From Retting Pits to Flaxen Locks

By Angus Townley
Regional History 

The Growing and processing of flax and hemp in the Isle of Axholme has been an important industry for a long time. In her paper ‘The Isle of Axholme before  Vermuyden’ , Joan Thirsk describes how the importance of the industry was underlined by local probate inventories. Flax and hemp laid the foundations for a comparatively large scale domestic industry of spinning and weaving. The probate inventories show that the flourishing sack and canvas making industry of Axholme in the nineteenth century had a long history behind it. To the average peasant family of the sixteenth century it was profitable by-employment whereas to the poor it was one of the principal ways of earning a living.


One of the victories won by the inhabitants of Axholme in their prolonged legal battle with  Vermuyden was an award in 1636 of £400 for a stock to employ the poor in the making of sackcloth to compensate them for the loss of fishing and fowling rights. In the mid-nineteenth century, the domestic industry gave way to steam flax mills, though this was relatively short-lived as by 1900 the industry had died out, only to have a partial revival during World War I.

In 1744 there was a dreadful fire in Haxey that burnt down 62 houses. The fire commenced in a flax manufactory near the Church and is supposed to have been the act of arson.  A few days before the master of the manufactory discharged one of his men for misconduct who let fall some vindictive expressions He was committed to Lincoln Castle on suspicion but as no further evidence could be brought against him he was of course acquitted at the next Assizes.

Newspaper extract
The processing of flax had a number of stages;
After harvesting the flax crop underwent a process known as retting. The flax was laid in ponds or streams so that the flax fibres can be separated from the woody stem of the plant. The process would last up to several weeks an was extremely smelly – which is why retting pits were usually located at some distance from houses.

The retted plants were then laid out in a field to dry so that they could then be further processed through the following steps;

Breaking and Scutching – the stems of the flax plant were then broken so that the woody inner core can be separated from the fibres o the outside of the stem. Scutching was the initial process of combing out the woody inner core from the flax.
Heckling  – This was a process similar to carding wool in which the flax fibre is passed through finer and finer combs until the skeins of fax resembled flaxen locks of hair.
The flax could then be used for weaving into sackcloth or for making ropes on a rope walk.
The steam flax mill in Crowle – built in the mid-1800s.


The ‘Retting Pits’ Project is part of the Heritage Lottery Funded IOAHC partnership and has a number of objectives.

These are;
To identify and record features associated with the flax industry including:
  • Retting Pits
  • Warehouses
  • Mills and processing facilities
  • Rope walks etc.
Archaeological study of retting pits
  • Core samples for pollen analysis
  • Excavation of retting pit
Experimental archaeology  project:
  • Grow flax and hemp
  • Process flax and hemp
  • Spin and weave flax & hemp into sackcloth and linen


An external rope walk similar to Shiilitos n Crowle.
Being part of the partnerships has some great benefits. Last year Project Wildscape ran a pollen identification workshop which I attended and learnt how to identify pollen. They will be running further workshops to help build a team of citizen scientists who can help with lots of different projects across the partnership.

Team Wildscape might also be helping out with the coring of retting pits so watch this space for more details!



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