Exhibit of the Week: Cloth seals – Malton Museum

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The pictures show a small lead-alloy objects which tell the story of a little-known trade between Malton and Russia in the 18th and 19th centuries. Twenty-one of them came to Malton Museum as part of the collection of the late Jim Halliday, of Norton, of which the large majority were all found in Malton and Norton.

In the medieval period lead-alloy seals, known as cloth seals, were extensively used in the woollen trade and are found in large numbers. After official inspection the seal was fixed to the cloth to guarantee that it was of the correct size and quality. They usually give some information about either the producer or the cloth itself.

The illustrated seal is an example of similar ones used by the Russian producers of flax and hemp, both imported into England in vast amounts in the 18th and 19th centuries when Russia grew and exported more flax and hemp than anywhere else in the world – and most of it came to Great Britain. As the seals began to be discovered by metal detectorists, John Sullivan, a Russian language scholar in Scotland, was able to read the Cyrillic wording on them and interpret them. He recognised that seals had also been used on other Russian products, and that some of them originated from the Baltic ports such as Riga, now capital of Latvia but then part of the Russian Empire. Kronstadt, St Petersburg’s port, was another important place of export.

The process of inspection at the ports was strictly organised and the names of individual inspectors sometimes appear on seals. The seals consist of two pieces, around 2cms diameter, joined by a strip, which were folded over and pressed together to attach them to the bundles. Once the product had been used the seals were discarded, along with the woody stems, often ending up on the fields. As they are frequently dated, differentiate between hemp and flax, and indicate their port of origin, they are very informative.

Trade with Russia existed before the 18th century, encouraged by The Russia Company (founded by Royal Charter in 1555) which employed agents both in Russia and in many British ports. Hull and, to a lesser extent, Whitby sent large numbers of ships to Kronstadt, ports across England and in Scotland were also involved.

Britain needed large amounts of both flax and hemp at a time when much of its transport, and therefore trade, was by ship. Hemp was mainly used to make ropes whilst flax was used to make sails as well as linen. The busy market town of Malton and its neighbour Norton, then rapidly expanding through increased industrial and commercial activities, had depended on river transport since at least Roman times, but traffic increased enormously after major improvements to the River Derwent in the early decades of the 18th century.

The boats all needed sails and ropes, and Malton, known for its weavers as early as the 14th century, made large quantities of linen cloth for domestic use which 
was sold through local 
shops.

These small rather ordinary-looking objects tell a fascinating story.

l Malton Museum is based at The Subscription Rooms, 36 Yorkersgate, Malton and reopens at 10am on Easter Saturday 15 April and is then open 10am-4pm Thursday-Saturday each week until the end of October. Visit www.maltonmuseum.co.uk for details of the exhibition and other activities.