A Lacemakers’ Lullaby: Alexandre Desrousseaux’s ‘Le P’tit Quinquin’ (1853)

‘Le P’tit Quinquin’ features on a 2005 French stamp.

The northern French city of Lille was once a great centre of lacemaking.  In the eighteenth century, lace manufacture was the dominant occupation for women.  The lacemakers’ feast held annually on 9 May – the ‘Fête du Broquelet’ or ‘Feast of the Bobbin’ – continued to be the city’s major holiday into the first decades of the nineteenth century.[1]  The women and girls from the different lace workshops and schools took a jaunt out to the taverns and parks of the surrounding villages; the drinking and dancing continued for several days.  But by the mid-nineteenth century, even as the city’s rapid industrialisation covered those same villages and parks with textile factories and rows of workers’ tenements, the number of lacemakers declined until, by 1851, there were only 1,600 listed in the census.[2]  Yet, even as she disappeared from Lille’s working-class quarters, the lacemaker became a symbol of the city, and the designated transmitter of its memories and traditions.

François Louis Joseph Watteau’s ‘La Fête du Broquelet’, c. 1803. Note the giant bobbin in the bottom right-hand corner carriage. This image from Wikipedia Commons, the original in the Musée de l’Hospice Comtesse, Lille.

It was a song, more specifically a lullaby, which brought about this transfiguration.  ‘Le P’tit Quinquin’ [The little child] was first performed in 1851 by its author and composer, Alexandre Desrousseaux.[3]  It is in the voice of a lacemaker, coaxing and threatening her child to try to get him to sleep so she can get on with her work.  It would be hard to exaggerate the success of this text (originally titled ‘L’canchon dormoire’ or ‘lullaby’): it was without contest Desrousseaux’s most famous work – he is often described as ‘the father of Le P’tit Quinquin’ – and Desrousseaux was himself the most famous of Lille’s many dialect poets and songwriters.  That success was almost immediate: over 100,000 copies of the song were sold between 1853, its first publication, and 1890.  It could be heard in all the bars and cafés of the city, and by 1854 newspapers had already labelled it ‘The Marseillaise of the Lille worker’.  ‘Le P’tit Quinquin’ gave his name to shops, a newspaper, a make of biscuit, a brand of pencil, and dozens of other commercial uses, not just in Lille but across France.  More recently it was the title of a French TV mini-series, directed by Bruno Dumont which was set in northern France.  There are several continuations of the song (some by Desrousseaux himself) as well as numerous parodies, while the tune has been endlessly borrowed.  There are recordings of reggae, punk and military band versions.  When a monument to Desrousseaux was erected in Lille in 1902, his bust was accompanied by the child and his mother, complete with lace cushion.  In 1953 there were national, indeed international celebrations to mark the centenary of publication of the ‘Le P’tit Quinquin’.

The singer and composer Alexandre Desrousseaux pictured on an 1883 calendar. Note the images from his most famous song at the bottom.

Desrousseaux (1820-1892) grew up in Saint-Sauveur, a working-class quarter of Lille: his mother had herself been a lacemaker, but was later a shopkeeper, while his father made braiding.  Young Alexandre worked in a variety of textile factories and then as a tailor’s apprentice before being conscripted into the army in 1840.  However, he had already started to make a reputation as a musician, selling his own songsheets to the crowds during Lille’s carnival.  In the eighteenth century Lille had been home to a thriving dialect literary culture, with songs and plays composed in Picard, and often featuring lacemaker characters.  Antoine Cottignies (known as ‘Brûle-Maison’) and his son Jacques were the most famous practitioners, and their works were still familiar in the early nineteenth century.  Desrousseaux was determined to revive the glory days of Picard literature: almost everything he composed was in dialect.  Song clubs were a vibrant feature of working-class culture in Lille and other industrial cities, and dialect was often the preferred medium as more directly expressive of workers’ concerns (although the most famous piece to emerge from these clubs – Eugène Pottier’s socialist anthem ‘L’Internationale’ which was, for many years, the national anthem of the Soviet Union – was composed in standard French).  Desrousseaux himself, thanks to his military career and his growing musical fame, was taken under the wing of the deputy mayor of Lille, Arthur Gentil-Descamps, and so climbed the social ladder into the ranks of the middle classes as a municipal functionary.  However, he did not lose the common touch.

Singing clubs were an important part of Lille’s working-class culture (although the one illustrated here by Daumier is ‘La Goguette des Joyeux’ in Paris).

‘Le P’tit Quinquin’ was apparently born from observation.  Walking through the city to visit his mother in cour Jeannette-à-vaches, Desrousseaux overheard a lacemaker, desperate to finish her order, attempting to quieten her crying child with promises of cakes and toys.  However, Desrousseaux also adapted the scenario in order to incorporate other elements of Lille’s traditions and working-class culture.  This idea was apparently suggested to him by Auguste Charles Arnold, the editor of the Gazette de Flandre.  Arnold felt that the Lille workers, overwhelmed by the changes brought on by mechanisation and, in particular, the mass migration from across the Belgian border, needed to be reminded of their own history, and to draw strength from their traditions.  Desrousseaux, who would go on to write an important book on the Moeurs populaires de la Flandre française (popular customs of French Flanders), took seriously his role as a folklorist: ‘Many of my songs could be considered as studies of our celebrations and pastimes, both public and private.’  ‘Le P’tit Quinquin’ contains references to the ‘Ducasse’, Lille’s main fair in August/September, and the puppet shows which were a mainstay of popular entertainment in northern French towns, with at least one theatre on almost every street. Saint Nicholas also appears for, as elsewhere in northern Europe, his feast day on 6 December was the main season for gift-giving.  In Lille he was accompanied on his visits to children, both good and naughty, by a donkey who carried the gifts but who also carried whips to punish.  Thus the lullaby of desperate worker became a survey of working-class entertainments.

Desrousseaux borrowed the voice of a lacemaker, though more often elderly, for several other songs which detailed this plebeian cultural and municipal history, such as ‘Le Broquelet d’autrefois (souvenirs d’une dentellière)’ [The Feast of the Bobbin of Yesteryear (memories of a lacemaker)] and ‘la vieille dentellière, souvenirs et regrets’ [the old lacemaker, memories and regrets].  Other songwriters also used a lacemaker character to make comparisons between the past and the present.  For instance in 1908 Adolphe Desreumaux used this character to protest against the influx of Belgian migrant workers to the suburb of Wazemmes in his ‘Sou’vnirs d’eun vielle dintellière’ [Memories of an old lacemaker].[4]  Thus the lacemaker became the Sybil of Lille’s oral and popular history.

‘Le P’tit Quinquin’ works because it mimics genuine folk lullabies which often combined saccharine tunes with texts that reeked of despair.  Indeed, travellers passing through the city have assumed that it was a traditional folk lullaby rather than the work of a male author.[5]  Desrousseaux’s lacemaker is simultaneously tender and desperate.  Grinding poverty lurks in this text: a child crying for three-quarters of an hour was probably hungry, his good clothes were already in the pawn shop.  Promises of gingerbread and toys may not work on little Narcisse because they are implausible, whereas the threat of chastisement seems more concrete.

There are numerous recordings available, but most seem intended for a nursery audience (in which the dialect is softened or entirely absent).  Desrousseaux’s original listeners were adult males, and to appreciate the proper effect one really needs to hear it sung by happy bands of Lille OSC fans.  But in the absence of such an encounter, we recommend the version sung by Raoul de Godewarsvelde, who was born in the same quartier as Desrousseaux, and which is available on youtube.[6]

Below we provide the original text, and a rough English translation,.

 

Dors mon p’tit Quiquin, mon p’tit poussin, mon gros raisin
Tu me feras du chagrin, si tu ne dors point jusqu’à demain

Ainsi l’autre jour une pauvre dentelière,
En berçant son petit garçon,
Qui depuis trois quarts d’heures ne faisait que pleurer,
Tâchait de l’endormir avec une chanson,
Elle lui disait ‘min narcisse,
Demain tu auras du pain d’épice,
Des bonbons à gogo, si tu es sage et si tu fais dodo.

Refrain

‘Et si tu me laisses faire une bonne semaine,
J’irai chercher ton beau sarrau
Ton patalon de drap, ton gilet de laine,
Comme un petit Milord tu seras faraud !
Je t’acheterai, le jour de la ducasse,
Un polichinelle cocasse
Un turlututu, pour jouer l’air du chapeau pointu.

Refrain

‘Nous irons dans la cour, Jeannette-aux-Vaches,
Voir les marionnettes comme tu riras
Quand tu entendras dire un sou pour Jacques,
Par le polichinelle qui parle mal
Tu lui mettras dans sa main,
Au lieu d’un sou un rond de carrotte
Il te dira merci, parce comme nous, il prendra du plaisir !

Refrain

‘Et si par hazard son maître se fâche,
C’est alors Narcisse que nous rirons
Sans n’avoir envie, je prendrai mon air méchant,
Je lui dirai son nom et ses surnoms
Je lui dirai des fariboles,
Il m’en répondra des drôles
Enfin, chacun verra deux spectacles au lieu d’un.

Refrain

‘Alors serre tes yeux, dors mon bonhomme,
Je vais dire une prière au petit Jésus,
Pour qu’il vienne ici, pendant ton somme,
Te faire rêver que j’ai les mains pleines d’écus,
Pour qu’il t’apporte une brioche,
Avec du sirop qui coule
Tout le long de ton menton, tu te pourlécheras trois heures du long.

Refrain

‘Le mois qui vient, c’est la fête de St Nicolas,
C’est sûr au soir il viendra te trouver
Il te fera un sermon et te laissera mettre,
En-dessous du ballot un grand panier
Il le remplira si tu es sage,
De choses qui te rendront heureux
Sinon son baudet t’enverra un grand martinet.’

 Refrain

Ni les marionnettes, ni le pain d’épice,
N’ont produit d’effet ; mais le martinet
A vite calmé le petit Narcisse,
Qui craignait de voir arriver le baudet
Il a dit sa berceuse,
Sa mère l’a mis dans son berceau
A repris son coussin, et répété vingt fois le refrain

Dors mon p’tit Quiquin, mon p’tit poussin, mon gros raisin
Tu me feras du chagrin, si tu ne dors point jusqu’à demain.

Sleep my little child, my little chick, my juicy grape,
You’ll make me suffer if you don’t sleep before tomorrow.

Thus the other day, a poor lacemaker,
While rocking her little boy
Who, for three-quarters of an hour had done nothing but cry,
Tried to get him to sleep with a song,
She said to him ‘My Narcisse,
Tomorrow you’ll have some gingerbread
and sweets galore, if you’re good and go to sleep.

Chorus

‘And if you let me do a good week’s work
I’ll go and get your smart smock
Your linen trousers and your woollen cardigan,[7]
You’ll be as smart as an English lord!
At the fair[8] I’ll buy you
a funny jumping jack
A whistle to play the tune “the pointed hat”.

Chorus

‘We’ll go down to the yard, Jeannette-aux-Vaches,
To see the puppets, how you’ll laugh
When you hear “A farthing for Jacques”
Said by Mr Punch who talks so badly
You’ll put into his hand
a piece of carrot instead of a farthing
He’ll say thank you, because, like us, he’ll find it funny!

 

Chorus

‘And if by chance the puppetmaster gets angry
Then Narcisse we’ll make a joke of it
I’ll pretend to be really angry
I’ll call him by his nickname, and worse
I’ll tell him all kinds of nonsense
And he’ll respond in kind
And that way everyone will see two spectacles instead of just one.

