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    Flax Growing and Processing


Flax and the linen fabric made from it have been used since the time of the ancient Egyptians. It is not known how long ago flax first grew in this area. In Tickhill Parish Registers John Newell is described as a line dresser, line being another word for flax, in 1713, although linen weaving in Tickhill is listed in Parish Registers from the 17th Century: Thomas Horncastle, Daniel Ogden, Nicholas Hurst and William Oddr(i)e in the 1650s and Joseph Addison in 1672 are called linen/linnen/linning weaver/weaveer/weafter. 

During the 18th Century there was a rapid increase in the use of linen in England, for example for tablecloths, towels, bedding and shirts. Writing in 1776 Adam Smith in 'Inquiry into the nature and causes of the wealth of nations' noted 'a creditable day-labourer would be ashamed to appear in public without a linen shirt'. Eight linen drapers were trading in Doncaster by 1791. The sale of linen goods in Tickhill was combined with the sale of a variety of other goods such as groceries, rather than having specialist shops.

By the early 19th Century flax processing was well-established locally. In Parish Registers between 1813 and 1818 four men were described as flax dressers: Matthew Mackentosh, Matthew Barrett, Benjamin Winter and John Bagshaw. White's Directory in 1837 lists William Rea of Mary Bridge as a linen manufacturer and bleacher, having previously in 1822 been listed as a linen weaver. Rea died in 1842 aged 83. However by the time of the 1851 Census there was no reference to flax processing or linen manufacture in Tickhill.

The manufacture of linen became a staple in parts of Yorkshire, especially in the Leeds and Barnsley areas (spinning in mills in Leeds and weaving developed as a cottage industry in Barnsley). In 1868 a National Gazetteer said that flax and hemp were among the chief manufactures of Doncaster where a flax spinning mill was recorded in the 1870s. Much of the flax was imported from the Baltic ports of St Petersburg, Narva and Riga into Hull and Liverpool, but the growing of flax increased in England in the 19th Century. As well as growing in Yorkshire, flax was also grown round Epworth and further south in Lincolnshire. Yorkshire saw a decline in flax production towards the end of the 19th Century as workers found better pay in other textile industries and mining.

The flax plant has blue flowers which form seed heads, used to extract linseed oil. Linen thread was obtained from the stem after a series of processes including retting, scutching and hackling. Retting involved soaking the stems to break down pectin binding the fibres together, scutching meant beating or dressing the fibres, while hackling separated and straightened the fibres by pulling them through a hackle, a board with nails protruding acting like a comb. Betty Hill recalls an out-building beside the Mill Stream at Roland House being used for retting.

There are three memories of seeing flax growing locally. Betty Hill once saw flax growing among another crop in Quarry Field off Hindley Lane near Apy Hill Lane. (Betty's grandmother, born in 1844, wove linen.) Mrs Kimberley remembers seeing flax growing near Wellingley Lane and Dennis Walker describes an escaped prisoner of war being found in a field between Wadworth and Tickhill hiding between two stacks of flax, indicating that flax was grown locally well into the 20th Century. Growing flax during the Second World War provided not only linen for clothing, but also the fibres were in great demand for canvas to make tents, tarpaulins, webbing, fire hoses and parachute harnesses, for example, for the military.



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