Category: Lacemakers in the Past

A Lacemakers’ Lullaby: Alexandre Desrousseaux’s ‘Le P’tit Quinquin’ (1853)

‘Le P’tit Quinquin’ features on a 2005 French stamp.

The northern French city of Lille was once a great centre of lacemaking.  In the eighteenth century, lace manufacture was the dominant occupation for women.  The lacemakers’ feast held annually on 9 May – the ‘Fête du Broquelet’ or ‘Feast of the Bobbin’ – continued to be the city’s major holiday into the first decades of the nineteenth century.[1]  The women and girls from the different lace workshops and schools took a jaunt out to the taverns and parks of the surrounding villages; the drinking and dancing continued for several days.  But by the mid-nineteenth century, even as the city’s rapid industrialisation covered those same villages and parks with textile factories and rows of workers’ tenements, the number of lacemakers declined until, by 1851, there were only 1,600 listed in the census.[2]  Yet, even as she disappeared from Lille’s working-class quarters, the lacemaker became a symbol of the city, and the designated transmitter of its memories and traditions.

François Louis Joseph Watteau’s ‘La Fête du Broquelet’, c. 1803. Note the giant bobbin in the bottom right-hand corner carriage. This image from Wikipedia Commons, the original in the Musée de l’Hospice Comtesse, Lille.

It was a song, more specifically a lullaby, which brought about this transfiguration.  ‘Le P’tit Quinquin’ [The little child] was first performed in 1851 by its author and composer, Alexandre Desrousseaux.[3]  It is in the voice of a lacemaker, coaxing and threatening her child to try to get him to sleep so she can get on with her work.  It would be hard to exaggerate the success of this text (originally titled ‘L’canchon dormoire’ or ‘lullaby’): it was without contest Desrousseaux’s most famous work – he is often described as ‘the father of Le P’tit Quinquin’ – and Desrousseaux was himself the most famous of Lille’s many dialect poets and songwriters.  That success was almost immediate: over 100,000 copies of the song were sold between 1853, its first publication, and 1890.  It could be heard in all the bars and cafés of the city, and by 1854 newspapers had already labelled it ‘The Marseillaise of the Lille worker’.  ‘Le P’tit Quinquin’ gave his name to shops, a newspaper, a make of biscuit, a brand of pencil, and dozens of other commercial uses, not just in Lille but across France.  More recently it was the title of a French TV mini-series, directed by Bruno Dumont which was set in northern France.  There are several continuations of the song (some by Desrousseaux himself) as well as numerous parodies, while the tune has been endlessly borrowed.  There are recordings of reggae, punk and military band versions.  When a monument to Desrousseaux was erected in Lille in 1902, his bust was accompanied by the child and his mother, complete with lace cushion.  In 1953 there were national, indeed international celebrations to mark the centenary of publication of the ‘Le P’tit Quinquin’.

The singer and composer Alexandre Desrousseaux pictured on an 1883 calendar. Note the images from his most famous song at the bottom.

Desrousseaux (1820-1892) grew up in Saint-Sauveur, a working-class quarter of Lille: his mother had herself been a lacemaker, but was later a shopkeeper, while his father made braiding.  Young Alexandre worked in a variety of textile factories and then as a tailor’s apprentice before being conscripted into the army in 1840.  However, he had already started to make a reputation as a musician, selling his own songsheets to the crowds during Lille’s carnival.  In the eighteenth century Lille had been home to a thriving dialect literary culture, with songs and plays composed in Picard, and often featuring lacemaker characters.  Antoine Cottignies (known as ‘Brûle-Maison’) and his son Jacques were the most famous practitioners, and their works were still familiar in the early nineteenth century.  Desrousseaux was determined to revive the glory days of Picard literature: almost everything he composed was in dialect.  Song clubs were a vibrant feature of working-class culture in Lille and other industrial cities, and dialect was often the preferred medium as more directly expressive of workers’ concerns (although the most famous piece to emerge from these clubs – Eugène Pottier’s socialist anthem ‘L’Internationale’ which was, for many years, the national anthem of the Soviet Union – was composed in standard French).  Desrousseaux himself, thanks to his military career and his growing musical fame, was taken under the wing of the deputy mayor of Lille, Arthur Gentil-Descamps, and so climbed the social ladder into the ranks of the middle classes as a municipal functionary.  However, he did not lose the common touch.

