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Straw Plaiting in North Mymms Parish
by Jenny Rackstraw

chancellor's school
Straw Plaiting near St Albans
from Illustrated London News, May 14th.1853 (Artist William Lee)
Straw plaiting had been carried on in England from Elizabethan times, but with straw imported from Italy.

During the Napoleonic wars, in the early 1800s, the straw plaiting industry increased in England owing to the blockade, and English straw had to be used instead of Italian.

Hertfordshire was one of the counties where the straw was of superior quality. Grasses and rushes were also used for plaiting and making bands.

A child 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. In 1804, Arthur Young said that after six weeks a girl could earn eight shillings to fifteen shillings a week, and women could earn five shillings a day.

By starting so young, the girls learned well and straw plaiting became a life-long occupation.

Dealers bought the standing corn, after it was threshed, raked and sorted. It was then sold to the, straw plaiters at markets.

The straw plaiters split the straws lengthwise with iron splitters and plaited by hand in a variety of patterns, into five, seven, or twenty plaits. Much plaiting was done indoors, but it could be done sitting outside, or even walking along.

A great deal of straw plaiting was done in North Mymms parish, as shown by the 1851 Census records.

Water End

In Water End in 1851, there were four women straw plaiters, one of whom was a pauper and straw plaiter. The heads of these households were all labourers, who had been born in North Mymms, and three of their unmarried daughters were straw plaiters.

Welham Green

In Welham Green there were 24 straw plaiters. Of these, one was a widow and head of the household, with one unmarried daughter - also a straw plaiter, and four children working at other jobs. One unmarried straw plaiter lived alone.

There were 21 other women and two child straw plaiters.

16 heads of households were labourers, one a pauper, two hay-binders and two bricklayers.

Of the labourers, twelve were born in the parish, and the remaining heads of households were all born in nearby parishes.

The labourers had 34 children between them, six of whom were working at other jobs. The hay binders had five children, one of whom was working at a different job.

Bell Bar

In Bell Bar there were three straw plaiters, two married and one unmarried.

Two of the household heads were labourers and one a gamekeeper. One of the labourers had a child working at another job, and the gamekeeper had two children.

One of the labourers was born in North Mymms and the other and the gamekeeper were from elsewhere in the county.

Roestock

In Roestock there were 28 straw plaiters, of whom one household head was unmarried, three were widows with four children between them, two working at other jobs.

There were 14 married straw plaiters, six unmarried, two paupers and straw plaiters (widows) and two child straw plaiters.

17 other heads of households were labourers with 37 children between them, eleven of whom were working at other jobs. There was also a pauper and straw plaiter with five children, three of whom were working on other jobs. The other heads of households were one carpenter with one child, one sawyer with one child, and a wheelwright.

Eight of the labourers and two of the widowed straw plaiters were born in North Mymms, and the remainder of the heads of households were born nearby or in neighbouring counties.

Other Households in the parish

There were 14 straw plaiters elsewhere in the parish, of whom six were married, six unmarried, one a widow and one child straw plaiter.

Of the heads of these households, seven were labourers with eleven children between them, three of whom were working at other jobs. There were three farmers with four children, two working at other jobs. There was also a pauper and two carpenters, one of whom had a child working at another job, and one sawyer with four children, three of whom were working at other jobs.

Two of the labourers had been born in the parish and five in Hertfordshire or neighbouring counties. Two of the farmers had been born in North Mymms , the other in a neighbouring county. The pauper and one of the carpenters had been born in North Mymms and the other carpenter nearby. The sawyer was born in Hertfordshire.

Other women in North Mymms parish were engaged in more skilled straw-work. There were three plait weavers, five hat makers and five hat weavers. The hat makers were daughters, who were apparently using their mothersí straw plait to make the hats. The hat makers were all daughters of tradesmen, who were born in the parish, or in neighbouring parishes.

It would seem that most of the straw plaiting was carried out by wives and daughters of labourers to augment the family income, as the women could earn more than their husbands who were working at labouring jobs.

Straw plaiting was also done by tradesmensí wives, but their daughters carried on the more skilled craft of hat making.

Another point to note was that all carrying on straw plaiting and allied work in North Mymms in 1851 were either born in the parish or elsewhere in Hertfordshire and neighbouring counties where straw plaiting was taught.

by Jenny Rackstraw


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