Posted in Archaeology, Decorative Arts, Fashion History, History, Maritime History, Museum

Southampton’s Wool & Cloth Heritage

The Wool House, Bugle Street, Southampton, Hampshire

Before you begin reading this article, you may find it useful to open the Tudor Revels’ website in a separate tab.  The interactive map on the home page is very easy to use and depicts the layout of Southampton during the Tudor period.  It will help you  locate some of the buildings I have mentioned here.  For the map, CLICK HERE.

The Wool House.

Southampton has prospered on the profits of the wool and wine trade. The wool trade in Southampton reached its height in the thirteenth century and a majority of townspeople derived their income from it. One such merchant was Thomas of Andover, flourishing between 1260 and c1280. Thomas built himself a stone house, with a vaulted cellar, on the west side of the High Street from the proceeds of wool trading.  Southampton’s location was ideal, near to the sheep rearing districts of Hampshire and the Wiltshire Downlands.

The Wool House.

In order to ensure smooth running of its flourishing wool trade, the town officials created a number of key roles. In 1325, a Peysage, an officer of the Crown, was appointed as principal wool weigher.  In 1327, Geoffrey Hogheles was made collector of wool customs.  The wool would have been assembled at this time by a guild of packers, made-up exclusively of women. In 1503, the guild became a corporation sponsored organisation, consisting of twelve women.   In French Street is The Weigh House ‘weyhous’, a building constructed in the early thirteenth century. The Weigh House contained the town’s weigh beam, called the Tron. The Tron was a large wooden beam balance, robust enough to deal with larger bales of wool.  The beam was controversial amongst merchants and susceptible to misuse, finally leading to its withdrawal in c1352.  Unfortunately, The Weigh House was gutted in German bombing raids during World War Two, only the outer shell now remains.

The Weigh House, French Street, Southampton.
The Weigh House.
The Weigh House.

Wool houses were erected in the town and one survives today, at the end of Bugle Street. This Wool House was built in the fourteenth century by Cistercian monks from Beaulieu Abbey, primarily as a storehouse. It has a Spanish chestnut roof and curious cylindrical buttresses along the Bugle Street side.  It appears in fourteenth century records as ‘wolhous’. During Elizabethan times, the Wool House was known as Alum Cellar. Alum (potassium aluminium sulphate) is used in conjunction with cream of tartar to create a mordant for natural dyes. In wool it enhances the colours yellow and red. Mordant is derived from word ‘mordere’, meaning ‘to bite’. In the wool dyeing process, a mordant prepares the wool to accept colour.  It is believed that Alum first came to Southampton in 1451, brought over in large quantities by the Genoese.  Other types of mordant that have been used include urine and leaves.

Walter Fetplace (d. 1449) was a Southampton merchant who lived in the old Moundenard tenement on High Street.  He was Mayor of Southampton in 1426, 1432, 1439 and 1444.  He made his living buying dyes from Italian merchants and selling them on to dyers working in Salisbury and Winchester.  He imported mordants and dye-stuffs but also traded in salt, fish, fruit and wine.

Watergate, Southampton (front view).
Watergate, Southampton.
Watergate, Southampton (interior).
Watergate, Southampton (interior).

On the most southerly point of the old Southampton Walls is the Watergate, constructed towards the end of the fourteenth century. The building was largely demolished in 1804 but parts of one of the drum towers still survives.  The Watergate stands at the end of Porters’ Lane, an accessway that ran behind the line of the old town wall.  Porters’ Lane was also called, Le Chayne and Wool Street. This was where many of the town’s wool stores could be found.

Canute’s Palace, Porters’ Lane, Southampton.
Canute’s Palace, Porters’ Lane, Town Quay, Southampton.

Also in Porters’ Lane, are the remains of Canute’s Palace which is a late twelfth century merchant’s house. It stood two storeys high with a hall on the upper storey. The upper-hall may have also doubled as a counting-house. The building was more likely to have been used for commercial purposes rather than residential. King Canute did not live here and the building was not a palace, however it is still a fine example of a Norman merchant’s house.

Canute’s Palace, Southampton.
Canute’s Palace.
Canute’s Palace.
Canute’s Palace.

