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Songs for Lace-Schools: The Compositions of Father Constant Duvillers (1803-1885)

Eugène Laermans, ‘The Emigrants’ (1894). Musée des Beaux-Arts, Brussels. Migration was one of the consequences of the Flemish linen crisis of the 1840s.

In the nineteenth century there were lots of Catholic priests like Giovannino Guareschi’s fictional Don Camillo — opinionated, prejudiced and pugnacious, but also deeply committed to the welfare of their parishioners and devoted to their ‘little world’.  They dominated their communities and examples of both their authoritarianism but also their humour have passed into folklore.  The Flemish priest Constant Duvillers was one of their number.  In Woubrechtegem, the tiny parish he was sent to in 1854 by the Bishop of Ghent (probably as punishment for his outspoken defence of the Flemish language), people still remembered him nearly 100 years after his death.  Some of the stories that had become attached to him are standards of clerical folklore, such as his ability to compel thieves to return stolen goods.  Others are perhaps more reflective of his personal eccentricities.  Priests were obliged to read the Bishop’s annual Easter message from the pulpit: Duvillers, who disliked both the Bishop and long services, would announce ‘Beloved parishioners, it’s exactly the same as last year: those that can remember it, that’s good; those that cannot, that’s just as well too.’[1]

Constant Duvillers, priest of Middelburg in East Flanders

However, this post concerns his time at his first parish ― Middelburg ― where he served from 1836 to 1854.  This village sits right on the corner where East and West Flanders meet the border with the Netherlands.  It is in ‘Meetjesland’, a nickname for the region that Duvillers popularized through his annual Almanak van ‘t Meetjesland, which he published under the pseudonym ‘Meester Lieven’ from 1859 until his death.  The story Duvillers told (and possibly invented) was that, when the locals learnt that the notorious womanizer Emperor Charles V was to travel through the region, they hid all the young women and only old women were visible, leading the Emperor to exclaim ‘This is little old lady land’ [Meetje is a colloquial term for ‘granny’].

The almanac, with its plain-speaking moralizing and practical advice, demonstrated Duvillers’ commitment to popular education and the promotion of the Flemish language.  There was nothing he disliked more than a Fleming putting on French airs, or a ‘Fransquillon’ to use the pejorative term popularized in the 1830s, and the subject of a bad-tempered satirical poem by Duvillers, ‘De Fransquiljonnade’ (1842).  For Duvillers and many other Flemish priests, French was the language of Robespierre, of irreligion and revolution.  Inoculating the good Catholic Flemish population against this toxin required the provision of wholesome and comprehensible literature in their own language.  Duvillers was responsible for a host of such small, cheap books, often pseudonymous, which, like his almanac, mixed the homely wisdom and folk humour of proverbs with overt moralizing and religious instruction.

The proverb was one of Duvillers’ favourite genres, the song was another.  Among his publications are three books of songs, the first of which (1844) was dedicated for the use of the Middleburg girls’ school: several of its twenty songs refer to lacemaking.  In 1846 and 1847 there followed two more volumes containing fourteen and fifteen songs respectively, which were intended for use in the lace schools.

The background to these publications was the devastating crisis that affected Flanders principal industry, linen manufacturing, during the 1840s.  In 1840 linen occupied nearly 300,000 people in Flanders, about twenty per cent of the population.  They were employed in their own homes as spinners and weavers, supplementing their incomes by growing their own food on smallholdings.  By the end of the decade this entire sector had all but disappeared.  The causes included competition from British factory-produced linens and the displacement of linen by cotton, but this crisis in manufacturing was also exacerbated by poor harvests in the late 1840s, the same period as the Irish Potato Famine.  Unemployment and high food prices coincided with typhus and cholera epidemics.  For the fledgling Belgian state, born out of an earlier revolution in 1830, misery and starvation in Flanders presented a crisis of legitimacy.  In other European countries the ‘Hungry Forties’ led to protest and even the overthrow of the political order.  How could that outcome be avoided in Flanders too?[2]

One answer was to retrain the population to make lace.  This might seem an odd choice given that machine-made lace was already a source of competition for Flemish handmade lace.  Nottingham and Calais tulle had effectively wiped out Lille’s lace industry in the 1830s.  But the fashion for tulle had crashed, and the market for Flemish Valenciennes lace was sufficiently recovered for this project to make sense.  Up until 1830 lacemaking had been a largely urban manufacture in Flanders, but in the 1840s it would desert the cities such as Antwerp and Ghent (though not Bruges) to take up its abode in the countryside, and especially in the villages of West Flanders that had been most affected by the linen crisis.

However, lacemaking is not a skill acquired overnight: it required teachers and schools.  According to the historian of the Belgian lace industry, Pierre Verhaegen, ‘it was now that, under the influence of humble parish priests, of charitable persons, and some convent superiors, the lace industry suddenly took flight again.  In the convents of the two Flanders and Brabant, children started to be taught to make lace; where there was no establishment of this kind then one was founded and soon there was hardly a convent in Flanders which did not possess a lace school.  New female congregations of nuns sprang up and gathered around themselves the children of the villages where they were implanted.’[3]  This describes the role of Duvillers in Middelburg: at his initiative local elites provided the funding for a lace school, and the staff was supplied by one of the new teaching congregations of nuns.

There are many ironies to this story.  The political cleavage in the young Belgian state was between the liberals and the clericals.  During the 1840s the liberals, who were largely French speaking and anticlerical, were the dominant party, but their response to the linen crisis, including the funding of the lace schools, required their collaboration with their political arch-rivals, the Flemish clergy.  Later in the century, the creation of hundreds of lace workshops masquerading under the name ‘school’ created a new battlefront in ‘culture wars’ between clericals, liberals and, later, socialists.  In the meantime, hundreds of thousands of young Flemish women were trained in a trade that effectively trapped them in poverty.  For liberals, the failure of the clergy to provide a decent education for their charges, as well as the profits the Catholic Church drew from their ignorant, emaciated and tubercular lace apprentices, was a scandal.  For socialists, the impoverished lacemaker became a symbol for ‘Arm Vlaanderen’ [Poor Flanders]: she was the personification of the entrenched misery which demanded radical action, such as the banning of domestic manufacture.  But for the clergy and their supporters the homeworking lacemaker, trained by nuns simultaneously in religion and labour, was the epitome of domestic virtue.[4]

The battle over the lace schools was fought in literature as well as in the newspapers and the chambers of parliament, as we will see in future posts on the work of Johanna Courtmans-Berchmans, Virginie Loveling, Guido Gezelle, Stijn Streuvels, and Reimond Stijns, among others.  All of these, however, had the opportunity to reflect after several decades on the success and failures of the lace schools: Duvillers was there at the start.

The Middleburg Girls School, for whom the 1844 volume of songs was intended, was Duvillers own project, or at least so claimed a song in which trainee seamstresses thanked ‘Our Pastor, who erected this school’.[5]  This series of songs predates the onset of the linen crisis; nonetheless, the industry was clearly in trouble.  In ‘The Song of the Spinners’, the speakers lament that ‘Wages are small, and living expensive/ There’s no butter on our bread’.[6]  However, at that time lacemaking was only one of the replacement trades being taught: ‘I feel motivated / always to go to school. I learn lovely things there;/ I learn how to make nice lace;/ I sew, I knit,/ it is all profitable for me’.[7]  Nonetheless lace was, to judge by the number of songs on the topic, the dominant occupation taught in the school, and Duvillers was clearly on a mission to promote it: ‘O blessed land!/ Where even small a small child’s hands/ Can sustain her parents,/ By playing, [she] can earn,/ By playing.’[8]  Observers like Duvillers often thought of lacemaking as a form of play, an association made easier by the fact that in Flemish the terms are homonyms ― ‘spelen’ and ‘speldewerk’: ‘Here we play a game/ Where anyone might see us;/ The lace shines/ Like a genuine fairy art.’[9]  Duvillers frequently used the term ‘toover’ – meaning magic or fairy – to describe lace, as did many other commentators on the industry.

By 1846, when Duvillers’ next volume of songs appeared, lace had become the single focus of Middelburg’s and many other schools across Flanders.  The first song in the volume describes the situation as the linen crisis reached its peak.  In years gone by father had sat to weave and mother to spin, and the loom and spinning-wheel together had saved the children from anxiety and grief as they could get their daily bread.  But now that ‘Frenchmen wear no linen anymore’ (the French army had replaced its red linen trousers with cotton ones) the girls must go to the lace-school.[10]  Yet despite the problems besetting Flanders, Duvillers’ tone in this volume is, overall, positive.  In ‘Flora, the Bold Lacemaker’, for example, the eponymous heroine sings ‘Long live lacework!  Farewell to the droning spinning wheel!/  I’ll follow the girls from the town,/ my fingers will play both large and small,/ and so Flora will earn her bread.’[11]  Here, as elsewhere in these songs, the purchaser of the lace schools’ product is identified as ‘the Englishman’ or even ‘John Bull’.  The lace school is clearly a developing proposition: one song describes the pristine building ‘on two floors!’, so much better than the ‘dark hole’ where they have been working up till now.[12]

This set of fourteen songs is essentially a promotional campaign to convince parents, and the apprentices themselves, of the benefits of the lace school.  Duvillers highlights not only the monetary rewards but also that the girls can meet their friends, be warm and safe, and kept on the path of moral rectitude by ‘singing God’s praises’ and saying the rosary.  However, they also sing other, secular songs ‘of the little weaver, or of the cat’ (probably references to lace tells).[13]  In particular he dwells on the fun and games held on the Feast of St Gregory (12 March or 9 May, see our post on Geraardsbergen), the patron of lacemaking in East Flanders, when there would be a prize-giving attended by priest, the lord and lady from the chateau, as well as all the members of the philanthropic institute that supports the school, who will give out ‘big books clothes, hats and cloth’ to the pupils.[14]  Later the whole school will go on jaunt to Ghent.  In other songs Duvillers contrasts lacemaking to other occupations in agriculture or food production that might, on the surface, appear better remunerated.  For instance he relates the cautionary tale of ‘Anastasia De Bal’ who threw her lace cushion in the fire and went to work for a farmer who taught her to swear like trooper.  Although she earns a tad more, she is out shivering in the fields, her clothes are worn and tattered, and the work makes her hungry and thirsty (and implicitly food is costly).  And of course agricultural work stops in the winter, and then she’ll be forced to live on potato peelings and even grass.[15]

A large number of Duvillers’ songs in this and the next volume are in the form of dialogues, and between them they cover many of the daily interactions experienced in and around the lace-school.  For example, apprentice Mietje meets a gentleman on her way to the school, and when he learns that she is supporting her sick father as well as six children he gives her ten francs.[16]  In the next song the priest visits the school to see how the apprentices are doing, and the lace-mistress gives a run-down on each individual’s progress, or lack of it.[17]  The priest seems to be constantly dropping in on the school, either showing around other clergy who are interested in setting up their own school, or philanthropic gentry who might support the enterprise, or handing out prizes.  Other visitors include the ‘koopvrouw’, the female intermediary who collected lace on behalf of the merchants in the distant cities.[18]  In another song she is named as ‘Mevrouwe Delcampo’ from Bruges, while the teacher is frequently referred to as ‘Sister Monica’.

