Little Waldingfield History Society was delighted to welcome Anne to the Parish Room, to share her story the with more than 30 members at our annual member only event.

She began by telling us that next time we drove down Cross Street towards Ballingdon, we should make sure to take note of a short terrace of small painted houses on the right, a little before the bridge - numbers 75 to 78. These old timber framed houses were a key part of the Sudbury weaving industry effectively created in 1695 by Abraham Griggs, whose warehouse was situated in one, and which subsequently passed onto the son Thomas, now known as The Sudbury Clothier. So valued is this story ‘across the pond’ that these cottages now feature on the itinerary of many American tourists visiting Sudbury and Suffolk.

Gill Harritt with Anne Grimshaw

The audience awaits

Numbers 75 to 78 Cross Street Sudbury

Goods stored in the warehouse comprised Bunting, originally a specific type of lightweight worsted wool fabric generically known as tammy, manufactured from the turn of the C17th, and used for making ribbons and flags, including signal flags for the Royal Navy. The term bunting is also used to refer to a collection of flags, particularly those of a ship, whilst the officer responsible for raising signals using flags is known as bunts.

Nelson's 'England Expects .... ' flag signal

The same signal flying from HMS Victory

A most interesting University of Nebraska paper entitled “Weaving Independence from a Distant Cottage Industry”, which celebrates the importance of bunting and the flags it made to the USA begins as follows:

The fabric of flags is inextricably woven into our cultural heritage. Throughout civilization flags have heralded national identity in war and peace, as symbols of both victor and defender. Research into the origins of early 1800 flag fabrics wove a fascinating tie to England, where the wool fabric was made, and why it survived while the weaving industry was mechanized during the industrial revolution. Bunting fabric provided the canvas for the flag as a symbol of a nation and its people. This makes the history of bunting and its struggle for survival into the nineteenth century, an integral facet of our history.

The paper continues:

The 1750s saw an expansion of trade with America. By the early 1770s the thirteen American states accounted for a third of English wool fabric exports, particularly worsted. These wool fabric exports to America comprised £1,000,000 in foreign trade for England, with trade trebling by the turn of the century. In order to take advantage of the growing market, many merchants were taking control of the finishing processes so that they could dominate textile production from raw wool through the fabric stage to marketing. English worsted manufacturers were well placed to exploit the growing demand, since the amount of long-staple wool grown abroad was comparatively small.

Anne now told of the manufacturing process carried out from the clothier’s Sudbury warehouse:

  • Wool was received from Lincolnshire as fleece;
  • It was sent out for washing in Ballingdon;
  • Wool was then sent out for spinning;
  • Spun wool was returned before being sent out for weaving;
  • Woven cloth was sent out for dyeing and fulling.

She also told us that for most of the period 1793 to 1815 we were at war with France, which disrupted the supply of goods from overseas, doubling the price of food. The poverty of agricultural workers and their families, by far the largest proportion of Suffolk’s population, was to some extent caused by the industrialization of northern East Anglia. For nearly 200 years the women and children of this northern region had contributed to family income by combing wool and spinning yarn for the Norwich worsted industry, but in this region the production of yarn was mechanized by the early nineteenth century. Widespread poverty led to social unrest, with frequent riots in the second half of the eighteenth century caused by food shortages, particularly affecting towns like Sudbury. After the introduction and popularization of the new draperies, most districts that had produced broadcloth failed to adapt to the new fashion, causing the demise of Bury St. Edmunds and Lavenham, previously famed for their woollen cloths. They ended up as suppliers of yarn only to weavers in Norwich and Essex, and only places like Sudbury and Glemsford embraced the new fabrics to secure a continued future in fabric manufacturing.

Anne then told us of Arthur Young, a writer on agriculture, economics and social statistics, who in 1772 undertook a six-week tour of the Southern Counties of England to observe the conditions of manufacturing towns. He noted that Sudbury possessed a good trade in says (a fabric where the warp threads were doubled and twisted; saymaker was another term for clothier), burying crepes and also in bunting for ships flags. These were noted to be predominantly for the London market and some directly for exportation; he described Sudbury as ‘an exceedingly dirty but great manufacturing town.’

