A contentious subject among some English historians is whether the Huguenots were involved in lace making in our country.

Each side makes its own case for or against.

The case against

Those discounting Huguenot involvement say that an English cottage industry of lace making already existed by the time they arrived in the 16th century. This is true. However, very few examining this aspect of history ever said the Huguenots or their Flemish counterparts actually brought lace making to England.

What could be said is that the Huguenots and the Flemish improved our lace by bringing Continental techniques and materials to England.

Another aspect which needs to be taken into account is the association of certain types of lace with the Huguenots. Some of the laces linked to them were not devised until long afterward. However, it is possible that a few older historians misunderstood or accidentally mis-stated this.

An example of this can be found on the Wikipedia talk page for the Huguenots entry, which has an extensive analysis of lace making in England and Huguenot involvement. This involves the foremost history of English lace making, Romance of the Lace Pillow, written in 1919 by Thomas Wright. Emphases mine below:

3. The whole of Wright’s argument then turns on his statement “From this time Bucks [Buckinghamshire, southern England] point lace developed: it is a combination of Mechlin patterns on Lille ground.” In effect he is arguing that the two groups of refugees must have been responsible for the development of East Midlands lace because its style is derived from the two styles of lace of the regions from which the refugees came. Although this argument may sound plausible to the layman, it is based on the fallacy that what is now known as Mechlin lace existed at the time of the immigration from Flanders, which according to Wright was several years before 1572 (i.e late sixteenth century).

On what evidence is our knowledge of the history of lace based? Lace was primarily a fashion item, and the most extensive evidence for the development of styles of lace is from portraits, which can generally be dated accurately. Written records document the existence of lacemaking and lacemakers in particular regions at particular times, which is the basis for saying that lace was made in the East Midlands as early as 1596. However we know very little about what type of lace was made there in the seventeenth century because no descriptions have been found.

What we do know from portraits is that the lace now known as Bucks Point did not appear until the end of the eighteenth century. (It was at this time that the Lille ground was adopted by lacemakers all over Europe because it could be made more quickly than the Mechlin ground.) Santina Levey, a textile curator at the Victoria and Albert Museum, writes in her highly respected “Lace, A History” (Maney, 1990: ISBN: 0-901286-15-X) that Mechlin lace developed in the first half of the eighteenth century (pp.45 and 47), while Lille lace with its typical mesh ground first appeared towards the end of the eighteenth century (p.90).

Therefore, according to this potential editor, Socialambulator:

One final point that I haven’t addressed previously (because my views on this are subjective) is why the idea gained currency that the Huguenots influenced English lacemaking. Like Seguin and others, I think it was probably economic. French lace was regarded as of higher quality, and commanded a higher price, than English lace. Associating E. Midlands lace with the Huguenots would have been used to give it a French association (and price tag). It should be mentioned that, Harry Armstrong, the publisher of Thomas Wright’s “The Romance of Lace Pillow”, himself sold lace under the name of ‘Mrs’ H Armstrong.

The case for

One of the problems in pinpointing Huguenot influence and involvement is that many records from the time no longer exist.

Yet, Irish historians have little problem linking Huguenot refugees with lace making. A short piece from the Irish Times states:

After the end of the Williamite wars, large Huguenot settlements were established in Portarlington, Youghal, Cork, Dublin, Waterford and Lisburn, where they became celebrated for their expertise in textiles, specialising in weaving, lace-making, and glove-making. In the course of time, they became thoroughly absorbed into Irish society through intermarriage, and names such as Boucicault, Maturin, Le Fanu and Trench are still familiar in Ireland today.

Therefore, if Huguenots were involved in Ireland’s industry, why not England’s?

Lace making researchers from Buckinghamshire and elsewhere in England point to Huguenot participation in the craft.

