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Alresford - Fulling mill
Alresford is a small
Hampshire town a few miles east of Winchester. There was an Anglo-Saxon
settlement (now Old Alresford) belonging to the church at Winchester, but
this declined after Bishop Godfrey de Lucy established as part of a plan
for six "new towns" a new community on the south bank of the River
Arle in the late twelfth century and subsequently obtained a grant
of privileges for it from King John: market, fair and the rights to
build mills on the river and collect tolls on goods being transported along
the River Itchen. The Bishop had canalized the Itchen and, to ensure a
good head of water, dammed the river, creating a huge reservoir. It was
immediately to the south of this (now much shrunken to the Alresford Pond)
that he established his town, originally called Novum Forum
(Newmarket), although subsequently referred to as Alresford Forum. The
"town" was essentially a street running south from the dam, wide enough
to host a market.
New Alresford was perhaps the most successful of the Bishop's town
foundations, thanks in part to the nearby Winchester-London trade route
this ancient road was realigned to bring it past the southern end of the
market street, in order to make the town more attractive to merchants. New
Alresford was being referred to as a borough by the early thirteenth
century; over 40 burgesses were listed there around that time, attracted to
occupy the building-plots the Bishop had offered to newcomers. The Bishop
set up a town hall, communal oven, and a building for sifting bran from
flour, as well as rebuilding a fulling mill already there.
New Alresford's growth was due in large part to its role in sheep-farming,
the wool trade, and the manufacture of cloth. In the fourteenth century
it was an important wool-collecting centre for the regions east and
north-east of Winchester, and was even said to be one of the ten greatest
wool-markets in the country. However, its prospects were limited by
proximity to its much larger neighbour: Winchester so dominated regional
trade that Alresford could not compete at that level.
There still stands, on the modest Arle, a mill built (or rebuilt) in the
thirteenth century for the fulling of cloth. Access to clean, fast-running
water was a requirement of this element of the cloth-finishing industry and
much of the mill is built directly above the river. The great pond created
by the Bishop's weir supplied a source of fast-running water for the
operation of mills.
England's wool was known throughout medieval Europe for its quality
(although that of southern England was not the finest produced in the
country), and the wool and cloth trades were a major element in the
English economy from the twelfth to the fifteenth century. At first it
was the export of raw wool to cloth-producing centres of Flanders and
Italy that was important, particularly in the earlier period, as a growing
population across Europe produced greater demand for clothing.
English merchants and entrepreneurs came to realize the sense in using the
wool to produce cloth domestically (rather than buy it back from Europe).
They invested in the development of an existing, modest, rural
cloth-producing industry (with a corresponding adverse effect on the
elements of that industry already established in the larger towns); many
fulling mills were built in the thirteenth century. Cloth manufacture
employed a large number of townsmen in its various stages (e.g. shearing,
carding, combing, spinning, weaving, fulling, felting, dyeing, cutting).
Fulling was a two-part process:
In the fourteenth century, wool exports were declining and those of cloth
increasing. The Merchant Staplers increasingly dominated the wool trade
during that century. At the end of the century and into the fifteenth
(although it is difficult and dangerous to generalize for all areas of the
country) there was a downturn in commerce, greater competition in the cloth
trade from foreign merchants notably those of the Hanseatic League who
acquired advantageous privileges from the king, and later a decline in
foreign demand for English cloth (in part due to international political
troubles) which was offset a little by growing domestic demand. The
economies of many of the larger towns were adversely affected, while some
smaller centres went into decay as the larger towns tried to dominate what
commerce remained. Most large towns were sufficiently diversified
in their economies to weather the storm.
- newly-woven cloth was cleaned by soaking it in clean
water and then beating it, usually with water-driven mechanical paddles;
- the cloth was thickened by scrubbing it with "fuller's earth"
(aluminium oxide) which provided a good texture and initiated bleaching,
a process later completed by the cloth-owners who stretched the cloth out
to dry over a wooden frame called a "tenter".
For tourist information on Alresford, including a map showing the
location of the fulling mill, see the Hampshire
County Council Web site.