Visitors to Norwich will have come across its well-known merchant house, Strangers’ Hall. But who were the Strangers and what part did they play in Norwich’s textiles story?

The ‘Strangers’ have traditionally been given credit for reviving fortunes of ailing Norwich cloth industry by introducing light, more colourful cloths. These were collectively known as the ‘New Draperies’. In the 1560s exceptional circumstances, including a hard winter followed by a poor harvest, resulted in a critical situation in Norwich. The City Council was suggested a bold plan: to invite textiles workers from the Low Countries to settle with a view to sharing their skills. There were precedents for this both in the City and elsewhere. Many textile workers had already fled to London and Sandwich to escape religious persecution of Protestants in the Spanish Netherlands. In Norwich, despite some difficulties, the gamble paid off.

Academic debate has centred on the extent to which the success of the Norwich Stuffs of the 17th century was based on the Strangers’ input. Were Norwich weavers already producing some of these fabrics? Even if they were, the input of the newcomers helped the whole range of textiles develop.

There were clear differences between the ‘Dutch’ and, ‘Walloons’ in language, culture and in textile skills. The 1568 tax returns from members of the Dutch church describe their members as weavers, wool-combers, dyers and merchants, and their places of origin mostly as Flanders, Zeeland and Brabant. The ‘Dutch’ specialised in bays and bombazines. The corresponding returns for the Walloon church mention these trades plus others such as fringe-makers and silk weavers. The places of origin of settlers most frequently mentioned are Lille, Flanders, Artois, Valenciennes and Hainault. Walloons specialised in the cloths using pre-dyed yarns, in the inclusion of silk, in warp-led patterns and elaborate finishing techniques.

The textiles industries survived in Flemish and Walloon areas, and in some cases flourished with Lille. Leiden and Tournai renowned for its sayetterie cloths.
Strangers’ Hall
Strangers lodged in part of Strangers’ Hall in the 16th century
Strangers’ Hall
Extract from the Dutch Book of Orders, NRO, Book of Orders for wool and bayes in Dutch 1582