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      Lace Making In Helmdon

                                         An article by Audrey Forgham

 

Lace making Nobody knows how long the tradition of lacemaking in England goes back, but it was well established by the reign of Henry V111. Grenfell in his History of Northamptonshire, tells us that it first appeared in the East Midlands in the late 1500s, and by the end of the eighteenth century lacemaking in the country as a whole was an extensive cottage industry, famed for its baby laces used for trimming babies' hats. Towcester and the villages around it partnered Wellingborough and Northampton as centres in which the making of lace was concentrated. According to Channer and Buck, In the Cause of English Lace, Towcester was also a centre of the best lace in the East Midlands, an honour it shared with Buckingham.

 

The first reference to lacemaking in Helmdon is in the churchwardens' accounts of 1718:

 

 

£

s

d

Pd to An Emberley for teching Grays genins
A lace

0

1

0

Pd to Mary Adkins for teachen Upstone’s whenches
A lace

0

0

3

 

Mary Adkins could have been the schoolteacher, since there is a further reference in the accounts:

 

Pd Mary Adkins 13 weeks schooling for Dobins wenches

 

We do not know the number of Helmdon villagers employed making lace until the 1841 census. Then we have figures at ten-yearly intervals until 1891, which is the latest census available for researchers to glean information, although it may be that they are lower in this type of record than in reality. Pamela Horn in Northamptonshire Past and Present writes that the totals of lacemakers were probably underestimated since many part-time workers did not want to declare their occupations to the census enumerator.

 

Census Date

Female Population

Total Number of Lacemakers

Age

0 – 10

11 – 20

21 – 40

41 – 60

60 +

1841

274

13

0

2

5

6

0

1851

306

94

9

32

32

18

3

1861

296

72

4

26

24

14

4

1871

316

69

15

20

21

8

5

1881

251

41

0

9

11

14

7

1891

247

6

0

0

1

4

1

 

Farm wages were low in England in the early 1840s, which might help to explain the rise in the number of lacemakers in Helmdon from 13 in the 1841 census to 94 in the 1851 census. Also, the introduction of what was called "Maltese lace" to the Midlands made it a more popular craft because it was quickly made and hid many faults. In addition the Great Exhibition of 1851 played its part in what was a countrywide revival. The number of Helmdon lacemakers remained high until the early 1870s, the impact of the Franco-Prussian war being that the imports of French lace were cut off, and the work of English lacemakers was at a premium, with high wages being earned.

 

A Lace Maker Lacemaking was truly a "cottage industry". In fine weather it must have been a common sight in Helmdon to see women sitting outside their cottages, meticulously concentrating upon their work. They supported their lace and bobbins on pillows (hence the term "pillow lace"). However, the women must have dreaded the winter. With twelve hours as a normal day, they often worked late into the evening, the only light a tallow candle augmented by condenser globes. These globes were spherical flasks filled with water that acted as lenses and concentrated the light. One can imagine the competition to get near the globe in order to work the intricate patterns. Eyesight must have been harmed greatly, and it is to be wondered for how long women were able to work. Without extensive research it is impossible to follow names through the census records since most girls married, but several can be traced. Charlotte Cadd, born in Helmdon, was a lacemaker at the age of 14 in 1851. Later housekeeper to Nathaniel Seckington, she is listed as a lacemaker also in 1861,1871 and 1881. Thirty years at least, straining her eyes over her lace. Ann Seckington was making lace at the age of 19 and was still working at her pillow at 49. Sarah White made lace for at least thirty years and Mary Pettifer, Harriet Turvey and Ann Humphrey were recorded as lacemakers at 20-year intervals.

 

Village lace schools taught the craft, and we know of two in Helmdon. Carol Brookhouse says that the Bell public house had once a lace school on its premises. The room might have contained up to thirty pupils, ages ranging from 6-16, with children as young as three years old learning how to handle the bobbins. No doubt this was the fate of Ann Savin, three years old in the 1851 census. Among the Helmdon children in the census information are Emma Jane Seckington (5), Susanna Humfrey (7), Lizzetta Pittom (8), Charlotte White (10), and Ruth Mayo (7). Lessons would not have been given all the time, but only when a change was necessary from one pattern to another. There was little room to move about and ill health in the form of swollen ankles, chilblains and digestive disorders would have been prevalent. There was also a lace school on the Green, attended by Annie Branson who, Jenny Saunders reports, was paid ½d per day for her work. She is undoubtedly the Ann Branson in the 1871 and 1881 censuses, born in 1860. When Annie married she became Annie Storey, grandmother of Annie Saunders. At some schools the 3R's were taught as well as lacemaking. After they had mastered the craft some girls worked at home; some stayed until they either went into service or were married. The lace was marketed through dealers who at the same time sold bobbins, flasks, threads and the other things necessary to follow the craft.

 

Jenny Saunders still possesses a quantity of bobbins used by Martha Saunders, mother-in-law of Annie Saunders. Martha and her husband Herbert (a signalman who waved the first train through on the Great Central Railway) lived in a long demolished cottage which occupied part of the land on which Ambleside stands today. These bobbins are pewter decorated and have the names of Martha's children, Bert, Robert, Dick, Montague, Reginald, Kate and Margaret burnt into the bone handles. Jeffrey Hopewill in Pillow Lace and Bobbins writes that a few bobbins he has seen have the name of the village on them as well, and he instances one with the words "Ann Turvey, Helmdon, Feb 23 and 29, 1839". This is possibly the Ann Turvey who was born in Helmdon in 1817 and who is listed as a lacemaker in the 1851 and 1861 censuses.

 

The decline in lacemaking in the 1880s was mostly due to changing fashions and to the impact off machine-made lace, which could not be distinguished from fine handwork. Well-made lacework was costly; imitation lace was eagerly bought by those to whom the real thing had been an unhoped-for luxury. The Education Act of 1876 dealt the final blow, with children not able to make good lace after lessons were over. There was a brief resurgence in the country around the end of the century, and in 1877 the Midland Lace Association was formed, but it will be 2001 before researchers will be able to peruse the 1901 census to see if the women of Helmdon joined in that mini-revival. For most of this century, lacemaking has survived as a leisure activity; Jenny Saunders still makes lace, in the tradition of her forebears over a hundred years ago. It is a hobby for those with time and patience to pursue it and this is as it should be. The picture of lacemakers happily working outside their cottage doors is a romantic notion. The reality was that lacemaking was drudgery to the workers, seriously undermining health and well being, with long hours at the pillow bringing little reward.

 
Audrey Forgham e-mail

(First published in Aspects of Helmdon no.1)

 

Sources

 

Parish Records including census returns and churchwardens' accounts in the Northamptonshire Record Office.

 

My thanks to Jenny Saunders for giving up her time to talk to me and for showing me her lace bobbins.

 

Bibliography

 

R. L Greenall, A History of Northamptonshire, Phillimore and Darwen County History, 1979

 

Jeffrey Hopewill, Pillow Lace and Bobbins, Shire Publications, 1975 edition

 

Catherine Channer and Anne Buck, In the Cause of English Lace, Ruth Bean 1991 (A reprint edition of Lacemaking in the Midlands, first published in 1900)

 

Pamela Horn, "Child Workers in the Victorian Countryside: the Case of Northamptonshire", Northamptonshire Past and Present, 1985-6, pp.173-185


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