local history sherburn-in-elmet West Riding

Tazzle Man Returns


From ‘Costume of Yorkshire’, 1814, Courtesy Yorkshire Ancestors


Today I’m re-visiting the subject of a recent blog post.

Killingbeck, Leeds gent George Walker (1781-1856), toured Yorkshire in 1813-14, recording the clothing of the ordinary man and woman for his book, ‘Costume of Yorkshire’.

Plate XXIII showed a teasel field, and was sketched/painted in the village where I grew up.  Many of Walker’s illustrations had inaccurate details in the background; a market cross where there never was one; churches with spires that should have had towers, etc. But he has got the Sherburn church and topography right. The teasel field workers were gathering the teasels into a makeshift hut, to dry them out before they’d be taken along the road to Leeds, 14 1/2 miles away (along the old Great North Road).

Yesterday, driving through the village we found a neglected patch of field, containing many teasels.  Bad phone camera picture but you can see the church in the background, and it is a similar orientation to Walker’s picture but slightly more distant from the church. Probably one or two fields along and further out of the village. (Click to enlarge).

Sherburn-in-Elmet, teasels growing wild, 201 years after 'The Teasel Field'.
Sherburn-in-Elmet, teasels growing wild, 201 years after ‘The Teasel Field’.

It’s amazing to think these teasels may be descendents of those grown in this area in Napoleonic times…

Incidentally, Walker doesn’t exaggerate the steepness of the hill behind the church. It looks less dramatic in my photo due to the distance and angle, but Walker got it right. The precise field where he sketched is an acre or two higher than where I stood with the camera, today.

My only relative in the village around Napoleonic times was a farmer/saddler, James Roodhouse. (Recently found on tax returns for ‘Huddlestone’, so he was either a tenant at Huddlestone Hall, or a farm there – fairly remote from the main village, but within sight of the church).  His sister was my great X 5 grandmother, Hannah Cleveland nee Roodhouse. The other Roodhouses farmed in both Wombwell and Cawood.

View of wild teasels, looking across field towards Little Woods.
View of Finkle Hill wild teasels, looking across field towards Little Woods.

The old saddlery was just next to the crossroads, at the start of Moor Lane; a five minute walk from where this picture was taken.  (Since writing this I have found the Roodhouses at Huddlestone, though, not in the vilage as such – September, 2017).

Sherburn is built on a crossroads with the four main roads being Kirkgate, Moor Lane, Finkle Hill and Low St.  I grew up on a lane just off Kirkgate, (pronounced the Yorkshire way, ‘Kerr-gate’), but this picture was taken up Finkle Hill, just out of the village.

This second photo shows the teasels in the field, looking not up towards the church but across to Little Wood. Just to give a sense of how many there are!  Apologies for the poor photo quality – I was using a phone camera and facing into the sun, so I couldn’t even see what I was shooting at the time!

It remains to be seen if these teasels are feasibly the kind used in the Leeds wool trade. According to Wikipedia:

The genus [dipsacus] includes about 15 species of tall herbaceous biennial plants (rarely short-lived perennial plants) growing to 1–2.5 metres (3.3–8.2 ft) tall.

But how to figure out what sort of teasels these are?  Also according to Wikipedia:

The Fuller’s Teasel (the cultivar group Dipsacus fullonum Sativus Group; syn. D. sativus) was formerly widely used in textile processing, providing a natural comb for cleaning, aligning and raising the nap on fabrics, particularly wool.[7] It differs from the wild type in having stouter, somewhat recurved spines on the seed heads


Different teasels illustrated below. With its recurved spines, it looks likely the Sherburn teasel is dipsacus fullonum. (AKA “common teasel” or “fuller’s teasel”).

Walker wrote:


The Teasel, or Dipsacus sativus, is a plant much cultivated in the east part of the West Riding, though from the impoverishing nature of the crop, which requires two years to bring it to maturity, it is seldom approved by the proprietor of the soil. It is however an article of essential importance to the Clothier, who uses the crooked awns of the heads of this plant for raising the nap on the cloth. In the autumn of the second year the heads of the plant are cut off, carefully dried, and after being fixed upon long sticks, are conveyed away for sale. Temporary sheds are usually erected in the teasel fields for the work-people employed, who not unfrequently for very interesting groups.

The question is: are these dipsacus fullonum  garden escapes from 20thC flower arrangers, or escapes from the cultivars grown in these fields two hundred years ago?  It is not close to any houses (open fields all round) – so I suspect the latter – also as you can see, just the sheer number growing in the bit of fallow field, suggests they’re not a casual garden escape. Dipsacus grows easily from seed and would come back every year on an undisturbed bit of land; even if the land was cultivated for decades they might survive then re-invade from the verges (and this field borders the road so will always have had a verge). Walker called them ‘sativus’, but there seems to have always been some confusion around the nomenclature.

The specific name ‘fullonum’ and the common name ‘Fuller’s teasel’ both imply that this species was used in fulling, the process of shrinking and thickening the cloth after weaving (Ryder, 1993). Clapham et al. (1962) used the name D. fullonum ssp. sativus instead of D. sativus for the plant with stiff recurved spines that was long used in the textile industry.  describes some confusion over the nomenclature.

At the time Walker was writing, fullonum was seen as a sub-species of sativus.

By the time Walker was writing, teasels were used to raise the nap on cloth manually, as well as attached to machinery. Teasels were sometimes mounted on a cylinder used to dress cloth, called a gig mill. Although in Walker’s illustration of croppers, the teasels were mounted on small frames, used to raise the cloth by hand – which was commoner in Yorkshire and the likely fate of most of the teasels grown in Sherburn.  Lipson wrote:

… In the West Riding, where most kinds of machinery were introduced more easily than elsewhere… opposition was even more protracted than in the West Country. At the end of the eighteenth century the gig mill, although not unknown in Yorkshire, was still very exceptional, and the majority of cloths were dressed by hand on account of the hostility of the men… [A] Yorkshire manufacturer, Hirst, who wrote an account of his career as a clothier, declares that as late as 1810, ‘if a Yorkshire manufacturer went into a market with one from the West of England, and they both had a piece of cloth manufactured from the same wool, the latter would get a better price by nearly one-half.’ the West Country having machinery for finishing cloth which Yorkshire employers dared not introduce…’… When Hirst himself introduced gig mills, the journeymen croppers complained bitterly: ‘Their bitterness against me was so great at that time that I had to keep ten armed men every night to guard my premises. I never ventured out at night; and even when I went out at daytime, I always had a brace of loaded pistols in my pocket.’….

The History of the English Woollen and Worsted Industries, E. Lipson, 1921, 189-190

Who’d have imagined the common teasel could be so… political?

Below  are images of dipsacus sativus, fullonum, and one of the seed-heads from the Sherburn teasels. Are these survivors descendents from the Napoleonic era crop? Could that even be possible?  Today, I was only a couple of fields down from where Walker stood with his sketch book or easel in 1813. And there is a corner of that field that is forever West Riding  wool industry.

Dipsacus sativus – spines not recurved. Wiki Commons.



Sherburn teasel, November, 2014
Sherburn teasel, November, 2014. Recurved spines
Plate from ‘British Entomology VI’, John Curtis showing Dipsacus fullonum, 1829 Wiki Commons

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