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Edward J Law.


The Yorkshire cloth trade in the early years of the 18th century was still regulated by legislation of 1623, and although agitation for reform resulted in Parliamentary Acts in 1709, 1725, 1733 and 1734, their application was restricted to broad cloths. Not until 1737 was legislation introduced to deal specifically with the narrow cloths which were the Huddersfield clothiers staple trade.

In 1737 'An Act for the better regulating the manufacture of Narrow Woollen Cloths in the West g of the County of York' was passed1. The preamble to the Act states that its intention was to remedy deceits, frauds and abuses, particularly in stretching and straining the cloth. The main provisions were that the clothier should incorporate his initials in the head of every piece of cloth, and that every piece be measured at the fulling mill, whilst wet, by the millman and by the searcher. These latter were to be men of good repute and character who had been apprenticed to, or conducted, the trade of narrow woollen cloth maker for at least three years. They were to be appointed, and have their salaries fixed, by the Justices of the Peace in Quarter Sessions. The millman was required to affix a lead seal, provided by the clothier, to one end of each piece and to stamp it with his name and the length and breadth of the cloth; the searcher to do likewise at the other end of the piece. Both men were also to keep a register to show in respect of each piece fulled or milled, the date, the name and abode of the owner and the measurements. The Act recognised that pieces shrank during processing and provision was made for acceptable stretching of one inch per yard in length, and two inches per three-quarters of a yard in breadth.

The Act was intended to improve the reputation of the vast quantities of cloth which were being exported, which trade was threatened because of the excessive shrinkage which was being experienced. Although a charge was to be made for the stamping, it was not in the nature of a tax, and the funds raised were intended only to meet the costs of obtaining the Act and of its administration. A charge not exceeding 3d per piece, to be paid by the owner of each piece, was to be set by the Quarter Sessions. Their first order in the matter was at Halifax on 13th July 1738 when it was fixed that the clothier should pay the millman 2d in respect of each piece, the millman keeping d for his salary and expenses, the latter including the cost of providing the seals which the searchers were required to fix, the balance of 2d being payable to the Treasurer of the West Riding of Yorkshire to meet the salaries of the searchers etc.

In May the following year a petition was presented to the Quarter Sessions from the millmen of narrow woollen cloth, when they represented that the allowance "of d per piece for procuring lead seals, keeping an account in the mill books, their labour in re-measuring cloth and sometimes one, two or three fresh seals put to, besides their trouble in folding up the cloths, their labour and expenses four times a year to the Treasurer to pay the money, as well as sometimes loss in trusting poor people, is not sufficient". This resulted in an order being made that the millmen should retain d of the revised charge of 2d. As time passed the charge was reduced further, presumably because either the running expenses were less

than anticipated or more pieces were being milled. By 1755 the charge for a piece was down to 1d of which the millman then received d.

The main administration of the Act was centred upon the fulling mills. That was eminently sensible, for whilst there were a great many clothiers producing narrow cloths, there were relatively few fulling mills, all of which stood beside the rivers and which should have been capable of being tightly controlled.

The first appointment of searchers took place at the Quarter Sessions held at Halifax on 13th July 1738, and the order book records the river, the mill, the name and salary of the searcher, how many mills he covered and how many miles he had to walk to service those mills. The list is given here in full.

