Across the nation there were places where traditional crafts were carried on; these specialisms tended to last over the centuries. For example Sheffield was the place for knives and cutlery, and more generally all steel products, until well after the Second World War. Nottingham was the place for lace making, and in the 17th and 18th centuries Gloucester was internationally known for making pins. In East Anglia woollen cloth was a staple for centuries, and the villages of Worstead in Norfolk and Kersey in Suffolk have given their names to types of woollen fabric. Some products were of short duration, but were very much associated with a particular district while they lasted.
As the wool trade declined the silk trade took its place. and the shawl became a much sought after garment. Made of silk and woven in Paisley patterns the Norwich shawl became popular from the late 18th century. The technique of producing the intricate patterns by machinery became a trade mark of Norwich. They were exhibited in the Great Exhibition of 1850 and took the fancy of Queen Victoria. But it was item of fashion, and as female fashions passed to other things the Norwich shawl died.
Next Norwich became a centre of shoemaking. There were many factories making shoes as the old village shoemaker became supplanted by ready-made shoes mass-produced in towns. The village cobbler did not immediately disappear, but became a mender rather than a maker of shoes. In the inexorable march of progress the shoe industry has moved abroad to places that can provide a cheaper product. Indeed shoes have become so inexpensive that economics of shoe repairing has meant only the most expensive shoes are worth the cobbler’s attention. Manufacture in general has become international; increasingly what we buy is made in China and the Far East, and although we still operate a car assembly industry, many of the parts are made abroad.
In the past there were many pockets of specialised manufacture. Wymondham was namely for wood-turning, and the village of Spooner Row even gets its name from the making of wooden spoons. In Wymondham this tradition of wood-turning ended up in brush making. The last two firms to operate in this trade were Briton Brush and the Co-op. In about 1972 I went with my father to the factory of Briton Brush who were selling a lathe which turned the handles of paint brushes. We need a machine to shape wooden handles at the time, but handles of garden tools not brush handles and it was not obvious how it could be modified, so no sale resulted. The lathe appeared to be Victorian, and Briton Brush were probably turning their thoughts towards the use of plastic handles. It would not be long before the manufacture of brushes all but disappeared from our shores.
Some towns or villages have an association with a particular product because of natural geological features. In north Suffolk the area around Brandon that has been associated with flints for millennia. Although flints occur all over East Anglia, those around Brandon are the best. The nearby archaeological site of Grimes Graves is evidence that flints have been mined here since Neolithic times. When I was very young there were still flint knappers in Brandon who had learned the craft in the time-honoured way by apprenticeship to local craftsmen. I believe about the last use for flints was the export of them for flintlock muskets which were still in use remote parts of the British Empire; when that too still existed. In the same way in North Yorkshire Whitby has always been associated with jet jewellery because the best jet is found there. Returning to a local level Cromer crabs are caught off the North Norfolk coast because the chalky seabed provides excellent shellfish of this type. The muddy expanse of the Wash makes Kings Lynn ideal for cockle dredging and the catching of shrimps.
Just into Suffolk Bungay another trade still survives. This trade is without any physical connection with the area. For centuries Bungay was associated with leather goods. “Go to Bungay to get a new bum” was the direct if rather coarse saying that celebrated the leather breeches that were produced there. Leather breeches no longer made in Bungay, but the firm of Nursey’s still produces sheepskin garments there. My next door neighbour Mrs Matthews used to sew gloves as an outworker for them. I was at school at St Mary’s in Bungay until I was ten with Timothy Nursey of that family firm. I believe he later went on to Uppingham School.
In south Norfolk the town of Pulham Market and the adjacent village of Pulham St Mary were famous (in East Anglia at least; maybe further afield too) for the production of hats. This reminds me of Luton, which had a similar speciality. The association of these settlements in Norfolk with hats goes back to the middle ages. This ancient craft had died out well before the bare headed fashion that developed after the Second World War made hats and hatters things of the past nearly everywhere.