Chorus

‘So close your eyes, sleep little man
I’ll say a prayer to baby Jesus
That he’ll come here, while you sleep
and make you dream that you have fistsfull of silver coins
That he’ll bring a bun
With syrup that drips
All the way down your chin, you’ll be licking yourself for three whole hours.

Chorus

‘Next month, it’s Saint Nicholas’s day[9]
And for certain he’ll come and find you in the evening
He’ll give you a sermon and let you put
a big basket under his bundle
If you’re good he’ll fill it
With things to make you happy
But if not his donkey will give you a real whipping.’

Chorus

Neither the puppets, nor the gingerbread
had produced any effect, but the whipping
quickly calmed little Narcisse
afraid to see the donkey come
He said his lullaby
His mother put him in the cot
She took up her pillow, and repeated the chorus twenty times

Sleep my little child, my little chick, my fat grape,
You’ll make me suffer if you don’t sleep before tomorrow.

 

[1] 9 May remembers the translation of the relics of Saint Nicholas from Myra to Bari, an important feast in the Orthodox Church but less usually so in the Catholic Church.

[2] André Mabille de Poncheville, L’industrie dentelière française spécialement en Flandre : Enquête dans la région de Bailleul (Valenciennes: Librairie Giard, 1911), p. 67.

[3] For a good biography and exploration of Desrousseaux’s work see Éric Lemaire, Le chansonnier lillois Alexandre Joachim Desrousseaux et la chanson populaire dialectale (DELEM, 2009).  Most of the information in this post comes from this source.

[4] Adolphe Desreumaux, Mes chansons et pasquilles patoises. Etudes de moeurs lilloises (Lille: J. Hollain, 1908), p. 17-18

[5] Countess Evelyn Martinengo-Cesaresco, Essays in the Study of Folk-Songs (London: J.M. Dent & Sons, 1914), p. 253.

[6] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uY28zyuK1HI

[7] The implication is that the clothes are in pawn.  Desrousseaux himself worked for the municipal pawn shop.

[8] The ‘Ducasse’ was Lille’s major fair, held at the end of August – beginning of September.

[9] 6 December.

Celebrating Catterns at the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford, Saturday 25 November 2017

As readers of this blog will know, lacemakers claim several saints as their patron, but the one most favoured in the English Midlands is Saint Catherine.  The Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford celebrated the Feast of Saint Catherine on 25 November 2017 with a ‘lace day’.   ISIS lacemakers demonstrated their skills and gave visitors a chance to make some lace themselves, while David Hopkin gave visitors talks about the lace tools on display and their connection to lacemakers’ work, feasts and folklore.  There were Cattern cakes to try (though we’re probably not quite ready to submit our cakemaking talents to the Great British Bake Off).  And we’re probably going to do the whole thing again next year.

Visitors to the Pitt Rivers met with local lacemakers and some had a go themselves

The lace display in the Pitt Rivers is small but there’s lots to say about it.

Global Histories of Lace: From the collection of the Pitt Rivers Museum

Under large glass case to one side of the ground floor of the Pitt Rivers Museum stands a lace maker’s pillow on a lace maker’s ‘horse’, a specially constructed wooden stand. A half-finished sample of lace is pinned to the pillow, a mass of bobbins handing from the pins used to create the intricate pattern. This lace maker’s pillow seems to be a small piece of English history marooned amongst the shrunken heads, baskets, pottery and shields of the Museum’s ethnographic collection. If one traces the history of English lace and lace making traditions through the Pitt River’s collection, it becomes clear that the history of lace and lace making follows the contours of European history itself, the fortunes of England’s lace makers rising and falling together with the religious schisms, economic policies, and changing political alliances between British and Continental rulers over time. Styles of lace we now identify as ‘English’ emerged from the courtly traditions and trade routes of Early Modern Europe, and quickly differentiated into local variants, such as Honiton or Bucks Point, shifting and changing with both domestic and international fashions. However, using the Pitt River’s collection to study traditions of English lace and lace making also reveals the contours of Britain’s own expansionist dreams: Silk lace from in South East Asia and palm needles from Amazonia are just a few of the objects in the Pitt-Rivers collection which serve to remind us that everywhere the technique traveled it became part of local practices and identities.

English lace maker’s ‘horse’ and pillow on exhibit in the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford.

Interest in lace and making lace was spread across the globe together with the imperial ambitions of the major European powers. The technique was carried to North America, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa by emigrants, while Spanish, French, and British educationalists and missionaries taught Native Americans, Amazonians, Indians, and Sri Lankans the technique as part and parcel of their proselytizing efforts. Some of the geographic connections are exotic and reveal the way in which the technique and its instruments were taken up and adjusted to local conditions. In the Museum collection, for example, we find a pottery figure of a woman making pillow lace from Bello Jardem, Pernambuco State, Brazil (1945.2.16 – given by Dr Martins Gonçalves, British Council student, Slade School, Ashmolean Museum). From a similar area are eight bobbins(‘birros’) made of the fruit of the Tucuma palm, Amazonia used for making pillow lace (1961.7.56.1) given to the museum by Dr F. N. Howes, Director of the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew.

By a complex set of connections, the Pitt Rivers Museum acquired lace from in and around Galle on the south coast of what was then Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). The lace was collected by Mrs Bland at the beginning of the twentieth century, it then came into the possession of Flora Shelford who lived in Old Headington and who donated it to the Pitt Rivers Museum in August 1919 (Accession number 1919.27.89). In a letter to Mrs Bland, Marion Evans of the Government Training College in Galle wrote ‘Fifty years ago, Honiton was made in Colombo … You will find good quality typical (i.e. Torchon) Ceylon lace in Galle Convent Industrial School, where they are also making a beginning with fine laces; in Moratuwa we have duchess and Valenciennes laces – in Kurunegola good Torchon and a little finer pillow lace – Spanish designs. In Kandy you will find bold pillow lace in the Convent School: but the Church Missionary Society has lace of a better quality…’ (letter from Marion Evans to Mrs Bland 19th April 1908 in Related Documents file linked to Accession Number 1919.27.89). In the same letter Marion Evans speculates as to whether local objects have inspired designs, such as mangoes and whether influences from Eastern Art (capitalized in the original) might eventually extend the range of lace styles.

Lace maker, Sri Lanka

 

As we see from the letter, the names of different styles and qualities of bobbin lace were common knowledge amongst most middle-class women in Britain, but lace itself had already become a global fashion item and a global commodity. Elsewhere in its collections, the Pitt Rivers has bobbins and samples of lace, sometimes done in silk, from Malacca in Malaysia. This was again through Mrs Bland, of whom Flora Shelford wrote ‘My brother-in-law and I have been winding up the house in Letchworth and came across a collection of lace specimens …  My sister did a great deal, as you may know, to revive the native industries in Malacca, and lace was one of these…’ (Flora Shelford letter to Balfour August 1919, Related documents File connected to accession book entry 1919.27.68). As in the case of Mrs. Bland’s efforts in Malacca, the formation of such ‘native  industries’ were often sparked by efforts of female missionaries and colonial officer’s wives to supply local women with a small income. A similar story is found in Travancore, South India. Here, the missionary Mrs Mault established the Nagercoil boarding school for the daughters of Christian converts in 1898 (Haggis 2000). Although the school prepared young women for the university entrance exams, lace-making was an obligatory part of the curriculum. Marketing the lace through throughout British cantonments in Southern India, it not only supplied the pupils with a small income, but eventually came to provide ‘the major financial underpinning of women’s work in the mission’ (2000:115). In Travancore, Christian philanthropy and bourgeois ideals of gendered behaviour become inextricably linked through the medium of lace making. As historian Jane Haggis notes, ‘the missionary wives saw the lace industry as another opportunity to instil those ‘habits of order, cleanliness, industry’ seen to be at the heart of a good Christian home’ (2000:116). Lace making supplied women with an income, and young women with the means to stave off marriage and continue their educations, and kept them from the ‘influence of wicked associates and sinful examples’ (2000:113) while supporting the Christian cause. More importantly, they could do this while staying at home: ‘Sewing and lace making fitted the missionary wives’ idea of ‘respectable’ and ‘useful’ skills for Christian housewives (2000:116). It appears, then, that the ‘utopian commodity consumption’ had been exported to the colonies. Along the way, however, it had garnered the additional virtue of becoming a tool of social and spiritual emancipation. Indeed, in one story recounted by a Travancore missionary, the skills and income of a native ‘lace lady’ (lace maker) enabled her to educated her daughter into a ‘Native Lady dressed in the costume of a Hospital Nurse – with polished, ladylike manners, speaking English with perfect ease and correctness’ (2000:117). Thus, the craft was construed as an instrument of enlightenment in the colonial setting: here, lace making was ‘English’, and ‘Englishness’ was marked out not by the presence of ancient cultural ‘survivals’, but the abandonment of indigenous ways of life in favour of civilized modernity.

While bobbin lace making was a European tradition, the Pitt River’s collection sheds light on how the craft was also a mobile technology which travelled across the entire globe with changing flows of people, materials, and ideas. Lace could therefore be made in an ‘English’ style (or ‘Flemish’ or ‘French’ style), but was also global, taking on and forming local identities as it moved across the world, local variants such as Honiton or Beds Maltese being made using silk in South East Asia and palm needles in Amazonia.

Sources:

Haggis, J. 2000. Ironies of
Emancipation: Changing configurations of ‘Women’s work’ on the ‘mission of
sisterhood’ to Indian women. Feminist Review, 65(3):108-126.

Pleasure and Pain: What can lace makers’ tools tell us about their lives?

How do you understand the life of lace makers in the 19th and early 20th century, when they left very few records? Reading newspapers from the time can give us some clues to the thoughts and feelings of craftswomen, but surprisingly the tools of the trade also ‘speak’ to us across the decades.

The overwhelming fact of lace makers’ lives during the 19th century was poverty. Their fortunes were not only determined by changing fashions and the fluctuating trade policies of the Parliament, but also larger questions of foreign policy and power-shifts on the Continent. 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.

Despite a growing number of reports detailing the dire working conditions of lace makers and the adverse effects these had on women’s health, lace making was often publicly extolled as offering women a virtuous way out of poverty. Thus, in 1780, a parliamentary white paper considering a reinstatement of a previous ban on French laces remarked that lace making ‘only kept those Hands employed that would otherwise have been mischievous or idle’ and ‘while the Male Part of the Family were employed in Agriculture abroad, the Wife and Daughters were equally assiduous in their gainful Occupations at home’ (1780:2). The considerable gains from the industry, the author continued, ‘might be considered as a voluntary Tribute paid by the Rich to the industrious Poor’ (1780:2). Historian Elaine Freedgood has described this self-imposed patronage of working class lace makers by a nobility relieved from labour, and by the philanthropy of bourgeois housewives, as a mode of ‘utopian commodity consumption’ in which the supply and demand of the market was replaced by a language of ‘need and duty as affluent women are enjoined to support the efforts of labouring women’ (2003:628). Lacemaking, in short, was presented as a charitable means of preserving the moral virtue of labouring women by those who had no need to work themselves.

Northampton Mercury and Herald, Friday January 19th, 1934.