The name ‘Canute’s Palace’ was first given to the building by Sir Henry Englefield (1752-1822) in his 1801 publication A Walk Through Southampton. For more information on this fascinating area of old Southampton please see the Friends of Town Quay Park’s website.  CLICK HERE.

The fourteenth century was a relatively prosperous time for the wool trade in Southampton but there were several events that intermittently slowed down its progress.  Firstly, the Raid of 4th October, 1338, when fifty galleys landed in port, sacked, looted and extensively destroyed the town.  The town’s Seals were stolen by the invaders too. It is alleged that French and Genoese pirates stole the Tron from The Weigh House.  There were reports of local citizens joining-in with the looting of the town’s wool and wine stocks. In Rev. J. Silvester Davies’, A History of Southampton (1883), he describes the Raid:

Early on Sunday morning, October 4th, a numerous fleet of galleys, crowded with Normans, Picards, Genoese, and Spaniards, landed its horde at the south-western quarter of the town while the inhabitants were at mass.  The burgesses fled before them; the town was at their mercy.  They plundered and burnt at pleasure, and hung some of the townsfolk in their own houses; but on the following morning a rally took place, and ‘aliens’ were driven to their ships….Its results we have seen elsewhere in the busy erection of walls and improvements of the town….The conduct of the burgesses had brought disgrace not only on the town, but on the whole king’s realm, and the town had accordingly been taken from them.

(Davies, Rev. J. S., 1883, p. 466)

Following the Raid, trade was severely disrupted and a form of martial law imposed on Southampton by Edward III (1312-1377). Davies describes the post-Raid actions taken by the King:

….immediately after which the town was seized in the king’s hands, in active censure on the mayor [Nicholas Sampson 1337 & 1338], bailiffs, and burgesses, who had fled before the enemy..On November 13th, among other steps taken, John de Hampton, Walter de Estcote, and others, were commissioned to inquire into the loss of the king’s wools by fire; how much, and of what quality, had been left after the enemy had retired.  Under one influence or other the mayor and bailiffs recovered heart, and humbly begged for the restoration of their town and liberties; receiving them back on March 15th, 1339, apparently on no harder terms than that they should do their duty in future, and hold the town vigorously against the foe; and orders occur to John de Flete, clerk, keeper of arms in the Tower of London, to send forthwith all kinds of weapons for the use of the town.

(Ibid. p. 79)

The military intervention included establishing a garrison in the town.  The wool trade continued with restrictions and there were now less merchants visiting the port.  Secondly, the Black Death, arrived in Southampton the latter part of 1348. The epidemic resulted in many human and animal deaths, including flocks of sheep.

Replica medieval cargo vessel, West Quay, Southampton. This vessel would have been used by the English to export wool and import wine from Southampton to the continent.  Italian merchants used galleys and carracks to export goods.

The town’s wool economy began to improve in the first half of the fifteenth century. Approximately one thousand sacks of wool were now being exported from Southampton to the continent each year and by the end of the century this figure had increased considerably. Southampton became a collecting centre for wools en-route from the West-Country to Italy. Wool and cloth continued to be exported to the continent on Florentine State galleys and Genoese carracks. However, the former ceased to appear in port after 1478 and from 1509, due to wars in Italy, the latter ceased to visit too.

In the mid fifteenth century the Wool House was let to a succession of Italian and Portuguese merchants. At this time about fifty foreign merchants were registered in town, from Flanders, the Baltic, Spain, France and Brittany. The influx of alien merchants did not always have a positive impact on the town’s wool trade. In 1455, a group of Italian merchants arrived in port and proceeded to travel throughout the surrounding countryside, purchasing wools and woollen cloth from local artisans for a price less than the going rate.  This practice of undercutting, saw the cost of woollen cloth fall considerably in town.  Regulations were swiftly put in place to counteract these unscrupulous activities. Foreign merchants were restricted from purchasing wool, woolfells and cloth except in London, Hampton or Sandwich.

Medieval Merchant’s House, French Street, Southampton.

