For some years now I have been researching the creation of Bromley House, the present day library on Angel Row. The date stone in the garden says GS (for George Smith) 1752. This is the year the Gregorian calendar replaced the Julian; an Act was passed that year allowing the bodies of people who had been hanged to be taken to surgeons to be dissected. Carl Linnaeus was preparing to publish his book of plant classification the following year, and Dr. Samuel Johnson was writing his dictionary, to be published in 1755. I have a book simply called “1759” because the author considers that was the year our British Empire was established. The preceding years were a time of both conflict, mainly with France, and expanding trade, the driving force behind the establishment of Empire. There was a desperate need for Linnaeus’ book because plants were being brought back from all over the world.

It was in connection with this research that I came across a dye house on St. James’ Lane, present day St. James’ Street. I want to put this in the context of the history of dyeing and also in the context of Nottingham, the town and community.

Relationships and networking were crucial in the eighteenth century for two reasons.

Firstly, it is said that today we have a vertical system of support when we have problems. If I am unemployed, I go to the unemployment office, which is run by the Government; if I am ill I go to the doctor, hospital, Primary Care Trust, run by the Government. In the eighteenth century, it was important to know your family history, and through that your living relatives and how you were connected to them. A wealthy second cousin could be crucial to helping solve your problems. Secondly, many careers were dependant on patronage. In my Bromley House research I have found that almost everyone involved with the Smith family and Bromley House is dependent on the Duke of Newcastle for patronage.

It is interesting to see how this works in practice.

The “Nottingham Date Book” and Charles Deering’s “History of Nottingham” give a wonderful picture of mid-eighteenth century Nottingham, including descriptions of the many much-loved mature trees. I have four illustrations showing Nottingham at this time, and establishing the background of this talk.

The Badder and Peat map of 1744.

This shows Nottingham the beautiful garden town Celia Fiennes admired so much, with its orchards, gardens and trees. St James Street, leading up to the castle can clearly be seen, as can the site of Bromley House, just prior to building.

John Badder was the draughtsman and Thomas Peat the land surveyor.

Thomas Peat’s father had a farm at Ashley Hey, near Worksop, where Thomas was born. Young Thomas had a desire for knowledge and a flair for mathematics, which his father always strove to repress, so that when he was fourteen Thomas ran away to Nottingham where his eldest brother was a carpenter, asking him to take him on as an apprentice. Peat’s wood yard is lovingly drawn just outside Chapel Bar. Unfortunately this brother was as ignorant as the father, and opposed his studies and stopped him obtaining books.

It was fortunate that the two Peat brothers were dissenters and attended the High Pavement Chapel, as did Cornelius Wildbore, a master dyer from a family who had made their fortune from the dyeing business. Seeing the potential of young Thomas, Cornelius Wildbore generously supplied him with books, and enabled him to pursue his studies. His support was amply repaid.

As an adult Thomas Peat combined the pursuits of an astronomer, schoolmaster and land surveyor with that of a mathematician. He was the oldest almanac writer in England, producing the ‘Gentleman’s Diary’ and ‘Poor Robin’ for forty years. Thomas received £23 a year for producing the almanac, complete sets of his own publications, and the privilege of ordering every new mathematical book at the expense of the Stationers’ Company.

The writing at the bottom of the map states: “From the Conquest to the loss of Calais the Manufacture of Dy’d Cloths flourished here, and was the Rise of many considerable Families in the County as well as the Town. At this Time the Fabrick of Frame worked Stockings in England hath its principal Seat here.”

John Speed’s map of 1610.

