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An Italian Lace Interlude, Troubles in Chioggia

A brief trip away from Midlands lacemakers last September took us to a conference in Padua and then, briefly, to Chioggia, an island at the southern end of the Venetian lagoon. Why Chioggia? Apart from the fact it’s delightful? Because it is the setting for Carlo Goldoni’s 1762 play Le baruffe chiozzotte (The Squabbles in Chioggia; the link takes you to the Italian text) which is, to our knowledge (and as always we don’t mind being corrected) the only play that features lacemakers as its main characters.

Carlo Goldoni, playwright (1707-1793)

Carlo Goldoni, playwright (1707-1793)

 

Goldoni is going through a bit of a revival at the moment thanks to the National Theatre’s adaptation of his 1746 Il servitore di due padroni, now known as One Man, Two Guvnors. We’ve not seen Le baruffe chiozzotte performed in English, but there is a published translation entitled It Happened in Venice. At the risk of judging a book by its title, this seems very much to miss the point, because it didn’t happen in Venice. The Chioggians in the play are at pains to differentiate themselves from their Venetian overlords, not least through their distinctive dialect. Perhaps the use of dialect explains why the play has also been translated into Scots by Bill Findlay and Christopher Whyte as The Chioggian Rammies (unfortunately we’ve not been able to access this version either). Goldoni, who was a judge’s assistant in Chioggia in the 1730s, was a radical playwright: he thought that the real lives of ordinary working people, such as the fishermen and lacemakers among whom he had lived in Chioggia, were suitable subjects for drama. Even their everyday street language could be permitted on stage. Unfortunately the upmarket Venetian theatre-going public did not agree, and Goldoni was forced to leave the city in 1762. Le baruffe chiozzotte was his last play there.

A view through Chioggia. The fish market (mentioned in Goldoni's play) is on the right.

A view through Chioggia. The fish market (mentioned in Goldoni’s play) is on the right.

 

Act 1, scene 1 opens on a street in Chioggia where five women are sitting outside their houses with their lace pillows. Chioggia, like Palestrina, was a bobbin lace centre, perhaps another marker of its more plebeian character than Venice with its upmarket needle lace. On one side sits Pasqua ‘Frying Pan’, wife of skipper Toni ‘Fish Crate’, and her sister-in-law Lucietta ‘Little Lies’ who is engaged to the fisherman Titta Nane (a diminutive for Giambattista). On the other side of the street sit Libera ‘Capon’, wife of skipper Fortunato, with her sisters 24-year-old Orsetta ‘Brown Bread’, engaged to Lucietta’s brother Beppo, and 17-year-old Checca ‘Milk Curds’… who is jealous of Lucietta. Nicknames matter in Chioggia.

The women are chatting about the weather, with an eye to the expected return of the fishing fleet, when the young boatman Toffolo ‘The Squirrel’ upsets everything by offering slices of roasted pumpkin to one side of the street, but not to the other. To compound his fault (and to make Checca jealous) he goes and sits beside Lucietta, an engaged woman (!) on the pretence of being interested in her lace. This minor event leads to snide remarks, which lead to angry remarks, which lead to a full blown quarrel. The two sides then each relate an edited version of events to their menfolk when their boats return, leading to even more turbulence. Titta Nane breaks off his engagement with Lucietta, Beppo breaks off his engagement with Orsetta, and both the fishermen vow vengeance on Toffolo. After a skirmish on the street, Toffolo runs to the magistrate with yet another twisted version of events. As the law is not expected to be either fair or unbiased, this action has the potential to make things much worse; the men go into hiding, while the women try to win over the magistrate, or rather his stand in, young Isidoro (perhaps a representation of Goldoni himself).

Isidoro is a Venetian, patronizing towards, and exasperated by, the Chioggians, though amused enough by their antics to try and resolve their quarrels. Although his initial interventions only make things worse, with the women too now coming to blows, in the end he is able to sort things out. Lucietta marries Titta Nane, Orsetta marries Beppo, and Checca marries Toffolo. Isidoro rather fancies Checca, and finding her a compliant husband is one of the reasons he got involved in the first place. However, the last word goes to Lucietta, who tells Isidoro:

You see sir, you’re not from here, and you’ll be off some time or another, and we wouldn’t want you to spread the story that the women of Chioggia are squabblers. All that you’ve seen and heard, that’s just been an accident, sir. We’re decent women, sir, honourable women; but we’re merry, too, aren’t we, sir? And we want to live merry, we want to laugh and to dance, and we want everyone to say “Long live the women of Chioggia, long live the women of Chioggia!”

Lace is not a constant topic of the play, but it does play its part. Toffolo’s pretended interest in Lucietta’s lacemaking starts the whole quarrel, and later, when Lucietta is furious with Titta Nane and determined not to look at him, she justifies her behaviour by her need to keep her eyes on her pattern. The characters of the women are implied by their different lace skills: Pasqua makes cheap and easy lace, whereas Lucietta is working on a much more complex and expensive pattern. Checca, meanwhile, is making very slow progress on her pillow (though she claims that she has saved up fifty ducats from the profits of her work towards a dowry). That Isidoro has an eye for the ladies, and might be manipulated, is suggested by the fact that he pays twice the going rate for Lucietta’s lace.

Which raises an interesting conundrum for any future production… where do you find five actresses who can make lace? Or should they just pretend, as in this Italian production (the whole thing is on youtube)? Mutating lacemaking into knitting, as it appears some have done, we’d say is really not good enough!

 

Chioggia from the air. According to the play, 40,000 people lived on the island, and as this picture demonstrates, living quarters were cramped!

Chioggia from the air. According to the play, 40,000 people lived on the island, and as this picture demonstrates, living quarters were cramped!

Eliza Westbury, Northampton Lacemaker and Composer of Hymns

Eliza Westbury was born in 1808 and died in 1828. She lived for all of her short life in the village of Hackleton, Northamptonshire, where she made a living as a lacemaker.

We know this from the introduction to Hymns by a Northamptonshire Village Female, to which is added a Short Account of Her Life. (Note that ‘Female’; obviously Eliza could not aspire to the title ‘Lady’!) This book, containing 70 or so of Westbury’s hymns and poems, was published shortly after her death, probably by the local Baptist minister William Knowles. It seems likely that Knowles encouraged Eliza’s writing after her conversion and acceptance into the Baptist congregation in 1826.

 

Carey's College, Hackleton. William Carey (1761-1834) was a shoemaker turned minister and missionary in India. He lived a while in Hackleton.

Carey’s College, Hackleton. William Carey (1761-1834) was a shoemaker turned Baptist minister and missionary in India. He lived a while in Hackleton.

 

This is what Knowles, if he was editor, had to say about Eliza: this is the promised short account of her life.

Eliza Westbury was the daughter of William and Elizabeth Westbury of Hackleton, Northamptonshire. She was born in the year 1808. Her father died in the faith of the gospel, in the year 1811. At an early age she was sent to a Sabbath School, and made pleasing progress in learning. She, at times, felt conviction of sin; but remained a stranger to religion until the beginning of the year 1825, when it pleased God to seal upon her heart a few words which were spoken to her after she had been hearing a Sermon to young people. In May, 1826, she joined the Baptist Church at Hackleton, of which she was an honourable member till her death. During the last two years of her life she composed about one hundred and fifty Hymns, besides other poetry from which the following are selected and published, under the impression that they will be acceptable to her Christian friends. Most of them where [sic] composed while she was earning her living at lace-making, and which she used to write at her leisure. Her own experience will be seen in the piece of poetry at the end of the hymns, which was found after her death. She was frequently deeply impressed with the evil of sin, and was fearful lest she should deceive herself: but her death was attended with peace and with the hope of a blessed immortality.

The providences with which the family to which she belonged was visited were very affecting; within sixteen weeks out of five persons who resided in the same house, four were removed by death. On the fourth of January, 1828, her mother died; on the 20th, one of her mother’s sisters; on the 11th of April, death visited her, and on the 18th of the same month another of her mother’s sisters; and unto them all there is ground for hope that death was gain, and that though they are absent from the body, they are present with the Lord.

Reader! Prepare to meet thy God!

We came across Eliza Westbury through the writings of Sibyl Phillips whose thesis, ‘Women and Evangelical Religion in Kent and Northamptonshire, 1800-1850’ (2001) is available online. (Nancy Jiwon Cho has also written a little about Westbury in her thesis, ‘The Ministry of Song: Unmarried British Women’s Hymn Writing, 1760-1936’ (Durham, 2006).) We were intrigued by the fact that Westbury “composed while she was earning a living at lace making”. As discussed in previous posts, many observers of Midland life in the nineteenth century commented on lacemakers’ habit of singing at work. Eliza’s compositions might strengthen the case for a connection between this occupation and song.

We were hoping that Westbury’s hymns would reference, either in words or tune, the other songs associated with lacemakers – either the long ballads discussed in our post on Long Lankin and Little Sir Hugh, or the “tellings” which were the particular musical property of lacemakers. Unfortunately, Eliza’s book, which contains no indication of melodies, is extremely rare (in the UK the only copy seems to be in Northampton itself) and, partly because David is currently in Caen researching Normandy lacemakers, we have not been able to access it. However, to judge by the numerous verses reproduced by Phillips and Cho, the answer appears to be no. Perhaps unsurprisingly Westbury modelled her compositions more on other Evangelical hymnsters and poets, first and foremost Cowper’s and Newton’s Olney Hymns. Olney is only a few miles from Hackleton.

We offer, as an example, Hymn 27, ‘Discontent’, which given the poverty and hard-work associated with lacemaking, may have spoken to one of their habits:

Christians, beware of discontent,
‘Tis a besetting sin;
It will all happiness prevent
When once it is let in.

We murmur at our Maker’s will
Complain of our hard lot;
Calamities remember still,
But mercies are forgot.

Pardon, O Lord, our discontent;
Forgiveness now display;
And may thy spirit now be sent
To guide us lest we stray.

 

It does not appear that Westbury mentioned lacemaking by name in any of her surviving works, though some of the texts do refer to the events of her life such as  ‘On the Death of the Author’s Mother’, which, as we know, preceded her own by only a few weeks. Here are three of the eight verses:

Who lov’d to see me walk the way
That leads to everlasting day,
And check’d me when about to stray?
My Mother!

It has pleas’d God her soul to take
To heaven, where no alarms can shake;
There may I meet, for Jesu’s sake,
My Mother!

Then with my Saviour I shall be,
And I shall from all sin be free,
And there in glory I shall see
My Mother!

As Phillips and Cho have shown, this is modelled quite closely on Ann Taylor’s (at the time) very famous poem ‘My Mother’, which itself borrowed its distinctive metre from Cowper’s ‘To Mary’.

The final piece in the collection contains 54 stanzas and is titled ‘Verses, Containing an Account of the Writer’s Experience’. These tell us relatively little about Westbury’s working life, it is her spiritual life that matters: her youthful waywardness, the depression brought on by her sense of sin, her conversion, and her ongoing doubts. But in the absence of any other autobiography of a lacemaker from the period, we quote them here… or as many verses as were quoted by Phillips.

I at an early age was taught
That God should be in every thought,
My Mother brought me up with care.
And led me to the house of prayer.

Unto a Sabbath School I went,
To gain instruction I was sent;
And there it was my constant aim
To strive to gain the greatest name.

‘Twas my desire (the truth I’ll tell)
That I in reading might excel;
My chief concern and labour then,
Was how to gain the praise of men.

I many strong convictions had,
But I to stifle them was glad:
I knew my ways did God offend,
But I to this would not attend.

I for my chief companions chose
Those who religion did oppose,
Who disobey’d each warning voice
They were the objects of my choice.

Thus with the thoughtless, gay, and vain,
God’s holy day I did profane;
For oft we in the fields did walk,
To join in vain and trifling talk.

But conscience told me all along
That I was surely acting wrong:
This fill’d my soul with sore dismay
And oft I did attempt to pray.

All sacred things I did deride,
But my companions would me chide,
And oft they unto me would say,
That I indeed was worse than they.

Who hath ascended up, thought I,
And seen a God above the sky?
Who of the dead came back to tell,
That there was either heaven or hell?

A minister of God above,
Bid me from Christ no longer rove,
But now to seek in days of youth,
The God of mercy, love, and truth.

He bid me also not to be
A servant of God’s enemy.

My sins as mountains did appear
Which filled my soul with grief and fear.
No hope of mercy could I see,
For bold transgressors such as me.

I thought I oft heard something say,
That t’was in vain for me to pray;
I at religion used to scoff,
And now the Lord would cast me off.

At length God’s holy word I took,
But fear’d to open that blest Book,
Lest in its pages I should see
A curse denounc’d on such as me.

My mind was devoid of peace
And fast my misery did increase.
At length, I fully did intend
To my own life to put an end.

… (but is prevented by remembering a chapter from the Bible on suicide)

No murderer shall enter heaven,
His crimes shall never be forgiven;
And should I be my murderer now,
To endless torment I must go.

… (Instead she joins the Baptist congregation)

With the saints I lov’d to meet
To worship at the Saviour’s feet.

But soon my mind was fill’d with care,
For Satan tempted to despair;
He told me ‘I did not believe,
‘But only did my self deceive,
‘That mercy I need not expect,
‘For I was not of God’s elect;’
Could I forgiveness hope to find,
A sinner of the vilest kind?

… (These doubts keep her from Church for a while, but in the end she is accepted and baptised)

Now those who read these lines may see
The goodness of my God to me.

He could have stop’d my feeble breath,
And sent me to eternal death:
But he has spar’d me still to tell
How he has sav’d my soul from hell.

God’s grace to sinners doth abound,
I sought the Lord and mercy found;
The vilest sinner need not fear,
For God will his petitions hear.

Lord, may thy spirit guide me now,
While I am in this world below:
And then when I am call’d to die,
Receive my soul above the sky.

 

Hackleton Baptist Church, the successor to the one where Eliza worshipped.

Hackleton Baptist Church, the successor to the one where Eliza worshipped.

A Lace School in South Devon

This article was written and illustrated by Percy Macquoid (1852-1925), and appeared in The Graphic on the 9 January, 1892.  Thanks again to the British Newspaper Archive for this find.  Macquoid, whose father was also an artist and illustrator (and whose mother a popular novelist and travel writer), was a regular contributor to The Graphic but also worked as a theatre designer.  He is best known now as a collector and connoisseur of English furniture, having written several of the key texts on this subject.  Here he shows his concern for another “art industry” in decline, Honiton lace.  Reports of this kind helped stimulate the lace revival around the turn of the century.  However, we have included it on this site because Macquoid provides a very rare image of the inside of a lace school.

A Decaying English Industry -- A Lace School in Devonshire. Drawn by Percy Maquoid R.I.

A Decaying English Industry — A Lace School in Devonshire.
Drawn by Percy Maquoid R.I.

 

 

The illustration represents a school for the manufacture of Honiton lace. A few years ago these schools were found in every village in the neighbourhood of Honiton.  Now they are all but extinct, and where the little girls of a village were universally apprenticed to the trade, and dependent on it for their livelihood, now these same villages are more or less deserted and the young women obliged to go out to service.  One of the chief reasons for this is the decay of the Honiton lace trade, owing to the demand for only the very cheap and ordinary kind.  Hence the girls were no longer apprenticed to the schools for teaching the fine and elaborate stiches, and, as it is requisite to begin very young, the real art of the manufacture is now quickly dying out.  Formerly the girls were apprenticed when children to any old woman of the village who was a skilled worker, and she instruct them in the various stiches, taking for payment the work they manufactured.  Much greater aptitude is often shown by the girls of one family, proving it to be a transmitted art, and some of the bobbins in use now are over 150 years old, being much prized, and having been handed down from mother to daughter.  Very few of the old skilled workers can now afford to keep such schools.  They will tell you that there is practically no demand for the really fine Honiton, and that there are very few workers now left who can make it.  The accompanying photograph shows what these old hands can still do.  The thread was obtained from Belgium.  A piece of fine early eighteenth century English lace was given by me as a pattern, and was exactly reproduced by one of the old skilled workers in the cottage in the illustration.

It seems a hard thing that one of the few thriving Art industries of England should utterly die out, as it soon must, for the art will die with the old workers. The young girls are merely taught the ordinary coarse stitches, as there is only demand for this kind of lace now, and even this demand is gradually decreasing, and the work in consequence less and less good, and so, unless prompt encouragement is given, the art must irretrievably die out.

1892 The graphic, piece of honiton lace

Gooding on Saint Thomas’s, 21 December

The longest day and the shortest night,
Jim Horn sat by candle light.
When his mother heard it, she did stamp and swear,
And from his head pulled a handful of hair.

According to Mrs Frederica Orlebar (1887), the promoter of lace and lacemakers’ feasts, this rhyme was sung during Cattern celebrations. Apparently Jim Horn was a male lacemaker whose family still lived in the village of Poddington; his mother was no doubt incensed by the waste of expensive candles when natural light was sufficient. Violence visited upon children by parents was a common theme of lacemakers’ rhymes and tells, as we’ll see in a subsequent post. However, the “longest day and the shortest night” element of this rhyme was more usually associated with “Barnaby Bright” and chanted on 11 June, which is Saint Barnabas’s day (and which, before the introduction of the Gregorian calendar in 1752, would have fallen even closer to the summer solstice).

The winter solstice, the shortest day and longest night, when candles definitely were permitted, now falls on the feast of Saint Thomas. “Thomassing” is the last of the winter holidays associated with Midlands lacemakers. As with the other feasts we have discussed, it was not restricted to lacemakers. In fact it was celebrated much more widely than either Saint Catherine’s or Saint Andrew’s, as it has been recorded across most parts of England south of the Trent. The primary celebrants seem to have been older women, sometimes specifically widows, and occasionally young children. They would go “a-thomassing”, or “mumping” or “gooding” from door to door, perhaps singing or chanting, and collecting money, food and candles. This rhyme was used at Bliston Staffordshire in the nineteenth-century to encourage donations (we’ve found no records of such rhymes used in the east Midlands):

Well a day, well a day,
St Thomas goes too soon away,
Then your gooding we do pray,
For the good times will not stay,
St Thomas grey, St Thomas grey,
The longest night and the shortest day,
Please to remember St Thomas’s day.

Without these gifts from neighbours the poor would not be able to celebrate Christmas. “Mumping” is an old word meaning begging, but perhaps that does not quite capture the attitude of Thomassers. This is Walter Rose’s description of “Thomassing” in Haddenham (Bucks) before the Second World War:

On the twenty-first of December each year the old dames of the village, going about in pairs, canvassed those who could afford it for alms. Their attitude was not one of indigent poverty; they came in recognition of a time-honoured custom, a rite that needed no other explanation but the plain announcement, “If you please, we’ve come a-thomassing”. As a custom it was interesting and picturesque, but it was certainly evidence of an earlier poverty, and we may be glad that the granting of old age pensions brought it to an end. Yet one old lady (to her honour) still keeps the custom going – to whom, if it be my last, my sixpence shall be given.

The story of Saint Thomas and King Gondophares in a tapestry made by the Saint Thomas Guild of Nijmegen, a Dutch medieval re-enactment society. See: http://thomasguild.blogspot.co.uk/2013/06/thomas-tapestry-project-choosing.html

The story of Saint Thomas and King Gondophares in a tapestry made by the Saint Thomas Guild of Nijmegen, a Dutch medieval re-enactment society.

 

The term “gooding” does not mean that Thomassers were after “goodies” but rather they presented an opportunity to do good. The story (which dates back to at least the 3rd century AD) goes that Saint Thomas the apostle was employed by a certain king Gondophares in what is now Afghanistan to build a glorious palace. Saint Thomas took all the money and gave it to the poor. The king was understandably angry until his deceased brother appeared to him in a dream and showed him the palace that his charity had built for him in heaven. Although this story does not seem to be widely known, it perhaps explains why Saint Thomas was an appropriate patron for seeking alms. According to Catholic doctrine, charity was the means to store up spiritual wealth. Yet oddly the historian Ronald Hutton (in his Stations of the Sun) has found little evidence of Thomassing before the Reformation, and while there are numerous parish benefactions, for instance at Leighton Buzzard (Beds) and Ravensden (Beds), which distributed doles to the parish poor on Saint Thomas’s day, most of these seem to date from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Lacemakers very often numbered among the poor, including at Haddenham, Leighton Buzzard and Ravensden, but lacemakers were not specifically singled out for this charity. Lacemakers’ connection to Saint Thomas comes through the lace-schools which, as with Catterns and Tanders, provided an institutional framework for the maintenance of old traditions even while they were falling away in other regions. According to Catherine Channer, a Northamptonshire lace teacher at the beginning of the twentieth century, the children used to take the opportunity to “turn out” their teacher.

It is St. Thomas’s Day. The children are assembled; row behind row they are sitting, with their fat pillows resting against the stands before them. But by the look of repressed excitement on every face, there is evidently something about to happen. Presently the teacher leaves the room on the pretence of getting a parchment. In a minute the girl nearest the door has sprung up and bolted it; the pillows are put on one side, and an indescribable hubbub ensues. When the teacher returns she shakes the door violently, demanding to be let in; but the answer comes from thirty voices, “It’s St. Thomas’s Day; give us a half-holiday, and we’ll let you in.” For five minutes or so she stands outside grumbling and knocking, and then, finding that the children have turned the stools against her, she (not unwillingly, perhaps) gives in. The holiday is promised, the door is opened, and she walks in as the children rush out. As we watch them laughing and shouting, we think it is a pity that custom should have fixed their holiday for one of the dullest and certainly the shortest of the days in the year.

Channer does not mention the location of this school (and the implication is that the description could apply to many Midland lace schools), but possibilities include Ecton (Northants) and Stoke Goldington (Bucks). In his diary, John Cole of Ecton recorded the “turning out” of the mistress at Ecton lace school on Saint Thomas’s in 1832, while Thomas Wright records the same for Stoke Goldington in his The Romance of the Pillow.

The Condition of Lacemakers in 1848: The Testimony of Rev. William Ferguson of Bicester

“What mean ye that ye beat my people to pieces, and grind the faces of the poor”
(Isaiah 3.15)

 

With this cry William Ferguson, Congregationalist minister of Bicester from 1839 to 1860, opened his impassioned pamphlet The Impending Dangers of our Country; or, Hidden Things Brought to Light, published in the revolutionary year of 1848. Ferguson was a highly vocal critic of the treatment of the rural poor. Through the “hungry forties” — a desperate time not only in Ireland but also for much of the British labouring populations — he kept up a running commentary in newspapers such as the Oxford Chronicle and Reading Gazette on such issues as the starvation caused by the Corn Laws, the abuse of tithes, the horror inspired by the Work House, and the dismal failures of both landowners and the established Church to address the material, educational and spiritual needs of agricultural labourers.

