Category: Lace patrons

The lace industry = a cottage industry. A representation of a lacemaker’s work environment

For several centuries the Flemish lace industry was a cottage industry. Different generations worked together in their home. In this way, girls got an early grasp of the craft. They could also learn it in the numerous lace schools. After their training, they could choose to work in lace workshops rather than at home, but that was rare. Most girls, now adolescents, returned home to produce lace in the companionship of their female relatives.

In an album compiled by Baroness Josse Allard, née Marie-Antoinette Calley Saint-Paul de Sinçay (1881-1977) between 1915 and 1919, a photograph depicts three generations of Belgian lacemakers working together at the beginning of the twentieth century, yet it might also be a staged montage. Belgium, Brussels, Art & History Museum. Photo: author.

During a visit to the Art & History Museum in Brussels, I was shown an album containing a black-and-white photograph. The photograph depicts three generations of lacemakers working indoors at the beginning of the twentieth century: an elderly woman and two girls are sitting in the front, while two young women have taken their place behind the girls. All except the youngest girl produce bobbin lace. They do so by sitting behind a lacemaker’s ‘horse’ (‘chevalet’ in French, ‘staantje’ in Dutch, though for all lace equipment there are a variety of local names), a specially constructed wooden stand, that is adjustable in height and contains a drawer. On top of this horse, the lacemakers have placed a lace pillow or cushion (‘carreau’ in French or ‘kussen’ in Dutch), to which they have attached a ‘pricking’ (‘patron’ or ‘piqué’ in French, ‘perkament’ in Dutch), a pattern drawn on parchment or card. The women replicate the pricking through the use of an even number of threads ranging from eight to more than a thousand. These threads are looped over pins arranged at the top of the pricking and wound at its lower end around a bobbin (‘fuseau’ in French, ‘klosje’ or ’boutje’ in Dutch). The elderly woman and the oldest child use a limited number of bobbins, while the two young women each seem to use around a hundred bobbins as is visible from the stacked bobbins on one or both sides of their cushions. All four of them cross over or twist the threads to produce lace. Thin strips of the textile are indeed visible on the cushions of the elderly woman and the eldest child. The work of the two young women cannot be seen as they sit behind the two girls. The youngest of the two girls doesn’t make lace, but ensures all the bobbins are full of thread. She takes care of this task with the help of a spinning wheel and a bobbin winder (a ‘dévidoir or ‘bobinoir’, or ‘kloswinder’ in Dutch). After the spools are wound with thread, she puts them in a box at her feet.

The five women work indoors, where on dark days a lit candle is placed behind a spherical water carafe or ‘flash’ (seen on the left, known as an ‘ordinaal’ in Dutch) to provide concentrated light. During the summer, the lacemakers work outside in the bright sunlight. At the end of the working day, they carefully wrap their product in blue paper – or in a white cloth as in this case – and put it in the drawer under their lace pillow. In this way, the textile remains snow-white, which is extremely important if it is to receive a good price. The use of bobbins also contributes to the whiteness of the lace as the lacemakers can manipulate the thread without touching it. The lacemakers even take additional measures to prevent any discolouration of the thread: they regularly wash their hands, put an apron over their clothes and keep their surroundings spotless in order to secure their payment in money or kind.

A closer look to the interior not only reveals the lacemakers’ commitment to their craft. It also proves their dedication to such virtues as ‘cleanliness, industry, family responsibility and domestic stability’.[i] At the left, the unlit hearth – complete with a decorated cast-iron fire back, trammel hook, typical blue-and-white Delft tiles and a curtain – functions as the traditional association between women and domesticity. The old grandfather clock registers the many hours the lacemakers industriously devote to their craft, while Christ casts a divine eye over their labours from his wall pedestal above the women and their work. A linen cupboard is placed against the right wall, storing the housewares and leaving no clutter. In short, the whole interior, including the white-chalked walls and the scrubbed terracotta floor, is presented as an examplar of cleanliness – the pride of every housewife.

