Lacemakers do not often appear in archives. They had no guild, no trade union, no history of labour militancy, and so did not generate the kinds of paper trails that allow for historical research. The British Newspaper Archive (www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk), an online word-searchable library of 477 regional and national newspapers dating from the eighteenth to the mid-twentieth century, is therefore a great boon. In its pages we can find accounts of lacemakers going about their business. Of course, newspapers tend to concentrate on the grim side of life, and the most frequent mention of lacemakers is either as victims or as perpetrators of crimes.
Bedford Prison by Dennis Simpson (Wikipedia Commons)
Ellen Barratt, a seventeen-year-old lacemaker from Aspley Guise in Bedfordshire, died of starvation on 30th March 1856. She and her two sisters had been beaten and otherwise abused by their mother and an older sister, while forced to make lace for fourteen hours a day. The case caused a furore, and its details were covered not just by the local papers but also across the country and even abroad. The horror expressed by all those involved – the coroner, the doctor, the judge – all indicate that the treatment visited on the Barratt sisters was exceptional. Nonetheless one can learn something about conditions in the trade more generally from this rare opportunity to visit the interior of a lacemaking household. For example, although the quantities of food given to the Barratt sisters were abnormally small, the types (gruel, hasty pudding, bread and dripping, scalded toast…) were probably common elements in the diet of lacemakers. We also learn that the sisters were expected to produce 1 yard and 2 feet of narrow lace a day, and that, although they themselves received none of the rewards, their mother got 6d a yard for narrow lace, and 8d for wider bands. Thus we can calculate that, if the girls finished their work, they could earn 5 shillings a week (on the basis of 84 hours labour). No wonder one contemporary writer talked about sacrificing children to ‘the Moloch of lace’.
Inquest at Aspley Guise. Report in the Bedford Mercury for Saturday 5 April, 1856. Image © THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
Below are three reports from The Bedford Mercury in 1856, taken from the British Newspaper Archive, covering the coroner’s inquest on Ellen Barratt which recorded a verdict of manslaughter and indicted her parents, the committal proceedings against her elder sister Elizabeth, and the trial of all three.
“SATURDAY, APRIL 5, 1856. ASPLEY GUISE. HORRIBLE CASE OF STARVING TO DEATH”
An Inquest was held at the Steamer beershop at Aspley on the 1st of April, before W. Wiseman Esq., deputy coroner for the Honor of Ampthill, on the body of Ellen Barratt, about 12 years old, who was found dead in bed on the 30th ult. The evidence went to prove that all the parents’ elder children were in good condition yet the younger ones were in a frightfully emaciated condition, and it appeared that this must have resulted from the parents having kept them morning, noon, and night fixed to the “lace pillow” and feeding them with gruel for breakfast, gruel for dinner, gruel for supper with an occasional modicum of bread, but no air, no exercise, no amusement, no relaxation; nothing but work, work, work, until the bodies of the poor things were wasted literally to skeletons. The Jury returned a verdict of manslaughter against the unnatural parents, and they were committed to Bedford Gaol for trial at the next assizes.
“SATURDAY, MAY 24, 1856. HORRIBLE INHUMANITY AND MANSLAUGHTER OF A CHILD BY ITS RELATIVES“
It will be in the recollection of our readers, that about five weeks since, we reported an inquest held at Aspley Guise on the body of Ellen Barratt a child 12 years old, who died from starvation and neglect, and the committal of the unnatural parents for trial at the next assizes for the crime of manslaughter by the coroner’s jury. Since that event the tongue of rumour has been very busy with the case which caused further investigation, and which resulted in Superintendent Young apprehending Elizabeth Barratt, aged 29, the eldest sister, charged with being an accessory to the death.
