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Wool Broggers ....

Author unknown

Origin of this article is unknown. It was given to me torn out of a magazine, Normally I would seek the permission of the author before using it but the content was so interesting with its connection to Mattishall that I did not want to leave it out.

Should anyone know of its origin please contact me...... So permission and credits can be given.

Few middlemen, whatever their branch of trade, have avoided the accusation at some time or another that the function which they performed was unnecessary or that their profits were the cause of their increase prices. The wool-middlemen, or wool-broggers, of the sixteenth century were no exception. Their function was to travel through the countryside buying wool from farmers, to carry it by horse and cart to distant towns and villages, and to sell it to the cloth manufacturers.

On the face of it, they preformed a service of the greatest value to farmers and weaver alike; but unfortunately for the weavers, wool-broggers played many tricks of their trade. They frequently mixed sand and all kinds of rubbish with the wool and held it back in order to create a false scarcity, forcing weavers to offer increased prices for their supplies; they made great profits by buying cheaply and selling dearly. Despite these evil practices, the wool-brogger was often indispensable; but the wealthier cloth makers could afford to send their servants, or even to travel theirselves, in search of wool and so to dispense with the brogger’s services. So it was throughout the sixteenth century the wool-brogger was continually subjected to criticism and to legislation restricting his activities.

The Norfolk wool-broggers, however, escaped the restrictions placed upon their colleagues in the West Country or in Suffolk and Essex, for example. For this good fortune they had to thank the worsted weavers of Norwich and nearby villages. Wealthy men were rare in the worsted industry, most weavers working on a small scale, and neither weavers or spinsters could afford the time or expense of travelling to the west of Norfolk to buy wool. Moreover working as they did on such a small scale, they wanted wool in small quantities – only eight pence or twelve pence worth at a time, we are told – and the sheep farmers were naturally unwilling to make such paltry sales. In these circumstances the wool-brogger was truly indispensable and the worsted weavers relied upon him to bring wool to their market. After wool-broggers had been prohibited throughout the country, an Act of Parliament recognised in 1547 that the Norfolk worsted industry could not carry on without them and this county was granted exemption from the prohibition.

There appears to have been about fifty wool-broggers working in Norfolk; the most complete list of these men was that drawn up by the country Justices of Peace in 1577, and it contain forty-seven names. One striking feature is the extraordinary concentration of the brogger’s homes. A large number of them lived in Mattishall, with a few others in the nearby villages of Mattishall Burgh, Hockering and East and North Tuddenham.

The reason for this concentration is not far to seek. Their trade demanded that the wool-broggers could conveniently travel back and forth between the wool-producing west of Norfolk and the worsted-weaving area in the east, and Mattishall, in the very centre of Norfolk, was admirably situated for the purpose. A number of Mattishall families supplied more than one member to the wool-broggering trade – the Cresswells, Allen, Halls, Reynolds, Howletts and Bootes, for instance; but outstanding was the Watts family. Wherever evidence of the broggers’ activities is found, there too, is the name Watts – be it Thomas senior, Thomas junior, William, Edward, Roger or John.

From Mattishall and elsewhere the broggers travelled widely in search of wool, buying from small farmers and wealthy gentlemen alike, In 1520 a brogger from Tuddenham visited Hunstanton to buy wool grown on the L’Estrange estate; in 1558 Edward Watts was in Great Ryburgh in 1561 William Patrick of Mattishall made a deal at Wood Rising the whole 1500 stone of wool that Sir Richard Southwell had produced that year; and in 1566 three Mattishall broggers were buying wool from Sir Roger Townsend at Raynham. During the summer months, before and after shearing time, the broggers were rarely to be found at home, but were out with their pack-horses making advance contracts for wool still on the sheep’s back, or hagging over the contents of a farmer’s wool house.

The wool was taken to the broggers’ home villages and temporarily stored in their wool houses before the final journey to the market towns or to Norwich. And some broggers, like Firmin Neve of Mattishall, kept the wool in their warehouses in the city before it eventually reached the spinster and weavers.

Not all of the wool collected by the Norfolk broggers found its way to the worsted weavers; some was carried southward to the cloth-making districts of Suffolk and Essex , and the Mattishall broggers are found selling wool in Bury St Edmunds, Hadleigh and Colchester for example. There is no doubt that the broggers turned increasingly to the Suffolk and Essex markets as the result of the serious decline experienced by Norfolk worsted industry during the first half of the sixteenth century.

With the settlements of Dutch and Walloon immigrants in Norwich and the manufacture of their new types of cloth, the worsted industry recovered its prosperity in the last quarter of the century, But the broggers did not readily relinquish their trade with Suffolk, and at various times the Mattishall men were brought into the Norwich Court of Mayoralty and ordered to bring all their wool to the market of Norwich.

The trade brought considerable wealth to a number of Norfolk men. William Watts, of Mattishall for example. At his death in 1647 Watts had goods worth £456 – including wool worth £77 and £200 in ready money. Many Yeomen and gentlemen could boast no more. But other broggers were less fortunate, or less astute, business men; the trade had brought no fortune to Henry James of Biston who died worth only £2 16s 2d , and it most have been precarious for Francis Aylemer, of Buxton, who had little at his death apart from debts of £60 owing to him.

The Norfolk wool-broggers are but one of the fascinating groups of men which a study of worsted industry has brought to light. They occupied a special place in industry, and special place in rural society. And after their heavily-laden pack-horses must have given a special atmosphere to the large and prosperous agricultural village of Mattishall.


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