Derbyshire Hagghall Mill   All to be
Cheshire Tinsell   Stampt at
  Ealy Bank   Kenworthy
Lancashire Hay Bridge   Mill in
  Scout   Saddleworth
Saddleworth Beck Kenworthy Mill Jno Buckley 10
Saddleworth Beck Francis Mill }  
Saddleworth Beck Dobcross }Ja Kenworthy 10 3 mills
Saddleworth Beck Delph }   2 miles
Marsden Beck Marsden Mill John Kaye Snr 3 a single mill
    John Kaye Jnr  
Marsden Beck Slaithwaite two }  
Marsden Beck Dyson }Wm Dyson & 14 4 mills
Marsden Beck Hepworth }Jno Balmforth   1 miles
Marsden Beck Ramsden Mill }  
Marsden Beck Bankhouse two }Ja Kershaw 10 4 mills
Marsden Beck Paddock Foot }   1 miles
Huddersfield River Bradley Mill Ro North 1 A single mill & to inspect Huddersfield shops & tenters
Holm River Holm Mill }  
Holm River Croslands }Jo Battye 8
Holm River Battyes }  
Holm River Holmfirth }  
Holm River 2 others building }Jos Hinchliffe 8
Holm River Thongs Bridge }  
Holm River Mytham Bridge }Robert Stocks 10 3 mills
Holm River Banks }   1 mile
Holm River Steps }  
Holm River Dungeon }Wm Turton 10
Holm River Lockwood }  
Holm River Meltham Chr Tinker 4 Single
Holm River Crosland Hall Geo Haigh 6 Single
Thurleston Beck Hobson }  
Thurleston Beck Battye }Sim Archer 10 3 mills
Thurleston Beck Oxspring }  
Denby Beck Pudding Mill Jno Hanwell 2
Deanhead Beck Firth House }  
Deanhead Beck New Mill }Jo Ramsden 9 3 mills
Deanhead Beck Bowers }   1 miles
Deanhead Beck Gatehead }Ja Hirst 5 2 mills
Deanhead Beck Bradley }   miles
Salterhebble Beck Tumble Bridge }  
Salterhebble Beck Shaw Wife }Saml Starkie 8 4 mills
Salterhebble Beck James Haigh }   2 miles
Salterhebble Beck Boyston }  
Salterhebble Beck Lilly Mill }  
Salterhebble Beck Rogers }Jno Holroyd 10 3 mills
Salterhebble Beck Bankhouse }   2 miles
Calder Elland }Tho Kitchingman 10 Single
  Brighouse }  
Calder Hollins }  
Calder Sowerby Bridge }Richd Grice 7
Calder Meartley Botham }  
Calder Luddenden Foot 2 }  
Calder Dean Mill }Jno Sutcliffe 7 2 miles
Calder Longley Botham }   4 mills
Calder Lee Mill }   mile
Calder Foster Mill }   2 mills
Ripponden Beck Smith    
Ripponden Beck Wheelwrights    
Ripponden Beck Stansfields    
Ripponden Beck Thorpe    
Ripponden Beck Kebroyd    
Ripponden Beck Ripponden    
Wakefield Tenters   Fra Stringer 6

It will be seen from the above list that the narrow cloth trade was very localised; the 60 Yorkshire mills lying about Halifax and Huddersfield. The mills in other counties were included as a result of knowledge gained from the operation of the Broad Cloth Acts, to avoid clothiers going into adjoining areas which were free from legislative restriction. It will be seen that some of the required information has been omitted; most regretted is the complete omission of the names of the millmen which were to have been entered.

The searchers were appointed annually at the first Quarter Sessions after Easter (in practice the Pontefract Sessions held in April or May) and their salaries fixed. In 1743 another level of control must have been felt necessary for an order was made "that Joshua Brook be appointed a narrow cloth searcher with a salary of 50 a year and his duty is to go continually from one mill to another and survey all mills, tenter grounds etc. where the same is dressed and make immediate information of offences etc." Thereafter Joshua Brook is referred to as the 'surveyor'.

Drawing on past experience of the administration of the Broad Woollen Cloth Acts, one might have expected the Act of 1738 to be well drafted and all-embracing, and certainly some of the problems which had been encountered in relation to the earlier Acts were avoided. The diary of William Elmsall2 of Thornhill, who acted as clerk to Sir John Ramsden, has several entries relating to the introduction of the Act:-

  • 24.1.17378 With Sir John [Ramsden] to Huddersfield, met the clothiers and dealers and concluded a scheme for the Act of Parliament.
    19.2.17378 Huddersfield with a great company relating cloth act.
    5.6.1738 To Huddersfield to fix the districts of the searchers.
    1.8.1738 At Huddersfield delivering books and stamps at Horns there.
    3.5.1779 Attended the Sessions court upon … an order to pay Sir Jno Kaye and Sir Jno Ramsden the expenses they were at in obtaining his cloth bill.
  • However, despite the local consultation which is indicated above, practical difficulties were soon encountered. In October 1738 the Sessions were called upon to consider a dispute on the system of measurement. The local practice had been to allow a thumb's breadth (or one inch) per yard when measuring cloth. The Justices of the Peace, well educated men, ordained that in future all measurements under the Act should be of a standard yard of 36 inches. At the Wakefield Sessions the following January it was reported that various cases of over-stretching which the searchers had brought against clothiers had failed because it was recognised that it had "always been usual in this part of the Kingdom to add a thumb's breadth, or one inch more, to the common yard". That rebuff led the Sessions to re-examine the matter; they listened to the arguments for and against, consulted "some of the oldest merchants of Wakefield who were clearly and unanimously of the opinion that 37 inches had been time out of mind allowed in this country to a yard of narrow woollen cloth," and promptly reversed their previous ruling!

