Lace Schools

Lace School at Cranfield, Beds. 1918
Image from Thomas Wright, The Romance of the Lace Pillow, 1919

Lace school pupils started learning at an early age

We do not know when the practice began, but by the mid-19th century it was the custom for most village girls to attend a Lace School, from a very early age – five or six, usually. Here, under the stern eye of the Lace Mistress, they would learn the rudiments of lace making.  There was a common belief that if they didn’t start this young their fingers would never acquire the necessary dexterity to produce lace with the speed and accuracy which was required to make decent money in later life. There may also have been an element of expediency here: with mothers at home trying to make their own lace income whilst managing any number of children, it would have been helpful to have at least some of them occupied elsewhere.


Lace mistresses were paid by parents for lace making tuition

Mothers probably taught their little ones the basics at home before sending them to the lace mistress, who would have received payment per child – sometimes between twenty and thirty children would attend each school. In addition, any money made during their first year at the school would have gone to the mistress. Thomas Wright quotes a lace worker who recalled her early days at lace school:

“When I was five, my mother took me to the lace school, and gave the teacher a shilling. She learnt me for an hour, smacked my head six times, and rubbed my nose on the pin-heads.”


Pupils generally remained illiterate whilst attending lace school

In theory the girls would also learn reading and writing at the schools, but in practice there was neither the aptitude (on the part of the Mistress) nor the enthusiasm (from the parents) for this to happen. There was no practical benefit in girls learning to read and write, when every penny they could make at lacemaking would go to help the family purse. Unfortunately, their illiteracy in later life may well have contributed to their woes when trying to navigate the wily ways of the Tallyman lace dealer.


Methods of training pupils were harsh

The lace school was no picnic. The girls were often required to have bare necks and arms, so that they would really feel the slap which was regularly given as punishment to the messy or the slow. With their hair in tidy plaits, so no stray hair could get worked into the lace, they were not allowed to touch their hair or faces, and had to keep their hands scrupulously clean to avoid tainting the lace. In some villages they would work with a ‘flour bag’ to the left of the pillow, containing flour or starch to dry the hands of the worker. But others viewed this as a shameful practice, and most lace mistresses insisted the only way to keep the lace clean was for the children to keep a piece of cloth for the purpose of wiping their hands.

In some villages, boys as well as girls were sent to lace school, but in Turvey there is little evidence for this. It may be that by the time of the first census in 1841 many villages had abandoned this practice, as the boys were reputed to be ‘spunky’ and ‘obstropulous’ (in addition to being clothed in such a way – smocks – that they didn’t feel the slap on the neck so much). In Turvey, certainly, there is evidence that younger boys were predominantly put to agricultural work.

One of three lace schools in Turvey had been located in Newton Lane

We don’t know the actual location of the lace schools in Turvey, but there is ‘The Old Lace School’ in Newton Lane, which Wright refers to in 1919:

“There were within living memory three lace schools at Turvey, Beds, the position of one of them being indicated by a row of cottages in Nell’s Lane, called “The Lace Cottages”. In front of them is a raised pathway, accompanied by a wooden rail and approached by stone steps. On this eminence a bevy of girls might have been seen any summer day busy with their pillows and bobbins.”

Of course, on a summer day the girls worked outside to benefit from the light, but in winter they worked indoors, in the comparative damp darkness of the cottage. The rule that no candle could be lit until 30 November, St Andrew’s (Tanders) Day, meant the lace mistress could save some money. Once the candle was lit, it was common for up to sixteen girls to share the light of one candle stool (see Establishment of Lacemaking in England), with the best girls placed at ‘first light’ (next to the candle) and the less able relegated to the shadows of ‘fourth light’.


Use of competition and ‘lace tells’ to increase productivity of pupils

The Lace Mistress often used the element of competition to spur the girls on to greater productivity. One scheme was to arrange the girls in two rows, to see which group could be the first to place ‘five score’ pins (100). This was called ‘The Five Score Breakings’, with the girls shouting out how many they had stuck in their pillow, and a counter for each team shouting out “Fewest!” if they got to one hundred first.