The following evidence was adduced against her, the witnesses being her own sisters: –
Charlotte Barratt, the first witness, apparently 6 or 7 years old, stated that she was 14 years of age. Her sister Ellen died on a Sunday morning about 5 o’clock, March 30; she had been kept at work constantly, even up to 5 o’clock on the Saturday night, notwithstanding her complaints, and was then driven to bed without any supper, having had nothing all day, her mother beating her with her stays up the stairs because she asked for something to eat; she kept awake nearly all night, and about one o’clock in the morning made a noise; her mother came into the room and hit her, and told her to lie still; after that she moaned, but soon she attempted to sing a hymn and afterwards prayed – “Lord Jesus, let me do my work next week;” these were the last words she spoke and she died soon after. Me and my sisters were kept at work lacemaking 14 hours a day, with a quarter of an hour for breakfast and 20 minutes for dinner; that was all the stoppage or rest we had; and if we had finished our work at night we had some gruel or bread and dripping for supper; we had garden stuff or gruel for dinner, when we had any, and sometimes pudding; if our task of work was not done at night we were sent to bed without supper, and had to get up next morning and stand naked in the cold till we had finished our task, without breakfast. Mother and sister often boiled up the coffee grounds for our breakfast, and gave us a piece of bread so big (about 2 inches square); we never had as much as we could eat, nor enough; prisoner has often held us while mother beat us; she has stuffed rags into our mouths to prevent us from crying; two of my teeth have been knocked out in this way. My sister (the prisoner) has held us while my mother has put sheep-dung, cow-dung, and rabbit-dung into our mouths and even the filth from her snuffy pocket-handkerchief she has made us eat; and my sister has held us the while. We were often made to sit with our sore flesh upon nettles and thistles which were put in our chair; we never had any fire in our work room, but there was a fire in mother’s room, where she and my sister were, but if we went there we were turned out directly. I have been often beaten with nettles; we have been made to eat pig’s victuals; poor Ellen has been kept two or three days together without food, because she could not do her work; my sister always helped my mother against us.
Julia Barratt, apparently about six or seven years of age, but who stated her age to be twelve, confirmed all that the last witness had said, and added that even when her mother had given her a little bit of bread, the prisoner had snatched it away from her. She had frequently been kept without food when she could not do her work, and made to stand naked in a cold room without breakfast till she had done it. She had been beaten with nettles and thistles and made to sit on them bare, and prisoner has pulled up our clothes to sit us on them, when we have had cow and other dung put into our mouths Sister has stuffed our mouths with rags if we cried out. A few days before Ellen died she had three fits and fell down. My sister picked her up and set her to work again directly. On the Friday night before she died she was sent to bed without supper, and on Saturday she had a little gruel for dinner. On Saturday night she was sent to bed without supper, and beat. She died in the night.
Susannah Barratt, apparently about 14, stated her age to be 22. She had heard what her sisters had said, and it was true. She had been served in the same manner.
Dr Williams proved that he had made a post mortem examination of the body of Ellen Barrat. The body was remarkably small, the face small and idiotic, shrivelled and monkey like. There was no appearance of disease, but the lungs appeared as if they had not been much used. There was very little blood in the system at all. The heart was quite empty. There [sic] small quantity of blood there was, was of a watery character. The stomach contained a little gruel – not one ounce – and nothing else. I could hardly distinguish the stomach from the small intestines. It was no bigger than that of a child five years old. In my opinion overwork and insufficient nourishment, with the treatment I have heard today, would be sufficient to cause death.
This concluded the case.
The prisoner, on being asked if she had anything to say, denied the whole of the charges.
The prisoner was committed for trial.
The case on behalf of the prosecution was conducted by C.R. Day, Esq, of Woburn.
“SATURDAY, JULY 19, 1856. TRIAL OF PRISONERS. Starvation to Death at Aspley Guise“
Samuel Barratt, 65, labourer, Susannah Barratt, 64, his wife, and Elizabeth Barratt, 28, lacemaker, the daughter, were charged on the Coroner’s warrant with having caused the death of Ellen Barratt, at Aspley Guise, on the 30th of March.
There were other indictments for assault against the two female prisoners.
Mr Power presented; the prisoners were undefended.
As this case has excited a great amount of horror and indignation throughout the country, we give the trial as fully as possible. The male prisoner appeared a hard working, but sullen and close man; the wife was the very ideal of misery and griping avarice, but certainly appeared to have starved herself almost as much as her hapless children. The daughter was, to the eye, selfishness personified, and seemed to have thriven wonderfully in the midst of such unheard of privations inflicted on the younger sisters.