    In the diary of the Rev. James Murgatroyd3, schoolmaster at Slaithwaite, is the following record "21 January 1782. A man pulling a piece at Low west wood-mill anent another man, the hands slipping, fell backwards into the mill race and stopped the mill. He was crushed most lamentably." It sounds as if this was a piece of sharp practice and that the men were stretching the cloth whilst still wet, presumably before the seals were affixed, if so retribution was swift and final for Murgatroyd continues "This doleful misfortune happened Friday morning last and he lived till Saturday night."

    The ever topical subject of Sunday trading received attention in May 1739 when the millmen submitted the following petition to the Pontefract Sessions: -

  • Humble petition on behalf of ourselves and the rest of the millmen of Narrow-Woollen cloth.
    That it now is and for many years last past has been a very prophane and bad custom to mill cloth on the Lords day that the clothiers continue to bring in great numbers of pieces on Saturdays so that the mills are so much clogg'd with cloth on Sundays that they are forced to work the whole day when as they often stand on the week days for want of work, and that upon Sundays such numbers of clothiers crowd to the mills that occasion much wickedness, immorality and vice to be committed and that your petitioners and our servants are entirely prevented from resorting to church or any other place of Divine Worship.
    Joseph Atkinson. Edw'd Dyson. William Haigh. Jonathan Howarth. Joseph Roberds.
    …… (France?). William Ramsden. Abraham Robart. Thomas Haigh. Joseph X (mark) Firth
  • Scandalised, the Sessions ordered that no millman should wet, stamp or put cloth into his mill between 12pm Saturday night and 12pm Sunday night. The court also recommended the "Justices of the Peace in the neighbourhood to the said mills to punish with the utmost vigour that might be by law, all clothmakers, searchers and millmen servants and others who shall presume to come to the mills or in any other respect attend their ordinary business upon the Lords day". It is interesting to note that two copies of the order forbidding Sunday working were made for public display "one to be fixed up in Huddersfield market and another at Saddleworth".

    This was by no means the only occasion on which attempts were made to remove the evils of Sunday working. In 1790 the Constable of South Crosland was instructed to stop the fulling mills from "working on the Sabbath," and spent four shillings in visiting the mills in the Constablery4. His orders apparently came from Mr Benjamin Ingham who, with his brother Joshua, was a cloth merchant at Lockwood and owned Lockwood mill, and who in that year laid the spiritual foundations of Lockwood Baptist church. As a religious man we may suppose that his mill was not being worked on the Sabbath, and that as a result he may have been suffering unfair competition.

    At an even earlier date, in 1707, the problem had been addressed on a voluntary basis by a group of local fulling mill owners who agreed not to mill any cloth on a Sunday between the hours of 6am and 6pm. The other provisions of this early trade agreement5 between the owners and farmers of fulling mills in the parishes of Kirkburton, Almondbury, Huddersfield and Kirkheaton were:-

  • That no cloth fulled by them would be given up unless they had first been paid for the same. That the following minimum scale of charges would be applied,
    Pieces up to 18 yards 6d.
    Pieces between 18 & 30 yards 8d.
    Pieces over 30 yards 12d.
  • The signatories to the agreement are worth noting as they would probably comprise the majority of the millowners or farmers in the four parishes at that time, they were:-
    Elizabeth Bradley, Joshua Wilson, Robert Rockley, Caleb Crossley, Luke Wilson, William Brooke, John Hanson, James Roberts (mark I R), William Ramsden, Abraham Dyson, Peter Hepworth (mark X), Joseph Roberts and a second Joshua Wilson.

    We can match, somewhat tentatively, some of these names with specific mills; Elizabeth Bradley would be of Bradley Mill, the Rockleys lived at Woodsome and may have been operating Woodsome mill, Caleb Crossley was possibly of Banks mill, Luke Wilson almost certainly of Mytham Bridge, James Roberts of Steps, William Ramsden of Ramsden mill, and Joseph Roberts of Dungeon.

