Tag: lacemakers

The lacemaker and the household in Canaan, Brazil

Guest post by Júlia Brussi, Federal University of Western Pará, Brasil

In late afternoons, when the sun has already “cooled down” and most of the daily domestic activities have been completed, the lacemakers of Canaan, a district of a small town Trairi, in the state of Ceará in the Brazilian Northeast, put their cylindrical pillows in front of their houses. Alone or in small groups, they handle their bobbins and make their laces while appreciating the refreshing breeze coming from the sea. However, that is not the only time of the day that they dedicate themselves to lacemaking. In fact, they use every single break between their many domestic activities to ‘knock’ their bobbins and make progress their lace (BRUSSI, 2015). During the hottest moments of the day, they search for more ventilated and well illuminated spaces in their house to work in, which usually ends up being the backyard or near the main door.

Lacemakers in the afternoon, while they make lace and chat in front of their houses.

The fact that the production of bobbin lace is mainly a domestic activity is evident to every visitor. However, there are less noticeable aspects that reinforce this relation between the domestic space and lacemaking. They range from the reproduction of the knowledge, the access, or the making of the tools involved in lace making to the commercialization of what has been produced.

A preliminary observation in this regard concerns the spatial distribution of the district of Canaan, which is divided in sectors that could be described as family-based, considering the high concentration of a given family relatives within the same neighborhood. Some of these locations are even named after the local family name, as in the “Ally of the Martins”. Such proximity ensures that a support and mutual help network is maintained between the residents of these places, aspects of which are revealed in the management of daily life, in the raising of children, in the production of lace, and in the reproduction of these skills. The relative isolation of some neighborhoods associated with kinship and gift relations that connect their inhabitants, is even reflected in the quality of the lace produced in each location. There is a family, for example, which lacemakers are known for been experts in doing the lace with a finer thread, that involves a more laborious process. Some families distinguish themselves for producing the lace with ‘half stitch’, which makes the process faster, saves thread, and results in a less firm lace. Others worry about doing the lace with the ‘cloth stitch’ considered by them as more well done lace, even considering that it wastes more thread, that it takes longer, and that these two kind of laces will be sold for same amount of money.

The house, besides being the locus of lace production, is also the main socialization space for children. The constant presence of the pillow in the environment and the daily use that lacemakers make of these objects, associated with the rhythmic movement of lacing, the colors of the threads, and the sound of the beat between the bobbins, raises the children’s interest and curiosity. By playing with bobbins, threads and pillows they learn how to handle the tools and, slowly, they incorporate the necessary skills to make lace. The playing and its daily repetition make them develop the ability to perform all gesture and elementary actions ((ROUX & BRIL, 2002) involved in the production of lace. As they grow up and become interested in the activity, girls are slowly introduced to the different processes that involve the production of a piece of lace. Although the bobbin lace can be learned by children of either sexes (and sometimes it is actually learned by boys), in Canaan, it is eminently a feminine activity.

Aunt and niece making lace on the veranda of a house.

Among the skills that must be learnt and trained by the apprentices, in addition to making the actual lace, there are a series of essential activities, such as the collection, production, or maintenance of the instruments necessary for working on the pillow and the commercialization of the finished work. The cotton thread is the only material that the lacemakers buy in the market, whereas bobbins are usually purchased from residents of the district who specialize in this production selling them from door to door. The bobbins are made from the seed of the tucum palm (Bactris setosa), which must be collected, cleaned, sanded, perforated, and affixed to a previously sculpted wooden spindle. The biggest difficulty is being able to access the palm tree, which is increasingly rare to be found around the district. Lace pillows are usually made by the lacemakers themselves, out of the fabrics of old hammocks, as well as the prickings, although there are also people on the district who offer these products. The banana straw, used to fill the pillow, and the thorns, used as pins, are collected in the vicinity of the district, amid native vegetation. These thorns, originating from a characteristic cactus (Cereus jamacaru) from the native vegetation, are collected once a year, during the dry season. The thorns are more advantageous than the pins, as in addition to leaving the household budget untouched, they don’t rust in the salty air of Trairi and thus, they do not run the risk of staining the lace.

Lacemaker in activity, producing one of the eight strips of lace that composes one shirt.

The sale of the finished laces can also be carried out without leaving the domestic space. It is important to highlight that most of the local production of lace is destined for middlemen, who resell it to market traders on the beaches and in the capital of the state, Fortaleza. Many of these middlemen are local residents, most are women, many of whom are lacemakers (active or inactive), whose economic condition allows them to buy laces to be stored and later resold. It is common for them to visit the lacemakers’ house, or to send their emissaries (daughters, cousins, sister-in-law), to find out if there are finished laces or to place specific orders. Each lacemaker maintains contact with a few of these intermediaries and, if necessary, they can use them even to anticipate small amounts of money.

The household therefore occupies a central place in relation to the bobbin lace activity. There, lace and lacemakers grow and constitute themselves mutually. It is worth remembering at this point about the relation Lave and Wengler (1999) established between apprenticeship, social participation and identity. As the authors point out, the learning process does not only involve the development of certain skills, but implies the formation of a “full participant”, a member of the group, a type of person (LAVE & WENGER, 1999, p. 53). As they are trained in the pillow work, the girls also learn lessons about everything that involves being a good lacemaker, in other words, a “good woman” according to the local conception.