Both of these were probably real people, though so far I have been unable to verify this.  Hopefully Duvillers was more careful to use pseudonyms to hide the  identities of the numerous girls and young women who attended the school.  Dozens are named, and in many cases in order to be upbraided.  Wantje Loete, Cisca Bral, Mie d’Hont, Genoveva d’Hont, Barbara Kwikkelbeen, all had done something to annoy Duvillers.  Most of these appear in the third, 1847 volume which is markedly more bad-tempered than its predecessors.  In the winter of 1846-7 it appears that the children were being withdrawn from the school.  Duvillers was particularly infuriated by the parents who, now their daughters had learnt the rudiments of lacemaking, kept them at home to save the few pennies that attendance at the lace-school incurred; or, just as bad, sending them out into the fields to do agricultural work.  He warns Wantje Loete that once at home her cushion will stand empty because her mother will need her to look after her latest sibling, while her father will send her to look after the goats and pigs.  Meanwhile she, and the other girls staying away from school, will never really master lacemaking.[19]  The issue, though, was not entirely economic: for Duvillers the key success of the school was establishing religious oversight of all the young women in the parish and it was this moral authority which parents and some girls, were challenging.

All was not well in the school either: in the song ‘The School Mistress and the Foolish Mother’, the latter comes to complain that her daughter Mie has been beaten, and that she will take her, her stool and her cushion out of school if another finger is laid on her.  The school mistress answers that no one has been beaten, she’s only dragged Mie into the middle of the school and made her kneel and pray because she is so lazy.  And while the stool belongs to the family, the other tools belong to the school. ‘Don’t come back later and try to flatter us/ and ask us if she can [learn to] knit,/ Or even sew your clothes:/ Woman, this is no dovecot!’[20]  However, the mistress’s protestations that no-one has been beaten are undermined by other songs in which she directly tells the children that she’s been instructed by the pastor himself ‘not to spare the rod’.[21]  Perhaps this was the reason girls like Barbara Kwikkelbeen preferred hanging around in the street or wandering through the parish.  In a fury over all this backsliding Duvillers declares ‘But as the poor are so pigheaded,/ Then I will not lift my hand to help them,/ And I’ll send them a punishment.’[22]  If these songs in any way represent the priest’s actual relations with his parishioners, then it is plausible that it was this breakdown that brought about his removal from Middelburg, and not his obstreperous involvement in language politics.

As any regular visitor to this site will know, apprentice lacemakers sang while they worked.  Duvillers frequently alludes to this custom, and even names some of the songs they sang, such as ‘Pierlala’.  He presumably wanted his songs to be adopted by the Middelburg lace school as more suitable for future ‘brides of Christ’ (that is nuns, which was clearly Duvillers’ hope for at least some of the girls) than those currently in use, that is if his choice of tunes is indicative of what was being sung.  Most of these seem derive from the theatre, such as ‘The Best is Good Enough for Me’, or ‘The Frozen Nose’.

Presumably also he hoped that his songs would be taken up in other lace schools, but is there evidence of this?  Although Flemish lacemakers sang a lot of songs, not many of them were actually about lacemaking itself.  If anything their songs served as an imagined escape from their task.  Duvillers’ songs, on the other hand, offer a detailed picture of life in a lace-school, of how the children interacted with each other, of the injunctions of the lace-mistress, of the various visitors during the day… the kind of nitty-gritty quotidian commonplaces that are a goldmine for the social historian but unlikely to excite a singer.  This mundane character, and the highly localized references, made me think that, as songs, Duvillers’ work had probably fallen rather flat.

However, at least one of Duvillers’ songs did become a lace tell, and a version was still sung a century after publication.  In 1948 Magda Cafmeyer published a series of articles ‘From Cradle to Grave’ about life-cycle traditions in Bruges and its immediate surrounding villages.  She included, under youth, lace tells, and offered one that she herself had heard.[23]

It is worth seeing
Us making net (i.e. lace)
For the bonnets
of the young ladies of the city.
The finest lace
For our customers
Enriched with flower and leaf
one link, one lattice opening made
Wantje’s lace rests unsold
Isabelle gets
Ten franks the ell (the unit used for measuring lace, about 70 cm)
But she’s a fierce one
She doesn’t even look up
Her fingers twirl
The sticks (bobbins) roll;
They seem to dance before one’s eye.
O wonder, especially if anyone sees it,
But this tough one (‘schrimmer’ in Cafmeyer’s tell, ‘grimmer’ in Duvillers’ song), hardly ever leaves the house.

Just like magic!
Says boss de Lye (an unidentified figure),
As he quickly leaves the school.

 Farewell to the field
The farmer and the baker
How fast and how wide-awake (I am)
And I also get a little wage
I work here peacefully
By my sister
I sit here warm and clean.

Unknown to Cafmeyer, these are two verses, albeit slightly rearranged, of one of Duvillers’ Speldewerksters-liedjes which appeared in his first, 1844 collection.  In his own way, he had contributed to the craft culture of Flemish lacemakers.

 

[1] For a fuller biography of Father Duvillers, and detail of his works and his legend, see J. Muyldermans, ‘Constant Duvillers (1803-1885). Zijn leven en zijne schriften’, in Verslagen en Mededelingen der Koninklijke Vlaamse Academie voor Taal- en Letterkunde (1928): 148-202, and F. van Es, Pastoor Constant Duvillers, Folklorist en folkloristische figuur (Ghent, 1949).

[2] G. Jacquemyns, Histoire de la crise économique des Flandres (1845-1850) (Brussels, 1929).

[3] Pierre Verhaegen, Les industries à domicile en Belgique: La dentelle et la broderie sur tulle (Brussels: Office du Travail, 1891), vol. 1, p. 49.

[4] We will return to this political debate in future posts, but for liberal/socialist critiques of the Catholic Church’s involvement in the lace schools see Guillaume Degreef, L’ouvrière dentellière en Belgique (Brussels, 1886) and Auguste de Winne, À travers les Flandres (Ghent, 1902).  Although Pierre Verhaegen’s father, Pierre-Théodore Verhaegen (1796-1862) was the effective leader of the Belgian liberals and anticlericals, and at the forefront of the battle over education (students at the Free University of Brussels – free of Catholic influence that is – still celebrate ‘Saint Verhaegen’s Day’), he himself took a more positive view on the Church’s lace schools.

[5] C. Duvillers, Twintig Nieuwe Liedjes, ten geebruyke der Meysjesschool van Middelburg, in Vlaenderen (Ghent, 1844): Naeystersliedje ‘O! dank zy onzen pastor:/ Hij heeft de school gesticht’.

[6] Duvillers, Twintig Nieuwe Liedjes: ‘T Liedje der Spinnetten ‘Den loon is kleyn; en ‘t is duer leven;/ Er ligt geen’ boter op ons brood’.

[7] Duvillers, Twintig Nieuwe Liedjes: Huys-liedje ‘ ‘k Voel mij gedreven/ Om altyd school te gaen./ Daer leer ik fraeye zaken:/ ‘k Leer nette kantjes maken;/ Ik naey, ik brey,/ ‘t Is al profyt voor my’.

[8] Duvillers, Twintig Nieuwe Liedjes: Kantwerksters-Liedje ‘O zalig land!/ Waer ook een’ kinderhand/ Zyn’ ouders onderstand,/ Al spelen, kan verschaffen,/ Al spelen, ja!’

[9] Ander Kantwerksters-Liedje ‘Wy spelen hier een spel/ Waer ieder moet op kyken;/ Dat speldenwerken schynt/ Een’ regte tooverkonst.’

[10] C. Duvillers, Liedjes voor de Kantwerkscholen, Gevolge door de Spreuken van baeske Van de Wiele (Bruges: Vandecastell-Werbrouck, 1846): no. 1: ‘Toen ik nog een kleyn boontje was,/ Deed vader ook in ‘t linnen,/ Terwyl ik in een boekske las,/ Zat moeder daer te spinnen; En ‘t spinnewiel en ‘t weefgetouw/ Bevrydden ons van druk en rouw,/ Wy konden ‘t broodje winnen.’

[11] Duvillers, Liedjes voor de Kantwerkscholen (1846): Flora, of de moedige kantwerkster ‘Vivat het spellewerk! Vivat!/ Vaerwel het ronkend spinnewielken!/ Ik volg de meysjes van de stad,/ ‘k speel met ving’ren, kleyn en groot,/ En zoo wint Floorken ook haer brood.’

[12] Duvillers, Liedjes voor de Kantwerkscholen (1846): no. 6: ‘Er ryst voor ons een’ nieuwe school,/ Ze zyn al de tweede stagie,/ Sa! Dochters, schept maer goê couragie:/ Haest krupt gy uyt uw donker hol.’

[13] Duvillers, Liedjes voor de Kantwerkscholen (1846): De Schoolvrouw, den pastor en de dry vreemde heeren ‘Sa! Kinders, zingen wy eens dat/ Van ‘t Weverken of van de Kat’.  Neither reference can be clearly identified as weavers and cats are both common characers in Flemish folksong, but two popular lace tells were ‘Daar waren vier wevers’ and ‘De katje aan de zee’.

[14] Duvillers, Liedjes voor de Kantwerkscholen (1846): Den Pastor en de Schoolvrouw ‘En, dan kom ik afgetreden/ Met den heere van ‘t kasteel,/ En mevrouw, en al de leden/ Van ‘t weldadigheyds-bureel,/ En wy geven groote boeken,/ Nieuwe kleedren, mutsen, doeken,/ Al die braef is krygt zyn deel.’

[15] Duvillers, Liedjes voor de Kantwerkscholen (1846): no. 14.

[16] Duvillers, Liedjes voor de Kantwerkscholen (1846): Den Heer en het schoolkind.

[17] Duvillers, Liedjes voor de Kantwerkscholen (1846): Den pastor en de schoolvrouw.

[18] Duvillers, Liedjes voor de Kantwerkscholen (1846): De Koopvrouw en de zuyster.