I have been interested in Cornelius Wildbore’s relation Samuel Wildbore, a dyer living in Brewhouse Yard. He was the husband of Abigail Anna Secker, whose brother, Thomas, became Archbishop of Canterbury in 1758. Abigail Anna was the grandmother of Abigail Gawthern, who was named after her grandmother, and whose diary covering the years 1751 to 1810 in Nottingham was published in 1980 by Adrian Henstock. The River Leen, now culveted, flowed in front of Brewhouse Yard. Access to water was an essential consideration in the establishment of dye houses as we know from those dye houses spaced out along the side of the Leen at Basford. At the weekend we went to the Industrial Museum in Wollaton Park. It is now closed, perhaps forever. In the courtyard on the way to the steam engine is a huge cauldron that came from one of the dye houses at Basford where it was used in the early 1800’s. A controlled fire was probably established below the cauldron, as the water needed to be kept warm while the dyeing process was taking place.

Originally the Leen flowed into the Trent at Wilford. In 1068 William the Conqueror realised the strategic importance of Nottingham, and put his son, William Peverel, in charge of building a castle on the rock overlooking the Trent valley. William Peverel realised the necessity of having water nearby, especially in time of siege, so he redirected the Leen to flow past the Castle and it continued a few yards along the south east side of Nottingham, past Hockley, where it then turns to join the Trent near Trent Bridge. In the centre of John Speed’s map a road can be seen leading to a bridge over the Leen. Follow the road up into Nottingham and we can see it starts just south of St. Peter’s Church. This is Lister Gate, the mediaeval street of the dyers.

In 1717 Edmund Wildbore bought a dye house on Lister Gate, which continued to build the family’s fortunes in the dyeing business. The bridge over the Leen became known as Wildbore’s Bridge.

Thomas Sandby “View of Nottingham Market Place looking West’, early 1740’s

Just as Cornelius Wildbore had supported Thomas Peat, so Thomas Peat was instrumental in launching the artistic careers of Thomas and Paul Sandby. They studied land surveying with him. It’s Thomas Sandby’s drawing of important Nottingham buildings that surround the Badder and Peat map.

The Sandby brothers had a keen eye and their pictures are noted for their topographical accuracy and detail. Thomas developed a system of perspective, and as he often used the camera obscura, I feel that his view from Nottingham Market Place looking west is an accurate representation of the scene before him. On your left are the two houses the Smiths bought for their new bank building which they moved into in 1754. We then have one of the three houses built by Marshal Tallard when he was a prisoner on parole at Newdigate House after being captured at the Battle of Blenheim, followed by Hall’s bookshop. Further along Timber Hill we see the elm trees whose shade was so much appreciated in the summer. We can see where the buildings open up for Wheeler Gate and Friar Lane.

The Malt Cross was at the bottom of St James’ Lane, at the junction of Beastmarket Hill and Angel Row. We can see the start of the Lane, with the sun shining on the side of the first building. Behind the Malt Cross is Red Hall, the building that preceded Bromley House. We have seen the gardens, now we see the beautiful buildings. Once the prestigious ducal palace was built, wealthy citizens were attracted to Nottingham to build their town houses.

On the following page is a picture of Nottingham from the southeast; to the right we can see the tenterposts of Cornelius Wildbore. The wet fabric was attached to the tenterposts by S-shaped tenterhooks, which went through the selvedge of the fabric, and kept it in shape as it dried. The expression “to be on tenterhooks” first appears in a book by Tobias Smollett, “Roderick Random” in 1748.

R.R. Angerstein “View of Nottingham from the north”.

My final view of Nottingham is by Angerstein, and was drawn in the early 1750’s from the north, perhaps from the area we are interested in. Angerstein was a Swedish spy who visited England between 1753 and 1755 to learn about our industry. He was a keen and accurate observer of life in mid-eighteenth century England.

Just a few years after his visit the first framework knitting machines would be adapted to produce lace and the Nottingham we see in these four illustrations would change quickly and permanently. In the mid eighteenth century we are still in the pre-industrial age – but only just!

Dyeing in Nottingham.

This account of the dye house on St. James’ Lane is unusual in that it has a beginning, middle, and an end.