Part of this ethics, this way of being in the world specific to lacemakers, is an aspect that is specifically related to the house. The ideal lacemaker is a woman who keeps herself constantly busy, whether with domestic care or with the lace pillow. The sphere of circulation of that woman should primarily be limited to the domestic space and its surroundings. Her time and body should be, for the most part, occupied and limited. In this perspective, lace is a very effective form of social control over women in Canaan. By remaining active on their lace pillows, the girls are under the supervision and control of their relatives and neighbors. They learn that ‘knocking’ their bobbins, and staying productively busy, is better than watching time going by or wandering in the streets. In contrast to home as known and safe place, the street represents a series of dangers from which mainly young women must be kept at distance.

This does not mean, of course, that there isn’t space for individual choices and actions or that every women conform themselves to these perspectives. The foundation of an Association, the Canaan Lacemakers and Farmers Association, focused on the interests of the lacemakers, in 2005, presents two interesting points in this sense. In the first place, it reflects the mobilization of a group of women whose principal aim was to increase the range of their consumers and the value of their sales. With that goal in mind they expanded their area of circulation, took courses, took part in expositions, and traveled to fairs. Many of them had to face the resistance of their families, who took a negative view of their dedication to the Association and the corresponding reduction of their time home. One lacemaker even separated from her husband since he did not accept her participation in the Association. If we look more closely to the group that takes part of this venture, however, we will see how the pressures of the household and gendered ideals are still effective. Most of those lacemakers who play active role in the Association are separated or widowed, and, thus, do not face the greatest source of resistance faced by the others, a husband. Many don’t have little children anymore, which is also a factor that maintains women at home.

Finally, it is important to highlight that every lacemaker, no matter the scope of their daily circulation or their attachment to the house, seeks though lacemaking a moment of distraction, entertainment, pleasure that, at the same time, allows them financial gain and a greater autonomy. We can suppose that lace constitutes both a form of social control and a potential of liberation, which in addition to contributing to the domestic budget, makes them forget their problems and everyday pressures for a while.

References

BRUSSI, Júlia Dias Escobar. “Batendo bilros”: rendeiras e renda em Canaan (Trairi – CE). Tese de Doutorado, Programa de Pós-Graduação em Antropologia Social da Universidade de Brasilia. Brasília, 2015.

LAVE, Jean; WENGER, Etienne. Situated learning: legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999. (Learning in doing).

ROUX, Valentine; BRIL, Blandine. Observation et expérimentation de terrain : des collaborations fructueuses pour l’analyse de l’expertise technique. Le cas de la taille de pierre en Inde. In: ROUX, Valentine; BRIL, Blandine (Ed.). Le geste technique: réflexions méthodologiques et anthropologiques. Ramonville Saint-Agne: Editions Erès, 2002. p. 29–48.

Making Lace in Central Slovakia

Doing fieldwork amongst bobbin lace makers in the Central Slovak villages of Staré Hory and Špania Dolina in the mid- to late 2000s, I was faced with an unexpected paradox: when speaking to me, artisans would present their craft work as a pleasurable hobby, then as menial labour, and later as a dangerously addictive obsession. In the very same conversation, I was told that making lace was ‘work’ and a way of ‘making do’ in times of economic hardship, and barely a breath later artisans would claim that craft practice was nothing more than a personal indulgence and a ‘labour of love’. Artisans seemed equally ambivalent in their descriptions of their experience of making lace itself. They would emphasize the emotional and therapeutic aspects of craft practice, and then warn me that it could develop into an obsessive ‘sickness’ or a kind of nervous disorder for which there was no cure. The process of making was described in terms of mastery and control, but also in terms of submission brought on by a seduction of the craftswoman by her own tools.

 The lace making village of Spania Dolina in Central Slovakia.

Weaving lace, I was often told, is an emotional experience. This was most eloquently expressed by the lace maker I call Hana Majerová, who saw her special relationship with the craft as stemming from her memories of family life in the village of Staré Hory:

……very few of the women who do it today, have developed such an emotional relationship with it as I have, literally emotional, because for me, just the sound of the lace making, for me it is magical. It…already when my grandmother used to do it and I sat beside her as a child, it……is peace and quiet. And that is why I have a very good relationship to it, because….today, when people run, fly about, chase each other around, they don’t have time and I can afford to – quietly, with calm nerves and a calm soul – just sit and work.

Hana expressed the opinion that women in lace making clubs pursued technical perfection for its own sake, and that they could not have such an emotional bond with the craft because they had no kinship connections to the lace making communities in Staré Hory or Špania Dolina. Yet, I found that regardless of their family background, the vast majority of lace makers presented lacemaking as evoking emotion. I found that many of my informants fell into lace making a time of change or crises in their lives. Women continually pointed out that it ‘took the mind off’ marital problems or the grief at the loss of relative:

(And when you started, what interested you in it?) I’ll tell you, when you want to make lace, you have to concentrate on it, especially when you are a beginner as I was. And all your worries are set aside. When my husband was very ill, I cried all day, but when you make lace, you have to concentrate on that work… concentration on something else.

