Combe Martin Hemp Archaeology

A History of Hemp, Retting and Fulling


Modified on April 12, 2024


During its heyday from the 1500s to the 1800s, the hemp industry in Combe Martin played a pivotal role in bolstering the local economy, fostering growth and stability. 

In Combe Martin during 2008, archaeologists uncovered what they thought were the foundations of a 12th century monastic industrial hemp complex (BBC). During 2001-2002, Field Archaeologist Trevor Dunkerley had helped to find lead-smelting waste in the village (Paynter, S., Historic England).

Trevor proposed that the hemp complex was a monastic grange or a manorial farmstead, constructed by the Benedictine Cluniac Order from the 12th-century St Mary Magdalene Priory in Barnstaple.

From the late 18th century, the market and demand for Combe Martin hemp were significantly diminished due to the emergence of alternative materials, regulatory controls, global competition, and changes in the maritime industry.

Yet the positive benefits can be encapsulated as follows:

Employment Opportunities: The hemp industry was a major employer in Combe Martin and its vicinity. The cultivation, harvesting and processing of hemp crops necessitated a large workforce, thereby generating employment opportunities at all levels of the local populace.

Trade and Commerce: The cultivation of hemp in Combe Martin gave rise to a robust trade network especially during the Age of Sail. Hemp fibres facilitated trade and vast production of a variety of civil and military commodities. These included ropes, sails, netting, clothing, shoemakers’ thread, and paper.

The superior quality of hemp from Combe Martin enabled the growth of local businesses and fostered trade relationships with other regions, thereby injecting income into the village and spurring economic growth.

Economic Interdependence: The thriving hemp industry in Combe Martin engendered a network of economic interdependence within the local community.

Hemp farmers and processors were reliant on other businesses, such as suppliers of farming equipment and transportation services. This interdependence stimulated further economic activity in the region.

Ancillary Businesses: The prosperous hemp industry in Combe Martin led to the emergence of subsidiary businesses that either supported or complemented hemp production.

Those businesses included hemp processing plants and warehouses, as well as shops selling a diverse range of hemp-derived products. Further benefits came from complex managerial and logistical services around the core product.

In summary: the hemp industry in Combe Martin was not merely a source of employment but also a catalyst for trade, commerce, and sustainable economies  within the village and its surrounding areas.

Combe Martin Grew the 'Best Hemp in the County'

In the reign of Elizabeth I (r. 1558 - 1603), Combe Martin was a great place for hemp according to the Devon antiquary Thomas Westcote (c. 1567 – c. 1637).

By the eighteenth-century: the lands about Combe Martin were noted for producing the best hemp in the county, and that in great abundance (Brice, A. [1759], in Lysons, D.,1822).

Records show that hemp was cultivated widely in Britain from at least C9 to C1800. There was a sizeable hemp industry at Combe Martin, over hundreds of years. Hemp was grown in the village from at least 1535 AD, and production in great quantities continued into the 19th Century, supplying the whole of Devon.

Read a history of Combe Martin's industry ˃

Combe Martin Hemp in Tudor Times

English historian and topographer of Devon, Thomas Westcote, alias Westcott, reported that in the reign of Elizabeth I [r. 1558 - 1603], Combe Martin was a great place for hemp, and a project was formed for establishing a port at Hartland entirely on account of this trade (Snell, F.J., 1911). 

Hemp was one of the first plants to be spun into usable fibre 50,000 years ago (Tourangeau, W., 2015, Re-defining Environmental Harms). Elements of hemp have also been used for making paper.

For centuries in the British Isles: items of rope, fabrics and industrial materials were made of strong fibre, stripped from the stem of the hemp plant. Commercially useful bast fibres include flax, hemp, jute, kenaf, ramie, roselle, sunn, and urena.

The early-modern hemp industry between c.1500 and 1800 AD was more versatile than has been supposed. Not only capable of making ropes and canvas: hemp was used to make linen and hempen cloth - clothing - to rival all but the best flaxen cloth and yarn (British History Online, 2023).

As a food, hemp seed has double the amount of protein as flax seed, while flax contains more fibre. Hemp also produces a higher yield than flax, which is one of the reasons why England - and other countries - grew hemp for the nation's navy.

Records illustrate the importance of hemp cultivation to village economies; it flourished best in old meadows and on low-lying alluvial land near rivers. 

Fundamental to the English Navy

Industrial hemp is a botanical class of Cannabis sativa cultivars, grown chiefly for industrial or medicinal use. And it was once used in common currency. Typically with low THC content, hemp is grown for numerous markets; and it was fundamental to the success of England's navy.

Hemp for Food and Fibre

England absolutely depended on hemp for food and fibre during the Age of Sail,  and farmers could pay their taxes with it. Today across Europe, hemp cultivation is expanding as a greener and more sustainable textile.

