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The World and a Small Place in England: Norwich's textile industry from the 'Middle Ages' to 'Industrial Revolution'

Thomas Gidney


     The city of Norwich in Norfolk, East Anglia, appears today to be little more than a provincial capital of an economically peripheral region of the UK, and an unlikely place to analyse world history. Yet the modern post-industrial face of Norwich disguises a long history of successful textile production harkening back to the Middle Ages. The recent announcement of the relocation of one of Norwich's last factories, Coleman's Mustard, has again brought deindustrialisation to the forefront of the local economy, yet Norwich followed a very different economic pattern to the typical perspectives of economic decline witnessed in England in the 1960s and 70s. Rather, the beginning of the end for Norwich's textile production began two centuries before in the late 18th century, during the mechanisation of Britain's textile industry.1

     Norwich's decline in manufacture was atypical to what was occurring in the rest of England, but Norwich, as most places do in their own way, often diverged from the national history. This is largely due to Norwich's connection to the North Sea region through trade, but also through migration and the sharing and dispersion of new ideas.2 Local historians have tried to improve their studies by placing their microhistory within a regional context, as Rawcliffe and Wilson state: 'The study of the social, political and economic history of early Norwich is, very distinctly, in its infancy. That history cannot be fully understood until some boreal Braudel enables us to place it in a full North Sea context.'3

     This paper seeks to provide an overview of the long rise and decline Norwich's textile industry based on secondary literature and connect this microhistory to larger regional and global processes. This methodology was employed by Donald Wright in, 'The World and a very small place in Africa'. His study on the town of Niumi in modern day Gambia, exhibited how the larger flows of globalisation moved through and transformed a peripheral hinterland.4 Underlying Wright's work is a theoretical reliance on 'World System's Theory', combining Wallerstein's theory on the development of global cores and peripheries within a microhistory of Niumi. Conversely to Wright's choice of the Gambia, England would be an example of a 'core', boasting rapidly increasing trade and production within the so called 'early modern' period onwards. The application of Wright's microhistorical approach however, adds a level of complexity to World System's Theory, revealing not the uniform development of a core country, but rather significant variation within the "core" country. The existence of de-industrialising industries during England rise to being one of Wallerstein's core is an illuminating example of that regional variation. It must be said that, though World Systems theory's state-based analysis has been criticised, it has been successfully employed to analyse regional dynamics in Abu Lughod's 'Before European Hegemony'.5 Though she recognised the presence of trade over very long distances in the Middle Ages, the majority of these processes occurred through overlapping regions, passing through many hands rather than one long transcontinental journey. For Lughod, regions were the key areas of analysis when looking at most long-distance interactions.6 However, practitioners of global history know that regional histories can only go so far, especially in the so called 'modern' period, with the annihilation of distance. The arrival of increasingly regular trans-oceanic shipping would both transform regional dynamics, but also cut across to them to the extent that regional events could be superseded by more global events.

     The significance for microhistories in this context is that events and milestones that are often considered significant in global history will often have a very specific effect on a region based on the region's own particularity. Donald Wright's history navigates these milestones set out in global history, avoiding easy periodisation to reconsider what really defines the region as medieval or modern. Abu Lughod has similarly argued that the difference in the scale of production between the Middle Ages and the so called 'early capitalist age' were not so significant and also how many of the institutions of this period had already existed in the 13th century.7

     The example of Norwich also provides a means of overcoming the criticism that world systems is often too economic centric, and fails to analyse other processes of globalisation, that can be seen in other works such as McNeill's study of cross-regional processes. McNeill categorises flows between areas as economic, political, cultural and biological.8 The globalising history of Norwich's textile industries is one that encapsulates many of these facets, such as diasporas, religious and ideological thought, as well as fashion. However, many of these cross regional processes are not exclusive to their category, but instead often overlap. The final objective of this paper to show how Norwich's globalising textile industry had many interconnections with the world through the weavers and their thoughts, religion, and politics as well as through their produce.

Medieval Norwich in the North Sea Region

     In the early Middle Ages, Norwich's cloth production was not pre-dominant among English cities. A tax record from 1273 showed that Norwich was the ninth city in the country in terms of revenue from the trade in dyed cloth. Rather, cloth was traded in Norwich market alongside a variety of other products, especially peat from Norfolk's marshy Broadland, pottery and herring from the North Sea.9 However, it would be the surrounding rurality of East Anglia that gave Norwich its first commercial advantage in the textile industry. The village of Worstead close to the North Norfolk coast would lend its name to its most significant produce 'Worsted' wool, a fine long staple variety that was used to make much finer clothes, than other coarser varieties. The neighbouring villages began of Aylsham and North Walsham began to benefit from the production of worsteds, establishing hand spinning manufactory of worsted yarns.10

     The manufacturing success of yarns and cloth in rural Norfolk did not initially lead to Norwich's success as a manufacturer of cloth. Oldland shows that the population of dyers in Norwich outstripped the few weavers that lived in 14th century.  Of the few textiles produced in Norwich prior to the 14th century, most were rougher woollen products, and few were sent for export.11 Rather, most worsted was produced in villages in Norfolk and then exported abroad from Norwich. Though the manufacture of textiles only accelerated in Norwich in the late Middle Ages, Norwich had accrued considerable financial advantages prior to the rise of its textile manufacturing. From the early days of the Norman conquest, Norwich had begun to construct wharves along the river Wensum, that through the river Yare, would lead to Great Yarmouth on the coast of the North Sea.12

