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The Dye House, used in the colouring of cloth in the locally important cloth making industry, is mentioned in historic documents between 1432 and 1626 . The exact position is not clear, but it appears to have stood in what is now Bridge Street, adjacent to the town water mill, on the south bank of the river Dun.
Amongst Norman Hidden's papers was the following collection of notes on the Dye House:
"Where there was a cloth making industry there was also dyeing. After the processes of carding and spinning, the woven cloth was taken to be fulled and then dyed. Dyeing was a skilled process; it required premises which contained a furnace or furnaces, a constant or ready supply of water and adequate drainage. It was natural therefore for dyers to seek a riverside site (as also did fullers).
The earliest reference to such premises in Hungerford is found in the Minister's Accounts of 1432 (PRO ref. DL29/683/11061) when a new rent of 8d. per annum is paid for a piece of the lord's soil with the watercourse called Portwater on the North side, in the tenure of John Gorwey, dyer. This piece was 3 perches or about 48ft in length, and in breadth 2 feet to the end of the hall, 6 feet in the middle by his furnaces and 1 foot at the western end adjoining his close. It had been demised to Gorwey by Court Roll in the previous year (1431) for the term of his life. The measurements given reveal something of the details of the arrangement for the water supply and drainage, as well as the location of the furnace. [An article in "Norfolk Archaeology" No. 35 (1973) describes and illustrates by diagram a late medieval dyehouse in Norwich.]
In addition to the costs of installation of drainage and furnaces, other expensive equipment included the large leaden vessels used to heat the water over the furnace and into which the cloth was dipped for dying. Large quantities of dye were required as well as agents (such as alum) to make the colours fast and to give them brilliance. Dyes for many different colourings were required and these were often expensive and needed to be imported. To keep a stock of the various colours and blends was an expensive business. Dyers were master craftsmen, for much skill was needed to produce fine results; they also needed to be men of wealth because of their capital costs.
Of course, crude dyeing e.g. of coarse cloth in a single colour, could be undertaken by an individual at home using small vats.
The fuller and the dyer obviously had close connections and both required a supply of water; both therefore might make use of a mill to provide water. In Hungerford it seems clear that the Portwater (or town water) site was adjacent to the town mill, and this is confirmed by references in later town surveys to the dye-house, which immediately follow reference to the mill.
The entries in the yearly Minister's Accounts relating to John Gorwey continue through successive reigns eg DL29/691/11193 in 1487. This by no means implied that John Gorwey was still alive at this time , merely that the lease to him in 1431 was the document on which a claim for rent might be based. The 1470 town rental has the same entry, unfortunately in a very muddled section, and it may be that the entry relates to a "rent in decay". Whether John Gorwey continued dyeing or not, however, there is evidence of another dyer - one Thomas Barbour, dyer, cited as a 'rebel' in 1461 (that is, probably as a supporter of the Lancastrian cause) in a complaint of a local disturbance. (C1/28/421).
At some time after 1457 (and probably after 1470 or the information would have appeared in the town rental of that year) a tenement called the Dye House became part of the possessions of the Chantry of the Blessed Virgin Mary (the "burgesses' chantry") in Hungerford and the particulars for the lease of this chantry's possessions in 1547 describe it as situated next to the King's mill. It had been leased in 1540, together with 2 closes called Well Close and Rack Close, to George Lovelake for forty years at a rent of 16 shillings per annum.
In the 1552 town survey this would seem to be the tenement of the chantry of the Blessed Virgin Mary late in the tenure of "— Lovelake, quit rent 3d." In the next survey taken in 1573 a tenement called the Dye House is held on lease from the chantry by John Grene at a quit rent of 3d., and this entry follows immediately after that of the mill. In 1591 the chantry tenement called the Dye House is shown as let to William Billingsley, and he seems to have been succeeded by Thomas Carpenter, who is described as a dyer in a parish register entry in 1594. Carpenter was an influential local business man, invariably described as "dyer" ; he was several times elected as Constable (mayor) of Hungerford. Under his control the Dye House was evidently in good operating order in 1598, for in that year a list was compiled of chantry tenements needing repair and Thomas Carpenter's tenement was one of only four out of 27 which was stated to be in good repair. It was said to contain "two fields of housing and a cote end," which I interpret to mean "two covered areas or spaces, with a shed at one end." It was not Carpenter's dwelling house; his residence was in the High Street.
In 1609 the town survey shows that the Dyehouse.had been let to Thomas Carpenter by Nicholas Curteys "as parcel of the chantry" at a quit rent of 3d. Nicholas Curteys was one of two trustees of the chantry lands.
Carpenter was a man who was active in church affairs and in public office, being elected Constable in 1603 and again in 1609. At some date the mill lease passed to William Houghton of Newbury. We hear of this in a rather roundabout way. William's widow Anne Houghton made her own will in 1634 and in it (Arch. Berks, probate October 1634) she refers to an indenture made 23 Jan 2 Chas I (1626) by which William devised to his, and Anne's, son Benjamin "all that messuage, tenement, and dyehouse situate in Hungerford in the High Street there" [nowadays known as Bridge Street] "lying on the east side of the same, the land of Richard Tame to the south, and the land of John Yowle to the north." This helps us locate the position of the tenement, but not of the dyehouse, which is placed in the 1606 survey in a totally different part of the list from the tenement."