Lace makers themselves experienced craftwork as both a compulsive, almost pleasurable obsession, and straightforward drudgery. In 1933, the elderly Mrs Johnson told the Northampton Mercury that the life of a lace maker was one of ‘unremitting toil’; and yet she missed her work. Once, she reminisced, she had ‘sat from four o’clock in the morning to eight o’clock at night working on a cuff, and the pillow had to be dragged away from me. I wanted nothing more than to sit in my room with the door shut and the work in front of me’. Others, however, had much less sympathetic memories of the trade. In an interview in 1979, a Mrs Swain from Greens Norton, remembered how she was forced to make lace as a child: “I should say you’d find a piller [pillow] in everybody’s house that were poor people. All the women in the town [village] had to do it, and all the girls had to learn. I detested it. My mother used to say, when I come from school, “Now sit down and do your piller-work. The sooner you do it, the sooner you’ll get out to play.” She goes on to account how she later burned the lace making pillow, her mother’s bobbin winder, and the pillow stand – even though it had been made by her brother and was apparently ‘a beauty’. For Mrs Swain, the pillow, its stand, and the winding wheel had become symbols of the drudgery of the trade, and her enforced labour as a child.

Mrs Swain, however, did not mention burning her mother’s bobbins. Indeed, if one looks at both contemporary newspaper material and later accounts, lace makers’ bobbins are often spoken about in far warmer terms than other tools of the trade. This is partly due to the fact that they were a collection of tools unique to each lace maker. Hand carved or turned on a treadle lathe, bobbins were commonly made of wood or bone and could be intricately carved, painted, inlaid with pewter, wire-bound or inscribed with names and dates. Lace makers would sometimes thread charms and mementos onto their spangles, such as buttons, shells or coins. Bobbins inscribed with names were extremely common. They were often made to commemorate births and deaths, and many bobbins carried blessings and religious messages (‘Seek Salvation’). Bobbins carrying messages of love were also common gifts given from young men to their sweethearts. The power of a gift of a bobbin to create bonds between persons was exploited by people from beyond a lace maker’s immediate circle of friends and family. Bobbins with the names of political candidates and their slogans were distributed at election time and some lace dealers gave their workers bobbins as gifts. Lace makers generally worked for more than one dealer and these gifts may have been an attempt from the dealers’ side to monopolize the services of particularly talented craftswomen. Bone bobbin decorated with the name ‘William’. From the collection of the Museum of Rural English Life, Reading

Bone bobbin decorated with the name ‘Fox’. From the collection of the Higgins Art Gallery and Museum, Bedford.

 

A lace maker’s collection of bobbins, then, was like a very personal, material record of her family relations, friendships, and love life. Indeed, in families where lace making had been a tradition, but was no longer practiced, it was often the bobbins which were kept for posterity long after pillows, pillow stands and other paraphernalia had been given or thrown away. Reporting on the revival of lace making lessons at St Mary’s School in Stony Stratford, the Northampton Mercury reported that two students arrived with such heirloom bobbins, enthusiastically claiming that they were 200 and 400 years old, respectively. While it is unlikely, although not impossible, that these bobbins had actually survived several centuries of pillow-work, the claims that they were extremely old seemed to be about presenting tangible evidence of these local families’ long involvement in the industry. Similarly, the aforementioned Mrs Johnson claimed that one of her bobbins had belonged to her great-grandmother and was 200 years old. Made of bone, it bore the inscription ‘I like my choice too well to change’. Bobbins, however, were also commodities – like lace-making, bobbin-making was a profession which ran in families – and as such, they were liable to be not only bought and gifted, but also stolen. In 1860, for example, the Bucks Herald reported that a certain Mary Dormer of Milton Keynes stole 12 bobbins from Hannah Robinson, and was imprisoned for 6 weeks for her crime.

 

 

Notification from the Bucks Herald reporting Mary Dormer’s theft of twelve bobbins, Saturday July 14th, 1860.

Of Pigs and Lacemakers: The Reverend Thomas Mozley’s Reminiscences of Moreton Pinkney (1832-36)

Moreton Pinkney, like its near neighbour in south Northamptonshire, Silverstone, had a reputation in the early nineteenth century as ‘a very rough place’.  Or so it appeared, in 1832, to its new curate, Thomas Mozley, who claimed ‘there existed no adequate means for the maintenance of order, health, or decency’.[1]  Mozley was one of the most ardent proselytizers for the ‘Oxford’ or ‘Tractarian Movement’ in the late 1830s and ‘40s, a High Church form of Anglicanism whose influence we have encountered before.  He had been a pupil of Henry Newman, the future cardinal, at Oriel College (which held the living of Moreton Pinkney), and would marry Newman’s sister in 1836.  Clergymen no doubt have relatively high standards of behaviour, but Mozley’s strictures concerning Moreton Pinkney also found echoes in the contemporary press: according to the Banbury Advertiser for 3 September 1857 it had an ‘unenviable notoriety’ for lawlessness.[2]

One of Mozley’s measures of the village’s ‘roughness’ was that pigs – ‘huge masterful brutes’ – ran riot in the streets and forced their way into his garden: ‘When we complained we were told that the pigs must have a run, and that between schooling and lace-making, no child could be spared to look after them.’[3]  Moreton Pinkney was then, and would remain into the 1870s at least, a lace village.  This too posed its problems for Mozley, very much a reforming clergyman determined to impose order, sobriety and learning on the ‘rude and generally inoffensive savages’.  Even among the children who actually attended the village school, it was ‘woeful to find what a dense mass of ignorance buried a thin stratum of knowledge’.  But even if, as Mozley planned, the existing school could be reformed, there remained another obstacle:

The school was but half filled. It had a rival too strong for it. This village of misery and dirt, of cold and nakedness, of pigs and paupers, was the busy seat of a beautiful and delicate manufacture. As many as a hundred and fifty women and girls made pillow lace. On the higher green was the ‘lacemaking school,’ as it was called. Near thirty children were packed in a small room, and kept at their pillows from six in the morning, all the year round, to six in the evening. They were arranged in groups of four or five, round candles, about which were water-bottles so fixed as to concentrate the light on the work of each child. Girls were sent thither from the age of five, on a small weekly payment.

It kept them out of the way in the day, and it prevented the wear and tear of clothes. The food side of the calculation was doubtful, for the parents always said the lacemakers ate more than other children, though it did not do them much good. For a year or two the children earned nothing. They could then make a yard of edging in a week, and, deducting expenses, they got twopence for it. By the time they were eleven or twelve they could earn a shilling or eighteenpence a week. There were women in the village who could not clothe their own children, or present themselves at church, who had made and could still make lace to sell in the shops at 20s. or 30s. a yard. The more costly lace was generally ‘blonde,’ that is, made with ‘gimp’ or silk thread.  The makers were all bound to the dealers by hard terms, so they said, and obliged to buy at the dealers’ terms their gimp and thread.

They took great pride in the number and prettiness of their bobbins, making and receiving presents of them, and thinking of the givers as they twirled the bobbins. We took a good deal of the lace, and disposed of it amongst our friends. My youngest sister set up a pillow, and made some yards of good lace. I learnt to be a critic in lace, and an appraiser.

Though all these children were taught to read, and even to write and to sum a little, they were of course very backward, and they soon ceased to do anything but make lace.[4]

Mozley thought of backwardness in terms of Bible knowledge, and his response was to run evening classes for boys and girls which were, apparently, much appreciated.  Thirty years later he met one member of his New Testament class who came as a lace-dealer to his new vicarage in Finchampstead, Berkshire, and who was able to pass on all the parish gossip.[5]

Some of that gossip probably concerned the extensive Talbot family of Hog Lane, ‘believed to be of Gypsy extraction’.  As many Talbot womenfolk were lacemakers, we quote this section in extenso, not least because of its discussion of the ‘truck system’.  Although illegal, it was common practice not only among bootmakers but also among lace-dealers, who were often also grocers.  They obliged lacemakers to take payment in kind rather than coin, which forced the workers to hawk the overpriced goods for themselves.  As we have seen, Reverend Ferguson of Bicester discussed the same abuse.

The Talbot clan contained some remarkable specimens.  George was a gigantic fellow a well-sinker and excavator. He did not make much appearance at Moreton Pinckney; indeed, it was said that he had married one or more wives besides the one on duty there. She might be supposed a match for him, for in a terrible quarrel she had run a knife right through his arm. He was in prison part of my time for deserting his family. His mother took it much to heart, and when I was expecting some sentimental explanation of her sorrow, told me she knew what the prison allowance of bread was, and that George would starve on it.

There were two Phillis Talbots, one old, and the other still young, but the mother of a large family. She was, and she remained for many years, a name dear to my Derby friends. My contemporary note of the family is, ‘a delicate and very interesting woman. He is well-intentioned, but weak of purpose. A large family. Very poor.’ Her voice and utterance told for her as much as her looks. She was one of the best lace-makers in the village: but to think of the darkness, damp, and dirt her beautiful fabrics came out of, and the rough cubs all round her ‘pillow’! In her early days she had made lace that fetched 25s. or 30s. a yard. We saw bits of it. Some of her children were of my evening classes, and they were sure of help. Her cottage, in Hog Lane, belonged to some one who could not afford a penny for the repair of the thatch, and it was a mass of rot. I remember her describing a stormy night. As she lay in bed something dropped upon her face, and, when she felt for it, was cold and clammy. She got up and struck a light, and, ‘Oh, ma’am,’ she said to my mother or sister, ‘it was a newt!’

For some years we sent her an annual present, but had to stop it for a very sad reason, of which I never heard the full particulars. One or two of her sons were in the employment of shoemakers at Northampton, or one of the other seats of that trade.  They brought home boots and shoes, which poor Phillis took, and used or sold. She had to suffer a term of imprisonment as a receiver of stolen goods.

It must be explained, however, that in those days the truck system was universal, at least among all the lower class of manufacturers. The makers of any article whatever would say to their workpeople at the end of the week or fortnight, ‘We haven’t the money to pay you the whole of your wages; we cannot find sale, or our customers will not pay. So take, at cost price, some of the things you have made, and sell them yourselves if you can.’