[19] C. Duvillers, Liedjes voor de Kantwerkscholen en Spreuken van baeske Van de Wiele (Ghent, 1847): Wantje Loete.

[20] Duvillers, Liedjes voor de Kantwerkscholen (1847): De Schoolvrouw en d’onverstandige Moeder ‘Brengt u ‘t meysken in ‘t verdriet,/ Threse, en kom dan later niet/ Schoone spreken, en ons vleyen,/ En ons vragen of ‘t mag breyen,/ Of eens naeyen aen uw kleed:/ Vrouw, ‘t is hier geen duyvenkeet.’

[21] Duvillers, Liedjes voor de Kantwerkscholen (1847): De Zuster en de Schoolkinders ‘Den pastor heeft my streng bevolen/ Van in de beyde kantwerkscholen/ Daer op te letten, en de roê/ Zoo niet te sparen, lyk ik doe.’

[22] Duvillers, Liedjes voor de Kantwerkscholen (1847): Genoveva d’Hont ‘Maer al den armen ‘t zoo verstaet,/ Dan doe ‘ker maer myn hand van af,/ En ‘k jon ze hem, de straf.’

[23] Magda Cafmeyer, ‘Van de wieg tot het graf III: Dat was de jeugd’, Biekorf 49 (1948): 206-7.

Making Lace in Central Slovakia

Doing fieldwork amongst bobbin lace makers in the Central Slovak villages of Staré Hory and Špania Dolina in the mid- to late 2000s, I was faced with an unexpected paradox: when speaking to me, artisans would present their craft work as a pleasurable hobby, then as menial labour, and later as a dangerously addictive obsession. In the very same conversation, I was told that making lace was ‘work’ and a way of ‘making do’ in times of economic hardship, and barely a breath later artisans would claim that craft practice was nothing more than a personal indulgence and a ‘labour of love’. Artisans seemed equally ambivalent in their descriptions of their experience of making lace itself. They would emphasize the emotional and therapeutic aspects of craft practice, and then warn me that it could develop into an obsessive ‘sickness’ or a kind of nervous disorder for which there was no cure. The process of making was described in terms of mastery and control, but also in terms of submission brought on by a seduction of the craftswoman by her own tools.

 The lace making village of Spania Dolina in Central Slovakia.

Weaving lace, I was often told, is an emotional experience. This was most eloquently expressed by the lace maker I call Hana Majerová, who saw her special relationship with the craft as stemming from her memories of family life in the village of Staré Hory:

……very few of the women who do it today, have developed such an emotional relationship with it as I have, literally emotional, because for me, just the sound of the lace making, for me it is magical. It…already when my grandmother used to do it and I sat beside her as a child, it……is peace and quiet. And that is why I have a very good relationship to it, because….today, when people run, fly about, chase each other around, they don’t have time and I can afford to – quietly, with calm nerves and a calm soul – just sit and work.

Hana expressed the opinion that women in lace making clubs pursued technical perfection for its own sake, and that they could not have such an emotional bond with the craft because they had no kinship connections to the lace making communities in Staré Hory or Špania Dolina. Yet, I found that regardless of their family background, the vast majority of lace makers presented lacemaking as evoking emotion. I found that many of my informants fell into lace making a time of change or crises in their lives. Women continually pointed out that it ‘took the mind off’ marital problems or the grief at the loss of relative:

(And when you started, what interested you in it?) I’ll tell you, when you want to make lace, you have to concentrate on it, especially when you are a beginner as I was. And all your worries are set aside. When my husband was very ill, I cried all day, but when you make lace, you have to concentrate on that work… concentration on something else.

A characteristic description of the effect of intense sessions of lace making was the loss of the sense of time passing. Apart from making them ‘forget the time’, lace makers also told me that while making lace, there were periods when they lost awareness of what was going on around them. The American-Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has described this experience as a state of ‘flow’. Characteristic of this ‘flow’ sensation, is that the actor – completely engrossed in their activity – concentrates on the skills needed to perform the task and the limitations and possibilities presented within, reflecting little on what may happen around them. I found that learning a new stitch or a new pattern was well-known a source of such a ‘flow’ experience for local lace makers. As the lace maker Jana Horvathová recounted:

And this, when I was learning………I couldn’t learn the half stitch. The lady who taught me would ask ‘What are you doing?’ And I (would say) ‘I’m undoing again’. And now look how nice it is! I like doing it now. And I was giving up, ‘I won’t do it’ I said.

The pleasure with which Jana described how she finally learned the half-stitch illustrates how the acquisition of skill was experienced emotionally. Jana had quite literally mastered the half-stitch because it was only when she was no longer engaged in a frustrating battle with bobbins and thread which did not respond to her efforts that she experienced the ‘flow’ sensation which followed confidence in craft activity.

 A lace maker from the village of Stare Hory, Central Slovakia, shows off a lace tablecloth.

Mastery, therapy, and control, however, were only some of the terms which lace makers used to articulate the emotional outcome of their tactile involvement with their pillow. Indeed, compulsion and obsession emerged as the ‘darker side’ of craft work in my conversations with them: there was apparently a constant danger that the therapeutic value of lace making could be subverted and rather than the lace maker gaining control over the process, it would force her into submission. All my informants described lace making as their love, but also as a curse. Craftswomen warned beginners – half mockingly, half seriously – that lace making is a ‘sickness’ which will never release them once they have come under its spell. Several lace makers told me that they became ‘unwell’ if they did not have an ongoing project pinned on their pillows at all times. This meant that they suffered from a sorts of nervous frustration which could only be mitigated by vigorous activity:

I feel totally sick if I can’t work [make lace]. Sick. I cook, I clean and clean.

Receiving new designs, lace makers described themselves as grabbed by an irresistible urge to execute it, and stubbornly refused to complete other tasks before they had mastered it. Upon encountering a problem, they stayed up long after the rest of the family had retired to bed to battle it out with the pillow, or found they could not rest:

Well, when I have a new pattern, I get up at five in the morning. It won’t (leave me alone), I have to get up. To see whether I can master it or I can’t master it.

This submission seemed not only to have a pleasurable aspect, but also an addictive power. The un-worked pillow often came up in conversation as a picture of seduction, the pillow itself often being treated as the lace maker’s partner (or adversary) in the process of production. It was not unusual for artisans to stroke (or hit) and speak to their pillows (‘Sit still’! or ‘Now, look what you have done’!).

The author making lace while doing fieldwork.

Lace makers were keen to emphasize the pleasurable aspects of lace making (the paired aspects of therapy and submission). However, as I befriended different artisans, I began to hear them speak of craft activity in much more instrumental terms:

Well, in the summer I don’t make much anyway, when it is so hot, your hands sweat. (So one can work better in the winter?) Yes! (But there isn’t any light?) During the day I work 2-3 hours, and then again in the evening…Everywhere the light has to be turned on at 4 – 5 o’clock, so I work until 9 – 9:30, but only with the white thread. I can’t work with the dark ones, because that is [too much] on the eyes.

Jozefina Mišíková was a lively elderly lady, who at the age of 70 began selling her lace by renting stands at folk festivals and seasonal markets across the country. Mišíková reasoned that she was lonely after her husband’s death, but also that she needed an extra income to supplement her meagre old age pension. Despite her advanced age, she was not only willing to travel several hundreds of kilometres to attend festivals, but she was also a very astute saleswoman, quickly mapping which festivals were worth attending, as well as the tastes of various groups of clients. Mrs Mišíková’s efforts to gain a small income from her craft work were not unique: Whether in Banská Bystrica town, or in the villages of Špania Dolina and Staré Hory, lace making emerged as a way of ‘making do’, that is, of supplementing the income from employment, old age pensions, and social benefits. For some informants, like the 26-year-old designer Jaroslava Genderová, who worked for a local clothing manufacturer in Banská Bystrica, ‘making do’ through lace making was a vital part of the family’s domestic economy – the manufacturer she was working for was limping towards bankruptcy and owed her several months wages. As another lace maker living in Špania Dolina told me: Well in this day and age every crown is precious. I don’t mean just for me, but for the other ladies too, for everyone.

The history of lace making as cottage industry in the villages of Špania Dolina and Staré Hory means that the craft has always been associated with the need for ‘making do’ in these communities:

(So you learned how to make lace as a small child?) Yes, probably about at the age of 9. I started working then……every day, I had to make such two-three forms (worth), and then mother went to sell it, when there were 5 meters. Because that is how we made our living. Father was always ill. So, my mother worked and I did too, she taught me.

This lace maker’s description of her childhood in the 1940s was typical of that of many of my elderly village informants. The association of lace making with poverty alleviation was further strengthened after the Communist Party’s collectivisation of craft work through the ÚĽUV2 and the organisation Kroj (literally ‘folk costume’), in the early 1950s. As one of my lace making teacher told me:

We used to get orders for holidays, where it had to be done, Sunday, not Sunday, holidays no holidays, it had to be done. So many times I worked all of a Sunday or holiday, so I could get it done. She knew who would do it. (Did they pay more?) No, well they did, but not much. You got more for being able to do more and more complicated (designs). I tried. Those who didn’t need to, didn’t.

Ana Paličková’s statement that ‘(t)hose who didn’t need to, didn’t’ take on difficult orders reveals a pragmatic attitude contrasted to women’s propensity to call their lace making a ‘hobby’ or ‘obsession’ at face value. Moreover, Mrs Paličková’s comment shed light on the apparently addictive nature of lace making practice: It not only suggested that craftswomen were able to resist its seductive aspects, but that lace makers highlighted various aspects of their craft practice according to the context in which it is spoken of. For example, the lace maker Dagmar Babjaková described lace making both as an obsessive hobby (‘Well, when I have a new pattern, I get up at five in the morning. It won’t (leave me alone), I have to get up’) and a source of income (‘Well, in this day and age every crown is precious’). Pleasure and pragmatism, just like submission and mastery, were not incompatible, but appeared to be used instrumentally by craftswomen in conversation.

When I left the Slovakia and began writing up my findings, I assumed that the experience of lace making as both a pleasurable hobby and as drudgery was unique to the Slovak environment – that is was the result of the harsh economic climate following the end of communism, alongside specific local traditions of domesticity, ideals of femininity, and traditions of lace making as a way for women to supplement the income of their male family members (fathers, husbands, brothers, sons). And yet, when studying the historical experience of lace makers in England in the 19th and early 20th centuries, I found that craftswomen expressed many of the very same mixed feelings of enjoyment, obsession, and distaste towards the craft (see the blog post: Pleasure and Pain: What can lace makers’ tools tell us about their lives?). This begs the question of whether – and to what extent – such feelings are the result of the experience of craft work itself, and how much this experience of making is itself influenced by the social and cultural context in which it takes place.

