“I greet, as severing mists its spire reveal,
The ringing anvil and the whirling wheel;
Here, where they urge their labours, there relax,
The panting girls that ply the fervent flax.“
Linum usitatissimum or Flax to use its common names is one of the oldest fibre crops known to man, its earliest use being some 30,000 year ago. As well as its fibres being used for linen production the seeds have been used as a food source, a lubricant and for medicinal purposes. Up until 1677 there were some incidences of burial shrouds and sheets being made from flax, in that year an act was passed which forbade any such practice as only wool was to be used.
In the early 1800s a man called Prideaux enclosed some of Dartmoor and grew some healthy crops of flax on the land. However, a dire shortage of skilled labourers meant the crop could not be processed and so that venture went no further. In 1806 Mr. Prideaux wrote a letter to the board of Agriculture stating: “I am certain that many thousands of acres of these uncultivated moor would produce excellent flax. In a future period, should the machines be of general use for spinning wool, which is the employment of the greater part of the poor in Devon and the east coast of Cornwall, flax enough might be produced for supporting the labour of the poor, whenever the machines become general, and the thousands no paid to the Germans may be saved.”, Moore, p.494, fn.
In his 1808 survey of the Devon agriculture Vancouver makes very little mention of flax but he does say that the crop was generally ‘pulled’ in a green state just before the seed ripen. It would then be ‘pit-rotted’ for 10 -14 days and then exposed for a further 3 to 4 weeks when it would be gathered and bound for breaking up. The whole growing process was very labour intensive and involved drawing, watering, spreading, binding, breaking and heckling, p.207. The men who prepared or ‘heckled‘ the flax for spinning were called ‘Hecklers’, the work was both skilful and tiring. They would travel around the villages preparing the flax for spinning and some were known to wear a uniform comprising of an linen apron adorned with an ornamental fringe. This actual process and cost of harvesting and processing the flax was the biggest hindrance to its production and one that deterred many landowners from diversifying from traditional crops.
In 1817/18 Sir Thomas Tyrwhitt planted his first crop of flax at Tor Royal, it was an exceptionally dry year and an excellent crop was produced. So pleased was he with the return that he re-planted the crop again the following year, unfortunately it was a much wetter year and the yields were a lot less. He along with other ‘improvers’ were keen to see flax grown on the moor as not only would the crop provide a financial return but also provide employment opportunities for the ‘poor’ folk of the area. He wrote:
“These experiments were prosecuted by the author himself, who has now in his possession specimens and seeds of flax, grown on Dartmoor, which may vie with almost any goodness of quality. They were taken from an exposed field, lying more than 1000 feet above the sea, being sown as late as the 10th of May, and pulled on the 1st of August last. The ground was prepared with lime, at the rate of 30 Winchester bushels per acre… Such a mass of indigent and unemployed persons of all ages, would be summoned into busy and permanent employment, by the cultivation of flax and its conversion into articles of public and domestic usefulness.”, pp.17 – 19. In 1819, true to his word, Tyrwhitt laid nine acres of flax and in another letter to the Bath and West Agricultural Society noted how most of his farming neighbours had been convinced by his success of the practicality of growing flax. It appears that if Tyrwhitt had his way 1,000s of acres of moorland would be put to flax cultivation. He once argued that in 1818 £1,800,00 was paid to Russia for the importation of 18,760 tons of dressed flax, a further £37,484 was paid to the U.S.A. for imported flax seed. Most of these imports went to the Ireland and Tyrwhitt further added that the Irish Linen Board had stated to him: “should all the forest of Dartmoor be turned to flax, Ireland would take every grain of seed.”, p.572. Not only was Tyrwhitt keen on promoting the cultivation of flax so too were the government. At that time the linen was being used for the manufacture of sail cloth for the British Fleet who due to the various wars were in great need of such items. At the beginning of 1819 it was announced that the Duke of Cornwall was offering a ‘reward’ of 50 guineas to the person who grew the largest acreage of flax on Dartmoor This perhaps was another incentive for new growers to plant the crop. In a letter to the Bath and West Agricultural Society Tyrwhitt added that the flax seed was sown at a rate of 2.5 bushels per acre on five acres. He also declared that he would be extending the cultivation of flax the following year and would be forming an establishment for the employment of; “every class of indigeus poor.” A letter appeared in Leeds newspaper of 1820 advocating the benefit of employment stated that; “… it is consequently fair to presume that the cultivation of flax and hemp, (on Dartmoor) offer the best and productive means of employment to the labouring classes of society, so indispensably necessary to the tranquillity of the country: and employment if duly regarded, ought to be considered the most valuable property of the state, and the spring from whence the second and third classes should derive their support, and enable them to contribute to the public exigency.” In that same year there was also another proposal that Dartmoor Prison be turned into a Metropolitan School where Londoners could send their children where alongside their education they would be employed in the various processes of the preparation and manufacture of Tyrwitt’s flax.
