Saturday, 14 September 2013

Woad growing in Boston.

In 1910 Graves' Woad Farm - or "Wad Farm" as it was locally known - on Fishtoft Road, was one of the best-known landmarks in the district, and John Graves, the proprietor, was one of the "grand old men" of the county. He was in his 89th year in 1910 but was still able to take part in the concerns of his business. He displayed a deep interest in national, Imperial, and local affairs, and his only defect was a slight deafness.

Mr Graves was born at Fishtoft Drove on February 15, 1822. His father was Mr John Graves, a farmer, of Coningsby, who had a family of 14 children. Mr John Graves, the subject of this article, received his education at a school on the Skirbeck Road, and subsequently worked with this father on the land. When he was 23 he married Miss Hannah Winter. About 1846, soon after Mr Graves was married, Mr Graves senior decided to emigrate to America, and he took his wife and three of his sons and two daughters with him. In 1850 John Graves, his wife Hannah and brother Samuel, decided to return home, and he established himself as a farmer and Woad grower in Skirbeck.
Mr Graves first hired land from Mr Matthew Lee Winter and from Mr Willcock, at Rawson's Bridge, at £10 an acre, and began the cultivation of Woad. In 1856 he purchased 250 acres of land on Fishtoft road, and although the times had changed, and the demand for Woad was annually declining he still continued to produce on a somewhat extensive scale the plant so essential in the dyeing of the best woollen cloth.
In his early days the Woad was ground between two large stones revolved by means of a primitive piece of machinery, propelled by a horse, but in 1873 he invented a system of grinding by machinery, and erected a Woad mill and buildings necessary for Woad production. He once tried the experiment of growing Virginia leaf tobacco between the rows of the Woad plants, but the season was not favourable, and the experiment was a failure. In about 1897 he bought 282 acres of land at Fosdyke, which had for many years been in the Smeeton family and he sold it in 1908 to the Holland County Council for small holdings.
Mr Graves had a couple of competitors in Woad growing in 1910, Messrs. Nussey and Co. had a Woad farm at Algakirk, and Mr Fitzalan Howard had one at Parson's drove. In the years previous to 1910 Mr. Edward Harrison was growing Woad on Lee's farm, at Fishtoft, and on farms on the Fishtoft Road, and in Wythe's Lane, and Mr John Short had a woad farm in Wyberton. The industry had always been mainly confined to this district. In 1890 Mr Graves' output was 250 tons a year, but by 1910 it had decreased to about 70 tons.
Mr Thomas Booth, Mr Graves nephew, who had lived with his Uncle since he was born, took over the management, not only of the Woad business, but also Mr Graves' farming operations, which include the extensive cultivation of wheat and potatoes, and the breeding of high-class cattle, whose excellent quality invariably ensured them top price at all local fairs and markets.

Woad growing and Woad making form certainly the most ancient industry of this country. The early Britons went forth to slay, stained blue with Woad, the policeman of 1910 went on his rounds to maintain peace and order in a blue uniform, whose excellent colour was due to Woad. The uniforms of sailors and soldiers were also Woaded by the Government's express command. Indeed, it is doubtful if the industry would have survived into the 20th century but for the desire of the official classes to get the best and most durable cloth possible. 
If allowed to seed Woad grows to a height of about 3 or 4 feet and produces a pretty yellow flower. The growing of it was confined to that part of Lincolnshire known as Holland, thanks to its Dykes and windmills, and along the neighbouring border of Cambridgeshire. At the first ingathering the crop was picked by hand, by men and women who crawled across the fields on hands and knees. All through the season these humble toilers crawled their way among the beds, clearing away the weeds that would otherwise choke the Woad. The crop itself was thrown into deep wickerwork baskets and conveyed to the factory. It was crushed into a pulp, fermented in troughs, balled by hand, laid out on drying racks for several weeks, then broken up and stirred for 50 days. The Woad by this time was but a dirty coarse-grained powder. The final stage of the process was the moistening of this powder, then it was stored in huge vats ready for sale to the English and American drysalters, and the Yorkshire woollen manufacturers and Dyers. During the fermentation of the Woad pulp most of the blue dye is run off purposely as waste matter, but enough remains in the pulp to stain the workers, who ball it by hand, very much as the ancient Briton was stained.
Today, the whole area is a council house estate, fittingly named the Woad Farm Estate, and the local pub is called The Woad Man whose sign (below) shows an ancient Briton with his face daubed in blue woad.


  1. very interesting

  2. While very interesting this has just added to my confusion. It says that his farm was off Fishtoft Road, but the Woad Farm estate you refer to is more accurately off Kingsway, which was formerly called King's Pit Lane (if I remember correctly). However, on the East side of the Fogarty factory on Fishtoft Road, you will find Woad Farm. Is it one very large farm, or is one of them Grave's farm and the other one of his competitors'?

    1. In 1901 John Graves in living at The Woad Farm, King's Pit Lane, Skirbeck. How far his land extended I don't know. I think most of the information on this blog has been copied and sadly not properly researched.

  3. Im Sean Vines from Rotherham. My great great great great grandfather William Vines was a woadman at Wildmore Fen in 1814.

  4. Moulton Windmill10 April 2015 at 12:28

    Moulton Mill is working on an exciting project with 2 local artists to preserve the history, skills and heritage of woad farming. We would love to hear from anyone with family connections to the industry and are seeking any photos or old tools that we could use in our woad exhibition. If you are interseted or can help in any way then please contact us via the mill website we would love to hear your stories, regards janet

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