Category: Lace patrons

Lacemakers in Music: ‘The Lacemakers’, an Operetta

A scene from ‘The Lacemakers’, as performed by Murton Girls’ Friendly Society. From the Sunderland Daily Echo and Shipping Gazette, 10 February 1933. Courtesy of the The British Newspaper Archive.

As far as we can discover, the first performance of the three-act operetta The Lacemakers was on Thursday 11 November 1909 at Kington in Herefordshire, performed by children from the local school, with the proceeds given to the local cottage hospital.  Two weeks later it was performed, simultaneously, by schoolchildren in Hoole (Cheshire), by the Girls’ Friendly Society in Downton (Wiltshire), and by the choirchildren in Turvey (Bedfordshire).  The last two were, historically, centres of lacemaking.   From 1910 it was performed in a number of localities, particularly in the Midlands, many but not all associated with lacemaking.  During the First World War and after its popularity spread and there are newspaper accounts of performances in Wales, Cornwall, Sunderland, Kent, Essex, Yorkshire, Ireland…  It was put on by schools, Sunday schools, Girl Guides, The Band of Hope, Girls’ Friendly Societies, and other such organisations.  One of its attractions must have been that the majority of parts were female, and so it was easy for girls’ associations to put on.

Its plot of aristocratic patronage of the lace industry was particularly relevant to this period of attempted revival.   This account of the plot we owe to the Leigh (Lancashire) Chronicle and Weekly District Advertiser for 22 April 1910: 

In a beautiful village that lies at the foot of a stately castle dwelt the lacemakers.  The lady of the castle offers a dowry every year to the maiden who works the best piece of lace.  The story opens with the completion of the year’s tasks; the maidens meet in the ‘Maidens’ Bower’ to put the finishing touches to their work.  Lola, the favourite of her companions, has a special desire to win the dowry, and everyone thinks her work the prettiest with the exception of Juana, who is secretly jealous of Lola’s popularity.  On finding Lola asleep and her finished work on her lap, Juana is tempted to steal it, and does so, to prevent her from winning.  Lola and her companions are in despair at the loss, and call upon the fairies for help.  The queen and her fairies appear, and, after hearing the story, promise to set the matter right.  The lacemakers are to go up to the castle as usual, leaving Lola with the fairies.  They do so.  After awhile their return is heralded by angry talking.  They are bidden by the queen to relate the result of their visit, and they say that the dowry has been awarded to Juana for a beautiful handkerchief, which they believe is Lola’s lost piece of work.  To prove the ownership of the lace that both girls claim, the fairy stone is brought which burns the fingers of the untruthful.  Then Juana confesses her guilt, and the dowry becomes Lola’s, to the delight of all her friends.

So we get the jist, but there are many things we don’t know about the operetta, such as who wrote it and when, or what songs were performed (other than “The Bold Bobbin”)…  If anyone can tell us we’d be delighted to know.  All our information to date comes from newspaper accounts, the most detailed of which is in an article in The Bedfordshire Times and Independent for 6 December, 1912 concerning Kempston Church Bazaar, which we’ve reproduced below.  (Thank you again, the National Newspaper Archive.)

The piece appears to be set in Spain, to judge by the names of the characters, which alludes to the supposed role played by Katherine of Aragon in the establishment of lacemaking in the English Midlands (see our post on Catterns).  The competition between lacemakers recalls that which featured in Caroline Barnard’s The PrizeWe suspect that elements of the play would feature in later pageants such as those organized by Prudence Summerhayes, but in the absence of a text it’s hard to be sure.  We hope a copy still exists somewhere.

“The Lacemakers”

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

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

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

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

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

A scene from ‘The Lacemakers’, as performed by Murton Girls’ Friendly Society. From the Sunderland Daily Echo and Shipping Gazette, 11 February 1933. Courtesy of the The British Newspaper Archive.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Barnard’s The Prize: or the Lacemakers of Missenden is freely available to read thanks to Google Books.

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