Note: one of the possible derivations of the name "Sharman", and the one most usually favoured by experts in the origins of names, is that "Sharman", like Sherman, Shearman and other similar names, is an occupational name, referring to those who used shears to remove the nap from woollen cloth to produce finer qualities of cloth.
Wool in the English Economy
It seems that Wolverhampton's early importance and prosperity was based on wool.
Wool has been important in the English economy from early times until nearly the present. During the seventeenth century its relative importance declined, as extractive and manufacturing industries grew in importance. So much was wealth dependant on wool that the struggle to control it and to take the profits from it that historians have argued that it lead to profound changes in the country's constitution and the relationship between the crown and the people; and that another important effect was that it enabled a middle class to come into being.
Successive monarchs taxed the wool trade, especially when they had exceptional needs for revenue, such as in times of war. One way to raise taxes and to control the trade so that taxes could more effectively be raised was to regulate and tax the export of wool. A system gradually became established under which, by royal ordinance (agreed to, to some extent or other, by a nascent parliament), wool could only exported through a limited number of specified towns. These towns became known as the staple towns. Wolverhampton was never one of them. Eventually, when the system was finalised, there was only one English staple town - and that was Calais. In effect the merchants of the staple in Calais had a monopoly over the sale of all English wool to Europe. This had an unintended consequence. The monopolists drove up wool prices, which in turn drove up the prices of the cloth manufactured in Europe. In the past England had not manufactured much cloth but had imported it from Europe. When the effect of the staple was to make European cloth very expensive, it became more worthwhile to manufacture cloth at home. So wool merchants found it more profitable to sell to home manufacturers, the staple monopoly in Calais gradually became an irrelevance and England became the greatest cloth producing country in the world.
The organisation of the wool trade
We tend to think of medieval agriculture as being largely a matter of small, self-sufficient agricultural communities; and the medieval economy as being simply an aggregate of these communities. This is a good enough model, if allowance is made for the fact that all villages produced some goods for sale, if for no other reason than to pay the cash demands of local taxation in the manors; and for the fact that towns, with specialist craftsmen existed and they did not rely on barter. But the one major exception that has to be made to the model is wool. Wool was big business. The demand for it was enormous and almost exclusively for the purpose of making cloth. Europe had a sufficient degree of economic development to allow for specialization. So areas of Flanders and Italy specialized in making cloth and other areas specialized in producing the wool to be made into cloth. Of these areas the leader, both in terms of quantity and, more especially, quality, was England.
In England anyone who could reared sheep and produced wool, from great landowners to peasants. At times, so great was the demand for wool, and so great the profit from it, that great tracts of land were changed from arable to sheep pasture, people complained that their livelihoods were being eaten by sheep and the government made, usually ineffective, efforts to reduce this reliance of wool. The great landowners produced large quantities and the best qualities; peasant farmers produced small quantities, usually in poorer qualities.
The largest producers would often deal directly with the foreign cloth manufacturers or with foreign merchants who would resell to those manufacturers. The smaller producers' wool was bought by wool merchants (or wool mongers or woolmen or broggers), as they might also be known). These wool merchants travelled the countryside bargaining for wool, accumulating stocks locally and then sending them on to the staple towns for sale and export.
The Wool Trade in Wolverhampton
How did Wolverhampton fit into the trade? Probably most market towns of any size had wool merchants operating in them and, because of the balance of the economy, must have been to some extent reliant on the trade in wool. Of course, there were regional variations, depending on whether the land in an area was more suitable for arable or pasture and on the quality of wool produced in an area. Shropshire and the Welsh borderlands produced lots of wool of very high quality. (It was known as March wool - the reference being, presumably, not to the month but to the Welsh Marches). Staffordshire was also a noted source of wool, perhaps second only to March wool. The importance of Staffordshire wool is noted by Bowden, though not by Mander. And there is some evidence of it, as well as evidence of how widespread wool growing was throughout society, in Chatwin, who notes that: "Sheep farming was probably the principal activity in the parish, like the rest of this part of Staffordshire. Beside the wealthy landowning families there were others like the Underhills at Northeycote and the Huntbach family at Showell renting land from the lords of the manors. Even the rector, Richard Willson, had his sheep, fifty seven at Bushbury and another twenty one at Essington."
Enterprising Wulfrunian merchants could readily have extended their area of operation into these wool rich areas and thereby brought into (or through) Wolverhampton a greater proportion of the wool trade than would have been the case in other market towns less advantageously placed.
