With many thanks to Roger Guttridge for his permission to use these extracts from his articles ‘A habit from the past’ and The water that is passed’ for Dorset Life.
Swanskin had nothing to do with swans. It was a coarse, wool-based cloth known for its warmth and waterproof qualities. The material was used to manufacture hooded garments popular with fishermen travelling to Newfoundland.
This picture shows a fisherman wearing such a garment or ‘habit’ thought to be made from swanskin, whose manufacture provided a living for generations of people living in Sturminster Newton.
The fabric was white hence its name. North Dorset’s swanskin industry dates back to at least 1578 when Sturminster clothier, James Yonge, is recorded as seeking tax relief on cloth sold to mariners ‘ going beyond the seas’. Following John Cabot’s discovery of Newfoundland in 1497, numbers of ships were sailing from the South West to exploit the cod-rich North Atlantic. Poole increasingly dominated the Newfoundland trade and was just down the road from Sturminster Newton and carriers carried cloth to the hundreds of ships bound for Newfoundland each Spring.
These carriers were apt to stop at a few pubs along the way, safe in the knowledge that if they fell asleep at the reins, their horses knew the route well enough to complete the journey unassisted. But not all these journeys went to plan. At Spetisbury, the local lads thought it a jolly jape to turn the horse around and point it in the direction from which it had come. When the carter awoke, he would find himself back where his journey had begun. This mischief became such a problem that in the Dorset Archives is a letter from a carter asking a magistrate to do something about it. The alternative, of course would have been for the carters to cut back on the pub-crawling and stay awake.