Treasures from Worcestershire’s Past: ~51~ A small piece of agricultural history

  • 28th November 2014

Recently, Rhonda Niven, Conservator for the Archive and Archaeology Service, presented me with a neat, dried bundle of plant material that had been found pressed between the pages of a Croome Estate inventory dated Oct 2nd 1819. The question was, ‘what was this material?’ The most likely at the time seemed to be hay or corn.

On the photograph above you can just see fibres exposed at the ends of the stems. When viewed with a microscope, these appear much clearer, and give a clue as to the identity of the original plant. Although it looks like grass or wheat, I immediately thought of flax, which was a very important crop until its decline in the 20th century, grown mostly for its fibres which are used to produce linen yarn, cloth or rope. It can also be grown for oil that can be extracted from the seeds to make linseed oil, but it is the crop grown for fibres which was more common. It compares well with reference material held at the Archive and Archaeology Service. If you take a flax stem and bend it several times, particularly if it has been retted (partially rotted), almost immediately, the outer part of the stem will break down and you will see the fibres inside. It is this quality which makes it such a valuable fibre crop, producing the soft, smooth linen cloth that we all know.

From field to cloth, flax needs a long and time-consuming sequence of processing known as rippling, retting, breaking, scutching and heckling, so a great deal of effort must have been put into processing the crop on the Croome estate. A previous blog post (Long-straw wheat and flax on the Young Archaeologists’ allotment) shows a small but fine crop of flax that was grown on a Worcester allotment in 2013.

Flax remains are found every now and then in soil samples taken from archaeological digs, but is usually the seeds, seed capsules or pollen grains that are found as they are quite robust, so it is unusual to see the stem and fibres as found here. Recently, large quantities of burnt flax which were dumped in a pit during the post-medieval period (possibly Civil War era) at the Kings School, Worcester. One interpretation is that this waste represents the remains of a whole flax crop burnt in fire, perhaps a barn fire.

Along with the flax on the page of the Croome estate inventory were records of payments made to numerous people involved with the upkeep of the house and management of the estate and farmlands – the ‘Butcher’, ‘Baker’, ‘Fisher’ and lastly the ‘Cornchandler’, or retailer of corn and related products. Perhaps the bookkeeper pressed a small piece of flax leftover from samples shown to the cornchandler during the sale of flax and corn from the estate that year.

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