A new article, connected to our ‘Lace in Context’ project, has just been published by the journal French History. It explores French pillow-lacemakers’ relations to the tools of their trade, which they decorated, celebrated and paraded, but which they also sometimes beat and burnt. The article is published under an Open Access licence so should be freely available to all at the journal’s website. However, if you have difficulty with the website and would like a copy, simply email David Hopkin at email@example.com (and the same applies to other articles mentioned on this site about lace legends, lace and the Flemish cultural revival, Flemish lace tells, and Normandy lacemakers’ songs.
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We’ve talked on this site about several lace legends, the legend of Queen Catherine, the legend of Argentan lace, the legend of Serena of Bruges… David’s article ‘Legends of Lace: Commerce and Ideology in Narratives of Women’s Domestic Craft Production’, which covers these and other lace legends (including the ‘miracle of the bobbins’ depicted above) has just been published in the folklore journal Fabula. The article appears to be on open access at the moment so if people are interested they can read it and download it for themselves. The abstract for the article is reproduced below.
Although a relatively recent invention (c. 1500), many legends have accumulated around the origins of lace, more than have been recorded for other crafts. Almost every region involved in pillow or needle lace had its own origin story: I will concentrate on those circulating in Italy, Catalonia, France, Belgium and England. Lacemaking was a poorly paid, dispersed and overwhelmingly female occupation, but none the less it had a strong craft tradition, including the celebration of particular saints’ feastdays. The legends drew on elements of this work culture, and especially the strong connections to royal courts and the Catholic Church, but they did not originate among lacemakers themselves. Rather they were authored by persons – lace merchants and other patrons – who in the nineteenth century took on the task of defending homemade lace in its drawn-out conflict with machine-made alternatives. Legends first circulated in print, in lace histories, newspapers and magazines, before transferring to other media such as the stage, historical pageants, even the visual arts. More recently they have continued to propagate on the web. While not originally oral naratives, they behave much like legends in oral storytelling environments: they are usually unsourced; they accumulate and shed motifs; they are adapted to new circumstances and audiences. They were told with the intention of creating a special status for handmade lace, and to mobilize protectors and consumers.
Keywords: Lace, legends, craft, patronage, gender, Bruges, Le Puy, Argentan, Saint Catherine
Visitors to this site might be interested in a new article by David Hopkin on ‘The “Dying Art” of Lacemaking and the Flemish Cultural Revival’. It is published in English and Catalan, open-access, in the magazine Datatèxtil 42 (2023), pages 51-63. The article, and the whole magazine, is available here.
The article tells the story of Mechelen or Malines lacemaking in the two decades before the First World War. Despite various attempts to revive handmade lace in this Belgian city, the industry was in terminal decline. Three figures combined to provide it with a swan song: the local historian Guillaume (or Willem) Van Caster, Canon of Mechelen’s cathedral; the artist Alexander Struys; and the novelist Herman Baccaert. The article follows the interweaving of their different activities.
Datatèxtil has published lots of excellent articles on lace, mostly but not exclusively Spanish and Catalan lace. For example, there are articles on popular names for Catalan lace patterns in vol 28, the Honiton lace industry in vol 29, ‘modernist’ lace designs in vol 30, the lace collection of Madrid’s museum of Decorative Art in vol 33, Almagro lace in vol 36… All these are free to read and download via the link given above.
Our lace ‘Grand Tour’, which we mentioned in the previous post, is not unique. Around 1900 quite a few travellers, especially Americans, explored in turn the various centres of European lacemaking. For instance, Florence G. Weber, who taught lacemaking at the Society of Arts and Crafts of Boston, took a tour through Italian and Belgian lace districts at the beginning of the twentieth century. She reported on her findings in the American publication The Craftsman in 1903. Her first stop was Santa Margherita, a coastal town about twenty miles south of Genoa, where she encountered lacemakers at work under the arcades which protected them from the sun.
After you watch [a lacemaker] a few minutes, she will rise from her work, disappear into the house only to reappear at once with a finished scarf of glistening white silk. This she silently unfolds with a touch so loving that it at once becomes to you a precious thing. Then, this Margherita proceeds to adorn her pretty head with it. As she quickly draws it about her throat she smiles and says: ‘For the teeater’. No French milliner ever adjusted a Paris hat with more convincing skill. You see the scarf, the beguiling smile and the lovely face. The combination is irresistible. You buy the scarf.
By 1900 Santa Margherita and the surrounding lacemaking towns of Portofino and Rapallo had become major tourist destinations. Italy had long been favoured by rich and cultured travellers, but the possibility of tourism to the Italian Riviera was greatly increased by the arrival of the railway in 1868, a few years after Italian unification. Cultural giants of northern Europe – including Nietzsche, Jean Sibelius, Max Beerbohm and W.B. Yeats – came here to winter; Erza Pound would settle in Rapallo, and Elizabeth von Arnim wrote her novel Enchanted April (1922) about Portofino. Northern Italians also came here for the climate and the sea air: the diplomat Constantino Nigra, Cavour’s right-hand man during the unification of Italy, retired to Rapallo. His villa now houses the local lace museum, which is in the process of reopening after a hiatus. The whole region was transformed by an influx of rich and often titled visitors, and the proliferating infrastructure of hotels, villas, restaurants and other services they required.
Which brings us back to lace. There is a strong correlation between the survival of handmade lace in the late nineteenth century and the development of tourism, particularly high-end tourism. We mentioned this in our last post about Arenys de Mar; we also see it in the revival of Burano and Palestrina lace in the Venetian lagoon, we see it also in the relations between the spa towns of the Auvergne such as Vichy and the nearby Velay, or the spa towns of Bohemia and the lace regions of the Erzgebirge, we see it again in turn-of-the-century Ostend and Bruges… One can even see it, to an extent, in England, with such initiatives as the Winchelsea lace revival.
The lacemaker – working on the streets with her decorated pillow and bobbins, and wearing local costume – was one of the picturesque attractions these destinations had to offer, and so they feature on railway posters, postcards and tourist literature. But while picturesque, the lacemaker (and her imagined partner, not only in Italy but in Flanders and Normandy, the fisherman) grounded the tourist in a more authentic economy of production, not one tied only to the needs of tourists. Because lacemakers (and fishermen) were so visible on the streets, and indeed on the beach, visitors could interact with these representatives of the local culture, with its particular crafts and traditions which long preceded the arrival of the railway and the hotels. Tourists could spend their money in the expectation that they were supporting hardworking locals, the genuine exponents of a distinct regional culture, and thus ensure the survival of a handicraft that, in Weber’s words, was ‘so refining, so ennobling’.
In the case of the Ligurian Riviera south of Genoa, and specifically the Gulf of Tigullio from Portofino to Lavagna, lacemaking was mentioned as a draw in much of the tourist literature of the nineteenth century. John Murray’s Handbook for Travellers in Northern Italy (first published in 1842) states that ‘the manufacture of lace is carried out’ in Rapallo. A rival publication, Dudley Costello’s Piedmont and Italy, from the Alps to the Tiber (1861), reported that the town’s ‘houses being almost all built on arcades, beneath which a numerous population of women and girls industriously ply their trade, – lace-making being the speciality of the town’.
In addition to these guidebooks, another genre of travel writing flourished in the Victorian and Edwardian period, in which English (or anglophone) visitors described their experiences of Italy and the Italians, often accompanied by sketches and watercolours. The first of these to cover the Italian Riviera (to our knowledge) was Alice Comyns Carr’s North Italian Folk (1877), illustrated by Randolph Caldecott. Carr is best known these days as Ellen Terry’s costume designer, but she grew up in Genoa as the daughter of the resident Anglican clergyman, and so knew this part of Italy well. Lacemakers feature in her descriptions of Santa Margherita and Portofino, and she also dedicates a whole chapter to describing a lacemaker’s life. A generation later, the art critic and translator George Frederic Lees published Wanderings on the Italian Riviera (1912), this time illustrated with his own photographs. Again, the lacemakers of Portofino are featured, because:
This artistic occupation adds in no small measure to the picturesqueness of the village. Under the arches of the porticoes and at many of the street doors the workers from little girls of six to wrinkled dames of seventy sit in front of the three-legged stands which support the pillows on which their work is produced, and on all sides you hear the click of their wooden bobbins.
All of these authors, Carr and Lee as well as Weber, emphasise that the traveller can – and perhaps should – form a connection with the lacemaker. As we’ve seen in legends of royal patronage of lace, the social divide between rich and poor, the leisured and the sweated, could be ameliorated if the former undertook to directly support the latter. Although there were lace merchants and lace shops in all these towns (and indeed one still exists in Rapallo – Emilio Gandolfi’s), it was this direct relationship between consumer and producer that introduced a moral element to the tourist economy. Carr’s lacemaker Lucrezia, wife of a fisherman, is visited in her cottage by ‘one of the ladies from the palazzo on Santa Margherita’s beach’. And as ‘a private customer buys at double the price offered by Genoa shops’, Lucrezia brings forth her ‘handsome store of completed lace’, even though some of it is already promised to the lace merchant. ‘There are lengths of all widths, in flounce and edge, and insertion-lace; there are scarves and shawls, and parasol covers, and every kind of female adornment that is in fashion’. The Marchesa buys five metres of black silk flouncing (which, given that Lucrezia completes about five inches a day, represents a very substantial contribution to the household income).
Lee’s later experiences of Portofino echo those of Weber:
During the season for visitors, the streets are hung with lace; stalls, bearing every article of feminine adornment that can be made on a tombola [pillow], are erected on the piazza and at all the points where prospective buyers are likely to pass; so that how to get by without stopping to admire and purchase becomes a most difficult problem. The fair young lace-makers invite you with such pleasant smiles and in so sweet a voice ‘merely to look’ that it seems unmannerly to hasten away without accepting the invitation, and when you find that the price of their beautiful work is less than would satisfy the most unskilled of city toilers, you rarely resist the temptation to buy lace collars and handkerchiefs for your friends across the seas.
However, once the tourist had made her purchase, how was she supposed to get her lace back home? Lace bought direct from the producer might seem like a bargain, but in part this was because the consumer had yet to pay the duty levied on lace at the border. And this brings us to another aspect of the lace business which we’ve skirted up until now – its role in the black economy. Eminently respectable and usually law-abiding citizens, persons who in every other circumstance would expect their own economic interests to be protected by the state and its agents, had no qualms about smuggling lace. Mild law-breaking was itself an aspect of the more relaxed habits of holiday life. Another artist who spent the winter of 1913/14 in Santa Margherita reported these stories of his fellow guests:
The Russian ladies were also about to return to their country and seemed exercised in their minds as to how they could smuggle their purchases through the customs. There was no lack of suggestions from the other guests. The thinner lady was advised to wind the lace garments, and other pliable goods, in bands round her person, which, if artfully done, would, if possible, improve her figure as well as keep her warm on her journey; care, of course, to be taken not to be so stout as to excite the suspicions of the customs officials. Lady smugglers are now much handicapped by their narrow skirts; neat things in Paris shoes could formerly be negotiated beneath the ample garments of a past fashion. In the days of the bustle I heard of a clock being carried inside that aid to beauty, and it would have passed the customs unnoticed had not the ticking excited suspicion. The soles of boots were rubbed on the pavement to make believe that they had been worn, even water-colour stains were hinted at, as being easily washed out, and would help to pass some parasols.
A German described a scene he had witnessed at the frontier of his country. There were three passengers beside himself in his compartment, two ladies and a gentleman. The former expressed their fears as to the way they had hid their lace, and the latter assured them that if they folded it carefully it could all be pinned inside their hats, and that the customs officials would not look there. They did as instructed, and on arriving at the frontier an official entered the compartment to examine the hand baggage. Everyone said that they had nothing to declare, and a superficial look at the ladies’ hand-bags satisfied the officer, who after this was about to examine a portmanteau of the male passengers. But imagine the horror of the ladies when they saw their pretended friend touch his head with his finger and with a wink of the eye point to their hats. The official at once ordered the ladies to take them off, and, on discovering the lace, they had to follow him to the customs office, where they were mulcted in a fine and the lace was confiscated. After they had all safely passed the frontier, the man who had acted so strangely, to say the least of it, begged the ladies to allow him to recoup them to the amount of their fine, and as for the lace, he said, ‘You are welcome to six times what you have lost.’ Then opening his portmanteau he said, ‘Take what you want — the mean trick I played on you has enabled me to smuggle more than a thousand pounds’ worth of lace through the customs.’
Lacemakers could still be found working on their pillows under the arcades and on the beaches of Santa Margherita and Portofino in the 1930s and 1940s, as can be seen in these newsreels from Istituto Luce. Alongside the women are displays of their product, still attracting the rich and fashionable visitors to the Italian coast.
(The works by Carr, Lees, Tyndale and Florence Weber are all freely available on Internet Archive.)
 Florence G. Weber, ‘Lacemakers’, The Craftsman 4:6 (1903): 486.
 On this history see Lauren Arrington, The Poets of Rapallo: How Mussolini’s Italy Shaped British, Irish, and US Writers (Oxford, 2021)
 Handbook for Travellers in Northern Italy 4th edition (London, 1853), p. 143.
 Dudley Costello, Piedmont and Italy, from the Alps to the Tiber (London, 1861), p. 100.
 Ross Balzaretti, ‘Victorian Travellers, Apennine Landscapes and the Development of Cultural Heritage in Eastern Liguria, c. 1875-1914’, History 96:4 (2011): 436-58.
 Frederic Lees, Wanderings on the Italian Riviera (Boston, 1913), pp. 275-6.
 Alice Comyns Carr, ‘The Lace Weaver’, in North Italian Folk (London, 1878), pp. 97-103.
 Frederic Lees, Wanderings on the Italian Riviera (Boston, 1913), pp. 276-7.
 Walter Tyndale, An Artist in the Riviera (New York, 1915), pp. 65-7.
In historical sources almost all the commercial lacemakers one encounters were women. But did men not make lace? It’s a question we’ve often been asked, and the answer is yes – but how many it’s hard to say. Occasionally one discovers evidence of men making lace, but these reports usually concern periods of high demand when wages were very good, or periods when male-dominated industries had collapsed (such as the Breton herring fishing industry at the beginning of the twentieth century), and lace was introduced as a makeshift way for the unemployed to earn a living. But it’s likely, not least because lacemaking was so clearly identified as women’s work, that official reports undercount the number of men who made lace on either a full-time or a part-time basis.
August De Winne (1865-1935, sometimes written Dewinne) was certainly shocked to discover that, in 1902 in Belgium, some men worked as lacemakers. De Winne was a journalist for the Socialist newspaper Le Peuple. The socialist movement was growing in Belgium in the period, but it had achieved greater success in the industrial towns of French-speaking Wallonia than in Flanders where the political influence of the Catholic Church still held sway. In 1901 De Winne set out to discover the true conditions of the working population of Flanders, and the reasons behind their political attitudes. He particularly focused on the rural, inland regions of east and west Flanders which came to be known in the first decade of the twentieth century as ‘The Flanders Hell’, characterised by overpopulation, underemployment, poverty and misery. Here villagers did not work in factories, but laboured in their cottages at ‘sweated trades’ such as weaving, spinning, basket-making, rabbit-rearing (for fur rather than meat) and, of course, lace-making. The collected articles were published as A travers les Flandres in 1902, and then again in 1903 in an extended Dutch language edition as Door arm Vlaanderen – ‘through poor Flanders’. The title is an echo of an earlier novel of social protest, Arm Vlaanderen, by Reimond Stijns (1850-1905) and Isidoor Teirlinck (1851-1934). That novel was set during the first ‘School War’ which, as we know, directly concerned the lace schools.
The section below, focusing on male lacemakers, only figures in the Dutch edition. De Winne’s interest had been piqued by a report on lacemaking in Belgium by Pierre Verhaegen. This was the first really serious Belgian study of workers’ conditions and pay in the industry, and although De Winne considered Verhaegen to be too close to the Catholic Church, he nonetheless thought his information was reliable. Both De Winne and Verhaegen quote figures from the industrial census of 1896 which recorded that there were 47,571 lacemakers in Belgium, of which just 117 were men. But was that an underestimate?
Two other persons are named in the text: Charles Beerblock (1854-1914), a socialist activist from Lokeren; and Charles Lefébure (1862-1943), an engineer and amateur photographer who had accompanied De Winne and documented the social conditions he encountered on his visits. If you’re looking for Miere on a map, note that it is now spelt Mere.
“So it is true, there are men in Flanders who make lace?” I asked Beerblock.
“It was news to me. I discovered it from Monsieur Verhaegen’s report. I went with Monsieur Lefébure to meet the lacemakers from around Aalst; he took several lovely photographs. Would you like to go back there together?”
On a lovely spring morning we made our way to Meire, a small township of about 3,500 inhabitants, in an out-of-the-way corner of Aalst district, beyond the main lines of communication, just on the local railway to Ronse.
The town appears rather sweet and charming, bathed as it is in light and warmth. The road, lined with small, very neat houses, meanders gracefully through the smiling fields. The buds are sprouting on the hedges. The houses are hidden behind a curtain of trees.
What a delightful spot!
We enter a house. Potatoes are boiling away on a Leuven stove. The tall fireplace is covered with very rough religious prints. And to think that this is the picture that poor folk have of the Mother of God and of the saints! Is there really any difference between this crude religion and idolatry?
The mother, a little old woman, chats to a neighbor who has two children hanging from her skirt. By the window in a low chair sits an old man in a silk cap, a long beard like an apostle hangs down to his chest, in front of him a lace pillow.
At first, as I watch him turning the bobbins with his stiff hands, I find him a little ridiculous, but then I feel pity for this dignified old man, thus obliged to do women’s work, children’s work.
The mother stops chattering, the father and the young girls have turned to look at us. Beerblock is known here. He has come to show M. Lefébure’s beautiful photos. He takes them out of a large folder and displays them to the simple people. They marvel, utter cries of joy and surprise. “Look father! Look mother!” the young girls shout. “That’s John ‘the Frenchman’, that’s big Theresa, that’s Mary’s house!”
“How wonderful they are!”
We ask:“Old man, how long have you followed this occupation?”
“Since the age of six, sir. I have never done anything else and am now sixty years old.”
“What do you earn? How many hours a day do you work?”
“My wages vary between 70 centimes and 1 franc per day for 11 and 12 hours of work.”
“What would you say were the average earnings for the women of the village?”
“That depends both on the type of work and also on the skill of the workers. My daughters earn 1 franc a day for 12 to 13 hours of work. But a few steps further on from here lives a lace-worker who sits at her chair from 6:30 in the morning until 8 in the evening, with an hour of rest at noon. At the end of the week she will have earned just 3.80 francs.”
The amount earned in this house and in other houses in Meire is similar to that reported by Verhaegen. Here are some other figures quoted by that clerical writer: 1 franc per day for 13½ hours of work; 85 centimes for 10 hours; 64 centimes for 12 hours; 75 centimes for 8 hours; 48 centimes for 10 hours; 96 centimes for 13½ hours, and so on.
They are the figures for women’s earnings. Verhaegen only mentions a single male lacemaker, who was paid 70 centimes a day for 11 hours of work.
We leave the house in the company of the neighbour with her two children.
“They are good people, but under the thumb of the Church” she whispers to us when we have come a little way.
“Are there any villagers who are not of that persuasion?”
“People here have all kinds of convictions, sir: Catholics, Liberals, Christian Democrats and Socialists.” She adds, not without pride, “My husband is a Socialist. He’s employed at the gas works in Brussels, where he earns 4 francs a day.”
“That’s better than making lace.”
“Certainly, but it’s not an easy life nonetheless. My husband has to leave at 3.45 in the morning, and gets to Brussels at 5am. In winter, when the works only open at 7am, he has to hang around for two hours, wandering through the streets or sitting in a bar. In the evening he gets back at 8.30. No, it’s no picnic his life!”
We say goodbye to the good woman. Beerblock tells me that about 40 gas workers, roadmen and masons live here, who travel to the capital every day. Those employed in the gas works have alternating shifts – one week of day work followed by one week of night work. They prefer night work because the day trains provide better connection, so less time is lost.
Three hundred “Frenchmen” also live in Meire, so called because during the harvest season they go to France to find work. Some of these migrants also make lace during the winter. The same is true of the agricultural workers and the brickmakers who live in the village. We met some in the other houses we visited.
According to the industrial census [conducted in 1896], there are 114 men in Flanders who make lace, but Verhaegen thinks, with good reason, that the number of those who engage in this type of work in their free time, for whom it is an additional source of income, is much larger.
In Meire we also saw a number of boys sitting next to their mothers or sisters and who, like them, were working with bobbins. “It keeps them quiet” say the good people of the region.
Does a child actually need to play, to run about, to have fun, to go to school, to breathe the air, to strengthen his muscles, in order to develop? Why?
Later, as a man, he’ll become a farmer or a brick maker; maybe he’ll travel along the roads of France looking for work or he’ll sit in front of a lace cushion for thirteen hours a day. On Sunday he’ll first pray and then get drunk on gin.Work, prayer, and generating more members of their unfortunate race, that is the whole destiny of these men and women, and the destiny of the children of Flanders!
A very belated post for the Feast of Our Lady of the Snows, which fell on 5 August. One of the Virgin Mary’s many titles, her legend is set in 4th century Rome, where a couple wanted to leave their fortune to the Virgin but had not decided how it should be spent. At the height of summer, snow fell on the Esquiline Hill, and this miracle was taken as a sign that a church should be built there – what is now the Basilica of St Mary Major. Until the fifteenth century Our Lady of the Snows was a largely Roman cult, but during the Counter-Reformation it spread across the Catholic world.
Our Lady of the Snows was much celebrated by lacemakers. Some Bruges lacemakers said a daily prayer to her to keep their lace snow-white, as money would be deducted from their earnings if their lace was tarnished. (Historically lacemakers had several ways of making their lace as white as snow; some, such as the use of white lead, were incredibly damaging to their health.) Lacemakers in the same city carried a gift of lace to the statue of Our Lady of the Snows in Bruges cathedral on her feast day. Brussels lacemakers had done the same until her chapel was pulled down during the French occupation of the city. However, we only know of two places where she was the patron of lacemakers: Almagro in central Spain – to which we hope to return – and Turnhout on the Belgian border with the Netherlands, which is our focus today.
