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Sudbury’s weavers’ cottages

by David Burnett

(click on images to enlarge)

The local weaving of silk by domestic outworkers probably goes back to the late 18th century when it was carried out in ordinary cottages. This research focuses on the purpose-built three-storey terraces of weavers’ cottages that are still such a prominent feature of the local townscape.

When were they built and by whom?

There seems to be a local assumption that the building of these terraces was commissioned by local silk manufacturers to house their workers. The truth is more complicated. It can be shown that at least two terraces were built for a manufacturer but other terraces were actually the work of speculative builders acting on their own account. They bought the land, borrowed the money to finance the construction and finally sold on the completed properties or rented them out.

Other terraces appear to have built by prosperous and entrepreneurial weavers or on behalf of individuals who were active in the commercial life of the town who saw the building project as a sound investment.

In most cases studied the individuals involved in commissioning or actually building the terraces had to raise additional capital through a mortgage, the advance being secured against the property. In the mid-19th century such mortgagees might be a wealthy private individual or a small group of investors, some of them local,others lived much further afield including London. How did such people became aware of local investment opportunities?

Another possible source of a mortgage was our local ‘Sudbury Permanent Building Society’ where the advance can be seen as the reward for the Victorian virtue of thrift –mortgagers were required to have a record of previous saving with the Society.

31-32 Cross Street

Probably the oldest surviving weavers' cottages

Most of the surviving terraces date back to the middle of the 19th century but this pair of cottages is much older. The framework of the floors and walls is of sawn timber apart from an enormous transverse hand-cut beam which runs through both cottages supporting the weaving floors above. The earliest document relating to No 31 dates from its sale in 1845 but states that ‘for many years it was occupied by the widow of Robert Bird and widow Gosling’ and then ‘for 20 years’ by Hannah Alston and her mother. Starting from 1845 this seems to push the date of construction back into the early 19th or even the late 18th century when we know that silk weaving was already established in the town – in 1784 the French nobleman, La Rochefoucauld, visited Sudbury and, after some derogatory comments about ‘the persons of no fortune, smugglers and bankcrupts’ who lived here noted the, ‘100 looms weaving silk for the London market…funded by London merchants who get the work done at the lowest rates.’

Gooseberry (otherwise Garden) Row was a brick-built terrace of 12 cottages. Various residents of the Row, all described as weavers, were recorded in the 1832 Sudbury Poll Book and the terrace may well be among those referred to in a report of 1821 that ‘60 new houses were being built with space for looms.’ The Row stood on what is now North Street Car Park; it was demolished in the 1960s.

Gooseberry Row ran down to Acton Square

1-6 New Street This terrace stands on land in Mill Field bought by Alexander Duff Peacock on 19 April 1858 from the widow of John Crisp Gooday. (‘Mill Field’ refers to the windmill which formerly stood on the North side of New Street.) Alexander Duff Peacock was a silk manufacturer based in Spitalfields, who already had a factory in Christopher Lane.

Duff Peacock had £600 saved in shares with the Sudbury Permanent Building Society and obtained a £600 mortgage from the Society on May 21 1862 secured on the ‘six newly built messuages or tenements called St John’s Terrace.’ The cottages were already occupied – by James Smith, Alfred Clubb, Alexander Duff Peacock, Caroline Bacon and Alfred Clubb the Younger; one unoccupied. Indeed the cottages had been ready for occupation the previous year earlier as they are listed in the 1861 census. Since the cottages had already been built and rented out to some of his weavers one can only speculate about his need to take out the mortgage in 1862 – perhaps his builder was pressing for payment! The explanation for Duff Peacock’s own name appearing in the 1862 mortgage agreement is that No. 4 was used as his ‘factory’ – a local warehouse where his weavers collected raw materials and returned finished fabric.

The 1862 mortgage eventually became a burden for Duff Peacock; he fell behind with his repayments and was still owing £529 in1882 when the Trustees of the Sudbury Permanent put the whole terrace up for sale by auction at The Four Swans.

70-74 Cross Street This site of this terrace was previously occupied by a row of old timber-framed houses. A later Abstract of Title, relating to No. 72, states that Thomas Kemp and Sons purchased Nos 71-74 on August 20 1864. At the time Kemps already had silk manufactories at the rear of No 18 Gainsborough Street and at No 47, on the corner with Weavers Lane next to Gainsborough’s House.

It is unclear from the Abstract whether the Kemps were buying the previous old houses on the site or the newly erected terrace. The occupants of Nos 70 -74 are listed in the 1861 census: since none were weavers it suggests that Kemps bought the older buildings in 1864, subsequently demolished them, and built the weavers’ cottages in their place.

Built to replace the former timber-framed cottages

Later references in the same Abstract show that Kemps also owned the adjacent Nos 75-78, more old buildings where says, bays and bunting had been made in the 18th century. The firm therefore now owned a substantial block of property in Cross Street where silk could be woven by their resident handloom weavers.

