Case Study (Excavation): The medieval wool industry of Lavenham, Suffolk

Suffolk Archaeology (as the Suffolk County Council Archaeological Service Field Team) undertook phases of evaluation and excavation fieldwork prior to the construction of a spa on land to the rear of the Swan Hotel, in Lavenham, Suffolk on behalf of TA Hotel Collection in late 2013/early 2014…

Medieval furnace bases at Lavenham, Suffolk

Lavenham is known as a particularly well preserved example of a medieval and early post-medieval town. It thrived from the 15th-17th centuries as a result of its successful manufacturing of woollen cloth, with a particular specialisation in broad cloths (although the textile industry had been established in Lavenham and south Suffolk generally since at least the early 14th century). During this period it was a very heavily industrialised settlement and in 1524 had seventy-two clothiers, which was the most in Suffolk at that time. This trade made the town vastly wealthy, even in comparison to many much larger towns and cities across the country and as a result many high status timber-framed properties (including four guildhalls of which two survive) were built. The wool trade was essentially run by several key families and was by far the greatest source of wealth for the town, with several dye house sites mentioned in wills. However, as Lavenham became increasingly outcompeted by textile centres on the continent, there was a massive economic downturn resulting in significant levels of poverty well into the post-medieval period. The result of this relative lack of development was that much of the village’s architecture and layout have remained well preserved.

The site itself lay within the grounds of the Swan Hotel in the heart of the medieval town, fronting onto the high street to the west, with Lady Street to the east. The hotel comprises several medieval plots and the excavation was carried out to the rear of No. 97, a 15th-16th century house, as well as Nos. 98-99 that are part of a divided early 15th century house. Previous documentary and cartographic research was largely hampered by the relative lack of surviving records for the town but did suggest that the garden plots that made up the site may have at some point been used as part of the cloth industry and potentially for ‘teyntor’ [tenter] frames, as used in the drying of dyed cloth (and the origin of the phrase ‘on tenter hooks’ relating to the tension which the material was held at). Several properties along the High Street were listed in the will of a clothier and these included garden plots with tenter frames present. These structures could vary in length, but those required for broadcloths were 28 yards to 30 yards long and subsequently would have fitted within the unusually long plots shown on the Tithe map.

Medieval furnace bases at Lavenham, Suffolk

The archaeological remains represent activity across two terraced property plots, with the main phase of occupation appearing to date from the 13th century into the post-medieval period. The earliest medieval features were mainly 13th-14th century pits, presumably used for quarrying and refuse. These were overlaid by various backyard workshop structures that enclosed approximately ten furnaces thought to relate to the dyeing process. This phase was in turn followed by scattered post-medieval postholes and pits, suggesting a complete decline in the previous industrial activity (aligned with the economic blight that hit Lavenham after the wool trade collapsed in the region). In the upper area of the site (where a 19th century building and modern buildings had partially truncated the archaeological levels), there were two further furnaces and a large pond/reservoir that may have functioned as a water source for the dyeing process, as well as evidence again of scattered post-medieval postholes and occasional late to post-medieval pits.

The finds recovered from the site include medieval and post-medieval pottery, animal bone and shell, large quantities of Ceramic Building Material, as well as fired clay, plaster, mortar, tobacco pipes, glass and slag. The significant assemblage of small finds included coins, keys, fasteners, brooches, knives, trade tokens, a boy bishop token and garment fixings, as well as a variety of other objects. Several environmental samples taken during the works indicate that the site was initially open grassland, prior to its incorporation into a yard and workshops, after which point it was kept relatively clear of refuse and vegetation until the decline of the industrial activity, when it then became overgrown.