 

The Old Chapel, Bicester from Wikipedia Commons

The old Congregationalist Chapel in Chapel Street (formerly Water Lane), Bicester, where William Ferguson preached from 1839 to 1860.    It is now a Thai restaurant!

 

In Impending Dangers Ferguson urged the Whig government to embrace radical reform of the franchise as one answer to the impoverished and degraded nature of the English peasantry (as he termed the rural labouring population). Although he did not mention it by name, the pamphlet was supportive of the Chartist movement which demanded universal manhood suffrage. Both Ferguson and the Chartists warned that failure to heed this call might result in revolution. Indeed “physical force” Chartists were arming and training in June 1848 when this publication first reached the public. In an accompanying letter to the then Prime Minister Lord John Russell, Ferguson urged and an end to policies that “promote war and bloodshed to the ends of the earth” (ii), but rather that the upper and middle classes should “do justice to those who husband the soil, feed the cattle, and keep the sheep”. (vi)

For the historian the great value of this pamphlet is its eyewitness testimony concerning the living conditions of the rural poor in the 1840s. Ferguson reiterated that he spoke from knowledge, not hearsay: “Let us visit their cottages, look into their circumstances, ascertain the causes of their ruin, and speak of things just as we may happen to find them” (p. 17). For example Ferguson, who was very active in promoting schooling in Bicester and Launton, reports numerous instances of belief in magic and supernatural remedies as evidence of the failure of the Church of England to educate its parishioners. (Our colleague Thomas Waters used Ferguson’s evidence in his fascinating thesis on witchcraft in Oxfordshire and Warwickshire.) But he also included numerous examples of household budgets to prove that it was impossible for families of agricultural labourers to subsist on their wages, and for paupers to subsist on the relief was granted to them by the Poor Law Commissioners. Ferguson would have no truck with the rural idyll, which was so often used to promote the lace industry: “The cottage and its garden – the peasant and his family – the village church and its clergyman – have all been portrayed as the quintessence of loveliness, and the perfection of earthly bliss!” But the reality he found in his preaching tours of Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire was houses without windows, sometimes without roofs, rooms with no bedding but the bare earth, families with nothing to light the fire and no food to cook on it if they had.

One critique that might be made of these household budgets is that Ferguson only considered the income of the male breadwinner. He did not include earnings from other members of the family in his calculations. However, he certainly knew that women were also involved in productive labour and included a short section on the plight of lacemakers in the “hungry forties”. As a luxury trade, lace was particularly badly affected by the general economic depression, and the picture Ferguson painted was grim; but some of issues he raised, such as the truck system in which lacemakers were obliged to take goods rather than money in exchange for their product, were longstanding complaints.

There is another class of great sufferers in the rural districts – we mean the poor lace-makers, who sit at the pillow for ten, twelve, or even fourteen hours a day, and yet cannot earn more than from 1s.3d. to 2s.3d. a week. She is a good lace-maker indeed who can clear 2s.6d. a week. When the piece is finished, the poor woman has to go from house to house and from shop to shop in search of a customer. Lace-buyers will hardly take the lace at any price. This once flourishing trade has gone to ruin, but not till it has ruined the bulk of the female population in those districts in which it is made.

The lace-buyer is generally a shopkeeper, and consequently those whose lace he takes are compelled to take goods for it, instead of money. But as the goods which they are thus forced to take – such as tea – are luxuries which they cannot afford to keep for their own use, they are under the necessity of wandering from house to house to sell the tea! The lace-buyer, of whom the lace-makers must buy the thread, charges them 2s.6d. for as much thread as they could buy at any of the regular shops for 3d. Alas for the wretched and degraded women who are dependent on the lace-pillow for their bread. Their trade is their utter ruin. They are no fit for service. They are ignorant of the duties of their station. Many of them have no knowledge of house-hold occupations, and consequently they are strangers to the art of housekeeping. Numbers of these famished lace-makers die of consumption, brought on by hunger, and also by their constantly stooping over the pillow. (pp.36-7).

 

Saint Andrew and ‘Tanders’, Midland Lacemakers’ Other Holiday

One ‘keeps cattern’ but one ’goes tandering’. We are not sure whether this semantic difference is meaningful. Nor are we certain why Saint Andrew became the patron of Midland lacemakers, who celebrated his feast either on ‘new’ (30th November) or ‘old’ (11 December) Saint Andrew’s Day. We know no legend or song that would account for this role similar to those told about Saint or Queen Catherine, and to our knowledge Saint Andrew was not held in particular reverence by any European lacemakers. One Catholic website suggests that it was because the Saint Andrew’s cross resembles intersecting threads… But we suspect that its origins are more ecclesiastical, because Saint Andrew is the patron of many of the churches in the diocese of Peterborough. It seems likely that Tanders was once a widely held village feast and that the association with lacemaking arose as other groups forgot, or were discouraged from, celebrating the saint.

 

Broughton village sign, featuring its tin can band on Tanders

Broughton village sign, featuring its tin can band on Tanders.  We borrowed this image from the ‘Broughton Bystander’, and we hope the bystander does not mind.

 

In some parts of Northamptonshire Tanders was not associated with lacemakers. In Broughton 54 people were bound over to keep the peace in 1930 after a night ‘tandering’, and a further 14 Broughton residents received summons to appear before Kettering magistrates in 1931 for celebrating Tanders too loudly. The crowd, estimated by the police at 1000 strong, had wandered the streets after midnight, banging tin cans and saucepan lids. The background to this mass demonstration was that the Parish Council had banned ‘tandering’, despite an overwhelming local referendum in favour of its maintenance: Saint Andrew being the patron of village church. None of those arrested were lacemakers; in fact there was only one woman among them, a fourteen-year-old ‘tailoress’ who was discharged as too young to be put through the trauma of a magistrates’ court hearing. The local magistrates obviously did not understand the custom, and in 1930 they assumed that this was a form of ‘rough music’ (a type of popular justice used to shame those who had broken the unspoken rules of community life, akin to the ‘Skimmington Ride’ which features in Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge). In 1931 the defendants hired a Northampton lawyer, Mr Burton, who argued, successfully, that Tanders was a traditional custom, always celebrated on the Sunday closest to ‘Old Saint Andrew’s’. The defendants were discharged on the basis that, as the magistrates instructed, ‘nothing of the same kind occurs next year’. However, the revival of Tanders at Broughton continues still with a tin can band and other night-time revels (the website In search of traditional customs and ceremonies has some pictures of the band in action from 2014).

Although widespread across central and southern Northamptonshire and Bedfordshire (some indication of Tanders celebrations, mostly held by lacemakers, have been recorded from Blisworth, Carlton, Cranfield, Elstow, Hanslope, Harrold, Kimbolton (Huntingdonshire), Leighton Buzzard, Milton Malsor, North Crawley, Olney, Pavenham, Stevington, Spratton, Stoke Goldington, Turvey, Wilstead, and Yardley Hastings) the custom passed largely unnoticed until the mid-nineteenth century. The first detailed account we have found so far was provided by Thomas Sternberg in 1851:

Of all the numerous red-letter days which diversified the lives of our ancestors, this is the only one which has survived to our own times in anything like its pristine character. St Andrew appears to be looked upon by the lace-makers as their patron saint; which may perhaps account for the estimation in which his festival is held. In many places, where progress has not yet shown her face, the day is one of unbridled licence – a kind of miniature carnival. Village ‘scholards’ bar out their master; the lace-schools are deserted, and drinking and feasting prevail to a riotous extent. Towards evening the sober villagers appear to have become suddenly smitten with a violent taste for masquerading. Women may be seen walking about in male attire, while men and boys have donned the female dress, and visit each other’s cottages, drinking hot ‘eldern wine,’ the staple beverage of the season. Then commences the Mumming, too often described to need mention here, save to note that in the rude drama performed in the Northamptonshire villages, St George has given place to George III, and the dragon, formerly the greatest attraction of the piece, been supplanted by Napoleon, who is annually killed on this night in personal encounter with the aforesaid monarch, to the intense delight and edification of the loyal audience.

Sternberg’s describes something more boisterous than the ‘cattern teas’ described in our last post, but in many villages the two events passed off in a comparable manner, with ‘washing the candle-block’ the central element. This next description of ‘Tanders’ in Bedfordshire sounds quite like ‘keeping catterns’. It was written by Mrs Kate Leila Edmonds from Summerfield, Carlton… not quite as grand as the Orlebars of Hinwick House who promoted Cattern in Podington over three generations, but still a local mover and shaker, president of the Carlton W.I. after the war, and a promoter of the lace industry. She wrote two extensive accounts of ‘Tanders’ for the Bedfordshire Times and Independent, one in 1900, the second in 1905. We have transcribed the first of these from The British Newspaper Archive. In neither does she give her source, but the memories are not her own; they describe events in the 1850s, whereas Mrs Edmonds was born in 1866. Both descriptions are strongly marked by nostalgia for simpler times of industrious peasants, a sentiment that often characterised attempts to revive the lace-trade:

Fifty years ago, in a little village of Bedfordshire there was great excitement amongst the pupils of the ‘lace school’ one cold November morning. The school dame had no need to scold that day for idleness, or for tardiness in arriving; all had come punctually, and worked with a will. For this was ‘St. Andrews Day,’ or as the lace-makers termed it ‘Tanders’ which brought a half holiday for them all. So the heads were bent over the lace pillows, and the quick fingers picked out the pins and stuck them in again rapidly that a novice would think it looked like play. Ah! but each pupil knew how much she can do in an hour; and she also knew that if she loitered or idled in the least, she could never make up for the lost time. For this lace making cannot be hurried; every stitch must receive the orthodox number of twists and crosses of the bobbins, to make good saleable lace. It was no uncommon thing for the ‘lace buyer’ to take off one half-penny in the yard if a lace was ill-made or not a pure white colour, and this was a consideration of much moment in days when halfpennies were so scarce. Holidays were almost as scarce as half-pennies; hence the unwonted attention of ‘Tanders’ morning fifty years ago. At last the welcome hour of twelve arrived, and one by one the pupils prepare to go home. Bobbins are carefully parted and pushed back each side of the pillow to prevent tangles. The ‘drawer,’ or narrow strip of patchwork is drawn over the lace to keep it spotless; a ‘cover,’ also made of print pieces, is pinned over the lace pillow, and work is over for the day. What a merry time they have! Let us look into one house and see how the lacemakers keep ‘Tanders day.’ The table, chairs, etc., are removed, and the ‘house-place’ cleared; for this is to be no stiff ceremonial party as we shall see. Someone has brought the ‘blades’ of a bobbin wheel, used in non-holiday times to stretch the skein of thread while winding. The ‘blades’ consist of two pieces of wood crossing each other in form like the letter X. The four points of the ‘blades’ being sharpened, a quarter of an apple is stuck on three points, and a piece of tallow candle on the fourth. Now the fun begins; the blades are suspended by a string from the ceiling. one of the party being blind-folded, the hands are tied behind, and as the blades are spun round the blind-folded one has to try to catch in the mouth a piece of apple from one of the points. Great is the fun and delight when, instead of a bite of apple, a bite of candle is taken. But much good temper prevails, and all are willing to take their turn at the ‘snap-apple,’ and so passes the amusement round. But now, the supply of apples being exhausted, and everybody tired of romping, the ‘snap-apple’ is abandoned, and the making of ‘Tanders’ sweets’ begins. These were days when dentists were almost unknown to country folk. Was this due to the fact that sugar was 5d a lb., and sweets regarded as a great luxury for the children? Whether this was so or not, the ‘Tanders’ sweets’ were good and wholesome, and coming only once a year they were in the eyes of the youngsters delicious. Brown sugar, and a very small lump of butter were the ingredients used in making the sweets, and until the boiling process was over everyone was in a state of great excitement and fear, lest the sweets should ‘turn to sugar’ and burn. The boiled sugar being poured on to a floured dish, each one had a hand in rolling or cutting sweets, and putting them by to cool.

The next morning was a trying time to the School Dame. Every lace-maker brought specimen’s of ‘Tander’s sweets’; some burnt black, some sugary, some clear as candy, and all exceedingly sticky. In vain does the School Dame threaten to ‘keep in’ and ‘tell your mother.’ The delinquents still eat sweets and muse on the joys of ‘Tander’s Day,’ thinking dismally what a pity it is that they have to wait a whole year before it comes again. Is it a pity? I think not.

 

A lacemakers' bobbin winder from the Pitt Rivers Museum (1911.29.17). It was collected by Percy Manning from Maria Woods of Launton near Bicester (Oxon) in 1894. The blades suggest a St Andrew's Cross, perhaps the reason for its use in games on Tanders.

A lacemaker’s bobbin winder from the Pitt Rivers Museum (1911.29.17). It was collected by Percy Manning from Maria Woods of Launton near Bicester (Oxon) in 1894. The blades suggest a St Andrew’s Cross, perhaps the reason for its use in games on Tanders.

 

Mrs Edmonds’ second article ended with an impassioned plea: ‘Wake up, English lace-makers? Teach your children all you know yourselves, and save the English lace trade from going out of the villages where it has been made for generations.’ Although probably not a lacemaker herself, her description of ‘snap apple’ and ‘Tanders sweets’ tally with other accounts. The reference to a school holiday may account for why lacemakers were among the last celebrators of Saint Andrew’s Day, as they were of St Catherine’s. The lace-school institutionalised memory of these holidays, and gave young lacemakers an incentive to maintain them. Hence the well-known account of ‘barring out’ at Spratton lace school, written in the 1890s but referring to events in the 1850s:

On S. Andrew’s Day they had a curious custom to seize the opportunity of the mistress leaving the room and then lock her out, and on her return they sang,

Pardon Mistress, Pardon Master, Pardon for a pin;
If you won’t give a holiday, We will not let you in.

After a brief display of counterfeited anger the mistress would give way, and the pupils had their half-holiday. The mistress was pretty severe, carrying a cane, and often giving them a cut if they behaved badly, and it is more than likely, says my informant, that they from time to time deserved it.

(The author of this account, which first appeared in Northamptonshire Notes and Queries in 1892, was Margaret Emily Roberts, the daughter of the vicar of Saint Andrew’s, Spratton, a lace teacher and active in the Midland Lace Association.)

Several accounts of Tanders mention a special cake consumed on that day. Pavenham W.I. contributed a recipe for a ‘Tandra cake’ to the 1948 Cookery Book of Traditional Dishes. We have still not tracked this down, but in the meantime here is Julia Jones’ and Barbara Deer’s recipe for a St Andrew’s Cake from Cattern Cakes and Lace. A Calendar of Feasts:

Ingredients

  • 1lb/450g plain flour
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • ½ oz/15 g fresh or ½ tablespoon dried yeast
  • 1 teaspoon caster sugar
  • ½ pint/300 ml warm water
  • 1 egg beaten
  • 4oz/100g lard, melted
  • 4oz/100g currants
  • 4oz/100 g sugar
  • 1 oz diced crystallized lemon peel 

Instructions

  • Oven 180 degrees C.
  • Sift the flour and salt into a bowl.
  • Cream the yeast with the teaspoon of sugar and blend in the water.
  • Leave the yeast to froth and bubble, then mix with the beaten egg and add to the flour.
  • Pour in the cooled, melted lard, and mix until smooth.
  • Knead well, cover and leave to double in size.
  • Knock back the dough and knead in the currants, sugar, and peel.
  • Transfer to a greased 2lb/1kg loaf tin.
  • Leave to rise until the dough reaches the top of the tin. 20-30 mins.
  • Then back to oven for 60-70 mins until well risen and golden.
  • Cool on a wire rack.
  • Slice and serve with butter.

 

Nicolette 'enjoying' David's attempts to bake a Tanders cake.

Nicolette ‘enjoying’ David’s attempts to bake a Tanders cake.

 

Sources

Anne Elizabeth Baker, Glossary of Northamptonshire Words and Phrases, With Examples of their Colloquial Use, And Illustrations from Various Authors: To Which are Added, the Customs of the County  (London: John Russell Smith, 1854).

Kate Leila Edmonds, ‘The Lace Makers’ Patron Saint.  Fifty Years Ago’, Bedfordshire Times and Independent, 16 February 1900.

Kate Leila Edmonds, ‘St. Andrew’s Day or “Tanders”,’ Bedfordshire Times and Independent, 24 November, 1905.

Rev. E.R. Grant (Unitarian minister of Northampton), text of talk given on ‘The Legends and Folk-Lore of Northamptonshire’ at Northampton Town Hall, reported in the Northampton Mercury, 13 March 1880.

Dorothy Grimes, Like Dew Before the Sun.  Life and Language in Northamptonshire  (Northampton: Dorothy Grimes, 1991).

Julia Jones and Barbara Deer, Cattern Cakes and Lace: A Calendar of Feasts (London: Dorling Kindersley, 1987).

‘M.E.R’ [Margaret Emily Roberts], ‘Spratton Lace School’, Northamptonshire Notes and Queries, 4, 1892.

‘Tin Can Band in Court: Broughton Mummers who Celebrated “Tander”,’ Northampton Mercury, 2 January 1931.

Thomas Sternberg, The Dialect and Folk-Lore of Northamptonshire  (London & Northampton: John Russell Smith, 1851).

Thomas Wright, The Romance of the Lace Pillow  (Olney: H.H. Armstrong, 1919).

 

 

Of Saints, Queens and ‘Cattern Cakes’: Saint Catherine’s Day, the Lacemakers’ Holiday

25 November is the Feast of Saint Catherine, and historically a holiday for the Midlands lacemakers, particularly those in Buckinghamshire and some northern parts of Northamptonshire and Bedfordshire. (Lacemakers in the southern and central parts of the latter counties tended to celebrate Saint Andrew’s Day instead; we deal with this holiday on his feast, 30 November.)

According to the ‘official’ legend — and we’ll see that lacemakers, and in fact almost everybody else who celebrated her feast, told a rather different story — Saint Catherine was a virgin martyr from early fourth century Alexandria in Egypt. Her father was the Roman governor of the province, but Catherine was a philosopher and Christian convert. She refused to submit first to the persecutions of Emperor Maxentius, then to his lascivious attentions, declaring that she was the bride of Christ. Infuriated, Maxentius ordered that she be broken on a wheel, but the device fell apart at her touch. Finally he had her beheaded.

 

Lucas Cranach the Elder, c. 1504-9, 'The Martyrdom of St. Catherine'. The painting is in the collection of the Ráday Library of the Reformed Church, Budapest (source Wikipedia Commons)

Lucas Cranach the Elder, c. 1504-9, ‘The Martyrdom of St. Catherine’. The painting is in the collection of the Ráday Library of the Reformed Church, Budapest (source Wikipedia Commons)

 

Although there is little historical evidence for Catherine, she was one of the most popular saints in both the Catholic and Orthodox churches, and her cult clearly survived the Protestant Reformation in England. Because her attribute is the wheel, she became the patron of wheelwrights, and by extension carpenters, as well as ropemakers and spinners. She was the patron of both young women and old maids (spinsters in another sense), and as these groups formed the labour force for the needle trades, her patronage extended to all involved in textile production. The ‘bal de Sainte Catherine’ is still an important event in the calendar of the Paris fashion houses.[1]

 

A 'Catherinette' celebrating Saint Catherine's Day in early C20 France. We might explain the significance of the hat and the colours yellow and green in a future blog. For further examples of how the French celebrate Saint Catherine's Day, see Guy Larcy's pinterest board 'Fête Sainte Catherine'

A ‘Catherinette’ celebrating Saint Catherine’s Day in early C20 France. We might explain the significance of the hat and the colours yellow and green in a future blog. For further examples of how the French celebrate Saint Catherine’s Day, see Guy Larcy’s pinterest board ‘Fête Sainte Catherine’.

 

In England, ‘keeping Cattern’ —that is celebrating Saint Catherine’s Day — was by no means confined to lacemakers. Even after the Reformation, women in the workhouse would receive a dole in order to ‘keep Cattern’.[2] In some towns, such as Ware and Peterborough, women — in the latter town principally the female inmates of the workhouse — paraded behind their own ‘queen’, singing:

Here comes Queen Catherine, as fine as any queen,
With a coach and six horses, a-coming to be seen,
And a-spinning we will go, will go,
And a-spinning we will go.

No doubt this was an opportunity to raise money for a feast later in the day.[3] In other parts of the country, particularly Worcestershire (though the custom has been recorded elsewhere), it was young children who used this day as an opportunity to tramp from house to house collecting apples and ale, aided by a rhyme such as this one:

Catherine and Clement be here, be here,
Some of your apples and some of your beer;
Some for Peter, and some for Paul,
And some for Him that made us all.
Clement was good old man,
For his sake give us some,
None of the worst but some of the best,
And God will send your soul to rest![4]

Saint Clement’s feast falls on 23 November and was another important holiday, though usually observed in different regions to Saint Catherine’s. A Sussex version of this rhyme names ‘Cattern’ as the mother of ‘Clemen’, an unlikely relationship for a virgin saint![5] Other indications of her widespread popularity are a recipe for a Cattern pie from Somerset,[6] and Cattern Fair held outside Guildford, where Cattern cakes were sold well into the nineteenth century.[7]

However, by the late nineteenth century, lacemakers were almost the only group to still hold her in honour. Occasionally in Bedfordshire and Buckinghamshire the mummers who put on the traditional drama of Saint George and the Turkish Knight in the run-up to Christmas were called ‘Katterners’, though any specific memory of Saint Catherine seems to have been forgotten.[8] Newspaper accounts suggest that ‘Cattern’ was still kept by carpenters in Chatteris (Cambridgeshire) in the 1860s,[9] and the farmer Mr Lot Arnsby of Raunds (Northamptonshire), though a Baptist, still treated his labourers to cakes and ale on Saint Catherine’s Day in the 1870s.[10] In both cases, the feast was held on 6 December, ‘Old Saint Catherine’s’, that is date of her feast before the adoption of the Gregorian calendar in Britain in 1752 had entailed the loss of eleven days. These examples are very isolated compared with the numerous newspaper mentions of lacemakers ‘keeping Cattern’, sometimes on Old and sometimes on New Saint Catherine’s Day. In fact the feast seems to have undergone periodic revivals among lacemakers, often sponsored by local landowners and patrons of the lace industry.

