Alice Housden and Pleasance Webb

Alice Housden and Pleasance Webb

(Photos from the Sudbury Town Archive)

Alice Housden has her name painted on an old Sudbury loom in a National Trust property in Gloucestershire. Pleasance Webb’s name is painted on the frame of the warping mill which was used with the loom. The winding wheel she used as well as some pieces of silk woven by Alice in 1900 are also part of the collection of curiosities which once belonging to the owner of Snowshill Manor, Charles Wade.

The loom, the warping mill and winding wheel were originally situated on the middle floor of Alice’s house at Number 10, The Croft, Sudbury. Alice and Pleasance were amongst the last of the Sudbury hand weavers who worked at home up until 1927/28.

Number 10, The Croft disappeared many years ago when the area was redeveloped in the 1960’s and early 1970’s. Alice’s home was at the end of the terrace, Church Row, opposite St. Gregory’s Church. (Image from the Historic Photo Archive for Sudbury)
Extract from the 1885 Map of Sudbury showing the location of Number 10, The Croft. The Waggon and Horses Inn is marked on the map on the corner of Church Walk and Acton Green, (now known as Acton Square)..

Alice was born on July 2nd, 1861 in Linton. Her father, John, was a carpenter and general labourer from an agricultural community in Hildersham, Cambridgeshire. Her mother, Mary Ann King, was born in Haverhill, and was a weaver from a young age.

The family came to Sudbury in c.1874 and moved into Number 10, The Croft when John started a new job working as an ostler for Mrs. Harriet Grimwood at ‘The Waggon and Horses Inn’, Acton Green, (now known as ‘Acton Square’). John was responsible for the care of the horses and vehicles left in the stables by the customers.

The building continues to be run as an inn and is known as ‘The Wagon’ in 2019.

Mrs Harriet Grimwood, image from the Sudbury Town Archive

Harriet Grimwood had lived at the old Inn since c1845. She carried on running the business after the death of her husband in 1865 and supervised brewing beer on the premises. For John Housden, the next ten years, looking after Mrs. Grimwood’s stables with his wife and daughter working as silk weavers nearby, must have been a contented and happy time.

Working at home had plenty of advantages for Alice and her mother as they could get their household chores done first and then spend all their spare time weaving. With the extra income earned from weaving, the Housden family would have felt financially secure and pleased that they had made the move to Sudbury.

One of the entrances to the Workhouse in Sudbury.

John’s death in 1884, aged 48, put an end to a decade of stability for the family. This was a time when poverty could very easily lead to the Workhouse; a fate that was so harsh and shameful that people would do anything to avoid it. The Workhouse gates were very close to Number 10, The Croft and every time Mary Ann and Alice worshipped at St. Gregory’s they would have caught a glimpse of the miserable lives of those unfortunate people who had no choice but to look for support from the ‘Union’.

Mrs. Grimwood always regarded John Housden as a faithful servant and was greatly distressed when he died. She even paid to put an announcement of his death in the local newspaper. She may have helped Alice and her mother after his death. Their association with the Grimwood family lasted well into the 20th century.

With no husband to provide for herself and her daughter, Mary Ann was forced to rely on their earnings from hand loom weaving. Pleasance Webb came to board at Number 10, The Croft. Introducing Pleasance to the household would not only have added a small amount to the weekly income but had the added advantage that she was a silk warper who had worked on a warping mill since she was a child and was highly skilled in preparing the threads which form the warp in a loom.

Born in Haverhill in 1855, she worked in London for a draper in the 1870’s but by 1881 was back in her home town looking after her widowed father. Her 19 year old sister was a ‘drabbet’ weaver in a factory, (producing a coarse unbleached linen fabric), but she was a skilled silk warper who could weave a new warp onto a loom. There may have been a family connection as Alice’s mother was also born in Haverhill. Whatever the reason, the combination of two silk weavers and a silk warper at Number 10, The Croft meant that Pleasance could make new warps for the loom on her upright revolving mill which was turned by hand and then Alice or her mother could wind their own weft and start to weave. All were highly accomplished and hard working and were thus able to continue to weave at home whilst the majority of weavers in Sudbury were weaving in factories for manufacturers such as Mr. Kipling, Mr. Warner or Mr. Walters..