The story of Sudbury weaving now moves back to Thomas Griggs, the second son of Abraham born in Sudbury in 1701. He went bankrupt sometime before 1730, something quite common for the time. He clearly learnt lessons from this experience because, during the second half of the C18th, he essentially had a monopoly on the making of bunting fabric in Sudbury. From 1752, expansion of the Royal Navy revived the demand for bunting, and in order to take advantage of sustained demand, he extended his textile interests to include organising the manufacture and marketing of the fabric, whilst crepe production was reduced to compensate for the expanded bunting manufacture.

At this time bunting manufacture was a cottage industry, as described above and illustrated below, with four main types of people employed in fabric manufacture: sorters and scourers, combers, spinners, and weavers. It was made in two main widths, one narrow at 11 inch and one broad at between 19 and 22 inches.

The Sudbury Bunting Manufacturing Process

Bunting was only made on demand; this increased during periods of war, so wartime manufacture of bunting was increased and production of other fabrics ceased - records clearly show that years of maximum activity correlate with years of war or preparation for war through naval expansion. Griggs also offset increases in the price of materials by varying the quality of his products - when wool cost 15 pence a pound he used 7 1⁄2 pounds in the warp of a 30 yard say, but only 7 pounds when wool rose to 16 pence a pound. The same proportional decreases in amounts of wool were also applied to bunting fabric.

At this point Anne switched the talk to the war of 1812, a conflict between the US and the UK, along with their respective allies; we tend to think of this as a minor theatre of the Napoleonic Wars, whilst the US and Canada see it as a war in its own right.

From the outbreak of war with Napoleonic France, Britain enforced a naval blockade to choke off neutral trade with France, something the US contested as illegal under international law; Britain also ‘pressed’ American merchant sailors into the Royal Navy. Relations between the US and the UK worsened and many battles were fought across the whole of the American continent, including Canada, with both sides scoring victories and suffering defeats. At sea the Royal Navy blockaded American ports, cutting off trade and allowing us to raid the coast at will - in 1814 one of these raids targeted Washington, where they burned the presidential mansion, the Capital and other public buildings - though later British attempts were repulsed.

We now heard about George Armistead, an American military officer who served as the commander of Fort McHenry, an American coastal pentagonal bastion fort during the battle of Baltimore in the war of 1812.

An aerial view of Fort McHenry

When Armistead arrived at Fort McHenry, located in the outer harbour of the city, he ordered "a flag so large that the British would have no difficulty seeing it from a distance". That flag, now known as the Star Spangled Banner Flag, measured 42' × 30', and was made by Baltimore resident Mary Pickersgill, her daughter and seven seamstresses. Pickersgill was also commissioned to make another smaller flag 25’ x 17’.

In early summer 1813 she began the job with the assistance of her daughter Caroline, two nieces, Eliza and Margaret Young, a free African American apprentice, Grace Wisher, and likely her elderly mother, Rebecca Young. An additional unnamed African American who boarded in the house is also listed as helping in some sources, as were additional local seamstresses who were hired during the summer. Often working late into the evening, until midnight at times, Pickersgill's team was able to complete the job in six weeks.

The large flag was made from more than 400 yards of fabric and included 15 stripes and 15 stars, one for each of the 15 states of the union. The stars were made of cotton and the stripes and blue canton (a rectangular area usually at the top hoist corner of a flag) were of English wool bunting. Each stripe was two feet wide and each of the stars measured 24 inches across from tip to tip. Much of the work was done in the evening after the brewery closed, with the women sometimes working until midnight. Pickersgill delivered the flags to Fort McHenry on August 19 1813, a year before the Battle of Baltimore. The main flag weighed about 50 pounds and it took 11 men to raise it onto a 90 foot flagpole. The result was an enormous flag that could be seen for several miles from the Fort.