Unlike other Flemish centres, the lace industry in Turnhout seems to have thrived into the first decades of the twentieth century. According to the American visitor Charlotte Kellogg, half the female population of the city were involved in the trade, including 1,800 girls and young women enrolled in the numerous lace schools. The largest of these were the religious institutions run by the Sisters of the Sacred Heart and the Sisters of the Holy Sepulchre, as well as the model school established in 1910 by Father Berraly, but there were also many smaller, private institutions with 30 to 50 lace apprentices. Turnhout lacemakers graduated from the supposedly easier ‘Engelsche grond’ (point de Paris) to ‘halve slag’ (point de Lille) to the extremely fine and very expensive ‘Ijsgrond’ (point de Malines). Perhaps it was this specialism in difficult laces that kept the handmade lace business buoyant in the region. A Dutch socialist newspaper in 1910 complained that the women workers earned only 9-10 francs a week for 70-80 hours work, but compared with salaries in other centres in the west of Belgium this was comparatively high. The trainees in the lace schools earned much less, of course. None the less, lacemakers in Turnhout had a strong sense of their own skill and worth, which found expression in their songs and in their patronal feastday celebrations.
As we’ve seen in previous posts about Saint Gregory’s in Geraardsbergen and Klein-Sacramentsdag in Ypres, the feastday celebrations were led by the lace schools rather than lacemakers more generally – indeed in Turnhout the day was named ‘domineeren’, that is the teachers’ holiday (akin to ‘dominie’ in Scots). On the morning of the Saturday nearest to 5 August, the lace apprentices, in costumes covered with ribbons and paper streamers, formed rows behind a ceremonial arch likewise decorated with paper flowers and coloured, blown eggshells, from which was suspended a life-size effigy of a lacemaker at her pillow. Each school, led by its mistress, then marched through the city, ‘singing, skipping, laughing and chattering’ as they went according to one witness, towards one of the numerous chapels and wayside shrines nearby. The most popular was the chapel of Our Lady of the Snows (Onze Lieve Vrouw ter Sneeuw) in Oosthoven.
Here is one of the songs the lacemakers sang on their way:
|Den dag is nu al aangekomen,
Den dag van O.L.V. Ter Sneeuw,
Hoe zullen wij dezen dag nu vieren,
Den dag dat wij nu feest genieten.
|The day has now arrived,
The day of Our Lady of the Snows,
How shall we celebrate this day,
This day on which we enjoy a party.
|Refrein: Het is maar voor de jonge jeugd,
De feest die wij nu vieren,
Dan roepen wij met een blij gemoed,
Dan gaan wij naar den doolhof toe.
|Chorus: It’s only for the young,
The feast that we’re now celebrating,
Then we’ll shout with an eager heart,
Then we’ll go to ‘the Maze’ (a wilderness area near Oosthoven)
|Als wij in den doolhof zijn gekomen,
Wat zullen wij dan eens gaan doen,
Wij zullen ons eigen goed gedragen,
En ons Meesteressen geerne zien.
|As we come to the Maze,
What shall we do there,
We shall do ourselves some good,
And our mistresses see with pleasure.
After a brief ceremony at the chapel, where the lacemakers prayed to Our Lady of the Snows that their lace should always remain white, the group travelled on to one of the nearby country inns, such as ‘De Vrat’ which features in one song. Here the mistress stood the workers a drink – beer for the older girls, sage milk for the younger – and many ‘mastellen’, a local type of cinnamon bun (which also is named in a song).
In return the lacemakers toasted their mistresses:
|Vivat onze Meesteressen,
Zij hebben voor ons zooveel gedaan,
Zij hebben ons slagjes leeren maken,
En onze handjes laten gaan.
|Long live our mistresses,
They have done so much for us,
They have taught us how to make stitches,
And let loose our hands.
|Refrein: En zullen wij dan eens schoon palleeren,
En onze geldekens daaraan geven,
Als wij den druk der scholen zien,
Hoe wij de feest van de werksters zien.
|Chorus: And then we shall doll ourselves up,
And spend our money,
As we see the schools busy,
That’s how we see the workers’ feastday.
|Engelsche grond willen wij niet werken,
Dat is voor ons veel te gemijn,
Dat is maar voor de kleine kinderen,
Die eerst op ‘t werken gekomen zijn.
|We don’t want to make ‘Point de Paris’,
That’s too base for us,
That’s more for the small children,
That’s the first work they do.
|Wij kunnen allerhande kanten werken,
Zoowel ijsgrond als halve slag,
En daar een bloemeke in zetten,
Zoowel een rooske als eenen tak.
|We can make all kinds of lace,
‘Point de Malines’ as much as ‘Point de Lille’
And set a flower in it,
A rose as easily as a sprig.
|Wij hebben den naaam dat wij zijn lui werksters,
Wel lieve vrienden het is niet waar,
En komt dan Zaterdag’s eens kijken,
Of dat er een zonder cent zal gaan.
|People say we’re lazy workers,
But friends that’s just not true,
Just come and have a look on Saturday,
Whether any of us is penniless.
But while the lacemakers celebrated their skill, as we have seen on other Flemish holidays they could also express frustrations with the demands the work placed upon them:
|Een en dertig, twee en dertig,
drij, vier, vijf, zes, zeven en dertig!
En mijnen boutenbak, mijnen boutenbak!
En mijnen boutenbak viel op den vloer!
|One and thirty, two and thirty,
Three, four, five, six, seven and thirty!
And my bobbin-case, my bobbin-case!
My bobbin-case lies on the floor!
|Ongeneerd zoo zullen wij wezen,
ongeneerd zoo zullen wij zijn!
Laat ons, laat ons
vreugde rapen, vreugde rapen;
Laat ons, laat ons
vreugde rapen al onder ons!
|Unabashed we shall become,
Unabashed we shall be,
Let us, let us
Gather pleasure, gather pleasure:
Let us, let us
Gather pleasure among us!
On the journey back to the city, the various schools taunted each other:
|Al de scholen gaan te niet,
al de scholen gaan te niet,
uitgenomen Lis Verwilt’es niet!
|All the schools are rubbish,
All the schools are rubbish,
Except Lis Verwilt’s, that’s not!
But before they went home, there was one last symbolic act: the lacemakers’ burnt their festive arch and their lacemaker guy – a reprensentation of their teacher? – in a field, while singing:
|En wij hebben onzen boog verspeld
in Oosthoven, in Oosthoven!
En wij hebben onzen boog verspeld
in Oosthoven, op het veld!
|And we’ve thrown away our arch
In Oosthoven, in Oosthoven!
And we’ve thrown away our arch
In Oosthoven, on the field!
|En wij hebben onzen boog verbrand
in Oosthoven, in Oosthoven!
En wij hebben onzen boog verbrand
in Oosthoven, op het veld!
|And we’ve burnt our arch
In Oosthoven, in Oosthoven!
And we’ve burnt our arch
In Oosthoven, on the field!
Most of these songs were first collected by Canon Jozef Jansen, a priest and also later Turnhout’s archivist. He noted that the custom was already moribund in 1910. However, when another priest-cum-local historian Jozef Nuyts wrote an account of the feastday in 1939, he could still find living witnesses to tell him about it, while the radio producer Pol Heyns was able to record schoolchilden in Turnhout singing several of the songs. Links to these recordings are provided here:
 M[agda] C[afmeyer], ‘Leerschool en spellewerkschool te St.-Kruis’, ‘t Beertje (1969): 20-48, 34.
 Baron Otto von Reinsberg-Düringsfeld, Traditions et légendes de la Belgique: Descriptions des fêtes religieuses et civiles, usages, croyances et pratiques populaires des Belges anciens et modernes (Brussels, 1870), vol. 2, p. 74.
 Charlotte Kellogg, Bobbins of Belgium (New York, 1920), chap. 1.
 ‘Iets over huisarbeid’, De Proletarische Vrouw, 1 October 1910, p. 2.
 Most of the information in this post comes from two articles in the local historical journal: Jozef Jansen, ‘De kantvervaardiging in Turnhout: Haar geschiedenis en bewerking’, Taxandria 8 (1911), p. 117- 82; Jozef Nuyts, ‘Het Domineeren der Turnhoutsche Kantwerksters’, Annuaire de la Commission de la vieille chanson populaire (1939): 119-33. A special issue of the journal Taxandria was dedicated to the Turnhout lace industry in 2003.
For centuries, lace was primarily produced by the poor for the rich, who ornamented themselves and their dwellings with the luxury fabric. This was also true for Belgian lace, but nevertheless it was promoted as a humanitarian textile during the First World War.
I am a postdoctoral researcher from KU Leuven (Leuven, Belgium) and currently an academic visitor at the Oxford Centre for European History (Oxford, United Kingdom). My research focuses on war lace, lace produced by Belgian lacemakers during the First World War. Some of these lace pieces refer directly to the conflict. They include names of people and places, inscriptions, dates, portraits and coats-of-arms or national symbols of the Allied Nations, of the nine Belgian provinces or of the Belgian towns who suffered most during the German invasion. A few of the distinctive war laces have been designed by Belgian artists – such as Isidore De Rudder (1855-1943), Fernand Khnopff (1858-1921) and Juliette Wytsman-Trullemans (1866-1925) – whose exceptional laces have been studied for their iconography and their aesthetic quality, before being placed within the larger history of lace production in Belgium. However, I am more interested to use war lace as a starting point to explore the relations between craft, women and humanitarian aid.
In early August 1914, Belgium was violently invaded by German troops, who conquered the majority of the country and occupied it for the remainder of the war. The years of occupation meant hunger and unemployment for the circa 7.5 million Belgian civilians.
The supply of food and its distribution became a problem almost immediately. The situation particularly deteriorated in the major cities and industrial areas. In early September 1914, Brand Whitlock (1869-1934), the American minister to Brussels, noted: ‘Then we began to note a new phenomenon – new, at least, in Brussels – women begging in the street. Hunger, another of war’s companions, had come to town.’ Local and national initiatives were taken to relieve hunger and to avoid starvation, but they proved to be insufficient. Before the war, more than half of food consumed in Belgium had been imported. This was now impossible, because the closure of the national borders and the installation of the Allied blockade cut Belgians off from the international food market. An international partner who could import food from abroad was sought and found in the Commission for Relief in Belgium (CRB), newly established for the purpose. The CRB was an American relief organisation founded and chaired by the engineer, businessman and later 31st U.S. President Herbert C. Hoover (1874-1964). For more than fifty months, the CRB helped feed nearly ten million people, first in occupied Belgium and later also in occupied Northern France. It collected one billion dollars and imported five million tons of food via the port of Rotterdam from where it was transported into the occupied areas. In Belgium their local partner, the Comité National de Secours et d’Alimentation (CN), distributed the food to the towns and municipalities. In spite of these impressive numbers, the food supply and distribution was inadequate. This was especially the case during the second half of the war. After a visit to Brussels in September 1917, the Belgian Countess Henriette de Villermont (1855-1940) noted in her diary: ‘All the fat people have disappeared.’ Nevertheless, actual starvation was avoided during the entire war.
In addition to food aid, the CRB set up employment schemes, as did other philanthropists, charity organisations and local, regional and national authorities. The need was great: a large part of the Belgian population was hit by unemployment, because many industries remained closed during the occupation. As the Belgian historian Sophie De Schaepdrijver explains ‘The restrictions on imports of raw materials and the exportation of goods, the impossibility of commuting, the ban on communication between citizens of different municipalities, the requisitionings of material, the war taxes and fines, the closure of factories and workshops unwilling to work for the occupiers, and the dismantling of infrastructure, all paralysed honest activity.’ Creating employment benefitted not only the worker who once again had an income, but also the CRB’s food aid programme. Unemployed Belgians would receive their daily meal for free, but employed ones were enabled to buy their food. If more people could pay for their foodstuffs, the CRB had more money with which to purchase, import and distribute food.
Employment schemes were particularly concerned with the large sector of women who had been wage-dependent before the war, because they suffered the most from job scarcity. The schemes focussed on women’s activities in the home and they included childcare, cooking, sewing and lacemaking. Before the war the Belgian lace industry had employed circa 50,000 women, who were now (or threatened to be) unemployed due to the shortage of raw materials as well as the dearth of clients: Belgian lace had always been an export product. Associations that had already concerned themselves with lacemakers welfare before the war – they were a notoriously poorly paid group – continued to interest themselves, while new initiatives were introduced to support lacemakers. However, these proved inadequate as the Allied blockade prevented the import of thread and the export of lace from occupied Belgium. The American-born Viscountess de Beughem, née Irone Hare (1885-1979), one of the core members of the pre-war Comité de la dentelle, brought the fate of the lacemakers in occupied Belgium to the attention of Herbert Hoover of the CRB. Years later, she recalled in an interview how she had insisted on meeting Hoover during his visit to Brussels in January 1915. When she did meet him,
‘[h]e said, “It appears you have something to ask me.” And I said, “Indeed I have, Mr. Hoover, and it’s very important.”‘ The viscountess then explained to him the condition of the lacemakers. ‘So Mr. Hoover saw me through, and I thought – there was no reaction whatever. You know how he would sit without any expression. […] And he finally looked and said to me: “I will do what I can.” And during the whole war he brought in the thread on the canals, on the boats that brought in the flour, and took out the lace.’
The lace was exported to the U.S. and Allied Countries with France and the United Kingdom as the other main destinations. There the many qualities of the fabric, the wide range of products, the reasonable prices, the renown of Belgian lace, the deplorable situation of the Belgian lacemaker – who nevertheless made the best of her hardship – were pointed out to the buyer. The Little Paris Shop located at the Huntingdon Avenue in Boston used a mixture of these sales strategies in their advertisement of Belgian lace:
Belgian Laces made Belgium Famous. Queen Elizabeth of Belgium has under her protection the Belgian lace makers because the village folks, old and young, mothers and even men make an honest living by it. Belgian laces are durable, washable, wearable for Christenings, marriages, gifts, etc. just beautiful and many times precious. Belgium laces: have a souvenir of it. They are for all pockets from 25c up. Lace makers work in groups from 6a.m. to 7p.m. year after year; they spend their days in work, songs, talks and prayers. They are happy when there is plenty of work.
The Belgian lacemaker quickly became the primary focus of the propaganda (as we have seen in a previous post on their place in First World War poetry). An example is a series of postcards showing Belgian lacemakers practising their craft in their war-ravaged surroundings. One of these postcards depicts a well-fed young woman dressed in simple dark clothes and a white apron, industriously making bobbin lace. Working quietly and seemingly unaware of the viewer’s gaze, she sits in a field with in the background the ruins of a church on the left, a large cross in the middle and seemingly intact buildings on the right. The other postcards show the same type of imagery: female lacemakers of different ages who are well-nourished – thus demonstrating the success of the CRB’s food relief programme – who continue their work proving the heroic stoicism of Belgians living and labouring under the German occupation. The women are pictured in or nearby their lace schools, homes and churches, as if to demonstrate the women’s commitment to their craft, their families and their faith.
Lace had always been a luxury item. In general during times of war or hardship, the production of luxury goods is normally discouraged or even entirely abandoned. This was not the case with Belgian lace, though it was a question raised at the time. After the U.S. entered the First World War in April 1917, opposition increased to luxury expenditure: witness the article ‘How fare the luxuries in war-time?’, published in Printer’s Ink. A New York Journal for Advertisers on 4th October 1917:
One of the very latest features of Belgian relief in which the American authorities are just now interesting themselves, aims to enlist the patronage of American women for Belgian lace workers […] Thus to encourage luxury production in one quarter and discourage luxury production in general in the United States would manifestly be an inconsistent, if not incomprehensible attitude.
This kind of criticism explains why the CRB issued a poster for use in the UK stating ‘Belgian Lace is not a Luxury’. The drawing above the caption immediately pointed the contemporary viewer to what really mattered: the destitute Belgian lacemaker who could only survive in her war-ravaged surroundings thanks to her craft and her international supporters. This strategy diverted attention from lace as a luxury item. Belgian lace was successfully promoted as a humanitarian textile during the First World War.
Wendy Wiertz, postdoctoral researcher KU Leuven | academic visitor Oxford Centre for European History
 Marguerite Coppens, ‘Les commandes dentellières de l’Union patriotique des femmes belges et du Comité de la dentelle à Fernand Khnopff’, Revue belge d’archéologie et d’histoire de l’art 64 (1995), pp. 71-84; Patricia Wardle, ‘War and Peace. Lace designs by the Belgian Sculptor Isidore de Rudder (1855-1943)’, Bulletin van het Rijksmuseum 37: 2 (1989): pp. 73-90; Patricia Wardle, 75x Lace (Zwolle: Waanders, 2000), cat. nr. 75.
 Antoon Vrints, ‘“All the Butter in the Country Belongs to Us, Belgians”: Well-Being and Lower-Class National Identification in Belgium during the First World War’, in Maarten Van Ginderachter and Marnix Beyen (eds) Nationhood from Below. Europe in the Long Nineteenth Century (Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan, 2012), p. 234; Sophie De Schaepdrijver, De Groote Oorlog. Het koninkrijk België tijdens de Eerste Wereldoorlog, 5th ed. (Antwerp/Amsterdam: Houtekiet/Atlas Contact, 2014), pp 13-125; Éliane Gubin and Catherine Jacques with the corporation of Claudine Marissal, Enclyclopédie d’histoire des femmes. Belgique, XIXe-XXe siècles (Brussels: Racine, 2018), pp. 266-73.
 Antoon Vrints, ‘Beyond Victimization: Contentious Food Politics in Belgium during World War I’, European History Quarterly 45:1 (2015): 234-5; Giselle Nath, Brood willen we hebben! Honger, sociale politiek en protest tijdens de Eerste Wereldoorlog in België (Antwerp: Manteau, 2013), 45-63; De Schaepdrijver, De Groote Oorlog, 114-16.
 Brand Whitlock, Belgium. A Personal Narrative (New York: D. Appleton, 1919), vol. 1, p. 239.
 Nath, Brood willen we hebben!, 45.
 Herbert Hoover, The Memoirs of Herbert Hoover, 3 vols (New York: Macmillan, 1951-52); George H. Nash, The Life of Herbert Hoover, 3 vols (New York/London: W.W. Norton & Company, 1983-96); Kenneth Whyte, Hoover. An Extraordinary Life in Extraordinary Times (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2017).
 From the start of the food aid programme, the CRB sought publicize its activities through press coverage, posters, reports and overviews, while several American volunteer CRB collaborators wrote about their experiences in occupied Belgium during and shortly after the war. The latter include Tracy B. Kittredge, The History of the Commission for Relief in Belgium, 1914-1917 (London: Crowther and Goodman, 1920); Vernon L. Kellogg, Fighting Starvation in Belgium (Garden City [NY]: Doubleday, 1918); George I. Gay, The Commission for Relief in Belgium. Statistical Review of Relief Operations (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1925); Herbert Hoover, An American Epic, 3 vols (Chicago: Henry Regnery, 1959-61); These publications prioritized American perceptions and expectations of Belgian gratitude, which have sometimes been echoed uncritically by contemporary researchers: Tammy M. Proctor, Civilians in a World at War 1914-1918 (New York/London: New York University Press, 2010), pp. 189-92; Bruno Cabanes, The Great War and the Origins of Humanitarianism, 1918-1924 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014), pp. 206-213; Barry Riley, The Political History of American Food Aid. An Uneasy Benevolence (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), pp. 12-32. Multilingual research on critical voices of national and local committees and of the targets of aid have countered this one-sided American view, adding to a more multifaceted view of CRB food aid in occupied Belgium: Sophie de Schaepdrijver, ‘A Civilian War Effort: the Comité National de Secours et d’Alimentation in Occupied Belgium, 1914-1918’, in Remembering Herbert Hoover and the Commission for Relief in Belgium (Brussels: Fondation Universitaire – Universitaire Stichting, 2006), 26-37; Nath, Brood willen we hebben!, pp. 45-63; Vrints, ‘Beyond Victimization’: 83-107.
 Belgium, private archives, diary of Countess Henriette de Villermont kept between 1884 and 1918: ‘4 septembre 1917, les grosses personnes ont disparu’.
 De Schaepdrijver, ‘A Civilian War Effort’, p. 32.
 Charlotte Kellogg, Women of Belgium. Turning Tragedy to Triumph (New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1917), pp. 127, 137-57, 167-78; De Schaepdrijver, ‘A Civilian War Effort’, pp. 24, 32-35; Éliane Gubin et al., ‘Women’s Mobilization for War (Belgium)’, in Ute Daniel et al (eds) 1914-1918-online. International Encyclopedia of the First World War, Freie Universität Berlin, Berlin 2016-09-21; Gubin and Jacques, Encyclopédie d’histoire des femmes en Belgique, 19e et 20e siècle, pp. 266-73; 577-79.
 The number of 45,000 to 50,000 are commonly cited. Yet, Isabel Anderson, author of The Spell of Belgium, wrote ‘[w]here a generation ago one hundred and fifty thousand women were employed, in 1910 there were barely twenty thousand.’ Isabel Anderson, The Spell of Belgium, 5th ed. (Boston: The Page Company, 1922), p. 149. There might have been more lacemakers as for many women, the craft was not a fulltime occupation. Therefore, they did not define themselves as lacemakers in the census. Nonetheless, the number of lacemakers diminished drastically in the second half of the nineteenth and the first decade of the twentieth centuries. See also David Hopkin, ‘Working, Singing, and Telling in the 19th-Century Flemish Pillow-Lace Industry’, Textile 18:1 (2020): 55.
 Martine Bruggeman, Lace in Flanders. History and Contemporary Art (Tielt: Lannoo, 2018), pp. 88-9.
 The Viscountess de Beughem was one of the core members of the CD alongside Countess Élisabeth d’Oultremont (1867-1971), lady-in-waiting to the Belgian Queen Elisabeth; Baroness Josse Allard, née Marie-Antoinette Calley Saint-Paul de Sinçay (1881-1977), an amateur artist and wife of a banker; and Mrs Louis Kefer-Mali, née Marie Mali (1855-1927), an expert on the history of lace, wife of a musician and sister of the Belgian Consul-General in New York. Mrs Brand Whitlock, née Ella Brainerd (1876-1942), who was married to the American minister to Belgium, was appointed as honorary chair. Whitlock, Belgium. A Personal Narrative, vol. 1, pp. 549-50; Evelyn McMillan, ‘War, Lace, and Survival in Belgium During World War I’, PieceWork Spring (2020): pp. 47-8.
 U.S., West Branch IA, Herbert Hoover Presidential Library, oral history interview with Vicomtesse de Beughem by Raymond Henle, director, 16 November 1966, at 3945 Connecticut Avenue, N.W., Washington D.C. This story was also mentioned by Herbert Hoover in the first volume of his publication An American Epic. Herbert Hoover, An American Epic, vol. 1 Introduction. The Relief of Belgium and Northern France 1914-1930 (Chicago: Henry Regnery, 1959), pp. 410-11. The British were especially reluctant to open the blockade for the trade of Belgian lace. They feared the Germans, who had erected their own lace agency, the Spitzen-Zentrale, might succeed in their efforts to control a revived Belgian lace industry. Kellogg, Women of Belgium, p. 160; Whitlock, Belgium. A Personal Narrative, vol. 1, p. 419; Kellogg, Bobbins of Belgium, pp. 120-23; Marguerite Coppens, Kant uit het Koningshuis, exhibition catalogue Brussels, Bank Brussel Lambert (Brussel: Weissenburch, 1990), pp. 116-19.