Although there are references to women ‘Catherning’ or ‘keeping Catterns’ from the seventeenth and eighteenth century,[11] the earliest reference we have so far found to this day as a special feast among lacemakers is in a short article in Notes and Queries for May 1862 by ‘A.A.’ (we have not identified the initials) reporting that:

In Buckinghamshire, on Cattern Day (St. Catherine’s, 25th of November,) these hard-working people hold merry-makings, and eat a sort of cakes they call ‘wigs,’ and drink ale. The tradition says it is in remembrance of a Queen Catharine; who, when the trade was dull, burnt all her lace, and ordered new to be made.[12]

Although A.A. asked readers who this Queen might have been, the topic went quiet in that journal until in 1868. Interest was revived then by a review in The Quarterly Review of Mrs Bury Palliser’s 1865 A History of Lace, in which the author claimed (and in this the reviewer was following Mrs Palliser’s lead) that:

Catherine of Aragon, according to tradition, introduced the art of making lace into Bedfordshire during her sojourn at Ampthill in 1531-33. She was a great adept in the arts of the needle. Until quite lately the lace-makers kept ‘Cattern’s-day’ as the holiday of their craft, in memory of the good Queen Catherine.[13]

On what authority did Mrs Bury Palliser make this statement, asked J.M. Cowper in Notes and Queries?[14] The several responses did not resolve that issue, but they did provide plenty of evidence for lacemakers ‘keeping Catterns’. For example, John Plummer, who originally came from Kettering, reported that the feast

is known to be kept, for several generations, throughout the whole of Northamptonshire lace-making districts, as well as in those of Bedfordshire. By some it is called ‘candle-day,’ from its forming the commencement of the season for working at lacemaking by candle-light.[15]

He reiterated the tradition that ‘Queen Katherine was a great friend to the lacemakers’, but suggested that instead of Catherine of Aragon, Catherine Parr was meant, because the Parrs were a Northamptonshire family. However later in the same month A.A. returned to the topic and reiterated his story, this time definitely identifying the lace-burning queen as Catherine of Aragon.[16]

Readers will have noticed that, so far, there is no reference to a saint in any of these lacemakers’ celebrations, only queens. Two different stories were told. The oldest, though how old we are uncertain, concerns a queen burning her lace in order to create more work for lacemakers. A ballad, claimed as traditional (though we have our doubts) was apparently sung at a Kattern Day revival in Marsh Gibbon in 1905:

Queen Katherine loved to deck with lace
The royal robes she wore;
But though she loved to wear her lace,
She loved the lace-folk more.
So now for good Queen Katherine’s sake
Put bones and sticks away,
And keep the yearly festival
And sing on ‘Kattern Day.’[17]

As one recent historian has written, this story encapsulates a feminine, utopian economy which completely denies the laws of supply and demand, and in which the great existed to provide work for the small, and ‘harmoniously brings together the otherwise separate processes of production and consumption.”’18]

The second story, crediting Queen Catherine of Aragon as the original teacher of lace in England, is slightly later in origin but far more widespread, as it was regularly repeated in newspaper accounts in the late nineteenth century, became the focus of W.I. lectures and pageants in the twentieth, and is now regularly repeated on the web. This continuing tradition owes everything to Mrs Palliser’s reputation as a reliable historian of lace, it has no basis in any oral tradition linking that queen with the genesis of the lace industry. Mrs Palliser inferred from rather vague lacemakers’ traditions concerning a ‘good queen who protected their craft’, that the art of lace-working, as it then existed, was first imparted to the peasantry of Bedfordshire, as a means of subsistence, through the charity of Katherine of Aragon.’[19] To return to J.M. Cowper’s question in Notes and Queries — on what authority had this claim been advanced — the answer is on no greater authority than Mrs Palliser’s romantic inference. However, her invention has proved enormously popular, for it invoked a tradition of royal patronage of lace that was, at the time, still vital to the trade.

 

Catherine of Aragon by Lucas Hornebolte. now in the collection of the Duke of Buccleuch (a Northamptonshire landowner; according to Rev Lindsay of Kettering, in the 1860s the then Duke of Buccleuch was responsible for promoting Katterns). From Wikipedia Commons.

Catherine of Aragon by Lucas Hornebolte, now in the collection of the Duke of Buccleuch (the dukes of Buccleuch were Northamptonshire landowners as well as Scottish aristocracy; according to Rev Lindsay of Kettering, in the 1860s the then Duke of Buccleuch was responsible for promoting Katterns in that town). From Wikipedia Commons.

 

 

We doubt that Catterns had a connection to any English queen; rather it was the continuation of a Catholic saint’s day feast in Protestant England. We cannot say when and where the tradition turned the saint into queen: it may have been a post-Reformation defensive measure, for it was permitted to celebrate royalty when Catholic saints had fallen into disrepute. However, it is worth pointing out that in the popular culture of Catholic Europe, Catherine was always imagined as a queen, or at least a princess. The first line of a song popular throughout Spain, France and Italy, and indeed much further afield, tells us that Catalina/Catherine/Caterina was a ‘hija de un rey’ (in Spanish), ‘fille d’un roi’ (in French), ‘figlia di un re’ (in Italian).[20] Sometimes she is specifically identified as the daughter of the king of Hungary; in all cases it is her father, not a Roman emperor, who is responsible for her martyrdom. And while Saint Catherine was not usually the named patron of European lacemakers, nonetheless European lacemakers knew and sang her story. For example, in an audio recording made by Jean Dumas in 1959, you can hear Virginie Granouillet, a seventy-year-old lacemaker from Roche-en-Régnier (Haute-Loire), accompanying her bobbins with a version of the song.[21]

 

Virginie Granouillet, lacemaker and singer of Roche-en-Régnier (Haute-Loire). The photo, c. 1960, was taken by the song collector Jean Dumas. Dumas' recordings of 178 of Virginie's songs, including 'Sainte Catherine', are now available online on http://patrimoine-oral.org/

Virginie Granouillet, lacemaker and singer of Roche-en-Régnier (Haute-Loire). The photo, c. 1960, was taken by the song collector Jean Dumas. Dumas’ recordings of 178 of Virginie’s songs, including ‘Sainte Catherine’, are now available online.

 

How did lacemakers ‘keep Catterns’? There are vague references to an earlier period when women dressed up in male attire and indulged in unfettered merry-making, including amorous (or violent) advances to passing men, a moment of female license, but we have no specific information.[22] The fullest description comes from Mrs Frederica Orlebar of Hinwick House, Podington (Bedfordshire) who wrote an account of an attempted revival in 1887 — which would form the template for further revivals in 1906 and 1937.[23] The Orlebars were landed gentry who had provided leadership to the county, as magistrates, M.P.s and masters of the hunt for several generations. Their patronage of the lace industry was part and parcel of this paternalistic concern for their tenants and electors. Catherine Channer used the manuscript ‘Orlebar Chronicles’ to write her 1900 account:

Cattern Tea.

In Podington and neighbouring villages the lacemakers have, within the memory of middle-aged people, ‘kept Cattern’, on December 6th – St. Catherine’s Day (Old Style).
I believe it was Catherine of Aragon who used to drink the waters of a mineral spring in Wellingborough, and who (as is supposed) introduced lace-making into Beds. The poor people know nothing of the Queen, only state that it was an old custom to keep ‘Cattern.’
The way was for the women to club together for a tea, paying 6d. apiece, which they could well afford when their lace brought them in 5s. or 6s. a week. The tea-drinking ceremony was called ‘washing the candle-block,’ but this was merely an expression. It really consisted in getting through a great deal of gossip, tea, and Cattern cakes – seed cakes of large size. Sugar balls went round as a matter of course. After tea they danced, just one old man whistling or fiddling for them, and ‘they enjoyed themselves like queens!
The entertainment ended with the cutting of a large apple pie, which they divided for supper. Their usual bedtime was about eight o’clock.[24]

This may be more staid than earlier celebrations, but some of the elements referred to here come up in other accounts too. The first is that it was a communal women’s festival: a man might provide the music but the lacemakers danced with each other. Money was pooled to provide food, drink and entertainment: rabbit or steak with onion sauce, followed by pies and cakes. Cattern pies — sometimes containing mincemeat, sometimes apples (as we have seen, Catterners collected apples) — might be arranged in the shape of a wheel, with partakers being offered a ‘spoke’.[25] Mrs Orlebar quoted a rhyme, apparently sung by the nightwatchman of Kettering, which made the pies the centrepiece of the celebration:

Rise, maids arise!
Bake your Cattern pies!
Bake enough, and bake no waste,
So that the old bell-man may have a taste!

Cattern cakes appear to be a different thing to a Cattern pie: the cakes come in various descriptions but the recipes almost always contain caraway seeds, which connects them to the ‘soul cakes’ consumed at Halloween in other parts of the country. The drink mentioned in connection with these festivities was methleglin, a honey mead termed ‘meytheagle’ in the Bedfordshire dialect.[26]

The term ‘washing’ or ‘wetting the candle-block’ explains why Plummer called this a ‘candle-day’. The holiday was not just the celebration of the patroness of lacemakers, it was the ritual marking of an important moment in the lacemakers’ year, for this was the day when candles, objects of enormous expense, could legitimately be used for evening work. These kind of candle feasts, opening and closing the period of neighbourly winter evening work gatherings, were quite common all over Europe. Among English lacemakers the closing day of the season appears to have been Candlemas (2 February), though it was not celebrated as much as Catterns.[27] This practice of working together to share light and heat also explains why Catterns was a communal feast. A candle-block provided light not for one lacemaker but many: a single candle would be mounted in the centre of several glass globes or flasks filled with snow-water, which would concentrate the light on the pillows of several lacemakers (the highest number of users of a single candle that we have so far encountered is eighteen!). But lacemakers did not only symbolically ‘wash’ the candleblock, they also leapt over it. According to John Aubrey, back in the 1680s, Oxfordshire girls (not specifically lacemakers) would ‘set a candle in the middle of the room in a candlestick, and then draw up their coats into the form of breaches [another hint at cross-dressing], and dance over the candle back and forth, with these words’:

The tailor of Biciter [Bicester] He has but one eye
He cannot cut a pair of green galagaskins
If he were to die.

Aubrey thought the custom was obsolete even in his time, but in fact the same game, and the same rhyme, have been recorded as late as 1910.[28]

Thomas Wright notes a different song being chanted by pupils jumping the candlestick in the lace schools at Wendover:

Wallflowers, Wallflowers, growing up so high,
All young maidens surely have to die;
Excepting Emma Caudrey, she’s the best of all.
She can dance and she can skip,
She can turn the candlestick.
Turn, turn, turn your face to the wall again[29]

Given the height of a lighted candle on a block players ran significant risks during this game. It is interesting to observe that even on holiday, lacemakers insist on the presence of death.

 

A lacemakers' candle block or 'flash stool', with central candle and four light condensing flasks or 'flashes'. This one is from Cowper and Newton Museum, Olney. Catterns and Tanders were 'candle days', the official beginning of the season of evening work by candlelight.

A lacemakers’ candle block or ‘flash stool’, with central candle and four light condensing flasks or ‘flashes’. This one is from Cowper and Newton Museum, Olney. Catterns and Tanders were ‘candle days’, the official beginning of the season of evening work by candlelight.

 

 

We can’t leave Catterns without giving a recipe for Cattern cakes. In 1948, Podington, Hinwick and Farndish Women’s Institute provided a recipe for the Cookery Book of Traditional Dishes which accompanied the ‘Home Produce Exhibition’.[30] We have not been able to track down a copy of this, so we have borrowed a recipe from the North Downs Lacemakers’ website[31]:

Ingredients

  • 9oz /275g self raising flour
  • ¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1 oz/25g currants
    2oz/50g ground almonds
  • 2 teaspoons caraway seeds
  • 7oz/200g caster sugar
  • 4oz/100g melted butter
  • 1 medium egg, beaten
  • A little extra sugar and cinnamon for sprinkling

 

Instructions

  • Sift the flour and cinnamon into a bowl and stir in currants, almonds, caraway seeds and sugar.
  • Add the melted butter and beaten egg, mix well to give a soft dough (add a little milk if too dry).
  • Roll out on a floured board into a rectangle, about 12×10 inches/30x25cm.
  • Brush the dough with water and sprinkle with the extra sugar and cinnamon.
  • Roll up like a swiss roll and cut into ¾ inch/2cm slices.
  • Place on a greased baking tray spaced well apart and bake for 10 minutes. Oven set at 200 degrees C /400 degrees F/Gas 6.
  • Cool on a wire rack.

We’ve tried it, and the results were very tasty, though they didn’t look as much like Catherine Wheels as we had intended.

 

A sampling of David's Cattern cakes. They were quite popular.

A sampling of David’s Cattern cakes. They were quite popular.

 

 

[1] See Ann Monjaret’s wonderful study, La Sainte Catherine: Culture festive dans l’entreprise (Paris, 1997).

[2] Robert Gibbs refers to an entry in the Aylesbury overseers’ accounts for 1672: A Historyof Aylesbury with the Borough and Hundreds, The Hamlet of Walton, and The Electoral Division. Aylesbury, Bucks Advertiser, 1885

[3] A. R. Wright, British Calendar Customs, ed. T. E. Lones, (Folk-Lore Society, 1936), iii. 108, 144. The tune, presumably, is ‘A begging we will go’. Pete Castle recorded a version of the song on the album ‘False Waters’. See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ABjMfqjl2pQ

[4] James Orchard Halliwell-Phillipps, Popular Rhymes and Nursery Tales of England (London, 1849) p. 238. For a map of ‘Catterning’ in the West Midlands See Charlotte S. Burne. ‘Souling, Clementing, and Catterning. Three November Customs of the Western Midlands’, Folk-Lore 25:3 (1914), p. 285.

[5] William Douglas Parish, A Dictionary of the Sussex Dialect and Collection of Provincialisms in Use in the County of Sussex (Lewes, 1875), p.25: ‘Catterning’.

[6] Margaret Baker. Folklore and Customs of Rural England (Newton Abbot, 1974), p. 132.

[7] A.J.M. ‘Catherine Hill in Surrey’, Notes and Queries 7th series II, 14 August 1886.

[8] Walter Rose, Good Neighbours. Some Recollections of an English Village and its People, Cambridge UP, 1943, pp. 131-5 (based on his experiences in Haddenham, Bucks). Fred Hamer recorded the same usage in Bedfordshire, though the ‘Folk Play Distribution Map: Actors’ Names’ on Peter Millington’s Master Mummers Website suggests it was quite rare even in this region: http://www.mastermummers.org/atlas/ActorsNames.php?maptype=outline&go=Go+%3E%3E

[9] Cambridge Independent Press, Saturday 8 December 1860.

[10] Peterborough Advertiser, 13 December 1879.

[11] Charles Lamotte, An Essay upon Poetry and Painting, with Relation to the Sacred and Profane History (London, 1730), p. 126.

[12] A.A., ‘Lace-Makers’ Custom: Wigs, A Sort of Cake’, Notes and Queries 3rd series I, 17 May, 1862, p. 387.

[13]History of Lace, by Mrs Bury Palliser’, review in The Quarterly Review 125 (July-Oct., 1868): pp. 166-188, p. 168.

[14] J.M. Cowper, ‘Cattern’s Day’, Notes and Queries 4th series II, 29 August, 1868, p. 201.

[15] John Plummer, ‘Kattern’s Day’, Notes and Queries 4th series II. 3 October, 1868., p. 333.

[16] A.A. ‘Kattern’s Day’, Notes and Queries 4th series II, 17 October, 1868, p. 377.

[17] Buckingham Advertiser and Free Press, Saturday 2 December 1905.

[18] Elaine Freedgood, ‘“Fine Fingers”: Victorian Handmade Lace and Utopian Consumption’, Victorian Studies 45 (2003), p. 637.

[19] Fanny Bury Palliser, A History of Lace (2nd edition: London, 1869), p. 326.

[20] The Pan-Hispanic Ballad Project lists 42 versions of IGRH song-type 0126 ‘Santa Catalina’ https://depts.washington.edu/hisprom/optional/balladaction.php?igrh=0126 ; the Coirault catalogue of French folk songs likewise lists numerous versions of song-type 8906 ‘Le martyre de sainte Catherine’; there is no equivalent Italian catalogue of folk-songs, but it is quite a common children’s song: in our experience all Italians know of it.

[21] http://patrimoine-oral.org/dyn/portal/index.seam?aloId=15575&page=alo&fonds=3

[22] Christina Hole. A Dictionary of British Folk Customs. Hutchinson, 1976

[23] Northampton Mercury, Friday 14 December 1906; Northampton Mercury, Friday 26 February 1937.

[24] Catherine C. Channer and Margaret E. Roberts, Lace-making in the Midlands, Past and Present (London, 1900), pp. 70-71.

[25] A recipe is offered in Joanna Bogle, A Book of Feasts and Seasons (Leominster, 1992).

[26] ‘Wetting the Candleblock’, Bedfordshire Mercury, Friday 13 December 1912.

[27] Thomas Wright, The Romance of the Lace PillowOlney, Bucks: H.H. Armstrong, 1919, p. 202.

[28] James Orchard Halliwell-Phillipps, Popular Rhymes and Nursery Tales: A Sequel to the Nursery Rhymes of England (London, 1849), p.231, quoting from the manuscript of Aubrey’s Remaines of Gentilisme and Judaisme; Arthur R. Wright and T.E. Lones, British Calendar Customs: England (London, 1940), vol. 3, p. 178.

[29] Thomas Wright, The Romance of the Lace Pillow (Olney, 1919), p. 195. Obviously the name used depends on the player. A similar rhyme was recorded by Fred Hamer at Biddenham in Bedfordshire.

[30] ‘Women’s Institutes. Traditional Dishes for National Exhibition. Bedfordshire’s Contributions’, Bedfordshire Times and Independent, Friday 24 September 1948

[31] http://www.northdownslacemakers.org.uk/features/2007/catterns-day.php A very similar recipe is provided in Julia Jones and Barbara Deer, Cattern Cakes and Lace: A Calender of Feasts (London, 1987).

Exhibition of lace at Whitchurch Silk Mill, Hampshire

‘Lace is More: New Ways of Lacemaking’

Thanks to the Isis lacemakers for alerting us to this. There is a lace exhibition running at the Whitchurch Silk Mill from 6 October 2015 to 3 January 2016. Whitchurch Silk Mill is located between Newbury and Winchester in Hampshire, and is open from Tuesday to Sunday, 10:30 – 17:00. We don’t know what there will be to see, but we’re assuming silk lace will be pretty important. There will also be demonstrations of lacemaking: a programme is available on the Whitchurch Silk Mill website. Mill admission fees apply: adults £4.50, seniors £4.00, children £2.50.

www.whitchurchsilkmill.org.uk

Tel: 01256 892065

Lacemakers’ Songs: A Short Film, Mostly in French

Although we asserted a link between lacemaking and singing in our last post, we don’t have any audio of English lacemakers singing while working which we can share with you (though we’re always hopeful of finding some).  In Belgium and France, and especially the Velay region of the Auvergne, the connection between lacemaking and singing is even better attested, and you can listen as well as read some songs from these regions.

Images: A panorama of Le-Puy-en-Velay, dominated by its statue of the Virgin Mary. (Licensed under CC BY-SA 1.0 via Wikipedia Commons)

Images: A panorama of Le-Puy-en-Velay, dominated by its statue of the Virgin Mary. (Licensed under CC BY-SA 1.0 via Wikipedia Commons)

The Velay (Haute-Loire) was the predominant region for lacemaking in France in the nineteenth century, and outposts of handmade lace manufacture, largely aimed at the tourist trade in Le Puy, could still be found right up to the 1990s (perhaps still).  In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries it was also a very important region for folksong collecting.  In the 1860s and ‘70s, Victor Smith, a judge from Saint-Etienne, transcribed hundreds of songs from lacemakers as they worked in groups in the street or under the shade of a tree (en couvige in dialect).  In the years running up to the First World War, the novelist Henri Pourrat would collect dozens more songs around his home town of Ambert (not in the Velay but in Puy-de-Dôme, but it might be considered an extension of the Velay lacemaking industry).  Later still, after the Second World War, the teacher Jean Dumas would tape hundreds of songs from lacemakers.  And there are many other audio recordings from the likes of Claudie Marcel-Dubois, Maguy Pichonnet-Andral, Pierre Chapuis and Didier Perre.  We may return to some of these in future posts.

However, in one case we have video as well as audio.  A short film, ‘Les dentellières de Montusclat’, was made for the French Institut national de l’audiovisuel (INA) in 1978, which you can see for yourself by clicking on the link.  It depicts three lacemakers, aged 75, 78 and 85, two of them sisters, chatting and singing while making lace in the mountain village of Montusclat, about thirty kilometres east of Le-Puy-en-Velay.  They tell the story of the village, its church, the passage of the plague through the region, and the legend of Notre-Dame de la Salette (a vision of the Virgin Mary who appeared to two children in 1846).  They also talk about lacemaking; they started at the trade when they very young, when earnings from lace were necessary to put clothes on their backs and food on the table.  Having become habituated to constant work they cannot sit idle; whenever they have a moment they are back at their pillows.  And they are still earning a bit of money (one franc an hour!).  When talking to each other at the beginning of the film (when the eldest is seen urging the others on to “Work! Work!”) the women speak in the Occitan dialect of the region, but when talking to the filmmaker they speak in French.  They also sing in French.  Even when Victor Smith was collecting songs in the region over a hundred years previously, at a time when Occitan was far more dominant, lacemakers would often sing in French.  Singing was a cultural activity, and so deserved the ‘cultural’ rather than the ‘everyday’ language.

A French popular lithograph of Saint François Régis. (Image from the Wellcome Trust via Wikipedia Commons.)

A French popular lithograph of Saint François Régis. (Image from the Wellcome Trust via Wikipedia Commons.)

Lacemakers’ songs from the Velay share some of the characteristics of those discussed in our post on ‘Sir Hugh’ and ‘Long Lankin’.  There is a marked taste for long narrative songs, often with rather grisly content.  In addition, in the Velay religious songs make up a substantial proportion of lacemakers’ repertoire.  However, the song in this video is a bit cheerier, even though we only get to hear the first verse and the chorus.  We provide the text of the full song below and a (rough) translation:

 

Sur mon carreau, je fais de la dentelle,
Dés le matin jusqu’à la fin du jour.
De mon carreau, la garniture est belle;
Rubans, velours le bordent tout autour.
Petit fuseau,
Babille,
Sautille
Petit fuseau:
Autour de mon carreau.Sur le devant, sous une blanche écaille,
De Saint Régis, on peut voir le portrait;
C’est grâce à lui, dit-on, que je travaille,
Sous d’autres saints le pourtour disparaît.

