Regular visitors to this site will know of our interest in lace songs and ‘tells’. Tells were rhymes used in Midlands lace schools, seemingly as a means to increase the pace of work and to count pins. We have the text of about 80 English lace tells recorded by folklorists and other visitors to Midlands lace villages from the mid nineteenth to the mid twentieth century. But in almost every case we have the words but no tune, the collector not having the technical knowledge or recording device necessary to capture the music. In some cases, because the words of the tell are adapted from some familiar rhyme or ballad, one can offer a reasonable guess as to how the tune went, but for others the hunt still goes on.
We are not the first to engage in this hunt. The following encounter between a song enthusiast and a lacemaker appeared in the magazine The Countryman in 1964. It was written by Prudence Summerhayes (1906-1984), a writer and occasional radio producer married to J. Alan Turner, the Clerk to Northamptonshire County Council. Prudence had been writing plays and novels since childhood, several of which were published in the 1930s, but after the war, as wife of an important local government official, she became more involved in cultural patronage. She wrote short plays for use in schools and was an active organizer of historical pageants in the East Midlands, performed in places like Delapre Park, Rockingham Castle and Hatfield House. Some of these pageants involved the Women’s Institute and other women’s organisations. As we have seen, such short plays and pageants were a significant vehicle for popularizing a particular history, or rather legend, of lace, such as the role of Katherine of Aragon. Lace was certainly a theme in some of Prudence Summerhayes’ pageants. In the one she organized on behalf of the Northamptonshire Rural Community Council at Castle Ashby (home of the Marquess of Northampton) in July 1949, and largely built around moments in the history of the Compton family, one scene presented lacemakers singing their tells while working. This section was apparently based on a short play about Flemish migrants bringing lace skills to the region, and had originally been written by local schoolmistress at Yardley Hastings.
Prudence had certainly done some research about tells. She gave talks about the history of lace to local W.I.s and indeed contributed a section about them to Woman’s Hour on the radio in 1954. And the lack of tunes clearly bothered her because she wrote about it in her memoirs: ‘To this day it is uncertain whether there were tunes for the words, though I had two fairly good proofs that they were, though in spite of all my efforts I never tracked them down.’ The encounter related below was presumably one of these efforts; it probably dates to the period when she lived in Northamptonshire. In the 1950s and 60s it was still possible to order handmade lace from the leading department stores in these Midlands cities, if one was prepared to wait a long time for delivery. The article illustrates a recurrent trope of folksong research, ‘the one that got away’. Almost every memoir of a song collector contains a similar moment when vast melodic treasures were on the verge of discovery, only to be stymied by the death of the singer.
However, if one can’t find the original tunes, one can always invent one’s own. Serving alongside Prudence Summerhayes on the Drama Committee of the Northamptonshire Arts Association was the clergyman and composer Greville Cooke (1894-1989) whom Summerhayes described as ‘a rather high-church canon’ (of Peterborough Cathedral). Cooke set seven of the tells to music; ‘difficult somewhat modern music’ in Summerhayes’ opinion. For the first performance at Castle Ashby in 1949 they were sung by fifty-seven girls from the Rockingham Road School, Kettering, ‘while country-women worked pillow-lace’ according to the report in the Northamptonshire Mercury. In 1953 Cooke published these tells and they were ‘broadcast and sung all over the county where I went until I got heartily sick of them’ said Summerhayes. But up till now we have not discovered a recording of them.
Prudence Summerhayes, ‘A Country Lacemaker’ The Countryman 62 (Summer 1964), pp. 261-4.
 I had been scouring the neighbourhood for someone to make a bit of pillow lace for me; and there she was all the time, only a stone’s throw from where I lived. It was not in any romantic stone cottage that I found her, but in a drab street of an industrial town. An odd current of life had stranded her there. She was quite alone in the world, her husband long since dead and all her children grown up and gone away.
I looked up and down the street in doubt; dust and dirty newspapers blew along the pavement. This did not seem at all the place for a country lacemaker; but somebody had said she lived there and, as soon as I reached her window, I guessed I was on the right track. Everything about the house was spotless; the step was freshly scrubbed, the door-handle shone and, as if I had not already guessed it, there in the window under a vase of paper roses was an immaculate lace mat. Lacemakers are always scrupulously clean. They have to be by the nature of their work, which also exacts infinite patience and a delicate sense of precision.
When my lacemaker opened the door I saw that she was very old. She appeared frail too; but her skin was smooth and fine, and she was still astonishingly beautiful. She looked at me uncertainly as I tried to explain who I was, until I mentioned the magic word ‘lace’ and a delightful smile touched her eyes. I was immediately welcome, and I was not surprised, for lacemakers are invariably enthusiasts. Otherwise no doubt the craft would have died long ago; the slowness of the work prevents it from being an economic proposition in a machine age. You do it, in the end  as you do most of the arts, simply because you love it.