     Medieval Norwich thus preceded its industrial production as a centre of trade. Under Richard I (the Lionheart), Norwich would be granted a charter in 1194, as other major cities such as London possessed. The charter would allow products from Norwich to be exempt from tariffs, as well as giving the peasanty the ability to elect its own reeve, a royal magistrate that managed the local peasantry. Through Norwich's merchant class and its access to the North Sea, Norwich was connected to a growing North Sea trade area. Though some of this trade reached the Baltic sea, with connections to the Hanseatic city states through their trade depot in Lynn and as far as the fur trade in Russia, the highest density of Norwich's trade was in the southern part of the North Sea trade.13

     The interconnectedness between Norfolk's economy and the North Sea would make it highly susceptible to events on the European continent, with cross regional interactions manifested in a variety of ways. One of the most significant would entangle Norwich and Norfolk's participation in several transnational religious conflicts. One of the earliest transnational expeditions would be the Dartmouth expedition, that took part as part of the reconquest of Portugal during the Second Crusade in 1147. The meeting at Dartmouth in Devon was largely a result of ties and communications between East Anglians and others around the North Sea, that brought together a Crusade consisting mostly of Flemish, Rhineland and English men at arms.14

     The high degree of connectivity to the continent also made Norwich particularly susceptible to other foreign influences. The 'Black Death', that had spread across Europe in the 1340's and had likely been transported from the Mongol invasions from East Asia would punish centres of trade first. The first recorded example of the plague in England is considered to have entered Bristol through a ship from England's provinces in Western France, rather than through East Anglia and Flanders. However, there are not enough records to discern whether the plague was initially brought to East Anglia via the North Sea trade or from England, but Norfolk suffered higher than average plague deaths than other regions in the Kingdom. 15 Norwich's population may have declined by as much as two thirds.16 Yet, rather than shrink into stagnation and decline as other cities such as York did in the face of the plague, Norwich's connection to the continent-- that had helped the plague ravage the city-- would provide the means for the city's rebirth.

     The late 14th century saw an increasing influx of Flemish weavers into Norwich that would begin to establish Norwich as the centre of East Anglian worsted manufactory. Cloth rapidly became the most significant commodity bought and sold by a class of merchant elites, eighteen of which are recorded to have had dealings in the North Sea trade by 1388.17 That this merchant class was often a product of North Sea exchanges is evidenced by the election of John Asger, a Flemish merchant as mayor of Norwich in 1426.18 Motivating much of this immigration was the granting of the worsted staple to Great Yarmouth in 1353, ensuring that English worsteds had to pass through Norfolk before it could be exported. The concentration of worsted production in Norfolk when the rest of England began to focus on woollens stimulated an increasing demand for new fabrics and dyes such as woad and madder for dying worsteds, accelerating the interlinkages in trade with the Low Countries.19

     These rapidly growing economic interlinkages would also motivate new military conflicts. The 'Western Schism' of 1378 saw different European kingdoms back different claimants to the Papacy, with France backing Clement VII based in Avignon. England had backed the Roman Papacy, and had seen an opportunity to intervene when Flanders rebelled against French rule. The Bishop of Norwich, Henry le Despenser had approached Parliament to ask permission to declare a crusade against Clement VII that would try to reclaim Flanders, supporting Flemish insurrection against France.20 Despenser had built up a reputation as a 'fighting' bishop, having played a commanding role against rebels during the Peasant's Revolt of 1381. Rebels assembled outside Norwich led by a disgruntled dyer named Geoffrey Litster were given entry to the city by the townsfolk, but then set about looting as well as attacking Norwich's Flemish communities and those in Yarmouth. Despenser crushed the revolt, had Litster executed, then headed to London to gain Parliament's support for in an attack on Flanders.21

     Though the Crusade was framed as a righteous conflict against the heresy of Clement VII and French aggression, there were significant economic reasons that motivated what become known as the 'Norwich Crusade'. France's consequent invasion of Flanders had caused English merchants' assets in Bruges to be seized, and all commercial activity to England to cease.22 A French-imposed embargo hurt Norwich in particular due to the extent of its commercial activity with Flanders, causing a massive fall in exports of English wool.23 The expedition set out in 1383, and would result in a disastrous campaign in which the Flemish town of Gravelines would be torched, with the siege of the crusader's war goal at Ypres being lifted by a French relief force.24 Despenser would return to England in shame and face impeachment, but it would not be the end of his nor Norwich's military interventions. Soldiers from Norwich, carried from the Hanseatic entrepot at King's Lynn would also be involved with the Teutonic Order's crusade against Lithuanian pagans in 1392 from their base in Danzig.25

     One of the leaders of the Danzig expedition, Thomas Erpingham was a seasoned soldier and would become a significant benefactor to Norwich. Part of Erpingham's contributions were the renovations of churches as well as the construction of the Erpingham Gate that still marks the entrance to Norwich cathedral's grounds.26 The rapid construction of churches became a conspicuous form of patronage around 1400. With Norwich's growing economy, the city was increasingly ruled by a concentrated elite of merchants that spent much of their profits on the construction of new parishes. However, these construction projects were designed to impress rather than serve a practical purpose, as churches began to outstrip the number of clergymen available to serve them.27

     A combination of patronage and protection from nobles such as Erpingham, combined with Flemish weaving techniques and ready access to worsted wool by 1400 abled Norwich to take firm hold of its market niche.28 Worsted producers in the rest of England, having lost any competitive advantage in worsted weaving, began to switch to coarser wools, whilst Norwich pursued the opposite, with traditional wool weaving becoming largely replaced by worsteds.29 Norwich's specialisation in worsted would also mark the city for very different labour migration patterns. Many weavers in 15th century had begun to migrate to the country to seek work in an early form of 'putting out'. The opposite occurred in Norwich, as worsted weavers from villages along the North Norfolk coast began to move to the city to join the growing network of worsted specialists.30 The significance of the trade brought considerable regulation overseen by the civic authorities. All exports of worsted were concentrated in the Worstedseld, and all foreign merchants were to stay in the common inn near the seld.31The success of worsted, the city's unique labour migration, and now centre of manufactory would mean that Norwich saw a population growth unrivalled among other English cities, becoming the wealthiest and largest city in England by the 1500's except for London.32

     Medieval Norwich by the 1400's was more of a product of its region, than its kingdom. Elements of its local economy in East Anglia had given it the city a competitive advantage, but it was the connection to the North Sea trade, especially with the Low Countries that connected Europe to events in Europe. Sometimes pan-European conflicts such as the disputes over claims to the Papacy had regional subzones, such as the motivation to restore the wool trade with Flanders. Moreover, this special connection to the North Sea region would feed back into the city itself, with the arrival of Flemish weavers, and the development of Norwich from a market based city to a market and manufacturing centre of worsted.