Tous les fuseaux, comme des militaires,
Sont alignés autour de nos carreaux;
Puis les meneurs viennent prendre les paires,
Les dirigeant comme des caporaux.

Et, vrais pantins pendus à leur ficelle,
Tous ces fuseaux sautillent en chantant,
Sous les dix doigts de dame ou demoiselle,
Courant toujours, sans perdre un seul instant.

C’est tout autour d’une roue à fortune,
Que le dessin s’enroule et se maintient;
Et chaque fil, de couleur blonde ou brune,
Y vient trouver l’épingle qui le tient.

De ses deux mains, l’agile dentellière
Fait manoeuvrer l’épingle ou le fuseau;
Et lentement, une journée entière,
Voit s’allonger le bout de son réseau.

Mais que ce soit du lin ou de la laine,
L’or ou l’argent, la soie ou le coton,
Tout s’assouplit, se débrouille sans peine,
Et reproduit le dessin du carton.

Et l’on obtient guipure ou valenciennes,
Russe, alençon, torchon, trenne ou cluny,
Les fonds nouveaux et les mailles anciennes,
Tout est possible en dentelle du Puy.

Avec les mains, la langue, aussi, travaille,
On prie, on chante, on dit son petit mot,
Sur l’oeil voisin, dont on cherche la paille,
Et du pied droit, on berce le marmot.

On my pillow I make lace
From morning till the end of the day.
The decoration of my pillow is beautiful;
It is bordered on all sides by ribbons and velvet.
Little bobbin
chatter, skip
Little bobbin
Around my pillow.On the front, under a white slip
You can see the portrait of Saint Régis;
They say it’s thanks to him that I can work
The surround disappears under other saints.

All the bobbins, like soldiers,
Are lined up around our pillows;
Then the leaders come and take each pair
And direct them like corporals.

 

And just like puppets on a string,
All the bobbins dance while singing
Under the ten fingers of a lady or a girl
Always moving, never losing an instant.

 

It’s all around a wheel of fortune
That the design unfurls and is held up;
And each thread, whether light or dark,
There finds the pin that will fix it.

With her two hands the agile lacemaker
manages the pin or the bobbin;
And slowly, over the whole day
You’ll see the end of her net increase.

Whether it’s of linen or wool
Gold or silver, silk or cotton,
Everything softens, is handled without difficulty,
And reproduces the design on the card.

And thus one obtains guipure or valenciennes
Russian, alençon, torchon
, trenne or cluny,
Whether new collections or old stitches
Everything is possible in Le Puy lace.

While the hands work, so does the tongue,
We pray, we sing, we each say our piece,
We look for the mote in our neighbour’s eye
And with the right foot, we rock the baby.

The words were composed sometime before 1904 by ‘A. de la Demi-Aune’ (a demi-aune is a measure 60 centimetres in length used for lace), the pseudonym of Hippolyte Achard (born 1842), one of the leading lace manufacturers of Le Puy: a manuscript memoir of his life and the lace business is preserved in the Municipal Library of the city.  The music was by Marius Versepuy (1882-1972).  At the beginning of the century Achard was very active in the defence of home-made (or to use the contemporary term, ‘true’ lace) against machine-made ‘false’ lace.  Given the impossibility of competing on price, manufacturers and patrons emphasized the moral virtues of home-made lace, which kept women at home, under the eyes of the Catholic Church (even though Achard himself was somewhat anticlerical in his politics) while looking after their children, in comparison to the urban depravity and promiscuity that faced women moving into the factories.  Thus home-made lace repelled the twin fears of rural depopulation and racial degeneracy.  These themes are lightly invoked in the song.

Lacemakers working together ‘en couvige’ near Goudet (Haute-Loire). (From Wikipedia Commons.)

Lacemakers working together ‘en couvige’ near Goudet (Haute-Loire). (From Wikipedia Commons.)

Essentially, then, this is a propaganda piece.  Yet it quite rapidly spread among lacemakers themselves, so that even by the First World War its origins had been forgotten and it became part of lacemakers’ repertoire.  Perhaps the reason is that it was clearly by someone who knew the trade.  Lacemakers in the Velay did decorate their pillows with images of saints, especially the patron saint of the Le Puy lace industry, Saint François Régis; the design was pinned to a roller; réseau is the word used for net…  But in addition it articulates something which is often denied by historians of labour to such women — isolated in their homes and working at piece-rates — which is a sense of a collective, occupational identity and pride in their craft.

 

Further reading:

Hippolyte Achard, ‘La Dentelle du Puy pendant un demi-siècle, 1842-1892’, manuscript 130 res., Bibliothèque municipale du Puy-en-Velay.

‘Les Fuseaux!’ Chanson vellavo, paroles de Hippolyte Achard, musique de Marius Versepuy (Paris: Heugel, 1907).

Victor-Eugène Ardouin-Dumazet, Voyage en France 34: Velay — Bas Vivarais — Gévaudan (Paris: Berger-Levrault, 1904), pp. 63-4.

Georges Dubouchet, Les fées aux doigts magiques.  Au pays de la ‘Reine des Montagnes’ (Saint-Didier-en-Velay; Musée de Saint-Didier-en-Velay, 2010).

David Hopkin, Voices of the People in Nineteenth-Century France (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), chap. 6: ‘The Visionary World of the Vellave Lacemaker’.

Louis Lavastre,  Dentellières et dentelles du Puy.  Thèse pour le doctorat, soutenue devant la faculté de droit de l’université de Paris, 8 juin 1911, (Le Puy: Peyriller, Rouchon et Gamon, 1911.

John F. Sweets, ‘The Lacemakers of Le Puy in the Nineteenth Century’, in Daryl M. Hafter, European Women and Preindustrial Craft (Bloomington IN: Indiana University Press, 1995).

 

Lacemakers’ Songs: The Ballads of ‘Sir Hugh’ and ‘Long Lankin’

In the journal Notes and Queries for 22 August 1868 there appeared the following request from the Shakespearean scholar Sidney Beisly (author of Shakespere’s Garden, among other things):

“The song we had last night.
Mark it, Cesario, it is old and plain:
The spinsters and the knitters in the sun,
And the free maids, that weave their thread with bones,
Do use to chant it.”
Twelfth Night, Act II, Sc. 4.

I should like to know if any of the songs which the lacemakers of times past sung are in existence, and where they are to be found.  Am I right in believing that the free maids, noticed by Shakespeare in the above passage, were lacemakers?  Any information on this subject will oblige

Over the next few months we intend to do our best to belatedly satisfy his interest, but we’ll start with the articles in Notes and Queries which prompted and responded to Beisly’s letter.  In its nineteenth-century heyday, Notes and Queries was a meeting point for antiquarians, literacy scholars and budding folklorists.  In fact the term folk-lore was coined in 1846 by the journal’s founding editor, William Thoms.  In 1868, folksong collecting was not an established field of endeavour in England, unlike Scotland.  The first English folk-song revival would have to wait for the turn of the century.  But there were a few Victorian enthusiasts connected by journals like Notes & Queries, and of course the Shakespearean reference helped, for it provided folk-songs with their letter of literary nobility.  Who could dismiss what the bard himself had deigned to notice?

There are two elements of Shakespeare’s depiction that are borne out by these nineteenth-century correspondents.  Firstly, lacemakers had an established taste for old songs, even at the beginning of the seventeenth century when the trade was relatively new in England.  Secondly, they had a penchant for the tragic and ghoulish, for the song the Feste sings in response to Duke Orsino’s injunction, starts:

Come away, come away, death,
And in sad cypress let me be laid….

We would hazard that the clown’s song is but the last two verses of a longer narrative ballad, but if so we have not been able to discover which one.  However, it was just such ballads — narrative in structure, presumed old in date, heart-rending in content — that excited the interest of nineteenth-century song collectors.

Most of the information on lacemakers’ songs in Notes and Queries precedes Beisly’s intervention.  In the edition of 4 July 1868 ‘J.L.C’ of Hanley Staffordshire inserted the following note (We have not been able to identify J.L.C., presumably he was not the genealogist Joseph Lemanuel Chester, a regular contributor under these initials, as he grew up in America):

A LACEMAKER’S SONG.  — When I was a child, rising six years, my Northamptonshire nurse used to sing the following ditty to me as she rattled her bobbins over her lace-pillow:

“It rains, it rains in merry Scotland;
It rains both great and small,
And all the schoolboys in merry Scotland
Must needs to play at ball.
They tost their balls so high, so high,
They tost their balls so high,
The tost them over the Jews’ castel,
The Jews they lay so low.
The Jews came up to Storling Green:
‘Come hither, come hither, you young sireen,
And fetch your ball again.’
‘I will not come, and I dare not come
Without my schoolfellows all,
For fear I should meet my mother by the way,
And cause my blood to fall.’
She showed him an apple as green as grass,
She gave him a sugar-plum sweet;
She laid him on the dresser board,
And stuck him like a sheep.
‘A Bible at my head, my mother,
A Testament at my feet;
And every corner you get at
My spirit you shall meet.’”

This is a version of the Ballad of ‘Sir Hugh’, or ‘The Jew’s Daughter’ (Child 155, Roud 73, for the folk-song aficionados), an example of the anti-Semitic accusation of ritual murder which, it appears, originated in medieval England before spreading to Europe and beyond with horrific consequences, unfortunately not altogether relegated to the past.  But for the moment we will concern ourselves only with the ballad, which tends to emphasise the murder rather than the ritual part of the story, as it was sung by lacemakers.

Thomas Percy’s 1765 Reliques of Ancient English Poetry, is the earliest source for the ballad ‘Sir Hugh’ (from Wikipedia Commons).

Thomas Percy’s 1765 Reliques of Ancient English Poetry, is the earliest source for the ballad ‘Sir Hugh’ (from Wikipedia Commons).

Lacemakers plural, because J.L.C.’s was not the first version of ‘The Ballad of Sir Hugh’ to appear in Notes and Queries.  In the edition of 15 October 1853, C. Clifton Barry had asked “Why does not some one write a Minstrelsy of the Midland Counties”, before observing that the material was just as rich, and oddly akin to the ballads of Scotland (which were far better known even south of the border, thanks to the publishing endeavours of Walter Scott, James Hogg, William Motherwell, David Herd, Peter Buchan and many others).  This Scottish tincture he had noticed in Gloucestershire and Warwickshire in versions of the drunken cuckold song ‘Our Goodman’ (Child 274, Roud 144) and the infanticide ballad ‘The Cruel Mother’ (Child 20, Roud 9).  In response ‘B.H.C.’ (almost certainly Benjamin Harris Cowper, a biblical scholar, born in Wellingborough in 1822) wrote in on 24 December 1853 with the following:

THE BALLAD OF SIR HUGH, ETC.

The fact mentioned by your correspondent C. CLIFTON BARRY, at p. 357., as to the affinity of Midland songs and ballads to those of Scotland, I have often observed, and among the striking instances of it which could be adduced, the following may be named, as well known in Northamptonshire:

“It rains, it rains, in merry Scotland;
It rains both great and small;
And all the schoolfellows in merry Scotland
Must needs go and play at ball.

“They tossed the ball so high, so high,
And yet it came down so low;
They tossed it over the old Jew’s gates,
And broke the old Jew’s window.

“The old Jew’s daughter she came out;
Was clothed all in green;
‘Come hither, come hither, thou young Sir Hugh,
And fetch your ball again.’

“‘I dare not come, I dare not come,
Unless my schoolfellows come all;
And I shall be flogged when I get home,
For losing of my ball.’

“She ‘ticed him with an apple so red,
And likewise with a fig:
She laid him on the dresser board,
And sticked him like a pig.

“The thickest of blood did first come out,
The second came out so thin;
The third that came was his dear heart’s blood,
Where all his life lay in.”

I write this from memory: it is but a fragment of the whole, which I think is printed, with variations, in Percy’s Reliques.  It is also worthy of remark, that there is a resemblance also between the words which occur in provincialisms in the same district, and some of those which are used in Scotland; e.g. whemble or whommel (sometimes not aspirated, and pronounced wemble), to turn upside down, as a dish.  This word is Scotch, although they do not pronounce the b any more than in Campbell, which sounds very much like Camel.

Remains of the shrine to ‘Little Saint Hugh’ at Lincoln Cathedral (from Wikipedia Commons).

Remains of the shrine to ‘Little Saint Hugh’ at Lincoln Cathedral (from Wikipedia Commons).

Cowper does not say that the singer was a lacemaker, but we can probably infer this from his later contributions to Notes and Queries.  For example, on 22 December 1855, he returned to this ballad:

THE BALLAD OF SIR HUGH.

In Vol. viii., p. 614., six verses of this ballad will be found contributed by myself.  In replay to inquiries since made, I have received six verses and a half additional.  I copy these from the original MS. of “an old lacemaker, who obliged me with these lines,” as my informant says.  I have corrected errors of orthography and arrangement.  For the sake of the variations I copy the whole.

“It rains, it rains, in merry Scotland,
Both little, great and small;
And all the schoolfellows in merry Scotland
Must needs go and play at ball.

“They tossed the ball so high, so high,
With that it came down so low;
They tossed it over the old Jew’s gates,
And broke the old Jew’s window.

“The old Jew’s daughter she came out;
Was clothed all in green.
‘Come hither, come hither, you young Sir Hugh,
And fetch your ball again.’

“‘I dare not come, nor will I come,
Without my schoolfellows come all;
And I shall be beaten when I go home,
For losing of my ball.’

“She ‘ticed him with an apple so red,
And likewise with a fig:
She threw him over the dresser board,
And sticked him like a pig.

“The first came out the thickest of blood,
The second came out so thin;
The third that came the child’s heart-blood,
Where’er his life lay in.

“‘O spare my life! O spare my life!
O spare my life!’ said he:
‘If ever I live to be a young man,
I’ll do as good chare for thee.

“‘I’ll do as good chare for thy true love
As ever I did for the King;
I will scour a basin as bright as silver,
To let your heart-blood run in.’

“When eleven o’clock was past and gone,
And all the schoolfellows came home,
Every mother had her own child,
But young Sir Hugh’s mother had none.

“She went up Lincoln and down Lincoln,
And all about Lincoln street,
With her small wand in her right hand,
Thinking of her child to meet.

“She went till she came to the old Jew’s gate,
She knocked with the ring;
Who should be so ready as th’ old Jew herself
To rise and let her in.

“‘What news, fair maid? what news, fair maid?
What news have you brought me?’
.           .           .           .           .           .           .
.           .           .           .           .           .           .

“‘Have you seen any of my child to-day,
Or any of the rest of my kin?’
‘No, I’ve seen none of your child to-day,
Nor none of the rest of your kin.’”

I am very anxious to complete this ballad from Northamptonshire; and I again renew my request that some of your correspondents will endeavour to supply what is deficient.  The “old lacemaker” would have given more, but she could not.  The pure Saxon of this ballad is beautiful.

Cowper got no answer to his request until J.L.C.’s entry in 1868 jogged the memory of Edward Peacock (1831-1915) of Bottesford Manor, near Lincoln.  He supplied a full version of the ballad from a Mr W.C. Atkinson of Brigg, Lincolnshire (who had previously published it in The Athenaeum of 19 January 1867, though whether he heard it or discovered a manuscript or print version is not clear).  This fills in some of the elements of the narrative: the mother calls her son and his body miraculously speaks, enabling her to find it hidden in a “deep draw-well.”  In other versions bells ring and books read themselves as the body is transported.  Peacock explained in his article that the ballad bears some relation to  events that occurred in 1255 in Lincoln, when the Jews of that city were accused of the ritual murder of a Christian boy, Hugh son of Beatrice, the future ‘Little Saint Hugh of Lincoln’.  Nineteen members of the Jewish community would be executed in consequence.  The story occurs in three contemporary chronicles, as well as in an Anglo-Norman ballad, and would be referred to in Chaucer’s ‘The Prioress’s Tale’.  It is only one of several medieval child saint legends of a related kind (William of Norwich, Robert of Bury St Edmunds, Harold of Gloucester…).  Yet while the story was old, there is no record of this particular ballad text until Thomas Percy printed a copy, supposedly from a Scottish manuscript, in his Reliques of Ancient English Poetry: Consisting of Old Heroic Ballads, Songs, and Other Pieces of our Earlier Poets (1765).  Thereafter, the ballad has been recorded frequently, in Scotland, England, Ireland and the United States; it has 295 entries in the Roud Folksong Index, the source of the Roud numbers given in this article (and available online at the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library a mine of information on everything related to folk music).  The modern ballad differs considerably from the medieval saints’ legends, not least in the primary role played by a woman as siren and murderer.

Lacemakers continued to sing this song while making lace well into the later nineteenth century, for Thomas Wright (1859-1936) of Olney, in The Romance of the Lace Pillow (1919) recorded versions from Weston-under-Wood and Haddenham, both in Buckinghamshire, which were used as lace tells in the lace schools.  This is the text of one he gave in full.

THE JEWESS MAIDEN.
There was a Jewess maiden, or so my story states,
Who beckoned to a little boy who peeped between her gates.
An apple so red, a plum so sweet, she gave him from her tree;
She dazzled his eyes with a garry gold ring that was so fair to see.
And when she got him in the gates she laughed, he knew not why,
And uttered many wicked words and told him he must die.
She laid him on the dresser board, no mercy then she showed,
But stabbed him with a knife and stabbed until the life-blood flowed.

Wright emphasised that lacemakers’ songs and tells, particularly those from Buckinghamshire, “abound in allusions to coffins, shrouds, corpses, bones, lightning flashes, sardonic laughter, hyena-like cries, and other lurid, gruesome, clammy or grizzly terrors”.  The next lacemakers’ song to appear in Notes and Queries makes his point very aptly.

Thomas Wright, schoolteacher and writer of Olney, Buckinghamshire (from Olney and District Historical Society website).

Thomas Wright, schoolteacher and writer of Olney, Buckinghamshire (from Olney and District Historical Society website).

J.L.C.’s reference to the ballad of ‘Sir Hugh’ prompted Cowper to return to the theme of lacemakers’ songs in Notes and Queries of 19 September 1868.

LACEMAKERS’ SONGS: “LONG LANKIN.”

Forty years ago, when in Northamptonshire, I used to hear the lacemakers sing the now well-known ballad of “Hugh of Lincoln” (“It rains, it rains,” etc.)  Another, which I have never seen in print, but which I happen to have in MS., is “Long Lankin,” of which I send a copy.  Like the damsels whom Shakespeare represents as “chanting” the song which the Clown proceeds to sing (in Twelfth Night, Act II., c. 4), the equally “free maids” of my childhood’s days often chanted, rather than sung, as they sat in rows “in the sun” or in the “lace-school,” an institution which is perhaps effete.  But Shakespeare’s lacemakers made “bone lace,” and not “bobbin lace,” with which only I am acquainted.  I could perhaps remember some few other ditties which the lacemakers used to sing, though my impression is that they were often mere childish nursery rhymes like “Sing a song of sixpence.” Such probably was one which began in this way:
“I had a little nutting-tree,
And nothing would it bear
But little silver nutmegs
For Galligolden fair”
of which I recollect no more, but that, as a little boy, I used to tell them to say “nutmeg-tree,” which they obstinately refused to do.  By-the-way, there was a long piece about “Death and the Lady,” which the “free maids” used to chant.  This exhausts my present reminiscences so I shall proceed to give you “Long Lankin”: —

“Said my lord to his lady as he got on his horse.
‘Take care of Long Lankin, who lives in the moss.’
Said my lord to his lady as he rode away,
‘Take care of Long Lankin who lives in the clay.
The doors are all bolted, and the windows are pinned,
There is not a hole where a mouse can creep in.’
Then he kissed his fair lady as he rode away;
For he must be in London before break of day.
The doors were all bolted, the windows all pinned,
But one little window where Lankin crept in.
‘Where’s the lord of this house?’ said Long Lankin.
‘He is gone to fair London,’ said the false nurse to him.
‘Where’s the lady of this house?’ said Long Lankin.
‘She’s in her high chamber,’ said the false nurse to him.
‘Where’s the young heir of this house?’ said Long Lankin.
‘He’s asleep in his cradle,’ said the false nurse to him.
‘We’ll prick him, we’ll prick him all over with a pin,
And that will make your lady come down to him.’
They pricked him, they pricked him all over with a pin,
And the false nurse held a basin for the blood to drop in.
‘O nurse! How you sleep, and O nurse how you snore!
You leave my son Johnson to cry and to roar!’
‘I’ve tried him with suck, and I’ve tried him with pap;
Come down, my fair lady, and nurse him in your lap:
I’ve tried him with apple, and I’ve tried him with pear;
Come down, my fair lady and nurse him in your chair.’
‘How can I come down, it’s so late in the night,
And there’s no fire burning, or lamp to give light?’
‘You have three silver mantles as bright as the sun;
Come down, my fair lady, all by the light of one.’
‘Oh! spare me, Long Lankin, spare me till twelve o’clock!
You shall have as much money as you can carry on your back.
Oh! spare me, Long Lankin, spare me one hour!
You shall have my daughter Nancy, she is a sweet flower.’
‘Where is your daughter Nancy? she may do some good;
She can hold the golden basin to catch your heart’s blood.’
Lady Nancy was sitting in her window so high,
And she saw her father as he was riding by:
‘O father! O father! don’t lay the blame on me;
It was the false nurse and Lankin who killed your lady.’
Then Lankin was hung on a gallows so high,
And the false nurse was burnt in a fire close by.”

To the best of my recollection this copy is not quite complete, and it was sung with occasional ad libitum variations, as “Sally” or “Betsy” for Nancy.  It is probable that inquiry in the lace-making districts would produce copies of other old ballads.

A mid-late nineteenth-century broadside of ‘Death and the Lady’ printed by G. Henson of Northampton (from Broadside Ballads Online, Bodleian Libraries)

A mid-late nineteenth-century broadside of ‘Death and the Lady’ printed by G. Henson of Northampton (from Broadside Ballads Online, Bodleian Libraries)

Readers will probably be familiar with ‘I had a little nut tree, nothing would it bear’ (Roud 3749).  ‘Death and the Lady’ (Roud 1031) was a commonly encountered ballad — or rather ballads, for there are a number of different texts that share a very similar theme.  It had often appeared on broadsides from the seventeenth century onwards, and was framed as a dialogue between a fine lady and Death, in which the certainty of the grave, and the judgement beyond, is gradually forced on the former.  The final verse in the version supplied by Lucy Broadwood’s English Traditional Songs and Carols (1908) returns us to subtitle of this website:

The grave’s the market place where all must meet
Both rich and poor, as well as small and great;
If life were merchandise, that gold could buy,
The rich would live — only the poor would die.