The Cowper and Newton Museum in Olney, Bucks, has exhibits on various aspects of Georgian life. Of local lace making, a related page states:

Lace was probably made in the Eastern Counties (Buckinghamshire, Bedfordshire, Northamptonshire) prior to 1563. This was, and still is, a flax growing area. The first wave of lace makers from the continent came in 1563 to 1568. They were Flemish Protestants who left the area around Mechelen (Mechlin / Malines) when Philip II introduced the Inquisition to the Low Countries …

Second wave of lacemakers, many from Lille, left in 1572 after The Massacre of the Feast of Saint Bartholomew. Exactly how many is not known but many hundreds came to Buckinghamshire and Northampton.

Local noblemen, the Museum says, offered these refugees sanctuary:

In 1586 Lord William Russell, son of the Duke of Bedford, owned property near Cranfield, Bedfordshire. This is about 10 miles from Olney. He had fought for William the Silent in the Low Countries and he was married to Rachel, daughter of the Huguenot Marquis de Rivigny. He invited many refugees to settle under his protection. Another English gentleman, who had fought for William of Orange, was George Gascoigne: he invited other Huguenots to settle near his manor at Cardington, Bedford. Huguenot emigration continued untiI the Edict of Nantes in 1598. However when the Edict was rescinded in 1685 by Louis XIV, there was another wave of religious refugees. About 10,000 left Burgundy and Normandy. The lace makers found their way to the by now well-established lace villages in the counties of Buckingham, Bedford and Northampton. Flemish and Huguenot names still common in this area are listed below; naturally most have been Anglicised over time.

The Olney Lace Circle page says the same thing but goes further:

It was the Flemish Protestants who brought lace making to England during the 1560’s. Many of these immigrants were lace makers and as they moved out of the overcrowded ports they began to settle into areas now regarded as the historic centres for the craft of lace making. In the county of Buckinghamshire these immigrants settled in Newport Pagnell, Buckingham and of course Olney

During the following decade the Huguenots fled France and a great many French lace makers also settled in this area.

A Genealogy page on bobbins also states that this technique came from the Flemish and Huguenots:

Bobbin lace making was a cottage industry probably introduced into England by Flemish refugees in the sixteenth century. They were Protestants escaping from the Inquisition. Many drifted to the Midlands, particularly Olney, Newport Pagnell. and Buckingham, and on into Northamptonshire. The Huguenots, lace makers from Lille in France, soon joined them. These refugees brought with them the tools of their trade and their expertise. Thus pillow lace making was established in the Midlands.

The Geni page on Huguenots tells us about their settlement in neighbouring Bedfordshire and Norwich:

Other Huguenots arriving in England settled in Bedfordshire, which was (at the time) the main centre of England’s lace industry. Huguenots greatly contributed to the development of lace-making in Bedfordshire, with many families settling in Cranfield, Bedford and Luton. Some of these immigrants moved to Norwich [East Anglia], which had accommodated an earlier settlement of Walloon weavers; they added to the existing immigrant population, which comprised about a third of the population of the city.

The Pierre Chastain site has an extensive timeline of Huguenot history. The entry for 1567-1568 reads as follows:

Huguenot thread and lace makers established in Maidstone [Kent], England. Others escaped to Cranfield in Bedfordshire and others to the shires of Oxford, Northampton and Cambridge. Huguenots established glassworks in London during this period.

An essay by a family member about the Godfrey sisters in Buckinghamshire, lace makers in the early 20th century, states:

The elderly lacemakers pictured are but three of a long line of Godfrey’s dating back, in my records, to 1654, and probably of Huguenot stock, `Godefrai’ by name. My maternal grandmother Elizabeth was one of a family of eight, and the trio pictured are her three maiden sisters with whom she lived when not out nursing at homes in the vicinity. Earlier she had married Richard Green of Olney, but he died shortly after my mother and her brother were born.

The development of lace making in England

A Sixteenth Century Industry traces the history of lace making in England. It was written in the early 20th century and discusses the making and selling of lace as well as working conditions. The photographs are marvellous.

The 32-page PDF compilation of articles and essays tells us that Continental Europe was much more advanced than England in this cottage industry (PDF pp. 9, 11):

It is true that the English made what they called ‘lace’, but this was really embroidery, whether drawn linen or cut work, very attractive certainly, but not lace as we now understand this term.