A replica of the Fort McHenry flag

On October 27 1813 a receipt was given to Pickersgill and her niece Eliza Young in the amount of $405.90 for the larger flag and $168.54 for the smaller one, which was used at Fort McHenry as a storm flag. This may have been flying when the British initially attacked Fort McHenry, during the Battle of Baltimore, because of the inclement weather that night with the driving rainstorm (which would have made the woollen bunting material soggy and too heavy to blow out in any breeze). However, at daybreak on September 14 it was Pickersgill's large flag that was flying over the fort after firing had ceased. A diary entry from a British subaltern on board ship recently returned from the North Point battlefield, George Glebe, described that sunny morning when the Americans at the distant fort "fired their "wake-up" morning gun salute and raised a splendid ensign" over the battlements.

During the near 25-hour bombardment of Fort McHenry, which commenced before dawn on September 13 until the morning of September 14, Armistead alone knew that the fort's magazine was not bombproof. When a shell crashed through the roof of the magazine but failed to explode, he ordered the powder barrels cleared out and placed under the rear walls of the fort. Remarkably, only four men were killed, despite a deadly rain of some 2,000 mortar shells the British bombardment fleet fired at the fort. Because the Royal Navy proved unable to capture or reduce the fort in order to enter Baltimore harbour, British commander-in-chief Vice Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane wrote to British Army commander Colonel Arthur Brooke that it was up to him whether to decide to attack or withdraw. Brooke, who had taken over from Major-General Robert Ross, decided to withdraw.

During the 25-hour battle, says Scott Sheads, historian at Fort McHenry, the British unleashed about 133 tons of shells, raining bombs and rockets on the fort at the rate of one projectile per minute. The thunder they produced shook Baltimore to its foundations, being heard as far away as Philadelphia. Hugging walls and taking the hits wore on the defenders. "We were like pigeons tied by the legs to be shot at," recalled Judge Joseph H. Nicholson, an artillery commander within the fort. Capt. Frederick Evans looked up to see a shell the size of a flour barrel screaming toward him. It failed to explode and Evans then noticed handwritten on its side "A present from the King of England."

The Stars and Stripes flying over Fort McHenry

The British guns had a range of 2 miles and their rockets just 1.75-miles, but neither guns nor rockets were accurate. British ships were unable to pass Fort McHenry to penetrate Baltimore Harbor because of its defenses, which included a chain of 22 sunken ships. British vessels were only able to fire their rockets and mortars at the fort at the weapons' maximum range, so poor accuracy on both sides resulted in very little damage to either side before the British, having depleted their ammunition, ceased the attack on the morning of September 14. The naval part of the British invasion of Baltimore had been repulsed; only one British warship, a bomb vessel, received a direct hit from the fort's return fire, which wounded one crewman. The Americans lost four killed and 24 wounded.

While negotiating a prisoner exchange aboard a British ship, Francis Scott Key (an American lawyer, author and amateur poet) saw the flag, which inspired him to pen the words to the poem, "The Defence of Fort McHenry", which later became the National Anthem of the United States in 1931.

After the 1814 battle, George Armistead took possession of the large flag, and after his death in 1818 his widow, Louisa Hughes Armistead kept it. During her four decades of ownership she allowed it to be displayed on a few occasions, also removing pieces of it to be given as gifts, a common practice of the day. Following her death in 1861 the flag went to her daughter, Georgiana Armistead Appleton, and then later to her grandson, Eben Appleton. The flag was moved to various locations over a 40-year period until 1907, when Eben Appleton loaned it to the Smithsonian. In 1912 the loan became permanent, and the flag underwent a variety of restorations. Beginning in December 1998, the flag began an $18 million conservation treatment and now the flag, which was hand crafted by Pickersgill and her helpers in 1813, is one of the most important artifacts, and the centerpiece of the redesigned National Museum of American History.