At first sight, the photograph seems a snapshot from reality, yet it might also be a staged montage. There are a few clues to support that idea. First of all, the women sit in such a way that each nicely dressed individual is clearly visible for viewers. In addition, they have displayed all tools necessary for lacemaking. Even the water carafe and footwarmer are allocated a place, although they are not required in the clearly lit and seemingly warm room. A closer examination of the fireplace, the terracotta floor and white-chalked walls shows that they are without a sign of usage, suggesting a newly-built or reconstructed interior.

The homes of lacemakers were regularly reconstructed in the context of exhibitions focusing on home industries, including the lace industry. These exhibitions flourished in Europe during the first decade of the twentieth century. The first exhibition on home industries opened its doors in Berlin in March 1904, followed by further iterations in cities including London, Frankfurt-am-Main, Zurich and Amsterdam. Belgium followed and mounted three similar exhibitions before the First World War: Brussels and Ghent both organised one during the World Exhibitions in 1910 and 1913. Antwerp held one in 1913.[ii]

Just like those held abroad, the Belgian exhibitions both advertised the produced goods while simultaneously highlighting the labour conditions endured by home workers. These conditions were clarified through information on the number of workers in these industries, the hours they worked and the income they received, while workers practised their profession in the reconstructed homes, demonstrating to visitors the production process. Even though the workers put on their best clothes and the reconstructed buildings were in a much better state than the original ones, the visitors realised how precarious were the labour conditions in the home industries. The 1906 exhibition in London was even called the ‘The Sweated Industries Exhibition.’[iii] Everywhere, the initiators of such exhibitions were opposed to ‘the sweating system’ and strongly desired to ameliorate the workers’ conditions. But on the whole they were not opposed to the home industries as such. Especially for women and girls, the home was depicted as a safe, moral and desirable workplace. This idea is also propagated in the photograph of the three generations of lacemakers. Together they represent the past, present and future of the craft practised in domestic surroundings.

Even though, we cannot be completely certain if the photograph depicting three generations of lacemakers was staged or not, its current location does hint that it did serve both economic and ideological purposes. The image was inserted in an album compiled by Baroness Josse Allard, née Marie-Antoinette Calley Saint-Paul de Sinçay (1881-1977) between 1915 and 1919. The Baroness was an amateur artist, wife of the banker Baron Josse Allard (1868-1931), and most importantly one of the core members of the Comité de la Dentelle [Lace Committee].[iv] The committee had been founded in Antwerp in 1909 as the Kantbloemen [Lace flowers]. Less than a year later, it moved to Brussels and changed its name to the Amies de la Dentelle [The Friends of Lace], before becoming the Comité de la Dentelle during the first months of the First World War.[v]

Baroness Josse Allard, née Marie-Antoinette Calley Saint-Paul de Sinçay (1881-1977) with umbrella, her husband Baron Josse Allard (1868-1931), their five children and their dogs. Photo: Wikiwand.

During the war years, the Lace Committee was primarily concerned about the survival of the Belgian handmade lace industry.[vi] Originally, the association, like its equivalents in other countries founded around the turn of the century, had aimed to revive the Belgian lace industry and to improve the fate of the overwhelmingly female workers. Its members were all philanthropists, predominantly women from nobility and the bourgeoisie like the aforementioned Baroness Josse Allard. Benefactors in other countries like the United Kingdom and Ireland took similar actions in order to preserve their local production of handmade lace.[vii]

In Belgium and elsewhere, the production of handmade lace suffered from the ever-growing menace of the machine-made lace industry. In just a few decades after its invention in the early-nineteenth century, machine-made lace looked just as attractive as ‘true lace’. Additionally, it was considerably cheaper, because it could be produced much faster. In order to compete, the already low wages of handmade lacemakers were cut. Many women subsequently left their bobbins and cushions in order to work in the newly built factories. In half a century, the number of Belgian lacemakers diminished from 150,000 in 1850 to just 50,000 in 1900.[viii] Those who continued to make lace, were compelled to produce more for the same price. The lacemakers became impoverished, while the laces’ quality deteriorated.[ix]