Between the 16th and 18th centuries, those who could afford it were married and buried in lace (p. 10).

Lace making, rightly associated with the poor, was also a hobby among gentlewomen. It has often been said that Catherine of Aragon, one of Henry VIII’s six wives, introduced the art to Bedfordshire when she retired there at Dower House in Ampthill Park (pp. 11, 12).

Mary Queen of Scots also made lace, which kept her occupied during her years of captivity (p. 12).

By the time Elizabeth I began her reign, lace making and design were much more sophisticated (p. 12).

Protestant refugees from Flanders and France helped to advance the industry (pp. 13, 14):

The Flemish and French Huguenots may be looked upon as the real founders in this country of the lace industry

Bucks Point is adapted from the Lace of Lille and Mechlin. It is possible that it was recognised as a distinct lace under Queen Elizabeth, and was probably made to some extent in the reign of James I, but it was firmly established in the reign of James II and William III.

The development of Bucks Point points to the influence of the Flemish from Mechlin and the French from Lille. The sentence does not say that this is the Mechlin lace of the 18th century nor that it was created in Elizabethan times.

Giddylimits‘s page on lace making tells us of another French influence:

One of the most popular and widely practised forms of lace making is Torchon Lace – this word comes from the French for dishcloth or duster. Another name for Torchon Lace was beggar’s lace and was not widely thought of but now it has made a renaissance and is popular with modern lace makers. It is also thought to be a good lace to start with as it has a structured form which is easy to pick up and follow.

The Revd Louis Fitzgerald Benson’s The Huguenots: their settlements, churches and industries in England and Ireland (1932) states:

Some lace-makers from Alenyon and Valenciennes settled at Cranfield, in Bedfordshire, in 1568 ; after which others settled at Buckingham, Stony Stratford, and Newport-Pagnell, from whence the manufacture gradually extended over the shires of Oxford, Northampton, and Cambridge. About the same time the manufacture of bone-lace, with thread obtained from Antwerp, was introduced into Devonshire by the Flemish exiles, who settled in considerable numbers at Honiton, Colyton, and other places, where the trade continued to be carried on by their descendants almost to our own time — the Flemish and French names of Stocker, Murch, Spiller, Genest, Maynard, Gerard, Raymunds, Rochett, Kettel, etc., being still common in the lace-towns of the west.

In the 17th century, men as well as women wore lace. Charles II wore a lot of it, with elaborate cuffs and jabots. William III once spent an unimaginable £2,459 on lace alone one year (p. 13, A Sixteenth Century Industry). Most of his subjects would have struggled to earn or spend £1 at any one time.

Lace in 18th and 19th century England

As the lace industry developed in England, more styles from other countries were absorbed into the repertoire. By the 18th century, the migration from Flanders and France had largely ended.

Fashion changes and the elaborate lace clothing of the centuries before gradually gave way to more modest trim. New styles refreshed the linens market: tablecloths, d’oyleys (p. 21), towels, bedclothes and curtains.

Maltese was a highly popular style in the 18th century. Buckinghamshire lace makers developed an offshoot of this called Bucks Cluny which also incorporated aspects of old Italian lace on display at the Cluny Museum in Paris (p. 18). Auvergne was another lace style also popular at the time.

Although we think of lace as being crafted exclusively by women prior to mechanisation, men and boys also made it. An article in The Agricultural History Review tells us that, in the countryside, it was a good means of making an earning when fields lay fallow. A farmer’s wife and daughters would often make it all year round. Farmers and their sons were also known to make it seasonally when not tending the fields. In towns and cities, lace making was taught to the poor, particularly children. Lace schools developed, run by a lace mistress. The primary activity was supplemented with just enough reading, writing and arithmetic to get by. Lace making was also promoted as a good way for the disabled to make a living. As long as their fingers were nimble, these people had the possibility of a livelihood.

Pay was minimal. Lace sellers made the most money. Middlemen paid a pittance for the lace they bought from home workers. The slightest flaw could cause a worker’s lace to remain unsold. Middlemen also expected undivided loyalty. A lace maker who sold wares to a competitor might find herself or himself unable to sell any further without considerable difficulty.