[All names have been changed to preserve the privacy of the participants]

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.

Dickens’ lacemaker heroine: Phoebe of ‘Mugby Junction’

 

Lordship Lane Railway Station, by Camille Pissarro, 1871. From Wikipedia Commons. “And those threads of railway, with their puffs of smoke and steam changing places so fast, make it so lively for me”.

 

In a 1994 article on the literary image of the lacemaker, Nichola Anne Haxell complained that she had found only four relevant works: “These four texts have to bear the full weight of my analysis: considerable investigation has failed to bring forth any other texts which situate a lacemaker in or near the centre of the narrative.”  Her four were Charlotte Brontë’s The Professor (1846, though published in 1857), Gérard de Nerval’s “Sylvie” (1853), Pascal Lainé’s La dentellière (1974, and, despite the title, not actually about a lacemaker), and Chantal Chawaf’s Retable: La Rêverie (1974).[1]

If we say that we know of about forty it will sound like boasting, but really it’s a testament to the wonder of search engines.  And it has to be said that many of our authors are not particularly well known.  But Charles Dickens certainly is a canonical writer, how could his contribution be overlooked in a “considerable investigation”?  The answer to that depends on whether you have heard of “Mugby Junction”, a set of stories written by Dickens and collaborators for the Christmas 1866 edition of the magazine All The Year Round.  We hadn’t until a search engine led us to it.  It may be familiar to Victorian steam enthusiasts as most of the stories are in the voices of railway employees: the engine-driver, the signalman, the engineer, the boy who serves in the refreshment room…  But there is also a frame story about a character known as “Barbox Brothers” on the basis of the label on his luggage, or the “Gentleman for Nowhere”, as he hangs around Mugby Junction station without taking a train.  His name, however, is Jackson; he got off a train from London at Mugby in the middle of the night with no particular object.  He develops the plan of travelling all the lines that meet there.  Dickens creates here an opportunity for many spin-off stories, though in fact only one, Jackson’s visit to Birmingham, ever materializes.  “Mugby”, as you may have guessed, is Rugby in Warwickshire, then still a rural market town with a large railway junction attached, rather than the industrial centre it would become a decade or two later.

“Mugby Junction” is not, to be frank, a very good story.  Jackson is rather like Arthur Clennam in Little Dorrit, a man oppressed by his bigoted upbringing and the moneygrubbing tedium of his work in the City.  Having sold his business, he is searching for some purpose to his life, but has no clue how to find it.  He wanders the streets and surrounding countryside until he encounters an odd sight: the fragile but bright face of a young woman, with her cheek on a cottage windowsill.  “And now there were a pair of delicate hands too. They had the action of performing on some musical instrument and yet it produced no sound that reached his ears.”  His walks over the following days are all directed past this cottage which he observes also serves as a village school.  From one of the children he learns that the sideways woman is called Phoebe, who sings in order to instruct.

“The Face at the Window”, Harry Furniss’s disturbing 1910 illustration of Phoebe. From Phillip Allingham’s article on Victorian illustrators on The Victorian Web

 

A few days later, having introduced himself through the window, Jackson visits Phoebe who, unable to walk, lies on a couch all day.  “She was engaged in very nimbly and dexterously making lace.  A lace-pillow lay upon her breast; and the quick movements and changes of her hands upon it as she worked, had given them the action he had misinterpreted” as playing an instrument.  When he explains his mistake she replies “That is curious…  For I often fancy, myself, that I play tunes while I am at work.”  Jackson, unused to any form of human contact, is at a loss for further small talk, but “there was a kind of substitute for conversation in the click and play of its pegs…  The charm of her transparent face and large bright brown eyes, was, not that they were passively resigned, but that they were actively and thoroughly cheerful.  Even her busy hands, which of their own thinness alone might have besought compassion, plied their task with a gay courage that made mere compassion an unjustifiable assumption of superiority, and an impertinence.”  Jackson cannot help but compare this young woman’s pleasant outlook with his own melancholy.  He had loathed his work whereas she loves hers, both her teaching and “my lace-pillow… it goes with my thoughts when I think, and it goes with my tunes when I hum any, and that’s not work.  Why, you yourself thought it was music, you know sir.  And so it is, to me.”  Her father, a railway worker that Jackson has already met, adds that Phoebe is “Always working – and after all, sir, for but a very few shillings a week – always contented, always lively, always interested in others, of all sorts.”

Dickens had a penchant for women who suffer while retaining their vivacity and compassion.  Like Phoebe, Little Dorrit was a textile worker (a seamstress).  One suspects that, if the”‘Mugby Junction” story had been taken further, it would have been Phoebe’s role to save Jackson from himself, as Amy Dorrit saves Arthur Clennam.  It was a commonplace of nineteenth-century fiction that women’s pain redeemed men.

Lacemaking appears like playing an instrument, lacemakers hum and sing as they work.  The idea of music is bound together with Phoebe’s lace, and her character.  We have often encountered this image of the singing textile worker, contented with her domestic lot.  But Dickens introduces a novel synonym for lace, “those threads of railway”, that Phoebe can observe from her window, but not follow.  Jackson undertakes to explore them and report back on what he discovers.  As she weaves her threads so he will weave narratives for her.

Much of this coincides with Haxell’s “paradigm of the lacemaker” derived from her four texts.  In most of these, and especially those authored by men, “a lacemaker is a young woman of humble background or reduced circumstances who attempts to make her way in the world through patient and unassuming craft. Although she has little formal education, there is a modest desire within her for self-improvement. Beneath her demure manner, she often demonstrates qualities and modes of behaviour which make her an outsider to the lowly class and social position where her occupation situates her. A lacemaker will inevitably enter into an emotional relationship with a smug young man, socially and educationally superior to her. He will be attracted initially to her docility and “naturalness”, which correspond to his personal ideal of femininity.”  Jackson may not be young, nor particularly smug, but otherwise the literary model is replicated.  However Dickens might have allowed for a happier ending than that permitted in Nerval’s ‘Sylvie’ or Lainé’s La Dentellière.

What did Dickens know about lacemaking?  Rugby borders the Northamptonshire lace districts, and Dickens had other opportunities to see lacemakers at work, for instance when he covered the 1835 by-election in Kettering (we know how important the lace interest was in that town).  He returned quite often to Northamptonshire to visit his friends the Watsons at Rockingham Castle.  However, we are not aware of any other text in which he showed any interest in this manufacture.  We are also a little doubtful about Phoebe’s prone position as an effective way to work on a lace pillow.  Certainly the illustrator of the American edition of Dickens’ complete works, Arthur Jules Goodman, had difficulty picturing the scene.

 

Arthur Jules Goodman’s frontispiece to the 1898 edition of “Mugby Junction”, depicting Phoebe, Phoebe’s father “Lamps” and the “Gentleman for Nowhere”.

 

[1] Nichola Anne Haxell, ‘Woman as Lacemaker: The Development of a Literary Stereotype in Texts by CharlotteBrontë, Nerval, Lainé, and Chawaf’, The Modern Language Review 89 (1994): 545-60.

A Moral Tale of ‘City and Village’. Pieter Geiregat’s ‘Stad en dorp’ (1853)

Pieter Geiregat’s literary career followed a trajectory similar to Frans Carrein’s.  Born in Ghent in 1828, he started his working life as a candlemaker, but writing would lead him to become, in 1855, editor of the Gazette van Gent.  He died in 1902.  Like Carrein he mostly authored plays for local theatre troupes, but he became better known for his writing for children.  He specialized in short ‘moral sketches’, such as his 1855 story ‘De Duivenmelkers’ (‘The Pigeon Fanciers’: in nineteenth-century Flanders the hobby of pigeon-fancying was widely portrayed as the very worst of depravities which sapped the health and rectitude of the whole Flemish people).  Whereas his plays often had a historical setting, his stories mostly featured characters from the Flemish middle and working classes, who presumably were also his intended audience.  These are simple, not to say simplistic, tales of vice punished and goodness rewarded.  Geiregat was not aiming to be a Flemish Thackeray or Eliot, but rather to provide educational and uplifting works for a public which had very limited schooling.  Nonetheless we are forced to concur with a recent Flemish critic — comparing Geiregat’s work with two better known Ghent writers of children’s fiction, the Loveling sisters Rosalie and Virginie — that for today’s readers these stories are ‘ongenietbaar’ (indigestible).[1]  Even in the 1850s and 60s, critics called his work ‘platte en triviale’ (flat and trivial).[2]

This is not, then, an attempt to resurrect a lost literary masterpiece.  But one of the virtues of mediocre works is that they spell out, unequivocably, attitudes and standpoints about which subtler writers are more equivocal.  For instance, in Stad en dorp (City and Village) of 1853, the moral chasm between the simple virtues of the village-folk and the refined vices of the town could not be more clearly articulated.  And this despite the fact that the action takes place in Ledeberg in the 1840s, a village so close to the gates of Ghent that even then it served as a suburb, and now is incorporated into the municipality, and despite the fact that Geiregat himself lived his entire life in that city.

‘The Sint Lievenspoort’ of Ghent by Pierre François De Noter (1822). Ledeberg lies just beyond.

 

The story concerns the Verloove family, Sies a peasant farmer, his wife Bello who sells milk on the streets of Ghent, and their two daughters Anna and Petronilla, the first of whom makes linen caps for villagers, while the second is a lacemaker.  While Petronilla is content to work continously at the cottage window, eyes modestly down on her pillow, Anna yearns for excitement, fashion and luxury, all of which are available in the city next door.  Anna persuades her parents, with considerable difficulty, to let her go and work as an assistant in a milliner’s shop.  Soon she is wearing a hat with feathers, and then soft leather shoes, and then she is seen talking to a young man about town, and in general falling into the debauchery associated with a metropolitan lifestyle.  Meanwhile her parents have arranged for Anna, much against her will, to be married to the wheelwright’s son Tone who lives opposite.  When Tone comes to fetch his bride on the day of the wedding, Anna has disappeared, leaving a letter to explain that she prefers to be the mistress of a rich man.  ‘Why should I bury the beauty that nature gave me under coarse peasants’ clothes?… if I became the wife of a craftsman I would be his maidservant, then the maidservant of my chldren, and the maidservant of myself’.