‘Long Lankin’ (Child 93, Roud 6) had also previously appeared in Notes and Queries for 25 October 1856, when M.H.R. asked for information about the ballad ‘Long Lankyn’ “which is derived by tradition from the nurse of an ancestor of mine who heard it sung nearly a century ago in Northumberland”.  Lankin (or Lamkin, or Lammikin, or Beaulampkins, or Lambert Linkin, or Bold Rankin… he goes by many names) is a particularly ghoulish ballad, frequently recorded in the English (and Scots) speaking world.  In longer versions of the ballad the eponymous villain is a mason who builds a castle for a nobleman, who subsequently forgets to pay his bills.  Perhaps because of its brutality, commentators have often speculated on a medieval origin, but in fact the earliest recorded version, ‘Long Longkin’ was noted from one of his female parishioners by the Reverend Parsons of Wye, near Ashford in Kent, and sent to Thomas Percy of Reliques fame in 1775.  Another version appeared the following year in the second edition of David Herd’s Ancient Scottish Songs, Heroic Ballads etc.

Neither ‘Sir Hugh’ nor ‘Long Lankin’ were only, or even primarily, sung by lacemakers.  There were part of the common ballad culture of the English and Scots speaking world in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, if not before.  It may be worth mentioning that Thomas Percy, who wrote Reliques of Ancient English Poetry while vicar of Easton Maudit in Northamptonshire, close to local centres of lace-making, nonetheless never mentions the penchant of lacemakers for old songs.  However, there are some good reasons why the contributors to Notes and Queries should associate these type of songs specifically with lacemakers.  The practice of singing while lacemaking was noted by several commentators after Shakespeare.  For instance, Thomas Sternberg (probably Vincent Thomas, 1831-1880, who grew up in Northampton and was later librarian of Leeds Library), in his The Dialect and Folk-Lore of Northamptonshire (1851) wrote under the entry ‘Lace-Songs’ that “Lace making is almost always accompanied with singing”.  One might imagine that before machines drowned out the human voice and commercial recorded music became ubiquitous that practically all work, and many other human activities, were accompanied by song.  However, from the evidence available, this was not the case.  Some occupations in England were frequently associated with singing — they include carters and shoemakers, as well as Shakespeare’s trio of spinners, knitters and lacemakers — but no such association was made with carpenters, blacksmiths or dressmakers.  This is not to say that there were not melodious blacksmiths or lyrical carpenters, but that singing was not commonly thought to be an inherent part of their work.  A blacksmith’s repertoire would be individual, whereas lacemakers’ was an expression of their collective identity.  Hence Sternberg use of the term of “lace-songs”, he associated with this manufacture.  Lacemaking was not so arduous that it prevented the simultaneous use of the lungs, and as pillows were portable it was often done in company, so that singers had both an audience and an accompaniment.  And in lace schools, songs or “tells” were used as part of the training process, a topic we’ll return to in a later posting.  This occupational tradition explains why it was logical for Cowper to suggest that “inquiry in the lace-making districts would produce copies of other old ballads”.

Aranda Dill’s eerie illustration of ‘Long Lankin’ (from Tumblr).

Aranda Dill’s eerie illustration of ‘Long Lankin’ (from Tumblr).

But why these blood-soaked songs in particular?  Both ‘Sir Hugh’ and ‘Long Lankin’ are about the murder of a child, specifically the long drawn out death by blood letting.  And although the perpetrators might be punished, in lacemakers’ versions the emphasis is very much on the butchering of Hugh and Johnson rather than the retribution that might follow.  It is particularly striking that in three cases the contributors to Notes and Queries cited children’s nurses as their original source, especially so in the case of ‘Long Lankin’ where a treacherous nurse is the murderer’s accomplice.  Perhaps, like lullabies (think of ‘Rock-a-bye Baby’), these songs were a cathartic release of the repressed resentment felt by servants against the object of their attentions — weak but demanding, dependant but socially superior.  Mothers too could feel that children were burdens, a topic we’ll return to in a future posting about lacemakers and infanticide.  Is it possible that resentment also underlay lacemakers’ performances of ‘Sir Hugh’?  Lacemakers were frequently working ten-hour days, if not more, by the age of six: perhaps they were not that sympathetic towards schoolboys playing football.  Again it is worth noting that it is a male child who is killed, while in the case of ‘Long Lankin’ the female child survives.  We last see Nancy, or Sally, or Betsy, sitting at her window, exactly where, in contemporary descriptions, we find lacemakers working.  Perhaps the substitute names allowed different girls to express their own frustrations against their mothers, the person who had set them to lacemaking, and their siblings, and especially brothers whose situation, even if not petted and spoiled, was probably less restricted than lacemakers.

Gerald Porter argues that in lace tells “the theme of child death is implicit, and this relates it [the tell] to a large group of songs in which labor and early death are linked.”  Lacemakers sang about child death, while their own autonomy and even their health was being sapped by the very process in which they were engaged.  Singing at work is very much part of “the romance of the lace pillow”: the “free maids” sitting in the sun outside a cottage door; but the actual content of lacemakers’ repertoire of songs undercuts this idyll.  No doubt singing was a moment of freedom, of “fancy” (as some recent scholars of work-song express it), when imagination was allowed to wander in very different circumstances to those of lacemaker.  But in a culture where even looking up from the pillow might be punished, songs might also express a rage that could find no other outlet.

 

Further Reading: from Notes and Queries.

  1. Clifton Barry, ‘Notes on Midland County Minstrelsy’, Notes and Queries, 1st series VIII (October 1853), pp. 357-8.

B.H.C., ‘The Ballad of Sir Hugh, Etc.’, Notes and Queries, 1st series VIII (December 1853), p. 614.

B.H.C., ‘The Ballad of Sir Hugh.’, Notes and Queries, 1st series XII (December 1855), pp. 496-7.

J.L.C., ‘A Lacemakers’ Song’, Notes and Queries, 4th series II (July 1868), p. 8.

Edward Peacock, ‘A Lacemaker’s Song’, Notes and Queries, 4th series II (July, 1868), pp. 59-60.

Sidney Beisly, ‘Lacemakers’ Songs’, Notes and Queries, 4th series II (August 1868), p. 178

B.H. Cowper, ‘Lacemakers’ Songs: “Long Lankin”’, Notes and Queries, 4th series II (September 1868), p. 281.

 

Further Reading: other sources

Lucy Broadwood, English Traditional Songs and Carols (London, 1908).

Francis James Child, The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, 5 vols (Boston, 1882-1898).

Mary-Ann Constantine and Gerald Porter, Fragment and Meaning in Traditional Song: From the Blues to the Baltic, (Oxford, 2003), chap. II, ‘Singing the Unspeakable’.

Vic Gammon and Peter Sallybrass, ‘Structure and Ideology in the Ballad: An Analysis of “Long Lankin”’, Criticism: A Quarterly for Literature and the Arts 26:1 (1984), pp. 1-20.

Anne Gilchrist, ‘Lambkin: A Study in Evolution’, Journal of the English Folk Dance and Song Society 1:1 (1932), pp. 1-17.

David Gregory, Victorian Songhunters: The Recovery and Editing of English Vernacular Ballads and Folk Lyrics, 1820-1883 (Lanham, 2006).

Joseph Jacobs, ‘Little St. Hugh of Lincoln: Researches in History, Archaeology, and Legend’, reprinted in Alan Dundes (ed.) Blood Libel Legend: A Casebook in Anti-Semitic Folklore (Wisconsin, 1991), pp. 41-71.

Marek Korczynski, Michael Pickering and Emma Robertson, Rhythms of Labour: Music at Work in Britain, (Cambridge, 2013).

Gavin Langmuir, ‘The Knight’s Tale of Young Hugh of Lincoln’, Speculum 47:3 (1972), pp. 459-482.

Thomas Percy, Reliques of Ancient English Poetry: Consisting of Old Heroic Ballads, Songs and Other Pieces of our Earlier Poets (London, 1765).

Gerald Porter, ‘“Work the Old Lady out of the Ditch”: Singing at Work by English Lacemakers’, Journal of Folklore Research 31:1-3 (1994),pp. 35-55.

Emma Robertson, Michael Pickering and Marek Korczynski, ‘“And Spinning so with Voices Meet, Like Nightingales they Sung Full Sweet”: Unravelling Representations of Singing in Pre-Industrial Textile Production’, Cultural and Social History 5:1 (2008), pp. 11-31.

E.M. Rose, The Murder of William of Norwich: The Origins of the Blood Libel in Medieval Europe (Oxford, 2015).

Thomas Sternberg, The Dialect and Folk-lore of Northamptonshire (London, 1851).

James R. Woodall, ‘“Sir Hugh”: A Study in Balladry’, Southern Folklore Quarterly 19 (1955), pp. 78-84.

Thomas Wright, The Romance of the Lace Pillow (Olney, 1919), Chap XIV: ‘The Lace Tells and the Lace-Makers’ Holidays’.

 

Envisioning Lace at the Ashmolean

In a corner of the Ashmolean’s Textile exhibit hangs a rare portrait of a working lacemaker by the Danish painter Bernhard Keilhau (1624 – 1687). Dressed simply in a white shirt, plain open bodice, skirt and apron, she is depicted as working a large bolster pillow balanced on her lap, a scarf hastily tied around her head. Unusually for a portrait of a lacemaker, she is neither looking down at her work, nor at the viewer, but seems momentarily distracted by something or someone beyond the frame. A pupil of Rembrandt, Keilhau depicted the lacemaker as part of a larger composition of genre scenes which epitomised the five senses. Within this composition, the lacemaker is thought to be an allegory of sight[1].

The Lacemaker. Berhard Keilhau (1624 - 1687) WA1966.65 (c) The Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation.

The Lacemaker. Berhard Keilhau (1624 – 1687) WA1966.65 (c) The Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation.

Good eyesight is, of course, essential for any artisan. And yet, lace is profoundly connected to the visual in other way, too. First of all, it relies on the visual for its impact: what gives lace its particular material resonance is the manner in which it plays and manipulates the notion of surface, always begging the question whether it is the weave or the spaces in between which constitute the pattern. Lace is always partially concealing and partially revealing the surfaces it edges or covers. Secondly, because lace is such a delicate textile, visual sources are often the only way in which can study historical pieces. Along with pattern books, looking at paintings and portraits is our primary way to understand how fashions for lace changed over time, how lace was worn, and its visual impact as part of historical costume. Identifying and dating lace from visual sources, however, is never straightforward. Not only because painters often took some artistic license when portraying lace on garments, but because lace was often collected, inherited, and re-used on garments over time – even by the wealthy and the nobility. Seen through the subsequent fussiness of Victorian styles and 20th century machine-made laces, it is easy to forget that until well into the 18th century such fine laces were considered a form of transferable wealth on par with gold or gems.

As part of the Lace in Context project, David Hopkin and I became interested in understanding how lace is identified from visual materials, and what challenges this poses to scholars and collectors of lace. By bringing lace makers into the museum, we wanted to start a dialogue amongst practitioners, artists, and academics about how lace is portrayed in the visual arts, and how it might be ‘read’ back for purposes of identification. On the 7th of June, we invited Oxford’s Isis Lacemakers, as well as Gwynedd Roberts (Honorary Curator at the Lace Guild Museum) to view the Ashmolean’s collection of portraits. We were lucky enough to recruit the artist Teresa Whitfield to come and speak to us briefly about her work rendering lace in pen and ink, as well as to accompany us around the gallery. Tracing the way lace had been portrayed in portraiture across the European continent, we found not only varying approaches to depicting laces, but also a great difference in the importance artists from different countries and period gave lace in their portraits.

*

The British tradition of wearing and making bobbin lace can be traced back as far as the mid-16th century and was well-established by the reign of Elizabeth the First (Yallop 1992). The technique, however, is even older: the earliest known pattern books Le Pompe (1557) and Nüw Modelbuch, allerly Gattungen Däntelschnür (1561) were printed in Venice and Zürich, respectively, and point to Italy as the origin of the technique (Sciama 1992). From there, both the fashion for lace and the knowledge of its manufacture spread along trade routes from modern-day Switzerland to France, Flanders, and then across the channel to Britain. The fashion for large ruffs – well known from contemporary portraits of Queen Elizabeth – and then for copious amounts of lace neckties, collars, and cuffs worn by both men and women until the early 19th century, led to a real expansion in the production of lace throughout Europe. A beautiful example of lace from this early period can be seen in the portraits of the Tradescant family housed in the ‘Ark to Ashmolean’ exhibit in the Museum’s new lower ground floor. Painted over a number of years between 1630-1650s, they depict Hester Tradescant, the second wife of John Tradescant the Younger, and her stepchildren. A family of gardeners and garden designers to the nobility, the Tradescants amassed the collection of rarities which would later form the basis of the Ashmolean. Housed in their residence at Lambeth, affectionately known as the ‘Ark’, their cabinet of curiosities was open to the public for a fee[2].

Hester Tradescant and Stepson. Attributed to Thomas de Critz (1607-1653) WA1898.14

Hester Tradescant and Stepson. Attributed to Thomas de Critz (1607-1653) WA1898.14

Frances Tradescant. British Artist (c. 1638) WA 1898.17

Frances Tradescant. British Artist (c. 1638) WA 1898.17

Equally impressive are the lace ruffs and cuffs are found on two Dutch portraits from the same period exhibited as part of the Museum’s Dutch Art collection on the second floor. In one portrait by Jan Cornelisz Verspronck (1606-1662), a young woman in rich, black brocade is depicted wearing lace cuffs, a lace-lined ‘bertha’ covering her square décolletage, and an enormous ‘millstone’ ruff. Her hair is covered by a delicate matron’s cap edged with more lace. Standing out against the stark, black background of her dress, the abundance of lace not only framed and highlighted the only visible parts of her body (the hands, the face, and her chest), but – along with her fine gloves and massive gold bracelet – also underscored her high social standing. Even more striking is the neighbouring portrait of a wealthy middle-class woman from Haarlem. The portraits of the Tradescant family and this portrait from the Dutch Golden Age belong to a period when fashions for heavy, dark textiles, as well as standing collars and ruffs, demanded bold, often geometric needle and bobbin laces. Indeed, until the 18th century, it was the richer forms of Italian laces such as Venetian needlepoint and Milanese bobbin lace which dominated fashions until lighter needle laces from Argentan and Alençon in France, and bobbin laces from Binche, Valenciennes, and Mechlin in Fanders gained popularity both in Britain and on the Continent.

Portrait of a Lady. Jan Cornelisz Verspronck. (c.1606/9-1662) WA.2004.102

Portrait of a Lady. Jan Cornelisz Verspronck. (c.1606/9-1662) WA.2004.102

Two portraits in the Ashmolean reflect this change in fashions. The first is a portrait of woman by the French painter Jean-Francois de Troy (1679-1752). One of the leading history painters of the day, Le Troy is new best known for the series tableaux de modes, in which he accurately depicted the fashions and pastimes of the aristocracy (Casely et. al. 2004). The second is a portrait of a gentleman by the French painter Etienne Aubry (1745-17881) made in about the year 1777. Dressed in a dark, slim-cut coat fashionable for its time, and a scarlet waistcoat, the gentleman wears a wig and a simple cravat augmented by a slim lace frill. Both portraits show not only how radically fashions for laces changed, but also a fundamentally different approach to the visual depiction of lace by portrait artists: while the painters of the Dutch Golden Age took produced meticulous depictions of fat lace collars, cuffs, and ruffs, French painters of the 17th and 18th century preferred a far more impressionistic approach, using a few, light brushstrokes. This probably reflected both the different material nature of 18th century styles of lace, as well as a move towards intimacy, narrative, and sentimentalism in French art.

Portrait of a Gentleman. Etienne Aubry (1745-1781) WA 1986.76

Portrait of a Gentleman. Etienne Aubry (1745-1781) WA 1986.76

*

For the people portrayed in these pictures, however, the choice of what to lace to wear was not solely dictated by fashion. Bans on the import of foreign laces in England, France, Spain and other countries, show that even in the Early Modern period cloth, clothing, and fashion were seen as having the ‘power to materially articulate national identity’, leading anxieties about the economy to be ‘written over as a narrative of uncertainty and anxiety about national distinctions’ (Hentschell 2002:546). As a precious commodity, the trade and manufacture of lace was a subject of interest to parliament throughout the Early Modern period and the Restoration. Dealers of English lace competing with fine lace made in France, Belgium and Italy for customers appealed to consumers to buy with their patrimony in mind. Indeed, lace and lace manufacture became linked to civic patriotism precisely through appeals to the consumption habits of the nobility and the growing bourgeoisie. Thus, a Mrs. Dorothy Holt appealed to the ‘Ladies of Great Britain’ in a pamphlet of 1757 to ‘help circulate and distribute to the best Advantage, that Money which will arise from this their Native, English, Valuable and most Ornamental Manufacture; which will wear better than French point, Brussels lace, or Minonette’ (Holt 1757, emphasis in the original). Believing that the control of foreign trade was paramount to ensuring national prosperity, the Parliament imposed heavy import duties were imposed on foreign made lace in the 17th century and only lifted in 1860.

HoltLadies

By the start of the 18th Century, lace making had become a major rural industry in England. The fortunes of artisans and lace traders were not only determined by changing fashions and the fluctuating trade policies of Parliament, but also larger questions of foreign policy and power-shifts on the Continent itself. Characteristically, lace makers in England saw their wages rise when the French went to war: Lace makers in the East Midlands, for example, enjoyed relative prosperity during and after the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815) and the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871). Even in such periods of commercial success, however, only a minute portion of the overall profits of the trade ever made it into the hands of the lace makers themselves. From 19th century sources, we know that the reality of a lace maker’s life was often harsh: Working from home, women were often forced to work for 8 to 10 hours daily, as well as running the household. It was during this time, that earlier calls for the patriotic consumption of English lace and civic philanthropy towards lace makers were joined by the socialism of William Morris and Ruskinian celebrations of craft, which advocated the preservation of handicrafts believed to be disappearing under the pressures of industrial manufacturing. Both Morris and Ruskin shared what Peter Mandler (1997) has called an anti-establishment, ‘rural nostalgic’ view of Englishness, and sought to protect rural crafts from the encroachment of urban, industrial.

This passion for the simple authenticity of craft was shared by another mid-19th century artistic movement, namely the Pre-Raphaelites. In the Ashmolean’s Pre-Raphaelites gallery hangs a portrait of Mrs Coventry Patmore from about 1856. A wide band of lace graces her low neckline, gracefully accenting her pale, sloping shoulders which would have been highly fashionable at the time. Mrs Patmore was the wife of essayist and poet Coventry Patmore, an influential friend of the Pre-Raphaelites. Their marriage was the subject of Patmore’s popular series of poems ‘The Angel in the House’; a phrase which has now come to encapsulate the cultural ideals of domestic femininity to which Victorian women were expected to aspire. Lace and lacemaking were often extolled as offering women a virtuous way out of poverty by members of the establishment. Yet, it is difficult to determine what kind of lace Mrs Patmore is wearing in the portrait. It is painted rather clumsily and does not seem have any discernible rhythmic pattern. What is certain, is that it does not resemble any kind of lace made in Britain at the time. In the 19th century, a widespread passion for antique lace meant copies of old laces were made, as well as much older pieces taken apart and re-fashioned to contemporary tastes (Leader 2010). This means it could very well have been a piece of antique lace. Or simply a phantasy put together by an artist not very familiar with the material itself. Regardless, it perhaps best illustrates the problems of trying to read and identify lace from visual sources.

Mrs Coventry Patmore. John Brett (1831-1902) WA1998.217

Mrs Coventry Patmore. John Brett (1831-1902) WA1998.217

Sources:

Caseley, Catherine. 2004. Ashmolean Museum: Complete Illustrated Catalogue of Paintings. Oxford: The Asmolean Museum.

Hentschell, R. 2002. Treasonous Textiles: Foreign Cloth and the Construction of Englishness. Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies, 32(2): 543-570.

Holt, D. 1757. An Address Humbly Offers to the Ladies of Great Britain Relating to the Most valuable Part of Ornamental Manufacture in their Dress. London: A.Millar, J.Whiston and B. White, and R. and J. Dodsley.

Leader, Jane. 2010. Identifying Lace. DATS in partnership with the Victoria and Albert Museum. Available at http://www.dressandtextilespecialists.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/Identifying-Handmade-lace.pdf.

Sciama, L. 1992. Lacemaking in Venetian Culture, in Dress and Gender: Making and Meaning, R. Barnes and J.B. Eicher (eds). Oxford and New York: Berg.

Yallop, H.J. 1992. The History of the Honiton Lace Industry. Exeter: University of Exeter Press.

[1]

[2] http://www.ashmolean.org/ash/amulets/tradescant/tradescant00.html

The Barratts of Aspley Guise: Some Further Information

Readers of our previous piece on the death of Ellen Barratt, lacemaker of Aspley Guise, might be interested to know what happened to the various participants in that affair.

Let us first return to the 1851 census for Aspley Guise, to establish the membership of the household.  Samuel Barratt, 62, a shepherd born at North Crawley Buckinghamshire, was the head; his wife, Susannah [née Davis? They were married in 1819], 60, was a lacemaker born at Headington near Oxford.  The family then living in the house included their daughters Elizabeth 24, Ann 22, Susannah 17, Eliza 13, Ellen 11, Charlotte 9 and Julia 7, all described as lacemakers.  There were also two sons, Benjamin 15 and Thomas 5.  Some older siblings had already left home.  Note the ages of the youngest children compared to that of the mother; is it possible that these were actually the offspring of one of the older sisters?  That might account for what appears to be the different treatment meted out to them.

1860, Bedfordshire Times and Independent, Charlotte Barratt of Woburn convicted of theft detail

1860, Bedfordshire Times and Independent, Charlotte Barratt of Woburn convicted of theft detail

Using the resources of www.ancestry.co.uk, we (or rather Brenda Hopkin, who we have to thank for most of this information) have been able to trace some members of this household.  Of course there is the danger of making false links — the fact that someone had the right(ish) name and age and lived in the same place does not necessarily make them the same person.  For example, an Eliza Barratt was convicted at Bedford of stealing 1 sovereign and 2 shillings from her master, Joseph Fearn, landlord of the Sun Inn in Leighton Buzzard in 1857; the subsequent year the same Eliza Barratt (though in the papers she appears as Barrett) was convicted at Aylesbury of stealing half a pound of suet, worth 3 pence, from Samuel Tavernor of Linslade, for which she got twelve months hard labour (we repeat: suet worth 3 pence).  It seems plausible that this is the older sister of Ellen Barratt, but we cannot at the moment prove it.  Nonetheless, in what follows we have tried to ensure that we have been tracing the actual participants in the manslaughter case.