 Jennifer D. Keene, ‘Americans Respond. Perspectives on the Global War, 1914-1917‘, Geschichte und Gesellschaft 40 (2014): pp. 266-86.
 Private collection.
 U.S., Palo Alto, CA, Hoover Institution, Commission for Relief in Belgium records, box 640: series of postcards.
 ‘How fare the luxuries in war-time?’ Printer’s Ink. A New York Journal for Advertisers, 4 October 1917.
Any mention of historic ‘Irish Lace’ is sure to call to mind a picture very much like the one that the South Kensington Museum (now the V&A) lace expert, Alan Cole, described in his 1884 ‘Proposal for the Maintenance of the Domestic Industry of Lace-making in Ireland’:
The making of lace in Ireland is a domestic industry, practiced by some hundreds of peasants in their homes, by communities in convents, by children in Industrial and other Schools, and by others. Great skill in the work has been developed since the earlier part of the present century when the industry was introduced to the country through the efforts of Philanthropists.
Alan Cole paints a picture of a rural cottage industry, presided over by philanthropically-minded individuals, but the fact that he is writing this proposal – and may other reports – hints that there is more to this story than first meets the eye. Cole was an employee of the British Government, and his reports were written to be read in Parliament. They discuss government-sponsored competitions, new training schools, policies, reports, and government acts, providing a window into a time when lace in Ireland was tangled up with broader questions about taste, education, autonomy and identity.
I am a PhD candidate working in and between the Departments of Art History, Design, Art Education and Irish Studies at Concordia University in Montreal. My research focuses on one Irish lace designer, Emily Anderson (1858-1948), following her from the new art college in Cork, to the South Kensington Museum in London, to a career in the Department of Agriculture and Technical Instruction for Ireland as a ‘Lace Inspectress’. She is not a well-documented historical figure, and I am not intending to write a biography. Rather, Anderson’s involvement with these various institutions draws previously unexplored links between them, and provides a way into thinking about how they all intersected, connected, and sometimes conflicted with each other, and what that might tell us about the relationship between design, education, identity, and politics… with lace as the case study at the centre of it all.
This year, I made an unexpected discovery that led me to investigate yet another player in the Irish lace industry. A distant relative of Anderson’s, now living in British Columbia, kindly shared with me some information about the family, including the fact that Emily’s brother, Robert Anderson, was a long-time secretary of the Irish Agricultural Organisation Society and key figure in the Irish Co-operative movement. I wondered if Emily may have been involved too, and took a look at co-op reports and the movement’s widely-read magazine, The Irish Homestead. At this point in my research, Emily Anderson seemed only to have been a financial supporter of the co-ops, but the foray into the movement’s history revealed that it was much more intertwined with the Irish lace industry than I had thought.
The Irish Agricultural Organisation Society (IAOS) was founded in 1894 by the agrarian reformer and politician Horace Plunkett. It would prove a vital force in shaping Ireland’s rural identity and economy into the 20th century, and still operates today as the Irish Co-operative Organisation Society. The organization was meant to promote co-operation in the dairy industry, but grew to encompass many other aspects of rural life and work, including, for a while, cottage industries. In 1897, the IAOS announced a new class of society that would provide employment for rural women whose traditional work in the creamery had been taken away by the larger, co-operative creameries. These collectives of craftspeople – mostly, though not exclusively, women – were known as ‘Home Industries Societies’, and operated on a co-operative model where members paid a small fee to join and participated in the profits.
Many of the Home Industries Societies specialized in lace. Workers in Carrickmacross and Youghal, two towns that gave their names to varieties of lace (appliqué and needle lace respectively), formed co-ops as early as 1898. At the turn of the century, the Home Industries Societies were “almost altogether concerned with the production of lace and crochet.” At the end of the 19th century, Irish lace – particularly the Irish specialties of needlepoint lace, embroidery on net, applique on net, guipure, and crochet – was enjoying a moment of popularity around the world, and no doubt workers were hoping to cash in on the trend.
However, in 1899, the IAOS reported that the Home Industries Societies’ sales were flagging. Their work was lacking in sophistication, and it was having trouble finding its way to a market. Reports suggest that much of the work was done too quickly, with old patterns that were not only out of fashion, but also blurred and degraded by the pin-holes and folds of constant reuse.
Luckily, help was close at hand. The Irish Industries Association, founded in 1886 by the aristocratic philanthropist Ishbel Aberdeen to organize, aid, and promote Irish Home and Cottage Industries, had agreed to assist the IAOS Home Industries Societies in staying abreast of trends and connected to the market. One way that they could do this was by circulating new, high quality lace designs.
And so, the 1900 IAOS annual report announced that: “The Irish Industries Association, as Trustees of the Branchardière Trust, have arranged to furnish the Homestead with lace designs for publication, and have contributed £10 to the cost of blocks [to print the images]. These designs are very useful to the Home Industries Societies.” The Homestead refers to The Irish Homestead, the co-operative movement’s official publication, which was at that time the most widely read agricultural periodical in Ireland. Publishing lace designs here meant that they were incredibly accessible – a flounce designed by the top student at the Metropolitan School of Art in Dublin printed beside recipes for curried rabbit and methods for preserving eggs.
The first design was published in The Irish Homestead on June 9, 1900. The large, crisp image – notable in a sparsely illustrated magazine – was accompanied by a descriptive text and a note that “working drawings, full size, can be obtained from the Secretary, Irish Industries Association, 21 Lincoln Place, Dublin, at a cost of three shillings each.” Though some of the designs were more expensive, most were 3 or 4 shillings – pricey for a piece of paper, perhaps, but really quite affordable given the fact that they guided weeks or even months of work, and in some cases could have been reused. Presumably, the use of these designs also improved quality of work, which would have boosted sales. The IAOS published earnings reports for all of its co-ops, including the Home Industries Societies, and I would be curious to compare the numbers from 1899 to those from 1900-1902, the period when The Irish Homestead published the set of designs. I also wonder if some lace makers cheated the system by simply copying directly from the pages of the magazine. Though it would have been difficult to copy the forms and motifs exactly while also expanding them to the proper size, it wouldn’t have been impossible.
Design I was a ‘Flounce in Carrickmacross Guipure’, ten inches deep, and ornamented with ribbons, floral and foliate motifs. The accompanying text, signed J.B., was almost certainly written by James Brenan, onetime Headmaster at the Cork School of Art, Headmaster at the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art and expert on lace design.
Brenan’s comments on this pattern, and on the forty-five other designs published between June 1900 and November 1902, are a window into the mind of a turn of the century Irish lace designer, and, to a certain extent, maker. He describes the strengths and weaknesses of the patterns, and points out passages that might be difficult for the lace maker to complete. He discusses the results of lace competitions, and which designs might fetch a higher price at market.
I am particularly interested in how he describes what ‘good lace’ looks like like. It can be difficult for me to understand what would have been attractive to a nineteenth or early-twentieth-century lace connoisseur. But Brenan’s commentary describes these features great detail. Of the first design, he writes: “the design has good construction and drawing, and possesses evenness of distribution, three important necessities in every design.”
The balance between evenness and variety is particularly important. Though it appears to be symmetrical, the pattern is in fact slightly different on each side of the vertical line around which it is constructed; “the two sides will be seen to balance carefully, without being an exact repetition of each other.” The designer alternates full views of the flowers with three quarter views, and uses odd numbered groups of motifs; “odd numbers compose better, as a rule, than even numbers.”
Another design in Carrickmacross Guipure received almost the same commentary a couple of months later. Though the designs are quite different, Brenan commends the designer of the border, who “very properly made the two sides of the pattern to balance, without insisting on absolute symmetry, or, as it were, turning over the pattern to form each side; to do this would result in a mechanical appearance, which would ill accord with the characteristics of Carrickmacross lace.” In this article. Brenan also notes that the designs have been enthusiastically received by lace makers, and that “numerous workers throughout the country are applying to the Secretary for full-size drawings”.
‘Good design’ does not always look the same across the varieties of lace, because different materials and methods offer different opportunities and challenges. No. XIII, ‘Design for a Crochet Border,’ is commended for its simplicity and the ease with which it could be copied. Brenan points out the small circular motifs that the designer has incorporated into the sweeping curves of vine on either side of the central flower. Long, sinuous curves are difficult to render in crochet, as they are likely to be pulled in one direction or another by even the slightest change in tension, resulting in more of a zig-zag than a curve! However, the circles would disguise any wavering in the vine, making it easier to faithfully replicate the design even without perfect tension.
The IAOS had specified that: “the designs also should have certain common characteristics, which are necessary if the work is to be marketed as a definitely national product, and for this, if no other reason, it is better that the designs should come from one source with the best available inventive talent to create or guide in the designs.” They, and other proponents of Irish lace, hoped that quality of design, but also a group of recognizable ‘Irish’ features and motifs, would come to characterize the lace; it was an exercise in branding.
Some common motifs do repeat in the patterns: conventional foliage and curved forms, lots of roses. But the shamrocks, ribbons and harps that I associate with these types of lace as they are made now are scarce. The patterns reflect the Irish lace industry’s origins in producing copies of continental lace; the design published on July 7 is a ‘Border in Innishmacsaint [sic] Raised Needle-point Lace’ which is “a reproduction of the Venetian Rose Point of the seventeenth century.”
Sometimes, the designs featured motifs with origins even further afield. The following week, the design was a ‘Flounce in Limerick Lace (Tambour)’, and Brenan writes that “the designer has selected as the motif a flower resembling a French marigold. It is a favourite flower of many Persian designs.”
As I continue to go through these designs and their accompanying text, I’m tracking the repetition of motifs and the “common characteristics,” trying to figure out how the designs may have helped to shaped turn of the century Irish lace’s formal attributes. I’m even designing my own lace patterns as a way of thinking through the technical issues they discuss. However, I’m also interested in what James Brenan’s text reveals about the lace industry itself – the relationships between designers, makers, lace sellers, government and art college officials, and tastemakers.
I can see a glimpse of this in the article and image published on November 27, 1900, which leaves me with lots of questions about differences in taste, and the role of worker and designer. No. XVIII, ‘Design for a Limerick Lace Flounce,’ was published in The Irish Homestead after it won first prize at the Art Industries Exhibition in late August, 1900 at the Royal Dublin Society. It appears to be the work of Emily Anderson, who had studied drawing, painting and lace design at the Cork (later Crawford) School of Art, and is listed in the Exhibition catalogue as winning a £1 prize for her ‘Deep Flounce or Alb’. Alan Cole, lace expert from the South Kensington Museum (now the Victoria and Albert Museum), judged the competition for lace designs, while James Brenan had judged the lace itself, along with C. Harry Biddle. In the The Irish Homestead, however, Brenan is able to make his own judgement on the design, and he is not impressed.
Though he commends it for “a considerable grace of arrangement,” “sufficiently large” motifs, and “satisfactory” balance (ouch!), Brenan critiques the designer for not paying enough attention to the needs of the worker. Too much of the design is left up to chance: the beaded strings that loop over the vines (how exactly this is supposed to translate into lace is not specified), the scroll along the border (which could not be worked successfully the way it is). However, this concern for the maker might be more accurately described as concern for the lace – Brenan explains that “the question of expense alone precludes the idea of leaving anything in the rendering of the design to the caprice of the worker.” He doesn’t trust that the lace maker is capable of making good stylistic decisions on her own. At the end of the article, he notes that working drawings of the design may be purchased, but that they have “the modifications referred to inserted”.
The designs – and The Irish Homestead itself – were published for the workers, and early reports of their success mentioned members of the co-ops purchasing designs from the Secretary of the Irish Industries Association. Presumably, they did so after reading an article like this. What it would have been like to read this article as a lace maker and member of a Home Industries Society? To what extent were they able to exercise their own designer’s minds in altering and interpreting the working drawings of a lace design like this? I hope that further investigation of these patterns, and comparison with pieces of lace that still exist might help me to begin answering these questions.
 Alan Cole, The Renascence of the Irish Art of Lacemaking (London: Chapman and Hall Ltd., 1888), 37.
 Irish Agricultural Organization Society, Ltd. Annual Report, 1898, With Appendices (Dublin: Sealy, Bryers and Walker, 1898), 15.
 Report of the Irish Agricultural Organisation Society, Limited, from 31st March, 1889 to 31st Decr., 1900 (Dublin: Sealy, Bryers & Walker (Middle Abbey Street), 1901), 17.
 Irish Agricultural Organization Society, Ltd. Annual Report, 1899, With Appendices (Dublin: Sealy, Bryers and Walker, 1899), 26.
 For more on the fascinating Ishbel Aberdeen and the Irish Industries Association, see Janice Helland’s British and Irish Home Arts and Industries 1880-1914: Marketing Craft, Making Fashion (Irish Academic Press, 2007).
 Report of the Irish Agricultural Organisation Society, Limited, from 31st March, 1889 to 31st Decr., 1900 (Dublin: Sealy, Bryers & Walker (Middle Abbey Street), 1901), 24.
 The Irish Homestead 6.1 June 9, 1900, 373.
 In January 1901, the lace patterns are interrupted by a pair of longer articles about lace entitled “Occupation for Winter Evenings.– Lace Work” and signed J. Brennan. The first lace design is replicated here, and they are written in a tone similar to that of the lace design articles.
 James Brenan, “Lace Designs. 1.–Flounce in Carrickmacross Guipure,” Irish Homestead Vol. 6 Iss. 1 (June 9, 1900): 373.
 James Brenan, “X.–Design for a Border in Carrickmacross Guipure,” Irish Homestead Vol. 6 Iss. 2 (August 11, 1900): 523.
 Report of the Irish Agricultural Organisation Society, Limited, for 1902 (Dublin: Sealy, Bryers & Walker (Middle Abbey Street), 1903), 25-26.
 James Brenan, “Lace Designs. V.–Border in Innishmacsaint Raised Neddle-point Lace,” The Irish Homestead Vol. 6 Iss. 2 (July 7, 1900): 443.
 James Brenan, “Lace Designs. VI.–Flounce in Limerick Lace (Tambour),” The Irish Homestead Vol. 6 Iss. 2 (July 14, 1900): 462.
 Royal Dublin Society, Catalogue of the Art Industries Exhibition, held at Balls Bridge, Dublin, August 28, 29, 30, and 31, 1900 (Dublin: Brown and Nolan, 1900).
 James Brenan, “Lace Designs. No. XVIII. –Design for a Limerick Lace Flounce,” The Irish Homestead Vol. 6 Iss. 2 (October 27, 1900): 700.
After Argentan we stay in Normandy but move north to the ‘plaine de Caen’, and specifically the village of Fontenay-le-Marmion, a few miles from the city. In the nineteenth century bobbin lace was the most significant industry in this region. At its height it employed something in the region of 45,000 women, concentrated in the arrondissements of Caen and Bayeux. ‘In the villages, in the towns, nay, even in the cities, you every day see people sitting before their doors working, especially the lace-makers… so inveterate their passion for shewing themselves’ wrote a British visitor in 1831. Fontenay too could boast its ‘rue des dentellières’, where lacemakers would gather to work together in the sun (in the case of the Fontenay it was officially the ‘rue d’Eglise’, now renamed ‘rue de la République’). The most famous product of lacemakers from this region of Normandy was ‘blonde de Caen’, a lace similar to Chantilly made from silk and usually destined for export to Spain or Latin America. For a variety of reasons the trade went into rapid decline from the 1870s onwards, and by the early twentieth century, despite some public investment in training, there were no more than two thousand lacemakers left. One of the few villages to escape this collapse was Fontenay, as will be explained below.
Fontenay-le-Marmion was also the birthplace of Emile Legrand (1841-1903), probably the most important French scholar of Romeic – the language of post-classical Greece. Son of a village joiner, Legrand’s path to the professorship of Modern Greek at the Paris School of Oriental Languages was long and tortuous. His parents had originally destined him for the priesthood, and he attended the seminaries of Bayeux and Lisieux. However, while studying at the Lycée de Caen he became obsessed with the modern Greek language, and in 1867 moved to Paris to pursue his studies. The long Greek campaign for independence from Ottoman rule continued to fire the French cultural imagination in this period; Claude Fauriel’s Chants populaires de la Grèce moderne (1824) had done much not only to generate sympathy for the Greek rebels’ cause but to stimulate the collection of folk song within France. The Cretan Revolt of 1866 may have made a similar impression on Legrand. Yet as a scholar he seems to have been remarkably retiring; according to his pupil, Hubert Pernot, Legrand only visited the theatre once during the more than thirty-five years he lived in Paris. Instead, he dedicated his time to editing volume after volume — nearly a hundred of them — of medieval, early modern and folkloric Greek texts. It was Legrand who, together with Constantin Sathas (1842-1914), published a rediscovered manuscript of the early medieval epic of Digenes Akritas, a sort of Byzantine El Cid, and demonstrated its relationship to much later ballads set on the frontier between the Greeks and their Muslim neighbours. This was to prove one of the most important developments in post-classical Greek letters.
Legrand returned every summer to his family home in Fontenay, where he continued to work on his transcriptions. In the early 1870s, his focus was on folksong. In 1874 he edited a Recueil de chansons populaires grecques, followed in 1875 by his edition of the Akritas manuscript, and then a further collection of Chansons populaires grecques in 1876, which drew on the recordings he had made during a five-month long journey through Greek-speaking Italy and then Greece itself — his first, and perhaps only visit to the source of his fascination. Exotic though this material was, the experience of recording singers viva voce led him to think about songs closer to home — those sung by his mother and her neighbours. In October 1876 he noted down 49 song texts, without music, which he later sent to the philologist Gaston Paris (1839-1903), who would publish them in the journal Romania in 1881.
Legrand’s mother Célina (born in Fontenay in 1818) was the most important source for these songs, providing more than half of them. The other singers were Adelaïde Le Paulmier (born in Fontenay in 1807) with nine songs, Delphine Lacroix with five (probably born in Fontenay in 1834), and then Clélie Péronne (born in Fontenay in 1838), Marie Roger, Blanche Lecarpentier and Marie Dausmesnil each with one, as well as a solitary male informant, Pierre Guillot. Marie Dausmesnil was the village baker’s teenage daughter but all the other women, where they can be identified with certainty, were lacemakers, as was practically the entire female population of the village. Neither Legrand nor Paris provide any information about the circumstances in which these songs were performed and transmitted, but it seems likely that we are, through Legrand, eavesdropping on the kinds of songs lacemakers sang while working together in groups, perhaps on the ‘rue des dentellières’ in the summer, or in the barns where they gathered to work on winter nights to benefit from the heat generated by the cattle.
As we’ve seen in previous posts, singing was an element in the work culture of lacemakers in various regions. A handful of nineteenth-century writers about Normandy mention the practice, as do some Norman lacemakers themselves in their letters. However, whereas in the Velay and in Flanders folksong enthusiasts were making recordings of lacemakers’ songs, there was no significant attempt to do the same in Normandy. Legrand’s is almost the only such collection. Its contents differ markedly from the repertoire recorded later and in other parts of Normandy, with a substantial showing of the prized ‘great ballads’; so surprising is the presence of these songs in nineteenth-century Normandy that some scholars have doubted the authenticity of Legrand’s texts. In 1920 Joseph Lechevrel sought out one of the singers named by Legrand (unfortunately he does not say which one), to see if he could obtain any more songs from her, but her only answer to his questions was ‘I don’t remember any more’. However, this answer was not quite the final word as we will see; the collective training and working practices of lacemakers goes a long way to explain the durability of a particular repertoire.
A couple of these song texts are unknown from any other source, and a couple of others are very rare, but the bulk of Legrand’s collection was made up of songs that could have been heard in other parts of France, indeed in some cases far beyond, because versions of the same songs circulated in Catalonia, northern Italy and francophone Canada. This was not a repertoire restricted to lacemakers: none of the songs make direct mention of the trade. Nor is there any evidence that Normandy lacemakers used ‘tells’ to count pins as did their counterparts in Flanders and the English Midlands. In some ways these texts are at odds with what we know of lacemakers’ musical tastes, whether in Normandy or in other regions. In 1839 the journalist Emile Souvestre described the lacemakers of nearby Aunay as singing ‘cantiques’, that is hymns, on their doorsteps, but there is not a single religious song among those recorded by Legrand. Conversely there were several in which ecclesiastics engage in sexual shenanigans – these were mostly sung by Legrand’s mother, who also voiced a forthright rejection of the convent in favour of the boy she loved. ‘To love is not a crime,/ God does not forbid it’ she claimed in another song, and while it would be a mistake to assert that a singer’s words represent their own views, Célina certainly had a pronounced taste for such playful and slightly bawdy material.
Nonetheless, there are some similarities to the kind of songs we know lacemakers sang in other regions. The most striking group of songs are those performed by Adelaïde Le Paulmier, Legrand’s oldest informant. By the 1870s she was a widow living with two of her sisters, all lacemakers. Her fancy was for long ballads, some full of the ‘lurid, gruesome, clammy or grizzly terrors’ that Thomas Wright observed was the preferred singing matter of Buckinghamshire lacemakers. Such songs feel old, even if evidence for medieval origins is often quite tenuous. In the ballad of ‘Jean Renaud’ (Coirault 5311), the eponymous huntsman is given a mortal bite by a wolf; news of his death and burial are kept from his wife in childbirth, but when she finally learns his fate she joins him in his grave. In ‘Marianson’ (Coirault 9904), a ballad of thirty verses, the eponymous heroine is tricked into lending three gold rings that her husband Renaud (the generic name for male protagonists in French narrative songs) had gifted her when he went to the wars, which are then counterfeited. On his return the unnamed villain shows the counterfeit rings to the knight to prove his claim that Marianson has been unfaithful and that the boy she has just borne is not his. Without more ado Renaud takes the baby and dashes its brains out on the cobbles; he then ties Marianson to his horse’s tale and drags her from Paris to Saint-Denis, a distance of six miles, and between them ‘there wasn’t a hedge or bush that was not marked by the blood of Marianson’. Her mother runs after, begging Renaud to return her daughter’s bloody body. On her deathbed Marianson produces the real three rings, and thus proves her fidelity. Renaud, overcome with remorse, burns his own face off, and both die within two hours of each other.
An even more horrifying song concerns Marguerite who lives with her mother at the ‘castle of martyrs’. By night Marguerite is a woman, but by day she is a white hind hunted through the forests by her own brother Julien and his men; no explanation is proffered for this metamorphosis. She is finally caught, killed and served as the evening meal: Julien asks where is his sister, and she replies ‘Sit down, gentlemen, I was the first at the table;/ My head is on the serving dish and my organs are cooking,/ and my poor entrails are being torn to pieces by your great dogs.’