Singing clubs were an important part of Lille’s working-class culture (although the one illustrated here by Daumier is ‘La Goguette des Joyeux’ in Paris).

‘Le P’tit Quinquin’ was apparently born from observation.  Walking through the city to visit his mother in cour Jeannette-à-vaches, Desrousseaux overheard a lacemaker, desperate to finish her order, attempting to quieten her crying child with promises of cakes and toys.  However, Desrousseaux also adapted the scenario in order to incorporate other elements of Lille’s traditions and working-class culture.  This idea was apparently suggested to him by Auguste Charles Arnold, the editor of the Gazette de Flandre.  Arnold felt that the Lille workers, overwhelmed by the changes brought on by mechanisation and, in particular, the mass migration from across the Belgian border, needed to be reminded of their own history, and to draw strength from their traditions.  Desrousseaux, who would go on to write an important book on the Moeurs populaires de la Flandre française (popular customs of French Flanders), took seriously his role as a folklorist: ‘Many of my songs could be considered as studies of our celebrations and pastimes, both public and private.’  ‘Le P’tit Quinquin’ contains references to the ‘Ducasse’, Lille’s main fair in August/September, and the puppet shows which were a mainstay of popular entertainment in northern French towns, with at least one theatre on almost every street. Saint Nicholas also appears for, as elsewhere in northern Europe, his feast day on 6 December was the main season for gift-giving.  In Lille he was accompanied on his visits to children, both good and naughty, by a donkey who carried the gifts but who also carried whips to punish.  Thus the lullaby of desperate worker became a survey of working-class entertainments.

Desrousseaux borrowed the voice of a lacemaker, though more often elderly, for several other songs which detailed this plebeian cultural and municipal history, such as ‘Le Broquelet d’autrefois (souvenirs d’une dentellière)’ [The Feast of the Bobbin of Yesteryear (memories of a lacemaker)] and ‘la vieille dentellière, souvenirs et regrets’ [the old lacemaker, memories and regrets].  Other songwriters also used a lacemaker character to make comparisons between the past and the present.  For instance in 1908 Adolphe Desreumaux used this character to protest against the influx of Belgian migrant workers to the suburb of Wazemmes in his ‘Sou’vnirs d’eun vielle dintellière’ [Memories of an old lacemaker].[4]  Thus the lacemaker became the Sybil of Lille’s oral and popular history.

‘Le P’tit Quinquin’ works because it mimics genuine folk lullabies which often combined saccharine tunes with texts that reeked of despair.  Indeed, travellers passing through the city have assumed that it was a traditional folk lullaby rather than the work of a male author.[5]  Desrousseaux’s lacemaker is simultaneously tender and desperate.  Grinding poverty lurks in this text: a child crying for three-quarters of an hour was probably hungry, his good clothes were already in the pawn shop.  Promises of gingerbread and toys may not work on little Narcisse because they are implausible, whereas the threat of chastisement seems more concrete.

There are numerous recordings available, but most seem intended for a nursery audience (in which the dialect is softened or entirely absent).  Desrousseaux’s original listeners were adult males, and to appreciate the proper effect one really needs to hear it sung by happy bands of Lille OSC fans.  But in the absence of such an encounter, we recommend the version sung by Raoul de Godewarsvelde, who was born in the same quartier as Desrousseaux, and which is available on youtube.[6]

Below we provide the original text, and a rough English translation,.

 

Dors mon p’tit Quiquin, mon p’tit poussin, mon gros raisin
Tu me feras du chagrin, si tu ne dors point jusqu’à demain

Ainsi l’autre jour une pauvre dentelière,
En berçant son petit garçon,
Qui depuis trois quarts d’heures ne faisait que pleurer,
Tâchait de l’endormir avec une chanson,
Elle lui disait ‘min narcisse,
Demain tu auras du pain d’épice,
Des bonbons à gogo, si tu es sage et si tu fais dodo.