In French Street (No. 58), there still survives a fine example of a medieval, timber-framed, merchant’s house, a Capital Messuage. The interior has been restored by English Heritage to resemble a typical merchant’s house in Southampton, c1350, although the building was constructed c1290 by wine merchant John Fortin.

Steps to the undercroft/cellar at the Medieval Merchant’s House, Southampton.

The house has a stone-vaulted cellar or undercroft which can be accessed at street level and above that a shop which would have opened directly onto the street.

Medieval Merchant’s House, showing shop shutters.

The windows of the shop were unglazed and had shutters that could be let down to provide extra counter space. On the upper floor, there are two large bed-chambers located at the back and front of the house, connected by a cross-passage over the hall below.

A wealthy Portuguese merchant, Roger Machado, flourished in the town between 1486 and 1497.  During this period he lived in a house on Simnel Street (tenements 423 and 424) which was full of fine Venetian cristallo glass, majolica ware, Italian pottery, exquisite fabrics, linen, pewter and barrels of wine.

North Italian majolica jug, late 1400s early 1500. Exhibit from Tudor House and Garden, Southampton, Hampshire.

Machado was appointed Searcher of Customs on 21st September, 1485 and town Burgess in 1490.  He became a herald to Henry VII (1457-1509) and entertained the king at his house in Simnel Street. He died in 1510.

A member of Tudor re-enactment group, The Hungerford Household.

In 1532, trade with Italy declined due to changes in England’s commercial policy whereby trade and export of wool to the continent was actively discouraged and eventually banned. The outcome of the policy meant wool was now retained in England to be woven into cloth. Woven woollen cloth in the Tudor period was lighter in texture than traditional Medieval broadcloth Petticoats in Tudor times were made out of Worsted wool cloth, hand dyed with madder.  The swollen madder roots produce a red dye that reacts with the temperature and mineral content of water.  The main chemical compound of madder is Alizarin.  Another popular type of cloth in the Tudor period was woollen cloth of a ‘Kersey‘ weight.  Kersey cloth was light and hand dyed with indigo for use in everyday clothing.

St. Julien French Church, Winkle Street, Southampton. Associated with the Huguenot community.

By 1558, England’s weaving industry was flourishing. In the 1560s, Huguenot refugees fleeing persecution in Catholic countries, introduced to Southampton a new type of woollen cloth called serge.  Serge is a type of twill weave fabric that is relatively cheap and easy to produce. The fabric produced in Southampton was known as the Hampton broad serge woollen cloth. In 1609, a company of sergemakers, sergeweavers and woolcombers was formed.  Membership required payment of a £5 fine and completion of a seven-year apprenticeship.  In 1616, articles and orders of the company received the Town Seal.  Unfortunately, the company did not last and in 1619 was dissolved by consent of all members. A new corporation was formed in 1657 and sealed by charter on 24th July of the same year.  The cloth was woven in town and often sent to either Winchester or Romsey to be hand-finished and dyed.  If the cloth required a more expensive dye, it was sent to London.

Entrance to St. Julien Church, Southampton.
St. Julien Church, Southampton.

Huguenot refugees Phillipe and wife Judith Delamotte (sometimes spelt De la Motte) fled Tournai in Belgium in 1586 subsequently settling in Southampton.  Phillipe was an Elder of the Huguenot community in Southampton and had close connections with St. Julien French Church in Winkle Street.  The Elders were similar to Vestry members in the Anglican churches. Phillipe’s main occupation was a clothier and he ran a workshop assisted by his wife Judith.  After her husband’s death, Judith carried on the business, spinning raw sheep’s wool into strong woollen yarn in readiness to be woven into cloth.  Unusually for a widow, Judith carried on her husband’s business until c1638 and took a prominent role in the town guild.  She died in 1640.

Woollen Cloth Hall (now Westgate Hall), Westgate, Southampton.