What evidence remains of the wool trade in Wolverhampton? The most usually mentioned relic is the names of Wolverhampton streets. We have: Woolpack Alley, Fold Street, Townwell Fold, Blossom's Fold, Wheeler's Fold, Farmer's Fold and Molineux Fold. (But we might note that Wheeler's Fold is shown on Isaac Taylor's Map of 1750 as Wheeler's Court and Blossom's Fold is shown as Blossom's Court; and Molineux Fold (in front of Molineux House and now under the ring road) is shown with that name in the 1938 Ordnance Survey Map but with the name Molineux Court in Wallis' map of 1827). These are mostly small alleys, giving access to back land, rather than main streets and appear in or adjacent to the medieval core of the town. The suggestion is, of course, that this is where sheep were folded when they were brought into Wolverhampton. But in the middle ages, and through Tudor and Jacobean times, sheep were reared and kept for wool - and the wool was sheared where the sheep were. Wool merchants based in Wolverhampton may have had stores is Wolverhampton but much of the wool they dealt in may never have physically passed through Wolverhampton.
It seems likely that, if the folds were sheep folds, then they were not stores for wool but holding areas for live sheep. The market in live sheep in England generally was not strong. They were not widely traded for eating purposes. But wool growers would want to increase or improve their flocks from time to time and this appears to be the trade which Wolverhampton captured, perhaps in an unusually large measure. And it would be that trade, not the trade of the wool merchants, which the Folds bear witness to.
Isaac Taylor's map of 1850 shows two rows of tenters in the south and south eastern sectors of the town. In her notes on the map Liz Rees says: "The town's connection with the wool trade can be seen by the presence of the 'Tenters'; rows of racks where sheepskins were hung to dry on 'tenterhooks'". Normally tenters were used for hanging up wet cloth after manufacture, so that the cloth dried without shrinking. I have not seen any other reference to their being used for skins - sheep or otherwise. But, on the other hand, what cloth manufacturing industry was there in Wolverhampton at the time?
Small woolmen would not leave much of a mark in the written records and even if woolmen in Wolverhampton had done that much we would be none the wiser as so few of the written records of the town survive. But it has already been noted that successful or ambitious men moved out of small towns to places such as London and there they might leave a mark in the records. For example Bowden relies on records in the PRO when he mentions a London dealer who, in 1588, was recorded as buying, in London, 600 stones of wool "from a Wolverhampton dealer named Thomas Huntbache, who was acting on behalf of Sir Thomas Leveston (sic)".
Wool merchants noted by Upton include Nicholas Rydley who owned Graiseley Old Hall. He also notes the wills of London merchants leaving money to St.Peter's: Richard Helyn, William Wilkes and William Waring, a clothier; and a "procession of drapers, dyers and clothiers, such as William Creswell and John Howlett. No doubt it was partly these men's beneficence that led to the major rebuilding work at the church in the mid-15th century". He leaves us to understand that these were Wolverhampton men by origin. Upton also says that the "hall at the top of (Kemp) Lichfield Street no doubt served as the wool merchant's local office, and the street name is probably derived from a medieval spelling of 'comb'".
Mander also makes reference to the wool trade and a part of it is worth quoting here, even if some people might not find all of its account of the trade accurate
At another point Mander also lists, from records of pardons from breaches of the statutes regulating the wool trade, many names which, one gathers, are those of Wolverhampton men.
Robert K. Dent and Joseph Hill, "Historic Staffordshire", Midland Educational Company, 1896) provide a chapter on "The Wolverhampton Wool Staplers (pp.240-245). Much of this is occupied with kow-towing to local landowners and the rest provides much mis-information on the wool trade and little enlightenment. They say:
A foot note to this reads:
What evidence they have that there were no wool merchants in Wolverhampton in 1340, they do not say. Nor do they give any evidence for their assertion that Wolverhampton was a staple town "fixed upon by Parliament". No body since has ever seen such evidence. The rest of the information about the wool trade is just as inaccurate or misleading and they confuse wool merchants, cloth weavers and clothiers. But one would dearly like to know where this list of Bailiffs of the Staple came from and what a Bailiff of the Staple was. They certainly look like very important people, all of them being large landowners.
Wool was clearly important in medieval, Tudor and Jacobean Wolverhampton. How important was the processing of wool into cloth and cloth into clothes and other articles, is not clear. Nor has evidence yet been presented which compares the size of Wolverhampton's trade with that of other market towns, nearby or far away. But one way or another, Wolverhampton was largely built on wool.
Peter J. Bowden, The Wool Trade in Tudor and Stuart England, Macmillan, 1962, seriatim
A. H. Chatwin, Bushbury Parish and People 1550-1950, Wolverhampton
Geoffrey Hancock, A Tettenhall History, Broadside, 1991 at p.22
E. Lipson, A Short History of Wool and its Manufacture, Heinemann, 1953
Gerald P. Mander, A History of Wolverhampton, Wolverhampton C B
Gerald P. Mander, Wolverhampton and the Wool Trade, in The Wolverhampton
Eileen Power, The Wool Trade in English Medieval History, Oxford University Press, 1941, seriatim
Chris Upton, A History of Wolverhampton, Phillimore, 1998 at pp.17-18