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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.

A Lace School in South Devon

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

1892 The graphic, piece of honiton lace

Gooding on Saint Thomas’s, 21 December

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

The Old Chapel, Bicester from Wikipedia Commons

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

Broughton village sign, featuring its tin can band on Tanders

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ingredients

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

Instructions

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

 

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

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

 

Sources

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

Cattern Tea.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

 

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

Ingredients

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

 

Instructions

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

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

 

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[10] Peterborough Advertiser, 13 December 1879.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Exhibition of lace at Whitchurch Silk Mill, Hampshire

‘Lace is More: New Ways of Lacemaking’

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

www.whitchurchsilkmill.org.uk

Tel: 01256 892065

The story of ISIS Lacemakers’ exhibit at Waddesdon Manor’s ‘Imagine… Lace’ Exhibition, 2014

ISIS Lacemakers were hugely excited at the thought of designing and creating lace for the exhibition ‘Imagine… Lace at Waddesdon’ at Waddesdon Manor near Aylesbury in 2014.  We first heard about this at the annual Lace Society rally and with an exhibition proposal form in our hands, our imagination ran wild as we drove home, exploring the ‘House Party’ theme.

Imagining …  and inspiration came in the form of a study visit to Waddesdon Manor.  We were amazed by what we saw, but had no idea of what might inspire our exhibit.  However, the next morning I woke up with a clear picture of what I would propose to the rest of the ISIS group.  A text message went round saying…elephant…casket…silk…summer flowers…gold trunk … and positive responses came flooding back.

Thinking about the exhibition theme of a house party at Waddesdon Manor, we decided that  guests would look forward to exotica, opulence and beauty in every room.  Inspired by the famous Musical Automaton (actually an amazing elephant, with his own Twitter account!), and the flower-adorned clock in the Green Boudoir, we decided to create a contemporary mixed lace piece comprising a golden trunked elephant on a casket of summer flowers.

Designing and creating … we enjoyed coffee, cake and lunches in each others’ homes as we worked together, designing and creating our exhibit.  ISIS the elephant looked good as a felt prototype and then became decidedly strange in a calico ‘mock up’.  Some pattern cutting amendment and then creating him directly in our chosen Indigo blue silk resurfaced the elephant within, and with some supporting armature and deft stuffing he was ready.

181_ISIS Exhibit for Waddesdon 26th Jan 2014 060

In true East Midlands lace tradition, we designed a Bedfordshire lace panel for the front of his head, with space for a hanging jewel, and with a gold wrap-around trunk.  A bead-encrusted Torchon blanket was designed for his back and two gold thread Bedfordshire medallions added.  Then – some gold kid for ears and tasselled tail, stitched eyes and clay tusks.  A precious amber –coloured glass bead from my Godmother’s ‘button box’ filled the space we designed into the front panel on his face.  We were almost there – but something was missing.  A strip of Torchon Little Fan lace with gold passives seemed just right for his (rather chunky) ankles.

Flowers, flowers and more flowers… working on the belief that you can never have too many flowers, we wanted a luscious collection of lace Roses, Iris and Poppies to fill our silk casket.  Group members went into production and I had the greatest pleasure in receiving petals through the post as well as at group meetings.  With a healthy collection of red, pink and blue (Iris) flowers we expanded our selection to yellows, creams and mauves.  We also added in daisies, ‘Hattie’s Pin Cushion’ (a very apt country name for Astrantia) and ‘Love in a Mist’. Not forgetting Marigolds, more about which, later.   We also designed and made leaves for the Roses, Poppies and Irises, selecting threads as close as possible to their colours in nature.

A silk casket for a silk elephant … looking at his small (gold kid!) ears, we decided ISIS our elephant was Indian in origin.  We drew from Moghul architecture in creating the curved window-tops in his casket.  Cut and shaped from card, we padded the exterior and covered it in Perigot silk.  The interior was lined with Mint silk and the windows edged with Torchon Little Fan lace.  Hours of hand sewing later, skilled use of fine curved needles had created the casket we imagined.

The East Midlands laces resurfaced in our design and creation of the Rothschild family emblem  – this was made in Buckinghamshire lace and placed centrally at the front of the casket.  In a central position at the back of the casket we mounted a circular piece of Tatting made by one of our late ISIS group members.  We made a Torchon lace mat for the top of the casket with ribbons of yellow, red, blue and mauve in the same shades we had used for some of the flowers.  Gold braid then edged the seams.

Inside the casket we introduced a mint green silk covered block and into this inserted all our flowers, filling the space to create the abundance that would be seen by house party guests.  With vibrant flowers visible and emerging through the windows we were nearly complete.  A mounting board covered in Perigot silk provided the base and we put the whole exhibit together at last.

And so to the Marigolds.  We wanted our now revered elephant to have a garland made with these and so a group member embedded individual lace Marigold flowers in shades of orange and yellow as she created a gold Kumihimo braid.

Are you a lacemaker? If not, would you like to give it a try?

Lacemaking is a special and truly beautiful craft and brings with it the joy of centuries of history and (oh so collectable) antique bobbins.  It also brings a modern and innovative perspective, with colour, new designs, and new bobbins – and of course new projects!  ISIS Lacemakers welcome visitors and new members to their twice-monthly evening meetings, and each of our two Lace Days every year.  We teach and help beginners to learn our craft and also enjoy visiting other Lacemaking events and groups.  You can find out more about us and where to meet us from our website http://www.isislacemakers.org.uk and on our Face  Book page.  We would love to meet you.

Eileen Anderson, ISIS Lacemakers

 

Lacemakers’ Songs: A Short Film, Mostly in French

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Further reading:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE BALLAD OF SIR HUGH, ETC.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE BALLAD OF SIR HUGH.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

LACEMAKERS’ SONGS: “LONG LANKIN.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Further Reading: from Notes and Queries.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Further Reading: other sources

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Envisioning Lace at the Ashmolean

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

HoltLadies

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

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

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

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

Sources:

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

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

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

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

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

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

[1]

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

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