even as late as 1768 Sandwich carrots were still ‘esteemed the sweetest as they are the largest of any in England’. London was naturally the main market for vegetables, and within a few years some of the Walloons moved off to the outskirts of the capital, to establish market-gardens in north-west Kent and in Surrey with the advantage of a shorter journey to market. Not all of the Walloons, by any means, left Sandwich. Many remained there as flourishing market-gardeners, and from the fact that the flat land on either side of the road from Sandwich to Canterbury has the Dutch name of The Poulders (a word still in use in Holland for the parts of the Zuider Zee which have been reclaimed) suggests that the immigrant strangers used their skill in the building of walls and dykes to reclaim some of the marshland at Sandwich.

Another industry which they brought to Sandwich was the making of cloths called ‘says and bays’. Without these new industries, Sandwich, its harbour silted up and unusable, would have been a dying town. How much the new industries meant to the town is shown by the fact that at the end of the 16th century the foreign immigrants, who practised the new industries, outnumbered the English inhabitants, many of whom had lost their livelihood.

Other refugees settled at Canterbury. Cloth-making had been established there for. some time, for at the Dissolution the Franciscan house, the Greyfriars, became a cloth-factory. The Walloons who settled at Canterbury specialised in the making of silks, and the city soon became, with London, one of the two centres of the craft in England. This was not a case of an industry being set up near the source of its raw material, because the raw silk had to be imported from Italy and Turkey; the important ‘raw material’ here was the skill of the weavers. As elsewhere in the county, the refugees were generally welcomed by the authorities, for it was realised that their knowledge and industry brought prosperity to the places where they settled. At Canterbury the Huguenots, as they were called, were granted the use of a chapel in the crypt of the Cathedral so that they could continue their own religious services. They became loyal citizens, giving no trouble to the authorities, but to some extent ‘keeping themselves to them­selves’. For example, they looked after their own aged and poor, and therefore demurred at paying the City poor rate, although their objection to doing so was overruled by the Judge of Assize. They, and the silk-weaving industry, thrived to such an evtent that, in 1660, over 2,000 people were employed in the industry, of whom 1,300 were ‘strangers’ and 700 English. After the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685 more French Protestants fled to England, some of whom settled at Canterbury. The last few years of the 17th century saw the industry at its zenith. Celia Fiennes, who was a great traveller and kept a diary of all that she saw, remarked on the prosperity of the silk-weavers when she visited Canterbury in 1697: ‘I saw 20 Loomes in one house with severall fine flower’d silks’, she records. But, in truth, the industry was about to collapse. The opening up of trade with the East by the East India Company and the importation of woven silks was a serious blow to the silk-weavers of London and Canterbury. The attempts which were made, by Act of Parliament, to protect the home industry by restricting the importation of silk cloth were not successful and by 1710 the number of master-weavers at Canterbury had fallen by more than half. A few years later the industry was practically dead.

More than two hundred years before the first refugees arrived at Sandwich and Canterbury, the great cloth-making industry of the Weald had prospered by the introduction of skilled foreign workmen, invited over to England by Edward III, particularly from the Netherlands. Even before Edward III’s time cloth-making was widespread, almost each town and village making the cloth for its own needs. There are, for example, references to the weaving of cloth at Eynsford, Dartford, Strood, Rochester, Maidstone and several places in Larkfield Hundred, Milton Regis, Canterbury and Cranbrook in the 13th century. However, cloth-making on this scale could scarcely be termed an industry and fine cloth had either to be imported from the Continent, or the coarse English cloth sent there to be finished. Edward I, during a dispute with Flanders, forbade the export of English wool or the import of Flemish cloth. It was with the same object, of strengthening the English cloth industry and weakening the rival industry in Flanders, that Edward III issued his invitation to foreign workmen to leave their homes and to settle in England. It can readily be understood that, at first, the foreigners were not everywhere well received.

One of the areas in which they settled was the Weald around Cranbrook. There was plenty of wool to be had from the Kentish flocks, although it had the reputation of being of inferior quality to the wool of East Anglia and the West Country. Moreover, two other commodities were available for finishing the cloth—water-power and fuller’s earth. To cleanse it from grease the cloth had to be pounded in water and treated with fuller’s earth. The pounding could be done by men treading, or walking, on the cloth in a trough, but it could be done more economically by a fulling mill in which a series of hammers were driven by water-power. The streams in the Cranbrook district could easily be dammed back to give a sufficient force of water to work mills, and at one time as many as 15 or 18 mills were at work in or near Cranbrook. The fuller’s earth came from the neighbourhood of Maidstone, especially from Boxley parish.

