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Cottage Industries

A history of Stanford in the Vale (near Wantage the home of our FROUDE ancestors) explains the unrest felt by agricultural workers in 1830

“The wave of agrarian disturbances which spread throughout southern and eastern England in 1830 reached Stanford on 24 November, where there was a wages riot and talk of breaking threshing machines, until the farmers promised to raise wages for agricultural labourers from 8s to 10s a week. At Baulking, rioters had dispersed when offered bread and cheese; in Wantage, a large force of yeomanry and 'specials' were called out to disperse rioters, after some threshing and haymaking machines were broken”

At that time most families were large and lived in rented accommodation so a wage of between 8 and 10 shillings a week fell short of the family’s requirements. Many of the wives found ways of supplementing the family income. Several families kept pigs and chickens or even grazed a cow on common ground, all grew vegetables for the table. Some would work as dress makers or laundresses but in some areas others were able to do “home” work for local factories. Notable among these “Cottage” industries were glovers, straw plaiters and lace makers. Each of these industries allowed the women to earn as much if not more than their husband while still being at home with the children.

The effect of this home work however was that the homes were not as well kept as previously. The women were more anxious to tend to the paying work rather than the household chores, children too suffered from less of their mothers attention and  even started learning the craft at a very early age. Toddlers would fetch and carry equipment needed by the mother and clear away the waste material. The attraction of working from home and good wages deterred girls entering service which annoyed the middle classes who depended on servants to run their homes. It also had an effect on housing, girls would normally leave home at about 14 years of age freeing up space in the cottages but home industries discouraged this and home life became more and more crowded.


A large number of our ancestors were working in the glove making industry, the vast majority being female. Of the four men three worked in Worcester and one in Great Torrington. Gloveresses are found in three areas, Worcester, North Devon and East Oxfordshire.

In her article, “The Woodstock Glove Industry” Miss T. E. Schulz *  says that in the 1860s  

“...a woman could make between two and three pairs a day, if she worked from early in the morning until late at night. The gloveresses were paid for stitching these gloves between 4d and 5d a pair.”  

*  “The Woodstock Glove Industry” Miss T. E. Schulz appeared in Oxoniensia a journal dealing with the archaeology, history and architecture of Oxford and its neighbourhood Vol111 1938

The gloves made in the Woodstock area were for the military and in order to make them particularly white, pipe clay was rubbed into the sheep skin, this made the work uncomfortably dusty for the women. Schultz also tells how a proprietor had the church bells rung when he obtained an order for 30,000 pairs.

A few people give an indication of which material they worked. In Devon Eliza BENNETT [4714] and the POW family, mother Charlotte nee YOUNG [17565] and daughters Elizabeth [17562], and Eliza Ann [17571] worked with cotton while Ann FORD [6278] worked with leather and in Oxfordshire Eliza ANDREWS [8632] also worked with leather. Susannah HOOKWAY [707] and Elizabeth DAVEY [12936] worked in silk. In Monkleigh, Devon Fanny ASHPLANT [17627] was a Gloveress (allsorts) which may indicate that she was able to make a whole glove rather than just the decorative back. In Middlesex Jane GUARD [17633] and her sister both worked with both ladies and gents gloves.  More information on our glovers in on Our Glovers page.

In the Regency and Victorian era kid was the favoured material in either white, cream or black. Black was the most common as it did no show dirt so much. The fashion was to wear skin tight elbow length gloves with formal and evening wear and shorter gloves for everyday and town use. Some women wore gloves to hide unsightly hands and some were known to carry gloves too small to wear to give an impression that their hands were smaller than was fact. Flora Thompson in her book Lark Rise to Candleford wrote that even the poor country women were keen to follow fashion. She explained that the women were delighted to receive a parcel of clothes from their daughters who were in service saying “Better be out of the world than out of fashion” even though they were a year or two behind in style or colour.

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Lace Making

We have found Lace makers in Devon, Oxford, Bedfordshire and Buckinghamshire.