Tone, who is portrayed as utterly infatuated with Anna, nonetheless consoles himself a few months later by marrying her sister Nella.  Anna turns up univited at the wedding speaking French — a sign of uttermost degeneracy in Flemish literature of the nineteenth century — and dispensing gold coins and jewellery.  The congregation recoil in horror while her father curses her.  Physically wrecked by the shame that Anna has brought on his family, Sies dies a year later.  Anna’s beauty, meantimes, has been destroyed through her excesses, and the fashonable clothes and luxuries she could previously obtain by selling her favours, now she has to steal.  She arrives at her father’s graveside swiftly followed by two policemen.  She is sentenced to two years in prison.

Tone, however, has found married bliss with Petronilla: she keeps the house tidy, the floor well sanded, everything clean and neat.  She wastes no money, so there is nothing costly, rich or superfluous in their house, everything is simple, as befits country folk.  Tone feels no need to go to the inn any more, because he can sit and smoke a pipe in the corner of his own house by a warm fire with his wife beside him.  And soon there is a son as well.  The one cloud hanging over the house is that the couple are keeping Anna’s imprisonment a secret from her mother, for fear that the shame would kill her.  Unfortunately a gossipy neighbour reveals all, and mother Bello literally falls down dead in shock.

Two years pass and the newly released Anna has determined to rob Tone and Petronilla.  She creeps up to their shutters to be confronted with the sight of her sister and her nephew kneeling before a crucifix, praying ‘that unhappy aunt Anna might forsake her life of sin, reflect on her misdeeds, and that God may have mercy on her soul.’  She flees into the night, but a month later, now lying on her deathbed, she sends for the couple to beg for forgiveness, just as her soul departs her infected body.  ‘Thus men see’, concludes Geiregat, ‘that already on earth, the good are rewarded for their goodness, while the bad are punished for their wickedness’.

Reading this work the other day, it seems more like an exemplary tale of the consequences of abusive parenting.  Sies Verloove is a domineering and violent father, and it is this that drives his daughter from the house and, by a roundabout route, to her death.  However, the reason we have included it in this survey of lacemakers in literature is that it repeats a pattern we have already observed in Caroline Barnard’s The Prize: millinery is the path to corruption, whilst lacemaking is a virtuous occupation.  This despite the fact that lace formed part of the vanities that destroyed Anna, who ‘in the full flower of her beauty had been adorned with silk and lace, gold and jewels.’  There is a paradox here that we intend to explore further.

Lucian Gérard (1852-1935) ‘De kantwerkster’ (The Lacemaker). Gérard was born in Ledeberg, so perhaps this painting represents Tone and Petronella in later life.

 

[1] Ludo Stynen, Rosalie en Virginie: Leven en werk van de gezusters Loveling (Tielt, 1997), p. 129.

[2] Review of Pieter Geiregat’s De lotelingen onder Napoleon in Leesmuseum, tydschrift voor letteren, wetenschappen en kunst 1 (1856), p. 281.

Poverty and Predation in Frans Carrein’s ‘Elisa de Kantwerkster’ [Eliza the Lacemaker] (1859)

We were wrong to claim that Goldoni’s Le baruffe chiozzotte (The Squabbles in Chioggia) is the only play to feature lacemakers as its main characters. Frans Carrein’s Elisa de Kantwerkster (Eliza the lacemaker) puts one of them even more firmly centre stage.  This piece of musical theatre was first performed in Bruges in 1859 by the Flemish amateur dramatic society Yver en Broedermin (Zeal and Brotherhood).  Such ‘chambers of rhetoric’, as they were known, had a long history in the Low Countries as promoters of middle-class sociability and civic ideals.  In the nineteenth century they were, additionally, important vehicles for Flemish as a language of culture in Belgium.  Yver en Broedermin, for example, organized the first competition for new plays in Flemish in 1835.[1]

Yver en Broedermin, founded in 1822, was more socially open than its relatively exclusive rival in Bruges, the Maatschappy van Vaderlandsche Taal en Letterkunde.  Frans Carrein (1816 Eernegem – 1877 Ostend) was typical of its urban artisan and clerk membership.  His day-job was a pastry chef, but literature had become his passion.  He had started in a rival society, Kunstliebe, in 1843 (Kunstliebe had broken away from Yver en Broedermin in 1841, no doubt largely as a vehicle for personal ambitions, but it also took a more radical position on the language question).[2]  Carrein’s initial dramatic excursions, in which he often acted himself, were translations of French melodramas and vaudevilles, which were staple fare for Flemish chambers of rhetoric at the time.  But Carrein had ambitions to foster a native Flemish theatre.[3]  The nineteenth century witnessed the deliberate creation of repertoires of ‘national’ dramas which drew their inspiration from moments of national history.  Flanders was no exception, and so Carrein’s first major work told the story of Pieter Lanchals (1849), the leader of the Bruges Revolt against the Emperor Maximilian of Austria in the 1480s.  This is evidence of the tremendous influence of Hendrik Conscience’s 1838 novel – effectively the first Flemish novel – De Leeuw van Vlaanderen, which took as its inspiration an earlier revolt of the Flemish cities against their overlords.  The late medieval period was central to the Flemish Movement’s cultural memory.

However, Carrein soon shifted towards a theatre of social criticism; a transition from romantic to realist drama in other words.  So contentious was his 1851 play Arm en Ryk (Poor and Rich) that it was banned by the mayor of Bruges.  Arm en Ryk was set in a Flemish village of weavers and spinners; the villain of the piece is a linen-merchant and also, as it happens, mayor of the village, who not only exploits the weavers but also opposes the love between his son and a weaver’s daughter.  All ends happily but the depiction of social conflict, including a crowd of weavers threatening death to the cowering merchant, was uncomfortable viewing in Flanders in the mid-nineteenth century.  The 1840s had witnessed the catastrophic collapse of the once dominant linen trade in Flanders as handloom weavers and spinners succumbed under the dual effects of factory-made competition from Britain and harvest failure.[4]  The crisis gave rise to widespread hunger and even starvation.  A similar set of circumstances had led to armed rebellion among the weavers of Silesia in 1844 (the theme of Louise Otto’s novel Schloss und Fabrik which has a rather similar plotline to Carrein’s play, see our blog entry); the ‘Hungry Forties’ were part of the background to the Europe-wide series of revolutions in the spring and summer of 1848.  Belgium did not witness any similar outbreak of violence; instead the Belgian government responded by setting up lace schools in the Flemish countryside, in the hope that lace might take the place of spinning as a means of supporting the population.  But the mayor of Bruges may have feared that the play could enflame social conflict.  After all, the revolt that had led to the creation of the state of Belgium in 1830 had itself started at the theatre.[5]  In the absence of fully democratic institutions, theatre was a locus where protest could be voiced and rebellion enacted.

Carrein, however, was not really a revolutionary.  Workers’ violence, Carrein believed, was a consequence of ignorance, especially among the poor.  Ignorance could be combated through literature, which would impart moral guidance as well as knowledge.  As society became more democratic and not ruled by a single class, it was vital that the masses be provided with instruction.  But for this campaign to be successful, literature had to be in the common tongue, that is in Flemish.  Carrein set out this programme in a speech to the third Congress dedicated to Dutch Literature, held in Brussels in 1851, where he proposed the foundation of a society for the distribution of pamphlets to the people, and which would also support the writers of such works.[6]  (Carrein spoke immediately after Jan van Beers, whose own contribution to the literature of lacemaking, ‘Begga’, will be discussed in another blog.)

The fate of Arm en Ryk seems to have left Carrein a little bitter; or at least it was several years before he tried his hands at theatre again.  In the introduction to his next piece, Elisa de Kantwerkster, Carrein took his Flemish audience to task because they only had a taste for for comic pieces and songs.  Nonetheless he bent to the fashion, and Eliza is a relatively light piece with lots of music provided by P. Cools.  In a way he was proved right because Elisa was certainly his most popular work, repeatedly restaged in Ypres, Ghent and Brussels as well as Bruges.  It was a standard in the repertory of the company De Vlaams Ster who were still performing it in the 1900s.  And as if to bear out Carrein’s words, when it put on in Brussels in March 1862, ‘the public heartily laughed’.[7]  However, Carrein explicitly wanted the play to achieve something more than amusement: it was meant as a critique of the way the lace industry was run, based on his own observations and interviews with lacemakers.  In particular he attacked the practice of advancing money to workers as a means of making them dependent.  They could not change employer while they remained in debt, and there were all kinds of tricks to keep them in debt.[8]

 

 

The play opens with Elisa Nolf sitting at her pillow before dawn.  She has a lamp and a waterfilled flask beside her to concentrate light on her work, and a firepot to keep her feet warm, the standard accoutrements of the lacemaker.  She is singing, but her song is a lament: the lacemaker works from early morning to late into the night, damaging her eyes for a pitiful salary, while duchesses and baronesses wear her work to balls and grand dinners, she suffers in body and soul.  Elisa is an orphan: her father died not long before, and to pay for medicine during his last sickness she borrowed thirty francs from the lace-merchant Gierbaert (‘vulture beard’; Carrein played this part when the play was first performed).  Until she has cleared this debt she cannot work for anyone else.  She has also been left with the care of a younger brother, Joseph, a bravehearted lad but not entirely reliable.  He has in fact just been sacked though Elisa does not know this.  She sends him to the baker for a loaf, but Joseph has to tell her that the baker won’t give them credit anymore (they are two francs and thirteen centimes in debt), not now Elisa has a rich boyfriend.  The baker’s implication is that Adolf, the writer-friend of Elisa’s father, is visiting too often for her reputation.  Elisa is horrified.  She has been slaving away, denying herself all pleasures, preserving her virtue as best she can, and yet is still the subject of the neighbours’ gossip.  Unfortunately Adolf himself appears at exactly this moment, and Elisa, in her shame, sends him away.

Adolf leaves, and Rooze Dorn (there is no rose without a thorn), an elderly neighbour (played by a man) arrives to sit and work with Elisa.  Her language is colourful and plebian, and includes bits of English (eg: ‘nottink’).  The women plan to sing while they work because, as Elisa says, ‘song makes the work lighter; it gives spirit and courage’.  However, before they sit down, Joseph whispers to Rooze that ‘magerman is kok’ (‘lean man is the cook’; in other words they have had nothing to eat).  Rooze hurries off to get bread, leaving her pillow.  Elisa chides Joseph: time is the only precious thing that the poor have, and if Rooze is giving up her time for them, then she should make up time for her.  She picks up Rooze’s pillow and starts on her pattern.

