Straw Plaiting

Demand for straw hats and bonnets

We know that Turvey was on the edge of the straw plaiting industry which centred on Luton, Dunstable and St Albans from the early seventeenth century onwards. By the eighteenth century straw hats and bonnets, previously worn mostly by country people, had become much more fashionable in the population at large; when plaited straw imports from Italy were embargoed during the Napoleonic Wars the hat makers became more dependent on local plaiters and the local industry really took off.

The chalky soil of the Chiltern hills was particularly suited to growing the tall, thin straw which was ideal for plaiting. The straw was plaited by pieceworkers based in numerous towns and villages, spread over a wide area of Beds, Herts and Bucks. The completed plaits would then have been sent to the great centres of the hat industry, especially Luton, to be made into bonnets or hats. The straw would have passed through several hands before it even reached the plaiters: the drawer, stripper, sorter and bleacher would all play their part in making the raw material ready. The plaiters would have depended on dealers to buy their work and provide them with necessary supplies.

By the 19th century plaiting had become a sought after occupation

In the early nineteenth century the industry was incredibly important to Bedfordshire and surrounding counties and a good plaiter could earn £1 a week, more than double the going agricultural wage of 6 to 8 shillings. Concern was expressed when the industry was at its height that it was impossible to find servants or agricultural workers, because the potential rewards were so much greater for plaiters, according to Arthur Young in 1804:

The farmers complain of it, as doing mischief, for it makes the poor saucy, and no servants can be procured, where this manufacture establishes itself.

Once the Italian imports returned and the process became more mechanised, there was a steady decline in wages, until, by 1870, a female plaiter, aided by her children, could bring in perhaps 4 shillings per week. Although the industry grew in numbers up until the 1870s, when around 30,000 were employed locally in the industry (94% of whom were female), the financial reward to the individual had been slashed. Once international trade opened up the markets to China and Japan, the local industry shrank rapidly, until straw plaiting was only practised by old ladies hoping to bring in a little money to boost the family income.

It is difficult to know how many people in Turvey were connected to the industry, because its high point was early in the nineteenth century, before the first formal census of 1841. By 1841 there was only one straw plaiter in the village, but by then the industry had already begun its decline.

Plaiting was easily carried out in the home, requiring only three simple and inexpensive tools: a straw splitter, a splint mill and a yard measure. By 1800 various machines, or ‘sheens’, had been invented to split each straw into strands of varying widths.  Like lacemaking this was an activity in which almost every member of the family could be gainfully employed – including children as young as three.

The website titled A History of Preston in Hertfordshire provides a useful oversight of the industry. As with lacemaking, girls were often sent to plait schools to learn the trade. The Dacorum Heritage website provides further information about these schools, which bore more than a passing resemblance to lace schools such as those in Turvey,

Reference

1 A. Young, General View of the Agriculture of the County of Hertfordshire (repr. Newton Abbot, 1971, originally published 1804.

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