From Kett's Rebellion to Cape Cod  

     The so called 'early modern' period has been categorised in world history as an important evolution of European history, from the local to the global, yet for much of 16th and 17th century, events in Norwich would remain tightly bound to its regional system. It would take many years before milestones in global history such as Columbus's expedition to the Americas in 1492, or Vasco de Gama's to India in 1497-98 would have any major effects on Norwich. In respect to global history, continuity reigned in 16th century Norwich.  Moreover, the case of Norwich suggests that that much of the early modern period can also be defined events by events other than expanding of global horizons. It was Norwich's regional world system that would enable it to make its first leap past the Middle Ages and into a global context.

     Norwich in the early 1500s was largely a product of its success in cornering the worsted market in the 15th century. The city had grown to become England's second largest urban centre, with a population of 11, 000 by 1520.33 None of these economic successes had been the result of any significant shift in global trends, but rather on the traditional development of the manufacturing of worsted, combined with a continued special connection to the North Sea trade. However, it was the continued connection to the Low Countries that would cause very significant changes to Norwich in the 1500s.

     Perhaps the most revolutionary shift in 16th century Norwich were the effects of the Reformation. Evangelism was very popular in East Anglia, higher than many regions in England and was one of the earliest reasons to convert. The reasons behind the high level of Protestant practises in Norwich is multifaceted and still debated. In the 15th century, 'Lollards' following the writings of John Wycliffe were numerous in Norwich. Wycliffe's attacks against the Church's hierarchy and corruption in favour of the Bible translated into the vernacular as the basis for religion brought Lollards into confrontation with Church.34 Despenser, the 'fighting' bishop was particularly involved in repressing Lollards, with the Medieval Norwich pub, the 'Lollards Pit' previously being a place where Lollards were immolated.35

     The roots of anti-establishment had preceded the reformation, but historian Muriel McClendon also argues that it was the city's autonomy, and elites that played a role in not thwarting the Reformation in the same violent way that Lollards had been repressed. Norwich had been an autonomous city since 1404, largely due to the success of the worsted industry and its exports, and many elites were not keen to see Royal ordinances against Protestants carried out. Moreover, the iconoclasm that was seen against religious places in East Anglia in the 1530s was not carried out in Norwich.36 However, it was also Norwich's connection to North Sea area, where Protestantism was flourishing, that made East Anglia ripe for early conversion. McClendon argues that the first mention of the Reformation in East Anglia came from the letters of the Bishop of Norwich, Richard Nix, who complained of the unorthodox practices of merchants from near the coast (and also law students).37 Norwich would become part of what Marshall calls a 'crescent' of evangelism that curved its way from North Norfolk along the coast and back towards London.38

     The politics of the Reformation that were radically reshaping England also obscured other troubles. In 1549, a rebellion was led by Robert Kett, a yeoman farmer from Norfolk. The rebels successfully stormed Norwich, but the swift intervention of the Royal Army crushed the revolt.39 Kett's rebellion occurred with simultaneous revolts in Cornwall and Devon, largely in response to the imposition of the 'Common Prayer book' which was reviled by both Catholics and non-conformist Puritans. Though Marshall argues that Kett's rebellion had some evangelical overtones, it is largely accepted among historians that the primary reasons for revolt were agrarian.40 Norwich's increasing demand for wool was being met by the rural gentry through the enclosure of common spaces for grazing.41 The rapid expansion of grazing land at the end of the 15th century was to meet foreign demands, particularly in Antwerp and Bruges, yet by the 16th century, Norwich's trade region had begun to expand to include France, Spain and Portugal. Flemish weavers had begun to copy some of Norwich's double worsted cloth.42

     The growing diversification of trade did not mean that all ties were cut with their former North Sea partners. The Reformation would have severe consequences in Flanders and the Low Countries, that revolted against Hapsburg rule in the 1560's. Philip II's harsh reaction against Protestants in Flanders, meted out through the Duke of Alba led to a large influx of Protestants into Norwich. Called the 'strangers' by locals, they had been encouraged to settle by the mayor of Norwich from 1565 onwards.43 Up to 6,000 Flemish migrants came to Norwich, which increased the population of the city by around a third. Such a large influx meant that around 30-40% of the city's inhabitants were Flemish, putting pressure on Norwich's housing stock as many were forced into cramped accommodation. The high population density and less than salubrious conditions would lead to a major outbreak of plague in 1579 which would return the population back to its pre-migration size.44 Nonetheless, the influx of Flemish and Dutch migrants brought new weaving techniques and styles that came to define 'Norwich Stuffs'. This renaissance in textiles was dominated by master craftsman that specialised in drapes and women's clothing.45 The growing pre-eminence of the master weavers, both English and Dutch, led to an erosion of the previous dominance of a trading oligarchy. Much of the textile-selling came in house, reducing the monopolies of the great trading families that had dominated Tudor Norwich, pushing Norwich towards a more plutocratic system with strong political participation by the city's freemen.46

