Cotswolds Salt, Silk & Tobacco

by | Oct 3, 2023 | Guide to The Cotswolds

At different times over the centuries, other commodities contributed to the landscape, even if all that remains of them is a name on a signpost or on a map. The earliest commodity to leave its mark is salt, which, for its various uses – from the setting of dyes in textiles to a medical ingredient to an agent for curing food – has been key to human existence for thousands of years. So important was it considered that Roman soldiers were paid a salt allowance – a ‘salarium’ – from which the modern word ‘salary’ is derived. Salt is not available everywhere, which means that the routes used for its distribution by packhorse and oxcart have played a major role in the construction of the roadway system. These ancient routes, predating Roman roads and drovers routes, radiated from Droitwich, near Birmingham, which is situated above large deposits of rock salt. It is surmised that one important Cotswold route was Worcester, Elmley Castle, Ashton under Hill, Dumbleton, Toddington, Hailes, Winchcombe, Stow-on-the-Wold, Salperton, Coln St. Aldwyn, Lechlade, and so to the coast in Hampshire.

Silk was a much later development. Attempts to create a silk industry were made during the reign of James I but the British climate was inimical to a reliable sericulture. Silk weaving, as a result of the influx of Protestant Huguenots into Britain following persecution in France, was more successful, reaching the Cotswolds in the eighteenth century, when the wool industry was in decline. The main centre was the village of Blockley, near Chipping Campden, whereby in 1884 six silk mills powered by the fast-flowing Blockley brook provided work for about six hundred people preparing silk for ribbon-making factories in Coventry. This small centre of industry began to decline after 1860 when the levy on imported silk was imposed. Other centres were Broadway and Winchcombe, where the industry is commemorated only in the name of one of the back streets. Blockley, on the other hand, owes its character to some extent to the brief period of nineteenth-century industrialisation.

Poverty was also the spur to the cultivation of tobacco during the 16th and early 17th centuries in the area around Winchcombe, as well as in other parts of the Cotswolds and on the vale beneath the Cotswold escarpment. Tobacco had only been recently discovered in what were then the American Colonies. It was originally sold for medicinal purposes, and then as snuff. Such was its popularity that entrepreneurs thought they saw an opportunity but in 1619 just as the first crops were ready for harvest, tobacco cultivation was banned by the British government, which wanted to preserve its monopoly in Virginia. Not only the government stood to lose but also merchants who imported tobacco from America:

“The very planting of tobacco hath proved the decay of my trade, for since it hath been planted in Gloucestershire, especially at Winchcombe, my trade hath proved nothing worth.”

Nonetheless, local people persisted in growing tobacco illegally and the fact is even mentioned by Samuel Pepys in his diary when he noted that a force of guards was sent to Winchcombe to ‘spoil the tobacco there’. The local tithe barn was used to dry the leaves, whilst houses in North Street stored the cured tobacco. Acts of Parliament did not deter them and although soldiers were despatched to prevent it, the cultivation of tobacco continued until at least 1675 in the Winchcombe area. There exists, as with silk, a single memento to that period of Winchcombe’s history: the name of a road, Tobacco Close.