Diver finds an amazing collection of 'cloth seals' in the river at Durham that sheds fascinating light on life 400 years ago

A TRADER in dress accessories in 16th Century Durham obtained a licence to ply his wares from one of the most lucrative spots in the city. He set up a stall in one of the alcoves along Elvet Bridge, with the consent of the Bishop of Durham.

As the bridge is the main link from the surrounding countryside to the commercial centre of medieval Durham, he could sell his goods to the many artisans, merchants and pilgrims crossing into the city on a daily basis.

Business was so good that he needed extra room to store the buckles, buttons, pins and brooches which were in so much demand.

So he built himself a wooden booth, overhanging the side of the bridge in order to keep boxes of materials to sell to the passing trade.

But one day, disaster struck. The floor of his wooden construction collapsed and all of his mostly metal objects tumbled into the River Wear below to be lost forever.

Well, not quite forever. Because around 400 years later, a man named Gary Bankhead decided to explore the riverbed under Elvet Bridge – and what he found has transformed our understanding of what is literally a dying – or dyeing – art.

There has been a bridge at Elvet since the 12th Century, during which time thousands of objects have fallen into the depths below – either accidentally dropped or deliberately thrown.

Over an 11 year period, Gary has recovered 11,453 small objects from a small section of the riverbed underneath the bridge – now collectively known as the Durham River Wear Assemblage.

The collection is of regional and national importance, and painstaking research and analysis of many of the individual artefacts has helped build up a picture of life in the city over hundreds of years.

There are four key groups of objects among the collection.

By far the largest – about two-thirds – are dress accessories. Analysis at Durham University revealed that they had never been attached to a garment, which suggests they fell into the river when something disastrous, like a collapsing floor, happened.

There are also the tools of the craftsmen, most likely lost from riverside workshops – for example small hammers and lead tradeweights and tokens.

Another group is objects associated with pilgrimage – lead ampullae, pilgrim signs, including a Cuthbert pectoral cross, medallions and other mounts. These are most likely to have been thrown into the river as religious offerings.

But it is the fourth group – the lead cloth seals – which has given Gary the biggest insight into the history of Durham.

He has found 306 of them – the largest collection in the country outside London – and has spent several years researching and analysing them.

The seals consist of small lead discs, with a thin strip between them, one with a rivet and the other a hole which was pushed through the textile and sealed with a pair of tongs. Tiny bits of textile have survived trapped between may of the discs – which in itself is a rare thing to happen.

Gary, a Watch Manager at Durham Fire Station, describes them as "like little postcards from the past".

The 52-year-old father-of-of four from Pity Me, has established that cloth dyeing was a thriving trade in Durham for hundreds of years. The River Wear would have been lined with tenements, with a cloth dyer living in each – at least five occupied a building where the Swan and Three Cygnets pub now stands.

"If you were a dyer, you needed to be in a position adjacent or as near to the river as possible," says Gary. "That's because copious amounts of water were needed both for the dyeing process and rinsing the cloth."

The river today is about two metres deep, but that's artificial because of the weir at the Fulling Mill.

"Around 300 years ago,the river would have been knee deep, meaning dyers could essentially wade into the water and rinse the cloth there," adds Gary.

And that explains how so many cloth seals have been found in just a very small area of the river.

"They were quite flimsily attached and the vigorous shaking action would be enough to get them to fall off."

Approximately a third – about 100 – of the cloth seals are from Durham.

Gary's research has identified Gilesgate Moor as the major centre for weaving in the city.

The craftsmen were very good at their jobs, but the quality of cloth they could produce was restricted by the type of wool they had and the Durham weavers were not able to produce high quality, high standard linen.

Their products were what Gary describes as "housewife linen", the kind of cloth the ordinary people of the city would be wearing and using.

Durham was one of four counties producing linen for the UK as a whole and the weavers had to put their own seals on them.

Craft guilds flourished in the later medieval period. There were 17 in Durham, including weavers and dyers – and the Bishop controlled all of them. This would cause constant headaches for the craftsmen.

In England, the king appointed alnage officials who would inspect the quality of the cloth – and so assess the amount of tax to be levied on it. Because Durham was a Palatinate county, the Bishops ruled – and they would appoint their own alnage officials.

Gary has been able to identify one such official, Miles Stapylton, appointed the county's alnager by Bishop John Cosin in 1666. Stapylton in turn appointed deputies, whose work was dangerous.

"They were frequently assaulted going about their work," says Gary. "Across the UK there is evidence these guys were thrown into rivers and they were always being beaten up.

"They were absolutely hated because they could reject cloth they found was too short, or not the correct standard."

One document unearthed by Gary recounts such an incident in Durham from October 1670, in which one of Stapylton's deputies was "attacked by affray and he has been beaten, wounded and badly handled so that his life was despaired of".

The provenance of many of the seals are from other parts of England – for example 17th Century worsted textiles from Norfolk and Suffolk or a group of 18th Century textiles from the West Riding of Yorkshire.

But the most important group – the oldest textiles – are from the Flanders and Brabant region of northern France and Belgium, which were producing expensive, high status cloth during the late 13th and 14th centuries.

Records show that very expensive cloth was being purchased by the Bursars of Durham for use in the monasteries – for clothing and room decorations like cloth hangings – but until Gary's finds there was no record as to where they were from.

"Nowhere are these important textile centres referred to," says Gary. "We can see that very expensive cloth is being purchased, but not from where. Because cloth seals were found in Durham, it's become clear that the Bursar was procuring textiles from this group."

Other continental seals have been found from Lille in France and there are 33 from Augsberg in southern Germany, related to fustian cloth – a soft textile of the type used in undergarments.

They would have travelled 900 miles to get to Durham – up the River Rhine, through Antwerp to London and up the coast to Durham via Newcastle or Hartlepool. The cloth would then have been 'finished' in Durham by the dyers.

The discovery of the seals has, for the first time, established the existence of these trade routes and proved that the citizens of Durham were wearing the same fashions as those that appeared in the capital.

For Gary, his work on the objects has established what he thinks should be long overdue recognition for the work of the Durham dyers,

"New Elvet dyers were equals of the London dyers,and the best dyers from Europe, if not better," he contends. "They had access to exactly the same types of dyes and the skills they needed to produce cloth of identical quality.

"The North-East needs some form of recognition as being a regional centre of textile finishing."

Gary's research on lead cloth seals is coming to an end and his findings are soon to be published in a book by the Architectural and Archaeological Society of Durham and Northumberland.

He will soon turn his attention to the medieval buttons in his collection. But he hopes the entire Durham River Wear Assemblage will be a resource to be researched and enjoyed in Durham for many years to come.

"They are the small things forgotten," says Gary. "The everyday objects of the citizens of Durham dating from the 12th through to the 20th century.

"It is my view that the assemblage belongs to the citizens of Durham, not me, so I've gifted the entire collection to the Museum of Archaeology, to get them on display."