Elizabeth Barratt, one of the persons responsible for Ellen’s death, seems to have survived her four years of penal servitude because we find her in the 1861 census living with her elder sister, Ann, a lacemaker, in Linslade.  By the time of the 1871 census she was married to Daniel Pratt, a carter, and living in Leighton Buzzard.  The pair had married in 1868 and had at least one child, Mary.  (Elizabeth may then have been living as a servant in Leighton Buzzard, as a woman of that name, servant to Mr Lockhart appears as a witness in a case of embezzlement.)  Elizabeth had, by 1871, given up lacemaking for straw plaiting.  She died in 1877, aged 49.

Charlotte Barratt, the lead witness at the trial, was convicted, aged eighteen, of stealing a purse containing thirty shillings, a chisel and a table knife from Charles Clare of Woburn on 23 June.  At her trial in Bedford she was described as a lacemaker, and the report in the Bedfordshire Times and Independent for 7 July 1860 records the workhouse superintendent Mr Young as saying “the prisoner was in a destitute condition, and he did not believe that she was quite right in her head.”  She was sentenced to three months’ imprisonment.  We can be fairly certain of our identification in this case because the plaintiff, Charles Clare, was the husband of Charlotte’s sister Ann.  After this date we can find no definite trace of her.

Julia Barratt, the second witness at the trial, was, by the time of the 1861 census, a servant to John Giddings, a chemist in Gallowtree Gate in Leicester. Thereafter we also lose sight of her.

Susannah Barratt, the older sister of Charlotte and Julia, who confirmed their evidence at the committal proceedings, appeared in the census of 1861 as a house-servant to Robert Riddall, clockmaker of Woburn.  In 1871 she was a still a servant, though now for the Woburn schoolmaster William Robert.  Thereafter we also lose track of her.

Given the family’s history with the law it is interesting to note that the younger brother of the lacemaking siblings, Thomas Barratt (now Barrett), moved to London and became a police sergeant in Chelsea.

Charlotte Yonge and The London Illustrated News

In Charlotte Yonge’s The Clever Woman of the Family, the fraud practiced on Rachel Curtis by the plausible Mauleverer is discovered when Rachel’s would-be suitor reveals that the woodcut images of lacemakers, supposedly engraved by the apprentices of the Female Union for Englishwoman’s Employment, had actually been cut out of the London Illustrated News.  The deception is discovered by Rachel’s would-be suitor, Captain Keith, who recognized the images from a magazine he had read while convalescing in South Africa from his wounds received during the Indian Mutiny of 1857.  We wondered whether any such images had appeared in this popular magazine, founded in 1842.  We did not find anything quite matching the ‘Ideal/Real’ contrasted images that are the alleged products of F.U.E.E., but in February 1859, roughly the date of Captain Keith’s convalescence, a relevant article and an image on pillow-lace working did appear in the London Illustrated News.  We reproduce them below.

The image is a distant relative of the one described by Yonge in the novel as representing “The Ideal” and depicting “a latticed cottage window, with roses, honeysuckles, cat, beehives, and all convention rural delights, around a pretty maiden singing at her lace pillow”.  However, if this is what Yonge had in mind, there is an irony in the fact that Mauleverer’s apprentice wood-engravers, former lacemakers both, could not have produced an image that depicted such a woeful ignorance of the actual practice of bobbin lacemaking. 

Nineteenth-century images of single young women making lace at cottage doors are quite common; a similar image was used to illustrate an article on Honiton lacemaking in The Lady’s Newspaper of Saturday 20 September 1851; and indeed the Illustrated London News article and image were reused in their entirety in the Penny Illustrated Paper in February 1866.  However, we’ve not been able to trace a pre-1864 image akin to the “Real” picture described in the novel as showing “a den of thin, wizened, half-starved girls, cramped over their cushions in a lace-school.”  If anyone can help us track down an original that Yonge might have seen, we would be interested.

Conviction of Charlotte Barratt for stealing. The Bedford Times & Bedfordshire Independent, Saturday 7 July 1860. Copyright: The British Library Board.

The illustration accompanying the article in the London Illustrated News.  ‘Ideal’ or ‘Real’?

 

 

Illustrated London News, Saturday, 5 February 1859; issue 958, p. 133.

Pillow-Lace Working in Bedfordshire

In pleasant parts of Bedfordshire, Kent, and other southern counties, agreeable pictures are formed by the lacemakers in gardens, at cottage doors, and in neat apartments, where, although the furniture is homely, the cleanness of everything and the tasteful display of flowers in their season give a bright and cheerful aspect to the place.

There are few hand-wrought fabrics which look more beautiful than the delicate and cunningly-wrought lace, which was the pride of our ancestors of both sexes, and which seemed to have reached its greatest state of perfection in the reign of Charles I., when marvellous prices were paid for this elegant personal decoration.  Portions of lace of this date, of fine design and wonderful execution, are still preserved in many families, and handed down as heirlooms from one generation to another.  When looking at the intricate patterns of both old and modern lace, we have been puzzled to know by what magic it had been produced, and were glad to have the opportunity, in autumn last, of witnessing the process.

The pillow-lace is so called in consequence of being made on a pillow, or cushion, in the manner shown in the Engraving.  These cushions are generally of rich and harmonious colours, and form a foil to the “greenery” which is generally near.  The neat dresses of the lacemakers, old and young, and the fanciful designs and ornaments on the bobbins, are also pleasant to the eye.

On the pillow, which is stuffed with straw and raised to a convenient height on a wooden frame, the pattern of the lace is pounced through parchment, in the same way as the card-sheets formerly so much used for stencilling rooms.  This pattern is generally about the third of a yard long, and on the quality of the design the beauty of the lace depends.  The thread used is of remarkable fineness and strength.  This material is wound in proper quantities by a simple machine on the upper part of fifty or sixty bobbins, which are about the thickness and length of uncut blacklead pencils.  At the End opposite to that on which the thread is wound are rings strung with glass beads of various colours, and in some instances old silver coins and other simple keepsakes.  These matters are needed to give weigh to the bobbins, and to cause them to be moved with ease and precision.  Great fancy is shown in the fitting of these lace-making tools.  The bobbins used by one old lady had belonged to her grandmother, and were probably as old as the reign of Queen Anne.  Some of these were elaborately carved, turned, and decorated with silver and gold.  Some were of ivory: one was the gift of a “dear Robert” long since buried.  Each of the numerous bobbins seemed to have attached to it some cherished memory of the past.

The bobbins being properly charged with thread, the ends are joined and fixed to the top of the cushion in the centre of the upper part of the parchment pattern.  Here is also fixed a case thickly stuck with very small pins, which, as the work goes on, are placed in the interstices of the pattern cut in the parchment.  Round the pins, when rightly fixed, the thread is thrown and woven together by the bobbins, which are moved by both hands with remarkable quickness.

Although hand-lace weaving does not, after the pattern is prepared, require much artistic or mental ability, it needs great care, patience, and much practice to follow up the pattern, and leave in the proper places the different degrees of thickness of thread.  The process is very slow; and, during upwards of an hour that we watched the progress of a worker, not more than three-quarters of an inch in length and inch in breadth was completed.  It would take about four days’ close work to complete one yard in length.  The sum paid for this is about 1s 8d. a yard, and the thread has to be paid for out of it.

In the country a number of those who practice lace-making do so as a means of occupying spare time, and do not depend on it for a living, the young girls having in view the purchase of a new frock or bonnet.  In those districts, however, where lace-working is made a trade of by large numbers, children are put to it at the early age of five years; and, as is the case with most other departments of labour which can be soon learnt by young persons, the prices have declined.  Thirty or forty years ago a young girl could earn a shilling a day by this employment; a similar person will now, with difficulty, earn fourpence a day; and we are told that, notwithstanding the extraordinary demand which the present fashion of the ladies’ dresses has caused for this material, and although the price of thread has increased, wages have not improved.  The pillow-lace has a rich and artistic appearance and texture which is not to be equalled by other means; but the imitation is cheap, looks well at a distance, and is in progress of improvement so that, in all probability, the operation of lacemaking will, like the spinning-wheel and other matters once so familiar, soon become a thing of the past.

English Lacemakers in Fiction. Charlotte M. Yonge and ‘The Moloch of Lace’ in ‘The Clever Woman of the Family’ (1865)

In her Victorian heyday Charlotte Mary Yonge (1823-1901) was as popular and as prolific a novelist as Dickens and Trollope.  She has fallen out of fashion somewhat since, despite the efforts of the excellent Charlotte Mary Yonge Fellowship, whose website we recommend.  Although a witty and lively writer, especially of dialogue, it was Yonge’s social and religious opinions which drove her plots, and explain why they feel so dated.  This can be illustrated by the example of The Clever Woman of the Family, but our reason for including it in this series of blogs on lacemakers in fiction is because it also offers a picture of the Devon lace industry in the high Victorian period.

 Charlotte Mary Yonge, by George Richmond, 1844.


Charlotte Mary Yonge, by George Richmond, 1844.

Yonge’s novel opens in the early 1860s on Rachel Curtis’s twenty-fifth birthday.  She is the daughter of a gentry family in the fictional Devon fishing and resort village of Avonmouth and, in her own opinion at least, the clever woman of the family.  But she can find no outlet for her intelligence and her energies because she is “tethered down to the merest mockery of usefulness by conventionalities.  I am a young lady forsooth! — I must not be out late; I must not put forth my views; I must not choose my acquaintance; I must be a mere helpless, useless being, growing old in a ridiculous fiction of prolonged childhood”.

The primary objects of Rachel’s desire to be useful are the “hard worked, half-stifled little girls” in the local lace schools: “cramped in soul, destroyed in body, that fine ladies may wear lace trimmings”.  It galls her that a charitable bequest by one of ancestors in the seventeenth century actually pays for the girls’ apprenticeships.  At the moment the only support she is able to provide is by purchasing their products, even though she describes lace as “cobwebs of vanity” (while her mother detests “that black lace thing, that looks fit for your grandmother” which she is obliged to wear as a consequence of her philanthropic consumption) and reading to the lacemakers in their schoolroom.  This location is a “black-hole under the stairs” without windows where the local lace mistress keeps seven children in rigid silence for ten hours a day.  Rachel reads them something religious, something improving, and a bit of a story, alongside mental arithmetic which, according to the author “was about as interesting as the humming of a blue-bottle fly” to its “well-broken” denizens.  The idea that one must be “broken to lace” recurs throughout the book.

Rachel is particularly exercised by the fate of one intelligent girl, Lovedy Kelland, whose mother had refused to sacrifice her little girl “to the Moloch of lace” but instead sent her to school.  There were even hopes she might become a trainee teacher.  But when her mother dies, the girl is adopted by the lace-mistress “with the resolve to act the truly kind part by her, and break her in to lace-making.”  But while Rachel is infuriated by Lovedy’s fate, her real ambition is to attack “the system… that chained girls to an unhealthy occupation in their early childhood, and made an overstocked market and underpaid workers”.  “Lace and lacemakers are facts,” she explains to her distracted cousin Fanny, “but if the middle-men were exploded, and the excess of workers drafted off by some wholesome outlet, the price would rise, so that the remainder would be at leisure to fulfil the domestic offices of womanhood.”  However, her wealthy neighbours have no desire push up the price of lace, and the lacemakers themselves are drawn to Primitive Methodism to escape the well-meaning interference of local do-gooders; they only tolerate Rachel because of her family’s historic position in the community.

Her opportunity to act comes through a chance encounter with Mr Mauleverer, a philanthropic lecturer and, it is implied but never quite established as fact, a clergyman unable to find a position because of his modern “opinions”.  With his encouragement she launches the Female Union for Lacemaker’s Employment (the initials are not inconsequential, and the name is later changed to the Female Union for Englishwoman’s Employment or F.U.E.E.), gathering funds from near and far to support an Industrial School for the former lacemakers where, as Rachel explains “some fresh trades might be taught, so as to lessen the glut of the market, and to remove the workers that are forced to undersell one another, and thus oblige the buyers to give a fairly remunerative price.”  A magazine is launched under the banner “Am I not a Sister?” (a reference to the famous slogan of the slave emancipation movement at the turn of the century, “Am I not a Man and a Brother?”).  Premises are found nearby, a matron employed, and two lacemakers, including Lovedy Kelland, are taken in with the promise of becoming wood-engravers.

Sadly, Mauleverer turns out to be a con-man who pockets the monies raised by Rachel, while the matron is a vicious tyrant who starves the girls while forcing them to make sprigs day and night, beating them with a stick if they failed to fulfil their quota.  The deception comes to light when Mauleverer presents two woodcuts, which he claims were engraved by the F.U.E.E’s trainees, jointly entitled “The free maids that weave their thread with bones” (the Shakespearean description of lacemakers).  One woodcut, depicting a pretty maiden outside a cottage door with roses, honeysuckles and other “conventional rural delights” is labelled “Ideal”; the other, showing “a den of thin, wizened, half-starved girls, cramped over their cushions in a lace-school” is labelled “Real”.  Rachel’s friends prove to her that in fact both images had been snipped out of an old copy of the London Illustrated News.  However, this revelation comes too late for the beaten, emaciated Lovedy who dies of diphtheria soon after her release.  Her last words to Rachel as watches over her deathbed are “Please tell me of my Saviour”, but Rachel finds she cannot, so far has she drifted from the verities of the established Church.  (On the whole the poor in Yonge’s novels do not provide moral lessons to the rich, as they do in Charlotte Barnard’s work: this scene is an exception.)  Lovedy’s death is only one of several shocks to Rachel’s image of herself as “the clever woman of the family”, but it is the most brutal.

Before the end of the novel Rachel will learn that only by submitting herself to patriarchal authority can she fulfil her life’s purpose.  Male superiority appears first in the shape of her husband, but he is but a stepping stone to the masculine font of all authority, the Church.  She will discover that the social conventions against which she railed at the beginning were instituted for her well-being, and even her fashion sense must be submitted to her husband (who has as low an opinion of her charitable lace purchases as her mother).  In the second half of the novel the sufferings of the poor are largely forgotten and in as much as Rachel still feels that “every alley and lane of town or country reeks with vice and corruption”, the implicit argument of the novel is that not much could or should be done about it, or at least not by women alone uninstructed by pious men.  After all, as Rachel explains at the end, one never knows whether one is doing more harm than good.  “I had a few intellectual tastes, and liked to think and read, which was supposed to be cleverness; and my wilfulness made me fancy myself superior in force of character in a way I could never have imagined if I had lived more in the world.  Contact with really clever people has shown me that I am slow and unready.”

“Lady Temple carrying off Lovedy and Mary”. Adrian Stokes’ illustration from the 1880 edition of The Clever Woman of the Family depicts the moment when Rachel’s cousin intervenes to rescue two girls from “the Moloch of lace”.

“Lady Temple carrying off Lovedy and Mary”. Adrian Stokes’ illustration from the 1880 edition of The Clever Woman of the Family depicts the moment when Rachel’s cousin intervenes to rescue two girls from “the Moloch of lace”.

Yonge sincerely believed in male superiority, and for many years opposed developments in women’s education.  This is surely one reason that her works have fallen out of fashion.  She was a tireless proselytizer for the Church of England in its most High Church, Oxford Movement garb.  Although her characters are more rounded than Barnard’s and More’s ciphers, the moral message of her work is hammered home in chapter titles and epigrams.  But perhaps even more off-putting is her absolute acceptance not just of social inequality — even for the exemplar of modern intellectual trends Rachel Curtis, class hierarchy is a given — but also social conventions.  This is a novel in which the characters can spend the best part of the chapter discussing whether it is appropriate for a young widow to play croquet.  Although in the text the partisans for the game carry the day, the author reveals her own allegiances when later the initiator of the craze in Avonmouth, a fashionable but wilful and selfish young woman, is killed in a freak croquet accident.

Lace-making is a background theme of the novel – the motor of Rachel’s enlightenment rather than a topic in itself, and it fades out completely in the second half of the book.  Nonetheless it is clear that Yonge knew something of the trade.  Her family came from Devon and she often holidayed there.  She was certainly familiar with the vocabulary of the Honiton lace industry, such as “sprigs” for the patterns made by the lacemakers, and “gapsies” for the illicit breaks observed in the lace school.  But if some knowledge came from direct observation, it is likely that she had also read the report of Commissioner John Edmund White on the lace industry (1864) as part of the Royal Commission on the Employment of Children and Young Persons in Trades and Manufactures not already Regulated by Law.  White confirms, for example, the importance of the apprenticeships to lace mistresses in Devon (compared with the Midlands).  Apprentices would be trained for a year and half or so before they could start making money on their own account.  Yonge’s description of a lace school is also similar to those visited by White.  For instance, Mrs Besley’s lace school at Seaton was an annexe to her cottage, “nearly square, a little over seven feet each way, and six feet six inches high, and containing, in fact, a little over 330 cubic feet, and there is no fireplace or means of warming”.  This tiny space was shared by seven pupils, the mistress and her three daughters, working from early morning till at least 10:00pm, and often much later or even all through the night.  As another lace mistress, Mrs Croydon, put it, “If you promise the work, you must do it” regardless of what strain it caused the young girls.  Yonge’s Mrs Kelland would doubtless have agreed.

Girls started in these lace schools as young as four or five, though they were normally not expected to do a full day’s (and night’s) work until aged seven.  Work would start at six or seven in the morning, and those mistresses like Mrs Copp of Beer who closed at ten in the evening, summer and winter, obviously considered themselves philanthropic for not keeping the girls later.  The term school is something of a misnomer as most appear to have provided no education beyond lace skills.  Hence the effort that Rachel Curtis puts into night schools and Sunday schools, where lacemakers might learn their letters, even though she felt that such efforts were only “scratching the surface”.  Commissioner White was shocked by the levels of ignorance he encountered: for example, thirteen-year-old Emily Westlake, whom he interviewed at Mrs Besley’s school, “Knows the letters (and no more), but no figures (when shown) except ‘1’.”  Yonge highlights this mental cramping in the character of Susan Kelland, daughter of the lace-mistress, “who was supposed to be a sort of spider, with no capacities beyond her web.”  White highlighted the deleterious health effects of such children “crumped up” (to use the local term) over pillows in such ill-ventilated, stuffy rooms, alternatively too cold or too hot, for hours on end.  The girls suffered from headaches, they damaged their eyes, and in some cases even died of brain fever from over-taxation.  All this to earn between a shilling and, at most, even for the most adept, three shillings six pence a week (by way of comparison, in this region of very depressed wages, a male agricultural labourer might earn eight shillings a week on average).

The description of the lacemakers’ sufferings at the hands of the F.U.E.E.’s matron Mrs Rawlins –beaten, forced to work through the night, and in effect starved to death – also recalls accounts of the Barratt case of 1856, which Yonge may have read; it was certainly covered in her local newspaper.  Like the Barratt’s sister and parents, Mrs Rawlins would be tried for manslaughter at the assizes, and in her case sentenced to one year’s hard labour.

Charlotte Mary Yonge, c. 1860. Copyright: National Portrait Gallery

Charlotte Mary Yonge, c. 1860. Copyright: National Portrait Gallery

Yonge is sniffy about Rachel Curtis’s desire to reform the system (“everything was a system with Rachel”) rather than, at most, relieve the symptoms of poverty (a much more proper activity for upper-class women).  However, The Royal Commission’s report made it obvious that manufacturing’s reliance on child labour could not be ameliorated by private charity alone, it could only be addressed through legislation.  Its first fruit was the Workshop Act of 1867, which stated that no child under eight could be employed, that children between eight and thirteen could work no more than six hours a day, and all employed children should get ten hours of formal schooling a week.  Further regulation of workshops, together with new educational requirements, would effectively kill off the lace schools over the next two decades.

Further Reading

British Parliamentary Papers, House of Commons, First Report of the Commissioners on the Employment of Children and Young Persons in Trades and Manufactures not already Regulated by Law.  1863.  As far as lace manufacturing is concerned, the findings of the Commission are usefully summarized in a more accessible pamphlet: Alan Brown, Take the Children: How Victorian Lace Girls Lived and Worked in the Honiton and East Midlands Districts — This is their Story, as Told to the 1862 Royal Commission (Sawbridgeworth, c. 2000).

Janice Fiamengo, “Forms of Suffering in Charlotte Yonge’s The Clever Woman of the Family”, Victorian Review 25:2 (2000); 85-105.

H.J. Yallop, The History of the Honiton Lace Industry (University of Exeter Press, 1992).

English Lacemakers in Fiction:  Rosamond Lehmann’s ‘Invitation to the Waltz’ (1932)

Rosamond Lehmann was born in 1901 at Bourne End in Buckinghamshire, on the southern fringe of the lacemaking districts.  Her father, Rudolph Lehmann, had been editor of Punch and, briefly, liberal MP for Harborough.  The Lehmanns, originally from Germany, were an artistic dynasty: two of Rosamond’s great-uncles were painters, an aunt was a composer, one sister became an actress and her brother was editor of the influential periodical New Writing.  The Curtis family, protagonists of her third novel Invitation to the Waltz (1932), are of a rather different background, a settled rural manufacturing dynasty whose fortune derives from paper mills.  Nonetheless, Lehmann modelled this fictional household on her own.  The lead character, Olivia Curtis, is a portrait of the novelist as a young woman, indicated by her frequent flights of imagination.  The novel is set in 1920, and opens on Olivia’s seventeenth birthday; it relates her anticipation of, and then participation in, the dance held by the local gentry family, the Spencers.

Bucks Lace Collar (Image provided by David Hopkin)

Bucks Lace Collar (Image provided by David Hopkin)

The Curtises know the Spencers but are not intimate with them.  They are separated by fine but significant class distinctions: for instance Olivia and her older sister Kate do not ride, they cannot be ‘county’.  Attracted and intimidated by the manners of the upper classes, Olivia experiences trepidation, embarrassment but also an occasional intimacy in her contacts with her social superiors.  She is also sensitive to the barriers that separate her from the labouring population of the village.  The first part of the novel consists of various encounters in which class distinctions are performed – with the dressmaker Miss Robinson, with the impertinent children of the sweep, and with the household servants.  Olivia cannot readily assume the character of superiority that she knows is expected of her.  Her awkwardness can develop into fear, even hatred.  A tacit element in this antagonism is potential rivalry for the attentions of men, given the decimation caused by the War.  These tensions underlie her interview with the lace girl.

