The Cloth Industry
Lavenham’s fortunes were very much built on the wool industry and a little understanding of this industry goes a long way to explaining the magnificent timber buildings we find there.
Already by 1327 Lavenham was an industrial town specialising in the production of woolen cloth. The weaving and finishing of woolen cloth had been a speciality of the region since at least the 12th century. Other towns such as Clare and Long Melford, but also Hadleigh and Sudbury also shared the industry, but were less dependent upon it than Lavenham.
It is important to realise that, contrary to popular belief, the predominant farming of the area was arable (crops) and though there were sheep, they were never present in large numbers. Most of the wool was brought in from places such as Lincolnshire.
Only entrepeneurs were able to exploit the lucrative overseas markets and so the wool market became concentrated in the hands of a few successful merchants. These merchants were able to employ hundreds of spinners and weavers and could share expensive resources such as dye-houses. The merchants lived in towns like Lavenham whilst their employees lived in outlying villages.
By 1524 Lavenham was the fourteenth wealthiest place in Britain (paying more tax than cities such as York and Lincoln) – and specialised in woad-dyed broadcloth known as Lavenham Blues.
But dependence on a single product was also its vulnerability. By the time the guildhall was completed, the bubble of success had already begun to burst as people such as the Dutch provided fierce competition and by the 1560s, its heyday was already behind it.
But it is also important to realise that it was exactly this decline which has bequeathed us the town as it is today. In many other parts of the country, as townspeople got richer, their houses were modernised, Georgianised and so on. But in Lavenham this process never happened. Lavenham never saw better days, so its houses were never improved or developed – they remained exactly as we see them today – a living museum of a medieval wool town.
The buildings in the town
There are over 300 listed buildings in Lavenham. Most of them date from between 1460 and 1530. Lavenham prospered from the wool trade and several merchant families emerged – notably, the Spring family. The other local land owners were the Earls of Oxford – the de Vere family.
Corpus Christi Guildhall
Despite the importance of the cloth industry in the town, none of Lavenham’s five recorded guilds were concerned with the orgnisation of trade – rather, they were social or religious bodies who undertook to look after their members souls after their death. According to medieval belief, after death and before it could pass up to Heaven, the soul entered Purgatory where it suffered torment. The saying of prayers sped up the soul’s journey through Purgatory and the function of a guild was to organise such task. For the payment of a fee (which would vary enormously), anyone could belong to one of these guilds.
Wealthy individuals could afford to establish private chantries in their parish churches for this purpose. Thomas Spryng III of Lavenham left enough money in his will for a thousand masses to be sung.
Some guilds met in private houses, but the richer ones had their own halls. The hall could be used for assemblies, banquets, or leased for functions. Most guildhalls were therefore located close to the parish church – though the guildhalls in Lavenham (of which there were four or five) are notable exceptions.
During the Reformation, guilds were abolished and their property confiscated by the crown. From 1689 as a prison and then later as a workhouse – and you will see inside on the first floor an exhibition detailing this.
This was the hall of the Corpus Christi guild and was completed around 1530 – and was therefore built at the height of Lavenham’s prosperity. It is one of the finest timber-framed buildings in the country. One of the mysteries about it, is that we don’t know very much about the guild itself – where did they meet before this hall was built? (Most of our knowledge of the guilds from documentation of people’s wills).
Evidence from within the hall itself confirms that it was purpose-built as a guildhall and not as a private house. The reason for this is that there is no chimney or fireplace in what was the hall room itself – had it been a private house, we would have evidence of a fireplace.
Maybe the Corpus Christi guild was the most exclusive of Lavenham’s guilds.
Far more timber was used than in structurally necessary – the spaces between the upright timbers are often narrower than the timbers themselves. This was a display of opulence. The timber is oak – which itself was an expensive timber to use.
There is some fine, detailed carving. The building is two-storeyed and has overhanging jetties. On the side of Lady Street, there is a fine example of an Oriel window. The top floor and the cellar would probably have been used as warehousing. What is particularly fine is the porch – nowadays, the entrance is on the left, but when it was built, what we see in front of us would actually have been three separate buildings.
You’ll notice too, that the upper floor juts out from the bottom. This was known as “jettying”. There are all sorts of theories about town planning which suggest this was a space-saving device, but in fact, that’s unlikely to be true. The backs of the houses were never jettied (as they could easily have been), suggesting it was purely a decorative. Very often, in later times, the space below the jetties was filled in.
It’s worth mentioning a little about timber framed construction. The would was used green – in other words, it was not left to season – and occasionally, as in the crooked house in the high street, this caused the whole building to twist into an awkward shape. However, the timber was cut off-site in a yard and then brought to the site and constructed. This was an early example of pre-fabrication. And it meant that these buildings could be erected in a matter of a few days.
Once the frame had been erected, the roof was tiled – notice there is no use of thatch in the town – and the walls were sealed with “wattle and daub” – poles and laths, usually from a wood like hazel. A thin coat of lime plaster was applied to the inner and outer walls and the building was complete. There was no paint used on the buildings.
As we have seen, there is a dearth of building stone in Suffolk – and therefore wood was a very important commodity. The woods around Suffolk were managed and coppiced – which allowed the wood to grow faster and straighter than it would have in a normal wood.
In side the guildhall, the first room we come to would once have been two rooms. So, the The first room would have been the hall itself and the second room a parlour.
Note the wide staircase to reach the upper floor – this was so that goods could be carried upstairs.
Outside, there is a garden, including some of the plants used in the dying process, a mortuary and a lock up.