George Smith married Mary Howe in August 1747, and so if the date stone of 1752 is to be believed building must have started soon after the wedding. George Smith was the grandson of Thomas Smith the founder of the first provincial bank in England, here in Nottingham. He was a partner in the bank, along with his father, uncle and brother. The account books of Smith’s Bank dating from 1748 to 1763 are in the archives of the Royal Bank of Scotland, and George Smith’s personal account is very revealing. On the left hand side are his debits, and they reveal that a building programme is underway, with skilled craftsman coming from London. This includes a payment on 2 nd January 1751 “To Flitcroft £11.10s”. Henry Flitcroft was the architect of Woburn Abbey (1748-61) and he built the garden temples at Stourhead from 1744 onwards. £11.10s would been an appropriate sum for a survey and plans for a house. A few months before George Smith and Mary Howe marry in August 1747; Thomas Sandby became Deputy Ranger at Windsor Great Park, and works with Henry Flitcroft on landscaping Virginia Water in the grounds of the Park.

On the right hand side of the page are George Smith’s credits, such as his income from the bank. An example of these are the regular payments of about £56 a time from the Rev. Mr. Maud. These are payments of tithes from St. Neots in Huntingdonshire that passed to George Smith on his marriage to Mary Howe. One payment I was interested in is dated “June 20, 1748, by Huish, £140”. This is a considerable sum for Mr. Huish to be paying George Smith. I knew from Abigail Gawthern’s Diary1 that the Huish family lived on St. James Lane, (now St James Street), so it was possible that this related to the Bromley House plot in some way. In fact in the documents relating to Bromley House I saw that the descendants of the Huishs were contacted about 1850. This is why I decided to look further into this.

The Huish family came from the Taunton area of Somerset, where there are two places called Huish: Huish Episcopi and Beggearn Huish. There is a tradition in the Huish family that an ancestor, having joined in Monmouth’s rebellion, fled after the Battle of Sedgmoor, and to escape the persecution of Judge Jefferys, left his Taunton home and settled at Leicester.

His eldest son, Robert, came to Nottingham, and served the office of sheriff here in 1736, became alderman in 1759, and filled the civic chair in 1760. He married at Hugglescote, Leicestershire (near Colville), Alice, daughter of Richard Weston, of Leicester. They had six children: Robert, who died unmarried, having drowned on his way to Guernsey, Mark, who inherits his father’s business in Nottingham, Elizabeth, who married Nathaniel Denison, Esq., of Daybrook, Nottinghamshire, Alice who married John Davison M.D. of Leicester, Mary who married Sir Robert Bewicke of Close House, Northumberland, and Anne who died unmarried.

From this we can see that they are a well-to-do family, and they continue to prosper throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as hosiers and later as lace machine manufacturers.2

One of Robert Huish’s grandsons was a writer and two others, Calverley and John, were influential members in the early days of the Subscription Library at Bromley House. But to return to hosiery:

William Lee of Calverton supposedly invented the stocking frame in 1589. Lee’s pioneering products as well as those of his followers in London comprised silk hose for the luxury London market. The earliest local evidence suggests that silk stockings were being made in Nottingham from about 1640 onwards There were two silk stocking weavers in Nottingham in 1641, James Lord and William Daily, both master framework knitters. Joseph Widowson is the first recorded ‘silk stocking frame maker’ in the town in 1661. Between 1688 and 1750 framework knitters and hosiers formed the second largest occupational group of wealthy tradesmen, after maltsters. The chief market of the finer silk hose was always London, and the larger hosiers developed close links with the capital, transporting the bales of hose by carriers’ wagon from the Nottingham hosiers’ warehouses to the London inns.