The practice was the subject of long discussions in Parliament for many years, and had more advocates than might be now supposed. One of the chief objections was the opportunity it gave the workpeople for robbing their employers. They carried about goods which they said had been given them in lieu of money wages; and, as the practice was universal, they were not suspected, nor could a suspicion have been followed up. In the matter of lace it continually occurred that when the makers had every reason to believe the dealers would take their work on existing terms, they found they had themselves to find purchasers on whatever terms they could. In those days law was invoked much more freely for the protection of trade than it is now, when manufacturers and dealers are told to take care of themselves.[6]

The case against Phillis Talbot was rather more serious than this summary suggests.  In the hard and hungry winter of 1848, according to the Oxford Chronicle Northamptonshire was rife with rumours and alarms about burglaries and highway robberies.[7]  Well-off farmers feared a return to the days of the infamous ‘Culworth Gang’, who terrorized south Northamptonshire at the end of the eighteenth century and whose memory was very much alive in places like Moreton Pinkney (and whose exploits may feature in a future blog piece).  On 15 December, a group of armed men, their faces blackened, broke into the farm of Thomas Lovell in Catshanger.  Firearms were discharged and linen, silver, clothing and foodstuffs were stolen.  An investigation led to the arrest of Phillis’s son, Benjamin, whose age was given as 11, as well as several members of the Prestidge family who were related to Phillis by marriage and whose name ‘had become so familiar in the records of county crime’.[8]  During searches of houses in Moreton Pinkney Phillis was seen hiding some boots that were part of the thieves’ hoard: she was charged with receiving stolen goods.  At Northampton Lent Assizes in 1849, she was condemned to one month in prison, a comparatively lenient sentence justified ‘on the ground that she was a mother endeavouring to shelter her child, and that it did not appear that she was of the same lawless disposition as the rest of her family.  The prisoner, who seemed worn to utter feebleness with illness and age [she was about 50], and trembled excessively, was accommodated with a chair’.  Benjamin, however, was transported for life, along with the other male members of the gang.[9]  The Catshanger burglary would have ramifications in the district: at Brackley Petty Session for 9 September 1850 several Moreton Pinkney women, Talbots and Prestidges – ‘a batch of viragoes’ as they were described in the Banbury Guardian – were charged with assaulting other villagers, including Phillis, after a row broke out among women working in the fields about responsibility for arrests.[10]

This was certainly not the last occasion that rioting occurred at Moreton Pinkney, nor the last time that the Prestidges and Talbots were in court.  However, the background to this ‘lawlessness’ was the enclosure of common land in Moreton Pinkney at the beginning of the nineteenth century and the replacement of the Old Poor Law, which had supported needy villagers in their own homes, with the New Poor Law and with it the workhouse.  Some of the violence was the direct result of villagers, including the Prestidges and the Talbots, attempting to assert what they perceived as their traditional rights, including rights over property, against improving farmers and reforming clergymen like Mozley.[11]  Poverty, more than criminality, was the scourge of the lace villages.  The 1840s and 50s were desperate times, and we can hear an echo of that in the heartfelt plea of Sarah Prestidge, wife of one of the men sentenced for the Catshanger robbery, before the magistrates in February 1857, where she was charged with failing to support her family.  A widow aged just 36 (William Prestidge had died in prison at Gibraltar in 1856), she replied:

I have no means of supporting my children.  There are four of them; three girls and a boy… I have been in Northampton gaol before for not maintaining the children.  I wrote to the Poor Law Commissioners in London, and the case was referred to the Brackley Board.  I cannot maintain my children.  I have regular work three days a week in the minister’s house.  If I had relief equal to other widows with families I would try and maintain my children out of the Union [workhouse].  If I had the same relief as Phillis Talbot I would try…  I had sooner die under a furze bush than go into the workhouse.  I had rather go to gaol.  There is little difference between them.  In the gaol you are by yourself, but in the workhouse you have rough company.  I had rather have my children with me at home than go to gaol, but I won’t go to the Union.  When I was at the workhouse I was separated from my children.  I saw them at meals certainly, but we were not allowed to speak to one another, we may as well not see them, if we are not allowed to speak to them.  The boys you don’t see more than once a week.  In the workhouse very simple things are called bad behaviour, and my daughter was shut up in a dark room.  The food is not good at the workhouse, and not good at the gaol; there is very little difference between them.  I am not fond of the gaol, but I would leave England rather than go to the Union.[12]

 

[1] Reverend Thomas Mozley, Reminiscences Chiefly of Towns, Villages and Schools (London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1885), vol. 2, pp. 200, 396.

[2] ‘Disorderly Conduct and Rioting at Moreton Pinkney’, Banbury Advertiser 3 September 1857, p. 4.

[3] Mozley, Reminiscences, vol. 2, pp. 201-2.

[4] Mozley, Reminiscences, vol. 2, pp. 223-4.

[5] Mozley, Reminiscences, vol. 2, p. 227.

[6] Mozley, Reminiscences, vol. 2, pp. 250-2.

[7] Oxfordshire Chronicle and Berks and Bucks Gazette, 23 December 1848.

[8] Or so said Colonel Cartwright at the Northampton Quarter Sessions on 5 April 1854: Northampton Mercury 8 April, 1854, p. 3.

[9] Northampton Mercury 10 March 1849, p. 4.  For more on their various fates see Joan Proud, ‘Round up the Usual Suspects!’, Convict Links 15:3 (July 2001).

[10] Banbury Guardian, 12 September, 1850, p. 2.

[11] See, for example, the court case arising out of ‘Guy Fawkes Day at Moreton Pinkney’, Banbury Guardian 28 November 1861, p. 3.

[12] Banbury Guardian 12 February 1857, p. 3.

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Sylvia Pankhurst’s Support for Lacemakers

Sylvia Pankhurst, c. 1909

Unlike some of the other personages we’ve discussed on this site, Sylvia Pankhurst (1882-1960) probably needs little introduction.  Daughter of Emmeline, sister of Christabel and Adela, Sylvia was an artist, a suffragist, a political radical, and deeply involved in anti-fascist and anti-colonial movements between the wars.  She was also interested in lace and lacemakers, as we learnt from Joan Ashworth at a recent conference.  (Joan is making a film called Locating Sylvia Pankhurst.)[1]  For Sylvia, the concerns of working women should have been at the heart of the women’s suffrage campaign, a position that led to a split with her mother Emmeline and sister Christabel, and her expulsion in 1914 from the Women’s Social and Political Union.  She had already demonstrated her interest in women’s work in 1907, when she toured England and Scotland, drawing and interviewing women employed in the potteries, boot and shoe manufacture, the coal industry, chain-making, herring-gutting, and agricultural activities.  She may have envisaged that this would lead to a full-length book, but this never came to fruition; instead articles appeared in magazines, including an illustrated article on ‘Women Workers of England’ in the London Magazine (1908).[2]

It is possible that she had considered including pillow-lace makers in this project.  Domestic women workers were the object of concerted social and philanthropic campaigning in the first decade of the twentieth century, and in these campaigns the fate of the women chain-makers of Cradley Heath was repeatedly linked to that of lacemakers in England and elsewhere.  The same period also witnessed a moderately successful attempt to revive the lace industry and Emily Hobhouse, a campaigner on behalf of Boer civilian prisoners in South Africa, obviously thought Sylvia knew about this because she asked her (c. 1903-4) for lace patterns.[3]  However, no pictures or notes of interviews with lacemakers survive from this period.

The article below was written later, probably around 1929.  Whether it was ever published I have been unable to establish but the typescript appears among her papers now held by the International Institute of Social History, where they are available online.[4]  This is not, it has to be said, a ground-breaking piece of journalism.  In fact, its entire contents are lifted, sometimes verbatim, from Thomas Wright’s Romance of the Lace Pillow (1919).  (The ‘Mrs’ – in fact Mr Harry – Armstrong mentioned at the end of the article also published that book.)[5]  We suspect, therefore, that there never was such as person as ‘Lydia Arkwright’, rather she was a character invented on which to hang various elements of lace lore.  Certainly we have not been able to identify any lacemaker alive in the 1920s with that name.

Nonetheless, we thought it worth including the article on this site because it illustrates just how widespread concern was for the survival of the handmade lace industry.  Sylvia Pankhurst was a socialist, for a while a member of the Communist Party, but her article recapitulates all the themes that aristocratic and clerical patrons of lacemaking used to promote the trade, such as the idealized cottage with birds fluttering around the door and the happy singers in the lace school.  In the first half of the twentieth century, the survival of women’s rural craft traditions was a topic that could unite both left and right of the political spectrum, just as did the ‘arts and crafts’ aesthetics which were so important to the lace revival.

Old Lace

Old Lydia Arkwright sits at her cottage door, plying her pins and bobbins, producing on her pillow the choicest of filmy lace, more exquisite than gems.  The birds flutter round her, confidently pecking up the crumbs she never omits to scatter for them.  Her bobbins are rosewood, well wrought by the bobbin maker from her own trees; but in the press over there is a box of pretty bone bobbins she never uses, cunningly carved and daintily lettered in red and blue, with tender inscriptions, as was the custom of her youth: ‘Lydia Dear’, ‘I wish to wed and love’, ‘My mind is fixed; I cannot range: I love my choice too well to change’.

Her fingers fly, her old voice, quavering, croons the lace-working songs, ‘lace tells’ as they are called:

‘Wallflowers, wallflowers, growing up so high,
All young maidens surely have to die…’

Each tells [sic] calls up some memory of her youth; this one she first heard her first day at the lace school, a tiny wench, only five years old, her poor little face distorted with weeping, for her parents were newly dead of the small-pox.  She had a shelter with her father’s old aunt, but must learn to work for her bread.  So small she was, and woefully ‘unkid’, as the lace folk termed anyone abjectly miserable as she was.  She evoked compassion, for an instant, even in the stern breast of the lace-mistress, petrified as it was by hard toil and grasping for meagre gain.

Rows of little lace girls in clean print dresses, with low necks and short sleeves, their hair in tight plaits, lest any tress should defile the lace were ‘sot’ demurely on stools, on either side of long benches, whereon the lace pillows rested.  The mistress, her keen glance comprehending all, sat clutching her cane in long yellow fingers, ready to chastise the smallest fault with a stroke on those little bare necks and arms.  She gave the forlorn new-comer some bobbins to ‘halse’, and when her sad tears fell on the sacred thread, forgetting all pity, struck her six times over the head, and rubbed her face on the pins.  Poor Lydia proved a diligent pupil, none the less, and as time passed, son [sic. won?] sometimes a good word, and even a little prize from the crabbed old mistress.

The boys, in their smocks, were kept apart from the docile girls; a ‘spunky’ lot they were, getting up to larks and wasting the thread, often playing truant, ‘homesking’ [? illegible] over the fields or ‘scelching’ in the bank by the brook.  She remembered Jack Croft, after a stroke of the cane, ran out of the school and flung his pillow down the well!  What a to-do there was!  No wonder the lace schools charged 4d a week to train a lad, only 2d for a girl.

When the children had grown proficient, they worked ten hours a day for sixpence a week, paid out to them monthly.  They had to stick 600 pins per hour, and if they were five pins short at the end of the day, must work another hour.  When the short winter days drew in, there was neither gas nor electric light to work by, nor so much as an oil lamp; even candles were short.  As many lace makers as possible, often three rings of them, on stools of different heights, sat round a candle-block, with a tall tallow candle burning in the centre and around it inverted flasks fo water, which focussed the little flame of the candle on to the lace cushions.  It was a poor gleam at best, and it was a harsh punishment indeed to be kept in to work by it before the usual season.  They worked hard to get done before dusk, inciting each other to persevere by an appropriate ‘tell’, one row of children singing:

‘19 miles to the Isle of Wight;
Shall I get there by candle-light?’

The next row replied:
‘Yes, if your fingers are lissom and light,
You’ll get there by candle-light.’

Even in the coldest weather, the lace school was unheated.  The only means of keeping warm was to place close to one’s feet, and even under one’s skirts, a ‘fire pot’ of rough earthenware, resembling the scaldino used in Italy, filled each morning with glowing wood-ashes at the baker’s, for the cost of a farthing, and revived occasionally by the bellows.  Sometimes there was a cry: ‘I smell burn!’  Somebody’s petticoat was singed!

It was a hard striving existence for the young, and after they were free of the lace school, there was the ‘baby pillow’ at home, on which the children could earn a few pence more.

Yet what days they were for mirth and jest!  If a girl ran short of pins, she would go round the room with a snatch of song:

‘Polly or Betsy, a pin for the poor!
Give me a pin and I’ll ask for no more.’

On hot summer days they were allowed to take their work outside, and in the joy of youth, they entered into merry contests, sometimes individually, sometimes row against row, competing to place a given number of pins in the shortest time.  And ever and anon, their voices joined in the numberless ‘tells’:

‘Needle pin, needle pin, stitch upon stitch,
Work the old lady out of the ditch.
If she is not out as soon as I
A rap on the knuckles shall come by and by,
A horse to carry my lady about —
Must not look off till 20 are out.’

Then they all counted twenty pins, and if anyone looked up before he or she had done, the others shouted:

‘Hang her up for half an hour;
Cut her down just like a flower.’

