Worsteds, tapizadoes, taboretts, camblets, calimancoes, crepes and bombazines are just some of the exotic names for Norwich ‘stuffs’ (fabrics) woven on the looms of the weavers of Norwich. Many of them lived Over-the Water in the Magdalen Street area. The ‘stuffs’ were a huge success story for Norwich, traded around the world in the late eighteenth century, reaching the fairs of Leipzig and Seville and sold to customers as far apart as Siberia and South America. After the American War of Independence in 1783, legend has it that happy weavers with overflowing order books flaunted their riches with £5 notes in their hatbands. In the nineteenth century beautiful shawls won prizes at international exhibitions. Yet by the early twentieth century there were few weavers left.
A page from an order book from the 1760s (photo P.Harley. Courtesy Norwich Museum Service)
What caused the collapse of this once booming industry? Cotton from Lancashire had become cheaper and was easily washed, unlike Norwich worsted. The throstle, used in the new machine spinning of worsted yarn, put about 20,000 Norfolk and Norwich spinners out of work (mainly part time) in 5 years in the early nineteenth century and in Yorkshire, power looms produced plain worsteds and other fabrics more cheaply.
A chasuble made from Norwich calamancoes in the eighteenth century (photo P.Harley courtesy Norwich Museum Service)
The weavers resisted change. Constant underemployment, declining rates of pay and mechanisation threatened their old way of life. For a while the Weavers’ Committee maintained wages, but the work became less frequent in the hard times of the Napoleonic Wars and after. When manufacturers introduced new machinery, the weavers smashed it and when work was sent out to the countryside (where labour was cheaper) riots and intimidation followed, along with strikes.
The weavers suffered. The terrible conditions in which some of them lived in St Paul’s in the mid nineteenth century featured in parliamentary reports. Mass production overtook their skills and by the 1880s the luxury hand- woven Norwich shawl was out of fashion.
Zebra weave shawl, 1860 (photo P.Harley courtesy Norwich Museum Service)
As weaving declined, shoe making took off. Norwich became a major boot and shoe-making centre. Mass production developed and in 1913, 10,000 people were employed as Norwich became a leader in ladies’ fashion and children’s shoes. Wards, Chamberlin, Howes and Hurrels were just some of the factories in the Magdalen Street area. In February 1897, to counteract low wages The National Union of Boot and Shoe operatives called a strike for a minimum wage. 1500 men were out for 34 weeks but returned to work in October having failed to achieve their objective.
Over half a million British army boots were made in Norwich for First World War soldiers, and in the Second World War Norwich factories supplied the women’s armed forces. In the early 1960s, 23 factories employed 9,000 workers. Meadows opened a new factory in Fishergate to replace the one in Peacock Street (near St Paul’s, and Magdalen Street) that had been demolished with the construction of the Magdalen Street flyover. However, in the 1970s and 80s cheap imports led to the collapse of the industry which by the mid 80s employed fewer than 3,000 people.
For more information on the weaving and shoe industry, visit The Museum of Norwich. Some Norwich textiles can be seen at the Castle Museum. With thanks to Ruth Battersby Tooke for showing me some of the collection of Norwich Stuffs.
For an in depth look at Norwich weaving with more photos see