     The flow of religious refugees was not a one-way street. The influx of Protestant Flems to an already Puritan city also put pressure back in England on Queen Elizabeth's religious settlement, that persecuted Catholic and Puritans who did not conform to the Church of England.47 In Flanders and the Netherlands, Calvinism as preached from Calvin's pulpit in Geneva had meant that many different confessions of Protestant faith were practised so that one of the earliest historians of the Reformation in Norwich called the city an 'East Anglian Geneva'.48 Several preachers had been burnt alive or expelled from the city or expressing either non-conformist, or even Arian views on the non-divinity of Christ. In 1589, there was finally a crackdown and desire to control preachers by Norwich's ecclesiastical authorities.49 The first outflow of Norwich Calvinists had begun in the 1580's, with many moving to the Netherlands, a natural choice considering its openness to Calvinism as well as its connections to Norwich. However, it would be the same community that would also be responsible a generation later for the sailing of the Mayflower in 1620 that would establish a colony in Massachusetts.50  

     The success to Norwich stuffs in the 1500s was still largely built on its endowments and monopolies due to worsted production, and its connection to its North Sea area, but noticeable shifts had occurred. The effects of the Reformation in both England and the Low Countries had led to an unprecedented population swap, that would revolutionise Norwich and connect it to the early colonies in North America. It was through the North Sea region that Norwich would begin to have an impact that spanned far outside its region.

Calicos and Huguenots

     Throughout the Middle Ages, Norwich stuffs had been limited in how far they could be exported. Though there are signs in Norwich's history from its very early period of contact with regions much further away, there is little to suggest that these interactions were regular, nor were goods traded in high volumes across large distances. This made Norwich highly dependent on its region as we have seen in the previous two chapters. Though its regional connection to the North Sea would still play a role in the 1600's, the Braudelian lens begins to become outdated with the expansion of new trade companies that could bypass regional dynamics.

     The rise of chartered monopoly companies in the late 16th century would have ramifications for Norwich's continued reliance on its regional trade zone. Currently there is little research on Norwich's connection to the first charter companies, such as Muscovy and the Levant company that were established in the 16th century. However, the Levant company's trade with the Ottoman Empire showed a successful exchange of English cloth to Istanbul in the early 17th century.51 Moreover, the 'Lex Mercatoria' suggested that there existed a long distance export of Norwich stuffs to Norway, Sweden and Poland from 1579, as well as a later trade in cloth with Muscovy and the Spanish ruled Canary islands.52 The chartering of a new company in 1600 which was named after its ambitious and distant objective, the 'East India Company' would soon have a greater impact on Norwich than the charter companies that operated in the Baltic and Mediterranean. 

     Initially trade with India had some benefits for Norwich's worsted manufacture. The traditional double worsteds had largely been superseded due to the introduction of new weaving techniques from Flemish and French immigrants. By the mid-17th century, most worsted were blended with silk imported from Bologna in Italy that proved particularly expensive. The introduction of cheaper raw silk from Bengal and Benares revolutionised the production of these blended materials, making traditional pure wool worsted almost obsolete.53 The production of wool for Norfolk could not keep pace with the production of textiles, with cheaper wool now being purchased from Yorkshire and Ireland.54

     Other European states, including those in Norwich's maritime region, had also pursued the East Indian trade. The newly independent Netherlands had established their own chartered monopoly company, the VOC in 1602. The rivalry with the English East India Company over control of the spice trade in the East Indies would play a contributing role in disrupting trade in the North Sea and Norfolk's traditional link across the Channel throughout the 17th century.55 Other conflicts, such as the renewed persecution of France's Protestant Huguenots under Louis XIV, would be beneficial to Norwich's economy. French worsted production had improved considerably in the 17th century, and the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, that had guaranteed the rights of Protestants would see an influx of French migrants. Many were highly skilled artisans and weavers making Norwich and other weaving communities such as London's Spitalfields major recipients of Huguenots.56 The arrival of many of these Protestant refugees coincided with the growing pressure of cotton calicos from Bengal. With weaving under pressure from foreign imports and with the large influx of a competitive foreign labour source, the Huguenots were often made the target of xenophobic attacks in Norwich.  One particularly violent case saw a mob of disgruntled artisans break into a Huguenot residence and rape and murder a Huguenot woman.57 Despite the suspicion of these new immigrants, Norwich began to represent a city of what might be viewed a form of pre-globalised multiculturalism with English, Dutch, varieties of French dialects and Latin being spoken simultaneously in its streets. Compared to today where many English citizens are monolingual, evidence from letters showed a high level of bilingualism in Norwich, as well as a now dead East Anglian patois that was born from this multilingual surrounding.58

     By the late 17th century, Norwich had successfully weathered the many storms that had beset its region and was still the second largest city in England with a thriving worsted industry. It had also survived the English Civil War relatively intact, with two incidents of inter-faction fighting that saw an iconoclastic attack on Norwich Cathedral, followed by the explosion of a Puritan weapons dump several years later after Parliament attempted to ban celebrating Christmas. 59 The rule of the staunchly Puritan 'Rump Parliament' and the Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell had encouraged the wearing of dark, sober materials, causing a significant backlash after his death in 1658. The Restoration was celebrated with an outburst of colour which Norwich initially profited from due to its production of colourful worsteds.60 However, Bengali cottons also consisted of bright prints, making the blow to Norwich's manufacture more severe than other English weaving towns.61