Just at that moment Gierbaert appears and, spying the other cushion, accuses Elisa of making ‘dievenkanten’ (‘thieves’ lace’, that is lace for another merchant other than the one she owes).  Joseph claims that this other pillow is his, and in a song celebrates that men are now doing women’s work.  Gierbaert finds Joseph tiresome and, after he leaves, suggests to Elisa that as his own son has been selected for military service, Joseph could replace him and then the debt would be paid.  In nineteenth-century Belgium conscripts were chosen by lottery, and if someone unfortunate enough to pull a ‘bad number’ could find, that is buy, a replacement, he did not have to go.  Effectively this made military service a burden that fell disproportionately on the poor, and it was much resented.  Elisa refuses to sell her brother, but this only brings Gierbaert to the real point of his bargaining.  He wants Elisa to become his lover; and perhaps she might be his wife later, when he has first ‘tried on the shoe’.  When the indignant Elisa refuses, he explains that ‘your fate is in my hands, believe me’.  At this moment Rooze returns to hear the full force of Elisa’s anger: Gierbaert has profited from her misery, now he comes to buy her brother’s blood, her honour and her emaciated body.  Gierbaert leaves, threatening that she will soon have news from him.

Rooze herself brings news that she has just seen Joseph step in the path of a run-away coach and horses carrying a woman and children.  Joseph follows soon after, safe and sound, having stopped the coach.  But he too is followed by a policeman, who tells Elisa that Gierbaert has brought a complaint, and she must accompany him.  While Joseph and Rooze argue about what to do, Adolf appears just in time to meet Elisa returning from the magistrate, hopeless and despairing.  She has to pay her debt today or she will go to prison.  Although Rooze herself has only 30 centimes in the world, she sets off at once to rouse the other lacemakers and see if they can get the money together.  Adolf and Joseph both have plans too and leave Elisa.  Alone she soliloquizes: is honour just a foppery, something the poor cannot afford?  She could now be surrounded by luxury, her sense of honour has led her only to the gates of the prison.  Gierbaert overhears some of this and sees his chance.  He gives her the note of her debt (telling the audience in passing that it has already been repaid by Rooze and her friends), and while she is overcome with gratitude, pulls her to his chest and strokes her hair.  But before things go too far Adolf arrives to defend Eliza.

It was a commonplace of nineteenth-century gender politics that young women could not defend themselves.  Law and custom were stacked against them, as Adolf explains.  The law, he argues, that enables Gierbaert to send a worker to prison simply for trying to make a living from her work, should properly be described as ‘the white slave law’.  It was a relic from more barbarous times, incompatible with the march of civilisation.  Adolf, who is described as a writer, is evidently the mouthpiece for Carrein’s own views.  He is not impressed by Gierbaert’s surrender of the debt: what he couldn’t obtain by force he is now trying to get through a hypocritical show of generosity, making Elisa’s good heart an accomplice of his wickedness.  Gierbaert finally slinks away.

Adolf reveals that the family saved by Joseph was his sister’s.  But he also claims to be deeply unfortunate himself.  He is love with a young woman, less than half his age; he can’t reveal it for fear of rejection.  Elisa urges him to declare his feelings; the woman, of course, is Elisa, who falls into his arms.  (Isn’t it a bit hypocritical of Adolf to make Elisa’s feelings of gratitude the auxiliary of his own desires?)  At that moment Joseph and then Rooze return: Joseph with thirty francs whose origin he refuses to reveal, but Rooze, who always seems to know what’s up, explains that she saw him at the ‘soul merchant’ (i.e. the man who arranges military replacements).  As Elisa begins to lament again Adolf says he will save the man who rescued his sister and her children, and the man who is about to become his brother now that Elisa has agreed to become his wife.  They will all be one happy family, and when Rooze pops round they will all sing the song of the lacemaker.  The curtain comes down as the actors repeat the chorus of Elisa’s song from the beginning of the show.

Lacemakers’ songs are a common motif in the literature of Flemish Movement.  We will meet other examples, but this is one of the earliest songs ascribed to lacemakers to appear in print, and one which would have some influence on later representations of lacemakers, so we reproduce it in full.  It is not clear whether Carrein and Cools made up the text himself or were reproducing a song that they had heard sung on the streets of Bruges.  It certainly has some similarity to text in the Flemish lacemakers’ repertoire.  Unfortunately, the music was not included with the printed text.

Laet rollen de klosjes

Chorus
Laet rollen de flosjes,
En vlecht met uw draedjes,
En oogjes en naedjes,
Met lustigen zwier,
Op ‘t glib’rig papier.
Zy ritz’len en klotsen,
Zy tuim’len en botsen,
En glyden op ‘t kussen,
En ram’len en sussen;
Zoo ras en gezwind,
Als loof in den wind.

Verse 1
Reeds van in den vroegen morgen,
Zit ik aen het werk met vlyt,
Om myn’ nooddruft te bezorgen,
In dees guren slechten tyd.
Gauw is thans de dag vervlogen,
En het loon is toch zoo kleen;
‘T nachtwerk drukt, verkrent myn oogen,
Als ik by myn lampje ween.

Verse 2
Ach! hoe prachtig en hoe kunstig,
Is hy toch die blanke kant!
By haer die het lot was gunstig
Prykt hy eens naest diamant:
Hertogin of baronnesse,
Praelt er mede op bal en feest;
En ik, arme lyderesse,
Lyd aeen lichaem en aen geest.

 

Ida von Düringsfeld thought that Elisa gave a ‘good picture of working-class life (Volksleben) in Bruges’, and she also translated the chorus of this song into German (though she kept the Flemish terms ‘Klosjes’ and ‘Flosjes’, two different types of bobbin).  Perhaps as a baroness herself she was not so inclined to include the second verse, in which the pleasures of the lace-buying classes are compared with the misery of the lace-producing classes.

Lasst rollen die Klosjen,
Lasst rollen die Flosjen,
Und webt mit den Fädchen,
So Säumchen, wie Näthchen,
Mit Eil und mit Zier,
Auf’s glatte Papier.

Sie fallen und rasseln,
Sie wirbeln und prasseln
Sie gleiten und schwirren,
Sie klappern und klirren,
So seltsam geschwind,
Wie Blätter im Wind.

The Carmerstraat in Bruges, with typical working-class housing of the kind inhabited by lacemakers like Elisa Nolf and Roose Dorn.

 

[1]IJver en Broedermin’, openbare bibliotheek Brugge, blog.

[2] “Letterbroeders zedenvoeders”: De opkomst van Kunstliefde, Brugse toneel- en letterkundige vereniging (1841-1887), Onttoovering blog.

[3] Most of what we know of Carrein’s early literary career comes from an interview he gave, c. 1860, apparently in the middle of his pastry shop, to the German author Baroness Ida von Düringsfeld: Von der Schelde bis zur Maas: Das geistige Leben der Vlaminge seit des Wiederaufblühen der Literatur 3 vols (Leipzig and Brussels: Lehmann, 1861), vol. 1, pp. 68-71.  Carrein adapted and performed in works by French dramatists including Adolphe Poujol, Charles Desnoyer, Eugène Labiche, Adolphe Dennery and Felicien Mallefille.

[4]  Eric Vanhaute, ‘“So Worthy an Example to Ireland”: The Subsistence and Industrial Crisis of 1845–1850 in Flanders’, in Cormac Ó Gráda, Richard Paping, Eric Vanhaute (eds), When the Potato Failed.  Causes and Effects of the Last European Subsistence Crisis, 1845-1850 (Turnhout: Brepols, 2007).

[5] Sonia Slatin, ‘Opera and Revolution: La Muette de Portici and the Belgian Revolution of 1830 Revisited’, Journal of Musicological Research 3:1-2 (1979): 45-62.

[6] Handelingen van het derde Nederlandsch letterkundig congres, gehouden te Brussel, den 30 en 31 Augustus en 1 September 1851 (Brussels: J.-H. Dehou, 1852), pp. 187-91.

[7] De Toekomst, ‘Stad nieuws’, 6 April 1862, p.1.

[8] The epigraph to the play, from from the French writer Bernardin de Saint Pierre, states: ‘Ils ont mille ruses pour les reduire à la plus petite paie possible, par exemple, de l’argent d’avance: et quand ils en ont fait des débiteurs insolvables, ce qui est l’affaire de quelques écus, alors ils les ont à leur discrétion.’

Keeping ‘Cattern’ in Flanders

In our last post about lacemakers ‘keeping cattern’ on 25 November, we said that Saint Catherine ‘was not usually the named patron of European lacemakers’.  However, we have learnt that there was one exception: the lacemakers of Antwerp province in Belgium, and specifically Mechelen (Malines), celebrated Saint Catherine’s Eve.

We owe this information to the Flemish writer Herman Baccaert (1883-1921) who, together with Antoine Carlier de Lantsheere, compiled an Encyclopaedia of lace-related information.  Sadly this manuscript was lost during the First World War, but Baccaert did publish a few articles on lacemakers’ traditions, including their feast-days.  He also wrote a novel set among lacemakers, which we’ll return to in a future blog.

 

Herman Baccaert of Mechelin (1883-1921)

 

According to Baccaert, in most of Belgian and French Flanders, and in Brabant, the lacemakers’ patron was Saint Anne, mother of Mary, whose feast fell on 26 July.  There were some exceptions and additions.  In Ieper (Ypres) the lacemakers’ holiday was ‘mooimakersdag’, the Wednesday preceding ‘Klein Sacramentdag’, which fell on the Thursday following Corpus Christi.  (As the date of Corpus Christi depended on Easter, this was a moveable feast.)  In Geraardsbergen (Grammont) in southern Flanders, the lacemakers’ celebrated instead Saint Gregory the Great.  (Originally the holiday fell on 12 March, which oddly is Saint Gregory’s feast-day in the Orthodox Church but not the Catholic Church.  Then, in the nineteenth century, it was moved to 9 May.  According to a local lacedealer interviewed by Baccaert, the explanation for this was that the weather was better in May.  However, 9 May is the feast-day of Saint Gregory Nazianzen, a different saint; it is also the feast of the translation of Saint Nicholas, which was an important holiday for lacemakers in Lille. So there may have been more going on here.)  Although Baccaert did not mention this, Saint Theresa of Avila’s feast on 15 October was also popular among lacemakers in West Flanders, in Bruges and Courtrai (Brugge and Kortrijk).  But this holiday was promoted by some religious orders which held the saint in particular esteem; in general Saint Anne was the recognized patron in West Flanders.

In Antwerp province, however, it was Saint Catherine.  It is worth quoting Baccaert’s description in full because it offers some interesting parallels with ‘catterning’ in the East Midlands.  The lace industry had been in decline in the region for several decades, so Baccaert was referring to the past, not current practice.

