by Ash Dhonsi
Hemp has been grown and used in the UK for thousands of years and was once one of the most valuable commodities in the country, if not the world. Here is a brief account of the history of hemp being grown, processed and used in the UK – a nod to a plant that was once so entwined with British culture.
Most sources cite the earliest mention of hemp in the UK being a note about Cambri Formosa – a Celtic princess who taught women to sew and weave with hemp in 373 BC. Some sources suggest hemp was brought to Britain from Asia at around 800 BC. Roman and Anglo-Saxon hemp findings in this country date back to 140 – 400 AD, while findings from a number of geographically dispersed locations within the UK have been dated back to the early 12th century.
The Heyday of UK Hemp
The cultivation and use of hemp in the UK proliferated from the Elizabethan era (roughly 1550 AD – 1600 AD) onwards, right up to the mid-nineteenth century. This was due to hemp being used in a number of capacities; most notably on naval & commercial ships throughout this time period. These vessels saw the establishment of overseas trading posts and, later, the expansion of the British Empire which, at it’s peak, was the largest in the world. As the far-flung empire grew, its reliance & demand for hemp grew with it.
Hemp was used in many ways including the ships’ sails, rigging, ropes (cordage), sacks (for carrying cargo) and often even the sailors’ clothes & uniforms. At this point in time, hemp was so valuable, in terms of its contribution to the naval & trading successfulness of a nation, that wars were fought over it and, in some cases, pre-emptive strikes were staged on enemies to keep them from obtaining it. This enormous appetite for hemp fuelled many coastal economies and supported thousands of jobs.
Demand for hemp from the Royal Navy and trading companies alike meant hemp farming in Britain was commonplace. During the reign of Henry VIII, it was compulsory to grow a quarter acre of hemp for every 60 acres under cultivation. This was to ensure the supply remained steady and some claim these laws are actually still on the books today, although not enforced. Indeed, the crown also mandated Britain’s American colonies to grow hemp, which they ended up using for their own military and industrial growth against the British Empire.
Reportedly, hemp was grown in every single county in England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales – a testament to the plant’s popularity. In fact, many place names derive from the Celtic and Anglo-Saxon words for hemp, some of which survive to this day.
Perhaps the most well-known of these being Hampshire, derived from the German “hanf“, Swedish “hampa” or the Danish and Norwegian “hamp“. Hampshire, home to Southampton & Buckler’s Hard, was a county of significant naval importance.
However, as the cost of transporting goods by ship became ever cheaper, Britain began to purchase increasing amounts of her demand for hemp from abroad. This was not helped by the cost of transporting goods over land, which remained high in comparison. Not only that, but the dispersion of hemp growers across the British Isles meant economies of scale were difficult to achieve. Following from this, the UK began importing much of its hemp from Russia who, by this point, had developed more advanced retting & processing techniques to achieve a higher grade & quality of hemp textile.
This happened to such an extent that the state of the domestic hemp industry was debated in parliament as a problem of national security in that should Britain’s relationships with its hemp-supplying-nations diminish, she would still have some domestic supply to rely on and keep the navy and trade ships sailing. Lord Somerville was among those to argue in favour of investing in British hemp and secured bounties for domestic hemp cultivation.
Despite these efforts, technological changes -namely the invention of the steamship- eventually replaced Britain’s demand for hemp with demand for other materials, sending the hemp industry into steep decline in the 19th century. The first ocean-going steamship made a passage from Leeds to Yarmouth in 1813 and signalled the demise of UK hemp. Demand from the navy also dropped off. Interestingly, hemp continues to be used for rope today, on yachts and other sailing vessels, albeit from a plant strain (Musa Textilis) unrelated to true hemp (Cannabis Sativa).
This was not a particularly economically-damaging decline as much of the hemp used in the UK at the time was being bought from abroad. Noticeably, the decline in hemp had begun slowly some centuries previously, around the early 1700s, when cotton was becoming a more dominant player in the global textiles industry and began to replace hemp sails and other hemp cloth. Cotton, with its short fibres, is able to produce textiles of a finer grade and softer touch than hemp and so was naturally of interest in clothing. Cotton was also comparatively cheap, for two main reasons.
Firstly, the fibres themselves are much easier and quicker to extract than those of hemp. In addition, spinning cotton is a far simpler and more easily-scalable process. This meant the raw material could be harvested, processed, spun and weaved into useful products quickly and cheaply.
Secondly, slave labour in America, which was legal until the American Civil War (1861 -1865), was artificially reducing the price of cotton. This added to the competitiveness of cotton compared to hemp. These cost factors along with the superior feel of cotton textiles made cotton exceptionally popular with UK textile mills. The UK cotton textile industry quietly abetted the slave trade -by operating a trade triangle which saw British textiles sold to Africa, African slaves sold to America and American cotton, tobacco, coffee and sugar sold to Britain- for a period of about 300 years.