The industry spread to other nearby villages, notably Benenden, Biddenden, Staplehurst and Tenterden and, to a less extent, Hawkhurst, Goudhurst, Horsmonden, Brenchicy, Frittenden, Pluckley, Smarden, Hunton, Yalding, Leeds, Seal, Tudeley and Tonbridge. Apart from the actual weaving and fulling, many of the processes, such as spinning and carding, were carried out in the workpeople’s own homes. The factory system in industry came much later, in the 18th century. The weaving was done in the master cloth-worker’s ‘hall’ and there the raw materials and the finished products were stored. Several of these fine timber-framed cloth-workers’ halls still exist, one of the best known being that at Biddenden.

Because cloth-making was carried on in small isolated units in this way, the industry had to be controlled, in the interests of the purchaser. The regulation width of Kentish broadcloth, as it was called, was 58 inches, and each piece had to be between 30 and 34 yards in length and to weigh 66 lb. Officials, known as ulnagers (from aulne, an ell) were appointed to see that the regulations were obeyed. No piece of cloth might be sold until it had been passed by them and sealed; offenders, principally those whose cloth was below the regulation weight, were fined. Woad, madder and saffron were amongst the materials used to dye the cloths, the principal colours being russet, ginger, orange, blue, grey and green. Eventually the Kent clothiers specialised in a grey cloth, which became so characteristic of the industry in the county that it was known as Kentish grey.

So many processes were involved in cloth-making that the manufacture of a single piece required the labour of 30 to 40 men, women and children. Most of the clothiers worked on a fairly small scale although a few carried on business in a larger way—Thomas Davy of Cranbrook, for example, was authorised in 1519 to export 1,000 unfinished cloths within the next seven years, and when Robert Hovenden, of Frizley in Cranbrook, died in 1615 he had on hand finished cloths and raw materials worth nearly £450, so both Davy and Hovenden must have been manufacturers of some account. So also was James Skeate of Tenterden who sent to London 40 or 50 cloths a year. The value of Kentish broadcloth at this time was about £12 to £16 a piece, that is about 8s. to us, a yard.

It was estimated, during Queen Elizabeth’s reign, that the output of cloth in the Weald amounted to 11,000 or 12,000 pieces a year, so the total value must have been about £150,000, a very large sum of money for those days.

The clothiers constantly believed that the industry was in a precarious state, and sought to have it protected against foreign competition by Act of Parliament. Towards the end of the 17th century trade was beginning to fall away seriously, and by the end of the next century the great cloth-making industry of the Weald was at an end. It was not so much foreign competition, as competition from the growing and more favourably situated cloth manufactories of Yorkshire, Somerset, Wiltshire and Gloucester, that caused the collapse of the industry in Kent.

At the height of its prosperity, about 1580, Cranbrook supported a population of some 3,000, at a time when Maidstone’s population was not more than about 2,000. Maidstone owes much of its importance to its situation at the point where the road from London and Sevenoaks to Ashford and the coast crosses the Medway. However, in the 16th and 17th centuries this road carried much less traffic than Watling Street and it was not until the latter half of the 19th century that Maidstone surpassed Rochester, Chatham and Canterbury in size. For its development in the 17th century Maidstone had to thank four local industries—the making of cloths called ‘mannikins’, the export of fuller’s earth from Boxley, the dressing of linen, and the making of linen-thread. The latter was another of the industries introduced by Flemish refugees at the end of the 16th century. During the following century it flourished to such an extent that it was said that Maidstone thread was ‘carried all over the world’, but in 1668 the thread-makers of Maidstone were petitioning Parliament to protect their industry from unfair competition and especially from the import of Dutch thread. The industry survived into, but not until the end of, the 18th century.

We must now return to the Weald. The clothiers of the Cranbrook district complained in 1635 that the prosperity of their industry was threatened by the setting up of John Browne’s ironworks, which consumed vast quantities of timber. The iron-ore of the Weald had been worked and smelted as early as Roman times, but more on the Sussex than the Kent side of the forest. The smelting of ore was certainly being carried on at Tudeley as early as the beginning of the 14th century, and at the end of the 16th century there were ironworks at Cranbrook, Hawkhurst, Goudhurst, Horsmonden, Tonbridge, Cowden, Ashurst, Brenchley, Lamberhurst and Biddenden.

