In a change to our original programme, Julian Hunt gave a superb talk describing the migration of the needlemakers from the village of Long Crendon in Buckinghamshire to a region in Worcestershire that stretched from Redditch to Studley, Coughton and Alcester.
“Needleland” may sound a bit like some place out of a fairy tale, but it’s a name actually applied in some old documents to the area around the village of Long Crendon in Buckinghamshire, and also to an area of the West Midlands bounded to the north by Bromsgrove, to the south by Alcester, and encompassing a large number of towns and villages situated to either side of the river Arrow.
In his talk to the Vale of Evesham Historical Society, on the evening of 31 March, Julian Hunt began in Long Crendon, where, after showing us some pictures of needlemakers’ cottages, he revealed that there is an entry in the Parish Register for 1587 noting the baptism of one Christopher, son of John Greening. Next to the entry, in what is thought to be a 19th century hand, is a remark to the effect that “This man first in the land brought out needlemaking.” The needlemakers of Long Crendon worked in lean-tos against the sides of their houses, and the industry was totally unmechanised until the 19th century. Julian brought our attention to a very strange entry from the Long Crendon Court Rolls of 1618 wherein John Tompson offers 28 needles as rent (one needle annually) for the lease of one tenement, one orchard, one close and two roods of land. (Were needles extremely valuable, or was this a peppercorn rent?)
In 1850, the London firm of Kirby, Beard & Co opened a factory in Long Crendon – premises capable of employing 200 people. Eventually, however, due to friction, even violence, between the mechanised needlemakers and those who continued to make needles by hand, the entire workforce was moved to Redditch. In 1869, the last Long Crendon needlemaker, by the name of Harris, went bankrupt.
Pictures of 19th century Redditch show amazingly large factories (in a setting still surprisingly rural) engaged in making millions of needles per week, and, incidentally, making large fortunes for the factory owners. The Victoria County History contains information on the growth of the population of Redditch over the 19th century, from 1,900 people in 1802 to more than 9,000 in 1901. Other small towns and villages in the area engaged in the trade included Studley, Feckenham, Ipsley, Sambourne and Alcester, although in Alcester, needle-making, though a large industry, did not dominate work in the town.
Today, the Forge Mill Needle Museum in Redditch is the only working scouring mill in the world. (The scouring mill, powered by water, polishes needles by agitating them in a mixture of water and an abrasive.)
After the meeting the chairman, Carmel Langridge, thanked Julian for his fascinating talk and introduced an extensive period of discussion. There was a lot of interest from the audience, a couple of whom revealed family connections to the needle manufacturing firms referenced in the talk.