Célina Legrand knew and sung some similar ballads, but her preferred material was lighter: dance songs, songs of love – particularly illicit love – pastorals in which girls sometimes trick the boys and the boys sometimes trick the girls. Her songs overflow with flowers and fruits to be planted, gathered or plucked. Some are so pared down that their meaning is unclear; others combine lines from a number of different songs which disorientates the reader. Such confusion is often assumed to be the result of faulty memory: the singer – entirely reliant on oral transmission – makes mistakes, skips lines and becomes lost in her own narrative. All of which is possible, but Gerald Porter, in his study of English lacemakers’ tells, suggests another possibility. Lacemakers’ songs are condensed and elliptical because they were performed so often by many members of the same group. ‘At each performance, the sung part stands metonymically for the whole’, the listeners able to fill in the gaps because they too were participants in this communal work culture. For outsiders the songs were meaningless but that was part of the point: comprehension was restricted to insiders, the group of women who shared their working lives on the ‘street of lacemakers’.
Singing was a way of passing the time, of enjoying oneself with one’s friends and neighbours, and finding pleasure in a repetitive task. In their songs lacemakers travelled to Paris and Nantes, to England and Spain, visited palaces, encountered princes and magicians. Given that several of their narratives turned on the suffering of women one couldn’t call these songs ‘escapist’, but they introduced fantasy and drama into their toilsome lives. Yet while the settings may have been exotic, the issues addressed in these songs were not. A king banishes his daughter’s suitor, another king marries his daughter against her will, a Duke departs for war leaving a pregnant, unmarried princess to face the consequences…; strip away the titles and these would be familiar situations in any nineteenth-century village. In almost every song some domestic conflict is evoked that pitted daughters against fathers – and occasionally mothers – or wife against husband. Lovers are sought, jilted and retrieved. Many songs turn on the vulnerability of working women, for example as shepherdesses alone in the fields or market-women trying to make a sale: they are the prey of men, particularly men of superior rank. Sometimes they find a ruse or clever words through which to escape the threat, sometimes not. One could hardly describe these texts as a manual for inter-personal relationships, but they did allow singers and their audiences, to think through some of the difficulties that faced people like them – those who because of their sex or their social position were relatively powerless. In their imagination they could consider the consequences of their choices.
Unlike other villages in the region where lacemaking had more-or-less died out by the turn of the century, one could still find groups of lacemakers gathered on the streets of Fontenay even after the Second World War. At some point, and no one seems to know exactly when, they had developed a specialism: lace made from human hair which was used as the basis for wigs worn in Paris theatres. There were two local producers employing twenty or so women in the 1950s. The survival of this domestic craft industry — and the work culture that surrounded it — enabled Marthe Moricet, curator of the Museum of Normandy, to collect songs in the 1950s that Legrand had noted eighty years before. Contrary to Lechevrel’s impression in 1920, the tradition had not been forgotten. This is an intriguing example of the resilience of a work culture, even when there was no formal institution to uphold it.
 J. Augustus St John, Journal of a Residence in Normandy (Edinburgh, 1831), p. 11.
 Claudette Bouvot and Michel Bouvot, Dentelles normandes: La Blonde de Caen (Condé-sur-Noireau, 2012).
 For the history of lacemaking in Calvados see: Georges Noé, L’industrie de la dentelle à la main dans le Calvados (Caen, 1910); Gabriel Désert, Une Société rurale au XIXe siècle: Les paysans du Calvados, 1815-1895 3 vols (Lille, 1975).
 Almost all the biographical information about Legrand comes from a sketch provided by Hubert Pernot in the introduction to Emile Legrand, Bibliographie hellénique ou description raisonnée des ouvrages publiés par des Grecs aux XV et XVIe siècles, vol. 4 (Paris, 1906).
 Roderick Beaton, R. and David Ricks, Digenes Akrites: New Approaches to Byzantine Heroic Poetry (Brookfield, 1993).
 Emile Legrand, ‘Chansons populaires recueillies en octobre 1876 à Fontenay-le-Marmion, arrondissement de Caen (Calvados)’, Romania 10 (1881): 365-396. A handful of texts collected by Legrand from his mother appeared in other dialect journals, for instance in Revue des patois 1 (1887): 120-125.
 J. Augustus St John, Journal of a Residence in Normandy (Edinburgh, 1831), p. 24.
 Mireille Bossis (ed.), Ursin et Ernestine. Amours paysannes en Normandie (1863-1866) (Condé-sur-Noireau, 2006), p. 103. Ernestine Lebatard was a lacemaker from Plumetot, north of Caen; her letters were written to her fiancé Ursin Thomas, then performing his military service.
 Joseph Lechevrel, ‘Le Folklore normand’, Bulletin de la société des Antiquaires de Normandie 36 (1924/1925) : 359-382.
 Emil Souvestre, ‘Pierre Rivière’, Le Journaliste 1 (1839) : p. 173.
 Gerald Porter, ‘“Work the Old Lady Out of the Ditch”: Singing at Work by English Lacemakers’, Journal of Folklore Research 31:1-3 (1994): 35-55; Mary-Ann Constantine and Gerald Porter, Fragment and Meaning in Traditional Song: From the Blues to the Baltic (Oxford, 2003), pp. 63-74.
 André Garnier, ‘Dans un village du Calvados, à Fontenay-le-Marmion, vingt paysannes tissent les perruques de la Comédie Française’, Paris-Normandie, 6 March 1953
 Michel Boüard, ‘Marthe Moricet’ (obituary), Annales de Normandie 10 (1960): 86-87. Moricet died before she was able to publish any of these songs, and to date we have not been able to track down her archives.
The first issue in 2020 of the journal TEXTILE. CLOTH & CULTURE is a special issue dedicated to ‘Missing Persons and Hidden Heritages in European Lace Making’. We’ve put a list of contents below:
- ‘Introduction: Missing Persons and Hidden Heritages in European Lace Making’ by Julie Botticello and Tom Fisher.
- ‘Principles and Pilfering: Nottingham Lace Design Pedagogy’ by Rebecca Coles, Amanda Briggs-Goode and Gail Baxter.
- ‘Unravelling the Battle of Britain Lace Panel‘ by Carol Quarini.
- ‘Hidden Hands and Missing Persons’ by Gail Baxter.
- ‘Working, Singing, and Telling in the 19th-Century Flemish Pillow-Lace Industry‘ by David Hopkin. (Anyone who’d like a pdf copy of this can contact David at firstname.lastname@example.org )
- ‘Women and Children in the Machine-Made Lace Industry in Britain and France (1810–60)‘ by Fabrice Bensimon.
- ‘Reflections on Bummock: The Lace Archive Symposium’ by Katherine Townsend.
Jackie Oates, a folk singer who was, until recently, in residence at the Museum of English Rural Life in Reading, has created a play with songs about East Midlands lacemakers. There are two performances coming up in the new year: at South Street Arts Centre in Reading on 25 January 2020 at 7.30; and at Cecil Sharp House, the home of the English Folk Dance and Song Society, in London on 29 January 2020 at 7.30. For further details see the Society’s website.
Jackie’s is not quite the first play to make use of lacemakers’ tells for dramatic effect. We’ve discussed the pageants organized by Prudence Summerhayes which included performances of tells in a setting by Greville Cooke in a previous post. Another, much less celebratory play is Shirley Gee’s Ask for the Moon, first performed in 1986 and published in 1987. Gee’s play emphasises the continuity in women’s working experience as the lives of Devon lacemakers from the 1840s and London sweatshop workers in the 1980s interweave. From time to time the lacemakers sing a tell, though as regular visitors to this blog will know, this is inaccurate, because Devon lacemakers did not use tells (to our knowledge!).
Regular visitors to this site will know of our interest in lace songs and ‘tells’. Tells were rhymes used in Midlands lace schools, seemingly as a means to increase the pace of work and to count pins. We have the text of about 80 English lace tells recorded by folklorists and other visitors to Midlands lace villages from the mid nineteenth to the mid twentieth century. But in almost every case we have the words but no tune, the collector not having the technical knowledge or recording device necessary to capture the music. In some cases, because the words of the tell are adapted from some familiar rhyme or ballad, one can offer a reasonable guess as to how the tune went, but for others the hunt still goes on.
We are not the first to engage in this hunt. The following encounter between a song enthusiast and a lacemaker appeared in the magazine The Countryman in 1964. It was written by Prudence Summerhayes (1906-1984), a writer and occasional radio producer married to J. Alan Turner, the Clerk to Northamptonshire County Council. Prudence had been writing plays and novels since childhood, several of which were published in the 1930s, but after the war, as wife of an important local government official, she became more involved in cultural patronage. She wrote short plays for use in schools and was an active organizer of historical pageants in the East Midlands, performed in places like Delapre Park, Rockingham Castle and Hatfield House. Some of these pageants involved the Women’s Institute and other women’s organisations. As we have seen, such short plays and pageants were a significant vehicle for popularizing a particular history, or rather legend, of lace, such as the role of Katherine of Aragon. Lace was certainly a theme in some of Prudence Summerhayes’ pageants. In the one she organized on behalf of the Northamptonshire Rural Community Council at Castle Ashby (home of the Marquess of Northampton) in July 1949, and largely built around moments in the history of the Compton family, one scene presented lacemakers singing their tells while working. This section was apparently based on a short play about Flemish migrants bringing lace skills to the region, and had originally been written by local schoolmistress at Yardley Hastings.
Prudence had certainly done some research about tells. She gave talks about the history of lace to local W.I.s and indeed contributed a section about them to Woman’s Hour on the radio in 1954. And the lack of tunes clearly bothered her because she wrote about it in her memoirs: ‘To this day it is uncertain whether there were tunes for the words, though I had two fairly good proofs that they were, though in spite of all my efforts I never tracked them down.’ The encounter related below was presumably one of these efforts; it probably dates to the period when she lived in Northamptonshire. In the 1950s and 60s it was still possible to order handmade lace from the leading department stores in these Midlands cities, if one was prepared to wait a long time for delivery. The article illustrates a recurrent trope of folksong research, ‘the one that got away’. Almost every memoir of a song collector contains a similar moment when vast melodic treasures were on the verge of discovery, only to be stymied by the death of the singer.
However, if one can’t find the original tunes, one can always invent one’s own. Serving alongside Prudence Summerhayes on the Drama Committee of the Northamptonshire Arts Association was the clergyman and composer Greville Cooke (1894-1989) whom Summerhayes described as ‘a rather high-church canon’ (of Peterborough Cathedral). Cooke set seven of the tells to music; ‘difficult somewhat modern music’ in Summerhayes’ opinion. For the first performance at Castle Ashby in 1949 they were sung by fifty-seven girls from the Rockingham Road School, Kettering, ‘while country-women worked pillow-lace’ according to the report in the Northamptonshire Mercury. In 1953 Cooke published these tells and they were ‘broadcast and sung all over the county where I went until I got heartily sick of them’ said Summerhayes. But up till now we have not discovered a recording of them.
Prudence Summerhayes, ‘A Country Lacemaker’ The Countryman 62 (Summer 1964), pp. 261-4.
 I had been scouring the neighbourhood for someone to make a bit of pillow lace for me; and there she was all the time, only a stone’s throw from where I lived. It was not in any romantic stone cottage that I found her, but in a drab street of an industrial town. An odd current of life had stranded her there. She was quite alone in the world, her husband long since dead and all her children grown up and gone away.
I looked up and down the street in doubt; dust and dirty newspapers blew along the pavement. This did not seem at all the place for a country lacemaker; but somebody had said she lived there and, as soon as I reached her window, I guessed I was on the right track. Everything about the house was spotless; the step was freshly scrubbed, the door-handle shone and, as if I had not already guessed it, there in the window under a vase of paper roses was an immaculate lace mat. Lacemakers are always scrupulously clean. They have to be by the nature of their work, which also exacts infinite patience and a delicate sense of precision.
When my lacemaker opened the door I saw that she was very old. She appeared frail too; but her skin was smooth and fine, and she was still astonishingly beautiful. She looked at me uncertainly as I tried to explain who I was, until I mentioned the magic word ‘lace’ and a delightful smile touched her eyes. I was immediately welcome, and I was not surprised, for lacemakers are invariably enthusiasts. Otherwise no doubt the craft would have died long ago; the slowness of the work prevents it from being an economic proposition in a machine age. You do it, in the end  as you do most of the arts, simply because you love it.
It as soon obvious that this lacemaker loved it. Almost at once we found ourselves talking away about the delights of our mutual interest. Then followed the time-honoured ritual which I had come to know so well in my encounters with lacemakers all over the East Midlands, and in the Auvergne, Spain and Italy as well. Out came the dumpy patchwork pillow covered with its fresh-laundered cloth. There were the bobbins carved with the names of dead sweethearts – ‘Nance’ and ‘Betsy’ – or touchingly inscribed with mementos of bygone days and with naïve sentiments: ‘Marry me quick and lowly speak’; ‘Mother, when shall I marry?’ There they all were, the winders, the pins, the parchments and the inevitable stories of lace made for royal households and great historic occasions.
It is an odd thing; wherever there is lace, you will find royalty. And it is not only lace; many crafts appear to have these traditional associations, real or imaginary, which are most persistent. Indeed these traditions are such treasured possessions that one would hesitate to destroy them, even though at times one suspects they are largely fictitious. Some of the tales, of course, are perfectly genuine; but true or not, the fact is that generation after generation love to think they are true. Naturally my lacemaker had her own special royalty story of a grandmother who had made lace for a princess’s petticoat. Finally, to wind up the ritual, out came the precious odds and ends of lace, carefully wrapped in blue tissue paper to protect them from the light; there was old lace as fine as a spider’s web, and a Honiton handkerchief with tracery like a feathery fern.
‘But they’re exquisite’, I cried, caught afresh by their loveliness, as always. She smiled and, at my  request, sat down at her pillow to work some lace for me. Her hands flew as swiftly as a bird. They were astonishingly white, almost transparent, with beautifully kept fingernails. I watched and was fascinated by the complicated movements as she worked away, throwing the bobbins over each other with the quick staccato action and the little turn of the wrist that makes good quality lace.
For it was good lace, and she knew it. There was a touch of charming vanity about her – the contented look of a person who knows she is doing something worth while and doing it well. Besides, she was the proud owner of a gift which gave her a sense of importance and even power. Were there not always plenty of people bothering her for bits of lace to go round table-cloths and baby clothes and handkerchiefs? Far more than she could ever undertake. Certainly she made little money out of her orders but she did not really mind; it was enough to cover the cost of materials and provide a little pocket-money, and she was satisfied.
‘What design are you doing?’ I asked, bending over work that was as filmy as gossamer; but she did not know. These old lacemakers seldom do, though they may call the pattern by some such fancy country name as Wedding Bells, Honeysuckle or Bunch o’ Nuts. Usually it is something mother or aunty ‘learned’ them; something they had been taught as girls in the village, where anyone made lace as a matter of course, and the great day of the week had been when the pedlar came round selling new parchments and thread. This lacemaker knew only that she had to make certain movements, largely dictated by the colour of the beads which hung on the bobbins. She did not know that the design she was doing had perhaps travelled from far across Europe and was similar to one brought over  to England by Catherine of Aragon. She knew that the yellow beads went over the scarlet, that the wrists must be kept so and the thread tight, just as her mother had done and her grandmother before her, for these skills often run in families.
‘Ah, they were happy days’, she sighed. ‘Though mind you, we had to work real hard, me and my sister. Up at six and on till dark, it was a long day; but there, it wasn’t too bad, we used to while away the time singing.’
‘Singing?’ I broke in quickly, and my spirits soared. For a long time I had been searching for the authentic lace tells, which were sometimes sung in the old country lace-schools and whose rhythm is thought to fit the movements of the work. Although I had come across the words of these songs fairly frequently, the airs still eluded me. ‘You don’t mean you know the actual tunes?’ I asked, trying not to frighten her with my eagerness.
But she did mean it. ‘Yes’, she said sedately. Her grandmother had learnt them, tunes and all, in the lace-school which once stood at the corner of their village street. There had been quite a number, and though she could not remember them all, she had the words written down; she could not mind just where. She began rummaging about in a somewhat confused way through her cupboards, and I did not like to press her. Our enthusiasm had exhausted us, so I said I would come back another time, and she promised to look out the songs and sing them to me ‘with the chorus and all the verses’. But I was not to hear them. I had to go away for a while and on my return, a few weeks later, the blinds of the house were drawn. I have continued my search ever since, and I have still to find those lost airs to the Midland lace tells.
 I am extremely grateful to Derek Turner, the son of Prudence Summerhayes and Alan Turner, for providing bibliographical and biographical information about his mother, including sections of her unpublished memoir ‘The Raging Dream’. Summerhayes’ archive has been donated to Headington Girls’ School, though so far I have been unable to access it. For further biographical information on the Summerhayes family see the blog http://tacadrum.blogspot.com/2015/07/the-summerhayes-first-world-war.html
 See the report in The Northampton Mercury and Herald Friday 15 July, 1949.
 ‘The Raging Dream’, p. 116.
 Greville Vaughan Turner Cooke, Seven Lace Tells of Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire and Northamptonshire. For 2-part Treble Voices (Joseph Williams, London 1953). On Cooke’s other work see http://www.duncanhoneybourne.com/articles/greville_cooke
For Johanna-Desideria (Désirée) Berchmans (1811-1890), often known by her married name Courtmans, the purpose of literature was to make a difference to society. The novel was moralisation and enlightenment by other means. (Louise Otto-Peters, whom we looked at in a previous post, took a similar approach but it was even more prevalent in Belgium due to the absence of a substantial educated public for literature in Flemish.) There were other women writers connected to the Flemish Movement, such as Marie Doolaeghe, but Courtmans-Berchmans was probably the most important female author active in the Flemish literary revival of the mid-nineteenth century. Although she only turned to prose in her 40s, she became a prolific novelist, producing a book every year and sometimes more. As her father was a teacher, her husband was a teacher, her daughters were teachers, and she herself attempted to run a boarding school in Maldegem, it is perhaps not surprising that schools feature regularly in her novels. But education was not just her theme, it was her mission. Schooling, and particularly girls’ schooling, was a political battleground in nineteenth-century Belgium, and both in her life and her fiction Courtmans-Berchmans was a combatant. Her novel De hut van tante Klara (1864) was an indictment of the lace schools: her title – with its deliberate echo of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) – implied that children’s lacemaking was a form of slavery.
As discussed in our previous blog about Father Constant Duvillers and the lace-school in Middelburg, the 1840s were the ‘Hunger Years’ in Flanders, a situation brought on by overlapping crises in the linen industry and in agriculture. Famine was only averted by the coordinated action of local elites, particularly the Catholic Church and landowners, with the aid of the Belgian state. They sponsored lace-schools, which provided an alternative source of income to a population which had previously been dependent on flax-spinning. However, this was not a purely charitable endeavour; lace-schools, even those that received philanthropic support or subventions from the local authorities, needed to make money to remain open. A few provided some hours of basic teaching in the three Rs, but most were more workshops than schools, and the persons in charge – usually members of religious orders but sometimes private individuals – were also intermediaries in the lace trade, bound up in a network of commercial relationships. In consequence, the schools were regularly denounced for economically exploiting their young charges, while damaging their bodies and minds in the process. The Roeselare Chamber of Commerce, for example, used its annual report for the year 1864 to the Belgian Government to condemn the lace-schools: ‘The false mask of devotion to the working class fails to hide what is in most cases the spirit of avarice, pushed to its most extreme limits and which sacrifices the health, the education and the future of these poor slaves, wretchedly deceived and abused, to this greed.’ The American Civil War was still being fought in 1864 so the use of the term ‘slaves’ was deliberate. 1864 was also the year that Berchmans-Courtmans published her novel De hut van tante Klara.
How did she become involved with lace? To answer this we need to go back a little in her biography. Her father had been mayor of the village of Mespelare near Dendermonde in East Flanders (he was the model for the hero of her eponymous novel De burgemeester van 1819 ). At the age of nine she was sent to a boarding-school in the French speaking part of Belgium; at the time a good education for a woman meant first and foremost learning French. In 1835 we find her lodging in Ghent with Coleta Tanghe, a lacemaker and dealer. (In her letters Berchmans referred to her as ‘Aunt Colette’, but the precise family relationship is unclear.) Also lodging in the same house was the young teacher Jan-Baptist Courtmans (1811-1856), and in very short order the pair fell in love, married and started a family, all while living with ‘Aunt Colette’, as they would for most of the next decade. Courtmans was secretary of the Maetschappij van Vlaemsche Letteroefening [The Society for Flemish Literature], which united many of the leading writers in the nascent Flemish movement such as Jan Frans Willems, Prudens Van Duyse and Ferdinand Augustijn Snellaert. The Courtmans family played host to visiting German writers such as the folklorist Johann Wilhelm Wolf, and Désirée narrated some of the folktales that made up his Niederländische Sagen (1843). She was also launching her own writing career. As with almost all Flemish authors in the wake of Henrik Conscience’s De Leeuw van Vlaenderen (1838), her first poems drew on Flanders’ romantic, medieval past, although she particularly highlighted the contribution of women, especially queens, to the cause of national independence.
In 1843 the Courtmans moved to Lier when her husband took a position as professor of Flemish at the Teacher Training College. For the next decade, as the family continued to grow, her literary output shrank, but when Jan-Baptist became too ill to work (he would die in 1856), she took up her pen again, in part to earn money. After her husband’s death, and with eight children in tow ranging in age from three to nineteen, she moved to the small town of Maldegem. Why she chose this location is a bit obscure, but she had a definite plan: she would open a girls’ boarding-school with herself and her elder daughter as teachers. She placed adverts in the local newspapers. The house she chose was on Noordstraat, directly opposite the lace-school run by Father Vinckier, Maldegem’s priest from 1832 to 1872. The two quickly, indeed almost immediately, became bitter opponents. Noordstraat Maldegem was one of many small-town front lines in the culture wars between clericals and liberals that divided Belgium politically. Courtmans-Berchmans considered herself a good Catholic, but she was a liberal in political matters.
Like Duvillers in Middelburg, which was only a walk away, Vinckier intended to dominate his parish, and the lace-school was one of the means to achieve this end. It had been founded as a private initiative in 1842 but was taken over by Vinckier in 1845 or 1846. (Perhaps he had been inspired to do so after paying a call on Duvillers’ school: visiting priests were common characters in the latter’s songs.) In the mid 1850s more than 300 girls, the bulk of the available juvenile, female population, attended.