Elizabeth FRANKLIN nee MARKS [9372] was a Honiton lace maker in 1861 and a lace joiner in 1871. Elizabeth was born in Woodbury Devon and learnt to make Honiton lace, this was considered the finest possible and was the favourite of Queen Victoria. The Queen chose Honiton lace for her wedding dress and for the christening gown still worn by Royal babies today. In Honiton the lace makers worked their own motifs which were joined with a fine netting.  A lace joiner was one of the best workers so Elizabeth would have been held in high regard when she moved to Oxfordshire.

However the main centre for the trade was around the Buckinghamshire town Newton Pagnell where the Huguenots had settled. In "The Journey From Chester to London 1779" Thomas Pennant says of the town "...flourishes greatly, by means of the lace manufacture... There is scarcely a door to be seen, during Summer, in most towns, but what is occupied by some industrious pale-faced lass; their sedentary trade forbidding the rose to bloom in their sickly cheeks."  


Often the skill was past from mother to daughter as seen in Bedford where Elizabeth GILES nee BRADSHAW [10695] was a lace maker in Odell, Bedfordshire in 1861 and her daughter Ruth [10708] was a 15 year old lace maker in 1881 and in Leckhampstead, Buckinghamshire where Mary WHITEHALL nee WARNER [17293] and her three daughters were all making lace.

When John Newton, was trying to find a nursemaid for his adopted daughter (his niece Betsy Catlett) in Olney he was told "the only thing a girl would dandle on her knee in these parts was a lace pillow". (Newton visited Olney in 1764).

Olney is only about 5 miles from Hanslope the home of our BARRETT family. There is a very good description of lace making on the Hanslope & District Historical Society Web site at:  where it is said that in 1861 no less than 500 women and children were lace makers and there were two lace making schools there. Children were sent to these schools at five years old and were self sufficient in the trade by the age of twelve. The schools taught reading and writing but mainly lace making. The youngest found was Jane BARRETT [17097] who was making lace in Hanslope, Buckinghamshire aged 8 in 1851.

Lace makers celebrate the feast of St Catherine on November 25th which is known as Cattarns Day. A “Queen” is chosen to lead children to a feast of cakes and ale.

Arthur Young shows that both lace making and straw plaiting were popular in Hertfordshire. He wrote in “General View of the Agriculture of the County of Hertfordshire, 1804” lace making has been carried on at Berkhamsted time immemorial; these fabricks, especially the straw, render the women averse to husbandry work, and are said to make them bad servants, from their ignorance of everything else. It is, however, highly beneficial to the poor... Straw-plaiting is a cleaner trade than black, but not white lacemaking...

Lace Makers in the Family

Buckinghamshire Lace Makers

Sarah HORTON nee HUTT [5708] was a pauper lace maker aged 76 in Kingsey in 1851 but there is no mention of pauper on the 1861 census when she is 86 and a lace maker.

Sarah HORTON [2254] wife of John WOODBRIDGE was a lace maker in 1851 and 1861 at Kingsey. She was a granddaughter of Sarah HUTT [5708]

Elizabeth WOODBRIDGE [6129] daughter of John and Sarah nee HORTON [2254] was a 18 year old lace maker in Kingsey in 1871.

Mary WARNER [17293] the grand daughter of William MERCER and Betty CLAY our direct line was a lace maker in Leckhampstead  in 1851. She married Thomas WHITEHALL in 1854 and continued as a lace maker moving to Thornton 1871 and then to Thornborough 1881 & 1891.

Jane WARNER [17291] a sister of Mary married Benjamin LINNELL in 1854 and was a lace maker in Silverstone, Northamptonshire in 1861. This is the only reference we have to her lace making. In 1851 she was a house servant in Silverstone where Benjamin was born and on later censuses she has no occupation.

Hannah WARNER [17292] the sister of Mary and Jane married Job SEAR. She was a lace maker in Potterspury in 1861 and in Wiken, Northamptonshire in 1871. In 1881 and 1901 she was a laundress in Wiken.

