Norwich’s textile trade in the late-seventeenth century

In the seventeenth century, Norwich was the second city in England, after London, with a thriving textile industry. Following an influx of Flemish and Dutch weavers, the weavers of Norwich turned to the manufacture of the ‘New Draperies ’ –light fabrics of mixed wool and silk in bright colours which were enormously popular with the well-to-do middle classes all over England and Europe. Rather surprisingly, both the industry and the trade are scarcely documented before the eighteenth century, which makes Thomas Baret’s letter book, now transcribed and published for the first time, of such importance.

Baret came from an established Norwich merchant family, and although his letter book covers a relatively short period, 1672-1677, it provides a vivid picture of the textile industry in Norwich at that date, as he was both a manufacturer and exporter. There were many varieties of Norwich ‘stuffs’: contemporary inventories list damasks, russells, satins, tamines, tammetts, cheyneys, paramides, callimancoes, crapes, camblets, druggets and faringdons. Unfortunately, because the ‘stuffs’ were light in weight and relatively cheap, no examples have survived, and there are not even pattern books before the middle of the next century. Baret at times professed himself confused by terminology used to describe various cloths, frequently asking his associates to provide additional descriptions or patterns.

Although most of the output from his looms was for the domestic market, the letter book shows that Baret also exported, principally to the Netherlands, enquiringly carefully which colours and designs would sell best, and sending samples and patterns. Overseas trade had its problems: it was frequently hindered by the third Anglo-Dutch war, but never halted, although it sometimes led to shortages of raw materials. English merchants found ways around problems, sometimes concealing the origin of their goods – ‘if we can not sell them for English then wee must sell them for Spanish’. Baret seems to have been hampered more by his business associates abroad: like most English merchants he preferred to deal with his own countrymen but still found his agents frequently neglectful, and slow in remitting his profits. Rowland Cockey, a Norwich man, had at least £1,000 of Baret’s money in his hands and could not be persuaded to send up-to-date accounts. Eventually, after years of ever more urgent reminders and even threats, Baret finally broke off their trading relationship.

Baret traded ‘both ways’, choosing return cargoes which he knew he could sell on the home market. He imported iron, variously from Liege, Stockholm and Bilbao, copper, steel, and brass pots, kettles, frying pans and warming pans, madder for dyeing, whalebone for corsets, even gravestones which sold well in a county with no natural stone, the ‘midling stones’ being ‘the most vendible’. He also dealt in luxury foodstuffs: Westphalia hams, bacon, cheese, beer, and sturgeon. He was disappointed in a consignment of Nuremberg ‘toys’, small manufactured items for ornament or amusement, where he claimed that all the best items had been taken out and replaced with cheap trash.

He also sent much of his output to London where he had a warehouse in Abchurch Lane, which necessitated frequent visits. For a time he tried to extend his trade to Hamburg but was hampered by his not being a member of the Merchant Adventurers Company in London; at one time he also considered branching out and importing sugar from Barbados. Eventually however, he gave up trade, his profits being augmented by a timely lottery win, and bought Heggatt Hall, a fine late Elizabeth manor house at Horstead. His last letters show him gloomily preparing to sue Cockey and ordering sanfoin and clover seed to sow on his lands. Later he was to regret getting out of trade as conditions improved, and so did profits. He left no children by either of his marriages and died in 1711, leaving a complex will which kept the lawyers busy for several generations.

Although short, the Baret letter book gives us a lively picture of trade and manufacture in a period of Norwich economic history which is strangely undocumented. It demonstrates, for the first time, that Norwich had a thriving export trade in textiles both through Great Yarmouth and London. The transcription and introduction are by Dr Siobhan Talbott, one of the leading historians specialising in seventeenth-century business history.

The Letter-Book of Thomas Baret of Norwich: merchant and textile manufacturer, 1672-1677, edited by Dr Siobhan Talbott and was published by the society in 2021.

This blog was written by Dr Jean Agnew, BA, PhD