More than one story is told about Vinckier’s first encounter with Courtmans-Berchmans, but the gist of them all is he told her that Maldegem had no need of educated women and so she had better set up shop elsewhere. Her reply was ‘ik blijf’ [I’m staying]. However, she lost the first battle in her personal ‘culture war’ when her boarding-school was wound up in 1858 due to, as she explained to the local council, ‘malicious obstruction’. As it was around this time that she started seriously writing again, the cause of literature gained by the failure of her boarding-school ambitions. But in 1857 a new front opened up. Municipal provision of some sort of primary schooling had become law in 1842, but in the 1850s the Liberal government began to put pressure on councils to build separate schools for girls. Unlike the lace-schools these would not be places of work but would teach reading, writing and other skills. They would be free to those unable to pay, which was the majority of the population in Maldegem. The ecclesiastical authorities were worried that these public schools would compete with the lace-schools, and thus draw the female population away from their control. One solution was, therefore, to convert the lace-schools into public schools by introducing a few extra lessons in reading and writing. This was the strategy suggested by the Archbishop of Bruges and initially followed by Vinckier. He proposed that Sophie Westerlinck, the mistress of his lace-school, should be appointed Maldegem’s first teacher of the girls’ public school, which would succeed the lace-school. However, Courtmans-Berchmans was simultaneously lobbying hard to ensure that her daughter Mathilde got the post. After much dithering by the council, she gained the cause, and Mathilde Courtmans was appointed on 3 February 1858. Several of her sisters would join her as teachers in due course.
Yet this was not the end of the struggle. Education was provided, but parents were not obliged to take it up. Through the 1860s and 70s the lace-schools, both Vinckier’s and other establishments in Maldegem, continued to attract more pupils than the public school. Girls in the lace schools earned money which helped support their families, and in ‘Poor Flanders’ this support could be vital to a family’s survival. But the Church had other ways of exerting control. In 1879 a new Liberal government attempted to laicise primary education in Belgium but the Church hierarchy fought back, threatening to excommunicate all teachers and all parents of pupils attending state primary schools. In rural Catholic Flanders the effect of the first ‘School War’ (Schoolstrijd) from 1879 to 1884 was to empty the state primary schools and thus put the Courtmans sisters out of work.
However, this defeat lay some years off. During the 1860s Courtmans-Berchmans was battling for decent schooling for Flemish girls on several fronts: with the local council (to whom she complained about the condition of the school buildings, and especially the playground, as she was convinced of the need for physical activity and fun as part of a rounded education), in the local papers such as De Eecloonaer where she berated her fellow citizens for their parish pump politicking, and in her novels, such as De hut van tante Klara. No works by Courtmans-Berchmans are available in English (to our knowledge) but sections of this novel were translated by Brenda Mudde, and commentated on by Lia Van Gemert, in the latter’s collection Women’s Writing from the Low Countries, 1200-1875: A Bilingual Anthology (Amsterdam University Press, 2010).
The eponymous heroine, Klara Roman, is a herb-gatherer and the widow of a supposed ‘jacobijn’ barber-surgeon (Jacobin was a term of abuse aimed at anyone with liberal or anticlerical ideas). Living with her are two orphaned granddaughters, Mieke and Roza, or Mieken and Rozeken as they usually appear in the text (along with their father, an unimportant character). An industrial accident will soon rob her of her other son-in-law, and her other daughter with her tiny children will also take up residence in her crowded cottage. At first, though, all seems idyllic, the six-year-old Mieken and Rozeken playing in the healthy outdoors while Klara picks her herbs for the apothecary. Yet there is a presentiment of tragedy: the girls weave crowns of flowers that make them resemble two virgin martyrs. Into the scene walk the agents of misfortune, the sisters Ludgarda and Rosanna Devroede, offspring of a disgraced notary. They have come to persuade the local landowner, Mevrouw Van Dooren, to set up a lace-school which they will run. Van Dooren wants to help a population suffering through the linen crisis. But she is also an enlightened philanthropist, so the rules she lays out for her lace-school specify that children under nine should only work for three hours a day on lace, that there should be lessons in other subjects, plenty of play-time, and that the children themselves should receive the profit from their work. This is not at all to the Devroede sisters’ liking, but they accept the position, and soon the old village spinning house is converted into a lace-school.
The school is not an immediate hit. The poorer inhabitants want their daughters to start earning, three hours work is not enough. The village notables object to the common people learning to read. The most influential man in the village, Mr Hardies visits Mrs Van Dooren to warn her:
You are undermining the pillars of society. You drive the insignificant upwards in order to bring down the great. You wish to give the vermin wings so that they may rise up with the eagle, and you don’t even seem to understand that one swipe of its claws can crush thousands of these insects… Artificial reading will grow into exercises to develop the mind, and then what – what will become of society once we get that far? Oh, Madam, I am saddened, saddened to the soul when I think of it.
Although not a priest, fat Mr Hardies with his sanctimonious shows of piety, is a thinly disguised portrayal of father Vinckier. Mrs Van Dooren, fortunately, is equal to this pressure. For three further years (we are now in the late 1840s), until they are nine, Mieken and Rozeken continue at the school with Klara’s blessing. They learn, they earn and they remain healthy. But then their benefactor dies, and a new regime is established in the lace school. All the poor girls in the parish are obliged to go, or their families will cease to receive charity: within a month there are 400 girls in the school. All other classes are stopped, as is playtime. The children are charged for the thread and other equipment, which had previously been a cost of the establishment. According to Aunt Klara the luckiest are those who die young, but those that survive this ‘kinderslavernij’ [child slavery] will become feeble housewives, with their twisted hands.
The fate of her two grandchildren under this new order is very different. Mieken is constantly punished with the ‘zottekap’ [dunce’s cap] and the ‘lange tong’ [a wooden board hung on a pupil’s back as a mark of shame] for not fulfilling her lace quota, she is beaten with rods and made to sit near the door, far from the warming fire; soon she is coughing and fading. Rozeken, however, with her ‘downcast eye’ [a regular sign of hypocritical submission and devotion in the literature of lacemaking] adapts to the Devroedes’ bigotry and greed, and so is rapidly promoted. She transfers designs onto the parchments used by the pupils, particularly the ‘Brusselsche bloemen’ [Brussels flowers, or Duchesse lace], a specialist job.
Meanwhile Hardies has forced the Devroedes to accept his ‘protection’ and has become a silent partner in the school. The miser estimates that each girl earns at least fifteen centimes profit a day: 600 or more girls equals 100 francs a day, divided equally between Hardies and the Devroedes. The three plot to dispatch Rozeken to the convent at Zwijbeke, in order to improve their relationship with this important intermediary in the lace trade.
The other girls are becoming pale, thin, pinched and ill. In fact they are dying of consumption (and this mirrors the reality: between 1852 and 1856 twelve pupils in the Vinckier lace-school died of consumption, and two others of typhus: the mayor of Maldegem wrote in 1857 that ‘the cause of death of the lace apprentices is a wasting disease to which the parents have given the vigorous name “schoolsickness”’). Their ill-health becomes very obvious on the feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, 15 August, when the school parades through the town.
They were headed by the two school mistresses in their black silk dresses, lace-edged coats, and pretty, white silk hats decorated with purple violets. Each had a fat gold chain with a precious watch around her neck, and there was nothing to find fault with in their beautiful attire. Then came the pupils.
A sigh of pity escaped each breast on seeing these pale creatures, these stunted limbs, these thin bodies, which seemed to be fighting a stubborn battle of life and death.
Never had poverty made a more painful impression than it did now that so much trouble had been taken to adorn it.
The school’s older pupils looked very neat in cotton dresses, and it was evident that their parents had done the impossible to fulfil the needs of their money-earning daughters. Among these children, the granddaughters of Aunt Clara were to be found.
They were followed by the smaller children…. Hundreds of clogged little feet came clattering by. Some few were in new clogs, but many wore old ones, dripping with water and sand, and the clunking, rattling and clattering of the clogs mingled with the monotonous church hymns in such an unpleasant way that it saddened all attentive viewers.
Shamelessness had never shown itself more plainly than on that procession day. Those who, by forcing them to labour well beyond their years and strength, had transformed blooming children into creatures whose weakness would be passed on to the next generation, and had turned golden youths into pale flowers bending towards the grave even in the morning of life, they were not shamed to put the misery of these child-slaves on show as a foil to their own wealth. They braved the looks of the crowd, which seemed to call out to them:
‘Your pomp, your wealth, is the fruit of your slaves’ labour. It is the purchase price of the victims you drag to an early grave.’
‘Lost souls! Are you not afraid that He, who is the strength of the weak and the ealth of the poor, will one day call you to account for the fate of those unhappy creatures whose bodies and souls were entrusted to you? You have prematurely killed their spirits, and their bodies you have tortured, so that they will never regain the strength to rekindle their extinguished spirits. No, you are not afraid, for you recognise no other virtue for the people than ignorance, as it is ignorance on which you have built the throne of your rule.’
Mieken is one of the fatalities. Although she rallies for a while, long enough to start a romance with her neighbour Paulus, her funeral will also be her wedding. Her father, long since too ill to work, soon follows her to the grave. Although Rozeken’s wages would now really help Aunt Klara’s household, she follows the plan laid out by her employers and joins the convent as a novice. Aunt Klara’s other two grandchildren are now also in the lace school and one is already showing signs of the wasting sickness. At last Aunt Klara, who perhaps understandably is given to weeping, now turns defiant: she removes her grandchildren, even though this means the family cannot receive poor relief from the council, which is under the thumb of Hardies.
But times have changed. The Crimean War knocks the bottom out of the handmade lace market; the wages of the lace mistress employed by the Devroedes is halved, and even the sisters themselves cut back on their consumption of eau-de-cologne. Punishments increase in an attempt to squeeze more work out of the children, but still wages decline. For the men a new opportunity has opened up as migrant harvesters in France, so the poorer villagers are not so dependent on the lace-school. Other women start to follow Aunt Klara’s example and remove their daughters. The partners in the venture have started to bicker when Hardies drops down dead of a heart attack; he returns like Jacob Marley as a ghost, weighed down with account books and banknotes. The sisters’ father is released from prison and with him they slip away into the night. The lace-school building is put up for sale. Aunt Klara has one last task to fulfil: she goes to the convent to persuade Roza to renounce her noviciate and come back home.
In her introduction Berchmans-Courtmans made explicit that this novel had a social purpose, to expose the exploitation of young girls in the lace-schools, because such institutions ‘disgraced a civilized country’. She was not against the idea that girls engaged in some work that could contribute to the household income, but that they should also receive an education that expanded their mental horizons, that they be taught useful lessons in tasks that would help them later as housewives (sewing, knitting), and that their bodies be allowed to bloom in exercise and fresh air. The campaign against the lace-schools would grow, picking up themes rehearsed by Berchmans-Courtmans, such as the impact on the reproductive potential of the Flemish population. In 1876 the sociologist Guillaume de Greef launched a newspaper diatribe against the lace-schools run by religious orders and not just because they exploited their charges and condemned to poverty, ill-health and early death, but also because they sapped the intellectual and moral strength of the female population: ‘they are not even slaves, because slaves can rise up, but not they’. However, during the ‘School War’ clerical Flanders rallied to the defence of the lace-schools, which survived well into the twentieth century. Thus they remained a theme for later Flemish writers such as Virginie Loveling (in Sophie 1885, where the Darwinian implications of a stunted female population are brought to the fore) and Reimond Stijns (in Hard Labeur 1904). Of course the fate of the ‘hard worked, half-stifled little girls’ in the lace schools was not just a campaigning matter for Flemish writers, as we have already seen in the case of Charlotte Yonge’s The Clever Woman of the Family, published the year after De Hut van Tante Klara.
 Doolaeghe (1803-1884), to whom we may return, wrote an encomium for ‘my noble friend’ Courtmans-Berchmans in 1883, in which she praised her efforts to ‘enlighten the people through her writing’ [Het volk verlichtend door zijn woord]: ‘Hulde aan mijne hooggeachte vriendin Mevr. Courtmans, geboren Berchmans’, De Vlaamsche Kunstbode 13 (1883): 261-2.
 There are several biographies and other studies of Courtmans-Berchmans: I have drawn mostly on Hugo Notteboom, Rik Van de Rosteyne and Michiel de Bruyne (eds) Over Mevrouw Courtmans Leven en Werk (Maldegem: Mevrouw Courtmanscomité, 1990); and Jules Pée, Mevrouw Courtmans, een letterkundige studie, (Antwerp: Ruquoy, Delagarde, Van Uffelen, 1933).
 Johann Wilhelm Wolf, Niederländische Sagen (Leipzig: F.A. Brockhaus, 1843), p. xxi. German philologists such as Wolf played an important part in the Flemish revival.
 For the ‘culture wars’ in Belgium, see Els Witte, ‘The Battle for Monasteries, Cemeteries and Schools: Belgium’, in Christopher Clark and Wolfram Kaiser (eds), Culture Wars: Secular-Catholic Conflict in Nineteenth-Century Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003).
 Lia Van Gemert (ed.), Brenda Mudde (trans.) Women’s Writing from the Low Countries, 1200-1875: A Bilingual Anthology (Amsterdam, 2010), pp. 523-4.
 Van Gemert (ed.), Mudde (trans.) Women’s Writing from the Low Countries, pp. 525-6
 Guillaume Degreef, L’ouvrière dentellière en Belgique (Brussels, 1886), p. 8. The 1886 volume is a new edition of his newspaper articles.
As we are not far off the final centenary commemorations of the war on the Western Front (1914-1918), it might be worth highlighting the place of lacemakers in the poetry of the First World War. Why do lacemakers appear there alongside mud and shrapnel and barbed-wire? Because lace was already associated with Belgium – even serving as a metonym for the country on postcards – and Belgium’s sufferings at the hands of the occupying German army were a key theme in Allied propaganda, particularly during the first year of the war. It is important to state that these sufferings, and these atrocities, were real; however, the way they were presented for propaganda purposes meant that the lacemaker occupied a particular place in the wartime imaginary. The invasion of a neutral country was repeatedly described as ‘the rape of Belgium’, and the event was visualized as the assault of defenceless women by German soldiery. Lacemakers were usually pictured as either young apprentices or older women, and therefore seen as particularly vulnerable; they were associated with nuns, convents and beguinages – places of peace despoiled by the invaders; and the delicacy of their creative work made an arresting contrast with the destructive jackboot.
Alongside the violence perpetrated on civilians, propagandists also emphasized the destruction of cultural treasures, such as the deliberate burning of the library of Louvain University. As lace was one of Belgian’s principal cultural exports, the fate of the product and its producers under occupation was a live issue throughout the war. In November 1914 the wife of the American ambassador, Mrs Brand Whitlock, helped set up the ‘Brussels Lace Committee’, through which supplies and orders from American women philanthropists were channelled to Belgian lacemakers, starved of work and resources.
Much of this propaganda was aimed at the United States, and it seems to have had an effect, to judge by the two poems below, both written in 1915-16 by North American poets. Neither, as far as I am aware, had any direct experience of the conflict; they were not writing from the trenches. However, both were well-travelled and may have known the Belgian cities they evoke from first-hand experience (although I have not been able to document this).
Frank Oliver Call (1878-1956) was a Canadian academic and occasional travel writer who had visited Europe before the war. His poetry is moderately well-known in Canada. ‘The Lace-Maker of Bruges’ appeared in his collection In a Belgian Garden in 1917. (It may well have appeared before in a magazine, but if so I have not traced it.) It was reprinted in his more overtly modernist collection Acanthus and Wild Grape in 1920, when the date August 1915 was added. Presumably the anniversary of the invasion prompted the poem: Bruges had been occupied since October 1914 so the tread of trampling German feet was no new event in August 1915. Although Bruges largely escaped physical destruction, it became a German military (in fact naval) base and was subjected to the barrage of measures that made civilian life increasingly miserable in occupied Belgium. Call’s poem invokes pre-war literary theme of Bruges as an ancient and decayed city — Bruges-la-Morte as it was titled by the francophone Flemish writer Georges Rodenbach — a place where sunbeams go to die. Everything here is dim, grey, silent, peaceful; even the lacemaker’s hands are idle – an odd image in poetry, where the rapidity of lacemakers’ fingers usually invoke awe. Or at least it was peaceful until the irruption of German noise and violence. This lacemaker appears old, and as we have already seen in our post on Guido Gezelle, it seems difficult for writers to imagine Bruges lacemakers at any other age. This is how they appeared on postcards, and in novels such as Gustaaf Vermeersch’s Klosjes, klosjes (1903). The connection between lacemakers and religious monuments such as the Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekerk (Notre-Dame) in Bruges, was, as we have seen in previous posts, well established in visual culture.
The Lace-Maker of Bruges
By Frank Oliver Call
Her age-worn hands upon her apron lie
Idle and still. Against the sunset glow
Tall poplars stand, and silent barges go
Along the green canal that wanders by.
A lean, red finger pointing to the sky,
The spire of Notre Dame. Above a row
Of dim, gray arches where the sunbeams die,
The ancient belfry guards the square below
One August eve she stood in that same square
And gazed and listened, proud beneath her tears,
To see her soldier passing down the street.
To-night the beat of drums and trumpets’ blare
With bursts of fiendish music smite her ears,
And mingle with the tread of trampling feet
George Tucker Bispham (1881-1948) is less well known as a poet than Call: offspring of a wealthy Philadelphia family, he made only an occasional foray into literature. After Princeton and a spell at Oxford he took a radical change of direction and set up the White Grass Dude Ranch in Wyoming. Various of his pre-war poems appeared in journals connected to Princeton. ‘The Lacemaker of Ypres’ appeared in the American journal Poetry: A Magazine of Verse in 1916. As in Bruges, so in Ypres, lacemaking was the most important source of work for women before the war. But unlike Bruges, Ypres, though unoccupied, was in the front line, for most of the war. The remaining civilians were evacuated in May 1915, during the Second Battle of Ypres, incidentally the first battle in which the Canadian Corps played a substantial part. Thereafter the city was a ruin. This poem utilizes some of the same tropes as Call’s. Again the lacemaker appears old (or at least she has known her songs ‘for many a year’), and is placed in visual rapport with a church, here St Martin’s Cathedral. She lives hard by Ypres’ flower-market, not as famous as that of Brussels, but nonetheless a location that connects the lacemaker to beauty and delicacy (some forms of lacemaking were known in Flanders as ‘bloemenwerk’ [flower work]). As we know lacemakers were famous for singing while they worked, and Ypres lacemakers in particular had an extensive repertoire of ballads, some of which had been published around 1900. But lacemaker’s song is choked off in a ‘last scream’ as war eradicates all these feminine attributes of peace and fragility.
Much of Ypres was rebuilt after the war, including the main market square and St Martin’s cathedral. But despite the attempts of American and Belgian patrons, its lace industry could not be revived.
The Lacemaker of Ypres
By George Tucker Bispham
“Most of the houses in the Grande Place are in ruins. The town is uninhabited. Only the dead are left. But the enemy keeps on bombarding – apparently to pass the time.”
She passed the hours
In a friendly solitude;
Heard the voices, wrangling shrewd,
In the market-place of flowers;
Clatter of cart-wheel; sounds that drifted—
From her open window, saw uplifted
Her cathedral towers.
While passed the hours
Her thoughts would find some little song,
Loved for many a year and long
In the market-place of flowers;
When days of summer drifted, drifted—
And in the peaceful sky were lifted
Ypres’ cathedral towers.
To pass the hours,
Since her last scream was choked in dust,
Shot and shrapnel spend their lust
In the market-place of flowers;
Smoke is drifted, drifted, drifted—
Lonely in the sky are lifted
Christ’s cathedral towers.
 John Horne and Alan Kramer, German Atrocities, 1914: A History of Denial (New Haven CT: Yale University Press, 2001).
 Nicoletta F. Gullace, ‘Sexual Violence and Family Honor: British Propaganda and International Law during the First World War’, American Historical Review 102:3 (1997): 714-747.
 The work of the committee is discussed by Charlotte Kellogg in Bobbins of Belgium: A Book of Belgian Lace, Lace-Workers, Lace-Schools and Lace-Villages (New York: Funk & Wagnalls Co, 1920).
 Sophie De Schaepdrijver, Bastion: Occupied Bruges in the First World War (Veurne: Hannibal, 2014).
 Donald Flanell-Friedman, ‘A Medieval City as Underworld: George Rodenbach’s Bruges-La-Morte’, Romance Notes 31:2 (1990): 99-104.
 Albert Blyau and Marcellus Tasseel, Iepersch Oud-Liedboek: Teksten en Melodieën 2 vols (Ghent: J. Vuylsteke, 1900).
Guido Gezelle (Bruges 1830 – Bruges 1899) was the most important poet of the nineteenth century to use the Flemish language. He is often compared to Gerard Manley Hopkins and not just because he too was a Catholic priest. Both poets took a Franciscan delight in God’s creation; both steeped themselves in the possibilities of language, all but inventing words to help the alliteration flow. In the case of Gezelle, he really was forging a new language. French was dominant culturally in the new Belgian state and even poets from Flanders, like Émile Verhaeren, frequently preferred it. Flemish was in danger of becoming a rural dialect, the kind of thing that the poetry-consuming class only used to speak to their servants. The cultural activists of the Flemish Movement were determined to rescue the language but, as we’ve seen in some earlier posts on this site, they were too often trapped in a simplistic language suitable for their moralizing precepts. Gezelle too was a fierce advocate for Flemish, but he was also determined to reshape the language for literary purposes. Modern Dutch would not do for him because it was the language of Calvinism, so he drew on the West Flemish dialect of his native Bruges. Yet one cannot label him a dialect poet: he rather used the spoken vernacular to construct a new, and idiosyncratic, poetic language.
One is less likely to encounter human beings in Gezelle’s poetry than animals, flowers, God, or all together in a celebration of the divine manifested in nature. However, one exception is the lacemaker to whom the poem Spellewerkend zie ‘k u geerne is addressed. Below we give the Flemish text and an, admittedly very rough, English translation. The poem was first published in 1893 in the Bruges review Biekorf which Gezelle had helped to found. The poem uses some well-known tropes associated with lacemakers, such as the ‘bolglas’, the focusing bottle of pure water which concentrated a light source onto the pillow, which we have already encountered in the poetry of John Askham. However, he avoided one stereotype, for his lacemaker is not old but clearly a young woman or girl. So strong has the expectation become that a lacemaker should be old that when Bruges Municipal Library acquired the manuscript poem in 2009 they described it as ‘Gezelle’s masterful description of an old woman lacemaking by the dim light of an oil lamp’! Given that the poet calls the lacemaker ‘kleene’ (‘little one’) and ‘lieve’ (‘sweetheart’), we suspect that the lacemaker in question was considerably younger than even this example, pictured by the Belgian painter Firmin Baes.
