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  • martinjcrowther

Village Occupations

Updated: Feb 20, 2021

Hop pickers in the early 19th century. Copyright Martin Crowther.

Over the centuries Castle Hedingham has been an important centre for a wide range of industries and occupations.

From prehistoric times sheep and arable farming have played a key role, and indeed it was income from the sale of wool for the cloth trade that brought great wealth to the village and its church in medieval times.

The clays of the local area were used for medieval pottery, and by Edward Bingham in the 19th century, to create his distinctive Castle Hedinghamware.

Rural brickmaking. Early 19th century engraving. Copyright Martin Crowther.

Local clays also provided the raw material for brickmaking. At its peak in the late 19th and early 20th century, 7-8 million bricks were made annually in the Hedingham brickyards, before being transported on the recently completed railway. Bricks from just one Hedingham brickmaker built 16 London churches and they were exported as far away as Egypt.

‘Bangslappers’, a house in Queen Street, got its name from the sound made when hops were threshed. It was the collecting house for an industry which thrived from the late 16th to the mid-19th century, with over 230 acres under cultivation locally at its height. The hops were used to flavour and preserve beer!

In Victorian times straw plaiting was introduced as a cottage industry by the Marquis and Marchioness of Buckingham who lived at nearby Gosfield Hall. It supplemented the meagre incomes of many poor women in the village, who made straw hats for sale. The first efforts were very clumsy, but sales took off after the Marchioness wore one to church, trimmed with ribbons! There were 4 straw hat makers in Castle Hedingham in 1848, but the trade disappeared in the 1870s due to cheap foreign imports.

A mid-19th century engraving of a girl straw plaiting.

Straw hat making was a cottage industry in Castle Hedingham. Copyright Martin Crowther.

For nearly 100 years the largest employer in the Hedinghams was Rippers Ltd. Edward and Tucker Ripper who began the business in a converted cowshed in about 1885 were Jacks-of-all-trades. They turned their hands to a wide range of jobs, from carpentry, painting and bricklaying to carving inscriptions on tombstones and making coffins! Eventually the firm grew to employ over 600 people. The varied work included manufacturing portable buildings which were shipped around the world.

The Ripper brothers outside their workshop in 1889

Until the advent of cheap motoring and the supermarket in the 1960s and 70s, Castle Hedingham had a wide range of local shops. In 1900, St James’ Street alone included an ironmonger’s and post office, a draper’s, a woollen and fancy goods shop and the Bell Inn. There were several more shops and pubs in other parts of the village.

Castle Stores grocers and draper’s shop, in Majendie Lane, off St James Street, circa 1918. Pictured on the delivery cart are Kathie Harrington standing and Ernie Barker driving. Loading the cart is Stanley Howard. Standing beside it, from left to right, are Edith Bretton, Marjorie Palmer and May Westrop.

A lesser-known local occupation, unearthed during research for the Voices from the Pews project was that of well digging, vitally important in the days before running water. This dangerous activity continued well into the 20th century. Below is a late 19th century estimate by Arthur Parnell for constructing a well at the Wheatsheaf Inn, including original spelling and grammar.

to Mr Garman i thight about the well at the Weat Sheaf in Castle Hedingham in fine all diddig it 20 feet deep 5 feet over and a man hole and bricks and dome it over for the 15 shillings a foot that well come to 15 pounds clear all yours Arthur Pannell

Osier women at work, circa 1910

Finally, this evocative photograph shows ‘Osier Women’ at work in about 1910. Osiers were young pliable willow shoots, which grew on land near the River Colne. They were cut, peeled and bundled ready for sale in London, or to local basket makers such as Robert Westrop of Falcon Square.

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