This is one of a series of articles published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 29th June 1998 (p.7), and reproduced by kind permission of its author, Julie Bunting.

The series is now available as a fully-illustrated paperback, published in 2006 by Wildtrack Publishing of Sheffield (ISBN 1-904098-01-0)


The woollen industry, with all its many branches, has had a profound influence in the Peak. To begin with the natural landscape is well suited to large-scale sheep farming, which began long before open fields were enclosed by our distinctive drystone walls.

In medieval times vast sheep farming granges were established by various monastic houses on the limestone uplands of the Peak, providing an invaluable contribution to the country's woollen industry and immense profits to their religious orders. (Monastic Influence in the Peak, Peak Advertiser 3rd July 1995). One early documentary source refers to the death in 1243 of 800 sheep at Bradbourne, a chapelry of Dunstable Priory, and in 1295 the Priory, 'due to the poverty of Bradbourne, granted to their brothers, the canons resident, their wool and all other profits except the tithes of Brassington for that year...'

In 1280 Dieu la Cresse Abbey, near Leek, was referred to by a merchant of Florence as his wool supplier, annually producing over 3 tons of wool. Nearby Wincle Grange, built a century later by the Cistercians, is thought to have been a collection point for wool awaiting export to the Continent. Cistercian monks also developed a 400-acre sheep range at Roystone Grange, from where wool was exported to Europe and beyond. Although the Black Death of 1349 cut the number of monks and lay brothers by about a half, the resulting labour shortages barely affected sheep farming which continued to expand; by 1500 the country had three sheep to every human being.

A fulling mill, where woollen cloth was cleansed and thickened, was in use at Hartington as early as 1384 but wool spinning and weaving was one of the earliest and most enduring cottage industries. These twin occupations expanded rapidly in Hathersage from the early 16th century, well supplied by vast flocks of sheep on the surrounding moorlands. Peakland wool and woollen goods were traded with centres in Yorkshire along a packhorse route to Halifax Gate, a traffic of sufficient importance for Halifax wool merchants to contribute £10 towards repairing Leadmill Bridge at Hathersage.

A record from 1657 names Tenter Yard Croft at Hathersage, a tenter being a large wooden frame on which woollen cloth was stretched to dry, probably serving communal use. As the centre of a thriving needle and pin making industry, Hathersage also produced its own hackle pins, used for carding and combing wool. Worsted spinning, giving a fine, smooth yarn from combed wool, took place at Litton and Tideswell until at least 1830. A Tideswell comb (woolcombers') shop was pulled down for road-widening in 1841.

Wool combers actually had their own patron saint, St. Blasius or Blaze, a Bishop martyred in AD 316 after suffering tortures with iron combs. His festival was celebrated by textile workers at Bradford and other Yorkshire towns and similarly in the Peak. Employees from mills around Tideswell shared their annual revelries at a local inn, referred to in contemporary records by the name of its proprietor: '1795, Feb. 7, I was at B. Baker's from 6 o'clock to about 12, with Mr. F. Baker and his stockingers. They held Blaze today. Sam Slack was singing.' Again: '1799, Feb.5, Shrove Tuesday, Mr. Francis Baker kept his Bishop Blaze today at his mother-in-law's, Molly Baker. I went to them about 4 o'clock and stay'd till betwixt 1 and 2 in the morning.'

Other curious documentary sources relate to an Act of Parliament passed in the reign of Charles II in an attempt to boost the depressed English woollen trade. An initial act of 1666 decreed that no-one was to be buried in any material but woollen, a law reinforced with a second act which dictated that even the coffin was to be lined with nothing but sheep's wool. Typical of entries in a various parish registers is the following from Darley Dale: ‘No corpse of any person (except those who shall die of the plague) shall be buried in any shift, sheet, shroud, or anything whatsoever made or mingled with any flax, hemp, silk, heir, gold or silver, or in any stuff or thing other than what is made of sheep's wool, only upon pain of the forfeiture of £5.’

Certificates had to be issued by the officiating clergyman, for example:

‘Mary Wild maketh Oath that Edward Frost, of Wardlow, in the parish of Bakewell, and county of Derbe, lately decd., was not buried in any material but what was made of sheep's wool only.

Swore before me, JOHN GODDARD. Curate of Wormhill.

Testd., Mary Goddard, Strellay Moresby.’

Parish registers commonly contain burial entries followed by 'buried in woollen' but some ladies simply would not be seen dead in wool and left firm instructions otherwise, knowing that the £5 fine would be paid out of their estates. This sum was only a trifle to Mistress Temperance Gell of Hopton Hall, foundress of Carsington Endowed School, who was buried in a linen shroud when she died in 1730. The Act was similarly evaded by three women buried at Sheen in the late 17th-century while Longstone records note the payment of a £5 fine by relatives of an actress buried in a satin shroud in accordance with her wishes.

The 'burial in woollen' act was already widely disregarded by the time it was repealed in 1815


Spinning and hand-knitting of stockings continued into the 19th century both to keep the family in hose and for sale. Travelling wool dealers, known as 'braggers', bought the raw material from farmers and distributed it to domestic workers from whom they then purchased the completed goods. Weaving gradually became a more communal process; at Holme it occupied long stone sheds, now converted to cottages. More usually, mechanisation of the textile industries from the late 18th century took woollen manufacture out of domestic production and into the factory system.

Factory machinery relied on water power and several early corn mill sites in the north-western Peak District were taken over for woollen mills. Gnathole Mill at Charlesworth was renowned for the quality of its broad and narrow cloths, credited to the peaty water used in the washing processes. There was also Phoside Mill at Hayfield, Diggle Mill - one of several in the Saddleworth area, and three sites at Holme now submerged by Digley Reservoir. Hayfield mills used to send large quantities of wool and cloth by packhorse train over the Pennines, by Woodhead and Holme Moss, to be dyed at Holmfirth.

A hundred years ago Messrs. Lowe & Scholes of Tansley, fancy shawl manufacturers, boasted a global reputation for their choice woollen shawls but these were almost at the end of their fashionable life. Since that time, wool itself has passed in and out of favour as it has had to compete with synthetic materials, yet we need look no further than the knitwear factory of John Smedley at Lea Bridge to see that British woollens continue to enjoy a world wide reputation. And flocks of sheep are still inseparable from the Peak landscape, to be paid due homage later this year at the centenary of Longshaw Sheepdog Trials, which we hope to feature nearer the time.

© Julie Bunting
From "The Peak Advertiser", 29th June 1998.

Articles by Julie Bunting are reproduced with her kind permission.

This is a Genealogy Website
URL of this page:
Logo by courtesy of the Open Clip Art Library