     The increasing proliferation of English 'factories' or trade bases in India throughout the 17th century would have increasing consequences, especially with new inroads into Bengal. The first EIC factory established at Surat in Western India in 1619 began importing the simple, cheap and colourful calicos followed by a base in Madras in the south that imported calicos from the Coromandel Coast. Throughout the 1670's until the 1690's, the EIC began to make further inroads into Bengal, first through its factory at Dhaka, and later through Calcutta that would become the main factory of trade with Bengal. Textile production in Bengal during this period was particularly sophisticated, and even outcompeted the cheaper rougher calicoes, through their light and fine muslins. Moreover, labour costs in Bengal were significantly lower than in Norwich, meaning textiles could be sold for a fraction of the cost despite the great distance they had to be carried. Recent studies of the craze for Indian cottons differed per importer, with the English importing more muslins and the Dutch preferring calicos, meaning that the trade with Bengal had a particularly profound effect on English textile manufactory than other regions of India.62 One writer who was in general favour of the trade with India conceded 'Tis granted that Bengals and Stain'dCalicoes, and other East-India Goods, do hinder the consumption of Norwich Stuffs'.63

     Under increasing threat from the success of printed cottons, Norwich's weavers joined arms with the London Spitalfields textile producers to lobby parliament for an outright ban on cotton. In opposition to the ban was the counter-lobbying efforts of the East India Company, which culminated in the Calico Act of 1700, that forbade importing or wearing of foreign imported calicos, but allowed the continued importation of plain un-printed material.64 The partial ban was not without precedent, with France's protectionist economy under Colbert being quick to ban Indian cloth in 1686, though the ban was largely flouted by smugglers.65 The continued import of plain cottons satisfied some industries, such as printing that was popular in London, but Indian cloth still threatened to undermine Norwich stuffs.66 Unlike other woollens that still had the advantage as a material in the colder climes of Northern Europe than cotton, finer blended worsteds continued to come into direct competition. Weavers began to look for new products to specialise in, moving away from the bright colours that were being reprinted onto plain Indian calico, towards sober capes and black mourning wear, for which it would be granted a parliamentary monopoly.67

Women's fashion increasingly became the battleground on which a form of textile nationalism would be fought, as calicos were deemed unpatriotic. In 1719, riots broke out in Norwich and women wearing calicos were attacked, their dresses ripped off in public.68 The Norwich corporation representing Norwich's weavers again lobbied the government, and by 1721, a new bill would completely ban the import and use of any foreign calico.69

     By the mid-18th century, Norwich had been able to see off foreign competition to its production. Its early experiences of globalisation had weakened Norwich's strong Medieval ties to the North Sea trade area, as monopoly companies on both sides of the Channel began to shape the city's future. For perhaps the first time, the decision to establish a trade base on the far side of the world would have direct repercussions back in Norwich. Conversely, the death of the regional narrative cannot be overstated. Global events may have had a significant effect on the city in the 17th century, but Norwich continued to have regular exchanges of goods and people in the form of the Huguenots with France, the Low Countries and the rest of England.

Norwich: An early case of deindustrialisation?

     The Calico Acts did not spell the end of cotton in England, but spurred greater innovation and demand to create a domestic industry.70 Flemish weavers that had not gone into worsted production had brought small scale cotton production to England, but it remained a relatively small industry due to the reliance on cotton imports from the Ottoman Empire, then later the West Indies.71 Initial internal competition to Norwich did not arise from this infant industry, but rather from a re-orientation of wool and worsted production to the West-Riding in Yorkshire. This was partially due to access to wool, as most Norfolk worsted was woven from Yorkshire wool, meaning that it had a ready supply of raw materials, but the West Riding was undergoing structural changes in its means of production.72

     Its system of putting out, as it is widely understood in the textile literature, through the distribution of the raw material to cottage industries by merchant capitalists could bring more producers to bear.73 In contrast, Norfolk retained its structure of city-based artisanal master weavers selling to merchant houses for resell.74 Though this meant that profits could remain with the producer, it meant that few of Norwich's artisans had the capital base to expand trade. Goods would instead by sold for less to merchants in London and Rotterdam who could then sell Norwich textiles further afield.75

     In a search for new markets, a handful of merchants attempted to break out of the domination of London and Rotterdam by branching out further afield. However, by expanding Norwich's trade range the city became more susceptible to the effects of war on international trade. Initially this benefitted the local economy, with the War of the Austrian Succession breaking out in 1740 over a dispute of the succession of Maria Theresa to the Hapsburg throne. As states recruited more men, the demand for cloth rose as uniforms were required. Prior to the 18th century the use of uniforms had been relegated to certain regiments, but by the mid-18th century most European soldiers wore certain forms of uniform making their supply highly profitable. Though the conflict had restricted some of the European trade, a growing demand among settlers in the Caribbean and North America created a new market for Norwich stuffs.76   

     Growth continued until the end of the Seven-Year's war where several calamities befell Norwich's export simultaneously. The scale of the conflict had pushed the demand for uniforms, but the end of the conflict would trigger a rapid drop in their purchase, triggering a glut of cloth. Textiles weren't the only industry relying on the artificial price inflation of war. Banks in Amsterdam had profited from the inflated price of grain, but the resumption of trade led the over leveraged banks to collapse, causing a financial crisis and subsequent credit crunch.77 To fund the massive international conflict, Parliament had attempted to levy taxes from North America to pay for the war. The infamous Sugar Act of 1764 and Stamp Act the following year are well known in United States history of causing the first major quarrels between the settlers and Britain, but these disputes would also be ruinous for Norwich's trade of textiles.78

     The plunge in trade led to a rapid pay cut for Norwich's weavers leading to large riots in 1766. Moreover, silk weavers in London's Spitalfields had pressed Parliament to end Norwich's monopoly on mourning wear, and increasingly lobbied for preference of black silk to be worn by mourning widows. Though this effort failed, Parliament compromised by reducing the mandated mourning period for widows, again leading to a hit to Norwich's weavers.79