A characteristic description of the effect of intense sessions of lace making was the loss of the sense of time passing. Apart from making them ‘forget the time’, lace makers also told me that while making lace, there were periods when they lost awareness of what was going on around them. The American-Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has described this experience as a state of ‘flow’. Characteristic of this ‘flow’ sensation, is that the actor – completely engrossed in their activity – concentrates on the skills needed to perform the task and the limitations and possibilities presented within, reflecting little on what may happen around them. I found that learning a new stitch or a new pattern was well-known a source of such a ‘flow’ experience for local lace makers. As the lace maker Jana Horvathová recounted:

And this, when I was learning………I couldn’t learn the half stitch. The lady who taught me would ask ‘What are you doing?’ And I (would say) ‘I’m undoing again’. And now look how nice it is! I like doing it now. And I was giving up, ‘I won’t do it’ I said.

The pleasure with which Jana described how she finally learned the half-stitch illustrates how the acquisition of skill was experienced emotionally. Jana had quite literally mastered the half-stitch because it was only when she was no longer engaged in a frustrating battle with bobbins and thread which did not respond to her efforts that she experienced the ‘flow’ sensation which followed confidence in craft activity.

 A lace maker from the village of Stare Hory, Central Slovakia, shows off a lace tablecloth.

Mastery, therapy, and control, however, were only some of the terms which lace makers used to articulate the emotional outcome of their tactile involvement with their pillow. Indeed, compulsion and obsession emerged as the ‘darker side’ of craft work in my conversations with them: there was apparently a constant danger that the therapeutic value of lace making could be subverted and rather than the lace maker gaining control over the process, it would force her into submission. All my informants described lace making as their love, but also as a curse. Craftswomen warned beginners – half mockingly, half seriously – that lace making is a ‘sickness’ which will never release them once they have come under its spell. Several lace makers told me that they became ‘unwell’ if they did not have an ongoing project pinned on their pillows at all times. This meant that they suffered from a sorts of nervous frustration which could only be mitigated by vigorous activity:

I feel totally sick if I can’t work [make lace]. Sick. I cook, I clean and clean.

Receiving new designs, lace makers described themselves as grabbed by an irresistible urge to execute it, and stubbornly refused to complete other tasks before they had mastered it. Upon encountering a problem, they stayed up long after the rest of the family had retired to bed to battle it out with the pillow, or found they could not rest:

Well, when I have a new pattern, I get up at five in the morning. It won’t (leave me alone), I have to get up. To see whether I can master it or I can’t master it.

This submission seemed not only to have a pleasurable aspect, but also an addictive power. The un-worked pillow often came up in conversation as a picture of seduction, the pillow itself often being treated as the lace maker’s partner (or adversary) in the process of production. It was not unusual for artisans to stroke (or hit) and speak to their pillows (‘Sit still’! or ‘Now, look what you have done’!).

The author making lace while doing fieldwork.

Lace makers were keen to emphasize the pleasurable aspects of lace making (the paired aspects of therapy and submission). However, as I befriended different artisans, I began to hear them speak of craft activity in much more instrumental terms:

Well, in the summer I don’t make much anyway, when it is so hot, your hands sweat. (So one can work better in the winter?) Yes! (But there isn’t any light?) During the day I work 2-3 hours, and then again in the evening…Everywhere the light has to be turned on at 4 – 5 o’clock, so I work until 9 – 9:30, but only with the white thread. I can’t work with the dark ones, because that is [too much] on the eyes.

Jozefina Mišíková was a lively elderly lady, who at the age of 70 began selling her lace by renting stands at folk festivals and seasonal markets across the country. Mišíková reasoned that she was lonely after her husband’s death, but also that she needed an extra income to supplement her meagre old age pension. Despite her advanced age, she was not only willing to travel several hundreds of kilometres to attend festivals, but she was also a very astute saleswoman, quickly mapping which festivals were worth attending, as well as the tastes of various groups of clients. Mrs Mišíková’s efforts to gain a small income from her craft work were not unique: Whether in Banská Bystrica town, or in the villages of Špania Dolina and Staré Hory, lace making emerged as a way of ‘making do’, that is, of supplementing the income from employment, old age pensions, and social benefits. For some informants, like the 26-year-old designer Jaroslava Genderová, who worked for a local clothing manufacturer in Banská Bystrica, ‘making do’ through lace making was a vital part of the family’s domestic economy – the manufacturer she was working for was limping towards bankruptcy and owed her several months wages. As another lace maker living in Špania Dolina told me: Well in this day and age every crown is precious. I don’t mean just for me, but for the other ladies too, for everyone.

The history of lace making as cottage industry in the villages of Špania Dolina and Staré Hory means that the craft has always been associated with the need for ‘making do’ in these communities:

(So you learned how to make lace as a small child?) Yes, probably about at the age of 9. I started working then……every day, I had to make such two-three forms (worth), and then mother went to sell it, when there were 5 meters. Because that is how we made our living. Father was always ill. So, my mother worked and I did too, she taught me.

