We generally treat industrial archaeology as a subject covering the last 250 years, but it goes a lot further back than that. Here in Norfolk we have evidence of flint mining on an industrial scale at Grimes Graves which dates back over 5000 years to Neolithic times. There are some 400 pits, of which one was first re-excavated in 1870. I went down it as long ago as 1960, but with such an ancient site that seems quite recent.

Although with the coming of the Bronze Age the lack of local sources of copper and tin ore meant the tools and weapons found locally were made elsewhere, the pottery industry grew and thrived wherever the existence of clay and a demand for the product went together.  The production of pottery continued into the iron age and the tools the locals used could again be made in Norfolk. The small amount of ferrous rock in west Norfolk (carstone) provided the raw material for a certain amount of smelting here.

Coming into the last 2000 years, we think of the Romans as bringing advanced industrial techniques to the county, but even before the arrival of the legions the Iceni tribe of East Anglia were minting their own coinage. This involved not only the production of dies for use in stamping the coins but also quite advanced metallurgical techniques in producing bullion of a constant alloy, to preserve the money’s value. The number of coins that remain in hoards found locally suggest that the coins were produced on an industrial scale.

With the coming of Roman rule we enter a period when industry was widespread. As those who visited the  Roman exhibition at Norwich Castle Museum will know, the production of metal and glass wares was done to a standard that it would be impossible to exceed even with today’s advanced technology. These high value items would however have been traded over long distances, and few of the items of glass and metal found in Norfolk would have been produced here. A more basic material such as bricks would have been made in kilns very close to where they are found. The places in Norfolk where they exist include Caistor St Edmund, Reedham and Caister on Sea. In Caistor and Caister the ready availability of flints made them the building material of choice, but the muddier land round Reedham appears to have favoured the use of bricks. These were all on, or very close to, the river Yare which was the main artery of communication of east Norfolk. Running north to south Peddars Way provides an example of Roman Road building while many shorter lengths of Roman road are testimony to the extensive nature of the road building industry in Norfolk.

Moving on to the Anglo-Saxon period we tend to dismiss this as a rural economy with no industries, but here again we have a wealth of coins produced from the seventh century onwards. The Vikings who invaded in the ninth century appear to have given a fillip to trade and industry in those areas of England known as the Danelaw. Norwich grew as the industrial base of Norfolk on the back of Viking trade, and by early in the tenth century it had its own mint.

This picture taken in Costessey before WW1 show the wool industry in Norfolk.

This picture of sheep-shearing taken in Costessey before WW1 show the wool industry in Norfolk.

All these archaeological remains are those made of virtually indestructible material such as metal and brick. Other goods such those made of cloth, leather and wood, where the items have rotted away, have left less tangible reminders in archaeological terms. But we know from history the great importance of the wool trade in Norfolk and Suffolk. Another local industry of great importance to a county surrounded on three sides by the sea and penetrated by two major river systems was boat building.

The paper making industry saw its development to the fore in this county. When the legal restriction on printing was relaxed at the end of the 17th century Norwich was the first place in the country to introduce a local newspaper.The sudden growth in the demand for paper that followed saw fulling mills up and down the country converted to paper making, including here in Norfolk. The change from using the drop hammers the treat cloth to using them to convert linen rags to pulp was a simple one. In 1691 the fulling mill at West Newton near Kings Lynn began making paper and this was followed by another fulling mill being converted at Taverham. In 1809 this mill became one of first mills to introduce the Foudrinier paper making machine that turned manufacture of paper from a labourious sheet by sheet affair into a continuous process. The paper mill at Taverham closed in 1899  and that at West Newton had closed in 1845, but a new paper mill has recently been opened near Kings Lynn, continuing a 300 year old tradition.

Many of these industries lasted almost into living memory. The oldest of them all must be the flint industry and there were still flint knappers working in Brandon after the Second World War, when gunflints were still being used by tribesmen in the distant corners of the Empire. Wells and Yarmouth were building trading schooners well into the nineteenth century; a seagoing sailing trawler was being built as far up river as Surlingham in 1871, and wooden crab boats were still being built in Blakeney in the 1960s. There were still brick kilns at places like Costessey well into the twentieth century and at Little Plumstead until about 1940. Even in 1960 it was still possible to buy new “Norfolk Reds” although surely any required nowadays for repairs to old buildings must only be available second hand. Perhaps a reader may tell me if a brick kiln still exists in Norfolk?  The pottery industry had moved to Staffordshire about 300 years ago. As the cloth industry became less of a cottage one the business left for other parts of the country where  the hilly terrain made water mills more plentiful and later the proximity of coal mines provided the fuel for spinning jennies and power looms. Later still this industry abandoned England altogether for other parts of the world. Many other industries have just vanished; it was not too long ago that every village had its blacksmith, but this trade has gone .

There is little manufacturing industry left in Norfolk apart from the agri-business. It is strange to think of turkey breeding and barley growing as industries, but that is what they are, and carried out on a massive scale. Yet the changes in society can still produce unexpected novelties. After the demise of all Norfolk’s big breweries after the mergers of the 50s and 60s there has been a huge rebirth of the local microbrewery. Maybe we will one day see the return of of the blacksmith or the flint knapper.




One response

  1. An excellent overview, well done.

    While conducting some family history research, I was surprised to find in Brampton in 1841 an ancestor listing his occupation as a woollen weaver, further investigation showed that the weaving trade was a major employer in this small village employing at least 16 men, by comparison agriculture-related employment was 27, all other trades had only one or two employees at most. I believe that the employment may have been related to Oxnead mill producing blankets. By 1851 the weaving trade had collapsed one ancestor moved to Yorkshire to work in the blanket mills there another was working as an agriculture labourer.

    Then again Oxnead mill also produced paper for a short (and no doubt uneconomical) period employing two of my female ancestors.


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