In 1769, one of Norwich’s largest textile firms went bankrupt. Although abrupt, the downfall of Stannard & Taylor was, as their successors’ financial records indicate, symptomatic of wider changes that marked the beginning of Norfolk’s slow, drawn-out commercial and industrial decline. As such, the wealth of records catalogued under NRO, BR 211 show the impact these changes had on local textile manufacturers – a process which, due to this business’ predominance, would ultimately dethrone Norfolk’s long-standing reputation as the ‘second wealthiest’ county in England.
‘Not with a bang but a whimper’
Norwich’s textile industry itself didn’t collapse instantaneously, however. Its roots were far too deeply entrenched in the domestic economy and, more importantly, foreign trade, to simply disappear overnight. Acquired from farmers all over the country, yarn (spun wool) went through a finishing process by which it was woven into cloth, fulled and dyed. The resultant textiles were then exported both domestically and further afield, most of the latter having been transported from the East of England’s ports at Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft thanks to their accessibility to continental Europe.
The fact that Stannard & Taylor managed to sell their firm to another family enterprise, the Gurneys, by 1770, speaks for the potential which was hitherto found within this practice. Continuing to use the firm to trade textiles as a main commodity, John and Richard Gurney operated on Magdalen Street, and specialised in the bulk importation of Irish yarn as well as the more superior ‘worsted’ wool produced in East Anglia. With this raw material, the Gurneys manufactured fairly typical ‘Norwich stuffs.’ Their first documented record concerning stock levels suggests that they were, at least initially, able to cope with making a living out of selling cloths alone.
Some notable items include: “2 Long Stools”, “35 Brocade Shutters”, and over one hundred printing boards.
Whilst these specific products weren’t of Gurney design, for the title clearly states – “The remaining assets of Mr Stannard and Taylor”, the speed at which they were sold off is a testament to how active the textile market truly was. We know this because after the remaining assets as of November 1771 are detailed, each transaction involving them is meticulously logged on the next page. Impressively, by the summer of 1772, all such inventory-items were cleared.
The Gurneys did, of course, also set about manufacturing their own products as soon as they got the chance. As early as 1770, the family took advantage of the finer, smoother, stronger wool imported from Ireland and traded at home. Assortments of ‘tows’, not too dissimilar from those made by Stannard & Taylor, are logged in the same year they acquired the firm. Amongst these products, brocade, florette and taborett tows clearly sold most frequently.
This, combined with how quickly the Gurneys sold their inherited assets, may well imply that they were operating in an era where the textile industry was relatively healthy as opposed to on its last legs. We might even go as far to say the industry was still very much at its peak.
It’d be foolish to jump the gun so quickly, however. After all, the same record from which the above assumptions are based is also riddled with tell-tale signs of an industry in decline (NRO, BR211/11). Some of these are obvious, some not so obvious. Only by reading the document laterally can Norfolk’s waning influence be understood. The record certainly provides an interesting insight into the modus operandi of the Gurneys, but their accounts are made invaluable when read in the context of a family clinging onto a dying trade.
‘Swimming against the tide’
Numerous reasons have been attributed to the decline of Norfolk’s textile industry. From the rise of cotton to trade sanctions, explanations involving man-made changes, both positively and negatively enforced, have been put forward. For the sake of simplicity though, all that needs to be kept in mind is Norfolk’s geography. In many ways this underpins all such explanations, as Norwich’s position in the East of England constrained it from ‘changing with the times.’ For one, Norwich’s detachment from the northern cities’ mechanisation meant that it simply couldn’t keep up with cheaper methods of hot-pressing and printing. Whereby some trade with continental Europe survived, the general shift towards markets in the Atlantic further excluded Norfolk from opportunities enjoyed by western counties.
Two effects of these wider processes can be found in records and accounts NRO, BR 211/11. Firstly, apart from a few notes about Italian and Spanish correspondents, the Gurneys’ contacts are almost exclusively English, most of which are based in London. This calls into question how great Europe’s appetite for ‘Norwich stuffs’ was by the late-eighteenth century, as the Gurneys evidently sold goods within a shorter range than their predecessors. Secondly, the bulk of the Gurneys’ own produce consists of tows and yarn. This echoes a pre-Tudor style of manufacturing in which raw materials were mainly exported rather than ‘finished’ products, effectively signalling a retreat from the ‘textile industry’ back into the ‘woollen industry’.
The harshness of the above is made even more real when the family’s first record is viewed in conjunction with later sales accounts such as NRO, BR 211/25 and NRO, BR 211/26. The first of these, detailing sales of yarn up to 1822, is quite vapid by nature. From it we can gather that business was extant, though becoming less frequent by the year. This seemingly dry literature is made more exciting by comparing yarn sales to that of newly introduced goods. Corn, seeds and wine all appear to out-sell yarn as the firm moved into the nineteenth century (NRO, BR 211/26). Following this trend, by the 1830s, the Gurneys make no reference to textiles on Magdalen Street.
In a decade where headlines warn of financial crises more than ever, the narrative of this textile firm serves as a timely reminder of the precarity industries face in general. It’s not all doom and gloom though. At the heart of this story lies a family which, despite being dealt a bad hand, made the best possible move it could. Through diversification, the Gurneys, like many ex-clothiers, fell back on Norfolk’s rich agriculture to save their businesses. Whilst much of Norfolk’s wealth was lost in this process, the livelihood of its residents was protected.
Researched and compiled by Samuel Oakley, NRO Research Blogger