Cloth and bale seals

My first blog of 2021 and again we find ourselves in a national lockdown, the third in the UK since this pandemic began approximately a year ago. I must admit I’ve struggled with the sheer bleakness of this one more so than the others, and I know many people have felt the same. During the first lockdown we at least had the benefit of beautiful spring weather to take the edge off the awfulness while the second lockdown in November was a sort of ‘quasi’ one, so many shops were open it all felt much more casual. This time, however, as we segue into the new year, things feel much more relentless and exhausting, the endless rain and greyness doesn’t help much either. Roll on the sunshine and warmer weather.

But I’m not going to spend this blog wallowing in misery; the vaccine rollout offers hope and five members of my family have already been vaccinated successfully. I’m so grateful to all the scientists and their teams who have enabled this to happen. However, strict restrictions on travel and movement remain as we continue to be instructed to ‘Stay At Home, Protect The NHS and Save Lives.’ This means that travelling into London for anything other than the most essential of reasons is not allowed at the moment so I have to be content with a Thames Path walk near where I live. This is the nearest I can get to the river right now and I’m grateful for that.

The lack of opportunity to mudlark means that I’m having to think hard about interesting topics to write about in order to keep this blog going. I always keep a few finds ‘in reserve’, so to speak, and have a few subjects up my sleeve while I wait for restrictions to lift although realistically I don’t think this will happen until probably April at the earliest. Looking through my mudlarking finds cabinet the other day I realised I hadn’t blogged about my collection of cloth and bale seal finds; this is the opportunity to do so.

Cloth and Bale Seals Found On The Thames Foreshore

The use of lead seals for commercial reasons is thought to date back to Roman times where there is evidence that the Romans first used them to record the movement of various goods throughout their vast Empire.

In 1196 Richard I of England (1157-1199) issued an ordnance called the ‘Assize of Measures’ or the ‘Assize of Cloth’ which stated that ‘woollen cloths, wherever they are made, shall be of the same width, to wit, of two ells within the lists, and of the same goodness in the middle and sides.’ Article 35 of Magna Carta re-enforced the Assize of Cloth.

During the reign of Edward I (1272-1307) an official known as an ‘Alnager’ (from the word ‘alnage’ or ‘aulnage’, meaning to control the quality of woollen cloth) was appointed to enforce this rule and became the first official inspector of cloth. His main duty was to measure each piece of fabric and to fix on it a stamp of some description in order to show that it was of the necessary size and quality. From this moment, the use of lead cloth seals became widespread because it was important to define the sizes to which cloth should be woven in order to protect people from being deceived into buying substandard stuff. And to guard against fraudulent practice.

By the mid 14th century it had become apparent that it was becoming impossible to enforce English requirements regarding cloth manufacture as imports from abroad, specifically from Europe, involved a wide and diverse range of quality of wool and imported cloth came in various sizes.

Elizabeth’s I reign (1533-1603) saw a massive increase in the wool trade with newer and lighter drapery and cloth and this meant that a revision of trade rules was necessary including a reassessment of the sizes to which cloth should be woven.

Half of a Two Part Lead Cloth Seal showing the letters ‘WORST’, the ‘W’ faded

I found my first partial cloth seal about five years ago on a well known and popular bit of the Thames Foreshore in London where ships and galleys would once have brought in cloth from other parts of England and from Europe. Clearly visible in the photo above are the letters ‘ORST’, which on closer examination turned out to be ‘WORST’, the ‘W’ having faded away over the centuries. I had no idea what this stood for until a follower on Instagram contacted me to say it would have been from the word ‘Worsted’, meaning a fine, smooth woollen yarn of the highest quality. She told me that the word originally derives from the village of Worstead in Norfolk which together with North Walsham and Aylsham had once been the manufacturing centre for yarn and cloth in the Middle Ages from as far back as the 12th century.

Cloth and bale seals are a useful way of tracking the hugely important trade networks between Britain and the rest of the world. Cloth seals differ from bale seals in that they were cast in two parts (see the image below.) The seal was attached to the cloth until such a time as the cloth was inspected, approved, then the seal was discarded. This may well be the reason why so many are found in the Thames.

The two part seal was folded over (occasionally mudlarks are lucky to find much rarer four part seals) and are generally easy to identify because they were for commercial use, therefore the obverse will show a stamp from the town of origin while a number indicating weight of the item is stamped on the reverse. The seals were joined together by a connecting strip, also cast from lead, then folded around each side of a textile and stamped closed.

Two part 18th century lead cloth seal showing the crest from the issuing town on one side and weight of the textile on the other

Lead seals were widely used in Europe from the 13th century until the 19th century to ensure regulation of goods and quality control. In addition to cloth seals, I’ve also found quite a few bale seals while mudlarking.

In February 2020, just before the pandemic hit the UK and we entered our first lockdown in mid March, I found a complete bale seal on the City of London Foreshore. A single disc seal instead of the two in cloth seals, bale seals were also used to identify a whole range of traded goods in addition to textiles. The seal is from the 19th century and bears the arms of Riga in Latvia. The images below show the obverse of the seal, the city’s arms. The reverse records information regarding weight or length of goods. In this case it shows the figure ’10’.

Single disc lead bale seal showing the coat of arms of Riga, Latvia, found by me on the Thames Foreshore in February 2020
A closer view of the bale seal showing a clearer image of the crest of Riga

The Baltic States is a geopolitical term referring to three sovereign states on the eastern coast of the Baltic Sea – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Depending on context, the term can also refer to other countries bordering the Baltic – Denmark, Finland, Germany, Poland, Sweden and Russia.

Riga is the capital city of Latvia and the largest city of the three main Baltic States. It lies on the Gulf of Riga at the mouth of the Daugava River where it meets the Baltic Sea. From as early as the 5th century Riga served as the gateway to trade in the Baltic regions and Russia. Riga’s importance was officially established as far back as 1282 when it became a member of the famous Hanseatic League -(‘Hanse’ in German) – an association of merchants organised in a loose trade and political union of North German and Baltic cities and towns.

Riga was heavily involved in trading various commodities. In the 19th century the bale seal I found would have been originally attached to a range of goods such as hemp, furs, wax, salt as well as textiles and cloth and highly commercial amber. After the goods had been checked, this seal would have been removed and thrown casually into the river.

Riga was a highly productive and wealthy city both economically and industrially and was eventually absorbed into the Soviet Union, against its will, after World War Two, finally achieving independence in 1990.

Map of 17th century Riga showing ships sailing in and out of the harbour

Just before Christmas I was given one of those My Heritage DNA kits as a gift, so carefully followed the instructions re collecting my DNA before sending the kit back and waiting for the results. Both of my parents are Polish (they came to the UK as refugees after the Second World War) and I am the first generation born and bred in London, of solidly Polish ancestry for many generations.

So I was surprised to open up the email giving me the results of the DNA test and read I was 65% Polish/Eastern European and 35% Baltic States. Somewhere way back in my family tree therefore are strong indications of Baltic heritage and this might well have included a Baltic merchant or sailor who travelled the seas to England from Riga trading goods. I like to think that perhaps I’ve finally discovered an explanation as to what draws me to the water, to the sea and the river, looking for finds from the past. Perhaps I even share DNA with the very person who dropped this bale seal into the Thames from a Baltic vessel moored on the river. I know it’s fanciful but please indulge me.

And on that note, stay safe and well and know that we will get through these difficult times.

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