Category: Lacemakers in Poetry

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.

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.

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

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

John Askham, the ‘shoemaker-poet’ of Wellingborough

 

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

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

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

 

The Old Grandame

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

Further information

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

Klöpplerinnen (1840)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Lace-Makers (1840)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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