This lace maker’s description of her childhood in the 1940s was typical of that of many of my elderly village informants. The association of lace making with poverty alleviation was further strengthened after the Communist Party’s collectivisation of craft work through the ÚĽUV2 and the organisation Kroj (literally ‘folk costume’), in the early 1950s. As one of my lace making teacher told me:

We used to get orders for holidays, where it had to be done, Sunday, not Sunday, holidays no holidays, it had to be done. So many times I worked all of a Sunday or holiday, so I could get it done. She knew who would do it. (Did they pay more?) No, well they did, but not much. You got more for being able to do more and more complicated (designs). I tried. Those who didn’t need to, didn’t.

Ana Paličková’s statement that ‘(t)hose who didn’t need to, didn’t’ take on difficult orders reveals a pragmatic attitude contrasted to women’s propensity to call their lace making a ‘hobby’ or ‘obsession’ at face value. Moreover, Mrs Paličková’s comment shed light on the apparently addictive nature of lace making practice: It not only suggested that craftswomen were able to resist its seductive aspects, but that lace makers highlighted various aspects of their craft practice according to the context in which it is spoken of. For example, the lace maker Dagmar Babjaková described lace making both as an obsessive hobby (‘Well, when I have a new pattern, I get up at five in the morning. It won’t (leave me alone), I have to get up’) and a source of income (‘Well, in this day and age every crown is precious’). Pleasure and pragmatism, just like submission and mastery, were not incompatible, but appeared to be used instrumentally by craftswomen in conversation.

When I left the Slovakia and began writing up my findings, I assumed that the experience of lace making as both a pleasurable hobby and as drudgery was unique to the Slovak environment – that is was the result of the harsh economic climate following the end of communism, alongside specific local traditions of domesticity, ideals of femininity, and traditions of lace making as a way for women to supplement the income of their male family members (fathers, husbands, brothers, sons). And yet, when studying the historical experience of lace makers in England in the 19th and early 20th centuries, I found that craftswomen expressed many of the very same mixed feelings of enjoyment, obsession, and distaste towards the craft (see the blog post: Pleasure and Pain: What can lace makers’ tools tell us about their lives?). This begs the question of whether – and to what extent – such feelings are the result of the experience of craft work itself, and how much this experience of making is itself influenced by the social and cultural context in which it takes place.

[All names have been changed to preserve the privacy of the participants]

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.

Sylvia Pankhurst’s Support for Lacemakers

Sylvia Pankhurst, c. 1909

Unlike some of the other personages we’ve discussed on this site, Sylvia Pankhurst (1882-1960) probably needs little introduction.  Daughter of Emmeline, sister of Christabel and Adela, Sylvia was an artist, a suffragist, a political radical, and deeply involved in anti-fascist and anti-colonial movements between the wars.  She was also interested in lace and lacemakers, as we learnt from Joan Ashworth at a recent conference.  (Joan is making a film called Locating Sylvia Pankhurst.)[1]  For Sylvia, the concerns of working women should have been at the heart of the women’s suffrage campaign, a position that led to a split with her mother Emmeline and sister Christabel, and her expulsion in 1914 from the Women’s Social and Political Union.  She had already demonstrated her interest in women’s work in 1907, when she toured England and Scotland, drawing and interviewing women employed in the potteries, boot and shoe manufacture, the coal industry, chain-making, herring-gutting, and agricultural activities.  She may have envisaged that this would lead to a full-length book, but this never came to fruition; instead articles appeared in magazines, including an illustrated article on ‘Women Workers of England’ in the London Magazine (1908).[2]

It is possible that she had considered including pillow-lace makers in this project.  Domestic women workers were the object of concerted social and philanthropic campaigning in the first decade of the twentieth century, and in these campaigns the fate of the women chain-makers of Cradley Heath was repeatedly linked to that of lacemakers in England and elsewhere.  The same period also witnessed a moderately successful attempt to revive the lace industry and Emily Hobhouse, a campaigner on behalf of Boer civilian prisoners in South Africa, obviously thought Sylvia knew about this because she asked her (c. 1903-4) for lace patterns.[3]  However, no pictures or notes of interviews with lacemakers survive from this period.

The article below was written later, probably around 1929.  Whether it was ever published I have been unable to establish but the typescript appears among her papers now held by the International Institute of Social History, where they are available online.[4]  This is not, it has to be said, a ground-breaking piece of journalism.  In fact, its entire contents are lifted, sometimes verbatim, from Thomas Wright’s Romance of the Lace Pillow (1919).  (The ‘Mrs’ – in fact Mr Harry – Armstrong mentioned at the end of the article also published that book.)[5]  We suspect, therefore, that there never was such as person as ‘Lydia Arkwright’, rather she was a character invented on which to hang various elements of lace lore.  Certainly we have not been able to identify any lacemaker alive in the 1920s with that name.

Nonetheless, we thought it worth including the article on this site because it illustrates just how widespread concern was for the survival of the handmade lace industry.  Sylvia Pankhurst was a socialist, for a while a member of the Communist Party, but her article recapitulates all the themes that aristocratic and clerical patrons of lacemaking used to promote the trade, such as the idealized cottage with birds fluttering around the door and the happy singers in the lace school.  In the first half of the twentieth century, the survival of women’s rural craft traditions was a topic that could unite both left and right of the political spectrum, just as did the ‘arts and crafts’ aesthetics which were so important to the lace revival.