By the end of the 19th century, mechanised lace making was widespread in cities, especially in Nottingham. ‘A Brief History of Hosiery and Lacemaking in Nottingham’ describes the changes that the Industrial Revolution brought to the industry.

John Heathcoat had patented a mechanical way for bobbins to be ‘thrown’ one over the other. When his patent expired in the first half of the 19th century, these machines were widely reproduced by other manufacturers. Some were small enough to fit in a house, enabling piece work from home for those who were unable to work in a factory.

Nottingham boomed. There were bobbin makers in and around the city. Piece workers had to have their mechanised lace bleached and presentable for sale, so small industries grew to meet this need. Office occupations — bookkeeping, stocktaking — were also a part of keeping all sorts of factories running profitably.

In the West Country, lace making centred around Honiton and nearby towns, especially Branscombe and Beer. An essay from Branscombe Parish on lace making says that the lace from this area was called Honiton Lace because it was shipped from there. The area was already making lace by the time Huguenots arrived in the 16th century. The Honiton pillow technique used fishbones for pins and small sheep’s bones for bobbins. Branscombe and Beer each had their distinctive designs.

As with Nottingham, Honiton’s industry boomed during the 19th century. As the Napoleonic Wars had disrupted European trade, English lace could easily be made and shipped overseas. Queen Victoria ordered the lace flounce for her wedding dress from Tuckers of Branscombe in 1839. In 1863, Tuckers supplied lace for Princess Alexandra’s wedding dress. The Ford and Chick families also had successful lace businesses.

As successful as the Honiton industry was, it was still handmade and, therefore, could not compete long-term with Nottingham’s mechanisation. (Tiverton, Devon, also had a mechanised factory, Heathcotes.) There was local disapproval, too, of working conditions. Lady Trevelyan began commissioning her own work directly to avoid middlemen. She paid lace makers a higher price than the established businesses.

20th century decline

Although small-scale lace making continues in the Honiton area and is still commissioned by the Royal Family, it largely died out by the 20th century.

Buckinghamshire’s lace makers could not compete with ‘cheap Chinese and other foreign lace’ (p. 24, A Sixteenth Century Industry). ‘Mrs H Armstrong’ — in reality, Harry Armstrong — established The Cottage Lace Workers’ Agency at Olney. The Agency supplied thread, took orders and sold lace ‘in a businesslike way’.

Meanwhile, in Nottingham at the turn of the century, 20,000 people — mostly women — were employed in lace making. However, the French and German lace making industries were more competitive and the city endured periods of boom and bust, depending on what was in vogue when.

The Great War hit the city hard. One of the pre-eminent firms, Thomas Adams Ltd, had problems collecting debts from South America and Russia. Even when the war ended, the firm never recovered and had to close parts of the business and sell part of its premises to other unrelated companies.

During the Depression, the city’s Lace Market was gradually broken up. Printers, booksellers, box makers and others moved in. A decade later, Nottingham suffered damage from air raids. The lace manufacturers produced mosquito netting and camouflage nets for the war effort. After the war ended, although new lace markets developed overseas, the new products for export required new machines and new premises. These were built on the outskirts of Nottingham.

Thomas Adams Ltd closed in 1950.

Efforts from Nottingham City and Nottinghamshire County councils have been under way since the 1960s to preserve the buildings of the once-great Lace Market.

Conclusion

Debate will continue to go on as to the influence that Huguenots and possibly the Flemish had on English lace making. As the objection to Huguenot involvement is recent, I can only think that they — and the Flemish — helped to perfect our styles and technique, making us more competitive for a while.

If we did have the pillow technique before their arrival, they might have brought us better-quality ones along with superior bobbins. Their weaving techniques were no doubt different, too. One can imagine that thread from Antwerp was probably finer than our original product as well. After all, Huguenots and the Flemish transformed our silk weaving dramatically.

Whatever the answer turns out to be, we had a once-great industry. Sadly, as with silk weaving, it died a slow death in the battle with progress.

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