|Introduced during the second half of the 17th century for “the encouragement of the woollen manufacturer” the ‘Act for Burying in Woollen’ was clearly designed to increase demand for home produced woollen cloth. |
The 17th century was a time of crisis for the English woollen industry and particularly so in the West Country. Here many rural workers and their families supplemented their meagre income from the land by processing and weaving wool: they relied on a local market for their production, which was mainly low quality cloth produced in the home. In Dorset this cottage industry was controlled from Dorchester where many rich clothiers had their businesses: these people prospered from the woollen industry while the labouring classes supplying them scratched a living.
During the 14th and 15th and early 16th century woollen cloth produced in Dorset was exported to Northern Europe from Bridport, Wareham, and Poole. The 16th century saw a change in fashion as linen, satin, and silk became more readily available, while the demand for woollen cloth dropped away. The Dorchester merchants protected themselves by changing the way they dealt with their rural suppliers: the end result was a better finished woollen cloth but the new terms of business badly affected the producers who, in modern day parlance, became outworkers.
As a result of these changes there was distress in the hamlets and villages during the late 16th and 17th century. But this was a national problem, and measures were needed to increase demand, improve the quality of the woollen cloth and encourage the development and production of new textiles. To this latter end specialist workers were welcomed into the country for their expertise. The monarchy was restored in May 1660 and during the reign of King Charles II an Act was passed designed to increase the use of woollen cloth.
The ‘Act for Burying in Woollen’ was enacted by Parliament in 1666 for “the encouragement of the woollen manufacturer.” This Act required that no corpse “shall be buried in any shirt, shift, sheet or shroud or anything whatever made or mingled with flax, hemp, silk, hair, gold or silver or in any stuff other than what is made of sheep’s wool only.” The Act was amended in 1678 to make it easier to enforce and imposing a fine of £5 for non-compliance. It was a requirement of the Act that an affidavit be sworn before a Justice of the Peace or a priest of the church (but not the priest officiating at the burial) and delivered within 8 days to the priest who conducted the burial. The term ‘buried in woollen, affidavit brought’ is to be seen in the burial registers of the churches after 1666.
The affidavit frequently took the following form: “Mary White made oath this 15th day of January 1698 before …one of his majesties Justices of the Peace that Jane White of the parish of Morden lately deceased was buried in woollen only according to the terms of the Act of Parliament of burying the dead and not otherwise.”
Gradually the legislation came to be ignored and the Act was repealed in 1814 during the reign of King George III. The rich usually chose to pay the fine rather than be seen dead in wool.