Fashion and dress play a large part in the novel.  They are the means by which Olivia and Kate establish their independent identities (though in the case of Olivia, her vision for herself is only partially fulfilled).  But when it comes to lace, Olivia is forced to renounce her individuality, symbolized by her own plans for her ten bob birthday present, and assume a social role.  Lehmann paints a plausible portrait of lace-selling at the tail-end of the handmade lace industry, when even the philanthropic lace associations were becoming moribund.  However, her lace girl has imbibed many of those associations’ ideas about the values implicit in lace.  She is careful to distinguish her products as ‘real lace’, as opposed to the machine-made alternative one might buy at Evans for a tenth of the price.  She appeals to Olivia’s connoisseurship, or rather the connoisseurship that a real lady should possess, but Olivia does not.  She attempts to establish a personal relationship with the Curtises, who as local notables and employers really ought to patronize the lace industry.  She invokes the family values of domestic manufacture through her ability to support and comfort her invalid mother.  Yet all the time one is aware that the lace-girl is relying on the philanthropy of the well-to-do.  Almost in passing she mentions her hardships, her misfortunes: Olivia is obliged to part with her ten shillings, and she bitterly resents it.   However, middle class status has its compensations as well as its responsibilities.  The scene ends with Olivia expecting a (servant cooked and laid) meal: the matchstick legs of the lace-girl suggest she may not be getting any lunch.

Further Reading:

Rosamond Lehmann, Invitation to the Waltz.  First published by Chatto & Windus Ltd in 1932.

Shusha Guppy, ‘Interview with Rosamond Lehmann: The Art of Fiction No. 88’, The Paris Review 98 (1985).

Vike Plock, ‘“I just took it straight from Vogue”: Fashion, Femininity, and Literary Modernity in Rosamond Lehmann’s Invitation to the Waltz’, Modern Fiction Studies 59:1 (2013).

 

Extract:

[It is the morning of Olivia’s seventeenth birthday.  She has just returned home after visiting the dressmaker in Little Compton, when she encounters the maidservant Violet in the hall.]

‘Please, Miss Livia, there’s a young person to see you.’

‘To see me?’

‘Well, she wanted the one or the other of you.  Madam’s out and I couldn’t find Miss Kate.  So she said she’d wait.’

‘Is it one of the Miss Martins?’

‘Oh no, it’s a young person.  Carries a case.  I don’t know what she’s come after.  I showed her into the servants’ ‘all.  Will you see her?’

‘Yes, I suppose so.’  How queer.

Violet disappeared, returned, said coldly: Come this way please; and grudgingly made way for a short slight girl of about twenty, dressed neatly and shabbily in a fawn hat and coat, and carrying a suit-case.

‘Good morning’, she said.  Her voice and smile anticipated antagonism.

She was a rather pretty anaemically pink-and-white girl with small regular features, blue circles round her eyes, and an appealing air of goodness.

Olivia said nervously:

‘Do sit down.’

She sat on the edge of a chair, laid her case down, and spoke in a modest and genteel voice.

‘I’ve brought a few things to show you – some of my work – thinking you might be interested.  Are you interested in lace? – handmade?’ She smiled brightly.

‘I’m afraid I’m… I don’t know anything about it.’  Olivia’s heart sank.  She blushed deeply.

‘Well, if I might just unpack my case.  Real lace is so nice, I think, don’t you?  It looks nice on anything.  And of course it’s quite a rarity these days.’

She knelt on the floor, opened her case, and began to rustle about swiftly, with tiny narrow hands, among sheets of tissue-paper.

Now was the moment to say it was no good, that one didn’t want any lace, had no money with which to buy it.  Oh, cruel fate! Any other day that would have been true.  To-day Uncle Oswald’s ten-shilling note seemed to crackle audibly in her pocket, refusing for its late master’s sake to be denied.

Now was the moment to enquire searchingly into her credentials.  She feebly ventured:

‘Did you make it yourself?’

‘Oh yes all myself,’ said the girl softly, lightly.  Clearly she was gaining confidence.  Not often could she have had such an auspicious start.  ‘You see, I have my mother to keep.  She’s a total invalid, of course – paralysed; so not being able to go out to work I took up lace-making.  This is my biggest piece – a bedspread.’  She unfolded it, held it up in both arms.  ‘It took me six months, this did.’

‘Did it really?’

And instead of coldly glancing before handing it back, one found oneself examining it, murmuring sympathetically:

‘Doesn’t it tire your eyes?’

‘Oh yes, they get ever so strained.  That’s the worst of it.  My eyes aren’t strong, and if they were to give out, well, I don’t know where we’d be.’  She gave another bright smile.  ‘Of course I have my regular customers, but his time of year I go round and try to earn a bit extra, just to get Mother some little comforts for Christmas.  It’s for her I do it.  It isn’t very nice really to have to go round – you know what I mean.  You feel you come at an awkward time and – it’s ever such a drag and –‘

‘Yes, it must be.’ Picture of door after door being shut in her face by haughty parlour-maids.  ‘How awful for your mother.’

‘Yes, and she’s ever so patient – never a grumble.  This is a little tea-cloth.  You can’t have too many tea-cloths, can you?  A table set – centre-piece and six mats.  These little mats are all the rage now, aren’t they?  — so much daintier than a tablecloth.  A nightdress case.  Some little traycloths – they’re nice.  A set of doylies…’

‘They’re beautiful… But I’m rather afraid they wouldn’t be quite what I… not very much use…’

‘Not for Christmas presents?  She was gently surprised.

‘Well, yes, of course.  Only, as a matter of fact I haven’t really started to think about Christmas yet.’

‘Hadn’t you?  I always think with Christmas shopping it’s best to get it done in good time, don’t you?  Then it’s off your mind.’

The case was nearly empty now.  Olivia said suddenly, with a show of firmness:

‘I believe it would be best if you could call again later – after lunch, perhaps – when my mother’ll be in.  I’ll tell her.  I’m sure she’d like to…  She’d know better than me.’

‘I’m afraid I couldn’t do that.’ Her voice was gentle but decided.  ‘I’ve a long way to go.’

‘Yes, I suppose you have.’

She saw through that all right.

‘Oh, this insertion will interest you.  For trimming underwear.  In different widths.  Ladies always like my insertion.  It’s strong, yet dainty.’

‘I don’t wear lace on my underclothes, I’m afraid.’

‘No – really?’ She raised her eyebrows, politely shocked, incredulous.

‘No, I don’t like it.’

Firmer and firmer.  Silence fell.

‘A little collar.’  She took the last package from the case and placed it upon a chair; with hesitation, with a sudden collapse of assurance.

Silence again.  She knelt on the floor among a litter of white paper, lace and linen, her hands loosely folded in her lap, her head drooping.  Then slowly she started to fold up the bedspread, then the teacloth, the centre-piece, to smooth out the tissue-paper, to put everything back in the old suit-case; with meek gestures, with silent disappointment folding up, laying away her unwanted handiwork.

It was too much.  Olivia picked up the collar.

‘This is very pretty.’

The girl glanced up.

‘Yes, it’s a nice little collar.  It’s so uncommon.’  She went on packing.

‘I think I’d like… It would be so useful.  How much is it?’

She paused, then said:

‘It’s fifteen and six, that one.’

‘Fifteen and six!  Oh, I’m afraid I can’t then – I’ve only got ten shillings – at the moment.’

And quickly, for fear of being suspected again, she drew her purse from her pocket, opened it under the girl’s nose, and extracted its sole contents – the ten-shilling note.

‘There’s a lot of work in this collar.  You can see for yourself.’

‘I know.’  Hope sprang up again.  The miserable offer was to be rejected.  ‘I’m so sorry.  I can’t…’

The girl continued reflectively:

‘Still – I might make you a special price – as you’re a new customer.  I’ll let it go for ten shillings.’

‘Oh, will you?  Well thank you very much.  That’s splendid.’

The girl took the note, put it in a large black handbag, thanked her politely, without warmth, and went on packing.  Suddenly she said with decision:

‘I’d have liked you to have had the tea-cloth.  You’d pay double the price for it in any shop.’

‘No, thank you, I couldn’t.  I’m afraid I must go now.’

Too late, she felt all the necessary resolution.

The girl closed and strapped the suit-case, got up, lifted it with a slight effort.

‘I hope it’s not too heavy for you.’

‘It is a bit heavy.’

And perhaps no lighter by the end of the day…  Dragging herself home late at night…  A weak voice from the pillow, whispering anxiously: ‘Well?…  Brokenly answering: Only one collar…

‘Come out this way.’

She opened the front door.  They smiled faintly at one another.  The girl said with restraint:

‘Thank you very much.’

‘I do hope you’ll be able to get plenty of – of comforts for your mother.’

‘Yes.  Thank you.’

Whatever they were, surely ten shillings would buy a certain amount of them.

‘Good-bye.’

‘Good morning.’

She went down the steps and along the drive, hobbling on irritating matchstick legs, one puny shoulder pulled down by the weight of the suit-case.’

 

[… A little while later Olivia shows her purchase to her older sister Kate.]

‘Like to see what I’ve bought with my ten bob?’ cried Olivia; and she flung down the collar upon the table.

‘Good Lord, what’s that?’ Kate held it up by one corner.

‘Isn’t it pretty?’

‘Where on earth —?’

There was nothing for it but to tell the whole story.

‘Lumme!’ said Kate.  ‘So that’s what that foul Violet came flouncing up here for.  I hid.’

She spread the collar out upon the table and was silent, examining it.

‘Don’t you think it’s rather nice?’

It was looking its worst somehow: exactly as if it ought to be thrown on the fire.

‘How much did she rook you?’

‘Ten bob.’

‘The whole lot?’

‘Yes.  She reduced it for me.’

After a pause, Kate said:

‘What’ll you do with it?’

‘Oh, put it on some frock, I suppose.  It’s bound to come in somehow.  Real lace always does.’

Faintly Kate’s nostrils dilated, but she said nothing.  This was more bad luck than downright folly, and she could sympathize.  Yet Olivia felt her pretences snatched away, Kate’s finger pointing the way inexorably to surrender, to truth.  She said suddenly:

‘Don’t tell Mother.’

‘Of course not.’

‘Bang goes my whole income.’

Kate nodded, murmured:

‘Sickening.’

‘I’ll give it to Nannie for Christmas.  She’ll love it.’  She giggled, blinked back a tear.  ‘Little will she guess what I’ve spent on her.  She’ll think it came from Evans, one and eleven three.’

‘Perhaps it does,’ said Kate, busy with paper and pins.

‘Don’t be absurd.  It’s handmade.  You can see it is…  Can’t you?’

I don’t know.’

‘Well, how does one tell?…’

All supports cracked together.  She threw up her hands, fell.

‘Do you think –’ Kate spoke with unwonted hesitation – ‘she can have been – could it have been a swizz?’

‘Of course not.  She was awfully sort of superior.  And all that about her mother.  She couldn’t have made that up.’

‘I suppose not,’ agreed Kate, starting to cut out.

Olivia sat down and meditated upon the transaction.  I never disliked any one so much, she thought.  The worst was the lack of gratitude.  Ten shillings snatched by compulsion, stuffed into her black bag, sitting there quiet and avid as a spider, then asking for more… asking for more.  No, she was not pathetic.  She was sinister.

She picked up the collar and threw it into the corner.

‘It’s not as bad as that,’ said Kate.

Olivia yawned.

‘Lord, I’m hungry!  It’s been a full morning.’

 

Lacemakers in the News: The Death of Ellen Barratt, Aspley Guise, Bedfordshire, 1856

Lacemakers do not often appear in archives. They had no guild, no trade union, no history of labour militancy, and so did not generate the kinds of paper trails that allow for historical research. The British Newspaper Archive (www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk), an online word-searchable library of 477 regional and national newspapers dating from the eighteenth to the mid-twentieth century, is therefore a great boon. In its pages we can find accounts of lacemakers going about their business. Of course, newspapers tend to concentrate on the grim side of life, and the most frequent mention of lacemakers is either as victims or as perpetrators of crimes.

Bedford Prison by Dennis Simpson (Wikipedia Commons)

Bedford Prison by Dennis Simpson (Wikipedia Commons)

Ellen Barratt, a seventeen-year-old lacemaker from Aspley Guise in Bedfordshire, died of starvation on 30th March 1856. She and her two sisters had been beaten and otherwise abused by their mother and an older sister, while forced to make lace for fourteen hours a day. The case caused a furore, and its details were covered not just by the local papers but also across the country and even abroad. The horror expressed by all those involved – the coroner, the doctor, the judge – all indicate that the treatment visited on the Barratt sisters was exceptional. Nonetheless one can learn something about conditions in the trade more generally from this rare opportunity to visit the interior of a lacemaking household. For example, although the quantities of food given to the Barratt sisters were abnormally small, the types (gruel, hasty pudding, bread and dripping, scalded toast…) were probably common elements in the diet of lacemakers. We also learn that the sisters were expected to produce 1 yard and 2 feet of narrow lace a day, and that, although they themselves received none of the rewards, their mother got 6d a yard for narrow lace, and 8d for wider bands. Thus we can calculate that, if the girls finished their work, they could earn 5 shillings a week (on the basis of 84 hours labour). No wonder one contemporary writer talked about sacrificing children to ‘the Moloch of lace’.

Inquest at Aspley Guise. Report in the Bedford Mercury for Saturday 5 April, 1856. Image © THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Inquest at Aspley Guise. Report in the Bedford Mercury for Saturday 5 April, 1856. Image © THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Below are three reports from The Bedford Mercury in 1856, taken from the British Newspaper Archive, covering the coroner’s inquest on Ellen Barratt which recorded a verdict of manslaughter and indicted her parents, the committal proceedings against her elder sister Elizabeth, and the trial of all three.

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An Inquest was held at the Steamer beershop at Aspley on the 1st of April, before W. Wiseman Esq., deputy coroner for the Honor of Ampthill, on the body of Ellen Barratt, about 12 years old, who was found dead in bed on the 30th ult. The evidence went to prove that all the parents’ elder children were in good condition yet the younger ones were in a frightfully emaciated condition, and it appeared that this must have resulted from the parents having kept them morning, noon, and night fixed to the “lace pillow” and feeding them with gruel for breakfast, gruel for dinner, gruel for supper with an occasional modicum of bread, but no air, no exercise, no amusement, no relaxation; nothing but work, work, work, until the bodies of the poor things were wasted literally to skeletons. The Jury returned a verdict of manslaughter against the unnatural parents, and they were committed to Bedford Gaol for trial at the next assizes.

It will be in the recollection of our readers, that about five weeks since, we reported an inquest held at Aspley Guise on the body of Ellen Barratt a child 12 years old, who died from starvation and neglect, and the committal of the unnatural parents for trial at the next assizes for the crime of manslaughter by the coroner’s jury. Since that event the tongue of rumour has been very busy with the case which caused further investigation, and which resulted in Superintendent Young apprehending Elizabeth Barratt, aged 29, the eldest sister, charged with being an accessory to the death.

The following evidence was adduced against her, the witnesses being her own sisters: –
Charlotte Barratt, the first witness, apparently 6 or 7 years old, stated that she was 14 years of age. Her sister Ellen died on a Sunday morning about 5 o’clock, March 30; she had been kept at work constantly, even up to 5 o’clock on the Saturday night, notwithstanding her complaints, and was then driven to bed without any supper, having had nothing all day, her mother beating her with her stays up the stairs because she asked for something to eat; she kept awake nearly all night, and about one o’clock in the morning made a noise; her mother came into the room and hit her, and told her to lie still; after that she moaned, but soon she attempted to sing a hymn and afterwards prayed – “Lord Jesus, let me do my work next week;” these were the last words she spoke and she died soon after. Me and my sisters were kept at work lacemaking 14 hours a day, with a quarter of an hour for breakfast and 20 minutes for dinner; that was all the stoppage or rest we had; and if we had finished our work at night we had some gruel or bread and dripping for supper; we had garden stuff or gruel for dinner, when we had any, and sometimes pudding; if our task of work was not done at night we were sent to bed without supper, and had to get up next morning and stand naked in the cold till we had finished our task, without breakfast. Mother and sister often boiled up the coffee grounds for our breakfast, and gave us a piece of bread so big (about 2 inches square); we never had as much as we could eat, nor enough; prisoner has often held us while mother beat us; she has stuffed rags into our mouths to prevent us from crying; two of my teeth have been knocked out in this way. My sister (the prisoner) has held us while my mother has put sheep-dung, cow-dung, and rabbit-dung into our mouths and even the filth from her snuffy pocket-handkerchief she has made us eat; and my sister has held us the while. We were often made to sit with our sore flesh upon nettles and thistles which were put in our chair; we never had any fire in our work room, but there was a fire in mother’s room, where she and my sister were, but if we went there we were turned out directly. I have been often beaten with nettles; we have been made to eat pig’s victuals; poor Ellen has been kept two or three days together without food, because she could not do her work; my sister always helped my mother against us.
Julia Barratt, apparently about six or seven years of age, but who stated her age to be twelve, confirmed all that the last witness had said, and added that even when her mother had given her a little bit of bread, the prisoner had snatched it away from her. She had frequently been kept without food when she could not do her work, and made to stand naked in a cold room without breakfast till she had done it. She had been beaten with nettles and thistles and made to sit on them bare, and prisoner has pulled up our clothes to sit us on them, when we have had cow and other dung put into our mouths Sister has stuffed our mouths with rags if we cried out. A few days before Ellen died she had three fits and fell down. My sister picked her up and set her to work again directly. On the Friday night before she died she was sent to bed without supper, and on Saturday she had a little gruel for dinner. On Saturday night she was sent to bed without supper, and beat. She died in the night.
Susannah Barratt, apparently about 14, stated her age to be 22. She had heard what her sisters had said, and it was true. She had been served in the same manner.
Dr Williams proved that he had made a post mortem examination of the body of Ellen Barrat. The body was remarkably small, the face small and idiotic, shrivelled and monkey like. There was no appearance of disease, but the lungs appeared as if they had not been much used. There was very little blood in the system at all. The heart was quite empty. There [sic] small quantity of blood there was, was of a watery character. The stomach contained a little gruel – not one ounce – and nothing else. I could hardly distinguish the stomach from the small intestines. It was no bigger than that of a child five years old. In my opinion overwork and insufficient nourishment, with the treatment I have heard today, would be sufficient to cause death.
This concluded the case.
The prisoner, on being asked if she had anything to say, denied the whole of the charges.
The prisoner was committed for trial.
The case on behalf of the prosecution was conducted by C.R. Day, Esq, of Woburn.

Samuel Barratt, 65, labourer, Susannah Barratt, 64, his wife, and Elizabeth Barratt, 28, lacemaker, the daughter, were charged on the Coroner’s warrant with having caused the death of Ellen Barratt, at Aspley Guise, on the 30th of March.
There were other indictments for assault against the two female prisoners.
Mr Power presented; the prisoners were undefended.

As this case has excited a great amount of horror and indignation throughout the country, we give the trial as fully as possible. The male prisoner appeared a hard working, but sullen and close man; the wife was the very ideal of misery and griping avarice, but certainly appeared to have starved herself almost as much as her hapless children. The daughter was, to the eye, selfishness personified, and seemed to have thriven wonderfully in the midst of such unheard of privations inflicted on the younger sisters.
Charlotte Barratt: I am in my 16th year; I had an elder sister named Ellen; up to the 30th of March I lived at Aspley Guise with my father and mother and five sisters, of whom Elizabeth is the eldest, and also a little brother, Thomas. I remember Ellen dying [illegible] two or three days before her hands were bent so, that she could not stick a in; mother said it was all her falseness. Ellen continued trying to make the lace. Ellen had no supper on the Friday night before she died because she had not done her work (that was the reason mother gave). She had no supper on the Saturday night. When she went upstairs she said, “Mother, I am so hungry.” Mother told her to go to bed as she had not done her work, and beat her upstairs with her stays which were rolled up in mother’s hand. Ellen was undressed, Elizabeth, I, Julia, Ellen and Thomas all slept in the same room. Ellen could not sleep that night, and she made a noise as if she was in pain. Mother slept in the next room; she came in on hearing the noise and “gone her a cut,” and told her to lie still. After that Ellen sung a hymn and made a prayer, “Lord Jesus, let me do my work next week.” That was the last I heard her say. I remember my little brother getting up about 20 minutes after five; some time after that, sister Elizabeth got up and went down stairs: afterwards she came back into our room; I asked her if my sister Ellen was not fast asleep; Elizabeth went to where Ellen lay and touched her, and then she told mother that Ellen was dead! Ellen used to make lace; she worked 14 hours a day; she sometimes went out on a Sunday to school; there weren’t time in the week for going out. She had some barley meal done up into hasty pudding for her food, chiefly, for 15 or 16 weeks before we came to the workhouse; we all had alike for breakfast, and we had the same for dinner some days. Mother expected five feet of narrow laces, rather less of wide ones, every day. If unable to do it, she was sent to bed without her supper. If she did her work, she had hasty pudding, or bread and dripping; a small slice for each child. We had coffee twice in the sixteen weeks I speak of, we had it after the rest had done, instead of barley meal; they put some water in the coffee-pot for me. My sister was sometimes beaten with stinging nettles, and had to sit on stinging nettles and thistles; also had her clothes on, but they were put under her clothes; mother used to do it; Elizabeth used to tell mother to go and get the nettles. She has had cow dung and sheep dung thrust into her mouth. She had often been beaten, with a cane and lately with a stick. Mother used to beat her, and Betsy held her while mother beat her; she used to hold her hands over Ellen’s mouth. We did the lace in the front room; we had a fire only two days last winter, and when Ellen went to get warmed in the back room, Betty would sometimes push her back into the cold room. I know that mother got never less than 6d a yard for lace and for wider lace 8d a yard. I know there was money in the house for mother used to pay for what she got always as she got it. Elizabeth kept the money in the tea chest, and has had as much as three or four sovereigns together.
By the Judge [from other sources, Sir J.T. Coleridge]: I was examined before the coroner. I took an oath; I knew what I was doing, and that is my evidence and my mark (produced).
The learned Judge then read the deposition before the coroner very carefully, almost the whole of which was contradictory of her present statements, and asked her “Is it true,” to which she replied, “No, it is not true. I said it because mother told me, as we were going down street, that she would beat me if I did not say so.”