Iron-making involved two processes: first the smelting of the ore in a ‘bloomery’, and then the refining of the metal so produced. A bloomery consisted of a kiln, in shape rather like the old lime-kilns which are still to be seen in various parts of the county, about 24 ft. in diameter and 30 ft. high, open at the top. The ore and the fuel (wood and charcoal) were fed in from the top in alternate layers and the furnace was then set burning. To get the necessary temperature a good draught was required. Bellows were therefore installed, being worked either by a couple of men or by water-power. The metal collected in a molten mass at the bottom of the furnace and was drawn off into a depression in the ground. Then it had to be reheated and beaten to get rid of impurities. It was found that water-power could be used for working the hammers in the same way as it was used for working the fulling-mills, and contemporary travellers in the Weald speak of the hideous noise which the hammer-furnaces made. Nothing of them now remains, but their situation is often indicated by names such as Hammer Pond, Hammer Stream, Furnace Pond, Cinderhill Wood, Cinder Lane and Blower’s Cottage. The iron was used for making horseshoes and nails, for which the demand was enormous; pots, pans, firebacks, hinges and so on; and cannon-balls and cannon. Casting cannon was a highly skilled business, and Kentish cannon were not only used in royal castles and ships, but were also exported, sometimes lawfully and sometimes smuggled out of the country under loads of brushwood.

Browne’s ironworks at Brenchley, one of the largest, was employing 200 men in the early part of the 17th century. The consumption of timber for fuel was enormous: one works alone was said to burn 750,000 cubic feet in a single year. The Weald was still heavily wooded, but the exhaustion of the timber supply was a constant source of anxiety to the people of Kent, and to the government. The scarcity of timber, the importation of iron from Sweden, Flanders and Spain, and the discovery that coal (which was not to be had in the Weald) could be used for smelting iron-ore, caused the decline of the – Kentish iron industry from about the 1660s until by 1740 only four furnaces were still at work in the county.

Some of the iron made in the Weald no doubt found its way to Dartford where, in 1590, Godfrey Box, an immigrant from Liege, set up the first slit­ting-mill in England for cutting iron bars into rods. About the same time another mill was established at Crayford for the manufacture of iron plates for armour. The engineering industry at Dartford and Crayford can, therefore, claim a long ancestry.

Dartford was also a pioneer town in paper-making. The mill which Spielman, a German, set up there early in the reign of Elizabeth was the second paper-mill to be opened in England. The Darent provided the power to drive the mill, and also the supply of clean water that is essential for paper-making. Spielman was given a monopoly of the making of white paper for 10 years and was authorised to ‘gather all manner of linen rags … scraps of parchment, leather shreds, clippings of cards, and old fishing nets, necessary for. the making of white writing-paper’. He employed no fewer than 600 men, many of them, like himself, Germans. In the 18th century the mill was purchased by Pigou and Wilks, who used it for the manufacture of gunpowder. The paper-making in­dustry in Kent received a big impetus from the arrival of refugee Frenchmen after the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes (1685) and many French terms are still employed in the industry; the large room where the paper is finished, for example, is still called the salle. By the end of the 17th century there were several mills at work in Kent, including a second mill at Dartford, a brown-paper mill at Canterbury, and a very small mill at Aylesford within a few hundred yards of the enormous mill built by Messrs. Albert E. Red & Co. Ltd in the 1920s and 1930s. Quite possibly this little mill at Aylesford had been converted from a corn-mill, in the same way as a fulling-mill at Boxley, the Old Turkey Mill, was converted into a paper-mill by James Whatman in 1739 and produced paper which was of such quality that the words ‘Whatman’ and ‘Turkey Mill’ are now trade-names for first-class hand-made papers. Other mills were built at Maidstone and Tovil in the 18th century, the Len and the Loose Valley stream being the source of water and of power.

Gunpowder, as already mentioned, was made at Dartford in the 18th cen­tury. It had also been manufactured at Faversham, on a larger scale, from Elizabethan times. The Faversham mills flourished during the 18th and 19th centuries (apart from a disastrous explosion or two) and did not close down until the beginning of this century. The stream which runs down through Ospringe into Faversham Creek provided the power to drive the mills.