     With the European continent at peace again, Norwich's merchants would send sons and apprentices to Europe to learn different European languages to market Norwich's goods. The re-orientation towards Europe would lead to successful penetration of the Neapolitan market, as well as commercial success in the Baltic and St. Petersburg. Some of these textiles would be consumed in Europe, but others like the trade to Spain would be resold to their South American colonies, with some Norwich stuffs reaching as far afield as Buenos Aires.80

     With the North American trade in tatters, the revolt of the Thirteen Colonies did not severely hamper Norwich's trade, though the conflict saw a shift as Yorkshire cloth finally eclipsed Norwich worsted, with military uniforms now being commissioned from Northern English textile producers. However, Spain's decision to join the American rebels in 1779 would be another blow to Norwich's exports.81 On the other side of the world, Bengal had been subjugated by the East Indian Company, wreaking havoc upon the indigenous cotton industries. With the once mighty Indian exports in turmoil, British producers again pushed Parliament for a relaxation of the laws on cotton products, which were repealed in 1774. The repeal of the Calico Acts also coincided with the rapid mechanical advance of the spinning Jenny and the water-frame. These technological innovations would be applied to the new Northern powerhouses of production such as Manchester, but Norwich with its traditional weavers and lower capital base, sought to develop an artisanal cotton industry in the 1780's.82

     The resistance to mechanising textile production meant that Norwich stuffs became increasingly uncompetitive in price, with only quality left to offer. However, it was in Norwich's decline that one of its most popular garments emerged. British soldiers operating in Kashmir had brought back examples of the fine wool, which inspired many of the Norwich weavers to make their own woollen shawls. One of the patterns that was copied was the famous 'paisley pattern', named after the weaving town in Scotland that claims to have innovated the pattern. The real origins of the pattern though are from Iran, and were spread to India via the Mughals, and then to Britain through its own imperial incursions, though French manufacturers had been using the pattern for a century before Britain. Though Norwich was being undercut by many of its Northern competitors, using worsted instead of the fine goat's hairs needed in the original Kashmiri shawls, Norwich was able to undercut Indian producers on this luxury garment that became the height of fashion in Britain and throughout the empire in the early 19th century.83

Figure 1
  Figure 1: Used with permission, Helen Hoyte, The History of the Norwich Shawls (Norwich: Nick Williams, 2010), 16.  

     Despite successes replicating the Kashmiri shawl, Norwich's competitive advantage was increasingly eroding due to an ever-growing improvement in quality from Manchester, coupled with an industrial espionage policy aimed at usurping Norwich's pattern techniques.85 In the face of such competition, some of Norwich's weavers were also forced to abandon their traditional weaving practises and seek employment in the evolving textile and cotton mills of the North. Norwich, which had been the second city of England with a population of 30, 000 would still grow to 40, 000 by 1800, but had been dwarfed by the rise of many rapidly growing cities in England.86

     Rather than stimulate the textile industry, the near constant wars with France from the 1790's till 1815 set back the attempts by Norwich merchants to tailor to the demands of European consumers. The damage to international trade would begin to motivate impoverished artisans to join radical Jacobin clubs. Only partially inspired by the events of the French Revolution, these clubs were more moderate than their French counterparts. Though some sympathised with the ideas of universal suffrage and an even a few with the abolition of the monarchy, the main motivation of these groups was to end the war with France. In 1795, the largest of these groups, numbering around 4,000 (named The Cabinet) would petition Parliament to seek a peaceful end to the conflict and a resumption of trade. After the guillotining of France's Louis XVI in 1793, tougher laws were introduced to quell Jacobin sentiment which lead to Norwich's most radical reformers to be arrested for sedition.87  

     With European trade dwindling, Norwich merchants had to look even further afield to make profits. One such market was China which refused to buy many British goods due to the success of their own manufacture. Even before the rise of the East India Company's narcotics dealing in opium, a successful trade in Norwich camlets88 kept Norwich's textiles afloat in the face of downturn in Europe. Statistics from the trading company Ives, Basely and Robberds from 1791 showed that the Chinese market made up almost a third of the revenue in sold camlets and was the biggest market for this cloth two years before the famous failed trade mission of George Macartney to the Chinese Quianlong Emperor in 1793.89 Many Norwich stuffs would be sent to Blackwell Hall in London, where they would be sold further afield in Asia. The East India Company would transport some of Norwich's produce to Calcutta to see if there was any general interest, though the trade was never seriously taken up.90 These trades were too sporadic to revitalise the worsted industry, and as Riello describes, wool failed to become a global fabric.91

     The continued suppression of the East India Company's monopoly trade with China eventually hurt profits from the China trade. Norwich thus continually faced a downward spiral of lost markets and an inability to fully mechanise that put it an increasing disadvantage versus its Northern competitors. Though a significant textile mill opened in 1834 with power looms, Norwich had already lost its advantage. The city's population growth would accelerate in the 19th century despite the end of manufactories through new financial services, the largest of which would be the fire insurer, Norwich Union.92 Many of these new industries would be built on the life-force of the textile industry, as capital was shifted out of industry into the financial sector.  Much of Norwich's culture, politics and people had been shaped by the textile industry. Its demise would signal the closing of one chapter of Norwich's history, and the opening of a new one.93


     Norwich's history as a textile producer is one of heterogeneity with the rest of its national core. This microhistorical approach has looked at how Norwich's success in Worsted production in the Middle Ages was largely a result of its interactions with its immediate region. The maritime connection to the North Sea meant that future histories of the East of England have to be done considering its relations with its Northern European partners, whose histories are highly intertwined with that of Norwich's. Though Norwich's heterodoxy was its connection to the North Sea, each region has its different connection that make its interactions to the global unique to itself.