Elizabeth BARRETT nee WILBEE [2270], the wife of Benjamin, was a lace maker in 1861 in Hanslope. In 1851 she had no occupation given but both her daughters with her were lace makers.
Mary BARRETT [17094] aged 14 and
Jane BARRETT [17095] aged 8 1851.  Jane was also a lace maker aged 18 in 1861 in Hanslope

Other areas

Elizabeth FRANKLIN nee MARKS [9372] was a Honiton lace maker in 1861 and a Lace Joiner in 1871. Elizabeth was born in Woodbury, Devon and learnt to make Honiton lace, this was considered the finest possible and was the favourite of Queen Victoria. The Queen chose Honiton lace for her wedding dress and for the christening gown still worn by Royal babies today. A lace joiner was one of the best workers so Elizabeth would have been held in high regard when she moved to Oxfordshire.

Elizabeth GILES nee BRADSHAW [10695] was a lace maker in Odell, Bedfordshire in 1861 and her daughter Ruth was a 15 year old lace maker in 1881

In Warwickshire Sarah MUSSOM [20262] nee IRESON was lace making in 1851 after her husband had died in 1847 leaving her with a very young family.

Straw Plaiting

Straw was put to many uses, for thatching, beehives and bee skips, paper-making, for ornamenting small surfaces as a "straw-mosaic", for table mats, mattresses, to create artificial flowers and baskets. Straw is also plaited into long lengths to produce bonnets and hats. Straw hats were the most popular headgear of the 19th century, being light to wear and able to protect from both the sun and the rain – very practical for rural wear. Each harvest time straw plait was burnt in the field to ensure a plentiful harvest in the next year.

The plaiter's raw material was straw from preferably rye or wheat. Hertfordshire was one of the counties where the straw was of superior quality. Arthur Young wrote, in General View of the Agriculture of the County of Hertfordshire, 1804

 “The straw from stony and heavy land... will not do for plaiting; and if a crop produces much straw fit for plaiting, the produce of the corn is generally bad....: weak straw under hedges and near trees, does best”

The straw was cut into 9 or 10 inch lengths, bunched loosely together, damped well and then bleached to a clear golden hue by fuming it in sulphur. After drying the excess water off the straw in a clothe, a bundle was held under the left arm pit each new straw being retrieved from the bundle by mouth. This helped to keep the straw moist with saliva but it meant that plaiters often developed unsightly sore mouths. The straw was plaited either whole or split. At first the straws were split with a knife but a tool known as an “engine” was in use from about 1800 allowing the straw to be split into several pieces of even width Split straw resulted in a shiny side and dull side so this could be used to enhance the patterns made. The plaits were of different patterns of five, seven or even twenty straws wide, the more elaborate earning the most money.

Young wrote:

“The best kind of makers get 3s 6d a score and a good hand can make a score and a half a week, for inferior kind of work pay varies from 3d to 10d and 1s a score. The earnings of children and girls may be taken as 3d to 6d a day, these are employed on coarser work, the straw is usually purchased from a local farmer at 6d a bundle which being in quantity as much as a person can carry.”

The work was sold by the length and several old cottages in the area still have grooves cut into the mantle piece showing where the plaits used to be measured.

The work was far from easy. In the book “Useful Toil “John BURNETT quotes from a paper by an anonymous navvy who says

 “When first I married I used to sit and look at my wife plaiting till the blood run out at the ends of her fingers, and when she’d done a good bit I’d say. Now, old gal, go and sell that plait...’”

Not only did  they often had sores about the mouth, their fingers also become raw,.and then they had problems selling the end product too. The author’s wife was from Baldock in Hertfordshire.

Children could begin learning to straw plait as early as two or three years old and could be sent to a straw plaiting school from three to five years old. These schools were the start of the dame schools of later years. Young tells of the development of children in the industry;

“they begin to pick the straw at four years old; plait at five; and at six earn from 1s. 6d. to 2s. 6d. a week; at seven they use the instrument, and earn 1s. a day; some girls of ten years old earn 12s. a week;”

By starting early girls learned well and straw plaiting would be a means of income for her life. It could be done anywhere even walking along chatting to friends or looking after children.