Gezelle, an anglophile, wanted to become a missionary to England (he had good connections to the British Catholic community in Bruges, and he was serving as chaplain to the English Convent in the city when he died). This ambition was quashed, apparently because his prominence on language and social questions had annoyed the ecclesiastical authorities. In consequence, Gezelle passed his entire life in the lace-making regions of West Flanders – Bruges, Roeselare, and Courtrai. However, it is not clear how much this poem was based on direct observation. Gezelle was intimately connected with the movement to preserve and revive Flemish folk culture and was familiar with the growing literature on lacemakers’ traditions and songs whose influence one can observe in this poem.
One source was the collection of songs recorded by Adolphe-Richard Lootens (Bruges 1835- London 1902) from his mother Catherine Beyaert (born 1795), a Bruges lacemaker. Lootens, who worked as a surveyor before his move to London, was certainly acquainted with Gezelle. He contributed articles to the antiquarian and pious journal Rond den Heerd that Gezelle co-founded in 1865, and Gezelle reviewed Lootens’ collection of folktales taken down from his mother: Oude Kindervertelsels in den Brugschen Tongval (1868). Perhaps surprisingly, Gezelle was not very enthusiastic about Lootens’ attempt to represent Bruges dialect. Published in 1879, Lootens’, or rather his mother’s songs are present in this poem. Gezelle refers to the lacemakers’ custom of pricking their forehead with each pin before placing it in the pillow, in memory of Christ’s crown of thorns. This practice was recorded by Lootens as the accompaniment to a particular song sung by Bruges lacemakers at the end of the end of the eighteenth century: it continued for seventy-seven pins, the traditional number of thorns in Christ’s mock crown.
Gezelle likewise invokes the lacemakers’ practice of singing songs, and specifically ‘tellings’ as they count pins, which was described by Lootens. However, none of the songs referred to are directly taken from Lootens’ collection. The one telling he names, ‘Een is eene’ – a direct parallel with the English song ‘One is one and all alone’, actually comes from an earlier collection made in and around the town of Bailleul in French Flanders by the judge and antiquarian Edmond de Coussemaker. Lootens’ mother knew a version of this verse catechism but it did not include this line. She also knew a ballad about ‘Heer Alewijne’, another song mentioned in Gezelle’s poem; however her version did not end with the knight/prince murdering the king’s daughter (as Gezelle would have it), but rather returning from the Crusades to find his fiancée abused by his mother. It is his mother he kills, not the bride to be. As Lootens noted, this song is very different from the standard version of ‘Heer Halewijn’, the text of which could be bought from ballad singers in the marketplaces of Bruges even in the 1870s. However, although the mysterious knight in that song certainly intends to kill the king’s daughter, in fact it is she, by cunning, who ends up beheading him and returning to her castle in triumph. (Lootens’ mother sang a version of this in which the anti-hero was named Roland.)
The last five verses of Gezelle’s poem are in the voice of the young lacemaker, singing a song in praise of the Virgin Mary, protector of lacemakers like her mother Saint Anne (the patron of lacemakers in Bruges), and refers directly to the dogmas of the Immaculate Conception and Mary’s Perpetual Virginity. We might suspect that such a doctrinally informed text owes more to the priest than to folk traditions. Certainly I have found no song that exactly matches these verses, though a praise song addressed to the Immaculate Conception, and recorded by Coussemaker in Bailleul, is thematically very close. In West Flanders religious orders were very active in lace-teaching. In Bruges itself the leading lace-school was run by the Apostolate Sisters. Gezelle’s assumption that lacemaking was a holy craft, and that it might serve as an apprenticeship for life in a religious order, was widely shared. Indeed this message was inculcated in the lace-schools through the medium of song. According to a legend (of recent, literary origin, but widely disseminated), Mary herself had inspired a Bruges girl, Séréna, to invent the craft of lacemaking.
The final vow to Our Lady of the Snows concerns a cult held in particular honour among lacemakers, and not only in Flanders but also in Catalonia . The story originates in early Christian Rome when a couple, intending to dedicate their wealth to the Virgin Mary, asked her to reveal how it should best be disposed. Snow falling in August on a nearby hill led to the building of the Basilica of St Mary Major there. However, the cult really took off with the Counter-Reformation. Before the French Revolution, Brussels lacemakers carried their lace to the Chapel of Our Lady of the Snows in that city to place their work under her protection and thus preserve its whiteness. According to an article in Rond den Heerd Bruges lacemakers did the same on 5 August before a statue of a similar statue of Mary in the Cathedral of Bruges.
Gezelle’s poem encapsulates a particular vision of lacemaking, which in part explain’s the Catholic Church’s continuing efforts, in the late nineteenth century, to defend women’s home work in general and lacemaking in particular. The Church was not only the patron of most lace schools but was a substantial purchaser of lace as well. For Gezelle lace was a tradition that linked contemporary Flanders to its medieval glory days when songs like ‘Heer Halewijn’ were composed. And the medieval was preferable to the modern above all because it was an age of faith. Lacemakers earned little but, in this version at least, enough to supply their basic needs and thus save themselves from prostitution, the inevitable consequence of female poverty in the eyes of the Church. And lace itself was almost a holy textile: white like the head-dress of the Virgin herself, white like miracle snows in August. Lace and its producers were under the protection of Mary and her mother Anne. Those engaged in its production were materially deprived but spiritually rich, and would remain so in Gezelle’s eyes as long as they too remained ‘onbevlekte’, virginal, immaculate.
|Spellewerkend zie ‘k u geerne,
vingervaste, oudvlaamsche deerne;
die daar zit aan ‘t spinnen, met
‘t vlugge allaam, uw kobbenet.
Vangen zult g’… hoe menig centen
in die looze garenprenten,
die grij neerstig, heen en weêr
krabbelt, op uw kussen neêr?
Schaars genoeg om licht en leven
Vangen zult ge, o, schatten geene;
Geren zie ‘k uw lantje, al pinken,
Spellewerkster, wat al reken
“Ieder steke maakt me indachtig
“En ik rake, alzoo ‘t voorheden
Zingen hoor ik u, bij ‘t nokken
En zij zong, de maged mijne,
Dan, den ‘teling’ zong zij mede,
Zingt mij nog, mijn lieve kleene,
Zong zij dan, al twee drie hoopen
“Reine maged, wilt mij leeren,
Onbevlekt zijt ge, en gebleven
Laat mij, een voor een, de vlassen
On bevlekte, nooit volprezen,
Dan, wanneer mij garen, stokken,
|I love to watch you making lace
You sure-fingered true Flemish lass;
There you sit, the bobbins flying,
As you weave your spider’s web.
You’ll get, how few centimes
From the clever design of threads
that you rapidly scribbleack and forth on your pillow?
Barely enough to earn your keep,
You will certainly not gain riches
I love your lamp that flames
Lacemaker, how many pins
You say ‘Each prick reminds me
‘And so, just as in the past
Sometimes I hear you as you weave
And she sang, this maid of mine
Then she also sang a ‘telling’
Sing for me again, my poppet,
Then she sang, as she made the bunches
‘Oh pure Virgin, please teach me
‘You are, and will remain, immaculate
‘Let my linen chains one by one
‘Immaculata, never praised enough,
‘Then, when my threads, bobbins,
 For an English biography of Gezelle see Gustave L. Van Roosbroeck, Guido Gezelle: The Mystic Poet of Flanders (Vinton, 1919). A recent bilingual edition of his poems is freely available: Paul Vincent (ed.) Poems of Guido Gezelle: A Bilingual Anthology (London, 2016). His collected works in Flemish are all online at the ever useful Digitale Bibliotheek voor de Nederlandse Letteren (DBNL).
 On Lootens and his relationship to Gezelle and other Bruges clerical antiquarians see Hervé Stalpaert, ‘Uit de Geschiedenis der Vlaamsche Volkskunde: Adolf-Richard Lootens, Brugge 1835-Londen 1902’, Volkskunde: driemaandelijksch Tijdschrift voor de studie van het volksleven 46 (new series 5, issue 1) (1946): 1-21; and Hervé Stalpaert, ‘Bij een honderdste verjaring Lootens’ kindervertelsels’, Biekorf 69 (1968): 273-5.
 Adolphe-Richard Lootens and J.M.E. Feys, Chants populaires flamands avec les airs notés et poésies populaires diverses recueillis à Bruges (Bruges, 1879), pp. 262-3: ‘De Doornen uit de Kroon’.
 Edmond de Coussemaker, Chants populaires des Flamands de France (Ghent, 1856), pp. 129-33: ‘De Twaelf Getallen’.
 Lootens and Feys, Chants populaires flamands, pp. 260-1: ‘Les Nombres’.
 Lootens and Feys, Chants populaires flamands, pp. 66-72: ‘Mi Adel en Hir Alewijn’; pp. 60-6: ‘Roland’.
 Coussemaker, Chants populaires des Flamands, pp. 60-2: ‘D’ onbevlekte ontfangenisse van Maria’.
 The story originates in a collection by Caroline Popp, Récits et légendes des Flandres (Brussels, 1867), pp 163-205: ‘Légende de la dentelle’. Popp was the first female newspaper editor in Belgium, and her paper, Le journal de Bruges, was francophone and Liberal in its politics. It is therefore surprising to find that she and Gezelle shared a similar set of ideas about lace. However, Popp allows her heroine to give up her vow of virginity and marry, which Gezelle would definitely not have thought an appropriate ending.
 Baron Otto von Reinsberg-Düringsfeld, Traditions et légendes de la Belgique: Descriptions des fêtes religieuses et civiles, usages, croyances et pratiques populaires des Belges anciens et modernes (Brussels, 1870), vol. 2, p. 74. Despite stiff resistance from local lacemakers, the chapel was demolished during the French occupation.
 Rond den Heerd 5, no. 36 (July 1870): p. 282 ‘Dagwijzer’.
In the nineteenth century there were lots of Catholic priests like Giovannino Guareschi’s fictional Don Camillo — opinionated, prejudiced and pugnacious, but also deeply committed to the welfare of their parishioners and devoted to their ‘little world’. They dominated their communities and examples of both their authoritarianism but also their humour have passed into folklore. The Flemish priest Constant Duvillers was one of their number. In Woubrechtegem, the tiny parish he was sent to in 1854 by the Bishop of Ghent (probably as punishment for his outspoken defence of the Flemish language), people still remembered him nearly 100 years after his death. Some of the stories that had become attached to him are standards of clerical folklore, such as his ability to compel thieves to return stolen goods. Others are perhaps more reflective of his personal eccentricities. Priests were obliged to read the Bishop’s annual Easter message from the pulpit: Duvillers, who disliked both the Bishop and long services, would announce ‘Beloved parishioners, it’s exactly the same as last year: those that can remember it, that’s good; those that cannot, that’s just as well too.’
However, this post concerns his time at his first parish ― Middelburg ― where he served from 1836 to 1854. This village sits right on the corner where East and West Flanders meet the border with the Netherlands. It is in ‘Meetjesland’, a nickname for the region that Duvillers popularized through his annual Almanak van ‘t Meetjesland, which he published under the pseudonym ‘Meester Lieven’ from 1859 until his death. The story Duvillers told (and possibly invented) was that, when the locals learnt that the notorious womanizer Emperor Charles V was to travel through the region, they hid all the young women and only old women were visible, leading the Emperor to exclaim ‘This is little old lady land’ [Meetje is a colloquial term for ‘granny’].
The almanac, with its plain-speaking moralizing and practical advice, demonstrated Duvillers’ commitment to popular education and the promotion of the Flemish language. There was nothing he disliked more than a Fleming putting on French airs, or a ‘Fransquillon’ to use the pejorative term popularized in the 1830s, and the subject of a bad-tempered satirical poem by Duvillers, ‘De Fransquiljonnade’ (1842). For Duvillers and many other Flemish priests, French was the language of Robespierre, of irreligion and revolution. Inoculating the good Catholic Flemish population against this toxin required the provision of wholesome and comprehensible literature in their own language. Duvillers was responsible for a host of such small, cheap books, often pseudonymous, which, like his almanac, mixed the homely wisdom and folk humour of proverbs with overt moralizing and religious instruction.
The proverb was one of Duvillers’ favourite genres, the song was another. Among his publications are three books of songs, the first of which (1844) was dedicated for the use of the Middleburg girls’ school: several of its twenty songs refer to lacemaking. In 1846 and 1847 there followed two more volumes containing fourteen and fifteen songs respectively, which were intended for use in the lace schools.
The background to these publications was the devastating crisis that affected Flanders principal industry, linen manufacturing, during the 1840s. In 1840 linen occupied nearly 300,000 people in Flanders, about twenty per cent of the population. They were employed in their own homes as spinners and weavers, supplementing their incomes by growing their own food on smallholdings. By the end of the decade this entire sector had all but disappeared. The causes included competition from British factory-produced linens and the displacement of linen by cotton, but this crisis in manufacturing was also exacerbated by poor harvests in the late 1840s, the same period as the Irish Potato Famine. Unemployment and high food prices coincided with typhus and cholera epidemics. For the fledgling Belgian state, born out of an earlier revolution in 1830, misery and starvation in Flanders presented a crisis of legitimacy. In other European countries the ‘Hungry Forties’ led to protest and even the overthrow of the political order. How could that outcome be avoided in Flanders too?
One answer was to retrain the population to make lace. This might seem an odd choice given that machine-made lace was already a source of competition for Flemish handmade lace. Nottingham and Calais tulle had effectively wiped out Lille’s lace industry in the 1830s. But the fashion for tulle had crashed, and the market for Flemish Valenciennes lace was sufficiently recovered for this project to make sense. Up until 1830 lacemaking had been a largely urban manufacture in Flanders, but in the 1840s it would desert the cities such as Antwerp and Ghent (though not Bruges) to take up its abode in the countryside, and especially in the villages of West Flanders that had been most affected by the linen crisis.
However, lacemaking is not a skill acquired overnight: it required teachers and schools. According to the historian of the Belgian lace industry, Pierre Verhaegen, ‘it was now that, under the influence of humble parish priests, of charitable persons, and some convent superiors, the lace industry suddenly took flight again. In the convents of the two Flanders and Brabant, children started to be taught to make lace; where there was no establishment of this kind then one was founded and soon there was hardly a convent in Flanders which did not possess a lace school. New female congregations of nuns sprang up and gathered around themselves the children of the villages where they were implanted.’ This describes the role of Duvillers in Middelburg: at his initiative local elites provided the funding for a lace school, and the staff was supplied by one of the new teaching congregations of nuns.
There are many ironies to this story. The political cleavage in the young Belgian state was between the liberals and the clericals. During the 1840s the liberals, who were largely French speaking and anticlerical, were the dominant party, but their response to the linen crisis, including the funding of the lace schools, required their collaboration with their political arch-rivals, the Flemish clergy. Later in the century, the creation of hundreds of lace workshops masquerading under the name ‘school’ created a new battlefront in ‘culture wars’ between clericals, liberals and, later, socialists. In the meantime, hundreds of thousands of young Flemish women were trained in a trade that effectively trapped them in poverty. For liberals, the failure of the clergy to provide a decent education for their charges, as well as the profits the Catholic Church drew from their ignorant, emaciated and tubercular lace apprentices, was a scandal. For socialists, the impoverished lacemaker became a symbol for ‘Arm Vlaanderen’ [Poor Flanders]: she was the personification of the entrenched misery which demanded radical action, such as the banning of domestic manufacture. But for the clergy and their supporters the homeworking lacemaker, trained by nuns simultaneously in religion and labour, was the epitome of domestic virtue.
The battle over the lace schools was fought in literature as well as in the newspapers and the chambers of parliament, as we will see in future posts on the work of Johanna Courtmans-Berchmans, Virginie Loveling, Guido Gezelle, Stijn Streuvels, and Reimond Stijns, among others. All of these, however, had the opportunity to reflect after several decades on the success and failures of the lace schools: Duvillers was there at the start.
The Middleburg Girls School, for whom the 1844 volume of songs was intended, was Duvillers own project, or at least so claimed a song in which trainee seamstresses thanked ‘Our Pastor, who erected this school’. This series of songs predates the onset of the linen crisis; nonetheless, the industry was clearly in trouble. In ‘The Song of the Spinners’, the speakers lament that ‘Wages are small, and living expensive/ There’s no butter on our bread’. However, at that time lacemaking was only one of the replacement trades being taught: ‘I feel motivated / always to go to school. I learn lovely things there;/ I learn how to make nice lace;/ I sew, I knit,/ it is all profitable for me’. Nonetheless lace was, to judge by the number of songs on the topic, the dominant occupation taught in the school, and Duvillers was clearly on a mission to promote it: ‘O blessed land!/ Where even small a small child’s hands/ Can sustain her parents,/ By playing, [she] can earn,/ By playing.’ Observers like Duvillers often thought of lacemaking as a form of play, an association made easier by the fact that in Flemish the terms are homonyms ― ‘spelen’ and ‘speldewerk’: ‘Here we play a game/ Where anyone might see us;/ The lace shines/ Like a genuine fairy art.’ Duvillers frequently used the term ‘toover’ – meaning magic or fairy – to describe lace, as did many other commentators on the industry.
By 1846, when Duvillers’ next volume of songs appeared, lace had become the single focus of Middelburg’s and many other schools across Flanders. The first song in the volume describes the situation as the linen crisis reached its peak. In years gone by father had sat to weave and mother to spin, and the loom and spinning-wheel together had saved the children from anxiety and grief as they could get their daily bread. But now that ‘Frenchmen wear no linen anymore’ (the French army had replaced its red linen trousers with cotton ones) the girls must go to the lace-school. Yet despite the problems besetting Flanders, Duvillers’ tone in this volume is, overall, positive. In ‘Flora, the Bold Lacemaker’, for example, the eponymous heroine sings ‘Long live lacework! Farewell to the droning spinning wheel!/ I’ll follow the girls from the town,/ my fingers will play both large and small,/ and so Flora will earn her bread.’ Here, as elsewhere in these songs, the purchaser of the lace schools’ product is identified as ‘the Englishman’ or even ‘John Bull’. The lace school is clearly a developing proposition: one song describes the pristine building ‘on two floors!’, so much better than the ‘dark hole’ where they have been working up till now.
This set of fourteen songs is essentially a promotional campaign to convince parents, and the apprentices themselves, of the benefits of the lace school. Duvillers highlights not only the monetary rewards but also that the girls can meet their friends, be warm and safe, and kept on the path of moral rectitude by ‘singing God’s praises’ and saying the rosary. However, they also sing other, secular songs ‘of the little weaver, or of the cat’ (probably references to lace tells). In particular he dwells on the fun and games held on the Feast of St Gregory (12 March or 9 May, see our post on Geraardsbergen), the patron of lacemaking in East Flanders, when there would be a prize-giving attended by priest, the lord and lady from the chateau, as well as all the members of the philanthropic institute that supports the school, who will give out ‘big books clothes, hats and cloth’ to the pupils. Later the whole school will go on jaunt to Ghent. In other songs Duvillers contrasts lacemaking to other occupations in agriculture or food production that might, on the surface, appear better remunerated. For instance he relates the cautionary tale of ‘Anastasia De Bal’ who threw her lace cushion in the fire and went to work for a farmer who taught her to swear like trooper. Although she earns a tad more, she is out shivering in the fields, her clothes are worn and tattered, and the work makes her hungry and thirsty (and implicitly food is costly). And of course agricultural work stops in the winter, and then she’ll be forced to live on potato peelings and even grass.
A large number of Duvillers’ songs in this and the next volume are in the form of dialogues, and between them they cover many of the daily interactions experienced in and around the lace-school. For example, apprentice Mietje meets a gentleman on her way to the school, and when he learns that she is supporting her sick father as well as six children he gives her ten francs. In the next song the priest visits the school to see how the apprentices are doing, and the lace-mistress gives a run-down on each individual’s progress, or lack of it. The priest seems to be constantly dropping in on the school, either showing around other clergy who are interested in setting up their own school, or philanthropic gentry who might support the enterprise, or handing out prizes. Other visitors include the ‘koopvrouw’, the female intermediary who collected lace on behalf of the merchants in the distant cities. In another song she is named as ‘Mevrouwe Delcampo’ from Bruges, while the teacher is frequently referred to as ‘Sister Monica’.
Both of these were probably real people, though so far I have been unable to verify this. Hopefully Duvillers was more careful to use pseudonyms to hide the identities of the numerous girls and young women who attended the school. Dozens are named, and in many cases in order to be upbraided. Wantje Loete, Cisca Bral, Mie d’Hont, Genoveva d’Hont, Barbara Kwikkelbeen, all had done something to annoy Duvillers. Most of these appear in the third, 1847 volume which is markedly more bad-tempered than its predecessors. In the winter of 1846-7 it appears that the children were being withdrawn from the school. Duvillers was particularly infuriated by the parents who, now their daughters had learnt the rudiments of lacemaking, kept them at home to save the few pennies that attendance at the lace-school incurred; or, just as bad, sending them out into the fields to do agricultural work. He warns Wantje Loete that once at home her cushion will stand empty because her mother will need her to look after her latest sibling, while her father will send her to look after the goats and pigs. Meanwhile she, and the other girls staying away from school, will never really master lacemaking. The issue, though, was not entirely economic: for Duvillers the key success of the school was establishing religious oversight of all the young women in the parish and it was this moral authority which parents and some girls, were challenging.
All was not well in the school either: in the song ‘The School Mistress and the Foolish Mother’, the latter comes to complain that her daughter Mie has been beaten, and that she will take her, her stool and her cushion out of school if another finger is laid on her. The school mistress answers that no one has been beaten, she’s only dragged Mie into the middle of the school and made her kneel and pray because she is so lazy. And while the stool belongs to the family, the other tools belong to the school. ‘Don’t come back later and try to flatter us/ and ask us if she can [learn to] knit,/ Or even sew your clothes:/ Woman, this is no dovecot!’ However, the mistress’s protestations that no-one has been beaten are undermined by other songs in which she directly tells the children that she’s been instructed by the pastor himself ‘not to spare the rod’. Perhaps this was the reason girls like Barbara Kwikkelbeen preferred hanging around in the street or wandering through the parish. In a fury over all this backsliding Duvillers declares ‘But as the poor are so pigheaded,/ Then I will not lift my hand to help them,/ And I’ll send them a punishment.’ If these songs in any way represent the priest’s actual relations with his parishioners, then it is plausible that it was this breakdown that brought about his removal from Middelburg, and not his obstreperous involvement in language politics.
As any regular visitor to this site will know, apprentice lacemakers sang while they worked. Duvillers frequently alludes to this custom, and even names some of the songs they sang, such as ‘Pierlala’. He presumably wanted his songs to be adopted by the Middelburg lace school as more suitable for future ‘brides of Christ’ (that is nuns, which was clearly Duvillers’ hope for at least some of the girls) than those currently in use, that is if his choice of tunes is indicative of what was being sung. Most of these seem derive from the theatre, such as ‘The Best is Good Enough for Me’, or ‘The Frozen Nose’.
