Hazells Histories

The Merchants of Bury

Two of the town’s greatest benefactors were John Baret and the founder of The Guildhall Feoffees, Jankyn Smyth. Both were 15thC merchants and they are remembered today in St Mary’s Church by Baret’s gift of the wonderful Angel roof and his own Pardon Tomb and by Jankyn’s endowed service from 1481.

The ancient Guildhall parts of which pre-date 1200.

They were both prominent in Bury society, Jankyn more so as he was Alderman seven times.

John Baret’s Tomb

The Wool Trade

The growth of the town had been reliant on the worsted wool trade for many a year, and as such, labour intensified. The work was carried out either within the merchant’s premises or outsourced.  Yarn maker James Oakes had inherited a wool and clothier business in 1768 from his uncle Orbell Ray. He had combing sheds and warehouses in St Andrews St South and often went to Stourbridge Fair to purchase wool for his highly skilled wool grading sorters, warehousemen and combers who used heated iron combs to draw out the fibres. It was thought that a good comber could deliver 33 pounds of combed wool for thirty spinners a week. Oakes probably employed 1,500 throughout Suffolk! Many were women who worked within their own homes giving rise to a ‘cottage industry.’ 

The Old Wool Warehouse

In 1788, utilising local magnates such as MP Sir Charles Davers and the Duke of Grafton, James had successfully lobbied Parliament to introduce a bill to restrict wool exports. The fact that Bury had two wool-halls reflected the amount of business carried out, the broadcloth that was manufactured in Suffolk being extremely popular. The influx of Flemish weavers, imported textiles and finally the Napoleonic wars were eventually to sound the death knell of the town’s association with wool. In 1807 James declared that out of the town’s population of 7,500 there were 4,500 paupers, an astonishing claim which reflected the lack of employment opportunities available at the lesser end of society.

Woolsack in St Andrew Street South: the letter B is for William Buck, once partner to James Oakes, yarn merchant

The last wool merchant in Bury, as listed in a directory, was that of Clayton Schofield whose warehouse further down St Andrews St South has an inscription from 1897 to celebrate Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee. However, it has to be said that Eastern Wool Growers were trading from here in the 1960s.