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Needlemaking

by Crispin Paine

By Crispin Paine, Volunteer at The Novium Museum

Needlemaking was once one of Chichester's best known trades. No-one knows how or why needlemaking first came to Chichester but a record of 1308 mentions Richard le Nedler, and also John le Nedler who was an early city official.

The trade was concentrated in the eastern parish of St Pancras, and in the period just before the Civil War, Chichester dominated the English market for needles, with every house in the parish said to have been a needlemaker's. Unfortunately when that part of the city's suburbs were attacked in 1642 during the Civil War, needlemaking also suffered. Despite much of the area being rebuilt, the trade never fully recovered.

One Chichester needlemaker, who died in 1733, left all his equipment to his son. He left a stock of 512,644 needles of various sorts. The needles, his working tools, his horse, hay, harness and coal were valued at £90, almost a quarter of his entire estate (which included his five-bedroom house).

By 1750, forty or fifty people were still involved in needlemaking and the trade supported almost twenty Chichester families. However the trade soon started to diminish due to competition from areas in the North of England and the 1804 History of Chichester recorded:

'Some manufacturies of this article were established in Birmingham and Sheffield; which, though far inferior to the Chichester needles in quality, yet being sent to market at less than one third of the price, obtained a sale on that score alone. It is some credit to this manufactury that it maintained its reputation of superiority to the very last. It sank under the cause just mentioned.'

The very last needlemaker in Chichester was the Parish Clerk of St Pancras, William Scale, who was still making needles in 1783, just eight years before he died.

The death of William Scales completed the triumph of the 'northern rivals'. In 1790 2.5 million needles were being made in Redditch every week and by 1847, with the introduction of machinery and factories, this number grew to 50 million.

Sadly there are no physical remains of the Chichester trade surviving, or even records of any of the buildings. In the 1870s 'great quantities' of needles were found under the floorboards of a house in St. Pancras, but they were apparently not preserved.

All that survives to remember this once-famous Chichester trade is this token. Worth a halfpenny, it was issued in 1667 by the Chichester needlemaker Robert Hitchcock. On the reverse he put the arms of the Worshipful Company of Needlemakers of London, even though he was not actually admitted as a member until seven years later.