In the years following their foundation, the members of the Lace Committee, then still called the Amies de la Dentelle, developed plans to revive the Belgian handmade lace industry while also working to improve the lacemakers’ situation. They mainly sought to increase the quality of lace and the attractiveness of lace designs, thus creating demand for lacemakers’ produce. These goals were to be obtained by improving the training in lace schools and by commissioning new drawings, preferably by artists.[x] (An earlier post concerning The Irish Homestead’s ‘Lace Designs’ Series (1900-1902) focuses on the newly designed patterns aimed to revive the Irish handmade lace industry in the early years of the twentieth century, a comparable enterprise.) The members of the Lace Committee did not focus on the commercial aspects of the enterprise, such as demanding a higher and fairer price from the consumer, organising trade unions or negotiating with lace dealers and factories. Marguerite Coppens, the former curator of the Art & History Museum textile collection in Brussels, somewhat ironically stated: ‘The importance of sales was not denied, but deliberately obscured so as not to provoke manufacturers. Moreover, the ladies patronesses did not like to get involved in “the sale”.’[xi]

However, the existence of the album in which the photograph is inserted, proves these ladies patronesses did get involved in ‘the sale’, that is the commercial aspects of production. The album consists of photographs and drawings of lace samples accompanied by a short description and the price. The album thus functioned as a portfolio that was shown to potential buyers who could choose from a wide range of products and designs. The former included bedcovers, tablecloths, fans, umbrellas, doilies, handkerchiefs and lace by the yard. Most designs depicted characters from fairy tales, bucolic scenes, animals, mythical figures and, above all, flowers. Today, the wartime-produced lace is especially remembered for a much smaller, though highly publicised, number of designs that referred directly to the conflict. These were called ‘war lace’ and included names of people and places, inscriptions, dates, portraits and coats-of-arms or national symbols of the Allied Nations, of the nine Belgian provinces and the martyred cities of Belgium. (The blog post war lace recounts how a luxury fabric as lace was successfully promoted as a humanitarian textile during the First World War.)

The black-and-white photograph of the three generations of lacemakers working indoors in the early twentieth century was meant to convince potential buyers of the importance – moral as much as economic – of their purchase. Every franc they spent would contribute to the revival of the Belgian lace industry and improve the lacemakers’ situation. But, at the same time, the photograph, and the album as a whole, demonstrate the Lace Committee’s nostalgia for an imagined past. A past in which they believed lacemaking had been economically viable and permitted women to work in their homes, where they committed themselves to their craft, their family and their household.

The Belgian lace industry continued to decline in the first half of the twentieth century. Many lacemakers were compelled to leave their bobbins and their homes for opportunities elsewhere. Since then, the album and the photograph serve as witness to the last generation of commercial lacemakers, and as a testimony to the efforts undertaken by the Baroness Allard, the Lace Committee and other philanthropists to revive the Belgian lace industry as a thriving cottage industry.

Wendy Wiertz, research fellow KU Leuven
wendy.wiertz@kuleuven.be

 

[i] David Hopkin, Voices of the People in Nineteenth-Century France, Cambridge Social and Cultural Histories (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), p. 215.

[ii] Anne Askenasi-Neuckens and Hubert Galle, Les derniers ouvriers libres : Le travail à domicile en Belgique (Brussels: Tournesol Conseils sa/ Éditions Luc Pire, 2000), 43-69.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Baroness Josse Allard, née Marie-Antoinette Calley Saint-Paul de Sinçay (1881-1977) was one of the core members of the CD alongside Countess Élisabeth d’Oultremont (1867-1971), lady-in-waiting to the Belgian Queen Elisabeth; and Mrs Louis Kefer-Mali, née Marie Mali (1855-1927), an expert on the history of lace, wife of a musician and sister of the Belgian Consul-General in New York. Mrs Brand Whitlock, née Ella Brainerd (1876-1942), who was married to the American minister to Belgium, was appointed as honorary chair. Brand Whitlock, Belgium. A Personal Narrative (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1919), vol. 1, pp. 549-50; Evelyn McMillan, ‘War, Lace, and Survival in Belgium During World War I’, PieceWork Spring (2020), pp. 2-3.