The offender would hastily put in the final pins and retort:

‘I won’t be hung up for half an hour,
I won’t be cut down like a flower.’

What times they had on ‘Tanders’, St. Andrews Day, November 30th, which was the lace-makers’ holiday, for St. Andrew was regarded as their patron Saint.  On that day people met in ‘one another’s housen’, and partook of ‘no-candy’, framenty [sic] (wheat boiled in milk and flavoured with spice), and hot, spiced metheglin, made from washing the honeycomb.  Even the lace mistress became genial and bade them invite their friends to join the merrimaking at the school.  In the height of the fun she would come in with a fire pot of metheglin held high in either hand, crying ‘Tan, my boys, Tan!’  When she left the room to get more, they would lock her out, and sung as she shook the door in pretended wrath:

‘Pardon mistress, pardon master,
Pardon for a pin!
If you won’t give us a holiday
We won’t let you in!’

Then the fiddles struck up, and the boys and girls danced round the candle-block, singing:

‘Jack, be nimble, Jack, be quick,
Jack, jump over the candlestick.’

inserting the name of every boy and girl in turn.  Whoever was named must essay the jump over the lighted candle and all.!

The blades were removed from the bobbin winder, and suspended by a cord from one of the beams.  On the pins of the blade were stuck pieces of apple and candle alternately.  The young folk, blindfolded in turn, essayed to bite the apple, and, to the merriment of the spectators, often bit the candle.

Catterns, St. Catherine’s day, was another festival.  The bellman went round before daybreak, calling:

Rise, maids, rise,
Bake your Cattern pies;
Bake enough and bake no waste
And let the bellman have a taste.’

The lace-makers worked hard to finish work by noon, and then ‘wet’ the candle-stool, as they said, by taking tea together with Cattern cakes.  After dancing to the fiddle, they supped on apple pie, ginger-bread, ‘wigs’ flavoured with caraway seed, and drank warm beer, spiced and mixed with rum and beaten eggs.

On Shrove Tuesday, the Parish Clerk rang the ‘Pancake Bell’ at eleven, and the women ran out of their cottages, striving to be first to offer him a pancake fresh from the pan.

Village history wove itself into the tells.  There was one Lydia learnt from her great aunt of a girl whose faithless love, ‘the Fox’, enticed her to meet him in the wood at night, and with an accomplice designed to murder and bury her there.

19 miles as I sat high,
Looking for one, and two passed by;
I saw them that never saw me —
I saw the lantern tied to a tree.

The boughs did bend and the leaves did shake;
I saw the hole the Fox did make.
The Fox did look, the Fox did see
I saw the hole to bury me.’

Folk songs they call such ditties, viewing them as remote and strange, but old Lydia knows they are not mere phantasy; behind each one there lies a poignant human history.  There was a tragic, true story, sung, in a lace tell, about the neighbouring villages in her girlhood, which well she knows, but never sings; it touches her too nearly.  Because of that story, the pretty bone bobbins lie idle in their box and Lydia Arkwright is a spinster yet.

XX XXXXXX

Lace makers ply their lovely craft in Bucks, Beds, Northants and Huntingdon. The fine old patterns, which once fell into disuse, have been revived, above all those of the exquisite Bucks Point, the acorn, the tulip, the carnation, wedding bells, and running river, which age can never stale.  At Olney, the Bucks cottage lace-makers work on the pillow as they did in the days of Katharine of Arragon, who is said to have introduced the industry.  A postcard to Mrs Armstrong of the Bucks Cottage Workers’ Association, Olney, will bring particulars to hand.

 

[1] http://locatingsylviapankhurst.com/index.html

[2] This project is discussed on http://www.sylviapankhurst.com/sylvia_the_artist/women_workers_of_england_project.php

[3] E. Sylvia Pankhurst, The Suffragette Movement: An Intimate Account of Persons and Ideas (London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1931), pp. 178-9.  Hobhouse returned to South Africa in 1905 under the auspices of the Boer Home Industries and Aid Society to set up classes in spinning and other female domestic manufacture: perhaps lace was meant to be part of this programme.

[4] IISH, Estella Sylvia Pankhurst Papers, box 164: https://search.socialhistory.org/Record/ARCH01029/ArchiveContentList#293

[5] On Harry Armstrong and the Bucks Cottage Workers Association see http://www.mkheritage.org.uk/odhs/full-list-of-elizabeth-knights-articles/my-introduction-to-the-lacemaking-pages/harry-armstrong-and-the-bucks-cottage-workers-agency/

Jan Van Beers’ ‘Begga’ (1868): A Lacemaking Cinderella

‘Facades on the Handschoenmarkt, Antwerp’ by the Antwerp painter Hendrik Frans Schaedels (1827-1904). Begga and her family lived in an upper-floor appartment in such a street.

‘Begga’ was the name of a seventh-century Merovingian noblewoman and saint, an ancestor of Charlemagne.  Beguines, those pious women who had a significant role to play in the lace industry in the Low Countries, sometimes claimed her as their founder.[1]  But another Begga, a lacemaker, was the eponymous heroine of a poem by the Belgian writer Jan van Beers (1821-1888).[2]  ‘Begga’ is probably his best known poem, in part because of its powerful invocation of the author’s stumbling return to the Roman Catholic faith of his youth: ‘”he felt his soul overwhelmed with a holy trembling”, on entering the imposing temple [Antwerp cathedral] to which his mother had once taken him as a child, and where she had taught him to call the eternally Inscrutable, whose ineffable name the whole universe scarce dares to stammer, Our Father.’  Thus the theologian Cornelius Tiele quoted ‘Begga’ at length when making the argument that ‘religion always begins with an emotion’ in his influential Elements of a Science of Religion (1899).[3]

Saint Begga, often named (though incorrectly) as the founder of the Beguines. This statue adorned the Begijnhofkerk in Hoogstraten, near Antwerp. The image comes from the online resource of Hoogstraten’s museum:
www.erfgoedbankhoogstraten.be

Jan van Beers was an important figure in the Flemish Movement (‘Vlaams Beweging’) which, starting in the middle years of the nineteenth century, sought to establish a place for the Flemish (Dutch) language in the Belgian state, but just as importantly, make it a vehicle for cultural expression.  In the Romantic period, in which the Flemish Movement had its roots, the poet was envisaged as a vehicle channelling the voice of the people, of the nation even.  Naturally it could therefore only be expressed in the language of the people.  Beers contributed not just as a poet, but as a teacher of Dutch, as the composer of the lyrics for an oratorio by the Flemish composer Peter Benoit (‘De Oorlog’, 1873), and as deputy librarian for Antwerp city (he would marry Henriette Mertens, daughter of the chief librarian, and a Flemish salonnière).[4]  But Beers was also one of the generation of writers that turned from Romanticism towards Realism.  His early poems drew on history for their inspiration, but his later works depicted the life he saw around him on the streets of Antwerp.

Jan van Beers (1821-1888). Image from Wikipedia.

‘Realism’ does not necessarily mean an authentic depiction of the hard lives of Flemish working poor.[5]  Beers was a teacher and a trainer of teachers, and his writings were meant for, and were used in, schools.  He had a moral as well as an aesthetic purpose: virtue must be rewarded and faith defended.  Although ‘Begga’ is subtitled ‘a story from Flemish folk life’, it more closely resembles a folk tale: in fact it is Cinderella rewritten in a realist mode.

The poem opens with its heroine Begga lovingly overseeing the night-time prayers of her little half-brother, before taking up the pillow again to which she has been chained since the morning.  The sounds of celebration drift up from the street for it is Whitmonday, the great fair of Antwerp.  Her stepmother and half sister Coleta are enjoying the dance while she is forced to work.  Her stepmother hates Begga.  She had been the childhood sweetheart of Begga’s father, but then he had married another, who had soon died.  Moved as much by pity for the infant Begga as by love for the man, she became his second wife.  But when she too had a daughter she wondered why her husband gave Begga more kisses, why he dangled her on his knee longer than Coleta.  When she heard him whispering to Begga that she was the ‘adorable image of your dear, blessed mother’, her sympathy turned to hate.  Coleta and Begga, meanwhile, were loving sisters, until they become rivals for the affections of their neighbour Frans, the cooper’s son.  Coleta, urged on by her mother, not only dances with him at the ball, he also escorts her and her mother home.  All seems going swimmingly until Frans insists on saying goodnight to Begga too and in a burst of enthusiasm, before the astonished trio, declares his love for her.  This brings on a crisis: for the sake of her own daughter, the stepmother must dispose of Begga.  Hysterically alleging all kinds of wrongdoing, she throws her out of their lodgings.

Frans meanwhile is mooning about the town, failing to join in with his friends at the archery club or at the inn (archery was a popular sport among Flemish urban artisans and a continuing vehicle for municipal pride).  He loves Begga but she is poor; will his father approve?  In the end, though, it is the cooper who, guessing the cause for Frans’ mood, forces the issue.  He takes the occasion of a feast on their shared name-day (Saint Francis, 4 October) to drag the truth out of his son.  Striking while the iron is hot – it’s the same phrase in Dutch – he steps over the road to ask the stepmother for Begga’s hand, only to be told she has been sent packing.  With a pretence at reluctance, the stepmother admits that Albert, the son of the lace factoress (the woman who acted as an intermediary between the lacemakers and the wholesale dealers) for whom all three women work, had been making excuses to visit them, and he and Begga had been carrying on right there in her home.  Disgusted, she had sent her packing, and last heard she was sharing a room in the city with Albert.

Begga had indeed taken a room with money from Albert.  When she lost her home she went to the factoress’s house to get work, and Albert gave her a ‘voorschot’ – an advance.  But this was not just kindness: soon Albert is calling regularly on the pretext of seeing how the lace advances, but really to make advances to her.  Begga refuses his cajoling, and even his violence, but she is in a terrible plight.  As she has taken money from the factoress, she cannot take work from anyone else until the debt is cleared: she is tied to Albert and there is nothing she can do to escape.

In desperation Begga goes to the cathedral, the occasion for van Beers’ nostalgic rhapsody that so struck Tiele.  It is the feast of All Souls, when we remember the dead.  But death haunts the city: an epidemic of cholera, ‘the Blue Death’ as it was known at the time, had broken out.  This is the only incident that allows us to date these events.  A decining port with a decrepit, not to say non-existent system of public sanitation, Antwerp was an ideal breeding ground for cholera, and city was affected regularly in the nineteenth century.  The most recent outbreak occurred exactly when van Beers was composing his poem, in 1866, and it had killed nearly 3000 people in city, that is one in every forty of the population (these are the official statistics, which often undercounted).  However that was a summer outbreak, and by the 1860s lace was a moribund trade in Antwerp.  Earlier outbreaks, in 1832 and 1848-9, also seem unlikely because they took place against the backdrop of political upheavals which find no mention in the poem.  Perhaps van Beers had either the 1853 or 1859 outbreak in mind.[6]

‘The Interior of the Cathedral Church of Our Lady, Antwerp’, by Peeter Neefs The Younger (1620-1675) and Frans Franken III (1607-1667). The image was taken from Wikipedia Commons and the original hangs in the Mauritshuis in The Hague. According to the theologian Cornelius Tiele, it was van Beers’ emotional response to this architecture, which he describes in ‘Begga’, which prompted his own reconciliation with the Catholic Church.

