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North Mymms people in Victorian times
by Peter Kingsford

Chapter 4
The straw plaiters

Chapter 1 emphasises the importance of straw plaiting for the standard of living of working people. This chapter deals in more detail with the straw plaiters who lived in the parish and the work they did. From the census enumerators’ returns a good deal can be learned about these women, where they lived, their ages, whether they were married, single or widowed, what their husbands’ or fathers’ occupations were, how many children they had to support. Some of them kept at straw plaiting for many years, and changed to other work when straw plaiting came to an end.

For although this home industry has a long history, it lasted only some thirty years after the year of the Great Exhibition. From thirty plaiters in the parish in 1841, the number rose to seventy-four in 1851, fell to thirty-two in 1861, fell again to eight in 1871 and had disappeared by 1881. But in the heyday of the forties and fifties all ages from seven to seventy were busy at work in the cottages, earning sometimes as much as their menfolk and making a vital contribution to the family income. Some mothers had their daughters working with them at it, like Rebecca Reynolds, wife of a small farmer in Hog Lane, and her daughters, Ann and Rebecca. Others, with names still present today in the parish, such as Hannah Pollard in Pooleys Lane and Jane Webb in Roestock, did the same.

As that suggests, the women lived all over the parish, most of them in the four hamlets comprising it. The largest number of twenty-eight were in Roestock perhaps because it was best placed for the walk to St Albans where the plait was sold, or because it was probably the poorest of the hamlets, populated almost entirely by agricultural labourers. Welham Green had twenty-four plaiters in Balloon Corner and Pooleys Lane, Water End four and Bell Bar three. The remainder lived in the northern end of the parish, at Mount Pleasant and Water Dell, also more convenient for St Albans.

Most of the male heads of the households to which the plaiters belonged were farm workers, the lowest paid men. For them, the plaiters’ earnings were all important, especially when there were many young children under working age. Such were James Day of Water End with six children of whom only two were old enough to work, Caroline, fourteen, as a plaiter, James, twelve as a labourer, and James Longstaff of Balloon Corner whose wife’s earnings as a plaiter helped to maintain six children and his widowed mother in law.

Some plaiters were the wives or daughters of better paid workers such as gardeners gamekeepers and haybinders (readers may recall the first, and last, occupation of Thomas Hardy’s Mayor of Casterbridge). Mary Ann Harding of Mount Pleasant was the daughter of a gardener, widower and Chelsea pensioner with two infant children. Rebecca, wife of George Tirley, gamekeeper at Bell Bar, plaited when she was not looking after her two little children. Charlotte Vyse, wife of the hay-binder in Welham Green, had five children to keep, only one of whom was a wage earner.

Others were related to the village craftsmen who had a higher standard of living. Thus there were the bricklayer’s sister, Jane Perk in Pooleys Lane, the shoemaker’s daughter, Sarah Peck at Bell Bar, and Ann Hutchings, the carpenter’s wife at Mount Pleasant. Two carpenters, George and John Willson, perhaps father and son, at Roestock, had wives who plaited. There was also Elizabeth Freeman, wife of the wheelwright at Bell Bar, aged seventy one and perhaps past his best work.

Lower than those skilled men, but earning a shilling or two more than the farm workers were a handful of men on the Great Northern Railway. Mary Samuel of Hog Lane, wife of a permanent way labourer, combined plaiting with caring for three children aged four, three and one. But those most in need of the money from plaiting were the widows. Hannah Pollard, already mentioned, was one and there were others. Three of them lived in Roestock. Rebecca Gray had one son a shepherd, another a letter carrier, a third, aged twelve, a farm labourer, and two daughters at school; she also received parish relief. Sarah Dickins did not, but her daughter plaited with her and she had only one child still at school. It was a narrow margin. The third, Mary Norris, had only a lodger with her, also a widow, plaiter and pauper, both of them seventy years old. Even so they were better off than in the workhouse in Hatfield.

