A row of weavers’ cottages in Wymondham was demolished in the late 1970s following a public enquiry in 1977. The cottages were replaced by retirement bungalows which remain to this day. While the street name has lingered, the houses are certainly very different to those they replaced.
The cottages made up ‘Rattle Row’ named after the racket of the handlooms operated by the inhabitants.
In 1851, a household of ten lived in one of the cottages, headed by my 5xGreat Grandparents, James Gooch and Agatha Fisher. Seven of their children (Lucy (my 4x Great Grandmother), Maria, Rebecca, George, James, Mary Ann and Providence) shared their home, together with their three month old grandson, William Coman Gooch, the illegitimate son of daughter Lucy.
I have seen some weavers’ cottages of Wymondham described as ‘ruinous hovels’. Certainly, the family was poor – Agatha was noted as a pauper in 1851, while James, Lucy and Maria are all recorded as weavers, an industry which, by then, was in serious decline. George, at 13, was already labouring in the fields. Rebecca, otherwise old enough to work, is noted on the census as blind.
A hundred years before, according to Mr Cremer’s Census of 1747, almost a quarter of families in the town were headed by a weaver – 155 of 686. By the late 1700s however, competition from the cotton producing north and loss of trade to America and France was having a negative effect on the Norfolk woolen industry.
By the time of the 1841 census the handloom industry was ‘in crisis’ but the industry still employed a sixth of the male population. The Wymondham Heritage Society’s wonderful “Wymondham: History of a Norfolk Market Town” (2006) quotes the following from a local weaver:
“A parent tries to get his boy to anything rather than weaving. There are no boys learning to weave now, nor have been for some time past. Anything is better than weaving. Some boys have taken to agricultural employment”
This certainly fits for my own family – as we have seen, only the girls and their father were in the weaving industry in 1851, while George was employed on the land.
White’s Trade Directory notes that there were less than 60 looms in Wymondham in 1845, while ten years earlier there had been 600.
Twelve households are recorded on Rattle Row in 1851, two of whom are Coman households. The sharp-eyed among you may remember little William Coman Gooch mentioned earlier. Sure enough, William’s father, also William, is living just five doors away from Lucy in 1851. William is also a weaver, this time in silk, as are all the other occupants of his home over 11 years old – just five of the 336 weavers recorded in the census that year in the town. The couple married on Boxing Day of the same year at Wymondham Abbey.
Lucy and William had five more children, the last in 1865. Around the same time the family moved to Norwich, possibly as the weaving industry collapsed around them – 132 weavers remained in Wymondham in 1871 and just 23 in 1881.
It seems the hard life wasn’t over for Lucy because by 1871 she is recorded as head of the household, scraping a living as a washer woman to support six children in the yards of Pockthorpe in North Norwich. It is not clear whether William accompanied them to Norwich or not. He disappeared between 1861 and 1871 – I hope one day to discover whether he died, emigrated or started a new life elsewhere, or whether he was imprisoned, transported….the possibilities are almost endless.
Lucy died in 1913 at the age of 82, working as a charwoman and laundress in Norwich almost up until her death. Sadly, she outlived her eldest son William, who died at Norwich Lunatic Asylum in 1905.
My Great Great Great Grandmother Eliza’s life mirrored her mother’s to a certain extent. Like Lucy, she gave birth to a son before marriage, and lived next door to her son’s father, who she later married, during 1881. This time, rather than Rattle Row, history played out on ‘Sidney’s Row’ now somewhere underneath Sewell Park College’s playing field.
Two years ago I moved to Wymondham -150 years after Lucy left with Eliza and her other children. No member of my direct line lived here in the intervening century and a half but in many ways I feel like I belong.
I cannot help but wonder, every time I pass Rattle Row, what life must have been like then. Were she and William happy together, or were they forced to marry? Where did he go? Did she choose to leave for the city? Although only a few miles distant, she could hardly have jumped on the number 13 bus back again if it didn’t work out.
Depending on her memories of the place, perhaps most of all, I wonder whether she would have celebrated the demolition of the cottages or mourned their loss….
If you have connections to Rattle Row, or the Gooch and Coman families of Wymondham, please do get in touch.