Inkerman Row was a row of nineteen cottages where Playford Court stands today. The terrace was named after the Battle of Inkerman in the Crimean War, fought in 1854, and was built by a local developer-builder Samuel Webb. Webb bought this plot of land in the same year as the battle, in association with William Dowman, gent. Webb is described in contemporary trade directories as a lime merchant of Upper East Street but these deeds refer to him as a builder.

View from North Street

Webb set about building the terrace in stages, each being financed by a loan from the Trustees of the Sudbury Permanent Building Society. By June 1858 he had borrowed a total of £890, presumably planning to make his repayments from the rents (or sale) of the completed cottages. However, like Duff Peacock, he seems to have over extended himself and by July 20 1860 he was £265 in arrears and the Trustees began selling off the cottages to recover their money. The 1861 census shows seventeen of the cottages occupied by silk weavers with an agricultural labourer and a tailor in the other two.

44 -71 East Street is a fine row of alternating two and three storey blocks of cottages, the whole element being regarded as so significant that it is Grade II listed. Nos. 44-51, at the Constitution Hill end, was originally a three-storey block – it was only reduced to two storeys after the Zeppelin attack on the town in 1916.

Samuel Webb, the builder of Inkerman Row, was also involved in this work in East Street although I doubt whether he built all the cottages. He certainly purchased the land on which they all stand, paying £545 at an auction at The Rose and Crown on October 14 1856, and then raising a mortgage of £1858 from the Sudbury Permanent Building Society, presumably to pay for the land and to finance initial construction. He began work with Nos 44-51 and sold them to Alfred Dupont a local coal merchant. He borrowed a further £1000 from Dupont in January 1858, presumably to finance construction work on Nos 52-59, and on June 2 1858 paid off his mortgage to the Building Society. On the following day, June 3, he sold Nos. 52-59, now completed, and all the land on which Nos. 60 -71 were later built to Mr Joseph Garnham for £1078. It is difficult to know how Webb emerged from all these transactions and whether he made a profit. The cottages that Webb definitely built, Nos 44-59, are in an unadorned white brick, rather severe in style. Nos. 60-71 look very different: the facades of the alternate rows of two and three storey cottages have attractive red brick decorative banding to relieve the severity of the white brick. Did Garnham employ another builder?

The later cottages built for Mr Garnham - possibly not Webb's work.

14-22 Batt Hall. All the cottages at Batt Hall, both two and three-storey and the two-storey, have strong stylistic similarities in their red brick decorative detail, suggesting the same builder. Nos. 14-17 bear a plaque “Prospect Place IO 1863”. The rather unusual initials indicate that they were constructed by the Ballingdon builder, Isaac Overall. He had his own local brickyard and the name Batt Hall may be a reference to his use here of brickbats – in effect ‘seconds’ – which he could not use elsewhere.

The plaque on 'Prospect Place' is clearly visible.

Similarly styled weavers’ cottages can be found in Ballingdon itself, at Nos. 39-43, whilst the name ‘Overall’s Yard’ for a courtyard development of weavers’ cottages in Gregory Street indicate that he was a major figure in the building of these cottages as well. Overall’s Yard was cleared when Gregory Street was widened in the 1960s; it stood where the fire station is today.

115-117 Melford Road This pair of cottages bears a datestone T & GB 1858. The 1861 Census shows that Thomas Binney, 29, was living at No. 115, along with his wife and a lodger; all three were silk weavers, with another weaver living next door at 117. Down the road at No. 42 lived George Binney, 22, also a silk weaver. This may be pure co-incidence but it seems likely that the two brothers pooled their resources, raised a mortgage, and then commissioned a builder – instructing him to put up the datestone to celebrate their achievement.

St Gregory’s Terrace, Nos 125-131. Azariah Clubb paid £75 for this half acre of ‘Long Croft’ in 1857 and built the terrace in the next year or so – we next meet Azariah in the 1861 Census, a silk weaver and lay preacher, already living at No.129. By the time of the 1871 Census he had moved from No. 129 to 131. This entrepreneurial and educated weaver built the terrace, probably with the help of an advance from the local building Society (or a solicitor, clergyman, farmer, someone looking for a reasonably secure investment).

Clubb's terrace - No 127 much hacked about by later owners.

175-183 Melford Road. There are a number of short terraces of weavers’ cottages on the west side of Melford Road – all part of the development which took place on ‘Long Croft’ above North Meadow after this grazing land was freed from shackage and commonage in 1838. The weavers’ cottages at Nos. 175-183 Melford Road were built as a speculative investment by fishmonger William Brock. Harrod’s 1864 Trade Directory refers to him as butcher, fishmonger and farmer of North Street; he was also a town councillor and clearly a man of some means.

Brock's terrace- at the narrowest end of Long Croft

He bought the land in 1850 and the 1861 census refers to the weavers’terrace as Nos 5-9 ‘The Folly’ and shows that weavers were occupying four of the five newly built cottages. (Brock also later built the nearby two-storey cottages known as Rifle Terrace Nos 159-169 – his initials and 1868 are on the datestone.)