     Starting this history from the Middle Ages has helped to explain continuation and divergence from the Medieval to the Modern whilst showing how cross regional changes were not categorically limited to 'economic' or 'religious' changes but often intertwined. Many of the city's changes were highly influenced by the development of the textile industry and the city's non-conformist religious and political traditions from before the 15th century. There was significant continuation from this period which had to cope with the introduction of global trade and industrialisation. The turn to global trade that undermined Norwich's success as a regional manufacturing centre shows how inter-continental trade changed the scope of interconnectedness, from Braudelian regionalism to the global. Events in the North Sea region could be influenced by events in the Bay of Bengal, and perhaps there is an interconnected history of 17th century Norfolk and Bengal that has yet to be written.

     With the rise of monopoly companies in the 16th and 17th centuries, Norwich's regional dynamics would no longer have a monopoly on the city. Events on the other side of the world could now shape the city's textile industry in a way that had not been fully possible before through cross regional dynamics, with the exception perhaps of the 14th century plague. Yet these changes took a long time to change Norwich, and for much of the early-modern period, its textile industry relied on the successes it had developed in the Middle Ages. The reduction in risk and cost through monopoly companies and cheap cotton production in India brought Norwich into direct global competition, with events and decisions taken over much long distances having a direct impact. However, even during the growth of globalisation in the 18th century, Norwich would continue to send its fabrics to London, Rotterdam, Russia, France and Spain, as well as Latin America and China. The regional lens is thus never truly obsolete, but cannot be solely relied on.

     Despite the rapid globalization of trade in the 18th century, Norwich could not be protected from the rapid developments happening within England and would ultimately be side-lined by the industrial success of its northern co-nationals. The process of mechanisation that enriched England and led to the destitution of Indian weavers would also put considerable pressure on traditional weavers in England. Norwich is testament that the story of globalisation and industrialisation that propelled Britain to becoming one of the most successful economies in the world was not equally felt by all of its regions.


     I wish to acknowledge my high school geography teacher Jonathan Hooton for his help with Norwich's local history, and my dissertation supervisor Carolyn Biltoft, for her class that inspired me to place Norwich's story in world history.

Thomas Gidney is a PhD student of international history at Geneva's Graduate Institute. He specialises in the history of colonial India as well as themes in global history.


1 Carole Rawcliffe and Richard Wilson, Norwich Since 1550 (London; New York: Hambledon Continuum, 2005), 41.

2 See David Bates and Robert Liddiard, East Anglia and Its North Sea World in the Middle Ages (Boydell Press, 2013).

3 Carole Rawcliffe and Richard Wilson, eds., Medieval Norwich, 1st ed edition (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2005), 48.

4 Donald R. Wright, The World and a Very Small Place in Africa: A History of Globalization in Niumi, the Gambia, (Routledge, 3 ed., 2010).

5 Janet L. Abu-Lughod, Before European Hegemony: The World System A.D. 1250-1350 (Oxford University Press, 1991).

6 Abu-Lughod, 32–35.

7 Abu-Lughod, 11.

8 William H. McNeill, The Rise of the West: A History of the Human Community; with a Retrospective Essay (Chicago: University Of Chicago Press, 1992).

9 Map by Phillip Judge. Rawcliffe and Wilson, Medieval Norwich, 30–31.

10 Rawcliffe and Wilson, 31.

11 John Oldland, '"Fyne Worsted Whech Is Almost like Silke": Norwich's Double Worsted," Textile History 42, no. 2 (1 November 2011): 184.

12 Rawcliffe and Wilson, Medieval Norwich, 19.

13 Bates and Liddiard, East Anglia and Its North Sea World in the Middle Ages, 79–80.

14 Bates and Liddiard, 293–294.

15 Robert Steven Gottfried, The Black Death: Natural and Human Disaster in Medieval Europe (Free Press, 1983), 65–66.

16 Rawcliffe and Wilson, Medieval Norwich, 233.

17 Rawcliffe and Wilson, 221.

18 Rawcliffe and Wilson, 226.

19 Rawcliffe and Wilson, 222.

20 Richard Allington-Smith, Henry Despenser: The Fighting Bishop (Larks Press, 2003), 60–63.

21 Allington-Smith, 42–44.

22 Bertie Wilkinson, The Later Middle Ages in England 1216 - 1485 (Routledge, 2014), 165.

23 Christopher Tyerman, England and the Crusades, 1095-1588 (University of Chicago Press, 1996), 337.

24 Tyerman, 337.

25 Christopher Harper-Bill, ed., Medieval East Anglia (Woodbridge, Suffolk; Rochester, NY: Boydell Press, 2005), 123.

26 Rawcliffe and Wilson, Medieval Norwich, 248.

27 Rawcliffe and Wilson, 143.

28 Rawcliffe and Wilson, 251–252.

29 Oldland, '"Fyne Worsted Whech Is Almost like Silke,"' 182.

30 Bates and Liddiard, East Anglia and Its North Sea World in the Middle Ages, 171.

31 Harper-Bill, Medieval East Anglia, 103–104.

32 Oldland, '"Fyne Worsted Whech Is Almost like Silke," 182.

33 Rawcliffe and Wilson, Medieval Norwich, 235.

34 J. F. Davis, "Lollard Survival and the Textile Industry in the South-East of England," Studies in Church History 3 (January 1966), 191–201.

35 Rawcliffe and Wilson, Medieval Norwich, 265.

36 Muriel C. McClendon, The Quiet Reformation: Magistrates and the Emergence of Protestantism in Tudor Norwich (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1999), 3–11.

37 McClendon, 64.

38 Peter Marshall, Reformation England 1480-1642, (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2 ed., 2012), 87.

