The weavers’ cottages of Sudbury

Reporter: Heather Coltman


About 60 members and guests turned out on a bitter night, on January 25th, for the Society’s first indoor meeting of 2013. In a change to the advertised programme (archive films), for the first half, David Burnett gave one of his always informed and interesting talks.

David started by asking the audience what Daniel Defoe, Francois de Rochefoucauld and Arthur Young had in common? Answer: they all visited Sudbury. The Frenchman was not impressed and wrote that while the scenery was agreeable the inhabitants all seemed to be smugglers and bankrupts despite the fact that there was a good trade in woollen and silk stuffs, there being at least 100 looms in the town.

In the late 18th/early 19th century there was an influx of weavers and merchants migrating from London. It was cheaper to produce silk fabric in the country. It was mainly a cottage industry and there were rows of specially designed cottages built by speculators or merchants to house their outworkers. In other parts of the country such as Macclesfield in Cheshire and Braintree in Essex, the weaving rooms were on the top (3rd) floor, to catch the most light. However, Sudbury always being a bit different, they were built on the middle of three floors. In spite of many alterations to the surviving buildings over the years it still possible to spot the larger windows as David showed in various photographs. In the past it was often possible to spot a weaver’s cottage by a broken pane in the middle of the window where ‘the flying shuttle’ had done just that and shot through the glass!

David enlarged on the life of the weavers, which was far from idyllic. They were at the mercy of their employers who were usually merchants who supplied the raw material by weight; the finished cloth having to balance with the original yarn. If it didn’t there was trouble and money docked. It was backbreaking and demanding work.

We were shown photographs of cottages in Station Road, Melford Road, New Street (once St. John’s Terrace) and possibly the oldest, at 30-31, Cross Street. The builders were a varied collection; among them were manufacturers such as Alexander Duff-Peacock, in New Street, (he eventually went bankrupt), and Kemp & Sons who bought old timber-framed houses in Cross Street, pulled them down and built Nos.70 – 74. Inkerman Row (demolished in the 70s) was built by a local builder, Samuel Webb, the quaintly named Batt Hall by another builder, Isaac Overall, and finally a plaque on St. Gregory’s Terrace on Melford Road has the initials ‘A.C.’ standing for, Azariah Clubb, himself a weaver who occupied one of own his new cottages

The merchants and owners continued to flourish in Sudbury in the late 19th century as they concentrated on the quality market and thus were less affected by the cheaper imports from France and elsewhere. This holds true today with three major silk weaving factories still in the town.

The final part of David’s talk was devoted to an account of a weaver’s life given to a researcher just before WW2. The hard life of Lydia Goodwin was vividly described in simple words. She made velvet and took two days to produce a yard of fabric.

The above is just a summary of the insights into the specialist built heritage of Sudbury which David gave us. It pays to look up at buildings anywhere but particularly in our historic town.

After the break, a fuzzy but fascinating amateur archive film was shown of a few days before Christmas in Sudbury. It was 1987 and the crowds on Market Hill were astonishing. Even more amazing were the long queues shown outside Watson’s the greengrocer, the crowded interiors of King’s delicatessen and Seppings the butchers, all now closed and still much missed.