Old Lace

Old Lydia Arkwright sits at her cottage door, plying her pins and bobbins, producing on her pillow the choicest of filmy lace, more exquisite than gems.  The birds flutter round her, confidently pecking up the crumbs she never omits to scatter for them.  Her bobbins are rosewood, well wrought by the bobbin maker from her own trees; but in the press over there is a box of pretty bone bobbins she never uses, cunningly carved and daintily lettered in red and blue, with tender inscriptions, as was the custom of her youth: ‘Lydia Dear’, ‘I wish to wed and love’, ‘My mind is fixed; I cannot range: I love my choice too well to change’.

Her fingers fly, her old voice, quavering, croons the lace-working songs, ‘lace tells’ as they are called:

‘Wallflowers, wallflowers, growing up so high,
All young maidens surely have to die…’

Each tells [sic] calls up some memory of her youth; this one she first heard her first day at the lace school, a tiny wench, only five years old, her poor little face distorted with weeping, for her parents were newly dead of the small-pox.  She had a shelter with her father’s old aunt, but must learn to work for her bread.  So small she was, and woefully ‘unkid’, as the lace folk termed anyone abjectly miserable as she was.  She evoked compassion, for an instant, even in the stern breast of the lace-mistress, petrified as it was by hard toil and grasping for meagre gain.

Rows of little lace girls in clean print dresses, with low necks and short sleeves, their hair in tight plaits, lest any tress should defile the lace were ‘sot’ demurely on stools, on either side of long benches, whereon the lace pillows rested.  The mistress, her keen glance comprehending all, sat clutching her cane in long yellow fingers, ready to chastise the smallest fault with a stroke on those little bare necks and arms.  She gave the forlorn new-comer some bobbins to ‘halse’, and when her sad tears fell on the sacred thread, forgetting all pity, struck her six times over the head, and rubbed her face on the pins.  Poor Lydia proved a diligent pupil, none the less, and as time passed, son [sic. won?] sometimes a good word, and even a little prize from the crabbed old mistress.

The boys, in their smocks, were kept apart from the docile girls; a ‘spunky’ lot they were, getting up to larks and wasting the thread, often playing truant, ‘homesking’ [? illegible] over the fields or ‘scelching’ in the bank by the brook.  She remembered Jack Croft, after a stroke of the cane, ran out of the school and flung his pillow down the well!  What a to-do there was!  No wonder the lace schools charged 4d a week to train a lad, only 2d for a girl.

When the children had grown proficient, they worked ten hours a day for sixpence a week, paid out to them monthly.  They had to stick 600 pins per hour, and if they were five pins short at the end of the day, must work another hour.  When the short winter days drew in, there was neither gas nor electric light to work by, nor so much as an oil lamp; even candles were short.  As many lace makers as possible, often three rings of them, on stools of different heights, sat round a candle-block, with a tall tallow candle burning in the centre and around it inverted flasks fo water, which focussed the little flame of the candle on to the lace cushions.  It was a poor gleam at best, and it was a harsh punishment indeed to be kept in to work by it before the usual season.  They worked hard to get done before dusk, inciting each other to persevere by an appropriate ‘tell’, one row of children singing:

‘19 miles to the Isle of Wight;
Shall I get there by candle-light?’

The next row replied:
‘Yes, if your fingers are lissom and light,
You’ll get there by candle-light.’

Even in the coldest weather, the lace school was unheated.  The only means of keeping warm was to place close to one’s feet, and even under one’s skirts, a ‘fire pot’ of rough earthenware, resembling the scaldino used in Italy, filled each morning with glowing wood-ashes at the baker’s, for the cost of a farthing, and revived occasionally by the bellows.  Sometimes there was a cry: ‘I smell burn!’  Somebody’s petticoat was singed!

It was a hard striving existence for the young, and after they were free of the lace school, there was the ‘baby pillow’ at home, on which the children could earn a few pence more.

Yet what days they were for mirth and jest!  If a girl ran short of pins, she would go round the room with a snatch of song:

‘Polly or Betsy, a pin for the poor!
Give me a pin and I’ll ask for no more.’

On hot summer days they were allowed to take their work outside, and in the joy of youth, they entered into merry contests, sometimes individually, sometimes row against row, competing to place a given number of pins in the shortest time.  And ever and anon, their voices joined in the numberless ‘tells’:

‘Needle pin, needle pin, stitch upon stitch,
Work the old lady out of the ditch.
If she is not out as soon as I
A rap on the knuckles shall come by and by,
A horse to carry my lady about —
Must not look off till 20 are out.’

Then they all counted twenty pins, and if anyone looked up before he or she had done, the others shouted:

‘Hang her up for half an hour;
Cut her down just like a flower.’

The offender would hastily put in the final pins and retort:

‘I won’t be hung up for half an hour,
I won’t be cut down like a flower.’

What times they had on ‘Tanders’, St. Andrews Day, November 30th, which was the lace-makers’ holiday, for St. Andrew was regarded as their patron Saint.  On that day people met in ‘one another’s housen’, and partook of ‘no-candy’, framenty [sic] (wheat boiled in milk and flavoured with spice), and hot, spiced metheglin, made from washing the honeycomb.  Even the lace mistress became genial and bade them invite their friends to join the merrimaking at the school.  In the height of the fun she would come in with a fire pot of metheglin held high in either hand, crying ‘Tan, my boys, Tan!’  When she left the room to get more, they would lock her out, and sung as she shook the door in pretended wrath:

‘Pardon mistress, pardon master,
Pardon for a pin!
If you won’t give us a holiday
We won’t let you in!’

