The Industry That Dug Itself Out (27 March 1975)
“But who may abide the day of his coming? And who shall stand when he appeareth? For he is like a refiner’s fire.”
So runs the great bass aria from Handel’s Messiah, and for scores of years I have enjoyed hearing it whenever it has been sung by a competent singer.
Recently, however, I came upon the fact that “refiner’s fire” is not the end of the sentence in the Old Testament book from which the lines are taken (Malachi 3, verse 2). After “refiner’s fire” come the words “AND FULLER’S SOPE” (my capitals).
I wish I had never made this discovery. The banality of that additional phrase is almost comic. No wonder Handel eschewed it. But now, whenever the explosive “refiner’s fire” comes to its conclusion, I shall inevitably add to myself, on a single note an octave lower “and fuller’s sope!” thereby destroying the whole effect.
All that is by way of introducing a subject of special interest to this area: the fullers’ earth industry for which the present Woburn Sands, part of the ancient parish of Wavendon, was famous for centuries and which has been revived in recent years, though on the opposite side of the Wavendon-Woburn road to the old workings.
First of all, it should be said that the soap used by the ancient Hebrews for fulling or cleansing wool is unlikely to have been the same substance as the earth used in this country. The Hebrews used nitre as a cleansing material according to Jeremiah 2, verse 22.
The Romans, however, are thought to have used a mineral very similar to, if not identical, with the fullers’ earth of this country.
Earliest mention of its extraction at Wavendon is in a deed of 1539, though it may have been carried on long before that time.
A good description of it as a local industry of national importance comes in 1780 from Thomas Pennant, the naturalist, in his “Journey from Chester to London.” Writing of Wavendon, he says:
“Near the roadside are the noted pits of fullers’ earth, that invaluable substance which is supposed to give the great superiority to the British cloth (honestly worked) over that of other nations.
“The beds over this important marle are, firstly, several layers of reddish sand to the thickness of six yards; then succeeds a stratum of sandstone of the same colour; beneath which, for seven or eight yards more, the sand is again continued to the fuller’s earth; the upper part of which, being impure or mixed with sand, is flung aside and the rest taken up for use.
“The earth lies in layers; under which is a bed of rough white freestone, about two feet thick, and under that sand; beyond that the labourers never have penetrated.
“The great use of this earth is cleaning the cloth, or imbibing the tar, grease or tallow which are so frequently employed by the shepherds in healing the external diseases which sheep are liable to; neither can the wool be worked, spun or woven unless it be well greased. All this grease must be gotten out before the cloths are fit to wear.
“Other countries either want this species of earth, or have it in less perfection. The British legislature, therefore, have from the days of Charles I, guarded against the exportation of it under severe penalties.”
Pennant lived in Flintshire, but his daughter, Arabella, married Edward, son of Sir Walden Hammer, of Simpson. She died at Stockgrove Park in 1828 and is buried in Simpson Church, as is also her husband, who died in 1821. There is a monument to them in the chancel.
In Pennant’s time the working of fullers’ earth at Wavendon was thus a going concern. Eventually, however, the available deposits were used up; extensive excavations were needed to reach new ones and the undertaking became uneconomic.
By the middle of last century the yield was so diminished that soon afterwards the trade virtually came to an end, though I understand that from time to time abortive attempts were made to revive it. Certainly by the end of the century the trade was quite dead, for in 1900 the pits were finally dismantled.
I confess I do not know whether fullers’ earth is still much used for its original purpose. I thought it had become more a powder for dusting babies’ bottoms. I understand, however, that white, brushed-nylon baby coats can be prevented from yellowing by sprinkling that powder on them and keeping them rolled up between uses.