Yves de Saussure
© 2008

It is thought that hemp reached the British Isles via the Picts and Celts. Evidence of both Scottish and Welsh hemp use goes back to before Christ. A Celtic princess by the name of Cambri Formosa was known to have taught women the sewing of hemp and flax in 373 BC. Roman and Anglo-Saxon hemp remains date to the dates of 140-400 AD. Medieval records show its presence in 1175 as a titheable item; in 1211 in Somerset and Dorest; 1304 in Norfolk, and; 1341 in Suffolk. The number of British and Irish place names that contain the word ‘hemp’ or variants thereof also attest to the ubiquity of this crop.

Hemp was the choice fibre for ropes and cordage. This industry was considered to be of importance to national security, and thus the Crown mandated special status to Bridport, a southern town which became synonymous with the cordage industry for centuries. To this day hemp string can be purchased which is made in Bridport. Hemp was grown locally, along with flax. These two bast crops provided a living for thousands of people each year. They also provided the necessary material for the British Navy, which was what was the power behind the empire.

As empire expanded, the demand for hemp increased, and domestic supplies could not satisfy this demand. Although hemp was grown in every corner of the British Isles, indeed in every county in Ireland and England, overland transport costs made it more expensive to buy than Russian hemp, which was transported by sea.

The importation of Russian hemp, however, was not without the cost of danger and toil. Debate took place in Parliament on this very issue, with Lord Somerville addressing it in the early 19th century. Previous to him, other politicians had seen fit to secure a supply of hemp by mandating its cultivation, and such laws, while not enforced, are actually still on the books.

Hemp was to go from the world’s most traded commodity to one of the least traded commodities as metal ships replaced wooden sailing vessels, and other fibres, most notably abaca (Manila hemp) replaced hemp rope. This change led to complaint from papermakers, who relied for centuries on recycled clothes and rope from the navy. Jute, another bast fibre sourced mainly in East India, was used for ropes, but the recycled fibres were of such inferior quality for paper that it was ultimately abandoned as a source of pulp.

Cotton also became much more dominant, replacing hemp sails and other hemp cloth. A recent addition to the European textile world, as it had been discovered in the New World in the 16th century, it was to become a worldwide monoculture crop. It has always had a dark history, with slavery and pesticide use darkening its image. Recently, we have come to realise that it is now depleting the water systems in many countries, as it is a water intensive crop.
In the 20th century Britain was a top producer of cotton based clothing, importing most of it from India as a raw material and processing it largely in Manchester. Mahatma Ghandi changed this in the 1920s when he protested the British textile industry and established an Indian clothing industry. This did material good for India on one hand, but on the other, it added to the popularity of cotton, the cultivation of which leads to the death of tens of thousands of farmers every year in India.

The subcontinent is especially suited to this warm weather crop, but it has a long history of growing hemp and jute as well. Both were of interest to the British, and featured in an 1804 book by Robert Wissett, a clerk of the East India Company. It sold well, and was reprinted in 1808. Decades later other British writers, including J. Forbes Royle and Heber Drury wrote about its cultivation in India. They found that hemp grown in the highlands did especially well, and even made favourable comparisons between Indian hemp and Russian. The latter, however, continued to be in use for the most part until, shortly into the 20th century, hemp use just about died out. Record of its use in WWI does exist; in WWII, an order for it from the US went unfulfilled as a new American tax law made it prohibitive for the farmers to carry on with cultivation.

Ultimately Cannabis sativa was outlawed in the UK in 1971. However, due to much research worldwide, it was relegalised in 1993, and since then, low THC varieties have been grown. Much of this goes to rough fibre use, such as insulation and building material. Some goes into cigarette paper production, mostly made by Robert Fletcher. A third use of hemp in the UK which is becoming more and more popular is hemp seed oil for human consumption. The oil has been found to be high in GLAs, especially Omega 3, 6 and 9. Presently a litre of hemp seed oil retails for £20, and over a dozen brands can be bought in shops ranging from internet hemp sites to mainstream grocery chains such as Sainsburys and Tesco.