Then the fiddles struck up, and the boys and girls danced round the candle-block, singing:

‘Jack, be nimble, Jack, be quick,
Jack, jump over the candlestick.’

inserting the name of every boy and girl in turn.  Whoever was named must essay the jump over the lighted candle and all.!

The blades were removed from the bobbin winder, and suspended by a cord from one of the beams.  On the pins of the blade were stuck pieces of apple and candle alternately.  The young folk, blindfolded in turn, essayed to bite the apple, and, to the merriment of the spectators, often bit the candle.

Catterns, St. Catherine’s day, was another festival.  The bellman went round before daybreak, calling:

Rise, maids, rise,
Bake your Cattern pies;
Bake enough and bake no waste
And let the bellman have a taste.’

The lace-makers worked hard to finish work by noon, and then ‘wet’ the candle-stool, as they said, by taking tea together with Cattern cakes.  After dancing to the fiddle, they supped on apple pie, ginger-bread, ‘wigs’ flavoured with caraway seed, and drank warm beer, spiced and mixed with rum and beaten eggs.

On Shrove Tuesday, the Parish Clerk rang the ‘Pancake Bell’ at eleven, and the women ran out of their cottages, striving to be first to offer him a pancake fresh from the pan.

Village history wove itself into the tells.  There was one Lydia learnt from her great aunt of a girl whose faithless love, ‘the Fox’, enticed her to meet him in the wood at night, and with an accomplice designed to murder and bury her there.

19 miles as I sat high,
Looking for one, and two passed by;
I saw them that never saw me —
I saw the lantern tied to a tree.

The boughs did bend and the leaves did shake;
I saw the hole the Fox did make.
The Fox did look, the Fox did see
I saw the hole to bury me.’

Folk songs they call such ditties, viewing them as remote and strange, but old Lydia knows they are not mere phantasy; behind each one there lies a poignant human history.  There was a tragic, true story, sung, in a lace tell, about the neighbouring villages in her girlhood, which well she knows, but never sings; it touches her too nearly.  Because of that story, the pretty bone bobbins lie idle in their box and Lydia Arkwright is a spinster yet.

XX XXXXXX

Lace makers ply their lovely craft in Bucks, Beds, Northants and Huntingdon. The fine old patterns, which once fell into disuse, have been revived, above all those of the exquisite Bucks Point, the acorn, the tulip, the carnation, wedding bells, and running river, which age can never stale.  At Olney, the Bucks cottage lace-makers work on the pillow as they did in the days of Katharine of Arragon, who is said to have introduced the industry.  A postcard to Mrs Armstrong of the Bucks Cottage Workers’ Association, Olney, will bring particulars to hand.

 

[1] http://locatingsylviapankhurst.com/index.html

[2] This project is discussed on http://www.sylviapankhurst.com/sylvia_the_artist/women_workers_of_england_project.php

[3] E. Sylvia Pankhurst, The Suffragette Movement: An Intimate Account of Persons and Ideas (London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1931), pp. 178-9.  Hobhouse returned to South Africa in 1905 under the auspices of the Boer Home Industries and Aid Society to set up classes in spinning and other female domestic manufacture: perhaps lace was meant to be part of this programme.

[4] IISH, Estella Sylvia Pankhurst Papers, box 164: https://search.socialhistory.org/Record/ARCH01029/ArchiveContentList#293

[5] On Harry Armstrong and the Bucks Cottage Workers Association see http://www.mkheritage.org.uk/odhs/full-list-of-elizabeth-knights-articles/my-introduction-to-the-lacemaking-pages/harry-armstrong-and-the-bucks-cottage-workers-agency/

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).

 

The Barratts of Aspley Guise: Some Further Information

Readers of our previous piece on the death of Ellen Barratt, lacemaker of Aspley Guise, might be interested to know what happened to the various participants in that affair.

Let us first return to the 1851 census for Aspley Guise, to establish the membership of the household.  Samuel Barratt, 62, a shepherd born at North Crawley Buckinghamshire, was the head; his wife, Susannah [née Davis? They were married in 1819], 60, was a lacemaker born at Headington near Oxford.  The family then living in the house included their daughters Elizabeth 24, Ann 22, Susannah 17, Eliza 13, Ellen 11, Charlotte 9 and Julia 7, all described as lacemakers.  There were also two sons, Benjamin 15 and Thomas 5.  Some older siblings had already left home.  Note the ages of the youngest children compared to that of the mother; is it possible that these were actually the offspring of one of the older sisters?  That might account for what appears to be the different treatment meted out to them.