Charlotte Barratt: I am in my 16th year; I had an elder sister named Ellen; up to the 30th of March I lived at Aspley Guise with my father and mother and five sisters, of whom Elizabeth is the eldest, and also a little brother, Thomas. I remember Ellen dying [illegible] two or three days before her hands were bent so, that she could not stick a in; mother said it was all her falseness. Ellen continued trying to make the lace. Ellen had no supper on the Friday night before she died because she had not done her work (that was the reason mother gave). She had no supper on the Saturday night. When she went upstairs she said, “Mother, I am so hungry.” Mother told her to go to bed as she had not done her work, and beat her upstairs with her stays which were rolled up in mother’s hand. Ellen was undressed, Elizabeth, I, Julia, Ellen and Thomas all slept in the same room. Ellen could not sleep that night, and she made a noise as if she was in pain. Mother slept in the next room; she came in on hearing the noise and “gone her a cut,” and told her to lie still. After that Ellen sung a hymn and made a prayer, “Lord Jesus, let me do my work next week.” That was the last I heard her say. I remember my little brother getting up about 20 minutes after five; some time after that, sister Elizabeth got up and went down stairs: afterwards she came back into our room; I asked her if my sister Ellen was not fast asleep; Elizabeth went to where Ellen lay and touched her, and then she told mother that Ellen was dead! Ellen used to make lace; she worked 14 hours a day; she sometimes went out on a Sunday to school; there weren’t time in the week for going out. She had some barley meal done up into hasty pudding for her food, chiefly, for 15 or 16 weeks before we came to the workhouse; we all had alike for breakfast, and we had the same for dinner some days. Mother expected five feet of narrow laces, rather less of wide ones, every day. If unable to do it, she was sent to bed without her supper. If she did her work, she had hasty pudding, or bread and dripping; a small slice for each child. We had coffee twice in the sixteen weeks I speak of, we had it after the rest had done, instead of barley meal; they put some water in the coffee-pot for me. My sister was sometimes beaten with stinging nettles, and had to sit on stinging nettles and thistles; also had her clothes on, but they were put under her clothes; mother used to do it; Elizabeth used to tell mother to go and get the nettles. She has had cow dung and sheep dung thrust into her mouth. She had often been beaten, with a cane and lately with a stick. Mother used to beat her, and Betsy held her while mother beat her; she used to hold her hands over Ellen’s mouth. We did the lace in the front room; we had a fire only two days last winter, and when Ellen went to get warmed in the back room, Betty would sometimes push her back into the cold room. I know that mother got never less than 6d a yard for lace and for wider lace 8d a yard. I know there was money in the house for mother used to pay for what she got always as she got it. Elizabeth kept the money in the tea chest, and has had as much as three or four sovereigns together.
By the Judge [from other sources, Sir J.T. Coleridge]: I was examined before the coroner. I took an oath; I knew what I was doing, and that is my evidence and my mark (produced).
The learned Judge then read the deposition before the coroner very carefully, almost the whole of which was contradictory of her present statements, and asked her “Is it true,” to which she replied, “No, it is not true. I said it because mother told me, as we were going down street, that she would beat me if I did not say so.”
Witness continued to reply to the learned judge. “We had pork about twice a week just before Ellen died. Father and mother had it every day, and sometimes twice – at tea.”
The Judge: Do you mean to say that when they had pork you had none?
Judge: Sure of that; sure of that?
Witness: Yes, yes, yes.
Judge. Why did you say before the coroner that you were eleven years old?
Witness: I did not know how old I was. I know now, they told me at the workhouse.
Julia Barratt: I am in my 15th year. [When this witness called it was deemed necessary by the court to prove the baptismal register, for which purpose John Smith, baker, Aspley Guise had been summoned; but as the Rev J. Vaux Moore, rector of the parish of Aspley, was on the bench, his lordship directed him to be sworn. Mr Moore then deposed to the certificates of baptism produced from which it appeared that Ellen Barratt, deceased, was baptised Sept 9th, 1838. Charlotte Barratt, the first witness, June 14, 1840. Julia the present witness, in 1842.]
The witness was then examined and said: I used to work 14 hours a day. Sometimes I went to school on Sunday morning, and in the afternoon I went to bed. Never went out to play at any time. For food I had sometimes oatmeal gruel, sometimes barley meal – that was for breakfast; I had not enough. I had the same for dinner; we had 50 minutes allowed for dinner. We could do a yard and two feet of narrow lace in a day. If we did not do that we went to bed without supper, and next morning we had to get up and stand naked (in our shifts) in the back place, with our bare feet on the cold stones. I have seen Ellen suffer that punishment, and also with nettles put under her clothes, and beaten with a cane or a stick; mother used to beat her and Betsy used to hold her. I have seen rabbit dung, and sheep dung, and cow dung put in her mouth. I remember the night of her death. In the course of the week she had three fainting fits. She, and the lace pillow, and chair all fell down together. Betsy picked them all up, and when Ellen got over the fainting fit she had to go to work again. She had no supper the night she died. She said “Mother, give me some supper, I am so hungry.” Mother belted her all the way up stairs with her stays.