Compulsory Hemp Crops for England under the Tudors

King Henry VIII (r. 1491-1537) required all farmers to cultivate one-quarter acre of hemp or flax for every sixty acres of land under tillage, on pain of punishment.  Queen Elizabeth I continued the legislation in 1563 for the next thirty years.

Woollen or flaxen clothing and linens were common, but less expensive utilitarian hemp and nettles were used for weaving, and for making sustainable work clothes in Europe from the Middle Ages. 

Britain's Age of Sail

Hemp was also integral to making sail canvas and rope; therefore it became vital during the late 15th to mid-19th century, when commerce was dominated by ship trade.

England's Royal Navy was a great customer; ships may have been smoke free, but no hemp and no ropes meant no sail. Hemp was also used to make cheaper aprons as well as undergarments.

England in the Carolean Era

In the reign of Charles II (r. 1660-1685) the diarist and MP Samuel Pepys F.R.S. (1633-1703) also served as administrative head of the Royal Navy from 1673. Covered extensively in his diaries, Pepys was responsible for procuring and selecting thousands of tons of homegrown and imported hemp for the navy.

Samuel Pepys' coded diaries survived the Great Fire of London in 1666 (Royal Museums Greenwich). Supposedly, Pepys buried his papers in his garden, along with gold, and a highly valuable wheel of Parmesan cheese.

By the year 1700, the Royal Navy had 127 battleships and amphibious craft, and 49 cruisers (Historic-UK, 2023). It was said that no other natural fibre could withstand the forces of the open ocean or the ravages of salt water as well as hemp. 

Medieval Hemp Archaeology in Combe Martin 

In Combe Martin during 2008, volunteer archaeologists uncovered what they thought were the foundations of a 12th century monastic industrial hemp complex

Volunteer Field Archaeologist Trevor Dunkerley suggested the site was a monastic grange or demesne farm, built by Cluniacs from the C12 St Mary Magdalene Priory at Barnstaple. Whether he was right or wrong, it's a fascinating find, and not impossible.

Combe Martin's “Rack Park” hints at its association with wool processing, where wool was hung on racks during the fulling process.

Hemp was more widely grown in the past and it does have a long history of  cultivation in Britain, including Scotland. There is definite evidence of hemp (Cannabis sativa) grown in Combe Martin, from the 16th century in the reign of Henry VIII. Hemp was probably grown to make rope for the local silver mines.

Roman and Anglo-Saxon hemp finds in Britain date back to 140 – 400 AD. Great Britain’s history indicates that hemp has been cultivated since 800 A.D.(Hemppedia, 2018). It was mainly grown for fibre and it played a crucial role in the country's formation.

Compulsory Hemp Cultivation in Tudor England 

In 1533, King Henry VIII made hemp cultivation compulsory by law (British Hemp Alliance, 2023). The king wanted the strong, rot-resistant fibres from hemp, for the ropes, sails and clothing of his new British navy.

It appears the British were utterly dependent on hemp, to maintain their sea power and their long-running wars with France and Spain.

Cultivating hemp fitted in well with pastoral agriculture; it needed little attention during the summer months, the busiest time for farmers. It could also be grown on the same plot year after year with minimum deterioration in the yield (ibid). 

Drug Laws in Reverse

When Tudor era farmers balked at the prospect of compulsory hemp crops on their precious fields, Queen Elizabeth I licensed agents by Letters Patent to form local drug squads, in reverse of modern cannabis laws.

Avoiding compulsory cannabis laws was a risky business, and detecting and fining rebel agriculturalists was profitable. The queen's agents enjoyed the monopoly of extracting money from lawbreakers who refused to grow their due share of the cannabis crop.

Shoemakers Thread

"As it was, the shoemakers’ thread manufactured in this neighbourhood was sufficient to supply the whole of the western counties" (Snell, J.F., 1911).

Westcote stated that "Combe Martin supplied the whole of Devon with shoemakers’ thread, made from hemp there grown".

Hemp Retting and Fulling in Combe Martin

Reported by BBC Devon Local History in 2008, Combe Martin’s Trevor Dunkerley said “the amazing thing about [this] site is that mining in the 19th century literally covered up centuries of early industry...quite clearly during the bust years they turned to hemp growing, hemp retting and also the fulling of cloth.”

“And that appears to be what kept the people of this village fed throughout the centuries...if you look at the foundations, the walls, the buttresses, this place just shouts of power. And the people who had the power in the 12th century were the monastic orders.” Quoted from the BBC Devon article, 21.07.2008.