North Mymms was part of a much wider scene. For over a hundred years the industry had been flourishing in Hertfordshire, Bedfordshire, Essex and Buckinghamshire. Plait making in Hatfield and St Albans was reported in 1804 by Arthur Young in his General View of the Agriculture of Hertfordshire. It developed in response to the demand for straw hats made in Luton and St Albans. The seventy-four plaiters in the parish were a small fraction of the 8753 in the county in 1851. In Harpenden, for instance, not only the women and girls but also some men and lads plaited to supplement their wages, as Edwin Grey vividly describes in his Cottage Life in a Hertfordshire Village. That village had a plaiting school where infants of three were sent to learn the skills of the trade. Men may well have been plaiters in North Mymms, but only one is mentioned. He was George Howard who, in 1841, was the nineteen-year-old son of an agricultural labourer, living at Marshmoor with his three sisters, also plaiters.

Such an extensive home industry was bound to attract contemporary comment from superior persons, some favourable, some not. Many years earlier, before plaiting had become so popular, William Cobbett, champion of the underdog, wrote that plaiting "of all employment is the best suited to the wives and children of country labourers." Later, however, in the 1860s, the Newcastle Royal Commission into the State of Popular Education reported against it, concerned as it was with the conditions in the plait schools. The Agricultural Employment Commission of 1867-9 went much further:-

"The great want of chastity among the plait girls probably arises from the early age at which, when plait is good, the girls become independent of their parents, and often leave their homes, and from the fact that male and female plaiters go about the lanes together in summer engaged in work which has not even the wholesome corrective of more or less physical exhaustion"

Taking the same moral stance, A J Munby, author of Man of Two Worlds, a gentleman who married his servant, wrote in his diary in 1863 that "At St Albans young women, who are all straw plaiters, have a very bad reputation."

The last word on this aspect may, however, be left to the journalist of the Morning Chronicle who, writing on Labour and the Poor in the Rural Districts in 1850, talked to a young woman plaiter in company with her admirer and reported their conversation:

"Sometimes I Don ‘t make more than 3s.; sometimes as much as 6s. a week. I’ve got a savings-bank book, but I’m going to draw it out in the spring," said she - a blush at the same time stealing over her features. ‘So am I, too, ‘ said the young man ... ‘We’re both a goin’ to draw out, and we’re a goin’ to be married on the plait money. Ain’t we, Mary! When I leaves off work at night I sets on to the plait; I am not very first rate at it, but still I can manage to do a little bit. Well, I’ve yarned a couple of shillings or so every week for ever so long, and I’ve put it all away, and a little besides too, so I thinks we may get on middlin’ Like. Do’ant you, sir and do’ant you too?’ again addressing himself to his affianced one, and accompanying his question by a salute..."

With such prospects women continued with plaiting over the decades, handing it on to their daughters. There are many examples of families staying with plaiting for more than ten years. Hannah Pollard, again, a plaiter in 1841 was still one ten years later as were also her daughter and her two daughters in law. Jane Webb did the same, followed by her two daughters. Some remained plaiting even longer. Two of the surviving few in 1871 had been plaiting twenty years earlier, Martha Childs and Ann Morris, both wives of agricultural labourers at Water End. The Childs family were connected by marriage with the plaiting family of the Willsons. Martha, by 1871, lived with her widowed and pauper mother, her son and his three daughters at school. Ann was with her father and his grandson. There was much continuity as well as change.

This domestic industry was closely linked with farming. The farmers stood to gain in two ways. They sold the straw to their own labourers or to an itinerant dealer who supplied the plaiters and bought their plait. They also saved on their poor rates inasmuch as the plaiters earning money had less need of parish relief. The farmers indeed, sometimes earmarked a field of wheat as suitable for the straw and had it cut by hand instead of mechanically. In addition to those two sources of supply of straw there was, in some villages, the shop. In Harpenden, as Edwin Grey tells, Saunders little grocery shop sold straw bundles and bought small amounts of plait. There were such stores in North Mymms, though nothing is know of their trade.

