The Later History of the Town
The courts of the borough and manor continued to be held until after the middle of the nineteenth century for formal business such as the transfer of copyhold land. The vestry, gradually shorn of many of its powers during the century, still administered the internal affairs of the town until it was superseded by the Council of the Clare Rural District, after the Local Government Act of 1894, in matters other than those purely ecclesiastical.
By the end of the seventeenth century it is clear from local records that the woollen industry was declining in Clare. Already in 1679 the justices of the peace were granting the sum of £10 to relieve the needy poor of the town; and a year later they ordered an examination of the rates, which had risen sharply because of unemployment and distress, aggravated by an epidemic of smallpox in which many had died. A gradual decline in the making of the new draperies was being experienced in Suffolk and Essex; but, if we can trust the account of a local antiquarian, Thomas Walford, who was writing at the end of the eighteenth century, bay and saymaking came to an end at Clare with rather spectacular suddenness. After giving a description of the industry and referring to the last saymaker, Thomas Barnard, who was livin c.1714, Walford wrote:-
….about this time Mr Poulter, an eminent attorney, and of considerable consequence in the town, took every method possible to eradicate the manufactory, which he effectually completed by threats and persuasion; tradition says, he would not permit the manufacturers to take an apprentice, knowing that when they died, or declined business, the trade must emigrate, which in a short time it did to the neighbouring towns of Cavendish and Glemsford, leaving a numerous poor to be maintained by the occupiers of the land, and principal inhabitants, yet what with emigrations, deaths, marriages into the adjoining villages etc. in a few years they found the poor rates less that when the trade was flourishing, and the town much benefitted by the loss of it. No person but Mr Poulter could have succeeded in removing the manufactory, he was held in such terror by every inhabitant…
Walford seems to have had a personal grudge against the lawyer. We know from other records that Poulter, who had come into possession of Clare Priory when its former owner we ruined in the South Sea Bubble, was most influential in the town. It is possible that he did hiss best to wreck the industry in Clare, but it did not disappear completely. Daniel Defoe in his Tour through Great Britain (first published in 1724) said that Clare was "a poor town and dirty, the streets being unpaved. But yet the civil and spiritual courts are held at it and it has a good church; it shows still the ruins of a strong castle, and an old monastery. It has a manufacture of says…". Later in the century we hear of workers in the industry but in decreasing number.
Yet if its trade was declining, Clare continued to have considerable prosperity as the centre of a strongly agricultural district particularly in the first half of the nineteenth century. Its population, which was 228. N 1811, had risen to 1700 by 1841; and in William White's Gazeteer and Directory of Suffolk (1844) we can find an interesting survey of the inhabitants and of their occupations. The bank of Oakes, Bevan and Co. was open on Monday, now the market day instead of Friday, and there were eight life and fire insurance offices. A new Corn Exchange on the site of the present Town Hall had been built in 1838, when the Market Cross was demolished. The professional class was represented by the vicar and curate, two non-conformist ministers, two surgeons and four attornies. Twelve farmers are mentioned, and several occupations were associated farming; there were four blacksmiths, three mill-wrights, three wheel-wrights, and three corn millers, for example. The needs of the town are indicated by the number and diversity of the shop keepers, including three chemists, six bakers, three butchers, four grocers and drapers, seven drapers, twelve boot and shoe-makers, a clog and patten make, four watch and clock makers and eight milliners, to mention only a part. The only reference to industry proper is that of an umbrella and Tuscan straw manufacturer, for whom a number of women made straw hats. In all, we are left with the picture of a flourishing, busy little town.
With regard to transport, we find that coach for London left the Half Moon each weekday morning at 6.30 and 7.30, and an hour earlier on Mondays. Tow carriers went to London three times a week, and there was a carrier service to Haverhill, Linton, Wickhambrook and Colchester two or three times a week, with a weekly carrier to Bury St Edmunds, Ipswich and Lavenham.
These years in the middle of the nineteenth century saw the peak of the town's prosperity. Gradually its trade declined and it population decreased; in 1901 it was 1582 and it continued to drop. This was due to several causes, including the agricultural depressions especially after 1875; but a particular cause was the opening of the branch railway line from Cambridge to Colchester in 1863. It became possible for farmers and others to travel to more distant markets, and the market in Clare deteriorated to a few stalls.
In recent years the town has again expanded with the building of two housing estates, Highfields overlooking the town from the high land south of the Cavendish Road, and the new estate along the Stoke Road. Clare itself has been little altered, with its wide attractive streets enhanced by the many colour-washed timber-framed houses. The Church still dominate the town; and the castle keep and the baileys remind us of the glories of a past age.