The original Fort McHenry flag

The restored Fort McHenry flag

In August 1814, Britain and the United States had begun diplomatic negotiations to end the War of 1812. However, British Secretary of War Henry Bathurst wrote Pakenham's secret orders of October 24 1814, commanding him to continue prosecuting the war even if he heard rumors of a peace treaty being signed. Bathurst expressed concern that the United States might not ratify such a treaty, thus continuing the war, and he did not want Pakenham to endanger his troops or miss an opportunity to gain an advantage over the American army. After the battle of Fort McHenry, the British fleet withdrew to replenish, and sailed south ahead of the last battle of the war - the battle of New Orleans - from which the British finally withdrew in early 1815, in order to re-capture Napoleon who had escaped from Elba on February 26 of that year.

In an 1876 letter to Georgiana Armistead Appleton, the daughter of Major Armistead, Pickersgill’s daughter wrote the following particulars about the flag:

The flag being so very large, mother was obliged to obtain permission from the proprietors of Claggetts brewery to spread it out in their malt house; and I remember seeing my mother down on the floor, placing the stars. After completion of the flag, she superintended the topping of it, having it fastened in the most secure manner to prevent its being torn away by (cannon) balls. The wisdom of her precaution was shown during the engagement as many shots pierced it, but it still remained firm to the staff. Your father (Col. Armistead) declared that no one but the maker of the flag should mend it, and requested that the rents should merely be bound around.

The scale of the work facing Pickersgill was set in context by the following extract from the Smithsonian Magazine in an article entitled Star-Spangled Banner Back on Display:

To make the flag's stripes, she overlapped and stitched eight strips of red wool and alternated them with seven strips of undyed white wool. While the bunting was manufactured in 18-inch widths, the stripes in her design were each two feet wide, so she had to splice in an extra six inches all the way across. She did it so smoothly that the completed product would look like a finished whole, and not like the massive patchwork it was. A rectangle of deep blue, about 16 by 21 feet, formed the flag's canton, or upper left quarter. Sitting on the brewery floor, she stitched a scattering of five-pointed stars into the canton. Each one, fashioned from white cotton, was almost two feet across. Then she turned the flag over and snipped out blue material from the backs of the stars, tightly binding the edges; this made the stars visible from either side.

"My mother worked many nights until 12 o'clock to complete it in the given time," Caroline Pickersgill Purdy recalled years later. By mid-August, the work was done - a supersize version of the Stars and Stripes. Unlike the 13-star ensign first authorized by Congress on June 14, 1777, this one had 15 stars to go with the 15 stripes, acknowledging the Union's latest additions, Vermont and Kentucky.

Fort McHenry was made a national park in 1925; on August 11 1939, it was redesignated a "National Monument and Historic Shrine", the only such doubly designated place in the United States. It was placed on the National Register of Historic Places on October 15 1966, and it has become national tradition that when a new flag is designed, it first flies over Fort McHenry. The first official 49 and 50 star American flags were flown over the fort and are still located on the premises.

To conclude this review, Anne brought incredible passion, humour and warmth to a subject which most people have little knowledge of, and her brilliant talk was a riotous passage much enjoyed by everyone present.

For further information on this fascinating topic, visit the following websites:


Our next events will be at 7.30 in The Parish Room on:

5th February: The Trinity House Story by Captain Karl Lumbers

Dedicated to safeguarding shipping & seafarers, providing education, support & welfare to the seafaring community, with a statutory duty as General Lighthouse Authority to deliver aids to navigation services for the benefit & safety of all mariners.

18th March: The Life, Work and Music of Edward Ellis Vinnicombe, by Roger Green
Hear about the extraordinary organist who influenced the musical life of Sudbury for a considerable period - the fine organ in St. Peter’s was very much his inspiration and much of his spirit and soul continues to linger in the forthright voice of this wonderful instrument

Both events are going to be great, and we very much look forward to welcoming guests both new and old to the Parish Room in Little Waldingfield.

Andy Sheppard                                                                                                       17th January 2020