In the parish registers are various references to woad labourers, woad cabins, woad folks, woad gatherers and wadders. All these relate to those men and women employed in growing and processing of the woad plant for it’s rich blue dye. Entries appear from the late 1600s through to the early to mid 19th century.
Woad is a biennial plant and was often grown on old pastures which were ploughed up and sown with woad. It could not be grown for long on the same ground and after about four years the land was returned to pasture. It could then be ploughed again for woad in fifteen to twenty years’ time. Examples of this long rotation occur in Farthinghoe, N’hants., where woad was grown 1649-51, 1695-6, 1718-26 and so on.
The woad plant in its first year looks much like spinach beet and in its second year it throws up a single stem with a head of yellow flowers. It needed careful weeding to encourage growth, and in favourable conditions yielded four to five crops a year. Leaves were picked from June onwards, largely by women and children, taken to a horse-powered mill and ground to a pulp. This was formed into balls or wads, which were placed in open-sided drying racks or ranges to dry in the air. When dry, the wads were powdered and wetted again and then fermented or ‘couched’ to bring out the colour by oxidisation. This was a skilled and smelly process, and the odour permeated the workmen’s clothes and skin. The resulting clay-like substance was then packed into barrels to be sent to dyers. Sometimes the couching process was not carried out on the site, but the dry wads were packed into casks for couching by the dyers.
The 1777 Militia Lists mention only three woadmen in two parishes, Thomas Neal and Thomas Powel in Weston Favell and Valentine Adams in Watford. However, these are likely to be the entrepreneurs who rented the land and employed the workers. Others employed in this trade may just be recorded as labourers or sojourners. For instance, Abraham Powell appears in the 1777 Militia Lists at Whilton as ‘labourer, drawn last time for Watford.’ In the 1786 Militia List for Watford he is described as woadman.
By the early 19th century only two ‘woad growers’ lived in the county according to William Marshall reporting to the Board of Agriculture in 1818 with one growing about 70 acres. He made the point that woad was cultivated and prepared for the dyers, not by the farmers, but by professional men who paid the landowner an extraordinary rent for two or three years.
In 1813 an article reports that a Mr Neal of Watford rented a 25 acre site at Newport Pagnell, just across the border in Buckinghamshire. Mr. Neal brought his own servants with him; and he erected a millhouse and mill for bruising the woad, as soon as it is cut and carried from the ground and near this house are huts, built of turf and wood, for the families which he brings with him. ‘Here they remain as a colony for four years, during which time they look out for another portion of sward land, to be cultivated in the same manner.’ The mill might have one or more rollers, each pulled by a horse. Sometimes a barn and other buildings might be available at the site for the woad-people to use.
Woad is known to have been shipped out from the Port of Wisbech in the 19th century so maybe the River Nene was also used for transportation in Northamptonshire although I haven’t found any evidence of this. It had largely gone from Northamptonshire by mid-Victorian period although it continued in the Fenland area much later.
You can find references to woad workers in the parish registers for the county. They may be recorded as woodmen, ‘at the woad’, wadmen, cabinners or sojourners.
Often the same families will appear in different registers over a period of time showing that they moved around the various locations where woad was growing. A search shows that the names most common to this trade are: Ablitt, Burrows, Green, Holland, Jacock/Jeacock, Johnson, Lawson, Marlow, Neal, Noble(s), Pickering, Powell, Smith and Vines – although of course, not all those with these surnames will be ‘woad folk’. Other references to may be found on old maps such as Woad Farm, Wadground Barn and so on. For example, there is a Wad Ground Barn near Trafford Bridge over the Cherwell, and a draft agreement to grow woad refers to a barn and other buildings at Thrupp in the parish of Norton. Woad growing was also more common in parishes where enclosure has taken place earlier as these newly enclosed fields leant themselves to the trade than the open field systems of the un-enclosed parishes.
Parishes where woad growing was common included the following: Dingley – there are several references in the registers from the early 18th century. Culworth, Thornby, Little Billing, Abington, Brampton Ash, Little Brington, Blakesley and Upton. At Ashby St ledger, there is an agreement at NRO between Edward Davies, woadman and John Ashley, Lord of the Manor to grow woad in certain named fields. Edward, stated to be of Thornby, also entered into an agreement in 1753 with Joseph Clarke of Welton to grow woad at Thrupp in Norton parish. In 1791 Stephen Watson of Thrupp was named as the employer of woad people at Dingley. John Pickering appears in Dodford register and later in the Register of Newport Pagnell Great meeting. Thomas and Ann Lawson appear in the Passengham register in 1743 and Samuel is described as ‘labourer in the woad’ when his wife Elizabeth was buried in 1749 in Little Billing. At Weston Favell the two rectors from 1752-1787 were able to rebuild the rectory and later improve it by letting the glebe lands for woad ‘which always produced an extraordinary rent for a time’. Woad growing was also common in Warwickshire, the Banbury area, North Buckinghamshire as well as the Fenlands.
What all the above information shows though is that this was a mobile and seasonal workforce which moved around this and neighbouring counties. Perhaps this might explain why you cannot find baptisms or burials where you expect your family to be – could they have been involved with the woad trade and therefore led a peripatetic lifestyle, moving on every few years?