'Cannabis Sativa' (to give HEMP its botanical name) and the Vine were grown in our area years ago. Agriculture in its widest sense included not only wheat, rye, and oats but peas, flax, hemp and grapes.
The Midland counties at first sight may seem an inhospitable place for grapes: today, most of Britain's vineyards are in the southern counties. Yet the weather has varied a good deal over the centuries and there have been periods when they would have flourished here. Around A.D. 1200 the weather was of a Mediterranean type and continued so for some time, until during Elizabeth's reign a mini iceage had set in, with the Thames freezing over regularly. The 11th century saw a return to warmer times but this was a blip on a long period of cold weather which existed from c. l490 to c.1865. The 17th century was particularly severe.
The instability of our weather must have influenced our crops, so it would not be surprising if vines proliferated during the early Middle Ages and, perhaps, in the early 18th century. That they were grown locally one can deduce from field names: e.g. the estate map of Lord Brook for 1754 (At Warks. R.O.) names a close 'Vinyard' this was by Gunnings Bridge, Alcester, on the Oversley side of the river. It was still socalled in l855 in an auction notice in the 'Warwick Advertiser'. In a 1714 terrier of Oversley 'Winyard' appears. Are these names products of the early 18th century or had they lingered on from the early Middle Ages? The second option seems more likely, for in leases made by the Grevilles to Alcester folk, there is one in 1559 to John Smith of 'a close called Wynyarde, part of the possession of the late Priory' and in 1667 one to Stephen Round of the 'Greyhound's Head' Inn of 'a close called Wyneyard'. As both these leases occurred in a period subarctic conditions, the likelihood of grapes being grown in the closes mentioned is remote. It appears that Alcester and district had vineyards in the 12th and 13th centuries but continued the use of the field names long after the vines declined, It also seems that the monks had cultivated their own grapes: did this provide an income for the Abbey (later the Priory)?
HEMP is a more robust plant. It was a homegrown source of tough fibre and used for ropemaking and for producing course cloth. Its narcotic properties, if not unknown were at least neglected. The stem of the plant had a ?woody exterior protecting the fibres and necessitated its 'retting' or softening so that the fibres could be extracted. This was done by immersion in pools or rivers. Although some citizens made an extra income by growing or weaving hemp, to some extent it vas an antisocial activity. In 1616 and 1617 the manor court of Oversley presented half a dozen people for 'watering' hemp and flax in the River Arrow. One can only guess that this pollution of the river had some effect on the fish or the mechanism of the local water mill; the court records do not specify
The leases of the Grevilles referred to above show that certain houses in Alcester had 'hemplotts' attached to them. This was particularly so in Bleachfield St and come to light in the numerous leases in the early 17th c. after a disastrous fire had wrecked many of the cottages for example, in 1625, 'Lord Brooke, Baron of Beauchampscourte to John Robinson of Alcester, inholder, of a barn and hemplott in 'Blechfylde'; and in the same year to Henry Burte and John Parsons, cottages damaged by fire and hemplotts. F rom 1615 to 1658 a cottage leased in Butter, St. had attached to it a hemplott in Evesham Road. From 1662 to 1722 a house in Butter St. with a hemp close probably the same cottage. A 'hemp pleck' in 1685 is described as next to Malt Mill Lane. There were probably others in Alcester not described in the leases but it seems that the hemplotts were scattered over the township wherever there were small enclosures. The Alcester manor court rolls have no such strictures as those of
Oversley: there is one entry of interest in 1694 which forbids Joseph Ancox to keep flax or hemp in his house or barn and orders him not to 'swingle' it (i.e. to dress by heating) Perhaps other hemp or flax stores had been destroyed by fire.
Hemplots are seen in the records of other parishes in the area, e g. in Kinwarton in 1630, where Widow Powler had a house, garden and hempland, while the 1630s in Spernall saw several people upbraided for washing hemp in the River Arrow. The references are usually from the 17th century. Perhaps, after then, the custom of the peasantry wearing course, hemp, woven clothing gave way to wool and flax. There are no references to hemp being used for spinning ropes but it is interesting to note that under the Averills from the late 18th century and well into the 19th a rope industry flourished in Alcester. Whereas the possibility exists that growing and spinning hemp were secondary occupations for a number of people, there are few examples of 'hempdressing' as the main occupation of any individual. In the Alcester wills examined by the Society only Robert Matthews in 1662 is styled 'hempdresser'. He was able to leave various small annual monetary bequests to 12 nephews and nieces so he must have made a modest living from his hemp. After the 17th century many houses locally had gardens and orchards attached to them; one cannot but think that some of these orchards had been planted on earlier hemplands.
An article by Gwen Vessey in 'The Countryman' for Winter l989, speaking of Suffolk in the early 18th century, refers to two cottagers who followed the example of their parson and made their hemp lands into gardens, one fencing his and making a strawberry yard. The writer suggests that either the market price for hemp had dropped or that the retting in the retting pit nearby was too much trouble as people grew older. No doubt, around here there were many reasons why hemp lost its popularity but three or four centuries ago it was a marked feature of local life.
Autumn 1990 Index
© Alcester & District Local History Society 1990