By the Judge: Mother gave her no supper; she had no supper the night before that. Generally she had thin oatmeal gruel for breakfast, and for dinner she had a piece of bread scalded as big as my hand. We had potatoes once a week and meat once a week. We never had crumbs in our gruel. [This was in reply to a question put by the prisoner Elizabeth Barratt.]
James Williamson, Esq., M.D., of Woburn, swears: On the 31st of March I made a post mortem examination of the body of Ellen Barratt. It certainly was not the body of a person 17 years old; it was not developed enough; it appeared about 11 or 12 years of age, not more. I found no appearance of natural disease, nor any marks of external violence. The stomach was extremely small, [illegible word] it was difficult to find it at all, it lay so deep under the large intestine which was distended with air. Only a very small quantity of gruel was found – less than an ounce undigested, scarcely changed. The intestines were almost empty.
By the Court: If any quantity of food (I mean any considerable quantity) had been taken the previous day, in my opinion, it would have been found. The stomach appeared to be that of a child five or six years of age. I attribute the smallness of the stomach to habitual disuse, its proper functions not being exercised. I should expect to find just such a stomach, if all the life [illegible] the child had been suffering from an insufficiency of food. In my judgement, the cause of the child’s death, judging from the appearance of the different organs, was a combination of insufficient food, insufficiency of exercise, overwork and cruelty – such cruelty as I have heard described by the last witnesses.
The Judge: Would you illustrate the unnatural want of development in the stomach by the case of rowers or boxers whose muscles through constant exercise are extremely large?
Witness: I mean that if the stomach had been properly used the blood vessels would have been large. The stomach was in an atrophoid condition (technically described). The brain showed an excited condition as if the child had been worried. That is what I mean by attributing death in part to cruel treatment. The brain was more developed than any other part of the body in proportion. The head was disproportioned to the rest of the body, but was in accordance with the real age of the child. The muscles of the cheek were small and shrunken, making the countenance unnaturally small, and arising from want of proper use. I have attended the father. The house is a very neat, well-furnished, and particularly clean house, and there was no sign of poverty, very much otherwise.
Julia Barratt recalled: Betsy used to make lace two or three years ago, but lately only swept up and cleaned about.
Prisoner: Did not I take in sewing?
Witness: She used to take in sewing, sometimes from Miss Jane Parker [Carter in another newspaper report], but not lately. She used to go out when she liked. I have two married sisters. They sometimes came to see father and mother. We girls had to keep on at work, or get a beating when they were gone.
George Kemp sworn: I reside at Woburn, and am a publican. I was employed by Elizabeth Barratt on 30th April to remove furniture. I went to the house at Aspley and removed furniture to Crawley High-fields [from other sources it would appear this was the house of an older child]. There were a great many boxes and drawers all very full and heavy; in the drawers was a great deal of linen. There was one piece of dried bacon weighing, I suppose, 10 or 12 lbs. It hung in the back room. When we had loaded the second time and were starting, Elizabeth Barratt unlocked a box about a foot square and paid me 5s in two half-crowns; whether on purpose or not I don’t know, but I will swear I saw in her hand a great many sovereigns and half-sovereigns, and I should say certainly not less than twenty pieces of gold. She gave me two half-crowns and the man who helped me 3s, and her brother Thomas passing by also saw the gold, and spoke of it as we went along.
[The prisoner, Elizabeth said she had borrowed half a sovereign from her brother, and that was all the gold she had.]
Mrs Mary Heath sworn: I am next door neighbour to the prisoners. I remember these children and the deceased. I very seldom saw them out on the week day. I have heard noises like cruel usage such as beating. I have heard it as early as four in the morning and as late as ten at night. I have not been in the house lately; I did go in a little when they first came. The mother never came to my house; Betsy has been once or twice; I did not meet Betsy out neither. I go to church. Of late prisoners have gone to chapel, which is not above a quarter of a mile off.
By Prisoner: Never had words with the prisoner.
By the Court: They did not behave very well to me some two or perhaps three years ago; we did not exactly quarrel, because I would not speak to them.
William Henry Davies sworn: I am master of the Union-house at Woburn. I received the two children (Charlotte and Julia) on the 2nd of April. I weighted them on the 3rd; Charlotte weighed 46½ lbs, Julia 39 lbs. They had only the ordinary union-house diet, and 28 days after their admission, viz on the 1st of May, I weighed them again, and found as follows, Charlotte 61½ lbs, Julia 54. A month later I weighed them again and found no difference in Charlotte, and only two pounds in Julia.
