An overview of Lacemaking in Turvey
Lacemaking introduced by Flemish Protestant and Huguenot refugees
Lace was widely made in Europe before it came to be established in England, and in particular the counties of Beds, Bucks and Northants. The most popular theory to explain its proliferation in Turvey and the surrounding areas stems from the arrival of Huguenot refugees from the Low Countries in the mid-16th century. Fleeing religious persecution in their home countries, the Flemish Protestants and then the Huguenots brought with them their skill for point lace made with bobbins, particularly in the Mechlin style. Thomas Wright, who did much to promote the industry of lace making (and also established the Cowper and Newton Museum in Olney), writes that when the refugees arrived:
They were received with every kindness, and in many towns subscriptions were raised for them. The lace they brought with them was regarded by our countrymen with wonder and admiration.
They settled in particular around Olney, Cranfield, Newport Pagnell and Buckingham, probably because two important local families (the Russell family at Woburn and the Gascoignes of Cardington) were sympathetic to the Protestant cause. The industry quickly established itself, especially after subsequent waves of refugees arrived in the seventeenth century. As time went on, most point lace in this country was made within 30 miles of Olney. Patterns and designs evolved dramatically and the popularity of lace showed no sign of waning; it came to signify taste and luxury. It was an expensive indulgence: Samuel Pepys (writing in 1664) says:
My wife and I fell out about my not being willing to have her gowne laced… At this she flounced away in a manner I never saw her, nor which I could endure… [Then] she tells me in spitefull manner like a vixen and with a look full of rancour that she would go buy a new one and lace it and make me pay for it.2]
Lace was a desirable thing and the fashionable believed that one should be christened in lace, married in lace, bedded in lace and buried in lace.
Its popularity continued well into the nineteenth century. By 1841, the time of the first modern census, over 70 people in Turvey (out of a population of 489) are listed as working in the lace industry (either as lacemakers or dealers). This number is probably much lower than the actual total, as the occupations of children were not consistently recorded, and we know that many children were contributing to the incomes of their families by making lace.
Lacemakers worked long hours for diminishing wages
Despite the prices which lace could fetch, the reward of its bounty was rarely felt by those who made it. Lacemaking is a painstaking business. Punishing on the eyes, the posture and the fingers, it couldn’t be regarded as an easy way to make money (despite Thomas Wright’s optimistic title of his book, there was little ‘romance’ in the day to day grind of making lace). In good times, the trade paid between one shilling and one shilling threepence a day (more than could be earnt by many agricultural labourers). But this was only gained by many hours of labour; Thomas Pennant wrote in 1779:
There is scarcely a door to be seen, during Summer, in most towns [in the area], but what is occupied by some industrious pale-faced lass; their sedentary trade forbidding the rose to bloom in their sickly cheeks.
By the late-18th century, wages had fallen so dramatically that real concern was expressed for the health of those who were making lace. In 1880 William Cowper wrote of the lacemakers in his own town of Olney:
I am an Eye Witness of their poverty and do know that Hundreds of this little Town are upon the Point of Starving and that the most unremitting Industry is but barely sufficient to keep them from it… there are nearly 1200 lace makers in this Beggarly Town.
Lacemakers were particularly affected by the often exploitative practices of lace dealers. They were often dependent on one dealer to buy their goods, who would also supply them with patterns, thread and other materials. The dealers often forced them to take these materials as payment in kind instead of actual money, or else dealers were shopkeepers who gave payment in candles or food. The dealers set the prices they paid for the lace very low, to increase their own profit, and they forced the lacemakers to accept payment in goods at inflated prices, ensuring that little actual money changed hands and the lacemakers would become more and more dependent on them alone.
Joseph Bell writes eloquently about the effect this had on his mother and sisters:
For all their labour and contrivance they were very badly paid. They had to work long days to earn a few pence…by the time they had paid for the hire of their parchment and their cotton they had the handling of very little money indeed but were often in debt – which was often much to their disadvantage, which made them feel very humble and submissive… many of these dealers were what are called ‘Tallymen’. In this way they would get this beautiful lace out of these poor people for a mere nothing… This goes to show how these commercial capitalists had battered and fattened on these poor people.
