THE STORY OF THE ROMNEY SHEEP
Thus started the journey to Romney Tweed. The Romney sheep is really the star of this story. History records - "A long woolled, strong and highly valuable sheep has been kept on Romney Marsh since time immemorial" - hence the breed name 'Romney Marsh' [now more commonly known as ‘Romneys’ or ‘Kents’]. A quotation from “The Making of the English Landscape” by W.G. Hoskins states:
'In the year 697, King Wihtred of Kent, gave to the monastery at Lyminge pasture for 300 sheep in Romney Marsh'
The wool is a demi-lustre of an excellent quality and staple, shearing a heavy even fleece, and is considered one of the best British wools, traditionally regarded as highly suitable for the manufacture of cloths, blankets, knitting yarns and felting, and desirable as an ‘improver’ fibre for quality carpet manufacture.
From at least the 12th century the area provided sheep and wool for the wool industry in Flanders. Romney provided one of the foundations for the English woollen industry, which was the most important export commodity in the Middle Ages. Their long, dense fleece was highly prized, leading to widespread wool smuggling from the 14th century. Around the year 1300 Edward I set up a customs duty on the export of English wool, which was in great demand in Europe. This was the first permanent customs system established in England, and until it was set up all trade in and out of England was free. Up to this point most of the wool was shipped abroad from New Romney. The trade continued after customs were set, and much wool was shipped out of the country with a return traffic of brandy and tobacco.
In 1614 the export of all wool was made illegal; the smugglers became more violent and with the introduction of the death penalty in 1661 most became armed. In 1698 the government decided to take action. An Act was passed stopping people within 15 miles of the sea from buying any wool, unless they guaranteed that they wouldn’t sell it to anyone else within 15 miles of the sea. Also any farmers within 10 miles of the sea had to account for their fleeces within 3 days of shearing. Wool smuggling declined in the 1730’s but the area remained a farming centre.
By the end of the 19th century Romney sheep had been exported all over the world and today are to be found in New Zealand, Australia, Uruguay, Argentina, Brazil, USA, Canada, the Falkland Islands and many parts of Europe. Romneys formed the basis of the successful New Zealand wool and meat industry and it is said that the first shipment of sheep to New Zealand came from a farm just outside Lydd in 1853. Even now over half the sheep flock in New Zealand are classified as Romneys.
In the 21st century the Romney sheep is still an icon for all who live here. What better use for the wool than to teach young people to weave and play a part in the creation of a unique and beautiful cloth?