Presumably also he hoped that his songs would be taken up in other lace schools, but is there evidence of this? Although Flemish lacemakers sang a lot of songs, not many of them were actually about lacemaking itself. If anything their songs served as an imagined escape from their task. Duvillers’ songs, on the other hand, offer a detailed picture of life in a lace-school, of how the children interacted with each other, of the injunctions of the lace-mistress, of the various visitors during the day… the kind of nitty-gritty quotidian commonplaces that are a goldmine for the social historian but unlikely to excite a singer. This mundane character, and the highly localized references, made me think that, as songs, Duvillers’ work had probably fallen rather flat.
However, at least one of Duvillers’ songs did become a lace tell, and a version was still sung a century after publication. In 1948 Magda Cafmeyer published a series of articles ‘From Cradle to Grave’ about life-cycle traditions in Bruges and its immediate surrounding villages. She included, under youth, lace tells, and offered one that she herself had heard.
It is worth seeing
Us making net (i.e. lace)
For the bonnets
of the young ladies of the city.
The finest lace
For our customers
Enriched with flower and leaf
one link, one lattice opening made
Wantje’s lace rests unsold
Ten franks the ell (the unit used for measuring lace, about 70 cm)
But she’s a fierce one
She doesn’t even look up
Her fingers twirl
The sticks (bobbins) roll;
They seem to dance before one’s eye.
O wonder, especially if anyone sees it,
But this tough one (‘schrimmer’ in Cafmeyer’s tell, ‘grimmer’ in Duvillers’ song), hardly ever leaves the house.
Just like magic!
Says boss de Lye (an unidentified figure),
As he quickly leaves the school.
Farewell to the field
The farmer and the baker
How fast and how wide-awake (I am)
And I also get a little wage
I work here peacefully
By my sister
I sit here warm and clean.
Unknown to Cafmeyer, these are two verses, albeit slightly rearranged, of one of Duvillers’ Speldewerksters-liedjes which appeared in his first, 1844 collection. In his own way, he had contributed to the craft culture of Flemish lacemakers.
 For a fuller biography of Father Duvillers, and detail of his works and his legend, see J. Muyldermans, ‘Constant Duvillers (1803-1885). Zijn leven en zijne schriften’, in Verslagen en Mededelingen der Koninklijke Vlaamse Academie voor Taal- en Letterkunde (1928): 148-202, and F. van Es, Pastoor Constant Duvillers, Folklorist en folkloristische figuur (Ghent, 1949).
 G. Jacquemyns, Histoire de la crise économique des Flandres (1845-1850) (Brussels, 1929).
 Pierre Verhaegen, Les industries à domicile en Belgique: La dentelle et la broderie sur tulle (Brussels: Office du Travail, 1891), vol. 1, p. 49.
 We will return to this political debate in future posts, but for liberal/socialist critiques of the Catholic Church’s involvement in the lace schools see Guillaume Degreef, L’ouvrière dentellière en Belgique (Brussels, 1886) and Auguste de Winne, À travers les Flandres (Ghent, 1902). Although Pierre Verhaegen’s father, Pierre-Théodore Verhaegen (1796-1862) was the effective leader of the Belgian liberals and anticlericals, and at the forefront of the battle over education (students at the Free University of Brussels – free of Catholic influence that is – still celebrate ‘Saint Verhaegen’s Day’), he himself took a more positive view on the Church’s lace schools.
 C. Duvillers, Twintig Nieuwe Liedjes, ten geebruyke der Meysjesschool van Middelburg, in Vlaenderen (Ghent, 1844): Naeystersliedje ‘O! dank zy onzen pastor:/ Hij heeft de school gesticht’.
 Duvillers, Twintig Nieuwe Liedjes: ‘T Liedje der Spinnetten ‘Den loon is kleyn; en ‘t is duer leven;/ Er ligt geen’ boter op ons brood’.
 Duvillers, Twintig Nieuwe Liedjes: Huys-liedje ‘ ‘k Voel mij gedreven/ Om altyd school te gaen./ Daer leer ik fraeye zaken:/ ‘k Leer nette kantjes maken;/ Ik naey, ik brey,/ ‘t Is al profyt voor my’.
 Duvillers, Twintig Nieuwe Liedjes: Kantwerksters-Liedje ‘O zalig land!/ Waer ook een’ kinderhand/ Zyn’ ouders onderstand,/ Al spelen, kan verschaffen,/ Al spelen, ja!’
 Ander Kantwerksters-Liedje ‘Wy spelen hier een spel/ Waer ieder moet op kyken;/ Dat speldenwerken schynt/ Een’ regte tooverkonst.’
 C. Duvillers, Liedjes voor de Kantwerkscholen, Gevolge door de Spreuken van baeske Van de Wiele (Bruges: Vandecastell-Werbrouck, 1846): no. 1: ‘Toen ik nog een kleyn boontje was,/ Deed vader ook in ‘t linnen,/ Terwyl ik in een boekske las,/ Zat moeder daer te spinnen; En ‘t spinnewiel en ‘t weefgetouw/ Bevrydden ons van druk en rouw,/ Wy konden ‘t broodje winnen.’
 Duvillers, Liedjes voor de Kantwerkscholen (1846): Flora, of de moedige kantwerkster ‘Vivat het spellewerk! Vivat!/ Vaerwel het ronkend spinnewielken!/ Ik volg de meysjes van de stad,/ ‘k speel met ving’ren, kleyn en groot,/ En zoo wint Floorken ook haer brood.’
 Duvillers, Liedjes voor de Kantwerkscholen (1846): no. 6: ‘Er ryst voor ons een’ nieuwe school,/ Ze zyn al de tweede stagie,/ Sa! Dochters, schept maer goê couragie:/ Haest krupt gy uyt uw donker hol.’
 Duvillers, Liedjes voor de Kantwerkscholen (1846): De Schoolvrouw, den pastor en de dry vreemde heeren ‘Sa! Kinders, zingen wy eens dat/ Van ‘t Weverken of van de Kat’. Neither reference can be clearly identified as weavers and cats are both common characers in Flemish folksong, but two popular lace tells were ‘Daar waren vier wevers’ and ‘De katje aan de zee’.
 Duvillers, Liedjes voor de Kantwerkscholen (1846): Den Pastor en de Schoolvrouw ‘En, dan kom ik afgetreden/ Met den heere van ‘t kasteel,/ En mevrouw, en al de leden/ Van ‘t weldadigheyds-bureel,/ En wy geven groote boeken,/ Nieuwe kleedren, mutsen, doeken,/ Al die braef is krygt zyn deel.’
 Duvillers, Liedjes voor de Kantwerkscholen (1846): no. 14.
 Duvillers, Liedjes voor de Kantwerkscholen (1846): Den Heer en het schoolkind.
 Duvillers, Liedjes voor de Kantwerkscholen (1846): Den pastor en de schoolvrouw.
 Duvillers, Liedjes voor de Kantwerkscholen (1846): De Koopvrouw en de zuyster.
 C. Duvillers, Liedjes voor de Kantwerkscholen en Spreuken van baeske Van de Wiele (Ghent, 1847): Wantje Loete.
 Duvillers, Liedjes voor de Kantwerkscholen (1847): De Schoolvrouw en d’onverstandige Moeder ‘Brengt u ‘t meysken in ‘t verdriet,/ Threse, en kom dan later niet/ Schoone spreken, en ons vleyen,/ En ons vragen of ‘t mag breyen,/ Of eens naeyen aen uw kleed:/ Vrouw, ‘t is hier geen duyvenkeet.’
 Duvillers, Liedjes voor de Kantwerkscholen (1847): De Zuster en de Schoolkinders ‘Den pastor heeft my streng bevolen/ Van in de beyde kantwerkscholen/ Daer op te letten, en de roê/ Zoo niet te sparen, lyk ik doe.’
 Duvillers, Liedjes voor de Kantwerkscholen (1847): Genoveva d’Hont ‘Maer al den armen ‘t zoo verstaet,/ Dan doe ‘ker maer myn hand van af,/ En ‘k jon ze hem, de straf.’
 Magda Cafmeyer, ‘Van de wieg tot het graf III: Dat was de jeugd’, Biekorf 49 (1948): 206-7.
Moreton Pinkney, like its near neighbour in south Northamptonshire, Silverstone, had a reputation in the early nineteenth century as ‘a very rough place’. Or so it appeared, in 1832, to its new curate, Thomas Mozley, who claimed ‘there existed no adequate means for the maintenance of order, health, or decency’. Mozley was one of the most ardent proselytizers for the ‘Oxford’ or ‘Tractarian Movement’ in the late 1830s and ‘40s, a High Church form of Anglicanism whose influence we have encountered before. He had been a pupil of Henry Newman, the future cardinal, at Oriel College (which held the living of Moreton Pinkney), and would marry Newman’s sister in 1836. Clergymen no doubt have relatively high standards of behaviour, but Mozley’s strictures concerning Moreton Pinkney also found echoes in the contemporary press: according to the Banbury Advertiser for 3 September 1857 it had an ‘unenviable notoriety’ for lawlessness.
One of Mozley’s measures of the village’s ‘roughness’ was that pigs – ‘huge masterful brutes’ – ran riot in the streets and forced their way into his garden: ‘When we complained we were told that the pigs must have a run, and that between schooling and lace-making, no child could be spared to look after them.’ Moreton Pinkney was then, and would remain into the 1870s at least, a lace village. This too posed its problems for Mozley, very much a reforming clergyman determined to impose order, sobriety and learning on the ‘rude and generally inoffensive savages’. Even among the children who actually attended the village school, it was ‘woeful to find what a dense mass of ignorance buried a thin stratum of knowledge’. But even if, as Mozley planned, the existing school could be reformed, there remained another obstacle:
The school was but half filled. It had a rival too strong for it. This village of misery and dirt, of cold and nakedness, of pigs and paupers, was the busy seat of a beautiful and delicate manufacture. As many as a hundred and fifty women and girls made pillow lace. On the higher green was the ‘lacemaking school,’ as it was called. Near thirty children were packed in a small room, and kept at their pillows from six in the morning, all the year round, to six in the evening. They were arranged in groups of four or five, round candles, about which were water-bottles so fixed as to concentrate the light on the work of each child. Girls were sent thither from the age of five, on a small weekly payment.
It kept them out of the way in the day, and it prevented the wear and tear of clothes. The food side of the calculation was doubtful, for the parents always said the lacemakers ate more than other children, though it did not do them much good. For a year or two the children earned nothing. They could then make a yard of edging in a week, and, deducting expenses, they got twopence for it. By the time they were eleven or twelve they could earn a shilling or eighteenpence a week. There were women in the village who could not clothe their own children, or present themselves at church, who had made and could still make lace to sell in the shops at 20s. or 30s. a yard. The more costly lace was generally ‘blonde,’ that is, made with ‘gimp’ or silk thread. The makers were all bound to the dealers by hard terms, so they said, and obliged to buy at the dealers’ terms their gimp and thread.
They took great pride in the number and prettiness of their bobbins, making and receiving presents of them, and thinking of the givers as they twirled the bobbins. We took a good deal of the lace, and disposed of it amongst our friends. My youngest sister set up a pillow, and made some yards of good lace. I learnt to be a critic in lace, and an appraiser.
Though all these children were taught to read, and even to write and to sum a little, they were of course very backward, and they soon ceased to do anything but make lace.
Mozley thought of backwardness in terms of Bible knowledge, and his response was to run evening classes for boys and girls which were, apparently, much appreciated. Thirty years later he met one member of his New Testament class who came as a lace-dealer to his new vicarage in Finchampstead, Berkshire, and who was able to pass on all the parish gossip.
Some of that gossip probably concerned the extensive Talbot family of Hog Lane, ‘believed to be of Gypsy extraction’. As many Talbot womenfolk were lacemakers, we quote this section in extenso, not least because of its discussion of the ‘truck system’. Although illegal, it was common practice not only among bootmakers but also among lace-dealers, who were often also grocers. They obliged lacemakers to take payment in kind rather than coin, which forced the workers to hawk the overpriced goods for themselves. As we have seen, Reverend Ferguson of Bicester discussed the same abuse.
The Talbot clan contained some remarkable specimens. George was a gigantic fellow a well-sinker and excavator. He did not make much appearance at Moreton Pinckney; indeed, it was said that he had married one or more wives besides the one on duty there. She might be supposed a match for him, for in a terrible quarrel she had run a knife right through his arm. He was in prison part of my time for deserting his family. His mother took it much to heart, and when I was expecting some sentimental explanation of her sorrow, told me she knew what the prison allowance of bread was, and that George would starve on it.
There were two Phillis Talbots, one old, and the other still young, but the mother of a large family. She was, and she remained for many years, a name dear to my Derby friends. My contemporary note of the family is, ‘a delicate and very interesting woman. He is well-intentioned, but weak of purpose. A large family. Very poor.’ Her voice and utterance told for her as much as her looks. She was one of the best lace-makers in the village: but to think of the darkness, damp, and dirt her beautiful fabrics came out of, and the rough cubs all round her ‘pillow’! In her early days she had made lace that fetched 25s. or 30s. a yard. We saw bits of it. Some of her children were of my evening classes, and they were sure of help. Her cottage, in Hog Lane, belonged to some one who could not afford a penny for the repair of the thatch, and it was a mass of rot. I remember her describing a stormy night. As she lay in bed something dropped upon her face, and, when she felt for it, was cold and clammy. She got up and struck a light, and, ‘Oh, ma’am,’ she said to my mother or sister, ‘it was a newt!’
For some years we sent her an annual present, but had to stop it for a very sad reason, of which I never heard the full particulars. One or two of her sons were in the employment of shoemakers at Northampton, or one of the other seats of that trade. They brought home boots and shoes, which poor Phillis took, and used or sold. She had to suffer a term of imprisonment as a receiver of stolen goods.
It must be explained, however, that in those days the truck system was universal, at least among all the lower class of manufacturers. The makers of any article whatever would say to their workpeople at the end of the week or fortnight, ‘We haven’t the money to pay you the whole of your wages; we cannot find sale, or our customers will not pay. So take, at cost price, some of the things you have made, and sell them yourselves if you can.’
The practice was the subject of long discussions in Parliament for many years, and had more advocates than might be now supposed. One of the chief objections was the opportunity it gave the workpeople for robbing their employers. They carried about goods which they said had been given them in lieu of money wages; and, as the practice was universal, they were not suspected, nor could a suspicion have been followed up. In the matter of lace it continually occurred that when the makers had every reason to believe the dealers would take their work on existing terms, they found they had themselves to find purchasers on whatever terms they could. In those days law was invoked much more freely for the protection of trade than it is now, when manufacturers and dealers are told to take care of themselves.
The case against Phillis Talbot was rather more serious than this summary suggests. In the hard and hungry winter of 1848, according to the Oxford Chronicle Northamptonshire was rife with rumours and alarms about burglaries and highway robberies. Well-off farmers feared a return to the days of the infamous ‘Culworth Gang’, who terrorized south Northamptonshire at the end of the eighteenth century and whose memory was very much alive in places like Moreton Pinkney (and whose exploits may feature in a future blog piece). On 15 December, a group of armed men, their faces blackened, broke into the farm of Thomas Lovell in Catshanger. Firearms were discharged and linen, silver, clothing and foodstuffs were stolen. An investigation led to the arrest of Phillis’s son, Benjamin, whose age was given as 11, as well as several members of the Prestidge family who were related to Phillis by marriage and whose name ‘had become so familiar in the records of county crime’. During searches of houses in Moreton Pinkney Phillis was seen hiding some boots that were part of the thieves’ hoard: she was charged with receiving stolen goods. At Northampton Lent Assizes in 1849, she was condemned to one month in prison, a comparatively lenient sentence justified ‘on the ground that she was a mother endeavouring to shelter her child, and that it did not appear that she was of the same lawless disposition as the rest of her family. The prisoner, who seemed worn to utter feebleness with illness and age [she was about 50], and trembled excessively, was accommodated with a chair’. Benjamin, however, was transported for life, along with the other male members of the gang. The Catshanger burglary would have ramifications in the district: at Brackley Petty Session for 9 September 1850 several Moreton Pinkney women, Talbots and Prestidges – ‘a batch of viragoes’ as they were described in the Banbury Guardian – were charged with assaulting other villagers, including Phillis, after a row broke out among women working in the fields about responsibility for arrests.
This was certainly not the last occasion that rioting occurred at Moreton Pinkney, nor the last time that the Prestidges and Talbots were in court. However, the background to this ‘lawlessness’ was the enclosure of common land in Moreton Pinkney at the beginning of the nineteenth century and the replacement of the Old Poor Law, which had supported needy villagers in their own homes, with the New Poor Law and with it the workhouse. Some of the violence was the direct result of villagers, including the Prestidges and the Talbots, attempting to assert what they perceived as their traditional rights, including rights over property, against improving farmers and reforming clergymen like Mozley. Poverty, more than criminality, was the scourge of the lace villages. The 1840s and 50s were desperate times, and we can hear an echo of that in the heartfelt plea of Sarah Prestidge, wife of one of the men sentenced for the Catshanger robbery, before the magistrates in February 1857, where she was charged with failing to support her family. A widow aged just 36 (William Prestidge had died in prison at Gibraltar in 1856), she replied:
I have no means of supporting my children. There are four of them; three girls and a boy… I have been in Northampton gaol before for not maintaining the children. I wrote to the Poor Law Commissioners in London, and the case was referred to the Brackley Board. I cannot maintain my children. I have regular work three days a week in the minister’s house. If I had relief equal to other widows with families I would try and maintain my children out of the Union [workhouse]. If I had the same relief as Phillis Talbot I would try… I had sooner die under a furze bush than go into the workhouse. I had rather go to gaol. There is little difference between them. In the gaol you are by yourself, but in the workhouse you have rough company. I had rather have my children with me at home than go to gaol, but I won’t go to the Union. When I was at the workhouse I was separated from my children. I saw them at meals certainly, but we were not allowed to speak to one another, we may as well not see them, if we are not allowed to speak to them. The boys you don’t see more than once a week. In the workhouse very simple things are called bad behaviour, and my daughter was shut up in a dark room. The food is not good at the workhouse, and not good at the gaol; there is very little difference between them. I am not fond of the gaol, but I would leave England rather than go to the Union.
 Reverend Thomas Mozley, Reminiscences Chiefly of Towns, Villages and Schools (London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1885), vol. 2, pp. 200, 396.
 ‘Disorderly Conduct and Rioting at Moreton Pinkney’, Banbury Advertiser 3 September 1857, p. 4.
 Mozley, Reminiscences, vol. 2, pp. 201-2.
 Mozley, Reminiscences, vol. 2, pp. 223-4.
 Mozley, Reminiscences, vol. 2, p. 227.
 Mozley, Reminiscences, vol. 2, pp. 250-2.
 Oxfordshire Chronicle and Berks and Bucks Gazette, 23 December 1848.
 Or so said Colonel Cartwright at the Northampton Quarter Sessions on 5 April 1854: Northampton Mercury 8 April, 1854, p. 3.
 Northampton Mercury 10 March 1849, p. 4. For more on their various fates see Joan Proud, ‘Round up the Usual Suspects!’, Convict Links 15:3 (July 2001).
 Banbury Guardian, 12 September, 1850, p. 2.
 See, for example, the court case arising out of ‘Guy Fawkes Day at Moreton Pinkney’, Banbury Guardian 28 November 1861, p. 3.
 Banbury Guardian 12 February 1857, p. 3.
Unlike some of the other personages we’ve discussed on this site, Sylvia Pankhurst (1882-1960) probably needs little introduction. Daughter of Emmeline, sister of Christabel and Adela, Sylvia was an artist, a suffragist, a political radical, and deeply involved in anti-fascist and anti-colonial movements between the wars. She was also interested in lace and lacemakers, as we learnt from Joan Ashworth at a recent conference. (Joan is making a film called Locating Sylvia Pankhurst.) For Sylvia, the concerns of working women should have been at the heart of the women’s suffrage campaign, a position that led to a split with her mother Emmeline and sister Christabel, and her expulsion in 1914 from the Women’s Social and Political Union. She had already demonstrated her interest in women’s work in 1907, when she toured England and Scotland, drawing and interviewing women employed in the potteries, boot and shoe manufacture, the coal industry, chain-making, herring-gutting, and agricultural activities. She may have envisaged that this would lead to a full-length book, but this never came to fruition; instead articles appeared in magazines, including an illustrated article on ‘Women Workers of England’ in the London Magazine (1908).
It is possible that she had considered including pillow-lace makers in this project. Domestic women workers were the object of concerted social and philanthropic campaigning in the first decade of the twentieth century, and in these campaigns the fate of the women chain-makers of Cradley Heath was repeatedly linked to that of lacemakers in England and elsewhere. The same period also witnessed a moderately successful attempt to revive the lace industry and Emily Hobhouse, a campaigner on behalf of Boer civilian prisoners in South Africa, obviously thought Sylvia knew about this because she asked her (c. 1903-4) for lace patterns. However, no pictures or notes of interviews with lacemakers survive from this period.
The article below was written later, probably around 1929. Whether it was ever published I have been unable to establish but the typescript appears among her papers now held by the International Institute of Social History, where they are available online. This is not, it has to be said, a ground-breaking piece of journalism. In fact, its entire contents are lifted, sometimes verbatim, from Thomas Wright’s Romance of the Lace Pillow (1919). (The ‘Mrs’ – in fact Mr Harry – Armstrong mentioned at the end of the article also published that book.) We suspect, therefore, that there never was such as person as ‘Lydia Arkwright’, rather she was a character invented on which to hang various elements of lace lore. Certainly we have not been able to identify any lacemaker alive in the 1920s with that name.
Nonetheless, we thought it worth including the article on this site because it illustrates just how widespread concern was for the survival of the handmade lace industry. Sylvia Pankhurst was a socialist, for a while a member of the Communist Party, but her article recapitulates all the themes that aristocratic and clerical patrons of lacemaking used to promote the trade, such as the idealized cottage with birds fluttering around the door and the happy singers in the lace school. In the first half of the twentieth century, the survival of women’s rural craft traditions was a topic that could unite both left and right of the political spectrum, just as did the ‘arts and crafts’ aesthetics which were so important to the lace revival.
Old Lydia Arkwright sits at her cottage door, plying her pins and bobbins, producing on her pillow the choicest of filmy lace, more exquisite than gems. The birds flutter round her, confidently pecking up the crumbs she never omits to scatter for them. Her bobbins are rosewood, well wrought by the bobbin maker from her own trees; but in the press over there is a box of pretty bone bobbins she never uses, cunningly carved and daintily lettered in red and blue, with tender inscriptions, as was the custom of her youth: ‘Lydia Dear’, ‘I wish to wed and love’, ‘My mind is fixed; I cannot range: I love my choice too well to change’.
