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


Volume 3


Growing Flax and Hemp

Crops grown in the 16th and 17th centuries come to light in the Halesworth records at the same time, for we read that ...

'John Ffillbye holds copyhold a certain parcel of land called fflaxe pyghtie, containing by estimate two acres (he) pays per annum 8d (3p)'

Acts of Parliament of 1533 and 1563 stipulated that farms of sixty or more acres should grow a quarter of an acre of hemp or flax. Fields near the farmhouse might be called 'Hemplands' or 'Hempfield' such as one in Wenhaston parish near Mells. At Stradbroke, the name of one of the older inns was 'Hempsheaf Inn' which was derived from this crop being grown locally from the late 16th century for the weaving of sacking and sailcloth in an attempt to offset the decline in the wool trade.

This decline was due to the falling demand for Suffolk dyed cloth in Europe, to export restrictions, and to the outbreak of war with Spain. So, by 1622 clothiers are reported to have had thousands of unsaleable cloths in their warehouses and many were in debt 'much decayed in their estates by reason of the great losses they have received'.

Hempen linen was valued by customers, as it was noted for its hard wearing qualities. Both hemp and flax were used in the process of making linen, but in Suffolk, hemp was used more. The climate and soil seemed to suit hemp rather than flax, and also flax needs much more work in growing and harvesting. The soil itself was an important factor, as hemp grown for the making of ship cables and canvas or for sacking needs a well manured and damp soil, yet a poorer soil is good for fine and slender linen fibres.

The farming of hemp in East Suffolk seems to follow a line ten miles wide along the Waveney Valley, running from Eye to Beccles. Halesworth was one of a number of places mentioned in 1342 as growing both hemp and flax, and both preparing and weaving linen.

The famous poet Thomas Tusser (1524-80) wrote in 1557 ...

Good flax and good hemp, to have of her own,

In May a good housewife will see it be sown.

And afterwards trim it, to serve at a need,

The fimble to spin, and the earl for her seed.

The hemp lands were usually connected with cottages, so it may have been a normal garden crop. It can grow to a height of between five and ten feet, and a great attraction was its high return. Nathaniel Briggs, who was a farmer in the Blyford Estate died in 1774 and his goods were listed for probate. Included was 15 stones of hemp, which was dressed and valued at 1s.6d (7 p) a stone (14 lbs) at a time when an acre could produce 45 stone. In addition, the executor paid a labourer 6s (30p) the following year for harvesting and pulling more hemp in the land.

The main process was the 'retting' which was done either in a river or specially dug pits. Acts of Parliament of Henry VIII made it unlawful to put 'any manner of hemp or flax in any river ... where beasts used to be watered, but only in the ground or pits', and by the 19th century 'rotten' or 'retting pits' are listed on the Tithe Award maps. The bundles of hemp were weighted down under the water by stones or timber for between four to six days, then they would be dried by laying them out in the fields, know as 'grassing' which could take up to five weeks to dry. Then comes 'breaking' and 'scutching' which separates fibres from the stalk, this is done by hand or with a machine.

Although retting in the river was forbidden in the 15th century it was still quite common, for in 1654 James Carter was fined 3s.4d (17p) for retting his hemp within 40 feet (12 m) of the River Waveney at Beccles, and much earlier in 1389-90, a man was fined at the Manor Court of South Elmham for laying hemp in the Lord's river.

In Suffolk, Ipswich and Bungay were known as centres of sailcloth manufacture, after 1700 Beccles and Bungay flourished as linen weaving towns, while in the 1720s, Halesworth's market was noted for its plentiful sales of linen yarn, 'which the women of this county spin, partly for the use of families, and partly for sale'. 


Hover your mouse cursor over each image

Home Page
To Front
Home Page
To Start of

Back One Page
Back One

Forward One Page
Forward One

Forward Last Page
To End of

Hover your mouse cursor over each image