Deering writing in the 1740’s says: “within these thirty years last past, the merchants and hosiers in London, finding they could be fitted from the country with as good work at a cheaper rate than the London framework knitters could afford, the bulk of that trade has since shifted from thence.” In the borough poll book of 1754 the number of burgesses who were framework knitters and hosiers totalled 470 out of 1,358 burgesses of known trades, that is, 34 per cent.3

R.R. Angerstein was a Swedish spy who came to Nottingham in 1754. He says:

“In Nottingham and the surrounding countryside it is estimated that there are 3,000 to 4,000 stocking frames in operation, producing more than 20,000 pairs of stockings a week, of every kind and quality that one could possibly imagine. The thumping and squeaking of the stocking frames can be heard all the time, encouraging the people to be diligent and industrious. This music is so common in these parts that a house from which it was missing might be thought empty and deserted.”

05_stockingseller Paul Sandby “Cries of London: The Stocking Seller”.

Angerstein says he found the price of stockings here was higher than in France. He was asked 14 shillings for a pair of the best quality in Nottingham, although the French ones were more even both in respect of the knitting and the silk, being free from streaks caused by poor quality silk. He paid 12 shillings for silk hose in France.4 You would expect 20% of your clothing allowance to be spent on hose. Although women wore hose as well as men, they were hidden by the dress.

The first thing I did was to send for the will of Robert Huish, the man who came from Leicester to Nottingham, which was proved at York on 23rd December 1765. Robert was buried at St Nicholas, Nottingham and was succeeded by his son, Mark.

I have a friend, who is an archivist, and used to work in Nottinghamshire archives, and she offered to transcribe Robert Huish’s will for me. Over thirty years of friendship, I had come to assume that my friend knew everything. In it there was a term she had never come across: “ I give to my son Mark Huish his heirs and assigns all that my Archall house or other tenement in St. James Lane aforesaid with the appurtenances and the utensils belonging to the archal business”. This will was made in 1752, and Robert Huish refers to himself as a hosier. So what is an ‘Archall house’? My friend did not know, and suggested I asked Adrian Henstock. His reply was that he had never met this term in a document, but thought it must refer to a plant called Orchil, Archil or Archal, which was used to produce a violet dye. Philips’ Dictionary of 1678 mentions ‘Archal’, otherwise called Derbyshire Liverwort, because it groweth upon the Freestones of the Mountain Peak’. In fact it is not a liverwort but lichen. Robert Huish’s ‘archal house’ must have been a dye house, presumably for dyeing the stockings he is producing.

This is the colour produced by the orchil dye:


The History of the Purple Dyes.

From the earliest times, colour has played an important part in the production of clothes, including establishing social status, and the purples, “any of a group of colours with a hue between that of blue and red”, were a symbol of “royalty or high office”. Kings wore Imperial Purple and Cardinals wore red.

The earliest archaeological evidence for the origins of purple dyes points to the Minoan civilization in Crete, about 1900 B.C. The ancient land of Canaan (its corresponding Greek name was Phoenicia, which means “land of the purple”) was the centre of the ancient purple dye industry.

“Tyrian purple”, the purple dye of the ancients mentioned in texts dating back to about 1600 B.C., was produced from the mucus of the hypobranchial gland of various species of marine molluscs, Murex brandaris. Murex trunculas produced another Phoenician dye: indigo or “Royal Blue”, a rich blue-purple colour. Both dyes were colourfast and very expensive. It took some 12,000 shellfish to extract 1.5 grams of the pure dye.

Although originating in Tyre (hence the name) this industry spread throughout the world. Rome, Egypt, and Persia all used purple as the imperial standard. Because purple dyes were rare and expensive, only the rich had access to them. The Emperor Aurelian refused to let his wife buy a purple dyed silk garment, as it cost its weight in gold.

With the decline of the Roman Empire, the use of “Tyrian Purple” also declined, and largescale production ceased with the fall of Constantinople in 1453 A.D. It was replaced by cheaper dyes made from lichens and madder. There had even been some overlap, with fabrics being dyed with lichen dyes first, followed by the dye from the molluscs. As fewer molluscs were needed, this saved money.