16-20 Station Road This is the northernmost of the Station Road weavers’ terraces. The lack of early title deeds poses problems here. However, within the later deeds of No. 16 is a reference back to an Indenture of December 9th 1850 involving Charles Ray and Samuel Higgs, two local coal merchants who were partners based at The Quay, and Joseph Hayward, described as a silk factory foreman.  Higgs and Ray seem to have bought the plot, financed the construction work, and then sold No 16 to Hayward. These five cottages were built on land owned by the Colchester Stour Valley and Halstead Railway Company which opened the line from Marks Tey to Sudbury in 1849. Hayward was liable for an annual rent charge to the Company of 8 shillings ‘being one fifth part of the £2 annual payment to the Company. It seems that, although the Company had sold the land on which Nos 16-20 stand, it still retained a financial interest.

Conclusion to the above Case Studies

All the evidence above points to a major surge in the building of weavers’ cottages in Sudbury in the 1850s and on into the 1860s, suggesting local confidence in the future of silk manufacturing in the town. This is somewhat remarkable given that more widely the industry was struggling in the face of competition from French silk imports which no longer paid an import duty – the consequence of the Cobden Free Trade Treaty with France in 1860. The Essex Standard in June 1861 reported on ‘the distressed condition of most of the weaving population in this town (Braintree) owing to lack of work’ whilst on a wider front the 20 years after 1860 saw many silk manufacturers forced to close. Yet here in Sudbury we see a mix of silk manufacturers, builders, even some local weavers like Azariah Clubb and the Binney brothers, all confident enough to commission new cottage construction. At the same time whilst a number of the older firms closed down new silk manufacturers like Stephen and Daniel Walters were moving into the town. The explanation for the local industry’s ability  to survive this and later periods of poor trade was probably linked with the deliberate concentration on the production of silk goods at the ‘high’ end of the market – quality velvets, brocades, furnishing fabrics and umbrella and parasol silk.

The original layout of weavers’ cottages

The plan of weaver’s cottage with a first floor loom shop is not unique to Sudbury – similar terraces exist in Bocking and Braintree. However, it seems a somewhat illogical arrangement when it might have made more sense to have the loom floor on the top floor where the working light would be better. Thus in Macclesfield, another major centre of the silk industry, the weavers’ cottages are two or three storey with the looms on the top floor.

Later modifications to the surviving weavers’ cottages have obscured the original internal layout. However, some evidence can be gleaned from early maps and plans, the odd interview conducted when domestic weaving was still within human memory and the memories of local people, who lived there in the mid 20th century before much improvement had taken place.

On some terraces, for example in Inkerman Row and Melford Road, there were one or more passageways leading off the public road and running through the cottages to give access to a rear courtyard. This contained a row of outside privies and a communal well or pump to which all the residents had access. (This arrangement was written into the title deeds so that today the occupants of the two cottages on either side of one of these passageways still have to allow their neighbours through their back gardens to take deliveries or put out their wheelie bins.)

Turning to the cottages themselves, whilst in Gooseberry Row they were originally built with a single straight through all-purpose room on the ground floor other terraces seem to have an original division on the ground floor between a front room and a rear kitchen. The main living room was entered directly off the road – or front garden if one existed – with the kitchen behind.

A steep flight of stairs ran up to the first floor where all the weaving cottages had ‘the shop’- the weaving room. This was a large undivided room with extra-wide windows front and back to provide good working light. One or more looms were set up at right angles to the windows so that the light fell across the weaver’s hands. In the gloom of winter they worked by the light of an oil lamp with a reflector at the back which hung from the loom post. Other work might also go on in the shop, probably involving the female members of the family, such as winding the weft supplied by the manufacturer onto the quills or pirns which fitted inside the weft shuttle.

Local folklore has it that, walking by a weaver’s cottage it was common to look up and see a broken pane of glass in one of these large ‘shop’ windows, blocked up with cardboard or paper; this was caused by an aptly named ‘flying shuttle’ speeding off the loom and hitting the window. In some terraces such as East Street it seems that there were originally connecting doors between the weaving floors of adjacent cottages but it is impossible to say how common this feature was.

The family slept on the top floor, subdivided into two bedrooms, whilst above were the attics beneath the slated roof. The attics could not be accessed from the top floors of the cottages and ran continuously across all the cottages without any partitions – a major fire hazard. Access hatches were only provided when water tanks were put into the lofts whilst the insertion of firewalls was a late 20th century requirement.

Heating was provided by coal fires and lighting by oil lamps and candles – probably gas lighting was introduced later in the 19th or even in the early 20th century. It seems unlikely that the fireplaces on the first and second floors were used very much given the cost of the coal and the difficulty of carrying it up the narrow staircases.

Footnote: As with all historical research what I have written may well need to be modified as further information comes to light. DB