Refrain

‘Et si tu me laisses faire une bonne semaine,
J’irai chercher ton beau sarrau
Ton patalon de drap, ton gilet de laine,
Comme un petit Milord tu seras faraud !
Je t’acheterai, le jour de la ducasse,
Un polichinelle cocasse
Un turlututu, pour jouer l’air du chapeau pointu.

Refrain

‘Nous irons dans la cour, Jeannette-aux-Vaches,
Voir les marionnettes comme tu riras
Quand tu entendras dire un sou pour Jacques,
Par le polichinelle qui parle mal
Tu lui mettras dans sa main,
Au lieu d’un sou un rond de carrotte
Il te dira merci, parce comme nous, il prendra du plaisir !

Refrain

‘Et si par hazard son maître se fâche,
C’est alors Narcisse que nous rirons
Sans n’avoir envie, je prendrai mon air méchant,
Je lui dirai son nom et ses surnoms
Je lui dirai des fariboles,
Il m’en répondra des drôles
Enfin, chacun verra deux spectacles au lieu d’un.

Refrain

‘Alors serre tes yeux, dors mon bonhomme,
Je vais dire une prière au petit Jésus,
Pour qu’il vienne ici, pendant ton somme,
Te faire rêver que j’ai les mains pleines d’écus,
Pour qu’il t’apporte une brioche,
Avec du sirop qui coule
Tout le long de ton menton, tu te pourlécheras trois heures du long.

Refrain

‘Le mois qui vient, c’est la fête de St Nicolas,
C’est sûr au soir il viendra te trouver
Il te fera un sermon et te laissera mettre,
En-dessous du ballot un grand panier
Il le remplira si tu es sage,
De choses qui te rendront heureux
Sinon son baudet t’enverra un grand martinet.’

 Refrain

Ni les marionnettes, ni le pain d’épice,
N’ont produit d’effet ; mais le martinet
A vite calmé le petit Narcisse,
Qui craignait de voir arriver le baudet
Il a dit sa berceuse,
Sa mère l’a mis dans son berceau
A repris son coussin, et répété vingt fois le refrain

Dors mon p’tit Quiquin, mon p’tit poussin, mon gros raisin
Tu me feras du chagrin, si tu ne dors point jusqu’à demain.

Sleep my little child, my little chick, my juicy grape,
You’ll make me suffer if you don’t sleep before tomorrow.

Thus the other day, a poor lacemaker,
While rocking her little boy
Who, for three-quarters of an hour had done nothing but cry,
Tried to get him to sleep with a song,
She said to him ‘My Narcisse,
Tomorrow you’ll have some gingerbread
and sweets galore, if you’re good and go to sleep.

Chorus

‘And if you let me do a good week’s work
I’ll go and get your smart smock
Your linen trousers and your woollen cardigan,[7]
You’ll be as smart as an English lord!
At the fair[8] I’ll buy you
a funny jumping jack
A whistle to play the tune “the pointed hat”.

Chorus

‘We’ll go down to the yard, Jeannette-aux-Vaches,
To see the puppets, how you’ll laugh
When you hear “A farthing for Jacques”
Said by Mr Punch who talks so badly
You’ll put into his hand
a piece of carrot instead of a farthing
He’ll say thank you, because, like us, he’ll find it funny!

 

Chorus

‘And if by chance the puppetmaster gets angry
Then Narcisse we’ll make a joke of it
I’ll pretend to be really angry
I’ll call him by his nickname, and worse
I’ll tell him all kinds of nonsense
And he’ll respond in kind
And that way everyone will see two spectacles instead of just one.

Chorus

‘So close your eyes, sleep little man
I’ll say a prayer to baby Jesus
That he’ll come here, while you sleep
and make you dream that you have fistsfull of silver coins
That he’ll bring a bun
With syrup that drips
All the way down your chin, you’ll be licking yourself for three whole hours.

Chorus

‘Next month, it’s Saint Nicholas’s day[9]
And for certain he’ll come and find you in the evening
He’ll give you a sermon and let you put
a big basket under his bundle
If you’re good he’ll fill it
With things to make you happy
But if not his donkey will give you a real whipping.’

Chorus

Neither the puppets, nor the gingerbread
had produced any effect, but the whipping
quickly calmed little Narcisse
afraid to see the donkey come
He said his lullaby
His mother put him in the cot
She took up her pillow, and repeated the chorus twenty times

Sleep my little child, my little chick, my fat grape,
You’ll make me suffer if you don’t sleep before tomorrow.

 

[1] 9 May remembers the translation of the relics of Saint Nicholas from Myra to Bari, an important feast in the Orthodox Church but less usually so in the Catholic Church.

[2] André Mabille de Poncheville, L’industrie dentelière française spécialement en Flandre : Enquête dans la région de Bailleul (Valenciennes: Librairie Giard, 1911), p. 67.

[3] For a good biography and exploration of Desrousseaux’s work see Éric Lemaire, Le chansonnier lillois Alexandre Joachim Desrousseaux et la chanson populaire dialectale (DELEM, 2009).  Most of the information in this post comes from this source.

[4] Adolphe Desreumaux, Mes chansons et pasquilles patoises. Etudes de moeurs lilloises (Lille: J. Hollain, 1908), p. 17-18

[5] Countess Evelyn Martinengo-Cesaresco, Essays in the Study of Folk-Songs (London: J.M. Dent & Sons, 1914), p. 253.

[6] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uY28zyuK1HI

[7] The implication is that the clothes are in pawn.  Desrousseaux himself worked for the municipal pawn shop.

[8] The ‘Ducasse’ was Lille’s major fair, held at the end of August – beginning of September.

[9] 6 December.

Pleasure and Pain: What can lace makers’ tools tell us about their lives?

How do you understand the life of lace makers in the 19th and early 20th century, when they left very few records? Reading newspapers from the time can give us some clues to the thoughts and feelings of craftswomen, but surprisingly the tools of the trade also ‘speak’ to us across the decades.

The overwhelming fact of lace makers’ lives during the 19th century was poverty. Their fortunes were not only determined by changing fashions and the fluctuating trade policies of the Parliament, but also larger questions of foreign policy and power-shifts on the Continent. Characteristically, lace makers in England saw their wages rise when the French went to war: lace makers in the East Midlands, for example, enjoyed relative prosperity during and after the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815) and the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871). Even in such periods of commercial success, however, only a minute portion of the overall profits of the trade ever made it into the hands of the lace makers themselves. From 19th century sources, we know that the reality of a lace maker’s life was often harsh: Working from home, women were often forced to work for 8 to 10 hours daily, as well as running the household.

Despite a growing number of reports detailing the dire working conditions of lace makers and the adverse effects these had on women’s health, lace making was often publicly extolled as offering women a virtuous way out of poverty. Thus, in 1780, a parliamentary white paper considering a reinstatement of a previous ban on French laces remarked that lace making ‘only kept those Hands employed that would otherwise have been mischievous or idle’ and ‘while the Male Part of the Family were employed in Agriculture abroad, the Wife and Daughters were equally assiduous in their gainful Occupations at home’ (1780:2). The considerable gains from the industry, the author continued, ‘might be considered as a voluntary Tribute paid by the Rich to the industrious Poor’ (1780:2). Historian Elaine Freedgood has described this self-imposed patronage of working class lace makers by a nobility relieved from labour, and by the philanthropy of bourgeois housewives, as a mode of ‘utopian commodity consumption’ in which the supply and demand of the market was replaced by a language of ‘need and duty as affluent women are enjoined to support the efforts of labouring women’ (2003:628). Lacemaking, in short, was presented as a charitable means of preserving the moral virtue of labouring women by those who had no need to work themselves.

Northampton Mercury and Herald, Friday January 19th, 1934.

Lace makers themselves experienced craftwork as both a compulsive, almost pleasurable obsession, and straightforward drudgery. In 1933, the elderly Mrs Johnson told the Northampton Mercury that the life of a lace maker was one of ‘unremitting toil’; and yet she missed her work. Once, she reminisced, she had ‘sat from four o’clock in the morning to eight o’clock at night working on a cuff, and the pillow had to be dragged away from me. I wanted nothing more than to sit in my room with the door shut and the work in front of me’. Others, however, had much less sympathetic memories of the trade. In an interview in 1979, a Mrs Swain from Greens Norton, remembered how she was forced to make lace as a child: “I should say you’d find a piller [pillow] in everybody’s house that were poor people. All the women in the town [village] had to do it, and all the girls had to learn. I detested it. My mother used to say, when I come from school, “Now sit down and do your piller-work. The sooner you do it, the sooner you’ll get out to play.” She goes on to account how she later burned the lace making pillow, her mother’s bobbin winder, and the pillow stand – even though it had been made by her brother and was apparently ‘a beauty’. For Mrs Swain, the pillow, its stand, and the winding wheel had become symbols of the drudgery of the trade, and her enforced labour as a child.

Mrs Swain, however, did not mention burning her mother’s bobbins. Indeed, if one looks at both contemporary newspaper material and later accounts, lace makers’ bobbins are often spoken about in far warmer terms than other tools of the trade. This is partly due to the fact that they were a collection of tools unique to each lace maker. Hand carved or turned on a treadle lathe, bobbins were commonly made of wood or bone and could be intricately carved, painted, inlaid with pewter, wire-bound or inscribed with names and dates. Lace makers would sometimes thread charms and mementos onto their spangles, such as buttons, shells or coins. Bobbins inscribed with names were extremely common. They were often made to commemorate births and deaths, and many bobbins carried blessings and religious messages (‘Seek Salvation’). Bobbins carrying messages of love were also common gifts given from young men to their sweethearts. The power of a gift of a bobbin to create bonds between persons was exploited by people from beyond a lace maker’s immediate circle of friends and family. Bobbins with the names of political candidates and their slogans were distributed at election time and some lace dealers gave their workers bobbins as gifts. Lace makers generally worked for more than one dealer and these gifts may have been an attempt from the dealers’ side to monopolize the services of particularly talented craftswomen. Bone bobbin decorated with the name ‘William’. From the collection of the Museum of Rural English Life, Reading

Bone bobbin decorated with the name ‘Fox’. From the collection of the Higgins Art Gallery and Museum, Bedford.

 

A lace maker’s collection of bobbins, then, was like a very personal, material record of her family relations, friendships, and love life. Indeed, in families where lace making had been a tradition, but was no longer practiced, it was often the bobbins which were kept for posterity long after pillows, pillow stands and other paraphernalia had been given or thrown away. Reporting on the revival of lace making lessons at St Mary’s School in Stony Stratford, the Northampton Mercury reported that two students arrived with such heirloom bobbins, enthusiastically claiming that they were 200 and 400 years old, respectively. While it is unlikely, although not impossible, that these bobbins had actually survived several centuries of pillow-work, the claims that they were extremely old seemed to be about presenting tangible evidence of these local families’ long involvement in the industry. Similarly, the aforementioned Mrs Johnson claimed that one of her bobbins had belonged to her great-grandmother and was 200 years old. Made of bone, it bore the inscription ‘I like my choice too well to change’. Bobbins, however, were also commodities – like lace-making, bobbin-making was a profession which ran in families – and as such, they were liable to be not only bought and gifted, but also stolen. In 1860, for example, the Bucks Herald reported that a certain Mary Dormer of Milton Keynes stole 12 bobbins from Hannah Robinson, and was imprisoned for 6 weeks for her crime.

 

 

Notification from the Bucks Herald reporting Mary Dormer’s theft of twelve bobbins, Saturday July 14th, 1860.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Eliza Westbury, Northampton Lacemaker and Composer of Hymns

Eliza Westbury was born in 1808 and died in 1828. She lived for all of her short life in the village of Hackleton, Northamptonshire, where she made a living as a lacemaker.

We know this from the introduction to Hymns by a Northamptonshire Village Female, to which is added a Short Account of Her Life. (Note that ‘Female’; obviously Eliza could not aspire to the title ‘Lady’!) This book, containing 70 or so of Westbury’s hymns and poems, was published shortly after her death, probably by the local Baptist minister William Knowles. It seems likely that Knowles encouraged Eliza’s writing after her conversion and acceptance into the Baptist congregation in 1826.

 

Carey's College, Hackleton. William Carey (1761-1834) was a shoemaker turned minister and missionary in India. He lived a while in Hackleton.

Carey’s College, Hackleton. William Carey (1761-1834) was a shoemaker turned Baptist minister and missionary in India. He lived a while in Hackleton.

 

This is what Knowles, if he was editor, had to say about Eliza: this is the promised short account of her life.

Eliza Westbury was the daughter of William and Elizabeth Westbury of Hackleton, Northamptonshire. She was born in the year 1808. Her father died in the faith of the gospel, in the year 1811. At an early age she was sent to a Sabbath School, and made pleasing progress in learning. She, at times, felt conviction of sin; but remained a stranger to religion until the beginning of the year 1825, when it pleased God to seal upon her heart a few words which were spoken to her after she had been hearing a Sermon to young people. In May, 1826, she joined the Baptist Church at Hackleton, of which she was an honourable member till her death. During the last two years of her life she composed about one hundred and fifty Hymns, besides other poetry from which the following are selected and published, under the impression that they will be acceptable to her Christian friends. Most of them where [sic] composed while she was earning her living at lace-making, and which she used to write at her leisure. Her own experience will be seen in the piece of poetry at the end of the hymns, which was found after her death. She was frequently deeply impressed with the evil of sin, and was fearful lest she should deceive herself: but her death was attended with peace and with the hope of a blessed immortality.

The providences with which the family to which she belonged was visited were very affecting; within sixteen weeks out of five persons who resided in the same house, four were removed by death. On the fourth of January, 1828, her mother died; on the 20th, one of her mother’s sisters; on the 11th of April, death visited her, and on the 18th of the same month another of her mother’s sisters; and unto them all there is ground for hope that death was gain, and that though they are absent from the body, they are present with the Lord.

Reader! Prepare to meet thy God!

We came across Eliza Westbury through the writings of Sibyl Phillips whose thesis, ‘Women and Evangelical Religion in Kent and Northamptonshire, 1800-1850’ (2001) is available online. (Nancy Jiwon Cho has also written a little about Westbury in her thesis, ‘The Ministry of Song: Unmarried British Women’s Hymn Writing, 1760-1936’ (Durham, 2006).) We were intrigued by the fact that Westbury “composed while she was earning a living at lace making”. As discussed in previous posts, many observers of Midland life in the nineteenth century commented on lacemakers’ habit of singing at work. Eliza’s compositions might strengthen the case for a connection between this occupation and song.

We were hoping that Westbury’s hymns would reference, either in words or tune, the other songs associated with lacemakers – either the long ballads discussed in our post on Long Lankin and Little Sir Hugh, or the “tellings” which were the particular musical property of lacemakers. Unfortunately, Eliza’s book, which contains no indication of melodies, is extremely rare (in the UK the only copy seems to be in Northampton itself) and, partly because David is currently in Caen researching Normandy lacemakers, we have not been able to access it. However, to judge by the numerous verses reproduced by Phillips and Cho, the answer appears to be no. Perhaps unsurprisingly Westbury modelled her compositions more on other Evangelical hymnsters and poets, first and foremost Cowper’s and Newton’s Olney Hymns. Olney is only a few miles from Hackleton.

We offer, as an example, Hymn 27, ‘Discontent’, which given the poverty and hard-work associated with lacemaking, may have spoken to one of their habits:

Christians, beware of discontent,
‘Tis a besetting sin;
It will all happiness prevent
When once it is let in.

We murmur at our Maker’s will
Complain of our hard lot;
Calamities remember still,
But mercies are forgot.

Pardon, O Lord, our discontent;
Forgiveness now display;
And may thy spirit now be sent
To guide us lest we stray.

 

It does not appear that Westbury mentioned lacemaking by name in any of her surviving works, though some of the texts do refer to the events of her life such as  ‘On the Death of the Author’s Mother’, which, as we know, preceded her own by only a few weeks. Here are three of the eight verses:

Who lov’d to see me walk the way
That leads to everlasting day,
And check’d me when about to stray?
My Mother!

It has pleas’d God her soul to take
To heaven, where no alarms can shake;
There may I meet, for Jesu’s sake,
My Mother!

Then with my Saviour I shall be,
And I shall from all sin be free,
And there in glory I shall see
My Mother!

As Phillips and Cho have shown, this is modelled quite closely on Ann Taylor’s (at the time) very famous poem ‘My Mother’, which itself borrowed its distinctive metre from Cowper’s ‘To Mary’.

The final piece in the collection contains 54 stanzas and is titled ‘Verses, Containing an Account of the Writer’s Experience’. These tell us relatively little about Westbury’s working life, it is her spiritual life that matters: her youthful waywardness, the depression brought on by her sense of sin, her conversion, and her ongoing doubts. But in the absence of any other autobiography of a lacemaker from the period, we quote them here… or as many verses as were quoted by Phillips.

I at an early age was taught
That God should be in every thought,
My Mother brought me up with care.
And led me to the house of prayer.

Unto a Sabbath School I went,
To gain instruction I was sent;
And there it was my constant aim
To strive to gain the greatest name.

‘Twas my desire (the truth I’ll tell)
That I in reading might excel;
My chief concern and labour then,
Was how to gain the praise of men.

I many strong convictions had,
But I to stifle them was glad:
I knew my ways did God offend,
But I to this would not attend.

I for my chief companions chose
Those who religion did oppose,
Who disobey’d each warning voice
They were the objects of my choice.

Thus with the thoughtless, gay, and vain,
God’s holy day I did profane;
For oft we in the fields did walk,
To join in vain and trifling talk.

But conscience told me all along
That I was surely acting wrong:
This fill’d my soul with sore dismay
And oft I did attempt to pray.

All sacred things I did deride,
But my companions would me chide,
And oft they unto me would say,
That I indeed was worse than they.

Who hath ascended up, thought I,
And seen a God above the sky?
Who of the dead came back to tell,
That there was either heaven or hell?

A minister of God above,
Bid me from Christ no longer rove,
But now to seek in days of youth,
The God of mercy, love, and truth.

He bid me also not to be
A servant of God’s enemy.

My sins as mountains did appear
Which filled my soul with grief and fear.
No hope of mercy could I see,
For bold transgressors such as me.

I thought I oft heard something say,
That t’was in vain for me to pray;
I at religion used to scoff,
And now the Lord would cast me off.

At length God’s holy word I took,
But fear’d to open that blest Book,
Lest in its pages I should see
A curse denounc’d on such as me.

My mind was devoid of peace
And fast my misery did increase.
At length, I fully did intend
To my own life to put an end.

… (but is prevented by remembering a chapter from the Bible on suicide)

No murderer shall enter heaven,
His crimes shall never be forgiven;
And should I be my murderer now,
To endless torment I must go.

… (Instead she joins the Baptist congregation)

With the saints I lov’d to meet
To worship at the Saviour’s feet.

But soon my mind was fill’d with care,
For Satan tempted to despair;
He told me ‘I did not believe,
‘But only did my self deceive,
‘That mercy I need not expect,
‘For I was not of God’s elect;’
Could I forgiveness hope to find,
A sinner of the vilest kind?

… (These doubts keep her from Church for a while, but in the end she is accepted and baptised)

Now those who read these lines may see
The goodness of my God to me.

He could have stop’d my feeble breath,
And sent me to eternal death:
But he has spar’d me still to tell
How he has sav’d my soul from hell.

God’s grace to sinners doth abound,
I sought the Lord and mercy found;
The vilest sinner need not fear,
For God will his petitions hear.

Lord, may thy spirit guide me now,
While I am in this world below:
And then when I am call’d to die,
Receive my soul above the sky.

 

Hackleton Baptist Church, the successor to the one where Eliza worshipped.

Hackleton Baptist Church, the successor to the one where Eliza worshipped.

A Lace School in South Devon

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

1892 The graphic, piece of honiton lace

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

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

 

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

 

The Old Chapel, Bicester from Wikipedia Commons

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

Lacemakers’ Songs: A Short Film, Mostly in French

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Further reading:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE BALLAD OF SIR HUGH, ETC.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE BALLAD OF SIR HUGH.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

LACEMAKERS’ SONGS: “LONG LANKIN.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Further Reading: from Notes and Queries.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Further Reading: other sources

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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