Pope Paul II in 1464 introduced the so-called “Cardinal’s Purple”, which was really scarlet extracted from the Kermes insect. This became the first luxury dye of the middle ages.

Dyes were exported extensively from Central and South America during Spain’s exploration of North and South America. Among these were cochineal from Mexico and Peru.

I have said that the use of molluscs for the wonderful Tyrian purple had died out in 1453 AD, but the association of purple with royalty remained. It continued to be regarded as a very special colour. When Mrs Delany describes the coronation procession of George II in 1727, she says:

“His own coach and horses that conveyed him to the hall, was covered with purple cloth; the eight horses (the beautifullest creatures of their kind), were cream colour, the trappings purple silk, and their manes and tails tied with purple riband … The King was in purple velvet, the Queen and Princesses in black, and very fine with jewels.”5

To turn to dyeing in England:

In mediaeval England, dyeing was an important part of our successful wool industry, with recipes being passed on from father to son, creating great wealth for these families. Towns were licensed to produce particular colours – Lincoln: green, scarlet and grey; York: red and purple; Beverley: blue and red. Some towns were licensed to produce only one colour, and some, like Nottingham, were licensed to produce any colour. Lincoln was said to produce the finest green in England, so Robin Hood was very well dressed. In Nottingham dyeing was a prominent craft. Amongst the goods listed by John Amyas’ executors in 1324 were a bate of alum, the mordant used to fix dyes in the cloth; a bale of archil (this lichen from which purple or violet dye is obtained); brazil, a red dye for leather; 3 bushels of woad, a blue dye; woad-vats, and madder, a red dye. The spicers or apothecaries supplied the dyes. Poytrees – contraptions for stretching or hanging dyed products on to dry – were owned by John Amyas, and were a nuisance as they encroached on roads.6

A wide range of colours could be produced: kermes and madder for the reds, dyer’s broom and weld for the yellows, woad for the blues. Sanderswood gave various shades of brown, oak galls produced black and the orchil lichens would yield red and purple.7

Lichen is composed of two plants, a fungus and an alga, living together in a very close, symbiotic relationship, and each supplying the other with certain necessary elements. It is the fungus that is attached to the rock or tree, and the alga covers it.

The orchil dye that the Huish family used was Roccella, the generic term derived from the Portuguese word rocha, a rock, in allusion to the habitat of most of the species, or from the name of the Florentine merchant (Oricellarii or Rucellai) who was the first to manufacture the lichens to produce the dye orchil. At that time orchella-weeds were known only in the islands and shores of the Levant and their capability of yielding, by maceration in ammonia, a purple dye, was accidentally discovered bya Florentine merchant who was travelling there, and who noticed that stale urine tinged the plants red or purple. Returning home, and remembering this experience, he manufactured the orchil dye. This was done in great secrecy under the name of “Tournesol”, and by which he realized a handsome fortune. This was early in the fourteenth century.

An Italian dyer named Rossetti passed on the knowledge to England, and then the London orchil-makers began importing, at great expense, the Rocella lichens from Africa, the Canaries and the Cape Verde islands.

Roccella tinctoria (tincture, a colour or dye) grows chiefly on maritime rocks. it occurs very sparingly on the south coast of England, in the Channel Islands, and on the adjacent islands and coasts of France but it is only in tropical Africa, Asia and South America that it reaches its highest development. On the coasts of these countries it frequently attained great size, and had a very tough, leathery consistency. Rocella tinctoria and Rocella fuciformis were the most valuable dye-species of the genus Rocella. The “Orchella weeds” of commerce were varieties known as “Canary”, “Barbary, or Mogador”, “thick Lima” and “Cape” orchella weeds. Of secondary importance were “Angola”, “Madagascar” and “thin Lima”. In 1856 the most valuable of these was the Angola weed, from the Portuguese settlement of Angola in South Africa. The Canary variety, which included the “Cape de Verde weed” from the Canary, Cape de Verde, and adjacent islands off the west coast of Northern Africa, was the longest known in commerce. Next to those the Lima varieties, from the west coast of South America, were greatly used by the orchil maker.