 

After everyone has left the Church Begga remains on her knees, effectively praying for death as a release from her sufferings.  A priest emerges, followed by a sacristan carrying a ciborium.  Someone is about to be administered the last rites.  Almost a ghost herself, Begga follows them through the winding streets to her stepmother’s door.  Coleta lies dead, and her little brother has also been taken ill.  Begga rushes in and cradles her brother despite her stepmother’s rages, which are overtaken by signs that she too is succumbing to the disease.  As she lies on the same bed where Coleta died, Begga nurses her.  The stepmother’s heart melts and in her last act she calls the cooper and his son to her, and reveals that she lied about her stepdaughter.  Angels in heaven could not be purer.  After her death Frans and his father take Begga and her little brother into their house, which from now on will also be hers.

Lace, I must admit, plays a rather small part in Begga’s story.  She works long hours for small wages; she shares a home with other lacemakers; these elements of the poem draw on life.  She embodies some of the themes that would recur in Flemish literature on lacemakers in which poverty and suffering go hand-in-hand with redemption and piety.  But the only element of her trade that is important to the plot is the issue of advances.  Lacemakers almost always needed credit, but by taking advances from the lace dealers they were effectively changing their status from free artisans to dependent workers.  This proletarianization of women worried nineteenth-century commentators in Belgium, both Liberals and Catholics (van Beers fell between these two political poles that dominated Belgian political life).  A worker could not free herself from the dealer or factor until she had paid back the advances; but the dealer could ensure – by charging too much for the thread or by reducing the price paid for her work – that she was never in a position to do so.  The lacemaker could be economically abused, but also sexually abused: this latter theme is also recurrent in nineteenth-century Flemish literature.  As we have seen, it was the central plot-device in Frans Carrein’s Elisa de kantwerkster.

 

 

[1] Incorrectly, but the Beguines’ celebration of her cult certainly helped maintain the status of Saint Begga in Belgium.  The origin of the Beguines was a matter of lively debate in the nineteenth century: see, among others, Eduard Hallmann, Die Geschichte des Ursprungs der belgischen Beghinen (Berlin, 1843).

[2] Jan Van Beers, Gevoel en Leven: Poëzie (Antwerp,1869), pp. 3-86.

[3] Cornelis Petrus Tiele, Elements of the Science of Religion (Edinburgh, 1897-99), Vol. 2, pp. 10-15.

[4] Considerable biographical information on Jan van Beers, like all Flemish writers, is available on the DBNL, digitale bibliotheek voor de Nederlandse letteren.  See also Steven van Impe, ‘The Librarian as a Nation Builder: Frans Hendrik Mertens (1796-1867) and the Antwerp City Library’, Quaerendo 42 (2012): 221-30; G. Schmook, ‘De “Mertensen” en de “Van Beersen” uit Antwerpen, XVIII e -XX e eeuwen’, Mens en Taak, 25 (1982): 88-113.  Their descendants include several prominent contributors to Belgian culture and politics including: Jan van Beers the younger (1852–1927), a risqué society painter and scandalmonger; Henri de Man (1885-1953), a Flemish socialist politician and intellectual who collaborated during the Second World War; Paul de Man, a literary theorist.

[5] For which see Catharina Lis, Social Change and the Labouring Poor, Antwerp 1770-1860 (New Haven, 1986).

[6] Karel Velle, ‘België in de 19de eeuw : Gevolgen van de “blauwe dood”’, Geschiedenis der geneeskunde 4 (1997): 95-105.

Lacemakers in Fiction: ‘Wit Leven’ (‘White Life’, 1897) by Stijn Streuvels

We continue our posts on lacemakers in Flemish fiction with a look at Stijn Streuvels.  Unlike almost all the other Flemish authors considered in this series, you can read some of the novels and stories by the prolific Streuvels in English.  We don’t know why, but British publishers from the nineteenth century onwards took little interest in the cultural production of the Flemish Movement, and not much more of Belgian literature in French.  Even in the case of Streuvels, who twice came close to winning the Nobel Prize for literature, translations are rare.  His Langs de Wegen (1902) was translated in 1936 by Edward Crankshaw as Old Jan; while De Vlasschard (1907) was translated as The Flaxfield by Peter Glassgold and André Lefevere in 1988.  Both are quite hard to come by, and neither are primarily concerned with lacemakers.  Streuvels’ 1909 novella ‘De Blijde Dag’ is set among lacemaking girls in an orphanage, but this is not available in English.  (The title translates as ‘The Happy Day’; we should add that happiness is at best a relative concept for Streuvels, whose work might be characterised as pastoral fatalism.)  That leaves the stories translated byAlexander Teixeira de Mattos and gathered together in a volume entitled The Path of Life (London: Unwins, 1915).  This collection is available online for free, and it includes ‘Wit Leven’ which first appeared in Flemish in the literary modernist magazine Van Nu en Straks in 1897, and in English as ‘White Life’ in The English Review in 1912.

Stijn Streuvels, 1917. From the ‘digitale bibliotheek voor de Nederlandse letteren’

Streuvels, whose real name was Franciscus (Frank) Lateur (Courtrai 1871 – Ingooigem 1969) started his working life not as a pastry chef, like Frans Carrein, but as a village baker in Avelgem in West Flanders.  He read voraciously in between his bread-making tasks, and taught himself numerous languages.  (In later life he would translate the work of another baker-writer who had been raised among lacemakers, Maxim Gorky.)  He only gave up the bakery in 1905 to dedicate himself to literature when his reputation as an anticlerical and a freethinker began to damage the family business.  West Flanders was then a bastion of clerical authority.  Streuvels maternal uncle was the priest-poet Guido Gezelle, almost unknown in Britain but in Belgium probably rated as the most important writer in Flemish.  Gezelle, too, ran foul of the ecclesiastical authorities for his writings, but he chose obedience rather than resistance.

‘White Life’ we think rather a good title for a story about a lacemaker.  Its heroine, Sofie, does indeed live her life in white – ‘Her life flowed on as a little brook flows under grass on a Sunday noon in summer, flowed on in calm seclusion, far from the bustle of the crowd, secretly, steadily, uninterrupted save by ever-recurring little incidents, peacefully approaching old age.’  She works in a whitewashed room with white curtains under a cap of white, and at night sleeps between white sheets under a canopy of white.  A statue of the Virgin, clad in white watches from the wall, while a canary in a white cage is her only company.  The canary and the geraniums at her window are almost the only splashes of colour in her existence (one day we might write a blog about lacemakers, canaries and geraniums).  Her ‘white and peaceful little soul’ is innocent of anything but her daily tasks and piety.  She lives almost like a nun, or a beguine, dividing her time between lacemaking and readings from Thomas à Kempis’ The Imitation of Christ and saying her rosary.

Erzgebirge lacemakers by Gustav Zindel. Note the canary and the geraniums. Zindel (1883-1959) was a Czech-German painter and illustrator of folk life.

Lacemaking is part of her separation from the ‘bustle of the crowd’, for it draws her into a world in itself.  Her pillow

‘was her only amusement, her treasure: this half-rounded arch of smooth, blue paper on the wooden pillow-stool, occupied by a swarm of copper pins, with coloured-glass heads, and of finely-turned wooden bobbins, with slender necks and notched bodies, hanging side by side from fine white threads or heaped up behind a steel bodkin. All this array of pins, holes, drawers and trays had for her its own form and meaning, a small world in which she knew her way so well. Her deft white fingers knew how to throw, change, catch and pick up those bobbins so nimbly, so swiftly; she stuck her pins, which were to give the thread its lie and form, so accurately and surely; and, under her hand, the lace grew slowly and imperceptibly into a light thread network, grew with the leaves and flowers of her geraniums and phlox and the silent course of time.’

This peaceful if monotonous existence is interrupted when the grate on her stove needs mending and she takes it to the smith, Sander, next door.  He has already made his presence known, hammering away in the background.  But now he takes to calling in the evening, sharing a cup of coffee and a bit of a gossip about village affairs.  His eyes are kindly and impish, the smell of his pipe makes such a change in her routine.  And she begins to think ‘that calm rest, in which she had once found such a pure delight, was now a heavy weariness’, that an alteration that brought together two lonely people of mature years might do them both good.  She could teach him the rosary.  Sander too has ambitions towards matrimony.  This envisioned idyll comes to a shocking end when the smith gets drunk celebrating the feast of Saint Eligius (Eloi, the patron of metalworkers).  He breaks into Sofie’s house and assaults her.  Neighbours hearing her screams haul him off.  But now not only her new dreams of companionship but also her old ‘white life’ have been ‘stamped to pieces’, and she has been left like a naked child freezing in the snow.

We did warn you that happiness was in short supply in Streuvels’ Flanders.

John Plummer’s Northamptonshire ‘Lace Songs’

Walter Bonner Gash: ‘Mill Lane Farm’. One of Plummer’s walks around Kettering. Used with permission of Alfred East Art Gallery, Kettering. http://www.artuk.org/artworks/mill-lane-farm-46011

We have already met the Kettering staymaker John Plummer (1831-1914): he was one of the contributors to the Notes & Queries series on ‘Catterns’.  Plummer was also an example of an ‘English labouring-class poet’ (like John Askham of Wellingborough, who featured in an earlier post).[1]  Plummer published only one volume of poems – Songs of Labour, Northamptonshire Rambles and Other Poems (1860) – but he is probably better known than Askham.  That is not necessarily because he was a better poet.  Although some of his more lighthearted pieces work well, Plummer too had a weakness for highfalutin language and poetic clichés, so all mothers are ‘angels’, all earls are ‘belted’…  But Plummer led a more adventurous and combative life than Askham, and above all was more politically engaged, which brought him public attention.

John Plummer, photo by J. Hubert Newman of Sydney: State Library of New South Wales P1/1365

Given his interest in lacemaking, the title Songs of Labour led us to hope that lacemakers would feature prominently.  Sadly, they are not mentioned even once; nonetheless, their influence may still be detected, as we will explain at the end of this post.

Plummer was born in the East End of London, where his father worked as a staymaker.  His youth was marked by periods of poverty, and made more difficult by partial deafness and lameness, consequences of a childhood illness.  Despite receiving almost no schooling, he became obsessed with the written word, seeking out books wherever he could find them.  He started writing poetry in the wake of the revolutionary events of 1848, inspired by reading the Chartist poet Gerald Massey’s ‘Song of Welcome’ to the exiled Hungarian rebel Kossuth.  In 1853 he and his father took jobs at a Kettering stay factory, but he quickly established a second career as a local newspaper commentator on a range of political and social issues.[2]  In 1860 he married Mary Ann Jenkinson, a milliner from Kettering, and soon after the couple moved to Hackney to work for publishing house Cassell & Co., which specialized in improving literature aimed at the working class.[3]  In London Plummer pursued a new career as journalist and newspaper editor.  He became quite well known, corresponding with Lord Brougham (to whom his book of poems was dedicated) and John Stuart Mill: the latter described him as one of ‘the most inspiring examples of mental cultivation and high principle in a self-instructed working man’.[4]  (Mary Ann Plummer, meanwhile, was a signatory of Mill’s petition in favour of women’s suffrage in 1866.[5])  In 1879 the Plummer family emigrated to Australia where John became editor of the Illustrated Sydney News among many other activities.  Northamptonshire was not, however, forgotten: his house in Sydney was named after the village near Kettering where he had married, and about which he had written a poem, Thorpe Malsor.[6]

This background, and the title Songs of Labour, might lead one to think that Plummer’s politics were radical.  And in lots of ways they were: Plummer’s poems condemned poverty, war and the tyranny of kings, and celebrated the virtues of the labouring classes.  However, he first came to national prominence when he wrote in support of his brother Japheth who had attempted to set himself up as a shoemaker in the teeth of a closed shop operated by the powerful Northamptonshire shoemakers’ trade union.  Japheth was eventually driven out of the neighbourhood (he became a soldier) while John was burnt in effigy.  Plummer was not entirely hostile to trade unions, but his ideal social type, which he celebrated in poems such as ‘The Poor Man’s Dream’ and ‘The Emigrant’s Song’, was the homesteader.  In North America the working man could find land of his own to farm and be beholden to no one, neither aristocratic landlord, nor factory owner nor even his fellow worker.  As a political economist Plummer supported technical innovation such as steam engines and factories, but in his poems he fled the ‘smoke-dried teeming Cities, where/ Is often heard the low and wailing sob/ Of Labour mourning in despair’ for the ‘grassey lea’ of Thorpe Malsor.  Education, self-help, sobriety, Christian charity, these were his regular themes.  Australia, another pioneer society, suited him admirably.