The general method of plaiting is described by Mrs Gilbey of Weathersfield in Essex:

"My mother used to walk about three miles to a farm, the Broad Farm, to buy a large bundle of straw that the farmer had picked out for making into plait then mother would clip it into short lengths and tie it in small bunches and put it in a box with some Brimstone and light it and close the box, this was called stoving it, which would make it White, then the straw would be split up with a small Engine, there were different size engines to split the straw the size it was wanted, then mother, and my Sister and Brothers would start to make the Plait, this was done in length at twenty yards, then put on a board to straighten it out There were a good many of these lengths made during the week. On Saturdays Mother and all the Neighbours would come to Weathersfield where a man would buy it to be made into hats, but the Plait is a thing of the past now..."

There was more to plaiting than that. After the straw had been split into "splints" these were usually passed through a small mill, consisting of two rollers and a handle, often fixed behind a door. This was in order to make the splints soft and pliable. Then the plaiting began. The plaiter held a bunch of splints under her left arm, passed a couple through her lips to moisten them, and with her tongue worked them forward to start weaving them together. The plait was made in a great variety of patterns, some more complicated than others and requiring more skill. In Harpenden, for example, the women made plaits of many different kinds called plain, single-splint, pearl, bird’s eye, whipcord and so on, some of them specialising in a particular pattern. Examples of the "engine" and the splint mill maybe seen in St Albans Museum.

When the plait of twenty yards, a "score", had been finished it had to be prepared for sale. The rough ends of the splints were clipped and the plait had to be measured so that it was the correct length for the market. No tape or rule was used, but notches cut into the wooden mantel of the fireplace, at distances of 1/4 yard, 1/2 yard. Finally, the Brimstone treatment referred to earlier by Mrs Gilbey, was more often carried out on the plait itself so as to brighten it.

It seems most likely that when the North Mymms women sold their plait they went to St Albans market, unless there was a middleman in the parish about whom nothing is known. Certainly the Hatfield women had sold their plait in the weekly market there for many years. A factory for hat making had been built in St Albans. The North Mymms women may be imagined, setting off with their loops of plait on the long walk through Colney Heath, in company no doubt. According to Edwin Grey the women took their stand on the pavement in St Peters Street to wait for the plait bell to ring when the dealers came along to bargain. Having sold their plait the women bought their provisions to take home.

All that was not to last long after the mid-century. As the figures of plaiters, given earlier, indicate, the industry declined before long. Imports of plait came in from Europe after the triumph of free trade and they were followed by cheaper plait from China and Japan. Straw hats, particularly boaters, continued to be popular until the 1914-18 war and the hat industry flourished with them, but using foreign plait. Some few plaiters lingered on. In North Mymms there were two, a mother and daughter, on the census day of 1881, but they were only visitors at Colney Heath Farm.

What then happened to the plaiters of North Mymms and their domestic economy? One alternative was to make hats instead of plait. Before the plait declined there were already eleven hat makers in addition to the seventy-four plaiters. Three of them were the shepherd’s daughters, Rebecca. Eliza, and Elizabeth Scales. They were a sign of what was to come for by 1871 their number had grown to thirty-six, when the plaiters had fallen to eight. These women all described themselves as Brazilian hat makers. According to Jean Davis in Straw Plait, the Brazilian plait hat was a speciality of St Alban. Clearly, not all of the plaiters could have changed to hat making but some of them did. The names of many of the hat makers appear earlier as straw plaiters in the censuses back to 1841: the Pollard family, the Gray family, Sarah Gillians, Mary Cobb, the Brinkleys, Mary Field, the Webb family and so on. The others, no doubt, got what other work they could, Domestic service had grown and there were more laundresses, ten in the parish.

As to the Brazilian hat makers, they too disappeared in their turn. None were recorded in 1881. In fact that trade had gone too. They had been depicted in the Royal Academy in the 1850s but twenty years later that particular manufacture was lost to France where Panama hat making was already established at Nancy. Other employments for the parish women expanded. The number of domestic servants shot up to eighty-one from fifty-six ten years before, and the laundresses rose to eighteen. Men’s wages improved somewhat after the appearance of the National Agricultural Labourers’ Union. The women seem to have lost a degree of independence.

Peter Kingsford, 1986

Chapter 5 - The poor we will have always with us
Index - North Mymms people in Victorian times
Preface - North Mymms people in Victorian times
Photographs - from the book

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