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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sylvia Pankhurst’s Support for Lacemakers

Sylvia Pankhurst, c. 1909

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

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

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

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

Old Lace

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

XX XXXXXX

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John Plummer’s Northamptonshire ‘Lace Songs’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dickens’ lacemaker heroine: Phoebe of ‘Mugby Junction’

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Laet rollen de klosjes

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keeping ‘Cattern’ in Flanders

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

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

 

Herman Baccaert of Mechelin (1883-1921)

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

Alexander Struys, ‘The Lacemaker of Mechelen’, 1902

 

Further Reading

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

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

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

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