The other method of motivating the girls was the chanting of ‘lace tells’ to accompany their work. The most simple tells involved counting down the number of pins they had to place in an hour:

20 miles have I to go,
19 miles have I to go,
18 miles have I to go, etc.

But many tells are far more poetic, with the pins given the name ‘golden girls’ and other elements of the lacemaking process described rather romantically in a ditty:

“A lad down at Olney looked over a wall,
And saw nineteen little golden girls playing at ball,
Golden girls, golden girls, will you be mine?
You shall neither wash dishes nor wait on the swine.
But sit on a cushion and sew a fine seam
Eat white bread and butter and strawberries and cream.”

There is great local variety in the tells, and it’s difficult to say which ones were chanted in Turvey, but the following tell describes the repetitive (and often punishing) experience of attending lace school:

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 twenty are out.

At the end of each school day of ten to twelve hours (Saturday was a half day), each child would cover her pillow, turn her four legged stool upside down and rest her pillow on it, before, no doubt; making a break for the freedom of the fields or the streets.


Impact of The Elementary Education Act of 1870 and The Workshops Act of 1867 on lacemaking

The Elementary Education Act of 1870 was the first of a number of acts of parliament passed between 1870 and 1893 to make education compulsory in England and Wales for children aged between 5 and 13. Lace schools, being schools by name only, did not qualify; as the demise in lacemaking was already in happening at this point the Education Act marked the beginning of the end for the learning of lace as a trade. But the practice persisted and in fact was difficult to eradicate. The Workshops Act of 1867 provided a means of curtailing the activity, but the law was still flouted. This act stipulated that every child under thirteen must attend school for a minimum of ten hours a week, and also that children should not work for more than six and a half hours a day (most men worked an average of nine hours a day). It stated that a child should not be employed unless the employer had a certificate to prove that he or she had attended school for the necessary ten hours a week.


Turvey lace mistress and parents taken to court in 1873 for flouting The Elementary Education Act of 1870 and The Workshops Act of 1867

Keziah Bailey, age 67, was taken to court in Bedford in 1873, attending the Petty Sessions on 5th April. She was a lace mistress accused employing four young girls, and charged in the cases of Mary Wesley and Lily Warren. She had been supplied with a school certificate book, which the school master was supposed to fill out for each child, stating that the requisite hours of school had been attended. The defence argued that a child attending lace school was not in the employ of the mistress, and that the Act did not apply in that case: furthermore:

“The fine might be £3, and he was sure Government never meant to fine a poor woman who earned a penny or two a week by teaching lacemaking for so doing.”

At the same session, other Turvey parents were charged for allowing their children to remain at home making lace, instead of attending school. Joseph Freeman, 40, a labourer, was charged with not causing his daughter Elizabeth to attend school; the fact that the law had not really sunk in by this time led to quite a dispute:

“Mr Redgrave [the inspector] said he visited the defendant’s house on March 26th, when he found the defendant’s daughter, who said she was not at school, engaged in the handicraft of lace-making. Mr Stimson said this was the most monstrous case that he had ever heard. If a man’s daughter makes lace at home, that this man keeps a workshop! It was so absurd… the Act could not mean that a man’s house was a workshop.”

The defendants were required to pay the court costs, although clearly Mr Redgrave, the Inspector, felt that leniency should be the order of the day, as he offered to cover a large portion of the charges himself. Charles Warren, John Wood and John Wooding, all fathers from Turvey, were charged with the same offence on the same day.

One can imagine that this case had a rather salutary effect. Whilst mothers and grandmothers continued to pass on their skills, the combination of changes to the law and the growing dominance of machine made lace meant that lace schools were now on their way out.  In the early 20th century, fears that craft of lacemaking was being lost led to the re-establishment of lace schools in many villages; this time they were more like an after-school class or activity. See the image of girls at a lace school in Cranfield in 1918 – not a bare neck or a tight plait in sight!


1 Thomas Wright, The Romance of the Lace Pillow, 1919 (1982 reprint), p.104.

2 The former name for Newton’s Lane.

3 Wright, p.106.

4 Wright, p.186.

5 Bedfordshire Mercury, 12 April 1873, p.8.

6 Bedfordshire Mercury, 12 April 1873, p.8

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