Mrs Lucy Luck, born in Tring Hertfordshire in 1848, wrote her memoirs “A Little of my Life” which first appeared in the London Mercury in 1927. An extract is used in “Useful Toil” (Ed John BURNETT). Although she had tried to learn plaiting she found she was better at constructing the hats from the lengths of plait and adapted quickly to the latest fashion styles. The work was carried out in a small work shop with living expenses deducted from the wage

“..this woman set us a task every day which was impossible to do. I have sat up all night sometimes in bitter cold weather...even been obliged to do the work on Sunday...then perhaps not finish the amount..”.

If the amount set was not complete the mistress demanded payment and when new shapes were introduced no money was earned but owed until the work was perfected. This type of work was seasonal with a slack period from July to Christmas during that period Mrs Luck made her families clothes took in needlework and did some charring.

Our straw plaiting ancestors lived in Berkhampstead, Hertfordshire. We have found Emma HAKESLEY [6721] a straw plaiter in 1841 in Great Berkhamstead, Hertfordshire and in 1851 Ann COX [8189] was also a straw plaiter. In 1861 Rachel GRAVESTOCK nee HAKESLEY [6723] her daughter Emma GRAVESTOCK [8180] age 11 son Hakesley Edwin GRAVESTOCK [11147] age 7 and grandson Henry GRAVESTOCK [11176] age 5 were all straw plaiters

Elizabeth JAMES [19039] was a Straw bonnet maker in Stoke Damerel  Devon in 1851. It is not known if she was a plaiter or just made the bonnets up.

Children and Cottage Industries

Soon cottage schools were set up where young children would be taught a little very basic reading and writing and a lot of craft skills. As soon as their work was acceptable it was used as payment for the lessons.

The youngest workers found so far were 5 year old Henry GRAVESTOCK [11176] who was a straw plaiter in Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire in 1861, 8 year old Charlotte WELSH [2719] who was a glover in Merton Devon. In  1861, 8 year old Elizabeth POW [17514] a glover in Great Torrington in 1851 and Jane BARRETT [17097] who was making lace in Hanslope Buckinghamshire aged 8 in 1851.

The Workshops Regulation Act (1867) made it illegal for any child under 8 to be employed in a cottage industry and children between 8-13 were to attend elementary school for at least 10 hours a week. This act affected  the lace and glove making industries and the straw plaiters dramatically.

In her book “Labouring Life in the Victorian Countryside” Pamela Horn (Sutton 1987) gives an account of the work of the Royal Commission on Children’s Employment in 1863. One child they interviewed was Ruth A Stanbridge from Eaton Bray in Bedfordshire. Ruth was said to have begun plaiting at three years old. And was twelve when interviewed.

She told the commission about school,

 “At  the plait school that I am now at I go only from 8 am to 12 and 1 till 4 pm, but my mother sets me the same to do as I did at a school where I stayed until 9 o’clock viz: thirty yards, ten in each of the three school times.”, rate of pay “I clear about 5s a week after paying for straw.” and her family “I have two sisters younger and a brother older than I am who plait. He goes to writing school in the day, and does ten yards afterwards which takes him till 10 o’clock at night”.

In the one village there were seven plait schools four had night school one to.8pm and two to 9pm all the schools had the same length day classes. Ruth also told that she “was never at a reading school but I can read the Testament, but not without spelling” .  

Ruth has been found on the 1861 and 1871 censuses. She was the daughter of John Stanbridge a fishmonger and his wife Ann a straw weaver. Her brother Lewis was two years older than her and was a straw plaiter in 1861 and a hat manufacturer in Luton in 1881. The sisters were Leah and Naomi. In 1861 Ruth was a straw plaiter and the other girls were scholars this puts the question of how accurate was the census. In 1871 mother and the three daughters were all straw plaiters now aged 19,17 and 13. They had younger siblings all recorded as scholars in 1871. Jeffrey joined his brother in 1881 and was a Straw hat warehouseman in Luton. Ruth meanwhile married Jesse ROE, she and her mother in law were still plaiting in 1881 her husband was a straw drawer. Ruth died in 1888.

See also