The interior of Reginald Warner’s first silk factory in the town in Garden Place c.1903
(Image from the Historic Photo Archive for Sudbury)

By the time Charles Wade met Pleasance she had spent most of her life working at the same warping mill and he recalled that her hands had become misshapen with the work. When he went upstairs to collect the mill and the loom, he noted that the weaving room or ‘shop’ as it was often called also contained a double bed. Pleasance demonstrated how to turn the mill and explained that a screen had to be put up between it and the loom because it made such a draught as it was turned. Some of the smallest children living in Church Row were occasionally allowed a ’roundabout’ ride on the warping mill.

Alice and Pleasance sold the hand loom, the warping mill and the winding wheel to Charles Wade, the collector of ‘curiosities’ from Gloucestershire c1930. In an article published in the Suffolk Free Press in 1987, Philip Jarvis, (born in 1904 and working for Mr. Warner at the ‘Gainsborough Silk Weaving Company’), recalled being sent with a barrow and 10 shillings, (50p), to offer for a hand loom belonging to a Miss Folks of Queens Road. The offer was accepted and Philip dismantled the loom and took it to the factory and put it back together. This would have been c1918; it is hoped that Alice and Pleasance received considerably more for their property when it caught the eye of Charles Wade. Parting with the machines which they had used for at least sixty years must have been hard as so much of their lives had been centred around them.

The loom, the warping mill and winding wheel were displayed at Snowshill Manor and photographs of them were used to illustrate Grimwood and Kay’s ‘History of Sudbury, (page 95), published in 1952 .

Pleasance continued to live on The Croft after the death of Alice’s mother in the summer of 1916 and remained there until ill health forced her to enter what was known as ‘Walnuttree House’ but was commonly referred to as ‘The Spike’. Sudbury people had long dreaded incarceration in the ‘Union’ but by 1932 the Workhouse had been taken over by Suffolk County Council and had become a Poor Law Public Assistance Institution.

Pleasant died at Walnuttree House on March 13th, 1932, aged 77 years. A brief report in ‘The Suffolk and Essex Free Press’ noted that she was ‘well-known and respected in St. Gregory’s parish’ and ‘ was a regular attendant at St. Gregory’s Church’.

Alice found a new companion to share her old age and lived until the age of 88. Despite her small income she was very generous towards other people and was mentioned several times in the Free Press during the years of the Second World War as she raised significant sums for the local Red Cross appeal. She died in September 1949 at Walnuttree Hospital which still carried the stigma of the former Workhouse despite the launch of the National Health Service the year before.

Walnnutree Hospital (photographed in May 2014)

The story of Alice and Pleasant re-emerged in February 1964 when John Hilary Garratt, for many years ‘Wayfarer’ of ‘The Suffolk Free Press’ was sent several photographs of the loom and winding wheel at Snowshill Manor. The photographs had been taken by Mr. Redfern of Pot Kilns, Great Cornard, on a caravan holiday with his late wife. They were enjoying the collection of period musical instruments, clocks, toys, Japanese armour etc. at Snowshill Manor when they came across the Sudbury loom and winding wheel with the names of the weavers who had used them formerly.

When Mr. Refern returned to Sudbury he sent his photographs to Mr. A. B. Walters of Sudbury Silk Mills and asked if he could give any information of the two weavers whose names were painted on the loom and mill. Mr. Walters enquired of one of his firm’s employees, Miss Ada Cooper, who confirmed that Alice Housden had been a hand loom weaver and Pleasant Webb, a hand warper, and that they had lived together in a house facing The Croft.

Church Row in the mid-20th century
(Image from the Historic Photo Archive for Sudbury)

Several weeks later Mr. Bernard Stanley Golding of Uplands Road, Sudbury, supplied ‘Wayfarer’ with some more information about Alice and Pleasance. He grew up in Church Row, (sometimes known as ‘Spike’ Row), very close to their house at the end of the terrace. His mother could remember Miss Housden going to Vanners and Fennell’s for her supply of bobbins for the loom.

Samples of silk recently woven by Vanners Silk Weavers at Gregory Mills, Sudbury

Mr. Golding came from a large family who had lived in Church Row for many years: “My eldest sister, who is a forewoman at Vanners and Fennell’s, says that she used to turn the winding wheel for Pleasance Webb. As for Miss Housden, well, I was only a small boy at the time, but I can recall what a grand old lady she was. We choir boys at St. Gregory’s, which is very near Church Row, were a load of young roughnecks, but we all had a lot of respect for her. She loved animals, cats especially and she gave a home to many a stray, unwanted cat. She died at about 90. Those miraculously preserved old looms are a grand memorial to two grand old ladies.”