[v] The Lace Committee executed their plans during the First World War. Patricia Wardle, ‘War and Peace: Lace Designs by the Belgian Sculptor Isidore de Rudder (1855-1943),’ Bulletin van het Rijksmuseum 37: 2 (1989), pp. 73-90; Marguerite Coppens, Kant uit het Koningshuis, exh. cat. Brussels, Bank Brussel Lambert (Brussels: Weissenburch, 1990), pp. 109-16; Marguerite Coppens, ‘Les commandes dentellières de l’Union patriotique des femmes belges et du Comité de la dentelle à Fernand Khnopff,’ Revue belge d’Archéologie et d’Histoire de l’art 64 (1995), pp. 71-84; Patricia Wardle, 75x Lace, exh. cat., Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum (Zwolle: Waanders, 2000), cat. nr. 75; Martine Bruggeman, Lace in Flanders. History and Contemporary Art (Tielt: Lannoo, 2018), p. 87.

[vi] Charlotte Kellogg, Women of Belgium. Turning Tragedy to Triumph, 4th ed. (New York/ London: Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1917), pp. 158-66; Charlotte Kellogg, Bobbins of Belgium. A Book of Belgian Lace, Lace-Workers, Lace-Schools and Lace-Villages (New York/ London: Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1920); Marguerite Coppens, Kant uit België van de zestiende eeuw tot heden. Een keuze van de Koninklijke Musea voor Kunst en Geschiedenis te Brussel, exh. cat., Antwerp, Volkskundemuseum (Brussels: Koninklijke Musea voor Kunst en Geschiedenis, 1981), p. 119, cat. nrs. 85-88; Coppens, Kant uit het Koningshuis, pp. 116-32, cat. nrs. 62-76, 77a, 79-82; Martine Bruggeman, L’Europe de la dentelle. Un aperçu historique depuis les originaires de la dentelle jusqu’à l’entre-deux-guerre, exh. cat., Bruges, Arenthuis/ Lille, Musée de l’Hospice Comtesse (Bruges: Stichting Kunstboek, 1997), pp. 140-43; Bruggeman, Lace in Flanders. History and Contemporary Art, pp. 22-3, 87-97; Éliane Gubin and Catherine Jacques, Encyclopédie d’histoire des femmes en Belgique, 19e et 20e siècle (Paris: Racine, 2018), pp. 577-79.

[vii] Geoff Spenceley, ‘The Lace Associations: Philanthropic Movements to Preserve the Production of Hand-Made Lace in Late Victorian and Edwardian England,’ Victorian Studies 16, 4 (1973): pp. 433-52.

[viii] These numbers are estimates. See also David Hopkin, ‘Working, Singing, and Telling in the 19th-Century Flemish Pillow-Lace Industry,’ Textile 18:1 (2020), p. 55.

[ix] Coppens, Kant uit het Koningshuis, pp. 11-5; Bruggeman, Lace in Flanders. History and Contemporary Art, pp. 68-9.

[x] Coppens, Kant uit het Koningshuis, pp. 16-8, 109-13; Bruggeman, Lace in Flanders. History and Contemporary Art, pp. 87f.

[xi] The original text in Dutch is: ‘Het belang van de verkoop wordt niet ontkend, maar bewust verdoezeld om de fabrikanten niet te provoceren. Bovendien laten de dames patronessen zich niet graag in met “de verkoop”.’ Coppens, Kant uit het Koningshuis, p. 112.

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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