DAVID ARNOLD - Did this woolly thinking cost Empire the colonies?

Sussex sheep have long been valuable livestock. In this 19th century scene, farmers and shepherds are examining animals with a view to buying or selling. For many years England strived to maintain a monopoly in the wool trade. SUS-140310-130217001 SUS-140310-130217001 SUS-140310-130217001
Sussex sheep have long been valuable livestock. In this 19th century scene, farmers and shepherds are examining animals with a view to buying or selling. For many years England strived to maintain a monopoly in the wool trade. SUS-140310-130217001 SUS-140310-130217001 SUS-140310-130217001

Last week I regaled you with the story of how the celebrated Southdown sheep came into being around the village of Glynde near Lewes about 230 years ago.

The Southdown is generally credited with being one of the oldest breeds of “pedigree” sheep. But even in their unimproved state prior to the end of the 18th century, the sheep on the East Sussex hills possessed several outstanding and unique qualities.

They produced a fleece of fine wool that fetched good prices and their hindquarters were heavier than the front and provided excellent quality meat. Further, the sheep thrived on inhospitable heath land and hillsides that yielded poor pickings for other strains.

Almost certainly examples of the animals that would later be bred into the Southdown sheep were carried across the Atlantic into the infant English colonies of the Americas as early as 1640 or so. They may even have accompanied the settlers who built Jamestown, the first permanent English outpost in the New World set up in Virginia in the very first decade of the 17th century. John Winthrop, first governor of Connecticut, acquired a flock of ewes from the South Downs in 1648.

Sensing burgeoning competition and keen to maintain a monopoly in the wool trade, England actively discouraged a wool industry in the colonies. Soon a lucrative business in sheep smuggling grew up. In 1664 it is reckoned there were at least 10,000 sheep in America and the General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony had the temerity to pass a law requiring youth to learn to spin and weave to encourage the industry. By 1699, America, still a colony, was actively selling wool goods wherever there was a demand. In that same year the English Parliament passed the Wool Act that prohibited the colonists from exporting “wool, wool yarn, or wool cloth” to markets outside the individual colony in which it was produced. In effect, it forced all wool and wool products produced in British colonies to be sold only to official British markets. From the latter it could be resold to citizens in all areas of the empire. Each sale generated taxes. Draconian punishments for defying the new law were announced including the final resort of the amputation of an offender’s right hand - though I haven’t been able to find any record of such an awful act actually being carried out.

Unsurprisingly, the Wool Act didn’t go down well with the colonists. Indeed, it takes only a very small leap of imagination to understand how indignant Americans came to view the spinning or weaving of wool and the sale of such goods to any willing buyer anywhere as a simple act of patriotism. To wear clothing made with home-grown American woollens was to wear a symbol of pride. A pride that in turn planted the seeds of eventual nationhood.

These restrictions on free commerce imposed by a government far away in Britain on the industrious colonists were the first in a long line of heavy-handed measures. Viewed in a timeline, the draconian Wool Act, just as much as the infamous Stamp Act that came much later in 1765, are contributory causes that directly led to the American Revolution.

There’s another twist to the Southdown sheep saga and the American Revolution. General Thomas Gage - who for a time led the British forces attempting to suppress the uprising of the colonists - hailed from Firle Place, at the foot of Firle Beacon and less than a mile from the village of Glynde. Gage’s extensive estate and land would have been full of sheep. He first went to the colonies in 1755 and engaged in wars against the French and native Indians; at one time a comrade in arms was a certain George Washington.

In 1763 Gage was appointed commander of all the British forces in North America and he proved a successful military man. Gage came home to England in 1773 and missed the famous Boston Tea Party and resulting rebellion.

In 1774 he sailed to Boston to take on the role of military Governor of Massachusetts with a brief to resolve the crisis. Part of his task was to report back to England on the growing clamour of many colonists demanding independence. In this respect he badly misread the situation and his missives did much to widen further the gulf between the settlers and the mother country. In short, he presided over a missed opportunity to mend fences and create compromises that could have kept all of North America firmly allied to Britain.

War became inevitable. In June 1775 Gage achieved an ultimately hollow victory over a force of colonists at the Battle of Bunker Hill. Though not disgraced, as a consequence of failing to crush the rebels he was recalled to England where he continued with his military service. Of his time in command in the colonies, one observer wrote: “General Gage was a good and wise man … surrounded by difficulties.”

He died in 1787 and was buried in the family plot at Firle.

Then there was Thomas Paine. As a Customs & Excise man based in Lewes from 1768 to 1774 he would also have been well aware of the importance of sheep to the economy of Sussex.

But Paine’s sympathies were very much with the American colonists and their growing struggle to break away from the monarchy and British rule. In 1774, Paine quit England and went to Philadelphia. Here he took an oath of allegiance to become a citizen of Pennsylvania and “with pen and sword” famously threw himself into America’s fight for independence. (Incidentally, in one more of history’s strange twists, Pennsylvania was named after William Penn who was married to a lady who came from the village of Ringmer, just a mile distant from Glynde!)

Though it’s tempting to speculate, it is unlikely but not impossible that Gage and Paine ever met although for a while in 1773 – 1774 the former would have spent time at his Firle estate while Paine was still employed as a revenue man in Lewes. That they both sailed the Atlantic respectively in May and November of 1774 to join opposing sides in the American Revolutionary War is just another remarkable coincidence.