UK Hemp in the 20th Century
The abolition of slavery and abrupt halt in the already-declining profitability of the Atlantic trade triangle led many UK textile companies to begin purchasing their cotton from the colonial empire & most significantly; India. This, among other factors discussed above, meant there was no major revival of hemp in its former capacities; cotton was now fully established as the world’s textile material. Hemp, meanwhile, was banished to niche clothing markets (military uniforms and work wear) and other hard-wearing textiles markets including canvas camping equipment and soft furnishings. Hemp continued to feature in the sacking used for transporting commodities, but this too was replaced – only this time by containerisation.
Records exist for the use of hemp in the UK in WWI however it was soon outlawed in 1928, while during WWII, an order placed for it to be imported from the US went unfulfilled as, after mistakenly being grouped with the psychoactive varieties of the Cannabis plant, the American Marijuana Tax Act in 1937 dissuaded farmers from cultivating it. Just before the end of WWII, the American government attempted to revive the hemp industry with a film entitled “Hemp for Victory”. You can watch the video here and follow the discussion on American hemp with the similarly named book & blog here.
Following the end of the war, however, the hemp industry was again targeted and further prohibition took place. In the 30 years that followed, hemp was routinely miss-associated with its psychoactive cousin and was vilified in the media and in politics. Then, as the ‘war on drugs’ under President Nixon began, hemp was outlawed in 1971 in the USA.
Hemp cultivation in the UK was re-legalised in 1993 and is now a licensed activity (find out more on the legalities of growing hemp in the UK here). The licence dictates, among other restrictions, that hemp can be grown as long as:
- The strain used does not contain more than 0.3% THC -the psychoactive chemical responsible for its initial criminalisation- compared to the 20% found in psychoactive strains.
- That the hemp grown is done so away from public footpaths, roads and buildings e.g. schools.
Despite this, hemp in the USA was not deregulated for some time and even now is only legal in a handful of states. This is despite the booming hemp industry in neighbouring Canada, which covers tens of thousands of acres and has an estimated value of around half a billion dollars, with much of the seed and oil products that make up the industry being sold to the USA. The market in Canada has been growing by around 15% per annum since 2006.
In many European nations, small markets for hemp do still exist.
HEMP FOR FOOD
Hemp seeds (and the essential oils they contain) have long been used for food. More recently, hemp oil, which makes up 30% of the seed and is easily extracted, has gained attention from health enthusiasts, dietitians and the world of nutrition as a whole for containing Omega 3, 6 and 9 alongside protein and vitamin E.
HEMP FOR PAPER
Hemp has a history of being used for paper stretching back at least 2,000 years. At the time of declining hemp cultivation and use in the UK, paper manufacturers, who had relied for centuries on the recycled hemp clothes, ropes and sails from the navy & other maritime vessels, found themselves losing their most available and suitable source of pulp.
Other fibres used in hemp’s place, including jute, were unsuitable and produced paper of such inferior quality that this process eventually shut down. In its place, paper manufacturers began to use wood pulp, following technological advancements in 1844 that allowed them to do so. Similar to the textile industry, hemp paper was consequently banished to the confines of niche paper markets, such as cigarette (Rober Fletcher) and bible paper, despite being a far more attractive source of pulp compared to wood.
HEMP FOR BUILDING & CONSTRUCTION MATERIALS
Much of the hemp grown in the UK in recent decades has been used in the building & construction industry as insulation and building-block material. The naturally insulating properties and astonishing strength of hemp -when processed using particular methods- make it a viable alternative, in terms of technical quality, to traditional materials. The added benefit of hemp being its strong environmental credentials.
HEMP FOR FUEL
In addition to being able to make paper, the cellulose in hemp can easily be converted into ethanol – a chemical substance used for antiseptics and fuel, among other applications. Political and environmental factors are responsible for increased interest in biofuels (and consequently: ethanol) and as such, there is real potential for hemp to contribute to this growing industry.
HEMP FOR TEXTILES
Despite the existing cultivation of some hemp in the UK, the fibres produced are not used in textiles. Instead, British and Irish firms tend to source hemp textiles from China, Eastern Europe and Nepal. The reason for this is that obtaining hemp fibres that are fine enough for producing fashion textiles (or even furnishing textiles) is difficult and often costly due to the processing methods needed. With that said, hemp textiles are superior to their cotton counterparts in terms of technical quality; some of the properties of the fabric and; the environmental impacts of production.
UK Hemp in the 21st Century
In answer to the question of “what’s happening with UK hemp right now?”, only a whisker of its previous economic significance remains. When answering this question, it is necessary to divide hemp into two sections; production and; consumption.
- Production. As mentioned previously, hemp ceased to be grown in the UK, in any great quantities, back in the 1800s. However, a small amount of hemp production has existed in recent decades and an even smaller amount still exists today. Up until 2015, hectares of land used for growing hemp in the UK was around 1,000ha compared with France’s 11,000ha and Canada’s 33,000ha.
- Consumption. In terms of the amount of hemp being consumed (or used) in the UK, there is more of a story to tell. Hemp cooking oils, seeds and products containing hemp have appeared in many of the major supermarkets. These include breakfast cereals, pretzels, protein powders, salad dressings and dairy-free milk. On top of that, hemp is commonly used in animal bedding, eco-home materials and some interior components of the luxury automobile industry. Hemp textile use, however, is limited with only a handful of companies selling hemp clothing or soft furnishing material.