Robin Longbottom looks at how merchants once made a fortune from the wool trade

KEIGHLEY and South Craven fall within an area known for its soft water, as opposed to a hard water area.

The properties of soft water give a better lather on soap and consequently laundry will be softer after it has been washed (it is also reputed to make the best cup of tea!).

The abundance of soft water is one of the reasons why the worsted trade took a hold in the region during the late 17th and early 18th centuries. Softer water was desirable for washing fleeces, it used less soap, and produced a superior finished product. However, worsted yarn could only be spun from wool with a long staple – the staple is the length of the individual hair – and local sheep did not produce a fleece with this quality. Therefore, wool had to be imported to the area from Lincolnshire by merchants who were known a woolstaplers.

By the mid-18th century woolstaplers, such as Thomas Driver of Sutton-in-Craven, were making substantial fortunes. They travelled to Lincolnshire on horseback and returned with up to 40 packhorses loaded with fleeces. They employed men known as woolsorters who worked at benches with a lattice surface that allowed dirt to fall through as they unrolled and sorted the fibres, discarding those unsuitable for spinning. The wool was then washed and passed to woolcombers prior to being spun. Thomas Driver was so successful that he moved from a small farm to Stubbing Hill, a substantial Georgian house in the village. He also bought further land and property in Sutton, Cowling, Silsden, Salterforth and Barnoldswick.

With the arrival of the canal from Leeds to Skipton in 1774 large quantities of wool could be transported into the area from Lincolnshire along the navigable waterways. In Keighley, families such as the Blakeys, Butterfields and Sugdens were already trading as woolstaplers and with the mechanisation of worsted spinning at the end of the 1780s they eventually turned to spinning and manufacturing. William Blakey had established himself as a woolstapler by 1751 and his son followed in his footsteps. Isaac Butterfield, of Oakworth, began as a woolstapler towards the end of the century. His two sons, John and Isaac, were also in the trade and John became one of the wealthiest men in Keighley, leaving over £20,000 (about £1.5 million today) when he died in 1817. The Butterfield family eventually began worsted spinning and manufacturing, later owning three mills. They lived at Cliffe Hall, subsequently rebuilt as Cliffe Castle.

William Sugden was another successful woolstapler. He was born at Syke in Oakworth in 1786 and he too had followed his father into the trade. He married Mary Ann Greenwood in 1806, the daughter of John Greenwood, who owned Bridge House Mill in Haworth. They set up house in Change Gate, Keighley, now the top of Low Street, near his warehouse off Church Street. As well as dealing in fleeces he sorted them and put his wool out to woolcombers. By 1820 he had built a small mill to spin worsted yarn. It was accessed from East Parade and on the site of the present retail park at the bottom of Cavendish Street. The new mill was, rather appropriately, named Fleece Mill. To reflect his new wealth, he also built Eastwood House, a grand mansion on the outskirts of the town and now part of Keighley Leisure Centre. Despite venturing into worsted spinning, he continued his woolstaple business and to maintain the warehouse off Church Street.

When William died in 1834, he was one of town's last woolstaplers. The trade quietly slipped into history as the small Lincolnshire producers and local buyers were overwhelmed by wool imports from Australia, New Zealand and South America.