1860, Bedfordshire Times and Independent, Charlotte Barratt of Woburn convicted of theft detail

1860, Bedfordshire Times and Independent, Charlotte Barratt of Woburn convicted of theft detail

Using the resources of www.ancestry.co.uk, we (or rather Brenda Hopkin, who we have to thank for most of this information) have been able to trace some members of this household.  Of course there is the danger of making false links — the fact that someone had the right(ish) name and age and lived in the same place does not necessarily make them the same person.  For example, an Eliza Barratt was convicted at Bedford of stealing 1 sovereign and 2 shillings from her master, Joseph Fearn, landlord of the Sun Inn in Leighton Buzzard in 1857; the subsequent year the same Eliza Barratt (though in the papers she appears as Barrett) was convicted at Aylesbury of stealing half a pound of suet, worth 3 pence, from Samuel Tavernor of Linslade, for which she got twelve months hard labour (we repeat: suet worth 3 pence).  It seems plausible that this is the older sister of Ellen Barratt, but we cannot at the moment prove it.  Nonetheless, in what follows we have tried to ensure that we have been tracing the actual participants in the manslaughter case.

Elizabeth Barratt, one of the persons responsible for Ellen’s death, seems to have survived her four years of penal servitude because we find her in the 1861 census living with her elder sister, Ann, a lacemaker, in Linslade.  By the time of the 1871 census she was married to Daniel Pratt, a carter, and living in Leighton Buzzard.  The pair had married in 1868 and had at least one child, Mary.  (Elizabeth may then have been living as a servant in Leighton Buzzard, as a woman of that name, servant to Mr Lockhart appears as a witness in a case of embezzlement.)  Elizabeth had, by 1871, given up lacemaking for straw plaiting.  She died in 1877, aged 49.

Charlotte Barratt, the lead witness at the trial, was convicted, aged eighteen, of stealing a purse containing thirty shillings, a chisel and a table knife from Charles Clare of Woburn on 23 June.  At her trial in Bedford she was described as a lacemaker, and the report in the Bedfordshire Times and Independent for 7 July 1860 records the workhouse superintendent Mr Young as saying “the prisoner was in a destitute condition, and he did not believe that she was quite right in her head.”  She was sentenced to three months’ imprisonment.  We can be fairly certain of our identification in this case because the plaintiff, Charles Clare, was the husband of Charlotte’s sister Ann.  After this date we can find no definite trace of her.

Julia Barratt, the second witness at the trial, was, by the time of the 1861 census, a servant to John Giddings, a chemist in Gallowtree Gate in Leicester. Thereafter we also lose sight of her.

Susannah Barratt, the older sister of Charlotte and Julia, who confirmed their evidence at the committal proceedings, appeared in the census of 1861 as a house-servant to Robert Riddall, clockmaker of Woburn.  In 1871 she was a still a servant, though now for the Woburn schoolmaster William Robert.  Thereafter we also lose track of her.

Given the family’s history with the law it is interesting to note that the younger brother of the lacemaking siblings, Thomas Barratt (now Barrett), moved to London and became a police sergeant in Chelsea.

Lacemakers in the News: The Death of Ellen Barratt, Aspley Guise, Bedfordshire, 1856

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)

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.

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.

.

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.

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.

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?
Witness: Yes.
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.

Visage: oval.

Complexion: fresh

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.

Visage: long.

Complexion: fresh.

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.

Visage: oval.

Complexion: Fresh.

.

 

English Lacemakers in Fiction: Mrs Caroline Barnard’s ‘The Prize: or The Lace-makers of Missenden’ (1817)

As far as we know, Caroline Barnard’s The Prize: or The Lace-Makers of Missenden (1817) is the only substantial work of British fiction that is set entirely among lacemakers.

The novels of Caroline Barnard (possibly a pseudonym) were part of a wave of improving literature which swept through British culture at the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth centuries.  Many of the writers were associated with the revivalist Evangelical movement in the Church of England, and many were women.  The most famous name associated with this literature is Hannah More (1745-1833), whose prodigious output of “Cheap Repository” tracts taught “the poor in rhetoric of most ingenious homeliness to rely upon the virtues of content, sobriety, humility, industry, reverence for the British Constitution, hatred of the French, trust in God and in the kindness of the gentry” (as the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica put it).  

Barnard’s rather smaller canon was similar in tone and, like More’s, was in part aimed at a juvenile market.  The title of her first book was The Parent’s Offering (1813, and labelled as “Intended as a companion to Miss Edgeworth’s Parent’s assistant”, a reference to Maria Edgeworth, another female novelist, moralist and educationalist).  Her Lace-makers of Missenden was recommended as suitable for ten to sixteen year olds by another exemplar and champion of female education, Elizabeth Lachlan (née Appleton, c. 1790-1849): “A very engaging work, and worthy of being placed in the child or youth’s library, with his best authors.  Nothing of the kind can be more interesting than the progress of this beautiful, simple story, and the moral is perfect, as the conclusion is satisfactory.”

The frontispiece to Barnard’s The Prize depicts the prize-giving ceremony, and the moment when it appears that Rose’s rival Rachel Skinner will carry off the prize for the best lace

The frontispiece to Barnard’s The Prize depicts the prize-giving ceremony, and the moment when it appears that Rose’s rival Rachel Skinner will carry off the prize for the best lace

Like Hannah More’s famous The Shepherd of Salisbury Plain (1795), Barnard’s stories were often set among the rural working class.  The poor could give moral lessons to the rich because, as the Reverend Legh Richmond, another of these Evangelical writers, explained, “Among such, the sincerity and simplicity of the Christian character appear unencumbered by those obstacles to spirituality of mind and conversation which too often prove a great hindrance to those who live in the higher ranks.”  However such books were also intended as a means of controlling the growing numbers of literate labourers.  With the radicalism of the 1790s still very much in mind, and aware of growing labour unrest again at the end of the Napoleonic Wars, middle and upper class commentators were concerned that the fabric of the social order was fraying.  They feared revolution, and were attempting to inoculate the population with Christian morality.  The message of Barnard’s The Prize – that one should not aspire above one’s station, and one should avoid new-fangled ideas coming from the cities – chimed exactly with this generally conservative political outlook.  