A book printed in 1856 says that the estimated annual value of the imports of Orchella-weeds and other dye-lichens many years ago was stated at £60,000 to £80,000.

We do not know where Robert Huish obtained his orchil, but it would certainly come from abroad, where it would be processed and exported in the form of small cakes, which were sieved for use. The manufacturers, such as Robert Huish, would attempt to keep the exact dye recipe secret, but the wool or silk would have been steeped for several days or weeks, and the temperature needed to be quite warm. Most recipes I have seen used stale urine, and at the end of the fermentation process the mass would have assumed a beautiful violet colour, but would retain a peculiar aroma of ammonia. It is gratifying to know, then, that sometimes the perfume of violets was added at the end of the process.

Robert Huish may well have specialised in this one colour, hence his “Archill House”. Other dyers sometimes specialised in one colour. William Elliot of Nottingham developed a fast, black dye for silk in the mid eighteenth century, probably from logwood and chrome. When he died at Sutton, in Lincolnshire in his 88 th year, in 1792, ‘The Gentleman’s Magazine’ said: “When he began his business, he literally dyed his goods in a jug, and at his decease was supposed to have accumulated the sum of £100,000.8 Again, William Elliot lived and worked at Brewhouse Yard, until his success in business meant he could move to a large house on Beastmarket Hill about 1765. (Two of his nephews went into business with him, and one of them built the beautiful Stanford House on Castle Gate about 1775). He probably had a business connection to George Smith’s nephew, Thomas.

George Smith married Mary Howe in 1747, and Mary was closely related to the Howe family at Langar. I sent for Lord Howe’s account in Smith’s Bank, from the Royal Bank of Scotland Archives, and on April 3rd 1749 Lord Howe pays £7. 4s. “To Huish for Hose for J. Howe esq.”. John Howe was the cousin, and later the husband, of Lord Howe’s sister, Caroline. It was a considerable amount of money to pay for his hose, working out at 12s per dozen. This fits in well with Angerstein’s note that silk hose were 14s a dozen as presumably, Lord Howe is getting a “special offer”. Not only was orchil a beautiful colour, it actually gave lustre and softness to wool, whereas many dyes coarsened the wool. This is why it was still used even after the discovery of chemical dyes. True it was inclined to fade, but undoubtedly the wearer would be aware that he was the proud possessor of a luxury item of clothing.


I would like to thank Marjorie Penn and Adrian Henstock without whose help this article would never have happened. Thanks also go to Bromley House Library – “A Popular History of British Lichens” by W. Lauder Lindsay MD of 1856, was essential reading. I would also like to thank Rowena Edlin White for her support, and for giving me the copy of her own book “The Mediaeval Dye Pot”, and loaning “Lichens for Vegetable Dyeing” by Eileen M. Bolton, an essential book for anyone interested in dyeing.


1 The Diary of Abigail Gawthern of Nottingham 1751-1810. Thoroton Society Record Series Volume XXXIII 1. Edited by Adrian Henstock. Derry & Sons 1980.

2 A Genealogical and Heraldic History of the Commons of Great Britain By John Burke.
Page 417. Huish of Nottingham.

3 A Centenary History of Nottingham. Edited by John Beckett. Phillimore.

4 R.R.Angerstein’s Illustrated Travel Diary 1753-1755. Translated by Torsten and Peter Berg. Science Museum.

5 Mrs Delany: her life and her flowers by Ruth Hayden. A Colonnade Book.

6 A Centenary History of Nottingham. Edited by John Beckett. Philimore.

7 The Mediaeval Dye Pot. By Dee Duke and Rowena Edlin-White. February 1993.

8 The Gentleman’s Magazine 1792. Marriages and deaths with biographical Anecdotes.

© Elizabeth Robinson