In 1878, the ever prolific Plummer wrote three articles on ‘The Northamptonshire Lace-Making Industry Past and Present’ for the Northampton Mercury.[7]  This is a rather useful series because, while Plummer made use of existing printed material such as the Children’s Employment Commission reports, he also included anecdotes told to him and his own observations.  For instance he cites the local names given to lacemaking equipment and to common patterns.  The picture he paints of the industry in the past was largely negative: lacemakers were impoverished, unhealthy and immoral.  He had few hopes for its future either.  But he does offer little insights into their social history, such as lacemakers were prone to a ‘nervous twitching of the fingers’, that they were good at mental arithmetic because of counting pins, and that they were proud of the tools of their trade such as their spangled bobbins and their cushions.  One story he tells concerns a deceased lacemaker whose daughter was presented with a bill which she believed her mother had paid even though she could find no receipt.  The creditor sent bailiffs to seize the lacemaker’s property, but the daughter was determined to hold onto her mother’s pillow as a memento.  During the struggle, the cover of the pillow was torn and out fell the missing receipt together with other documents and some coins.

Like almost every other commentator on Midlands lacemaking, Plummer tackles the topic of ‘lace songs’.  He quotes the usual sources such as the Notes & Queries articles, and includes the unavoidable Shakespearean reference, but he also mentions that while living in Kettering he ‘formed a small collection of lace-makers’ songs, which has, unfortunately, become lost.’  Nonetheless, he could recall some of the contents.  They included the gruesome ‘Little Sir Hugh’ which we discussed in a previous post, and in general Plummer observed that ‘the more horrible and revolting the details, the greater the popularity’ of lace songs.  He also cites ‘Long Lankin’ and ‘Death and the Maiden’, which are both well known songs, and mentioned by other collectors of lacemakers’ oral traditions.  However, the rest are much more difficult to identify and to date we have been unable to trace any text or tune for the following seven listed by Plummer as ‘lace songs’.

1) ‘’The Lord of Burleigh’. This ballad narrates a kind of She Stoops to Conquer in reverse.  It is the same story as Tennyson’s 1835 poem, in which a rich lord pretends to be poor in order to win a woman’s heart.  Both were inspired by the 1791 marriage of Henry Cecil (first Marquess of Exeter and eponymous Lord of Burghley House in Cambridgeshire) to Sarah Hoggins, a farmer’s daughter from Great Bolas in Shropshire. The opening stanza went ‘A noble lord a-wooing went,/ A-wooing went my lord;/ She was a maid of low degree,/ And would not speak a word’.  That is all that Plummer tells us, other than it was considerably ruder than Tennyson’s version.
2) ‘Blackberry Nan’. The first lines ran ‘Blackberry Nan, Blackberry Nan/ Killed a cat in her milking can.’
3) ‘The Squire’s Ghost’. The title is all the information Plummer provides.  There are some well-known folksongs that might fit this rubric.
4) ‘Christian and the Money-lender’. The title is all the information Plummer provides which is particularly unfortunate, as this is a theme evoked in lacemakers’ songs in France and Flanders, so there may be a connection.
5) ‘Betsy’s Dream’. The title is all the information Plummer provides.
6) A ballad which alludes to Simon de St. Liz (or rather Simon de Senlis, first earl of Northampton and 2nd earl of Huntingdon, one of William the Conqueror’s knights).  A medieval legend tells that William intended that Simon should marry Judith, widow of the executed Earl of Northumbria Waltheof, but she refused him on account of his lameness.  Furious, Simon pursued Judith until pacified by her daughter Maud’s promise to marry him instead.  Maud’s influence was supposed to have turned the old soldier into something of a saint.
7) A song celebrating the lacemakers’ patron Saint Catherine that commenced ‘On Cattern’s Day we sing and play,/ And wear our Sunday gown’.

We would be delighted if anyone was able to provide us with more information about any of these, or even better Plummer’s manuscript of lacemakers’ songs.  But in the meantime it might be worth mentioning that two of these themes had already been used by Plummer in his poems.  After ‘Songs of Labour’, Plummer had a section dedicated to ‘Northamptonshire Rambles’ which took their cue from some item of local history or a recent event.  One retold ‘The Legend of Burleigh House’; another the story of ‘Simon de St. Liz’.  Is it impossible that these topics were suggested to him by songs he heard lacemakers sing?

 

Henry Cecil, 1st Marquess of Exeter, and his wife Sarah (née Hoggins) by Sir Thomas Lawrence,
From Wilipedia Commons. The subject of a lacemakers’ song?

 

 

[1] Although this label is retrospective, this group does have some coherence, not least in the interest its members had in each others’ work.  Askham named his house after John Clare, the Northamptonshire ‘peasant poet’; while Plummer actually went to visit Clare in his asylum in 1861.

[2] Most information on his early life comes from the ‘autobiographical sketch’ that served as an introduction to his Songs of Labour.  Another short biography was included in a collection edited the penal reformer Matthew Davenport Hill for the publisher John Cassell, himself one of Plummer’s patrons: Our Examples, Poor and Rich; Or, Biographical Sketches of Men and Women Who have by an Extraordinary Use of their Opportunities, Benefitted their Fellow Creatures (London, 1861), pp. 287-96.

[3] See the post on the website ‘Ringstead People’ dedicated to Mary Ann Jenkinson and her family.

[4] John Stuart Mill, Principles of Political Economy ed. Jonathan Riley (Oxford, 1994), p. 151.  Mill and Plummer wrote and met with each other regularly in the 1860s and 70s.

[5] On which see the post ‘The South Hackney Connection’ on the blog ‘Woman and Her Sphere’.

[6] Hence Plummer has an entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography.

[7] Appearing on 19 January, 2 February and 16 March 1878.

‘One Moonshiny Night’: A Riddle becomes a Lace Tell

Walter Crane’s drawing to illustrate the Grimms’ tale ‘The Robber Bridegroom’. From Flickr thecmn

 

Silverstone, now best known for its racing circuit, lies at the heart of the ancient forest of Whittlewood on the Northamptonshire-Buckinghamshire border.  There is an academic explanation why forest communities took up craft manufactures like lace, but we’ll not go into that here.  Certainly Silverstone was a lace village until the late nineteenth century.

John Edward Linnell (1842-1919), born in Silverstone, vicar of Pavenham. Image from ‘Old Oak’ (1932)

John Edward Linnell (1842-1919) grew up in Silverstone, or ‘Silson’ in the local parlance.  Years later, when serving as vicar of Pavenham near Bedford (another lace village), he wrote an account of his childhood.  Linnell came to holy orders by a round-about route and his memoirs are more robust than one might expect from a Victorian clergyman.  While many of his peers repressed the rough games that characterised rural popular culture, Linnell commemorated them.  He was also interested in more aesthetic pursuits such as ballad singing.  One of the singers he mentions was a lacemaker, Sall, who kept house with her brother Simon, the sexton.  We quote this section in full, including a verse of one of Sall’s songs.  The pair

lived in a large, lone, thatched cottage that stood on the edge of an orchard.  They always had a wood fire on the hearth of their living-room, and half-way up the top of the wide, open chimney hung flitches of bacon and hams, which had been sent by their wealthier neighbours to be smoked and dried.  Around a window that opened from the chimney-corner into the garden there were built into the wall a number of old Dutch tiles said to have once belonged to a mansion that had vanished from Silson centuries back, possibly the royal residence I have already mentioned.  The shelves were loaded with the choicest of old china, while here and there hung a time-stained print depicting a battle-scene.  When I was a boy, it was one of my greatest delights of my life to drop in on them of a winter’s night, when the wind was howling among the trees outside and the sparks were flying up the chimney to lose themselves in the darkness above, and hear them tell their stories of bygone days.  It was a picture many an artist would have loved to paint.  Simon used to sit on a low, flag-bottomed chair, his body bent forward over the hearth so that he could better replenish the fire.  Sall, with her lace pillow before her, would jangle her bobbins and place her pins with her long, bony fingers in the light of a tallow candle whose rays passed through a tall water-bottle and fell softly on her parchment.  The two knew all the legends and traditions of the countryside, and it’s from them I gleaned many of the incidents I now relate sixty years after.

Sir Walter Scott once declared that nothing was more dramatically effective than an old murder ballad.  With anyone like Sall to recite it, I can well believe him.  The murderer, the victim, the grave, and the hanging were brought before our eyes as the verses fell from her lips.  To the ordinary reader the following lines would seem mere jingle: —

‘One lonely night, as I sat high,
Instead of one there two pass’d by.
The boughs did bend, my soul did quake,
To see the hole that Fox did make.’

To her they presented part of a tragedy more real than Macbeth’s to lovers of Shakespeare, though the heroine was only a humble serving-maid.  She, it seemed, had arranged to meet her lover by moonlight in a spinney near her master’s house.  First at the trysting place, she climbed a fir-tree to give the laggard a fright when he should appear.  After a long wait she heard footsteps and voices and, looking down, saw her lover enter the glade accompanied by a man carrying a spade.  Not daring to speak, she watched them while they dug a deep hole just beneath her.  Then the truth dawned on her; she was to be murdered, and it was her grave they were digging.  At last their task was finished, and the villains impatiently awaited her arrival.  But they were to be disappointed, for, though trembling in every limb with terror, she did not reveal her presence.  Eventually they departed, and she descended the tree, fled back to her master’s house, and told what she had seen.  An alarm was raised, her lover, Fox, whose name seemed well suited to his character, was arrested, confessed to his evil intentions, and was hanged.  ‘An’ sarve him right!’ Simon would grunt, when Sall had left him swinging ‘from the gallows tree so high.’[1]

When Linnell’s memoirs appeared posthumously in 1932, this particular verse had already been recorded from lacemakers on several occasions, and now it has its own entry in the Roud Folksong Index as RN17769.  It was frequently identified as a ‘lace tell’.  A report in The Leighton Buzzard Observer for 4 April 1893 explained that

one of the most curious features in connection with this trade was the songs of the lacemakers, known locally as lace tells, or lace tellings.  These consisted of doggrel [sic] verses which remind one very forcibly of the nursery ditties that delight the juvenile mind.  The proficiency of the worker was estimated by the number of pins stuck in a given time, and the singing of these tells assisted the counting and kept them together.  These songs possess no merit as literary productions, if such they may be called, but they form a remarkable and interesting survival of a condition of things which has practically passed away.  We give a few of the more striking.

