At our September 2017 meeting, members and guests of Markfield local History Group enjoyed a very interesting talk from Michael Ball entitled ‘Occupations of Markfield; glimpses of Markfield’s past history’. Michael shared his research on the village population and occupations of Markfield from 1600 to 1900, putting the village in context within the surrounding area.
At the time of the Black Death, Markfield’s population was reduced by 20%, whilst the population of Barlestone dropped by 50%! We learnt of a deterioration of the climate in the sixteenth century, winters were colder and summers wetter, which had an effect on the harvest. The ecclesiastical survey of Markfield at this time showed that it was a farming community.
Records of births, marriages and deaths began in 1538, giving much more information about the population. The Markfield Parish Register began in 1571. At this time, 240 individuals lived in Markfield. Michael explained that wills and inventories are very useful documents in telling the story of the inhabitants and showing family relationships. The earliest will mentioned belonged to William Pywell who left £12 14s 6d in 1547. Some 45 years later, his grandson left £120, suggesting that he was a wealthy yeoman in sixteenth century Markfield. Assets mentioned in wills might include oxen, colts, mares, yokes, beds and even manure!
Land in Markfield was mostly devoted to pasture and meadowland and sheep were the dominant animals. Weavers became established in Markfield before the coming of the framework knitters. There are still examples of weavers’ cottages in villages such as Newtown Linford, characterised by the large window used to let in the light.
Apprentice weavers were being taken on, for example an apprentice from Desford who was apprenticed to John Leveratt in 1720. The indentures list a number of rules or strictures placed on the apprentice, who ‘will be taught the art and mystery of weaving’. Other jobs identified include tailors to make up the cloth, dyers and woolcombers. Since long staple wool was used locally, a woolcomb had to be used rather than carding the wool.
Framework knitting appears as an occupation, possibly as early as 1720. In 1758 Thomas Weston is named as a framework knitter, producing socks and stockings, plain and fancy hose. This was a cottage based industry, the husband knitting, the wife spinning and the children winding yarn and seaming the hose. Around 1820, with the advent of the Spinning Jenny which could spin knot-free thread, John Geary of Anstey reported that women were framework knitting because spinning was now done by the machines. Other nineteenth century occupations identified include lace makers, making lace runners and tambour lace. Flax was grown in Stanton–under-Bardon and linen wheels are mentioned in inventories.
The 1841 census shows a range of occupations, for example 78 agricultural labourers, 79 frame knitters and 30 farmers. Other occupations include 27 male servants, 1 apothecary, 14 cordwainers (leather workers) and shoemakers, 21 servants, 13 lace runners, 7 bricklayers, 4 carriers and 3 higglers – apparently men who moved things around! Carpenters, tailors, wheelwrights, millers, sawyers and woodsmen and 4 blacksmiths are all listed – there is even a vet!
In the 1851 census, Markfield had a population of 1,261, with 208 houses. 53% of the heads of household were not born in Markfield and these newcomers tended to be Non-Conformists. For example, in 1851 the Chaplin family are listed as woolcombers living in Wash Pit Green, Markfield. However, the father of the family was born in Bedworth, then made his way via Bradford and Leicester to Markfield before moving on to Mountsorrel!
By 1871 there were 19 blacksmiths living in the village who worked in the quarries. There was a demand for granite for the turnpikes and roads as well as cobblestones for the towns. Billa Barra quarry opened c.1850, then Hill Hole and Cliffe Hill followed. The 1851 census shows quarrymen living in Markfield and from 1871 ‘granite sett makers’. In 1891, some 56 miners are shown in the census returns, possibly working in the mines at Bagworth. Even so, Markfield remained strongly agricultural right up to the beginning of the twentieth century.
Additional information regards framework knitting
Local history expert Di Lockley provides additional information regards framework knitting in the village.
Markfield was one of the earliest villagers to get into framework knitting. I suspect the boom in framework knitting probably coincided with the rise of non-conformism in the village. I think framework knitting was not just a cottage industry in the village, it went far beyond that. There must have been more than four in some buildings.
The will of Richard Bacon in 1720 included - ‘surplus that shall be yearly raised & made & shall be applied & got to raise the sum to a framework knitter & six pounds more towards him buying him a frame and also the birth linens & woolens at the end of his apprenticeship to be raised out of the … I do appoint to be payd during the said term unto my nephew Thomas Bacon if living otherwise the said term of 50 years’.
The following is taken from my book ‘A Stitch Dropped in Time’ : Was framework knitting in Markfield just a single hosiery machine affair with just one in cottage, house or workshop? Felkin’s assessment of the national state of framework knitting in Great Britain counted 14 frames in Ashby, 22 in Thornton, 50 in Glenfield, 215 in Anstey, 120 in Ratby, 1750 in Hinckley and 153 frames in Markfield in 1844.
It would be statistically convenient to take Felkin’s arrival to be 7 years later in 1851 where we have a full census survey. The village framework knitting statistics did not start to change noticeably until the late 1860s. It is therefore not too unreasonable to compare Felkin’s number of frames with the 1851 Census. In 1851 there were: -
8 households with a just one-framework knitter
12 households with a family of framework knitters
5 households with the head & at least one offspring as framework knitters
18 households where the head & wife are both Framework knitters
43 households with 153 frames in the village is quite a interesting historical statistic. Did some villagers have buildings with several frames and was this Markfield’s first factory system in embryo? In the 1813 Land & Property Survey only one framework knitter John Ward has a house, buildings and yard (near to Shaw Lane). Would framework knitter William Wheatley aged 54 in 1861 with two sons (William aged 20 and John aged 17) both framework knitting have had 3 frames? Framework knitting when orders allowed was generally a full time job. William Finlay in 1827 leaves 2 frames specifically to a son and daughter, but as well as this he leaves ‘all my household goods stocking frames and all other of my Personal Estate of Effects’.
Did William Finlay have several frames? Did some of the Markfield bag hosiers actually own several frames and employ workers outside their own immediate families? The census enumerator recording of lodgers within households suggests they may have done. There were 12 lodging framework knitters within the village from 1851 to 1871 inclusive.