    The records of the Quarter Sessions record the annual appointment of the cloth searchers and a careful study of the entries can help to establish the date when some of the newer fulling mills were established. So in 1740 we find that the Holm River has two Battyes mills, an old and a new, a new mill was added in the Marsden area in 1742, in 1747 two new mills were added to the round of the searcher of Mytham Bridge, and in 1750 a new mill was noted with Crosland Hall. The establishment of one of the Mytham Bridge mills is mentioned in the diary of Arthur Jessop6 in March 17456 "Building a mill at Mytham Bridge upon Jonas Hobson's farm I saw workmen digging the tail goat [goit]".

    The posts of cloth searchers seem to have been sought after, and provided that liberties were not taken (and there are several instances of the searchers being 'turned out'), they often descended in a family. The records of the Pontefract Sessions of April 1858 contain the following document: -

  • We certify that Thomas Hinchliff of Ley Moor, Huddersfield has all his life been a narrow woollen cloth maker and during his fathers illness attended the fulling mills for him as a searcher and following his death till another was appointed and therein did behave himself well to the satisfaction of all persons who frequent those mills and we recommend him to be a searcher of narrow woollen cloth. 1.4.1758.
    Geo Hirst, Eneas Bottomley, John Bottomley, John Wood, Abra Roberts, John Starkey, John Hirst, Jos Heppworth.
  • Further minor refinements were made to the administration of the Narrow Woollen Cloth Act over the years, in 1739 the searchers were ordered to attend at their mills at least twice a day, once in the morning and again in the afternoon. It would be interesting to know the reason behind an order of 1755 when cloth searchers were forbidden from keeping alehouses?

    The lead seals which must have been used in their hundreds of thousands are now very scarce, their principal object was to provide some form of guarantee of standard, and they would only have been removed when the pieces passed to a merchant or were eventually cut up; at that point they would no doubt have been disposed of as lead scrap. Two seals were discovered in 1986 in the infilling of a wall at Oakes Farm, Fleming House Lane, both of which were presented to the Tolson Memorial Museum. One of these seals was undoubtedly applied in pursuance of the Narrow Woollen Cloth Act. A flat piece of lead it has on the back at one end a small stud which, when the seal was folded in half, riveted into a corresponding hole at the other end. Stamped on the seal is the name BENIAM BIROM, and the numbers 23 over 30, clearly this seal originated at Bradley mill where Benjamin Biram junior had succeeded his father as the fulling miller by 1804. The numbers signify the length (23 yards) and the breadth (30 inches) of the piece for which it was intended.

    It is not known when the provisions of the Narrow Woollen Cloth Act ceased to have any relevance, but possibly by the end of the century, for in 1796 a meeting was held in Huddersfield to consider petitioning Parliament to repeal several laws respecting the stamping of broad and narrow woollen cloths8. When a petition for the repeal of the Acts was presented to Parliament in 1820 it was stated that in a certain part of the West Riding around Halifax and Huddersfield, "these laws have not been enforced with any degree of strictness9." The Act was finally repealed in 1856, one of many included in an 'Act to repeal certain Statutes which are not in use' from which we may deduce that it had not had any practical application for many years.


    General. Much of the information on which this article is based came from the records of the Quarter Sessions of the West Riding of Yorkshire which are deposited with the West Yorkshire Archives Service at Wakefield. Individual references are not given, they should generally be evident from the text.

    1 Act for the better regulating the Manufacture of Narrow Woollen Cloth in the West Riding of the County of York - Yorkshire Archaeological Society, Leeds.
    2 Diary of William Elmsall - Sheffield City Libraries, Archives Division.
    3 Diary of Rev. John Murgatroyd - West Yorkshire Archives, Kirklees, KC/242/1.
    4 P Ahier, The History and Topography of South Crosland, Armitage Bridge and Netherton.
    5 Agreement of Fulling Mill Owners, 1707 - Tolson Memorial Museum, Huddersfield.
    6 Diary of Arthur Jessop, YAS Record Series, Vol. CXVII
    7 West Riding Registry of Deeds FB 533 686.
    8 Leeds Mercury, 25.6.1796.
    9 Leeds Mercury, 21.4.1821.


    1988 Edward J Law.

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