“On Saint Catherine’s eve, at sunset on 24 November, ‘the candleblock was washed’ [‘den lichter begoten’].  The candleblock was a wooden stand which served as an appliance to spread light over the lacemakers’ pillows.  It consisted of a candle or an oil-lamp as well as a spherical bottle filled with pure water, the so-called ‘ordinaal’, which concentrated the light falling on the pillow.

“In the evening they cooked up a brandy punch called ‘the Devil in Hell’, which was passed to and fro because there was always another willing mouth to take care of.  It was the season for smoked herring and these were laid on the fire to sizzle and spit; everyone also had some tasty morsel, especially gingerbread and sweetmeats, and thus late into the night they would sing, gossip and tell stories.”

‘Washing the candleblock’ was also the euphemistic name for celebrating Catterns in parts of the East Midlands.  Saint Catherine’s was ‘Candle Day’, because traditionally this was the day when lacemakers began to use artificial light.  And just as there was a Cattern cake in the East Midlands, so there was a ‘Sint Catharinagebak’ in East Flanders: the recipe is given on p.99 of André Delcart’s Winterfeesten en Gebak: Mythen, folklore en tradities (Cyclus, 2007) This is not the only parallel in the customs of the two regions: the chanting of ‘tells’ in Midlands lace-schools echoes the use of ‘tellingen’ to control the pace of work in Flemish lace workshops.  Here is another which also tends to confirm the claim ― often asserted but difficult to prove ― that lace skills came to England from the Low Countries with Flemish migrants in the sixteenth century.

 

Alexander Struys, ‘The Lacemaker of Mechelen’, 1902

 

Further Reading

Baccaert, Herman.  ‘Gebruiken bij Kantwerksters’, Volkskunde: Tijdschrift voor Nederlandsche Folklore 19 (1907-8): 223-229

Baccaert, Herman.  ‘Bijdrage tot de Folklore van het kantwerk’, Volkskunde: Tijdschrift voor Nederlandsche Folklore 21 (1910): 169-175.

There is a very good Flemish website on Mechelen lace and lace history, ‘Mechelen & Kant‘.

‘The Old Grandame’ (1868) By John Askham, The Wellingborough ‘Shoemaker-Poet’

Poetry was, in the Victorian and Edwardian periods, a favoured literature among the English working-class.  Poetry fitted more easily than prose into the world of song and recitation which characterised working-class sociability.  Poems were omnipresent in newspapers and other ephemeral literature of the epoch; it was cheaper than three decker novels, and more easily read in the limited leisure time (and limited lighting) available.  So the working classes consumed poetry, and they also produced poetry.  The work of dozens of working-class poets from the nineteenth century survives.  They include familiar figures such as the ‘peasant poet’ John Clare from Northamptonshire, and John Plummer, a staymaker from Kettering (whose own connections to the lace trade we will explore in a subsequent blog).  John Askham known as the ‘shoemaker poet’ of Wellingborough, is now more obscure than either, and whether his poetry is due a revival we will leave the critics to decide.  However Askham, like his peers who turned aspects of their working lives into poetry, was also a chronicler of social history.  And in Northamptonshire that social history includes not just shoemaking but lacemaking.

John Askham, the ‘shoemaker-poet’ of Wellingborough

 

Askham was born in 1825 in Wellingborough; the youngest son of a miller who had turned to shoemaking after losing a leg.  John followed his father’s new trade from the age of ten.  Before then he went to school, but his instruction was, by his own account, less than adequate.  ‘I was sent to the Free School of the town, at that time presided over by an ignorant man, who had far more need of teaching himself than capacity to teach others.  At this school… I have no recollection of learning anything, my most vivid remembrance being of having to stand up with my legs straddled out to their fullest extent in a window recesss, with a tall foolscap on my devoted head.’  Askham’s education was acquired piecemeal from reading and attending lectures in later life.  He was an autodidact, and his poetry bears testimony to his will for self-improvement, including accounts of visits to museums and archaeological digs.  However, in his younger years he had little time for such things: ‘I sometimes try to remember the time when I was free to come and go, and indulge in the sweet amenities of boyhood, but for the life of me I cannot.  Nothing but one long unbroken perspective of toil presents itselt to my memory when I recall the past, varied now and then by truant wanderings among the fields’.

Aged about twenty-five, Askham started composing poetry ‘for the most part in the comparative quiet of the warehouse of a shoe upper manufactory’, though he was keen to make clear that this was on his own time, not the firm’s.  His first published work appeared in the Wellingborough Independent, where it drew the attention of George James De Wilde, editor of the more influential Northampton Mecury and an occasional poet himself.  Askham became the Wellinborough correspondent for the Mercury and other Midland papers.  About this time too he left shoemaking to work for the Singer sewing-machine company, before returning to shoemaking on his own account.  In 1871 he was appointed to the Wellingborough school board (under the new Elementary Education Act), a sign that he was a respected member of the community, and in 1874 he was made sanitory inspector for the town.  He was an active member of the Literary Institute, a bulwark of civic self-improvement.  Although Askham had started writing at the suggestion of an old employer, an ardent Chartist, he himself was not very radical.  He had a keen sense of ‘the dignity of labour’, the subject of his first poem, but his books were paid for by subscription from the rich and well-connected members of Northamptonshire society, including Conservative peers and MPs.  His acceptance into the establishment might be indicated by his shift of allegiance from the congregationalist chapel attended by his parents to the Church of England.

Askham published four books of poems: Sonnets on the Months (1863); Descriptive Poems (1866); Judith, and Other Poems (1868) and Poems and Sonnets (1875).  His poems are mostly short and cover a range of topics; a lot are about work, though nature and religion also compete for space.  The Old Grandame first appeared in the Northampton Mercury for 8 August 1868, and was then reprinted in Judith: it is one of his longer pieces, and the only one that deals directly with lace.  One could read this as another contribution to the Romance of the Lace Pillow – the cottage window, the rush-bottomed chair – these are elements found in nineteenth-century chocolate box paintings.  On the other hand it offers quite a detailed inventory of the lacemaker’s equipment – her pillow with its pockets, the golden pins, the spangled bobbins – ‘her delight and pride’, the flask and taper, the bobbin winder, the yard-wand for measuring the finished lace.  Askham also confirms some of the local terms used in the lace trade, such as ‘down’ for one completed pattern and ‘maid’ for the support that carried the cushion; other terms are less familiar, such as the nicknames ‘Fanny’, ‘Joey’ and ‘Patty’ given to her lace patterns.  Askham clearly had some familiarity with lacemaking.

 

The Old Grandame

The old grandame — over seventy —
With her wrinkled kindly face,
Sits at yon cottage window
Making her pillow-lace.

She weareth an ample bonnet,
And her gown is made of stuff, —
In whose deep, capacious pocket,
Lieth a box of snuff.

She hath used the same great ‘glasses’
More years than I can tell;
Green baize is round the earbits
Of their frame of tortoise-shell.

Since first I can remember
I have seen her sitting there —
Working from morn till evening —
In that old rush-bottomed chair.

You may hear a pleasant rattle
As you pass the window by,
As the long thin yellow fingers
Among the bobbins ply.

Her pillow is large and cumbrous,
Pockets on either side;
And her scores of spangled bobbins
Are her delight and pride:

Beads of all shapes and colours,
And bugles old and rare;
Tokens, and groats of silver,
And ancient coins are there;

Making a gentle music,
As beneath her labours grow
‘Downs’ of delicate net-work
White as the winter’s snow.

You would hardly think those fingers —
Fumbling the pins among —
Could weave such a delicate fabric,
So fragile, yet so strong.

She toileth on winter evenings
By the light of her precious flask;
She says it is sin to be idle,
And deems not labour a task.

Then the flame from her twinkling taper
Falls with reflected ray,
As a star in the midnight darkness
Lighteth the traveller’s way.

There she will sit, with her pillow
Propt with a wooden ‘maid’;
All, save the ray on her parchment,
Cast into sombre shade.

Sometimes her wheel she reaches
From the shelf above her head,
And her bobbins she deftly windeth
With spotless gimp and thread:

In its drawers are hanks of cotton,
Spare bobbins and parchment rolls,
‘Fanny’, and ‘Joey’, and ‘Patty’,
Pricked out on the narrow scrolls.

On a card beneath a napkin
Her precious lace is rolled;
And pins stick around by hundreds,
Yellow and bright as gold.

There — standing in the corner
Beneath her crockery shelf —
Is her brown old-fashioned yard-wand,
Honest and true as herself.

The old grandame loves to prattle
Of the good old times gone by,
When lace was worth the making,
And the worker’s wage was high.

No husband now nor children
Hath the worthy grandame got:
All dead save her darling grandson
He gardens her little plot.

She will tell you, aye! to an hour —
Though thirty years have sped,
Since there in the upper chamber
Her dear good man lay dead;

How she mourned from thence a widow;
And of her children twain:
How the lad went for a soldier,
And came not back again;

And how her only daughter
Married, and pined, and died,
Blessing, with dying blessing,
The first-born at her side.

So prattles and toils the grandame,
As she sits in her wonted place
In the old thatched cottage yonder,
Making her pillow-lace.

 

Askham also wrote a number of prose pieces which appeared in Midlands newspapers and some of which were later collected in Sketches in Prose and Verse (1893).  Lacemakers appear, mostly tangentially, in some of these.  For instance, he wrote a historical account of the ‘holiday’ held in Wellingborough to celebrate the passing of the Great Reform Act on 6 July 1832.  (This was first published in the Northampton Mercury for Saturday 30 June, 1877.)  All the local trades joined in the celebrations which culminated in a parade through the town and great communal feast.  Although the leather trades were at the head of the procession, naturally given the importance of shoemaking in the town, the blacksmiths, braziers, printers and tailors all joined in.  Second in the parade, between the shoemakers and the carpenters, were the lacemakers.  ‘The lace-trade (an important one at that time of day) is represented by a posse of the best looking damsels, dressed in their Sunday gowns, with drop curls, stick-up combs, and bishop sleeves.  At their head is a damsel handsomely attired in a fancy dress, borne shoulder high, and what do you think she is up to?  Why, working at her lace pillow as demure as you please, sticking pins, and rattling spangled bobbins and gimp about, and doing “head” with as much coolness as if there were nobody looking at her, and as if people were not killing themselves by inches shouting “Hurrah! Charlotte Noble!”’  This account of a public display by lacemakers, identified by the tools of their trade, accords with other accounts of processions during elections at Aylesbury and elsewhere.  Whether Charlotte Noble champion lacemaker existed, we cannot tell, though a Charlotte Noble served as moniteress of Wellingborough’s infants’ school in the 1880s.