 

Witness continued to reply to the learned judge. “We had pork about twice a week just before Ellen died. Father and mother had it every day, and sometimes twice – at tea.”
The Judge: Do you mean to say that when they had pork you had none?
Witness: Yes.
Judge: Sure of that; sure of that?
Witness: Yes, yes, yes.
Judge. Why did you say before the coroner that you were eleven years old?
Witness: I did not know how old I was. I know now, they told me at the workhouse.
Julia Barratt: I am in my 15th year. [When this witness called it was deemed necessary by the court to prove the baptismal register, for which purpose John Smith, baker, Aspley Guise had been summoned; but as the Rev J. Vaux Moore, rector of the parish of Aspley, was on the bench, his lordship directed him to be sworn. Mr Moore then deposed to the certificates of baptism produced from which it appeared that Ellen Barratt, deceased, was baptised Sept 9th, 1838. Charlotte Barratt, the first witness, June 14, 1840. Julia the present witness, in 1842.]

 

The witness was then examined and said: I used to work 14 hours a day. Sometimes I went to school on Sunday morning, and in the afternoon I went to bed. Never went out to play at any time. For food I had sometimes oatmeal gruel, sometimes barley meal – that was for breakfast; I had not enough. I had the same for dinner; we had 50 minutes allowed for dinner. We could do a yard and two feet of narrow lace in a day. If we did not do that we went to bed without supper, and next morning we had to get up and stand naked (in our shifts) in the back place, with our bare feet on the cold stones. I have seen Ellen suffer that punishment, and also with nettles put under her clothes, and beaten with a cane or a stick; mother used to beat her and Betsy used to hold her. I have seen rabbit dung, and sheep dung, and cow dung put in her mouth. I remember the night of her death. In the course of the week she had three fainting fits. She, and the lace pillow, and chair all fell down together. Betsy picked them all up, and when Ellen got over the fainting fit she had to go to work again. She had no supper the night she died. She said “Mother, give me some supper, I am so hungry.” Mother belted her all the way up stairs with her stays.
By the Judge: Mother gave her no supper; she had no supper the night before that. Generally she had thin oatmeal gruel for breakfast, and for dinner she had a piece of bread scalded as big as my hand. We had potatoes once a week and meat once a week. We never had crumbs in our gruel. [This was in reply to a question put by the prisoner Elizabeth Barratt.] James Williamson, Esq., M.D., of Woburn, swears: On the 31st of March I made a post mortem examination of the body of Ellen Barratt. It certainly was not the body of a person 17 years old; it was not developed enough; it appeared about 11 or 12 years of age, not more. I found no appearance of natural disease, nor any marks of external violence. The stomach was extremely small, [illegible word] it was difficult to find it at all, it lay so deep under the large intestine which was distended with air. Only a very small quantity of gruel was found – less than an ounce undigested, scarcely changed. The intestines were almost empty.
By the Court: If any quantity of food (I mean any considerable quantity) had been taken the previous day, in my opinion, it would have been found. The stomach appeared to be that of a child five or six years of age. I attribute the smallness of the stomach to habitual disuse, its proper functions not being exercised. I should expect to find just such a stomach, if all the life [illegible] the child had been suffering from an insufficiency of food. In my judgement, the cause of the child’s death, judging from the appearance of the different organs, was a combination of insufficient food, insufficiency of exercise, overwork and cruelty – such cruelty as I have heard described by the last witnesses.
The Judge: Would you illustrate the unnatural want of development in the stomach by the case of rowers or boxers whose muscles through constant exercise are extremely large?

 

Witness: I mean that if the stomach had been properly used the blood vessels would have been large. The stomach was in an atrophoid condition (technically described). The brain showed an excited condition as if the child had been worried. That is what I mean by attributing death in part to cruel treatment. The brain was more developed than any other part of the body in proportion. The head was disproportioned to the rest of the body, but was in accordance with the real age of the child. The muscles of the cheek were small and shrunken, making the countenance unnaturally small, and arising from want of proper use. I have attended the father. The house is a very neat, well-furnished, and particularly clean house, and there was no sign of poverty, very much otherwise.
Julia Barratt recalled: Betsy used to make lace two or three years ago, but lately only swept up and cleaned about.
Prisoner: Did not I take in sewing?
Witness: She used to take in sewing, sometimes from Miss Jane Parker [Carter in another newspaper report], but not lately. She used to go out when she liked. I have two married sisters. They sometimes came to see father and mother. We girls had to keep on at work, or get a beating when they were gone.
George Kemp sworn: I reside at Woburn, and am a publican. I was employed by Elizabeth Barratt on 30th April to remove furniture. I went to the house at Aspley and removed furniture to Crawley High-fields [from other sources it would appear this was the house of an older child]. There were a great many boxes and drawers all very full and heavy; in the drawers was a great deal of linen. There was one piece of dried bacon weighing, I suppose, 10 or 12 lbs. It hung in the back room. When we had loaded the second time and were starting, Elizabeth Barratt unlocked a box about a foot square and paid me 5s in two half-crowns; whether on purpose or not I don’t know, but I will swear I saw in her hand a great many sovereigns and half-sovereigns, and I should say certainly not less than twenty pieces of gold. She gave me two half-crowns and the man who helped me 3s, and her brother Thomas passing by also saw the gold, and spoke of it as we went along.
[The prisoner, Elizabeth said she had borrowed half a sovereign from her brother, and that was all the gold she had.] Mrs Mary Heath sworn: I am next door neighbour to the prisoners. I remember these children and the deceased. I very seldom saw them out on the week day. I have heard noises like cruel usage such as beating. I have heard it as early as four in the morning and as late as ten at night. I have not been in the house lately; I did go in a little when they first came. The mother never came to my house; Betsy has been once or twice; I did not meet Betsy out neither. I go to church. Of late prisoners have gone to chapel, which is not above a quarter of a mile off.
By Prisoner: Never had words with the prisoner.
By the Court: They did not behave very well to me some two or perhaps three years ago; we did not exactly quarrel, because I would not speak to them.
William Henry Davies sworn: I am master of the Union-house at Woburn. I received the two children (Charlotte and Julia) on the 2nd of April. I weighted them on the 3rd; Charlotte weighed 46½ lbs, Julia 39 lbs. They had only the ordinary union-house diet, and 28 days after their admission, viz on the 1st of May, I weighed them again, and found as follows, Charlotte 61½ lbs, Julia 54. A month later I weighed them again and found no difference in Charlotte, and only two pounds in Julia.
The prisoners were then called upon for their defence. Susannah Barratt said, “I did my part with my family as far as lay in my power. I went without bread many a day, and only last winter, I went without anything at all for two days that they might not want. What they call barley meal was good oatmeal, course oatmeal when we could get it, and the [illegible] when we could not. It was such as is given to dogs. The two children together did not earn more than £1 in six weeks.”
Elizabeth Barratt muttered something which it was difficult to catch, but harped chiefly on the charge that the children used to cheat in their work.
The father said: I and my little boy used to go out early of a morning, and take our food with me, and go a long way and come home very late, and sometimes not at all for days together. I am a shepherd, and my work took me as far as nine miles at a time away from home. I am a hardworking man; I earned 9s 6d a week, and at times my boy earned as much as 1s 3d a week. All was given to my wife, and so far as I know we don’t owe anybody anything, and yet 3s 6d went of 10s 9d a week for rent and firing, so that we could not have very much to lay out in food for the children (only 7s for seven of us. I always took my money home. I never had a farthing from the children, and had nothing to do with their work or with beating them.
The Jury, after a short consultation, found all the prisoners Guilty, but recommended the father to mercy.
His Lordship, in passing sentence, expressed his perfect concurrence in the verdict and also in the distinction which the Jury had made and which he presumed to be based on the fact that the father could not have had opportunities of knowing the condition and ill-treatment of his children fully, but still must have known these things in part. With regard to the others – one could not but think with the deepest indignation of such conduct from a mother to her child, from an elder sister to her younger sisters; though only one had actually died it was entirely owing to God’s mercy that they were not also in their graves for they came to the workhouse, literally, shocking spectacles. So we were told, and it might be credited from the fact that after a short period of ordinary workhouse food they altered so much for the better, and this fact showed satisfactorily that their emaciated condition was not from something in their constitution which refused to be nourished, but through sheer starvation. Now if this lack of food had arisen from poverty on the part of the father there would have come the question, why did he not apply to the parish, which certainly would have granted some relief to so large a family; and if had been replied that the family were too proud – were struggling (with a bold spirit and not wisely), although we could not have approved of such pride, still the indignation would have been less severe. But what was the fact? From the evidence of two witnesses it appeared that they were rather above than below their position in life in point of comforts and the apparent means of livelihood, so that the cruelty must have proceeded from hardness of heart or the wicked love of hoarding up money. In the case of the poor Ellen that cruelty had resulted in untimely death, and for that death they were now to answer. But he was not empowered to adjudge them to anything like an adequate punishment, yet he should think that wherever they might hereafter go, they would be objects of dislike if not of scorn (and he hoped not) for their cruel deeds to these (and one especially) who ought to have been so dear to them. You, Susannah (continued his lordship) have already passed a large portion of your life, and you Elizabeth, are no longer young, and I do trust that both of you, so long as you shall live, will pass some portion of every day in sincere regret and penitence for the deed you have done, the cruelty of which you have been guilty. The sentence of the court is that Samuel Barratt be imprisoned, with hard labour, for twelve months, and on the others, Susannah and Elizabeth, penal servitude for four years.

 

The following, taken from the website Victorian Crime and Punishment (http://vcp.e2bn.org/), are the descriptions of the convicted prisoners when they entered Bedford prison in 1856.

 

Susannah Barratt, aged 64.

Birth town: Warrington [we think this is a mistranscription for Headington, near Oxford].

Trade or occupation: labourer.

Marriage status: married.

Number of children: eleven.

Education: can neither read nor write.

Height 5ft 5½ inches.

Hair colour: grey.

Eye colour: hazel.

Visage: oval.

Complexion: fresh

Samuel Barratt, aged 65.

Birth town: North Crawley.

Trade or occupation: labourer.

Marriage status: married.

Number of children: eleven.

Education: can neither read nor write.

Height 5ft 7 inches.

Hair colour: grey.

Eye colour: grey.

Visage: long.

Complexion: fresh.

Identifying marks: Cut mark under left eyebrow and under chin, hair thin on top of head, scars on right knee and leg.

Elizabeth Barratt, aged 28.

Birth town: Aspley Guise.

Residence: Husborne Crawley.

Trade or occupation: lacemaker.

Marriage status: single.

Education: able to read.

Height 5ft ¼ inch.

Hair colour: brown.

Eye colour: grey.

Visage: oval.

Complexion: Fresh.

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Lacemakers in Music: ‘The Lacemakers’, an Operetta

As far as we can discover, the first performance of the three-act operetta The Lacemakers was on 10 April 1910 at the Court House, Southam (Warwickshire), performed by children from the local school.  In 1912-13 it was performed in a number of localities associated with lacemaking, in Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire, and Northamptonshire.  Its plot of aristocratic patronage of the lace industry was particularly relevant to this period of attempted revival.  But during the First World War and after its popularity spread and there are newspaper accounts of performances in Wales, Cornwall, Sunderland, Kent, Essex…  It was put on by schools, Sunday schools, Girl Guides, The Band of Hope, Girls’ Friendly Societies, and other such organisations.  One of its attractions must have been that the majority of parts were female, and so it was easy for girls’ associations to put on.

 

We do not know a great deal about this operetta, who wrote it, when, nor what songs were performed (other than “The Bold Bobbin”)…  If anyone can tell us we’d be delighted to know.  All our information to date comes from newspaper accounts, the most detailed of which is in an article in The Bedfordshire Times and Independent for 6 December, 1912 concerning Kempston Church Bazaar.  (Thank you again, the National Newspaper Archive.)

 

“The Lacemakers”

 

Remarkable success attended the charming operetta entitled “The Lacemakers,” as performed by girls of the Bedford-road Schools and trained (after School hours) by Miss Beaumont (daughter of Captain Beaumont), and Miss Dakin, Head Mistress of the Girls’ School, where the play was presented on a stage which was dressed with arboreal properties to represent a woodland glade such as fairies delight to haunt.  The theme of the play was singularly appropriate in view of lace-making being an important industry of Kempston, and it was a very happy idea to introduce into the operetta a number of “Lacemakers” from the class in which Mrs Barnard takes so much interest [presumably a reference to the Barnard banking family of Bedford].  The other lace-making girls were admitted free to the entertainment, and on the previous evening the teachers and some 350 children were admitted to the dress rehearsal for one penny each.  

 

The dresses worn by the girls in the play were exceedingly pretty.  In this and every other preparation to create a successful effect, Miss Beaumont and Miss Dakin spared no pains, and are to be congratulated on the highly successful result.  Assistance was also given by Miss Swaine and Miss Stevens, the latter being the pianist whose skilful rendering of the dance music and accompaniments of the songs conduced so much to the smooth running of the play.  Two performances were given on Friday.  In the afternoon the audience was select and appreciative; in the evening the room was crowded to excess, many being unable to gain admission, and the reception of the play was most enthusiastic.  

 

A party of village maidens compete for a marriage dowry awarded by the lady of the castle to the one who produces the finest specimen of pillow lace.  Lola is expected to gain the award, but her lace is stolen by Juana and exhibited to the lady as her own handiwork.  She thus secures the dowry, but, by the aid of the fairies her deception is exposed.  Confession and restitution follow, Lola forgives the offender and all ends happily.  The action takes place in a secluded dell near the castle, a favourite resort of the girls by day and of the fairies in the twilight.  Much ingenuity and trouble had been exercised in transforming the stage into a suitable arena for these ethereal beings, and the effect was greatly enhanced by moonlight and other beautiful illuminations thrown by a lantern skillfully worked by Captain Seddon, C.A.  The girls had been trained by Miss Beaumont and Miss Dakin, assisted by Miss Swain and Miss Stevens, and the result was a performance of very great merit in every respect.  Sweet music, clever action, harmonious choruses, and graceful dancing were all of high excellence.  

 

The chorus of Lacemakers and the fan song and dance were simply charming, and very pretty were the Dewdrops’ Song and Dance.  Zola sang with excellent effect the solo of “The Bold Bobbin.”  Hilda East as Lola and Irene Goff as Juana quite captivated the audience with their grace and charm, and Violet Welch as the Fairly Queen was at once gracious and dignified as fairy queens are expected to be.  In one scene the Lacemakers came forward and presented examples of their dainty handicraft to the Fairy Queen, and among them were collars, handkerchief borders, and other productions all made in Kempston.  The girls also had pillows and bobbins, so that the industry was represented with the prominence worthy of the craft.  

 

Other lacemakers were represented as follows: Benita, Winnie Porter; Clotilde, Louise Mayhew; Christina, Blanche Fowler; Teresa, Margery Folkes; Carlotta, Violet Bass; Margareta, May Benmon; with Vera Stratford and Margery Hanks.  There were also two boy’s parts: Adolfo, Ettie Odell; and Pepito, Alice Tierney.  The Fairy Queen was attended by two little pages, Phyllis Tierney and May Worrall; and the chief fairies were: Amethyst, Evelyn Musgrove; Pearl, Gladys Savage; Emerald, Bessie Pettit; Coral, Florence Worrall; Amber, Ivy Wright; with Nellie Ralph and Winnie Walker.  The six Dew-drops (small fairies) were Winnie Boyce, Cassie Gillett, Sybil Felts, Ethel Pettit, Annie Wright, Mary Francis.

English Lacemakers in Fiction: Mrs Caroline Barnard’s ‘The Prize: or The Lace-makers of Missenden’ (1817)

As far as we know (and we’d love to be corrected) Caroline Barnard’s The Prize: or The Lace-Makers of Missenden (1817) is the only substantial work of British fiction that is set entirely among lacemakers.

The novels of Caroline Barnard (possibly a pseudonym) were part of a wave of improving literature which swept through British culture at the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth centuries.  Many of the writers were associated with the revivalist Evangelical movement in the Church of England, and many were women.  The most famous name associated with this literature is Hannah More (1745-1833), whose prodigious output of “Cheap Repository” tracts taught “the poor in rhetoric of most ingenious homeliness to rely upon the virtues of content, sobriety, humility, industry, reverence for the British Constitution, hatred of the French, trust in God and in the kindness of the gentry” (as the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica put it).  

Barnard’s rather smaller canon was similar in tone and, like More’s, was at least in part aimed at a juvenile market.  The title of her first book was The Parent’s Offering (1813, and labelled as “Intended as a companion to Miss Edgeworth’s Parent’s assistant”, a reference to Maria Edgeworth, another female novelist, moralist and educationalist).  Her Lace-makers of Missenden was recommended as suitable for ten to sixteen year olds by another exemplar and champion of female education, Elizabeth Lachlan (née Appleton, c. 1790-1849): “A very engaging work, and worthy of being placed in the child or youth’s library, with his best authors.  Nothing of the kind can be more interesting than the progress of this beautiful, simple story, and the moral is perfect, as the conclusion is satisfactory.”

The frontispiece to Barnard’s The Prize depicts the prize-giving ceremony, and the moment when it appears that Rose’s rival Rachel Skinner will carry off the prize for the best lace

The frontispiece to Barnard’s The Prize depicts the prize-giving ceremony, and the moment when it appears that Rose’s rival Rachel Skinner will carry off the prize for the best lace

Like Hannah More’s famous The Shepherd of Salisbury Plain (1795), Barnard’s stories were often set among the rural working class.  The poor could give moral lessons to the rich because, as another of these Evangelical writers explained, “Among such, the sincerity and simplicity of the Christian character appear unencumbered by those obstacles to spirituality of mind and conversation which too often prove a great hindrance to those who live in the higher ranks.”  However such books were also intended to domesticate the growing numbers of literate labourers.  With the radicalism of the 1790s still very much in mind, and aware of growing labour unrest again at the end of the Napoleonic Wars, middle and upper class commentators were concerned that the fabric of the social order was fraying.  They feared revolution, and were attempting to inoculate the population with Christian morality.  The message of Barnard’s The Prize – that one should not aspire above one’s station, and one should avoid new-fangled ideas coming from the cities – chimed exactly with this generally conservative political outlook.  

Given these characteristics it is perhaps surprising that Mary Shelley (née Godwin) – daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft, wife of the radical poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and author of Frankestein – has been put forward as the real author lurking behind the pseudonym “Mrs Caroline Barnard”.  The identification is most forcibly articulated by Emily Sunstein, and other Shelley scholars have proved sceptical.  It is true that Barnard was published by Mary’s father, William Godwin; it is also true that the Shelleys moved to Marlow (Bucks), not too far from Missenden, in 1816, and while there took an interest in the lives of the local lacemakers.  Mary wrote later, “Marlow was inhabited (I hope it is altered now) by a very poor population. The women are lacemakers, and lose their health by sedentary labour, for which they were very ill paid… The changes produced by peace following a long war, and a bad harvest, brought with them the most heart-rending evils to the poor.  Shelley afforded what alleviation he could.”  Admittedly the case for identifying Mary Shelley as Caroline Barnard is circumstantial at best, but it is intriguing to find in the diary of her equally scandalous step-sister, Claire Claremont, that when the Shelley ménage was at Bagni di Pisa, on 19 August 1820, she was reading The Parent’s Offering.

Although its characters exist largely to illustrate moral lessons, The Prize is quite a lively read, and demonstrates some knowledge of the lace business.  The protagonists are Rose Fielding, fifteen, and her younger sister Sally, who have to support their invalid and widowed mother and their grandmother through their lacemaking.  The grandmother had, in her youth, won a prize for lace, “the finest bit of lace that has ever been made in all Buckinghamshire!” as she never fails to remind her granddaughters.  The prize was awarded by Lady Bloomfield whose patronage encouraged the lace industry, but “my lady Bloomfield is dead, and times are altered now, and girls are growing idle and good for nothing.”  Grandmother’s grumbles are directed less at Rose, who is utterly dutiful and conscientious, than at Sally, who though she promises to make a yard of edging a day (at two shillings a yard), is constantly distracted, her lace gets dusty and her bobbins tangled.

The main source of distraction is the unkempt, gossipy and superstitious shopkeeper Mrs Rogers, and her niece Eliza Burrows, recently arrived from “Lonnon” to set up a millinery business in the village shop, now advertising the “newest fashion, from the most elegantest varehouse in all Lonnon”.  Eliza quite turns Sally’s head with her “Wellington hat” and “Spanish cloak”, “epaulets” and “hussar sleeves” (fashions brought back with the victorious army from the Peninsula), and the promise that “you was intended to be genteel”.  In vain does Rose warn her sister that “you are not a lady, nor ever will be, and that therefore you need not try to look like one”.

Also recently arrived in the village is the new squire, Sir Clement Rushford and his bride.  Unlike their immediate predecessors – respectively a miser and wastrel – the Rushfords interest themselves in the life of the village.  Lady Rushford and her niece Letitia Lenox take Rose Fielding under their wing.  Inspired by the stories of Granny Fielding, the Rushfords re-establish not only the lace school in the village, but the lace Prize.  But if the lace produced on her pillow had not reached the regulation length by Prize Day, the girl’s name would be struck off the school list.  Rose, “a main good hand at her pillow” is presumed the most likely winner, though she has a rival in the form of sulky Rachel Skinner.  But Rose is distracted both by teaching a neighbouring pauper child to read and by having to finish her sister’s lace as well as her own (for despite Sally’s claim that “I have never yet looked off my work from the time I have begun of a day”, her length is only half done).  Come the moment of truth, the judges – not the gentry but local expert lacemakers – acknowledge Rose’s skill but report her lace fell short by two or three yards (consternation all round and hysterics from Granny).  However, it turns out that wicked Eliza had stolen four yards of Rose’s lace to trim a “Regency ‘elmet” she intended to wear to a “melo-drame” performed by the officers of the 58th regiment garrisoned at Amersham.  All is discovered, Eliza is dispatched back to London as “not fit for the country”, and Rose receives the Prize, “A SILVER TIME-PIECE”, engraved with Lady Rushford’s name.  And to cap it all, Letitia’s father, Dr Lenox, announces he can cure widow Fielding of her lameness.  

The moral of this story almost matches every characteristic of More’s tracts, including the “the kindness of the gentry”.  However, Barnard is careful to show that there are irresponsible gentry just as there are undeserving cases among the poor.  The Rushfords renew a social contract that had been unfulfilled for two generations.  Lace, it appears, has always been an appropriate target for aristocratic benevolence.  When, much later in the nineteenth century, the lace associations were founded by leisured, titled ladies to preserve the virtues of domestic industry, they were reviving a tradition of philanthropy, not inventing it.  One wonders what they might have been reading in their formative years.

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