39 Andy Wood, The 1549 Rebellions and the Making of Early Modern England (Cambridge University Press, 2007), 56.

40 Marshall, Reformation England 1480-1642, 87.

41 Julian Cornwall, Revolt of the Peasantry, 1549 (London: Boston: Routledge, 1977), 11.

42 Oldland, "Fyne Worsted Whech Is Almost like Silke"', 189.

43 Peter Trudgill, "'The Role of Dutch in the Development of East Anglian English," Taal En Tongval, 65, no. 1 (May 1 2013), 12.

44 Rawcliffe and Wilson, Norwich Since 1550, 36.

45 Ursula Priestley, ''The Fabric of Stuffs: The Norwich Textile Industry, c.1650–1750," Textile History, 16, no. 2 (January 1, 1985): 183.

46 John T. Evans, 'The Decline of Oligarchy in Seventeenth-Century Norwich', Journal of British Studies 14, no. 1 (November 1974), 75.

47 Wood, The 1549 Rebellions and the Making of Early Modern England, 45.

48 Matthew Reynolds, Godly Reformers and Their Opponents in Early Modern England: Religion in Norwich, C.1560-1643 (Boydell Press, 2005), 39.

49 Reynolds, Godly Reformers and Their Opponents in Early Modern England, 80.

50 Caleb Johnson, The Mayflower and Her Passengers (Bloomington, IN: Xlibris Corporation, 2005).

51 Despina Vlami, Trading with the Ottomans: The Levant Company in the Middle East (I. B. Tauris, 2014), 89.

52 Giles Jacob, Lex Mercatoria: Or, the Merchants' Companion, Containing All the Laws and Statutes Relating to Merchandize, 1718, 10–12.

53 Priestley, ''The Fabric of Stuffs," 186; Rawcliffe and Wilson, Norwich Since 1550, 45.

54 Rawcliffe and Wilson, Norwich Since 1550, 230.

55 J. R. Jones, The Anglo-Dutch Wars of the Seventeenth Century (Routledge, 2013), 27.

56 Priestley, ''The Fabric of Stuffs," 187.

57 Fiona Williamson, Social Relations and Urban Space: Norwich, 1600-1700 (Boydell & Brewer Ltd, 2014), 110.

58 Christopher Joby, "French in Early Modern Norwich,", Journal of French Language Studies, no. 2 (December 2016), 2.

59 Rawcliffe and Wilson, Norwich Since 1550, 103–115.

60 Ursula Priestley, "The Marketing of Norwich Stuffs, C. 1660–1730," Textile History, 22, no. 2 (January 1, 1991), 195.

61 Ursula Priestley, "Norwich and the Mourning Trade,", Costume, 27, no. 1 (January 1, 1993), 47.

62 Giorgio Riello, How India Clothed the World: The World of South Asian Textiles, 1500-1850 (Leiden: Brill, 2013), 284–287.

63 Charles Davenant, An Essay on the East-India-Trade (s.n., 1696), 31.

64 Priestley, "The Marketing of Norwich Stuffs, C. 1660–1730,", 204.

65 Suzanne Desan, Lynn Hunt, and William Max Nelson, The French Revolution in Global Perspective (Cornell University Press, 2013), 18. See also Maxine Berg, Markets and Manufacture in Early Industrial Europe (Routledge Revivals) (Routledge, 2014).

66 Riello, How India Clothed the World, 332.

67 Priestley, "Norwich and the Mourning Trade," 47.

68 Chloe Wigston Smith, '"Callico Madams": Servants, Consumption, and the Calico Crisis', Eighteenth-Century Life 31, no. 2 (March 20,2007), 33.

69 Smith, 35.

70 Sven Beckert, Empire of Cotton: A Global History, Reprint edition (New York, NY: Vintage, 2015), 35.

71 Beckert, 39–41.

72 J. H. Clapham, "The Transference of the Worsted Industry from Norfolk to the West Riding," The Economic Journal 20, no. 78 (1910), 199.

73 Pat Hudson, 'Proto-Industrialisation: The Case of the West Riding Wool Textile Industry in the 18th and Early 19th Centuries', History Workshop Journal 12, no. 1 (October 1, 1981), 34–61.

74 Priestley, ''The Fabric of Stuffs," 186.

75 Trevor Fawcett, 'Argonauts and Commercial Travellers: The Foreign Marketing of Norwich Stuffs in the Later Eighteenth Century', Textile History 16, no. 2 (January 1, 1985), 152.

76 Fawcett, 153.

77 Fawcett, 153.

78 M. F. Lloyd Prichard, "The Decline of Norwich," The Economic History Review 3, no. 3 (1951), 373.

79 Fawcett, "Argonauts and Commercial Travellers," 153–154.

80 Fawcett, 154.

81 S. D. Smith, "British Exports to Colonial North America and the Mercantilist Fallacy,", Business History 37, no. 1 ( January 1, 1995), 55.

82 Fawcett, "Argonauts and Commercial Travellers," 175.

83 Clabburn Pamela, The Norwich Shawl: Its History and a Catalogue of the Collection at Strangers Hall Museum, Norwich (London: Stationery Office Books, 1995).

84 'Pattern Book | Kelly, John | V&A Search the Collections', V and A Collections, 19 January 2018,

85 Rawcliffe and Wilson, Norwich Since 1550, 236.

86 Rawcliffe and Wilson, 245.

87 Rawcliffe and Wilson, 161, 182.

88 A camlet was a woven fabric then made of goat's hair and silk, or of wool and cotton.

89 Fawcett, 'Argonauts and Commercial Travellers', 172.

90 Giorgio Riello and Prasannan Parthasarathi, The Spinning World: A Global History of Cotton Textiles, 1200-1850, Reprint edition (Oxford: OUP/Pasold Research Fund, 2011), 347.

91 Riello and Parthasarathi, 262.

92 Rawcliffe and Wilson, Norwich Since 1550, 239.

93 Rawcliffe and Wilson, 241.

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