Southampton had a Woollen Cloth Hall which was originally built in St. Michael’s Square c1400 and stood two storeys high. On the top floor wool and woollen cloth were stored.  The covered, open-arcaded, ground floor housed the fish market.  Throughout the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the Cloth Hall was leased to a townsman whose job it was to look after its day-to-day running and keep the infrastructure in good repair.  In exchange, he would be entitled to pocket the dues owed to the City by merchants who stored and sold their cloth there.  This was not as straightforward as it may sound for the Hall’s lessee.  Many merchants tried to evade the town duties levied on cloth sold at the Hall and opted to trade on the black market, selling cloth throughout the countryside around Southampton instead.  In 1552, regulations were tightened and it did become difficult to trade woollen cloth anywhere but The Cloth Hall.

Woollen Cloth Hall (now Westgate Hall), Southampton.

The Cloth Hall was dismantled in 1634 and rebuilt a little further toward the Quay at Westgate. During the following three hundred years, the Hall functioned as a private building, owned by the City and leased out as a warehouse. In the 1970s it became a public lecture hall and until recently was known as Tudor Merchants Hall.  It is now called Westgate Hall.

The Tudor Revels’ Database Comes in Handy….

I did a quick search, using Tudor Revels’ fantastic new database of Tudor citizens who flourished in Southampton between 1485-1603.  I was interested in those who were associated with the wool trade. I typed-in key words ‘wool’, ‘cloth’, ‘weaver’ and ‘felt’. Below are the results of this search:

Cristoforo Ambruogi (Italian – also known as Christopher Ambrose) (flourished 1462-1510). Merchant Factor. Italian national (Florence) and lived in the Parish of All Saints, Holy Rood. He owned a number of ships. He leased the Wool House, at the end of Bugle Street, ‘a barn near God’s house, lofts over Le Chayne, marketplace in St. Michael’s Square, cellar beneath St. John’s Church. Trading in muscatel, fine wines, confectionary, fruit, alum, cloth of gold.’ ‘1462 came to serve as Clerk to the Florentine Factor Angelo de’Aldobrans at West Hall.’ He was mayor 1486-7 and again in 1497-8. West Hall was a large medieval capital tenement at no. 8 Bugle Street.  West Hall was the location of the Edward VI Grammer School from 1696.

Rawlyn Pole (flourished 1489-1490) – Weaver.  1498-9 ‘town’s part for him to join the weavers 10s.’

Richard Blamford (flourished 1498-1524) – Weaver.  He traded crest cloth, woad and oakum. 1521-2 ‘his servant stole some wool.’ 1498-9 ‘craft fine weaver towns part 4s’.

Elizabeth Burgess (flourished 1503) – Woolpacker.  ‘Warden of all female woolpackers, membership of twelve women.’ She was married to Richard Burgess.

Mr Corell (alias Curll) (flourished 1505-6) – Weaver. 1505-6 ‘paid 5s to set up as a weaver.’

Lenard Coleman (flourished 1517-1522) – Weaver. 1521 ‘sent as an archer on King’s French Campaign, prest money and conduit money 12d, given 3s towards his sword.’

John Christmas (flourished 1518-1534) – Clothier. Lived in the Parish of All Saints. In 1533-4 ‘Involved in a fray and bloodshed with Pryme fined 9d between them.  Same year victim of a fray by Edward Bartholomew.’

William Chandeler (flourished 1521) -Weaver. 1521 ‘went as an archer for the King.’

John Brooke (flourished 1532-1533) – Weaver.  1532-3 ‘tenant of John Walsh for weavers craft fine 6s 8d’.

Athony Bonaventure (flourished 1549-1550) – Weaver.  1549-50 ‘craft fine to be a weaver 4s’.

John Adeane (English – flourished 1550-1596) – Woollen Draper. English national and lived in the Parish of All Saints, Holy Rood.  He had two children, Richard and John.

John Coson (French – flourished 1561) – Woolcomber.  French national and lived in the Parish of All Saints, Holy Rood. ‘Described as having a wooden leg’.  In 1577 ‘reported for trying to kiss Margaret Smith at three in the afternoon whilst she was making beds in her mistresses house.’

John Bullack (flourished 1582-1600). Hat and Feltmaker. Son of John Bullack who was Mayor of Southampton in 1588.

Richard Allen (flourished 1605). Sergemaker.

Woollen Cloth Hall (now Westgate Hall), Southampton.



Social historian, based in the UK.

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