Given these characteristics it is perhaps surprising that Mary Shelley (née Godwin) – daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft, wife of the radical poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and author of Frankestein – has been put forward as the real author lurking behind the pseudonym “Mrs Caroline Barnard”.  The identification is most forcibly articulated by Emily Sunstein, and other Shelley scholars have proved sceptical.  It is true that Barnard was published by Mary’s father, William Godwin; it is also true that the Shelleys moved to Marlow (Buckinghamshire), not too far from Missenden, in 1816, and while there took an interest in the lives of the local lacemakers.  Mary wrote later, “Marlow was inhabited (I hope it is altered now) by a very poor population. The women are lacemakers, and lose their health by sedentary labour, for which they were very ill paid… The changes produced by peace following a long war, and a bad harvest, brought with them the most heart-rending evils to the poor.  Shelley afforded what alleviation he could.”  Admittedly the case for identifying Mary Shelley as Caroline Barnard is circumstantial at best, but it is intriguing to find in the diary of her equally scandalous step-sister, Claire Claremont, that when the Shelley ménage was at Bagni di Pisa, on 19 August 1820, she was reading The Parent’s Offering.

Although its characters exist largely to illustrate moral lessons, The Prize is quite a lively read, and demonstrates some knowledge of the lace business.  The protagonists are Rose Fielding, fifteen, and her younger sister Sally, who have to support their invalid and widowed mother and their grandmother through their lacemaking.  The grandmother had, in her youth, won a prize for lace, “the finest bit of lace that has ever been made in all Buckinghamshire!” as she never fails to remind her granddaughters.  The prize was awarded by Lady Bloomfield whose patronage encouraged the lace industry, but “my lady Bloomfield is dead, and times are altered now, and girls are growing idle and good for nothing.”  Grandmother’s grumbles are directed less at Rose, who is utterly dutiful and conscientious, than at Sally, who though she promises to make a yard of edging a day (at two shillings a yard), is constantly distracted, her lace gets dusty and her bobbins tangled.

The main source of distraction is the unkempt, gossipy and superstitious shopkeeper Mrs Rogers, and her niece Eliza Burrows, recently arrived from “Lonnon” to set up a millinery business in the village shop, now advertising the “newest fashion, from the most elegantest varehouse in all Lonnon”.  Eliza quite turns Sally’s head with her “Wellington hat” and “Spanish cloak”, “epaulets” and “hussar sleeves” (fashions brought back with the victorious army from the Peninsula), and the promise that “you was intended to be genteel”.  In vain does Rose warn her sister that “you are not a lady, nor ever will be, and that therefore you need not try to look like one”.

Also recently arrived in the village is the new squire, Sir Clement Rushford and his bride.  Unlike their immediate predecessors – respectively a miser and wastrel – the Rushfords interest themselves in the life of the village.  Lady Rushford and her niece Letitia Lenox take Rose Fielding under their wing.  Inspired by the stories of Granny Fielding, the Rushfords re-establish not only the lace school in the village, but the lace Prize.  But if the lace produced on her pillow had not reached the regulation length by Prize Day, the girl’s name would be struck off the school list.  Rose, “a main good hand at her pillow” is presumed the most likely winner, though she has a rival in the form of sulky Rachel Skinner.  But Rose is distracted both by teaching a neighbouring pauper child to read and by having to finish her sister’s lace as well as her own (for despite Sally’s claim that “I have never yet looked off my work from the time I have begun of a day”, her length is only half done).  Come the moment of truth, the judges – not the gentry but local expert lacemakers – acknowledge Rose’s skill but report her lace fell short by two or three yards (consternation all round and hysterics from Granny).  However, it turns out that wicked Eliza had stolen four yards of Rose’s lace to trim a “Regency ‘elmet” she intended to wear to a “melo-drame” performed by the officers of the 58th regiment garrisoned at Amersham.  All is discovered, Eliza is dispatched back to London as “not fit for the country”, and Rose receives the Prize, “A SILVER TIME-PIECE”, engraved with Lady Rushford’s name.  And to cap it all, Letitia’s father, Dr Lenox, announces he can cure widow Fielding of her lameness.  

The moral of this story almost matches every characteristic of More’s tracts, including the “the kindness of the gentry”.  However, Barnard is careful to show that there are irresponsible gentry just as there are undeserving cases among the poor.  The Rushfords renew a social contract that had been unfulfilled for two generations.  Lace, it appears, has always been an appropriate target for aristocratic benevolence.  When, much later in the nineteenth century, the lace associations were founded by leisured, titled ladies to preserve the virtues of domestic industry, they were reviving a tradition of philanthropy, not inventing it.  One wonders what they might have been reading in their formative years.

Barnard’s The Prize: or the Lacemakers of Missenden is freely available to read thanks to Google Books.

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén