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Welsh Plains / Negro Cloth      Check out www.welshplains.cymru 

In 2019 more than 50 Community Research Volunteers contributed a great deal of time to explore their local areas in Wales to find out more about the history of the production of homespun and woven woollen cloth (brethyn) between 1650and 1850. In addition they read and researched about the use of some of this cloth in the Slave trade. This exported cloth was called 'Welsh Plains'. 

The project was managed by the Learning Links International Team and funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund. The research also had the support of a wide range of academic researchers, historical societies, libraries and archives.

Prof Chris Evans:  Slave Wales - The Wesh and Slavery 1650 - 1850

Atlantic slavery does not loom large in the traditional telling of Welsh history. Yet Wales, like many regions of Europe, was deeply affected by the forced migration of captive Africans. Welsh commodities, like copper and brass made in Swansea, were used to purchase slaves on the African coast and some Welsh products, such as woollens from Montgomeryshire, were an important feature of plantation life in the West Indies. In turn, the profits of plantation agriculture flowed back into Wales, to be invested in new industries or to be lavished on country mansions. This book looks at Slave Wales between 1650 and 1850, bringing the most up-to-date scholarship on Atlantic slavery to bear on the Welsh experience.

This research by Chris Evans casts light on previously unknown episodes, such as Welsh involvement with slave-based copper mining in nineteenth-century Cuba, and illuminates in new and disturbing ways familiar features of Welsh history – like the woollen industry – that have previously unsuspected 'slave dimensions'.

Many Welsh people turned against slavery in the late eighteenth century, but Welsh abolitionism was never a particularly powerful force. Indeed, Chris Evans demonstrates that Welsh participation the slave Atlantic lasted well beyond the abolition of Britain's slave trade in 1807 and the ending of slavery in Britain's Caribbean empire in 1834.

Professor Chris Evans, the author of ‘Slave Wales: Wales and Atlantic Slavery 1660 – 1850’ from South Wales University explains:

It seems extraordinary to think that very many enslaved workers, toiling in sugar cane fields or picking cotton in the 1700’s and 1800’s were provided with woollen cloth called Welsh Plains to make their clothes. Spun and woven by poor rural families in Mid Wales, this fabric, along with cloth from Kendal in Cumbria and Penistone in Yorkshire, was called Negro Cloth, produced specifically for the Plantation Trade. The cloth would have had the hard wearing qualities properties associated with the fleece of Welsh Mountain sheep. 

Since the focus on the Bicentenary of the Abolition of the Slave Trade in 2007, historians are becoming aware of the profound impact that the Atlantic slave system had on places like rural Wales, that seemed far away from the plantations in the Caribbean and cotton fields of the Southern States.

In the eighteenth-century Wales was notable for producing a coarse woollen fabric from which clothes for enslaved workers in the New World were fashioned. This was ‘Negro Cloth’, a drab material that is little remembered today. Yet it was important. ‘Who would believe’, asked one eighteenth-century commentator, ‘that woollens constitute an article of great consumption in the torrid zone? Such, however, is the fact. Of the coarser kinds especially, for the use of the negroes, the export is prodigious.

So it was. Weavers of Negro Cloth served a market that underwent an astonishing expansion across the eighteenth century. Between the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and the War of 1812, the enslaved population of the British sugar islands underwent a more than eight-fold increase, from 87,000 to 743,000. The rate of growth in British North America was even greater, from about 10,000 individuals to 1.19 million. It was a market that could never be satisfied. Slave workers usually required a new set of clothes every autumn, it being taken for granted that a year’s labour would reduce the previous year’s ration to rags. By assuming a standard allowance per slave, we can make a rough-and-ready calculation of how much Negro Cloth was consumed every year. Happily, the sources available to us tell a consistent story: about 5 yards was allotted to every adult. Juveniles were probably allotted something a little smaller, so we might settle on 4 yards per slave as an average for the eighteenth century. That suggests that 388,000 yards of woollen fabric were consumed by the enslaved c.1690, vaulting to 7,736,000 yards in 1812.

Welsh weavers did not have it all their own way in this burgeoning market. There were rival products. One of them, marketed as ‘Kendal Cotton’, was manufactured in Cumbria. Another type, known as ‘Penistone’ after the moorland parish of that name in the West Riding of Yorkshire, could also be found throughout the plantation world. The dominant variety of Negro Cloth, however, known as ‘Welsh plains’ or ‘Welsh cotton’, was produced in Montgomeryshire and Merionethshire. ‘Good Welch cotton seems upon the whole to answer best’, one slaveholder announced; its rivals were ‘light and insufficient’. The whole purpose of Welsh woollens, one observer went so far as to state in the 1770s, was ‘covering the poor Negroes in the West Indies’.

The making of Negro Cloth was clearly a significant phenomenon, especially in mid-Wales, yet it is little attended to by textile historians and it figures hardly at all in popular memory. Nevertheless, the bare outlines of the story can be told. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries woollen manufacturing spread through upland pastoral districts where impoverished peasant households sought a way of boosting their incomes. The production of low-quality textiles was a way or doing so. The carding of wool and the spinning of yarn could be done in the slack periods that broke up the agricultural routine of the wet uplands. Weaving was performed on looms housed in lean-to additions to farmhouses and cottages. The proliferation of fulling mills along mountain streams in Montgomeryshire and Merionethshire in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries is an index of the industry’s growth. It is one of the few indices available, for this widely dispersed domestic trade otherwise left few traces in the form of guilds or cloth halls.

Fulling was the only finishing operation carried out locally. High-value, high-skill processes such as shearing were carried out at Shrewsbury, over the border in England, where the formidable Drapers Company exerted a firm grip on the marketing of mid-Wales textiles. In the seventeenth century, Welsh cloth was sold in western Europe; in the eighteenth, however, it was sent to Atlantic markets. When, in the 1780s, Elias Ball, a South Carolina planter, investigated the source of the Negro Cloth worn by his slaves, he discovered that ‘the great Markett for that article… is at Shroesberry [Shrewsbury] the Capital of Shropshire’, drawing on production zones to the west. Growing numbers of rural dwellers in Montgomeryshire and Merionethshire were harnessed to the Atlantic economy. The labouring poor resorted to industrial by-employments in response to mounting impoverishment. They were joined by small hill farmers who sought to cover rising rents, rates, and tithes by participating in woollen production. By mid-century parishes in the woollen-producing heartland of Montgomeryshire swarmed with spinners and weavers. Some hamlets registered surges in population that can only be accounted for by the employment opportunities afforded by the woollen industry.

Much of the export went by way of London. When Henry Laurens, a Charleston merchant, visited the imperial capital in 1774 he was confident that ample supplies of Negro Cloth would be available: ‘Shall inspect Such parcels as are in the London Warehouses to Morrow or next Day’, he told his partners in Charleston. If stocks were low there was no cause for alarm, for fresh deliveries were never far off: ‘parcels of Plains are hourly expected from Wales’, he told one associate; ‘a large Supply by Sea from Wales’ was imminent, he told another. Nevertheless, London probably played a less central role as the eighteenth century wore on, giving ground first to Bristol, then to Liverpool.

As the decades passed, factors from the slave ports usurped the position of dominance once enjoyed by the Drapers Company of Shrewsbury. Once, weavers had trudged with their cloth to local market centres; now, the agents of international cloth merchants came to them. ‘The Liverpool Merchants have now person on the spot, to purchase of the makers; and to assist the poorer manufacturers with money to carry on their trade’. Cash advances to ‘poor manufacturers’ were no doubt very welcome, but they were also a sure sign that ownership of the product had shifted from the weaver to merchant capitalist.”

In 2019 the National Lottery Heritage Fund provided Learning Links International with support for a project called ‘From Sheep to Sugar‘ and members of the Spinners, Weavers and Dyers Guilds in Wales and the Borderlands were invited to link up with local farming families and historians to find out more about this story as part of the Black History 365 initiative led by Race Council Cymru in Wales.

Check out: www.welshplains.cymru to find out about their findings.


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