The prisoners were then called upon for their defence. Susannah Barratt said, “I did my part with my family as far as lay in my power. I went without bread many a day, and only last winter, I went without anything at all for two days that they might not want. What they call barley meal was good oatmeal, course oatmeal when we could get it, and the [illegible] when we could not. It was such as is given to dogs. The two children together did not earn more than £1 in six weeks.”
Elizabeth Barratt muttered something which it was difficult to catch, but harped chiefly on the charge that the children used to cheat in their work.
The father said: I and my little boy used to go out early of a morning, and take our food with me, and go a long way and come home very late, and sometimes not at all for days together. I am a shepherd, and my work took me as far as nine miles at a time away from home. I am a hardworking man; I earned 9s 6d a week, and at times my boy earned as much as 1s 3d a week. All was given to my wife, and so far as I know we don’t owe anybody anything, and yet 3s 6d went of 10s 9d a week for rent and firing, so that we could not have very much to lay out in food for the children (only 7s for seven of us. I always took my money home. I never had a farthing from the children, and had nothing to do with their work or with beating them.
The Jury, after a short consultation, found all the prisoners Guilty, but recommended the father to mercy.
His Lordship, in passing sentence, expressed his perfect concurrence in the verdict and also in the distinction which the Jury had made and which he presumed to be based on the fact that the father could not have had opportunities of knowing the condition and ill-treatment of his children fully, but still must have known these things in part. With regard to the others – one could not but think with the deepest indignation of such conduct from a mother to her child, from an elder sister to her younger sisters; though only one had actually died it was entirely owing to God’s mercy that they were not also in their graves for they came to the workhouse, literally, shocking spectacles. So we were told, and it might be credited from the fact that after a short period of ordinary workhouse food they altered so much for the better, and this fact showed satisfactorily that their emaciated condition was not from something in their constitution which refused to be nourished, but through sheer starvation. Now if this lack of food had arisen from poverty on the part of the father there would have come the question, why did he not apply to the parish, which certainly would have granted some relief to so large a family; and if had been replied that the family were too proud – were struggling (with a bold spirit and not wisely), although we could not have approved of such pride, still the indignation would have been less severe. But what was the fact? From the evidence of two witnesses it appeared that they were rather above than below their position in life in point of comforts and the apparent means of livelihood, so that the cruelty must have proceeded from hardness of heart or the wicked love of hoarding up money. In the case of the poor Ellen that cruelty had resulted in untimely death, and for that death they were now to answer. But he was not empowered to adjudge them to anything like an adequate punishment, yet he should think that wherever they might hereafter go, they would be objects of dislike if not of scorn (and he hoped not) for their cruel deeds to these (and one especially) who ought to have been so dear to them. You, Susannah (continued his lordship) have already passed a large portion of your life, and you Elizabeth, are no longer young, and I do trust that both of you, so long as you shall live, will pass some portion of every day in sincere regret and penitence for the deed you have done, the cruelty of which you have been guilty. The sentence of the court is that Samuel Barratt be imprisoned, with hard labour, for twelve months, and on the others, Susannah and Elizabeth, penal servitude for four years.
The following, taken from the website Victorian Crime and Punishment (http://vcp.e2bn.org/), are the descriptions of the convicted prisoners when they entered Bedford prison in 1856.
Susannah Barratt, aged 64.
Birth town: Warrington [we think this is a mistranscription for Headington, near Oxford].
Trade or occupation: labourer.
Marriage status: married.
Number of children: eleven.
Education: can neither read nor write.
Height 5ft 5½ inches.
Hair colour: grey.
Eye colour: hazel.
Samuel Barratt, aged 65.
Birth town: North Crawley.
Trade or occupation: labourer.
Marriage status: married.
Number of children: eleven.
Education: can neither read nor write.
Height 5ft 7 inches.
Hair colour: grey.
Eye colour: grey.
Identifying marks: Cut mark under left eyebrow and under chin, hair thin on top of head, scars on right knee and leg.
Elizabeth Barratt, aged 28.
Birth town: Aspley Guise.
Residence: Husborne Crawley.
Trade or occupation: lacemaker.
Marriage status: single.
Education: able to read.
Height 5ft ¼ inch.
Hair colour: brown.
Eye colour: grey.