Askham also mentions, in a comical account of a concert put on by the ‘United Warblers’, that the sound of the clarinet ‘always put me in mind of the old lace schools and lace making’.  If this is a reference to the chanting of lace tells it’s a bit obscure, but it offers just the faintest scrap of evidence as to how they sounded.

 

Further information

Although Askham has an entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, information about his life is scant.  An article ‘John Askham the Northamptonshire Poet’ in the magazine Leisure Hour for 16 September 1871, is the basis for most subsequent accounts, including the anonymous ‘Biographical Sketch’ that introduces Sketches in Prose and Verse.  The Northampton Mercury regularly carried articles not just by but about this local character, including the obituary in the edition of Friday 2 November 1894.  But these only add some picturesque details.

Louise Otto-Peters and the Erzgebirge Lacemakers (1840-1849)

Louise Otto, German writer and campaigner for women’s rights

 

Louise Otto (1819-1895, often known as Otto-Peters after her marriage to August Peters, writer and revolutionary), was an early and prominent campaigner for women’s rights in nineteenth-century Germany.  Although the author of nearly thirty novels, she is probably best known today for her role as a journalist and founder, in 1865, of the Algemeinen deutschen Frauenvereins (United German Women’s Association which, now under the name Deutsche Staatsürgerinnen-Verband, still promotes women’s issues).  In 1849, in the wake of the 1848 revolutions which briefly brought liberal governments to power in most German states including her native Saxony, she founded one of the first political papers aimed at women, the Frauen-Zeitung whose motto was ‘I recruit female citizens for the Empire of Liberty!’.  Despite constant harassment from the authorities, including new laws banning women from owning or running newspapers in Saxony and Prussia, the journal survived until 1853.

Otto and her sisters grew up in a comfortable middle-class home in Meissen.  Her father was a legal official, her mother had been an embroiderer.  Her feminism bears the imprint of this class upbringing, as her demands for women’s access to education, to the professions, to governmental decision making, were prompted by a belief in women’s special role as wives and mothers.  For Otto, women were possessed of a distinct moral identity, the ‘Eternal-Womanly’, which was needed to correct and guide men’s actions.  She was also spurred on by German nationalism and a degree of Protestant chauvinism (at time when the territory of what would become Germany in 1871 was shared between forty different states loosely bound by the German confederation, but very divided in their religious affiliations).  Nonetheless, she stands out among other feminists of her class and period in her commitment to women’s right to work, and her interest in the plight of women workers.  The ‘Social Question’ – how to integrate the new social classes created by nineteenth-century industrialisation – was as important to her as the ‘Woman Question’.  In her lead article for the first edition of Neue Bahnen (New Ways), the journal of the ADF which she edited from 1865 to her death, she wrote: ‘We declare that work, which is the very corner stone of the new society, is a duty and honour of the female sex, and we therefore demand the right to work and hold it as vital that all barriers which stand in the way of female work should be removed.’

Lacemakers were the first group of women workers that had prompted her solicitude.  She spent the winter of 1840 visiting her newly married sister at Oederan in the Erzgebirge, a mountainous region of Saxony and one of the main centres of handmade lacemaking in Germany.  Her observation of their poverty and misery inspired one of her first literary works, the poem ‘Klöpplerinnen’ (the Lace-Makers).  This was originally published in the Oederaner Stadtanzeiger in 1840, and according to Carol Diethe, Otto’s biographer, the poem ‘took on an almost iconic status in the years preceding the 1848 revolution’, for it directly confronted the leisured classes with their responsibility for the wretched and degraded state of the workers who supplied their luxuries.  One might think of it as a precursor, but an equivalent to, Thomas Hood’s ‘The Song of the Shirt’ (1843).  Otto returned to the theme of lacemakers’ families in another poem, ‘Im Erzgebirge’, as well as in one of her editorials for the Frauen-Zeitung ‘For the Female Workers’.  Literature was a campaigning force in the nineteenth century, especially for women who were excluded from political organisations.  Poems and novels were attempts to shape public debate and bring about reform.  We will see this again in our contribution on another social activist and novelist and Otto’s contemporary, the Flemish writer Johanna Courtmans-Berchmans (1811-1890), who also addressed the plight of lacemakers in a work of literature.

The 1840s were known as the ‘Hungry Forties’, a period in which European artisans and handcraft workers were being confronted for the first time with mass-produced factory competition, while a series of dismal harvests forced up food prices.  These years witnessed frequent moments of worker unrest, such as the Silesian Weavers’ Uprising of 1844, the background to Otto’s most famous novel Schloss und Fabrik (Chateau and Factory, 1846) as well as the inspiration of Heinrich Heine’s political poem The Silesian Weavers (1844).  But whereas Heine imagined the weavers self-confidently advancing their own cause, Otto’s lacemakers lack any initiative of their own: the appeal is the consumers of lace to act on their behalf.

Below we give the text in German and English, and then a translation of one of Louise Otto’s articles on women’s work.

 

Klöpplerinnen (1840)

Seht ihr sie sitzen am Klöppelkissen
Die Wangen bleich und die Augen rot!
Sie mühen sich ab für einen Bissen,
Für einen Bissen schwarzes Brot!

Grossmutter hat sich die Augen erblindet,
Sie wartet bis sie der Tod befreit—
Im stillen Gebet sie die Hände windet:
Gott schütz’ uns in der schweren Zeit.

Die Kinder regen die kleinen Hände,
Die Klöppel fliegen hinab, hinauf,
Der Müh’ und Sorge kein Ende, kein Ende.
Das ist ihr künftger Lebenslauf.

Die Jungfrauen all, dass Gott sich erbarme,
Sie ahnen nimmer der Jugend Lust,
Das Elend schliesst in seine Arme,
Der Mangel schmiegt sich an ihre Brust.

Seht ihr sie sitzen am Klöppelkissen,
Sehr ihr die Spitzen, die sie gewebt:
Ihr Reichen, Grossen—hat das Gewissen
Euch nie in der innersten Seele gebebt?

Ihr schwelgt und prasset, wo sie verderben,
Geniesst das Leben in Saus und Braus,
Indessen sie vor Hunger sterben,
Gott dankend, dass die Qual nun aus!

Seht ihr sie sitzen am Klöppelkissen
Und redet noch schön von Gottvertraun?
Ihr habt es aus unserer Seele gerissen:
Weil wir euch selber gottlos schaun!

Seht ihr sie sitzen am Klöppelkissen
Und fühlt kein Erbarmen in solcher Zeit:
Dann werde euer Sterbekissen
Der Armut Fluch und all ihr Leid!

The Lace-Makers (1840)

See the women making lace
Pallid cheeks and eyes so red!
Tired out, and all for nothing,
Nothing but the coarsest bread!

Grandma’s eyes are blinded now,
Only death will set her free,
Wringing hands, she quietly prays:
God help us in extremity.

The children move their little hands,
Up and down the bobbins fling.
Toil and trouble without end
Is what their future life will bring.

God protect each little Miss
Who nothing knows of youthful zest –
For poverty embraces all;
Want snuggles into every breast.
See the women making lace,
Pillow lace, a work of art;
Rich and famous – do not scruples
Linger in your inner heart?

While they decline, you feast and spend,
And savour life in luxury,
Meanwhile these women starve and die,
Released, at last from misery!

See the women making lace
Is not your faith hypocrisy?
All their belief extinguished now,
They call your faith apostasy!

See the woman making lace,
Have you no mercy for her plight?
For else your final waking hour
Will reap her curse from pain and blight!

 

Translation by Carol Diethe.  In Carol Diethe, The life and Work of Germany’s Founding Feminist: Louise-Otto-Peters (1819-1895) (Edwin Mellen Press, 2002), pp. 159-161.

A different translation, by Melanie Archangeli and Patricia A. Herminghouse, based on a slightly different text of the poem can be found in Patricia A. Hemminghouse and Magda Mueller (eds) German Feminist Writings (Bloomsbury, 2001), pp. 61-63.

 

 

Louise Otto-Peters.  ‘For the Female Workers’ (1849).

…What should I say then about the lace-makers in the Erzgebirge [a mountainous region in Saxony]?  Here the going wage per day is three to five pfennig!  Once I came across a lace-maker working onan extremely arduous lace of black silk, and she told me that her eyes can hardly endure winding the thin, dark threads around the shiny needles.  In the evening she is in no state to work on it, but she considers herself lucky to have this work, because the black lace is better paid: she can make a half a yard per day and thus earn one neugroschen without having to continue in the evening, when she can do coarser work.  For her one neugroschen per day was a good wage!  Thus, the buyer paid her two neugroschen per yard, the satin thread to make it cost about as much, and on th market one pays for a yard of similar black satin lace twenty neugroschen.  Just draw your own conclusion!

The quill trembles in my hand whenever I think of the entire abominable system of commerce, manufacturing and its victims!  If only you had seen the girls and women of the upper Erzgebirge!  The children who grew up in gloomy rooms, looking ghostly and pale, with arms and legs wasted away and bodies distended from the only nourishment that they have, the potato.  The father has got himself an early death at the dye works or peddles tubs of nuts or wooden kitchen utensils across the countryside — at home woman and child must work since he cannot provide for them. The little girls must make lace as soon as they can control their little hands.  Then they waste away at the pillow for making lace, where their mother, who could only give birth to feeble children, has already atrophied, at the pillow for making lace where their grandmother went blind!  For the constant staring at the fine threads and pins soon steals the ability to see, and the easy movement of the small bobbins makes their fingers delicate and their arms weak and thin, incapable of any other work.  And now the clever people come and say that the women could do something other than make lace — it is crazy that they insist on doing it!  No, they cannot do something else, because they were never able to build up their strength and have grown weak and completely incapable of performing any heavy work ― even if you could procure it for them.  You can assume responsibility for the children so they can learn something else ― but you cannot take them away from their mother, for no one has that right.

No, you will reply to me: in the mountains the misery is twice as bad ― but in the other cities, large and small, everyone who wants to work, including women and girls, finds sufficient and rewarding employment; indeed they find it, but often only ― in the brothels.

Translated by Melanie Archangeli with Patricia A. Herminghouse.  In Patricia A. Herminghouse and Magda Mueller (eds) German Feminist Writings (Bloomsbury, 2001), pp. 64-66. [section only]

An Italian Lace Interlude, Troubles in Chioggia

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

Carlo Goldoni, playwright (1707-1793)

Carlo Goldoni, playwright (1707-1793)

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Eliza Westbury, Northampton Lacemaker and Composer of Hymns

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

Reader! Prepare to meet thy God!

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

… (Instead she joins the Baptist congregation)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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