‘Nineteen miles as I sat high,
Looking for one as he passed by;
The boughs did bend, the leaves did shake,
See what a hole the fox did make!
The fox did look, the fox did see,
Digging a hole to bury me;
I saw one that ne’er saw me,
I saw a dark lantern tied to a tree.’

The allusion here is to an intended murder.  A young man wishing to rid himself of his sweetheart had determined to take her life; and, with the intention of hiding all traces of the crime, he busied himself with digging her grave near the spot where they were to meet.  He was turned from his wicked purpose by observing some person either up a tree or standing behind him.[2]

This lace tell was also noted by Thomas Wright, among others.[3]  It is one of the few tells for which we possess a tune because the folksong collector Fred Hamer (the husband of the lace teacher Margaret Hamer) recorded a version from a Mrs White of Cranfield in Bedfordshire.[4]

James Orchard Halliwell (1820-1889), Shakespearean and nursery rhyme collector. Image from Wikipedia Commons

Lace Tells were often cut down and mashed up versions of longer ballads, and the implication of Linnell’s account is that the entire narrative was sung.  However, no full version of the story in ballad form has been discovered in tradition.[5]  So it is more likely that this verse was meant as a sung element in a longer prose narrative, what is known as a ‘cante-fable’.

The whole story, including the verse, has also been recorded on a number of occasions, the first in James Orchard Halliwell’s Popular Rhymes and Nursery Tales in 1849.  This book has a complicated publishing history: it was the sequel to the author’s Nursery Rhymes of England which first appeared in 1842, although the verse about ‘the hole the fox did make’ only appeared in the 1846 edition of that title.[6]  Both verse and story were said by Halliwell to have been obtained in Oxfordshire.

Many years ago there lived at the University of Oxford a young student, who, having seduced the daughter of a tradesman, sought to conceal his crime by committing the more heinous one of murder. With this view, he made an appointment to meet her one evening in a secluded field. She was at the rendezvous considerably before the time agreed upon for their meeting, and hid herself in a tree. The student arrived on the spot shortly afterwards, but what was the astonishment of the girl to observe that he commenced digging a grave. Her fears and suspicions were aroused, and she did not leave her place of concealment till the student, despairing of her arrival, returned to his college. The next day, when she was at the door of her father’s house, he passed and saluted her as usual. She returned his greeting by repeating the following lines:

One moonshiny night, as I sat high,
Waiting for one to come by,
The boughs did bend; my heart did ache
To see what hole the fox did make.

Astounded by her unexpected knowledge of his base design, in a moment of fury he stabbed her to the heart. This murder occasioned a violent conflict between the tradespeople and the students, the latter taking part with the murderer, and so fierce was the skirmish, that Brewer’s Lane, it is said, ran down with blood. The place of appointment was adjoining the Divinity Walk, which was in time past far more secluded than at the present day, and she is said to have been buried in the grave made for her by her paramour.[7]

Even in the versions given so far one can see that the verse was more stable than the story that explains it.  In the one Sall told to Linnell the would-be assassin ended on the gallows, in the Olney version he was discovered and fled, while in the Oxford version he murders the girl but not at the place and time he had planned.  In another version, sent in to Notes and Queries in 1887 by Thomas Ratcliff of Worksop, the servant girl lured by her false lover to the woods is so frightened by the grave she sees him digging that she falls in a faint from the tree, and this in turn frightens off the would-be murderers.[8]

We’ll give this agglomeration of stories the general title ‘One Moonshiny Night’, as used in Notes and Queries, to distinguish this group from a variety of other traditional tales that feature a young woman who accidentally learns that her suitor plans to murder her and later confronts him with this knowledge.  In folklore studies the generic title for this plot type is ‘The Robber Bridegroom’, tale type number ATU 955.  It is an enormously popular narrative, with variants found in many cultures.[9]  It is has also inspired many writers, including Eudora Welty’s 1942 novella The Robber Bridegroom and, more relevant to lacemakers, Henri Pourrat’s four volume novel Gaspard des Montagnes (1922-1931).  (Pourrat’s literary output drew heavily on his career as a folklorist around Ambert: his most forthcoming narrators were lacemakers.)[10]  The best known English version is ‘Mister Fox’, which John Brickdale Blakeway (1765-1821) wrote from memory, having been told it in his youth by a great-aunt, and sent by him to the Shakespearean scholar Edmond Malone (1741-1812).  Malone then included it in his notes to the play Much Ado About Nothing. Why?  Because it elucidates the line Benedick says to Claudio Act 1 Scene 1: ‘Like the old tale, my lord: it is not so, nor ‘twas not so; but, indeed, God forbid it should be so’, the very words the murderer Mister Fox says to his would-be victim, Lady Mary, when she challenges him with her knowledge of his plans.[11]  However, while the name ‘Mister Fox’ would imply some connection to ‘One Moonshiny Night’, the verse itself does not occur in Blakeway’s version… and any further pursuit of the relationship between these narratives will take us too far from our lacemakers’ tell.

Archdeacon Hugh Owen (left) and Reverend John Brickdale Blakeway (right). Painted by Philip Corbet. Blakeway collected the folktale ‘Mister Fox’. Image from Ludlow Museum and reproduced by permission of Shropshire Council, Shropshire Museums

 

The popularity of the verse must owe something to its diffusion in printed form.  The first one that we have found appears in The Trial of Wit or, A New Riddle Book, published in Glasgow in 1782 and reprinted there in 1789 and 1795.  Here the verse is presented as a riddle:

As I went out in a moonlight night,
To keep from harm I took the height,
I set my back against the moon,
I look’d for one and saw two come.
The boughs did bend the leaves did shake,
I saw the hole the Fox did make.
It was a maid had a sweetheart whose name was Fox: she saw him and another come to make her grave, while she sat on a tree.[12]

The same riddle appeared in Tom Thumb’s Royal Riddle Book for the Trial of Dull Wits, printed at Falkirk in 1788, and then again in Stirling in 1801.[13]  It is not implausible that there were many other editions of these riddle books, in England, Ireland and North America as well, but it is also possible that copies were carried to these regions from Scotland by ‘flying stationers’.  Such small books were printed to be sold by pedlars; they were ephemeral and few have survived.  It is unlikely that the story or the verse originated in these pamphlets because the effect of the riddle depends entirely on some pre-existing knowledge of the narrative.  Nonetheless, the existence of print versions may have had a mnemonic effect.

The verse is in the first person, spoken by the intended victim.  In most full versions of the story she uses this elliptical account of her experience to inform her would-be murderer that she has discovered his plan.  Only the assassin would understand the meaning of her words.  Choosing this riddle form to confront him is not necessary to the plot, but such circumlocutions are a common feature of oral cultures.  In face-to-face communities people, especially the relatively weak like servant maids, had to be careful how they spoke.  They therefore developed the art of delivering their message in forms that were opaque to those who were not involved, and inoffensive to those who were.  Texts were meaningful to those in the know, but apparent nonsense to outsiders.  Their incomprehensibility, ‘a mere jingle’ to quote Linnell, was intentional.

The riddle is a typical example of such genres that create a bond of shared understanding between insiders while remaining obscure to outsiders.  Lace tells are another.  As Gerald Porter explains, in performance as a lace tell the frame story that makes sense of the verse disappears: the identity of the speaker and the diggers, and the relationship between them is unclear.  Yet the whole narrative remained implicit, completed in the minds of listeners who likely already knew it.  This process creates an ‘insider group’ – in this case the lacemakers – bonded by their shared knowledge, their shared ability to interpret the riddle.[14]  By speaking the riddle in the first person the lacemakers identify with the would-be victim, and here we encounter another common element to be found in the work culture of lacemakers in other countries too: men were a threat, especially strangers, and so young women had to be on their guard.  Narrative and song were means to inculcate important life lessons.

[1] John Edward Linnell, Old Oak: The Story of a Forest Village, ed. Charles Linnell (London, 1932), pp. 48-51.

[2] ‘Among the Buckinghamshire Pillow-Lace Makers. By our special correspondent’, The Leighton Buzzard Observer, Tuesday 4 April 1893, p. 6.  Precisely the same wording is given in Oliver Ratcliff and Hebert Brown, Olney: Past and Present (Olney, 1893).

[3] Thomas Wright, The Romance of the Lace Pillow (Olney, 1919), pp. 182-3.

[4] Vaughan Williams Memorial Library, Fred Hamer manuscripts, FH/4/4/124: recorded from Mrs White of Cranfield: ‘I saw them that never saw me,/ I saw a lantern tied to a tree,/ The boughs did shake and I did quake,/ To see what a hole the fox did make./ The fox did roar and I did see,/ The fox made that hole to bury me.’

[5] The ballad ‘Oh Bring With You Your Dowry Love’, which has been commercially recorded on a few occasions, is based on this story, but appears to have been written by the folk-song collector Frank Kidson to provide a context for the verse about ‘the hole the fox did make’, which he heard sung by Kate Thompson in Knaresborough in 1891.  His ballad version was then included in English Peasant Songs (1929).  The verse also occurs in a version of ‘The Cottage in the Wood’, sung by Martin Carthy, but this was his own addition to a much better known song (Roud Number 608) about a pedlar calling at an isolated house, but which usually ends happily in a marriage: see https://mainlynorfolk.info/martin.carthy/songs/thecottageinthewood.html

[6] James Orchard Halliwell, The Nursery Rhymes of England, Collected Chiefly from Oral Tradition 4th edition (London, 1846), p. 3.

[7] James Orchard Halliwell, Popular Rhymes and Nursery Tales (London, 1849), pp. 47-50.

[8] Thomas Ratcliff, ‘One Moonshiny Night’, Notes and Queries 7th series 3, 19 March 1887, pp. 229-30.  Several other versions – from Lincolnshire, Yorkshire, Gloucestershire, Ireland and New England – were submitted to that journal in the same year: F.C. Birkbeck Terry, ‘One Moonshiny Night’, Notes and Queries 7th series 3, 19 February 1887, p. 149; S.O. Addy, Notes and Queries 7th series 3, 19 March 1887, p. 230; D.F. ‘One Moonshiny Night’, Notes and Queries 7th series 3, 21 May 1887, p. 410; other replies were submitted by ‘St Swithin’ (pseud. Eliza Gutch), T.H. Smith and M.L. Ferrar.  Sidney Addy also published a longer version under the title ‘The Girl Who Got Up The Tree’ in Household Tales with Other Traditional Remains, Collected in the Counties of Yorkshire, Lincolnshire, Derby, and Nottingham (London, 1895), pp. 10-11.

[9] For some examples, see the ever useful website of Professor Ashliman; http://www.pitt.edu/~dash/type0955.html

[10] We will return to Pourrat in future blogs, but for his debt to lacemakers see Bernadette Bricout, Le Savoir et la saveur.  Henri Pourrat et Le Trésor des contes (Paris, 1992).

[11] The tale is also apparently quoted in Spencer’s The Fairie Queen.  On these literary connections see the blog by Katherine Langrish: http://steelthistles.blogspot.co.uk/2016/09/be-bold-be-bold-but-not-too-bold.html

[12] The Trial of Wit, or, a New Riddle-Book. Some of which were Never before Published (Glasgow, 1782).

[13] Tom Thumb’s Royal Riddle Book: For the Trial of Dull Witts (Falkirk, 1788); Tom Thumb’s Royal Riddle Book: For the Trial of Dull Wits (Stirling, 1801).

[14] Mary-Ann Constantine and Gerald Porter Fragment and Meaning in Traditional Song: From the Blues to the Baltic (Oxford, 2003), pp. 69-71.

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