Her fingers fly, her old voice, quavering, croons the lace-working songs, ‘lace tells’ as they are called:
‘Wallflowers, wallflowers, growing up so high,
All young maidens surely have to die…’
Each tells [sic] calls up some memory of her youth; this one she first heard her first day at the lace school, a tiny wench, only five years old, her poor little face distorted with weeping, for her parents were newly dead of the small-pox. She had a shelter with her father’s old aunt, but must learn to work for her bread. So small she was, and woefully ‘unkid’, as the lace folk termed anyone abjectly miserable as she was. She evoked compassion, for an instant, even in the stern breast of the lace-mistress, petrified as it was by hard toil and grasping for meagre gain.
Rows of little lace girls in clean print dresses, with low necks and short sleeves, their hair in tight plaits, lest any tress should defile the lace were ‘sot’ demurely on stools, on either side of long benches, whereon the lace pillows rested. The mistress, her keen glance comprehending all, sat clutching her cane in long yellow fingers, ready to chastise the smallest fault with a stroke on those little bare necks and arms. She gave the forlorn new-comer some bobbins to ‘halse’, and when her sad tears fell on the sacred thread, forgetting all pity, struck her six times over the head, and rubbed her face on the pins. Poor Lydia proved a diligent pupil, none the less, and as time passed, son [sic. won?] sometimes a good word, and even a little prize from the crabbed old mistress.
The boys, in their smocks, were kept apart from the docile girls; a ‘spunky’ lot they were, getting up to larks and wasting the thread, often playing truant, ‘homesking’ [? illegible] over the fields or ‘scelching’ in the bank by the brook. She remembered Jack Croft, after a stroke of the cane, ran out of the school and flung his pillow down the well! What a to-do there was! No wonder the lace schools charged 4d a week to train a lad, only 2d for a girl.
When the children had grown proficient, they worked ten hours a day for sixpence a week, paid out to them monthly. They had to stick 600 pins per hour, and if they were five pins short at the end of the day, must work another hour. When the short winter days drew in, there was neither gas nor electric light to work by, nor so much as an oil lamp; even candles were short. As many lace makers as possible, often three rings of them, on stools of different heights, sat round a candle-block, with a tall tallow candle burning in the centre and around it inverted flasks fo water, which focussed the little flame of the candle on to the lace cushions. It was a poor gleam at best, and it was a harsh punishment indeed to be kept in to work by it before the usual season. They worked hard to get done before dusk, inciting each other to persevere by an appropriate ‘tell’, one row of children singing:
‘19 miles to the Isle of Wight;
Shall I get there by candle-light?’
The next row replied:
‘Yes, if your fingers are lissom and light,
You’ll get there by candle-light.’
Even in the coldest weather, the lace school was unheated. The only means of keeping warm was to place close to one’s feet, and even under one’s skirts, a ‘fire pot’ of rough earthenware, resembling the scaldino used in Italy, filled each morning with glowing wood-ashes at the baker’s, for the cost of a farthing, and revived occasionally by the bellows. Sometimes there was a cry: ‘I smell burn!’ Somebody’s petticoat was singed!
It was a hard striving existence for the young, and after they were free of the lace school, there was the ‘baby pillow’ at home, on which the children could earn a few pence more.
Yet what days they were for mirth and jest! If a girl ran short of pins, she would go round the room with a snatch of song:
‘Polly or Betsy, a pin for the poor!
Give me a pin and I’ll ask for no more.’
On hot summer days they were allowed to take their work outside, and in the joy of youth, they entered into merry contests, sometimes individually, sometimes row against row, competing to place a given number of pins in the shortest time. And ever and anon, their voices joined in the numberless ‘tells’:
‘Needle pin, needle pin, stitch upon stitch,
Work the old lady out of the ditch.
If she is not out as soon as I
A rap on the knuckles shall come by and by,
A horse to carry my lady about —
Must not look off till 20 are out.’
Then they all counted twenty pins, and if anyone looked up before he or she had done, the others shouted:
‘Hang her up for half an hour;
Cut her down just like a flower.’
The offender would hastily put in the final pins and retort:
‘I won’t be hung up for half an hour,
I won’t be cut down like a flower.’
What times they had on ‘Tanders’, St. Andrews Day, November 30th, which was the lace-makers’ holiday, for St. Andrew was regarded as their patron Saint. On that day people met in ‘one another’s housen’, and partook of ‘no-candy’, framenty [sic] (wheat boiled in milk and flavoured with spice), and hot, spiced metheglin, made from washing the honeycomb. Even the lace mistress became genial and bade them invite their friends to join the merrimaking at the school. In the height of the fun she would come in with a fire pot of metheglin held high in either hand, crying ‘Tan, my boys, Tan!’ When she left the room to get more, they would lock her out, and sung as she shook the door in pretended wrath:
‘Pardon mistress, pardon master,
Pardon for a pin!
If you won’t give us a holiday
We won’t let you in!’
Then the fiddles struck up, and the boys and girls danced round the candle-block, singing:
‘Jack, be nimble, Jack, be quick,
Jack, jump over the candlestick.’
inserting the name of every boy and girl in turn. Whoever was named must essay the jump over the lighted candle and all.!
The blades were removed from the bobbin winder, and suspended by a cord from one of the beams. On the pins of the blade were stuck pieces of apple and candle alternately. The young folk, blindfolded in turn, essayed to bite the apple, and, to the merriment of the spectators, often bit the candle.
Catterns, St. Catherine’s day, was another festival. The bellman went round before daybreak, calling:
Rise, maids, rise,
Bake your Cattern pies;
Bake enough and bake no waste
And let the bellman have a taste.’
The lace-makers worked hard to finish work by noon, and then ‘wet’ the candle-stool, as they said, by taking tea together with Cattern cakes. After dancing to the fiddle, they supped on apple pie, ginger-bread, ‘wigs’ flavoured with caraway seed, and drank warm beer, spiced and mixed with rum and beaten eggs.
On Shrove Tuesday, the Parish Clerk rang the ‘Pancake Bell’ at eleven, and the women ran out of their cottages, striving to be first to offer him a pancake fresh from the pan.
Village history wove itself into the tells. There was one Lydia learnt from her great aunt of a girl whose faithless love, ‘the Fox’, enticed her to meet him in the wood at night, and with an accomplice designed to murder and bury her there.
19 miles as I sat high,
Looking for one, and two passed by;
I saw them that never saw me —
I saw the lantern tied to a tree.
The boughs did bend and the leaves did shake;
I saw the hole the Fox did make.
The Fox did look, the Fox did see
I saw the hole to bury me.’
Folk songs they call such ditties, viewing them as remote and strange, but old Lydia knows they are not mere phantasy; behind each one there lies a poignant human history. There was a tragic, true story, sung, in a lace tell, about the neighbouring villages in her girlhood, which well she knows, but never sings; it touches her too nearly. Because of that story, the pretty bone bobbins lie idle in their box and Lydia Arkwright is a spinster yet.
Lace makers ply their lovely craft in Bucks, Beds, Northants and Huntingdon. The fine old patterns, which once fell into disuse, have been revived, above all those of the exquisite Bucks Point, the acorn, the tulip, the carnation, wedding bells, and running river, which age can never stale. At Olney, the Bucks cottage lace-makers work on the pillow as they did in the days of Katharine of Arragon, who is said to have introduced the industry. A postcard to Mrs Armstrong of the Bucks Cottage Workers’ Association, Olney, will bring particulars to hand.
 This project is discussed on http://www.sylviapankhurst.com/sylvia_the_artist/women_workers_of_england_project.php
 E. Sylvia Pankhurst, The Suffragette Movement: An Intimate Account of Persons and Ideas (London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1931), pp. 178-9. Hobhouse returned to South Africa in 1905 under the auspices of the Boer Home Industries and Aid Society to set up classes in spinning and other female domestic manufacture: perhaps lace was meant to be part of this programme.
 IISH, Estella Sylvia Pankhurst Papers, box 164: https://search.socialhistory.org/Record/ARCH01029/ArchiveContentList#293
 On Harry Armstrong and the Bucks Cottage Workers Association see http://www.mkheritage.org.uk/odhs/full-list-of-elizabeth-knights-articles/my-introduction-to-the-lacemaking-pages/harry-armstrong-and-the-bucks-cottage-workers-agency/
We have already met the Kettering staymaker John Plummer (1831-1914): he was one of the contributors to the Notes & Queries series on ‘Catterns’. Plummer was also an example of an ‘English labouring-class poet’ (like John Askham of Wellingborough, who featured in an earlier post). Plummer published only one volume of poems – Songs of Labour, Northamptonshire Rambles and Other Poems (1860) – but he is probably better known than Askham. That is not necessarily because he was a better poet. Although some of his more lighthearted pieces work well, Plummer too had a weakness for highfalutin language and poetic clichés, so all mothers are ‘angels’, all earls are ‘belted’… But Plummer led a more adventurous and combative life than Askham, and above all was more politically engaged, which brought him public attention.
Given his interest in lacemaking, the title Songs of Labour led us to hope that lacemakers would feature prominently. Sadly, they are not mentioned even once; nonetheless, their influence may still be detected, as we will explain at the end of this post.
Plummer was born in the East End of London, where his father worked as a staymaker. His youth was marked by periods of poverty, and made more difficult by partial deafness and lameness, consequences of a childhood illness. Despite receiving almost no schooling, he became obsessed with the written word, seeking out books wherever he could find them. He started writing poetry in the wake of the revolutionary events of 1848, inspired by reading the Chartist poet Gerald Massey’s ‘Song of Welcome’ to the exiled Hungarian rebel Kossuth. In 1853 he and his father took jobs at a Kettering stay factory, but he quickly established a second career as a local newspaper commentator on a range of political and social issues. In 1860 he married Mary Ann Jenkinson, a milliner from Kettering, and soon after the couple moved to Hackney to work for publishing house Cassell & Co., which specialized in improving literature aimed at the working class. In London Plummer pursued a new career as journalist and newspaper editor. He became quite well known, corresponding with Lord Brougham (to whom his book of poems was dedicated) and John Stuart Mill: the latter described him as one of ‘the most inspiring examples of mental cultivation and high principle in a self-instructed working man’. (Mary Ann Plummer, meanwhile, was a signatory of Mill’s petition in favour of women’s suffrage in 1866.) In 1879 the Plummer family emigrated to Australia where John became editor of the Illustrated Sydney News among many other activities. Northamptonshire was not, however, forgotten: his house in Sydney was named after the village near Kettering where he had married, and about which he had written a poem, Thorpe Malsor.
This background, and the title Songs of Labour, might lead one to think that Plummer’s politics were radical. And in lots of ways they were: Plummer’s poems condemned poverty, war and the tyranny of kings, and celebrated the virtues of the labouring classes. However, he first came to national prominence when he wrote in support of his brother Japheth who had attempted to set himself up as a shoemaker in the teeth of a closed shop operated by the powerful Northamptonshire shoemakers’ trade union. Japheth was eventually driven out of the neighbourhood (he became a soldier) while John was burnt in effigy. Plummer was not entirely hostile to trade unions, but his ideal social type, which he celebrated in poems such as ‘The Poor Man’s Dream’ and ‘The Emigrant’s Song’, was the homesteader. In North America the working man could find land of his own to farm and be beholden to no one, neither aristocratic landlord, nor factory owner nor even his fellow worker. As a political economist Plummer supported technical innovation such as steam engines and factories, but in his poems he fled the ‘smoke-dried teeming Cities, where/ Is often heard the low and wailing sob/ Of Labour mourning in despair’ for the ‘grassey lea’ of Thorpe Malsor. Education, self-help, sobriety, Christian charity, these were his regular themes. Australia, another pioneer society, suited him admirably.
In 1878, the ever prolific Plummer wrote three articles on ‘The Northamptonshire Lace-Making Industry Past and Present’ for the Northampton Mercury. This is a rather useful series because, while Plummer made use of existing printed material such as the Children’s Employment Commission reports, he also included anecdotes told to him and his own observations. For instance he cites the local names given to lacemaking equipment and to common patterns. The picture he paints of the industry in the past was largely negative: lacemakers were impoverished, unhealthy and immoral. He had few hopes for its future either. But he does offer little insights into their social history, such as lacemakers were prone to a ‘nervous twitching of the fingers’, that they were good at mental arithmetic because of counting pins, and that they were proud of the tools of their trade such as their spangled bobbins and their cushions. One story he tells concerns a deceased lacemaker whose daughter was presented with a bill which she believed her mother had paid even though she could find no receipt. The creditor sent bailiffs to seize the lacemaker’s property, but the daughter was determined to hold onto her mother’s pillow as a memento. During the struggle, the cover of the pillow was torn and out fell the missing receipt together with other documents and some coins.
Like almost every other commentator on Midlands lacemaking, Plummer tackles the topic of ‘lace songs’. He quotes the usual sources such as the Notes & Queries articles, and includes the unavoidable Shakespearean reference, but he also mentions that while living in Kettering he ‘formed a small collection of lace-makers’ songs, which has, unfortunately, become lost.’ Nonetheless, he could recall some of the contents. They included the gruesome ‘Little Sir Hugh’ which we discussed in a previous post, and in general Plummer observed that ‘the more horrible and revolting the details, the greater the popularity’ of lace songs. He also cites ‘Long Lankin’ and ‘Death and the Maiden’, which are both well known songs, and mentioned by other collectors of lacemakers’ oral traditions. However, the rest are much more difficult to identify and to date we have been unable to trace any text or tune for the following seven listed by Plummer as ‘lace songs’.
1) ‘’The Lord of Burleigh’. This ballad narrates a kind of She Stoops to Conquer in reverse. It is the same story as Tennyson’s 1835 poem, in which a rich lord pretends to be poor in order to win a woman’s heart. Both were inspired by the 1791 marriage of Henry Cecil (first Marquess of Exeter and eponymous Lord of Burghley House in Cambridgeshire) to Sarah Hoggins, a farmer’s daughter from Great Bolas in Shropshire. The opening stanza went ‘A noble lord a-wooing went,/ A-wooing went my lord;/ She was a maid of low degree,/ And would not speak a word’. That is all that Plummer tells us, other than it was considerably ruder than Tennyson’s version.
2) ‘Blackberry Nan’. The first lines ran ‘Blackberry Nan, Blackberry Nan/ Killed a cat in her milking can.’
3) ‘The Squire’s Ghost’. The title is all the information Plummer provides. There are some well-known folksongs that might fit this rubric.
4) ‘Christian and the Money-lender’. The title is all the information Plummer provides which is particularly unfortunate, as this is a theme evoked in lacemakers’ songs in France and Flanders, so there may be a connection.
5) ‘Betsy’s Dream’. The title is all the information Plummer provides.
6) A ballad which alludes to Simon de St. Liz (or rather Simon de Senlis, first earl of Northampton and 2nd earl of Huntingdon, one of William the Conqueror’s knights). A medieval legend tells that William intended that Simon should marry Judith, widow of the executed Earl of Northumbria Waltheof, but she refused him on account of his lameness. Furious, Simon pursued Judith until pacified by her daughter Maud’s promise to marry him instead. Maud’s influence was supposed to have turned the old soldier into something of a saint.
7) A song celebrating the lacemakers’ patron Saint Catherine that commenced ‘On Cattern’s Day we sing and play,/ And wear our Sunday gown’.
We would be delighted if anyone was able to provide us with more information about any of these, or even better Plummer’s manuscript of lacemakers’ songs. But in the meantime it might be worth mentioning that two of these themes had already been used by Plummer in his poems. After ‘Songs of Labour’, Plummer had a section dedicated to ‘Northamptonshire Rambles’ which took their cue from some item of local history or a recent event. One retold ‘The Legend of Burleigh House’; another the story of ‘Simon de St. Liz’. Is it impossible that these topics were suggested to him by songs he heard lacemakers sing?
 Although this label is retrospective, this group does have some coherence, not least in the interest its members had in each others’ work. Askham named his house after John Clare, the Northamptonshire ‘peasant poet’; while Plummer actually went to visit Clare in his asylum in 1861.
 Most information on his early life comes from the ‘autobiographical sketch’ that served as an introduction to his Songs of Labour. Another short biography was included in a collection edited the penal reformer Matthew Davenport Hill for the publisher John Cassell, himself one of Plummer’s patrons: Our Examples, Poor and Rich; Or, Biographical Sketches of Men and Women Who have by an Extraordinary Use of their Opportunities, Benefitted their Fellow Creatures (London, 1861), pp. 287-96.
 See the post on the website ‘Ringstead People’ dedicated to Mary Ann Jenkinson and her family.
 John Stuart Mill, Principles of Political Economy ed. Jonathan Riley (Oxford, 1994), p. 151. Mill and Plummer wrote and met with each other regularly in the 1860s and 70s.
 Appearing on 19 January, 2 February and 16 March 1878.
In a 1994 article on the literary image of the lacemaker, Nichola Anne Haxell complained that she had found only four relevant works: “These four texts have to bear the full weight of my analysis: considerable investigation has failed to bring forth any other texts which situate a lacemaker in or near the centre of the narrative.” Her four were Charlotte Brontë’s The Professor (1846, though published in 1857), Gérard de Nerval’s “Sylvie” (1853), Pascal Lainé’s La dentellière (1974, and, despite the title, not actually about a lacemaker), and Chantal Chawaf’s Retable: La Rêverie (1974).
If we say that we know of about forty it will sound like boasting, but really it’s a testament to the wonder of search engines. And it has to be said that many of our authors are not particularly well known. But Charles Dickens certainly is a canonical writer, how could his contribution be overlooked in a “considerable investigation”? The answer to that depends on whether you have heard of “Mugby Junction”, a set of stories written by Dickens and collaborators for the Christmas 1866 edition of the magazine All The Year Round. We hadn’t until a search engine led us to it. It may be familiar to Victorian steam enthusiasts as most of the stories are in the voices of railway employees: the engine-driver, the signalman, the engineer, the boy who serves in the refreshment room… But there is also a frame story about a character known as “Barbox Brothers” on the basis of the label on his luggage, or the “Gentleman for Nowhere”, as he hangs around Mugby Junction station without taking a train. His name, however, is Jackson; he got off a train from London at Mugby in the middle of the night with no particular object. He develops the plan of travelling all the lines that meet there. Dickens creates here an opportunity for many spin-off stories, though in fact only one, Jackson’s visit to Birmingham, ever materializes. “Mugby”, as you may have guessed, is Rugby in Warwickshire, then still a rural market town with a large railway junction attached, rather than the industrial centre it would become a decade or two later.
“Mugby Junction” is not, to be frank, a very good story. Jackson is rather like Arthur Clennam in Little Dorrit, a man oppressed by his bigoted upbringing and the moneygrubbing tedium of his work in the City. Having sold his business, he is searching for some purpose to his life, but has no clue how to find it. He wanders the streets and surrounding countryside until he encounters an odd sight: the fragile but bright face of a young woman, with her cheek on a cottage windowsill. “And now there were a pair of delicate hands too. They had the action of performing on some musical instrument and yet it produced no sound that reached his ears.” His walks over the following days are all directed past this cottage which he observes also serves as a village school. From one of the children he learns that the sideways woman is called Phoebe, who sings in order to instruct.
A few days later, having introduced himself through the window, Jackson visits Phoebe who, unable to walk, lies on a couch all day. “She was engaged in very nimbly and dexterously making lace. A lace-pillow lay upon her breast; and the quick movements and changes of her hands upon it as she worked, had given them the action he had misinterpreted” as playing an instrument. When he explains his mistake she replies “That is curious… For I often fancy, myself, that I play tunes while I am at work.” Jackson, unused to any form of human contact, is at a loss for further small talk, but “there was a kind of substitute for conversation in the click and play of its pegs… The charm of her transparent face and large bright brown eyes, was, not that they were passively resigned, but that they were actively and thoroughly cheerful. Even her busy hands, which of their own thinness alone might have besought compassion, plied their task with a gay courage that made mere compassion an unjustifiable assumption of superiority, and an impertinence.” Jackson cannot help but compare this young woman’s pleasant outlook with his own melancholy. He had loathed his work whereas she loves hers, both her teaching and “my lace-pillow… it goes with my thoughts when I think, and it goes with my tunes when I hum any, and that’s not work. Why, you yourself thought it was music, you know sir. And so it is, to me.” Her father, a railway worker that Jackson has already met, adds that Phoebe is “Always working – and after all, sir, for but a very few shillings a week – always contented, always lively, always interested in others, of all sorts.”
Dickens had a penchant for women who suffer while retaining their vivacity and compassion. Like Phoebe, Little Dorrit was a textile worker (a seamstress). One suspects that, if the”‘Mugby Junction” story had been taken further, it would have been Phoebe’s role to save Jackson from himself, as Amy Dorrit saves Arthur Clennam. It was a commonplace of nineteenth-century fiction that women’s pain redeemed men.
Lacemaking appears like playing an instrument, lacemakers hum and sing as they work. The idea of music is bound together with Phoebe’s lace, and her character. We have often encountered this image of the singing textile worker, contented with her domestic lot. But Dickens introduces a novel synonym for lace, “those threads of railway”, that Phoebe can observe from her window, but not follow. Jackson undertakes to explore them and report back on what he discovers. As she weaves her threads so he will weave narratives for her.
Much of this coincides with Haxell’s “paradigm of the lacemaker” derived from her four texts. In most of these, and especially those authored by men, “a lacemaker is a young woman of humble background or reduced circumstances who attempts to make her way in the world through patient and unassuming craft. Although she has little formal education, there is a modest desire within her for self-improvement. Beneath her demure manner, she often demonstrates qualities and modes of behaviour which make her an outsider to the lowly class and social position where her occupation situates her. A lacemaker will inevitably enter into an emotional relationship with a smug young man, socially and educationally superior to her. He will be attracted initially to her docility and “naturalness”, which correspond to his personal ideal of femininity.” Jackson may not be young, nor particularly smug, but otherwise the literary model is replicated. However Dickens might have allowed for a happier ending than that permitted in Nerval’s ‘Sylvie’ or Lainé’s La Dentellière.
What did Dickens know about lacemaking? Rugby borders the Northamptonshire lace districts, and Dickens had other opportunities to see lacemakers at work, for instance when he covered the 1835 by-election in Kettering (we know how important the lace interest was in that town). He returned quite often to Northamptonshire to visit his friends the Watsons at Rockingham Castle. However, we are not aware of any other text in which he showed any interest in this manufacture. We are also a little doubtful about Phoebe’s prone position as an effective way to work on a lace pillow. Certainly the illustrator of the American edition of Dickens’ complete works, Arthur Jules Goodman, had difficulty picturing the scene.
 Nichola Anne Haxell, ‘Woman as Lacemaker: The Development of a Literary Stereotype in Texts by CharlotteBrontë, Nerval, Lainé, and Chawaf’, The Modern Language Review 89 (1994): 545-60.