Worse still, the presence of rural domestic industries like lacemaking (usually undertaken by women, the elderly, children or the infirm) in a village like Turvey had an impact on the wages of many others. It has been shown that ‘male labourers wages were noticeably lower in parishes with female work of any type’, because of an assumption that women and children could earn their own keep. And whereas in other districts women workers would have supplemented their family income by occasional work on the land, here those low-skilled farm jobs were taken by children, usually boys, often as young as seven.
Use of daylight and candle light
When Thomas Tennant wrote of seeing women and girls making lace at their doors, he was describing a sight that would have been typical in Turvey too. Wherever possible, lacemakers looked for natural daylight to work in, which was rarely to be found in their dark, damp and airless cottages. For most of the year they worked outside; one of the reasons they did this was that paying for candles would have wiped out more of their profits. It was common practice that the lacemakers would not light a candle to work by until after Tanders (St Andrew’s) Day on 30 November had passed. A contrivance which was well used was a ‘flash stool’, ‘candle block’ or ‘candle stool’, which ingeniously spread the light of one candle as far as possible, using glass globes filled with water to intensify the brightness. In the lace schools, up to 16 girls would have shared the light of this candle in this way, ranked according to their ability: the most talented sat at ‘first light’, with the less adept relegated to the shadows of ‘fourth light’.
Method to keep lacemakers warm during winter months
The other accessory which made the lives of the lacemakers more bearable was the fire pot (which in some places was known as a Dicky Pot). Because the finest, whitest lace fetched a premium, the lacemakers couldn’t light a fire when they were working indoors in the winter – the smoke would have tainted the quality of their wares. Joseph Bell describes their solution:
Many of the cottages had mud floors, for cooking and warmth they used to burn wood on the hearth. [But] the women and girls working at pillow lace making, to keep themselves warm had what were called “firepots” which were ordinary flower pots filled with wood ashes which they used to buy at the Bakers, and live wood embers; they used to place them beneath their petticoats for warmth.
As most people only had their fires to cook food on, it seems logical to infer that throughout the winter months hot food would have been a rarity in these households.
Mechanical competition to the lacemaking industry
By the middle of the 19th-century, competition from machines further sped the decline of the industry, although many lacemakers continued to try and make a living from the craft. In the 1881 census, over 80 lacemakers are listed, although many of those are over the age of fifty – now that the young girls were required to attend school, fewer were set to work making lace at an early age (although see the article on Lace Schools for evidence that many were flouting the law on this).
Lacemaking continued in Turvey throughout the 20th and into the 21st centuries, although as time went on it was practiced more as a hobby than a trade. In the early 1980s, a group of Turvey women set up a group aimed at resurrecting this dying art; they even attempted to teach the children in the Lower School the basics of the craft. But few people today can comprehend the incredible attention to detail, dexterity and patience required to make even a simple length of lace, let alone summon the perseverance to work at it from dawn until well beyond dusk.
A British Pathé film from 1931 titled “Lace of Long Ago” shows the speed of the maker’s fingers and the intricacy of the design are something to behold – upwards of a hundred bobbins may be used on the most complex designs.
You will find excellent resources, and a superb collection of lace, at the Cowper and Newton Museum in Olney. Click here for more information about their important collection.
More fine examples of lace and related items such as candle stools and firepots can be found in the collection of the Higgins Museum in Bedford.
1 Thomas Wright, The Romance of the Lace Pillow, 1982 reprint (first published 1919), p. 29
2 Samuel Pepys, Diary, 14 March, 1664
3 Thomas Pennant, The Journey From Chester to London, 1779
4 William Cowper, Letter to Joseph Hill, 8 July 1780
5 The Autobiography of Joseph Bell, written 1926, pp. 14-15
6 Pamela Sharpe, Adapting to Capitalism, Palgrave Macmillan 1996, p.59
7 The Autobiography of Joseph Bell, written 1926, p. 13