It as soon obvious that this lacemaker loved it. Almost at once we found ourselves talking away about the delights of our mutual interest. Then followed the time-honoured ritual which I had come to know so well in my encounters with lacemakers all over the East Midlands, and in the Auvergne, Spain and Italy as well. Out came the dumpy patchwork pillow covered with its fresh-laundered cloth. There were the bobbins carved with the names of dead sweethearts – ‘Nance’ and ‘Betsy’ – or touchingly inscribed with mementos of bygone days and with naïve sentiments: ‘Marry me quick and lowly speak’; ‘Mother, when shall I marry?’ There they all were, the winders, the pins, the parchments and the inevitable stories of lace made for royal households and great historic occasions.
It is an odd thing; wherever there is lace, you will find royalty. And it is not only lace; many crafts appear to have these traditional associations, real or imaginary, which are most persistent. Indeed these traditions are such treasured possessions that one would hesitate to destroy them, even though at times one suspects they are largely fictitious. Some of the tales, of course, are perfectly genuine; but true or not, the fact is that generation after generation love to think they are true. Naturally my lacemaker had her own special royalty story of a grandmother who had made lace for a princess’s petticoat. Finally, to wind up the ritual, out came the precious odds and ends of lace, carefully wrapped in blue tissue paper to protect them from the light; there was old lace as fine as a spider’s web, and a Honiton handkerchief with tracery like a feathery fern.
‘But they’re exquisite’, I cried, caught afresh by their loveliness, as always. She smiled and, at my  request, sat down at her pillow to work some lace for me. Her hands flew as swiftly as a bird. They were astonishingly white, almost transparent, with beautifully kept fingernails. I watched and was fascinated by the complicated movements as she worked away, throwing the bobbins over each other with the quick staccato action and the little turn of the wrist that makes good quality lace.
For it was good lace, and she knew it. There was a touch of charming vanity about her – the contented look of a person who knows she is doing something worth while and doing it well. Besides, she was the proud owner of a gift which gave her a sense of importance and even power. Were there not always plenty of people bothering her for bits of lace to go round table-cloths and baby clothes and handkerchiefs? Far more than she could ever undertake. Certainly she made little money out of her orders but she did not really mind; it was enough to cover the cost of materials and provide a little pocket-money, and she was satisfied.
‘What design are you doing?’ I asked, bending over work that was as filmy as gossamer; but she did not know. These old lacemakers seldom do, though they may call the pattern by some such fancy country name as Wedding Bells, Honeysuckle or Bunch o’ Nuts. Usually it is something mother or aunty ‘learned’ them; something they had been taught as girls in the village, where anyone made lace as a matter of course, and the great day of the week had been when the pedlar came round selling new parchments and thread. This lacemaker knew only that she had to make certain movements, largely dictated by the colour of the beads which hung on the bobbins. She did not know that the design she was doing had perhaps travelled from far across Europe and was similar to one brought over  to England by Catherine of Aragon. She knew that the yellow beads went over the scarlet, that the wrists must be kept so and the thread tight, just as her mother had done and her grandmother before her, for these skills often run in families.
‘Ah, they were happy days’, she sighed. ‘Though mind you, we had to work real hard, me and my sister. Up at six and on till dark, it was a long day; but there, it wasn’t too bad, we used to while away the time singing.’
‘Singing?’ I broke in quickly, and my spirits soared. For a long time I had been searching for the authentic lace tells, which were sometimes sung in the old country lace-schools and whose rhythm is thought to fit the movements of the work. Although I had come across the words of these songs fairly frequently, the airs still eluded me. ‘You don’t mean you know the actual tunes?’ I asked, trying not to frighten her with my eagerness.
But she did mean it. ‘Yes’, she said sedately. Her grandmother had learnt them, tunes and all, in the lace-school which once stood at the corner of their village street. There had been quite a number, and though she could not remember them all, she had the words written down; she could not mind just where. She began rummaging about in a somewhat confused way through her cupboards, and I did not like to press her. Our enthusiasm had exhausted us, so I said I would come back another time, and she promised to look out the songs and sing them to me ‘with the chorus and all the verses’. But I was not to hear them. I had to go away for a while and on my return, a few weeks later, the blinds of the house were drawn. I have continued my search ever since, and I have still to find those lost airs to the Midland lace tells.
 I am extremely grateful to Derek Turner, the son of Prudence Summerhayes and Alan Turner, for providing bibliographical and biographical information about his mother, including sections of her unpublished memoir ‘The Raging Dream’. Summerhayes’ archive has been donated to Headington Girls’ School, though so far I have been unable to access it. For further biographical information on the Summerhayes family see the blog http://tacadrum.blogspot.com/2015/07/the-summerhayes-first-world-war.html
 See the report in The Northampton Mercury and Herald Friday 15 July, 1949.
 ‘The Raging Dream’, p. 116.
 Greville Vaughan Turner Cooke, Seven Lace Tells of Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire and Northamptonshire. For 2-part Treble Voices (Joseph Williams, London 1953). On Cooke’s other work see http://www.duncanhoneybourne.com/articles/greville_cooke