It is thought that lace-making started in England in the 16th century, the art having been brought to this country by the Huguenots fleeing what is now Belgium. Queen Catherine of Aragon was said to have taught lace-making in Bedford Castle in 1531 while awaiting her appeal to Rome against King Henry VIII’s attempt to divorce her. Legend has it that when she was living in the castle she ordered all her lace to be burned in order to give work to the impoverished people. There is a lace pattern named after her called ‘Catherine of Aragon’.
In Tudor times, lace-makers celebrated St Catherine’s day which was on November 25th. Lace-makers would save small sums of money for celebrations on this day, and often took the day off and made ‘cattern cakes’ to mark the occasion. These are a type of small rock cake made with caraway seeds.
It is believed that in this country in the 17th century as many as 150,000 people worked in the lace industry. Great Horwood was very much a principal lace-making village.
Buckinghamshire lace was widely sought after for its fine ground work and intricate floral patterns, with a thicker gimp thread outlining the pattern, and picots (small loops at the edging). It is very similar to French Lille and Flemish Mechlin lace. In its prime, Buckinghamshire lace was sent all over the world.
At the Great Exhibition of 1851 Maltese lace was exhibited for the first time; now known as Bedfordshire lace, this was a more open lace which lace-makers liked as it was easier to work with its distinctive spiders and leaf patterns. At about the same time Torchon lace from France also came to this country. With its distinctive geometric patterns this became very popular, although not with the older lacemakers who termed it ‘dishcloth lace’. Both these new laces were made in the village. Lace-making continued to evolve, and it was not only Buckinghamshire lace that was being made in Great Horwood
This Torchon lace was made in Great Horwood by Rita Essam (née Barfoot),
supervised by Nellie Jamieson.
It is hard to imagine lace-makers sitting in the doorways of the cottages in Great Horwood. In order to get the best possible light they sat outside when they could. On cold and wet days they would sit in windows. Three or four lace-makers would often congregate in a bay window for maximum light, often with a ‘chaddy pot’ (this was similar to a warming pan, filled with hot coals) tucked under their skirts for warmth. When it was dark they sat around one candle surrounded by special glass reflectors called flashes on a wooden stand. These maximised the light, and rush bags were attached to the stand to hold the flashes when not in use. Lace-makers worked long tedious hours and often ended up with very poor eyesight as a result.
Lace-maker, Clara Ridgway (nee Smith), is pictured here surrounded by the tools of her trade. She is working at a lace pillow, with characteristic bobbins, resting on a three-legged 'lady'. By her right shoulder is a bobbin winder, and on the floor to her right is a candle stool with flashes.
The lace pillows were round cotton bags stuffed with straw. The straw was cut into small pieces and hammered well to make it hard enough for pins to go into. The pillow was placed partly on the knees and partly on a three-legged pillow-horse called ‘the lady’. The pattern was pricked on to a piece of parchment and attached to the pillow by special brass pins. A pin cushion was pinned to the right-hand side of the pillow and traditionally was heart shaped. It was stuffed with bran, which was slightly oily thus preventing the pins from corroding. The bobbins were wound with the thread in pairs. They were made of wood, ivory or bone. Sometimes given as love tokens and mementos, they often had names and dates and even religious text inscribed on them. I have one inscribed ‘marry me’ and others with girls’ names such as Lucey, Sally, Rose, Eliza, Clara and Martha. I like to think that the Martha bobbin belonged to Martha Barfoot, my great-great-great-grandmother, who according to the 1881 census was still making lace at the age of 75. Martha lived at Sears Croft on the Winslow road just before Barfoot Bridge.
The bobbins were weighted with spangles. A spangle was a ring of brass wire threaded with glass beads. Also used were treasured items such as buttons from baby clothes and rings. It is interesting to note that after 1805 black beads were made for spangles for the first time in order to commemorate the death of Lord Nelson. Bobbins were passed down from mother to daughters. Since the lace patterns were pricked on to parchment they could be used a number of times.
A Buckinghamshire lace pattern with bobbins.
Children as young as four were taught to make lace by their mothers who used to hang two pairs of bobbins on the side of their lace pillow and began to teach them basic skills. Not only girls were taught, but also boys.
Some lace-makers just made the same pattern all their lives, usually straight lengths, thus enabling them to make lace more quickly as these lengths could be joined together with other lengths to make a wider or longer piece of lace.
The finished lace would be collected by a salesman, and taken to market. In the mid-19th century the going rate was one shilling (5p) a day, out of which the lace-makers needed to buy threads. This was more money than could be earned by domestic servants and more than an agricultural labourer was paid.
Many villages around Great Horwood had lace schools at this time, teaching lace-making, reading and writing to both girls and boys. Great Horwood probably had one but its location is unknown. Maybe it was held in the church before the Church of England school was founded there or perhaps small lace schools were held in people's homes.
In the 1851 census there were 102 lace-makers in the village. They varied in age from 9 to 82 years. Two pauper lace-makers from Great Horwood are listed at the Winslow workhouse in the same census. In 1861 there was a total of 134 lace-makers with an age range of 5 to 73 years, and in 1881 there were 111 lace-makers aged 10 to 77 years. In the early part of the 20th century lace continued to be made in Great Horwood. However, due to the introduction of machine lace the industry was in steady decline and by the second half of the century had effectively vanished.
May Royce making lace.
Some of the descendants of lace-makers of the 19th and 20th centuries still live in the village, including surnames such as Barfoot, Marks, Ridgway, Viccars, Hancock, Lambourne and Mallet.
Mrs Nellie Jamieson taught me to make lace. She was born early in the 20th century and was the last lace teacher in the village, having taught many girls the art. Nellie was a villager who lived in Great Horwood all her life and taught lace until she was over 90 years old. If I made a mistake Nellie used to say, "We will have to work backwards for a while," instead of saying that I would have to unpick it. Her husband Maurice used to wind the bobbins for her and her pupils. In order to be helpful I once decided to wind my own bobbins but, much to the amusement of Nellie and Maurice, I found I had wound them in the wrong direction. Maurice had to rewind them all again. This was quite a long job and it caused much laughter. He never let me forget it. The Lomas sisters who lived at 7 Little Horwood Road made the lace on the altar cloth in St James Church which is still in use today.
A bobbin winder
The bobbin winder shown here was made by Mr Hurst of Winslow Road. His nickname was Pontius Pilate, presumably because he had a long white beard, and he was the father of Nellie’s school friend Violet Hurst. Nellie and Violet attended lace lessons with Miss Arnold, who lived in the end cottage on the bank in Winslow Road. Nellie told me that Miss Arnold would tell the girls that lace-making was ‘Clean work and purdy [pretty] work’.