Lace

‘Children of the labouring population here leave the day schools at

a very early age; boys for field employment and girls for the lace pillow’.

Report to National School Board by Headmaster, Walgrave School, 1840

There were two main areas of bobbin Lacemaking in England from the 16th to 19th centuries. One was Devon and the other was the East Midlands, particularly Buckinghamshire, Bedfordshire and parts of Northamptonshire. Walgrave was at the very northern edge of the East Midlands Lacemaking area and at one time almost every female in the village over the age of about 8  years would have been a lacemaker.

This was not a hobby but an industry and lace was made in the home by the poorest women in society for the richest. The middlemen were the lace dealers who would supply patterns and thread to lacemakers and then visit them every week or two to cut off and take away the lace they had made.

There were lace dealers based in Kettering, Northampton and Wellingborough and there are indentures dating from the 17th and 18th centuries relating to all three towns apprenticing young children, both girls and boys, to be taught the ‘art, trade or mystery’ of Lacemaking By the 19th century it was more usual to be taught Lacemaking at the village ‘lace school’. These pre-dated the Education Acts of the 1870s. There was one in Walgrave run by Catherine Smith, which is mentioned in the 1841 census. A lace school would be held in the home of the teacher and there could be many children crowded into a small dark and stuffy room, which would seem even more crowded because each child would have a large lace pillow and stand on which to work. The children would each pay a few pence per week for instruction in Lacemaking but would be paid for the lace they made while at the school.

The Walgrave census figures show that Lacemaking here followed the same rise and decline as elsewhere in the East Midlands. There was a peak in 1851with a tailing off to almost nothing in 1891. The youngest lacemakers were aged 9 in 1841, 8 in 1851 and 1861 and 12 in 1871. The two lacemakers listed in 1891 were spinster sisters in their 60s, named Elizabeth and Eliza Smith, who were among the teenage lacemakers in 1841 and had continued throughout. Unfortunately the Walgrave census for 1851 does not include occupations for most of the married women so those listed are mainly young girls and widows. It seems unlikely that married women had not been at their pillows in the intervening years. In fact, with the exception of the farmer’s wife, the school mistress and a few teenage girls ‘in service’, Lacemaking is the only female occupation listed in 1851. From this it seems clear that almost every woman in the village was a lacemaker. at that time but almost no one was so engaged by 1891.

The 1898 obituary of Mrs Jane Gibson of Walgrave records that she was born in 1802 and was a most proficient lacemaker. She made lace for the altar cloth at All Saints Church and had some of her lace purchased by the Duchess of Teck at the 1891 exhibition of Needlework and Lace in Northampton. She is recorded in the 1851 census as the wife of an agricultural labourer and the mother of six children but with no occupation. Her three oldest daughters, aged 16, 10 and 8, are listed as lacemakers Her 12 year old son is a ‘plow boy’ and her two youngest children, aged 6 and 4, are ‘scholars’. With a family of that size it is not surprising that she had no other occupation but given her expertise it is likely that she made some lace.

Walgrave Census

 1841

 1851

 1861

 1871

 1881

 1891

Total Population

   593

613

650

660

603

563

Total females

291

300

327

317

290

266

Total lace makers

26

52

29

18

6

2

Under 20 years

17

33

11

13

0

0

20 and over

9

19

5

6

2

0

Married

2

6

1

1

0

Unmarried/widowed

50

23

17

5

2

lace2Bobbin lace was made on a large ‘pillow’ stuffed with straw. The threads, either linen or cotton, were wound on bobbins which, in the East Midlands, were weighted with glass beads and were often decorated with patterns, names or sayings. The design was marked and pricked on a parchment pattern and the stitches were held in place with brass pins.

lace1 Local bone bobbins

These bone bobbins are known to have been used in Walgrave. They were handed down by Eva Lichfield. The bobbin on the left has the name MARIA on it.