With the advent of modern day durable synthetic fibres the popularity and financial return of flax cultivation rapidly declined. The popularity of Tyrwhitt’s ‘crop of all crops’ soon lost its momentum during the mid to late 1800s when the more traditional crops were favoured. Incidentally, although Tyrwhitt’s flax growing project failed along with his grand idea for Princetown he did receive the silver medal from the Bath and West Agricultural Society for his ‘flax revolution’ in the form of a silver plate worth 50 guineas. On it the inscription read; “To the person who in 1810, shall most successfully cultivate on Dartmoor the greatest number of acres, not less that 20 with flax, shall break and prepare the same without sleeping; and transmit the correct amount to the society of the quantity of flax produced per acre, the quantity of seed saved, and the quantity of chaff and woody parts and matter produced, on or before the first November meeting. The claimant will be further required to transmit to the Society a satisfactory account of the mode and effects of applying the aforesaid woody parts or matter to the land as manure.”
Mr. R. R. Saunders of Brimpts farm being one neighbour who turned some land over to flax production. Apparently he: “sowed, without impoverishing the soil, 24 acres to flax, with a slight admixture of lime, some of which was excellent staple, and, by the aid of a person conversant with the subject, prepared for spinning.”, Carringtons, p.145. In the 1850s a Parliamentary report pertaining to Dartmoor Prison described how on the 20th of February 1851 a flax growing experiment was began. In a 3 acre field to the north of the prison the ground was limed at the rate of 3.5 bushels per acre along with a light dressing of manure. The flax seed was sown at the rate of 3 bushels an acre which on the 7th of August was pulled. The return was 384 pounds of fine flax and 452 pounds of tow (coarse fibre) per acre. Prior to the flax cultivation this field was virtually rock scatter bogland and so was cleared and drained, Jebb, p.34.
In 1838 it is thought there were about three flax mills in Devon, (none of them actually on Dartmoor) whilst in the same county there were thirty eight woollen mills, such was the comparative popularity of flax. I have come across one single place-name which refers to flax and that was somewhere called ‘Flax Combe‘, the location of what I know not. Mind you, that is not to say that the tithe reports will not show any field names pertaining to flax.
Today there is virtually no flax grown apart from a few crops grown to the south of the moor, especially in the area to the south of Tavistock. However, in 1998 it was estimated that over 16,000 acres of flax was grown for its straw in other parts of Devon and Cornwall.
Carrington, N. T. & Carrington N. T. 1826. Dartmoor a Descriptive Poem. London: Hatchard and Son.
Jebb C. B. 1851. Report on the Discipline and Management of Convict Prisons. London: Eyre and Spottiswoode.
Moor, T. 1829. The History of Devonshire – Vol. 1. London: Richard Taylor.
Tyrwhitt, T. 1819. Substance of a statement … concerning the formation of a rail road from the forest of Dartmoor to the Plymouth lime-quarries. London: Harding.
Vancouver, C. 1969. General View of the Agriculture of the County of Devon. Newton Abbot: David & Charles.