One of the earliest hemp pioneers in the UK was Bobby Pugh, a former Territorial Army soldier, who started Mother Hemp and The Hemp Shop in Brighton. That same city is the birthplace of the late Dame Anita Roddick, who started her famous enterprise The Body Shop, which has been hailed as one of the best investments in history, started for less than £10,000. Her cosmetic lines included hemp in over a dozen items, and often the hemp leaf motif was prominent in her High Road shops, including the Bond Street and Chiswick High Road locations.

The success of TBS and THS encouraged many others into the field. In West London alone there are several manufacturers and stockists, including: The Hemp Trading Co., Sativa, Cannabis Iced Tea, Eco and The Hemp Shop. The first one, known as THTC, stocks not only their own range of T shirts, often political in nature, but represents a number of imports. US based hemp apparel makes its way over to the UK in other ways as well, GeoMio and Minawear clothing can be seen on environmentalists along with Braintree, Enamore and House of Hemp creations. The reverse is also true, as many UK brands can be seen from the sidewalks of the Big Apple to the boardwalk in Venice. Sativa, for instance, is not only highly regarded as a hemp manufacturer, but is respected internationally in its own right as a luggage and accessories outfit with long-lasting products.

Despite the cultivation of hemp in the UK, hemp fibre is not produced into textiles here, and the British and Irish firms generally use Chinese hemp, with some amount of Eastern European and occasionally Nepalese. The Hemp Store in Dublin, for instance, showcased hemp mixed with yak hair at one of the London Hemp Expos, while the Lawson brothers, who run THTC, now fly to China to oversee production and ensure fair working conditions. There have been efforts to stimulate a British hemp textile industry, including two extensive field trials by BioRegional Development, but the reality is that there is a lack of infrastructure here that can handle hemp. A small scale effort is being made by Jane Pasquill in Cornwall, along with Kate Molson of Huddersfield, who have found a mill in Cornwall which has worked with hemp and is willing to work with it. Being realistic, it is not expected that any fine grades will be produced in the near future, or even a medium grade. It may be that a coarse grade will be all that can be expected, in which case, it may be turned to use for bags and artists’ canvas. The former use has an interesting and recent history, as in 2007 there were many companies trying to promote their green credentials with non-plastic bags. This resulted in a rush to produce cotton bags, mainly made up in Chinese sweatshops, which craze was outed by the Evening Standard when they took to task the Anya Hindmarch bag on their front page on 25 April, 2007. In rebuttal to the Anya Hindmarch “I am not a plastic bag” slogan, Bobby Pugh and Kenyon Gibson developed a 100% organic undyed hemp bag which stated: “Real Eco Bags are made from Hemp.” This attracted the attention of the Ecologist, which gave them free space to advertise, followed by a similar move from Positive News.

Thus a very simple, grey hemp bag became a focus of environmental debate. It has since caused a number of designers to take note, including Mulberry, which heard of the incident and contacted Pugh to source for them organic hemp later on that same year. All over London that year, at environmental rallies, people could be seen with these bags and signs, often made with hemp stalks, that stated: “real environmentalists wear hemp.”

A newcomer in the environmental world is a shop called Eco, which is located across from The Body Shop on Chiswick High Road. They are working with hemp researchers to stock the shop with hemp and educate the public about hemp and the dangers of cotton. At present it stocks Jilly Cholmondeley 100% Italian hemp bed sheets and Kate Molson hemp/peace silk fabrics. More importantly, it has opened its doors to debate and will host panel discussions on natural fibre use this year.

Hemp has found its niche in the British Isles, and is expected to increase. A hemp textile industry is one goal, but may be, for some time, out of the question. In the meantime hemp seed oil, hemp paper and hemp building materials are a growing market and there is, along with a growing market, a growing awareness and activism. Below is a list of contacts for organisations and businesses in the British Isles:

British Isles Hemp & Natural Fibres Industries Association

Hemp for Victory

Whitaker Publishing

The Hemp Shop

The Hemp Trading Co.




Jilly Cholmondeley

House of Hemp

Kate Molson

The Hemp Store

Hugh St. Clair

Yorkshire Hemp

Hemp and Natural Fibres

Innocent Oils