WORSTEAD is in North East Norfolk, once a populous
town but now a small village served by one church, whereas in its
it had two of its own. The village consists of a main street and
a square, where markets and hiring fairs were held.
Wrdesteda or Ordested, as Domesday calls the village, was given
by King Canute to the abbots of St. Benet of Holme, amid the Norfolk
Broads. These abbots held the manor till the dissolution of the monasteries
in 1538. During the time of Edward the Confessor the manor was held
for the abbots by Robert, an officer of the cross-bow men. His son
Odo took over the holding on his father's death and assumed the name
of De Worstead.
Worstead gives its name to a type of cloth, worsted, woven in the
village in the middle ages. From the Conquest onwards Flemish weavers
migrated to England, but it was not until the reign of Edward II
that their cloth came to be known as worsted. Hitherto most of the
Norfolk wool had been exported to Flanders whence it was imported
in the form of cloth.
Early in his reign Edward III, married to a Flemish princess, actively
encouraged immigration of Flemings to "exercise their mysteries
in the kingdom". Attracted by abundant supplies of wool in England,
a considerable number of weavers settled in and around Norwich where
the landscape resembled their native country and where Norfolk sheep
produced the same long staple as they had used in Flanders. This
was made into the cloth called worsted (defined as a woollen fabric
made from well-twisted yarn spun from long-staple wool combed to
lay fibres parallel) giving both warmth and strength.
Thus was founded the name of a skilful trade which brought not only
wealth and prosperity to England for 600 years but also provided
a household word throughout the world.
William Paston, 1378-1444, wrote to his cousin Robert:- "I
pray that you will send me hither two ells (ell = 45") of Worsted
for doublets, to happen (wrap me up warm) this cold winter, and that
ye enquire where William Paston bought his tippet of fine worsted
cloth, which is almost like silk, and if that be much finer than
that ye should by me, after seven or eight shillings, then buy me
a quarter and a nail (13¼") thereof for collars, though
it be dearer than the others, for I shall make my doublet all Worsted,
for the glory of Norfolk."
The weavers brought in a good wage each week; by 1830 the weekly
wage was 20-25 shillings. Weaving flourished in the village for over
five hundred years, till the last weaver, John Cubitt, died in 1882
aged 91. The hand-loom weavers were forced out of business by the
power-driven machines of the West Riding of Yorkshire where both
water and coal were readily available. And there it remains to this
day, centred on Bradford and Huddersfield.
Various reminders of the weaving industry can be seen in the village,
especially in the church. On its floor are several brasses telling
the same story engraved in Latin, such as "Tom Watt, worsted
weaver, died 16th August 1506".
Some of the weavers' houses in and around the village survive. They
are large and spacious, for it was in these that weaving looms, l2ft
high, were used. Each house had its own cellar with wooden beams
interlacing the ceiling, wherein the wool was stored at a cool even
temperature. The crypt of one house with a groined ceiling still
survives at the bottom of a derelict stair under the bake house in
the market square.
As time passed the cloth trade of Worstead and of Norfolk as a whole
came to be centred more and more upon Norwich.