Faversham Creek is now the site of a boat-building yard, and probably the industry has been carried on there in a small way for centuries. It was carried on in a much larger way at the royal dockyards, at Deptford, Woolwich and Chatham. Deptford was in use as a shipbuilding yard at least by the year 1400 but Woolwich and Chatham did not follow until the 16th century. All three of the yards derived much of their timber, especially oak, for the building and repair of ships from the Weald. Its transport presented great difficulty because the roads were unbelievably bad, often being totally impassable after prolonged rain.

Oak and Spanish chestnut were also largely used for the building of houses in the Weald and on those parts of the North Downs where the clay overlying the chalk carried timber-forest. The timber-framed house, the space between the timbers being filled in with plaster, is still typical of the Weald. In the 18th century fir-planks began to be imported from the Baltic and were used for the construction of those weather-boarded cottages and houses which are as characteristic of 18th-century building in the Weald as timber-framed construction was typical of the 15th and 16th centuries.

Stone, of a kind which in the Middle Ages was used for church-, castle- and house-building, had been worked in Kent from Roman times. The great ragstone quarries at Maidstone, Boughton Monchelsea, Loose, Tovil, Offham and Ailington; at Folkestone, Hythe and Sandgate; and at Igbtham, for many centuries provided an excellent building material, used for buildings as far apart in time as St Leonard’s Tower, West Mailing (c.1100) and Preston Hall, Aylesford (c.1850). The ragstone was not only used for building but also for cannon-balls, at least up to the time of Henry VIII. Around Bethersden a particularly fine limestone known as Bethersden marble was quarried from medieval times onwards, and was used locally for building, and in more distant parts of the county for ornamental features, such as columns and tombs. In the south-west corner of the county the sandstone found around Tunbridge Wells has been extensively used for building, as, for example, at Penshurst Place. At the other end of the county, in Thanet, and around Dover and Deal, the chalk contains bands of flint which was mined and often used in church-and in house-building until the end of the 19th century.

At many places in the county the clay or brick-earth is suitable for the manufacture of tiles and bricks and has been so used for centuries. Battle Abbey, which owned the great manor of Wye, had a tile-works at Naccolt with an annual output of more than 100,000 tiles, at least as early as 1340. Similarly, in the 14th century, the monks of Boxley had their own tile-yards, and in the following century we hear of a large brick-ground belonging to the Corporation of Sandwich. From that time onwards bricks and tiles were increasingly in demand, and although some were imported through Kentish ports from the Netherlands and Flanders, the industry expanded rapidly in Kent, especially as the rebuilding of London after the Fire of 1666 and its expansion during the 18th century offered a profitable market for the produce of Kent brickfields.

It is to this variety of local building materials that Kent owes the pleasing variety of its architecture.

The quarrying of stone is an ‘extractive’ industry; so also, although of a very different kind, is the industry formerly pursued by all the Kentish ports from Gravesend round to New Romney, namely the extraction of fish from the sea. Before the Dissolution, the religious houses had consumed vast quantities of fish, and there was always a ready market for it. There were famous oyster-fisheries at Reculver, Whitstable, Faversham, Milton Regis and in the mouth of the Medway. So valuable were they that from time to time they were raided by men from Essex and by Dutchmen. Elsewhere around the coast a whole variety of fish were caught. Daniel Rough, the Town Clerk of Romney, wrote Out a list about 1350 of the taxes which were payable on goods bought or sold in the town, and it includes cod, porpoise, herring and sprats; elsewhere he refers also to crabs, salmon, haddock, lampreys, mackerel, conger, shrimps, whiting, tench and eels. So long as the main fishing grounds were near the coast, or at least not farther off than the Dogger Bank, the Kent fishing industry remained prosperous, and in the 18th century the Broadstairs fisher­men were even going as far afield as the cod fisheries of Iceland. Indeed, the Kent fishermen on many occasions showed enterprise in going off to new grounds, and it is only during the last few years that the industry has finally declined to a fraction of what it was a hundred years ago.

This chapter has dealt, in the main, with Kentish industries from 1500 to 1700, but it has inevitably overstepped its temporal bounds in both directions. We must resume a more strictly chronological approach, and return to the 16th century.