About Monastic Granges

Medieval monastic granges were outlying, self-sustaining farms and production centres, when wool and hemp were very valuable and marketable commodities.  Often with a mill and a tithe barn for storing rents, these granges were independent from the secular manorial system (Historic England, 2023). 

Until the Henrician dissolution of the monasteries in the 1530s, monastic granges were self-sustaining farm complexes (, 2023).

Developed in the 12th century, Granges such as Lindisfarne’s Fenham or Durham’s Muggleswick were outlying landholdings held by monasteries or priories. Such landed estates were used for food production, and centred on farms with out-buildings.

About Retting

Retting is the ancient process of separating Hemp plant fibres; a pit or well was used for the prolonged steeping of the flax plant in water, to separate the fibres from the wood. The resultant strong fibres were used to fabricate ropes, shoes, food, clothing, and household textiles.

About Fulling

In fulling or fulling mills, woven woollen cloth was beaten while wet to make the opposing fibres interlock and form a more homogenous uniform textile. When woollen cloth has been first woven, the fibres will be loose and unmeshed, similar to a piece of sackcloth. By fulling, the cloth is thickened and cleaned.

A Thriving Trade by the Eighteenth-Century

There was a large market for fulling and woollen cloth in Wales throughout the 1700s. In his Tours in Wales (1778–1781), Thomas Pennant reported that cloth was sent chiefly to America, to clothe people. Or to Flanders, where it is used by the peasants

Fulling Mills

Fulling eliminated oil and dirt. Although the practice of fulling cloth was common much earlier, mechanized fulling mills appeared in Europe in the 12th century. Water-driven mill wheels  were often part of the fulling process. Examples of uniform homogenous textiles include multi-ply yarn or thread, polypropylene, and nylon.

Applications for Hemp

Uses for hemp, then and now, include textiles, the paper industry, insulation and building materials. Shoemakers and threadmakers, sail-makers and fishermen, they all used hemp in Combe Martin. You can see these products and find out more from Combe Martin Museum.

Hemp for Sustainability

Hemp is used in horticulture, animal nutrition, agrochemistry, energy production and in environmental products. Now considered a viable substitute for plastics, and a biofuel, Hemp continues to be a sustainable and cost-effective commodity.

Combe Martin Museum

The BBC reported that the archaeological finds from the site were put on display at Combe Martin Museum. The well-documented history of mining for silver and other ores in Combe Martin has been described as “boom and bust”. This discovery suggests that local people supported themselves by other means such as hemp and fabric workings.

In the longer term, the group hoped to attract funding for a more detailed interpretation centre. As for the monastic archaeology discovery: "From the evidence we have so far, this site was certainly monastic," added Trevor Dunkerley.

"It was probably built by the Cluniacs from St Mary's Priory in Barnstaple [St Mary Magdalene, founded in about 1107]. Pottery finds have shown us they were here.” 

The Cluniac Movement c. 950–c.1130

Trevor concluded that while the Cluniacs probably came here for the silver, they would have needed other sustaining industries. During its height (c. 950–c.1130), the Benedictine offshoot Cluniac (Cluny) movement was one of the largest religious forces in Europe (Oxford Reference, 2023). 

© Author  J.P. 2023-2024

Further Reading: Researching the History of Monastic Granges (Historic Buildings).

Sources accessed 2023-2024:

BBC Devon Local History article online dated 21.07.2008.

Brice, Andrew (1759): The Grand GazetteerOr, Topographic Dictionary, Both General and Special, and Ancient as Well as Modern &c....Printed by and for the author, 1759.

British Hemp Alliance, The Benefits of Growing Hemp. 2023.

British History Online (BHO), Hemp - Herse. August 2023.

Oxford Reference (2023). Cluniacs. Monastic Grange. 2023. 2023.

Combe Martin Local History Group (1989). Out Of The World And Into Combe Martin. Rotapress.

Historic England (2023): Agricultural History and Farm Buildings. 2023.

Kristian, Martin (2015): The Great Fire of London. Royal Museums Greenwich online.

Lysons, D. & S. (1822): Magna BritanniaBeing a Concise Topographical Account of the Several Counties of Great Britain. Containing Devonshire, Volume 6. Cadell. British Library, Historical Print Editions; Illustrated edition (24 Mar. 2011).

Paynter, S. (2003): Lead Smelting Waste from the 2001-2002 Excavations at Combe Martin, Devon. London: English Heritage.

Pepys, Samuel (Author), Mynors Bright (Translator): Diary of Samuel PepysComplete. Available in the Public Domain.

Snell, F.J. (1911). The Blackmore Country. London. Adam and Charles Black.

Tourangeau, Wesley (2015) Re-defining Environmental Harms: Green Criminology and the State of Canada’s Hemp Industry. Canadian Journal of Criminology and Criminal Justice. August 2023. 2023.