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EXMOUTH'S LACE SCHOOL

 

From Peter Orlando Hutchinson's History of Sidmouth 1880:

"Passing through Branscombe, Sidbury, Newton Poppleford or other country places in this neighbourhood on a summer's day, when the doors and windows are all open, a glance here and there into the cottages will reveal a room full of children and girls fully occupied with pillows on their laps, and one or two matrons overlooking them, thus displaying a regular school for learning how to make lace. The trade as an independent maintenance however, is scarcely worth following, for it is a hard day's work that will earn a shilling. It may be observed also, the sedentary life, the contracted position of hanging over a pillow hour after hour, are conducive to anything but health."

 

Thanks to Eric Delderfield who, in 1948,  recorded the memories of an Exmouth lady who was then 91, we have an account of the way of life of East Devon lace workers in the 19th century. There were differences in the type of lace manufactured in Devon. Workers who served the two lace factories at Tiverton and Barnstaple used embroidery techniques to ornament machine-made lace. So-called "Honiton" lace was entirely hand-made for the luxury market and was based on the application of "sprigs" or small motifs on to a net-like background. Outworkers shaped the background and applied sprigs and edgings to form collars, cuffs, handkerchiefs and larger pieces such as wedding veils.

Anyone who has seen Devon lace of either type will see at once that a high degree of skill was required to produce such fine work and these skills were supplied by the Lace Schools which existed in many places. Mrs. Dixon, who was interviewed by Eric Delderfield, supplied information about the school kept by Mary Ann Long which was based in Little Bicton Place in Exmouth in the 1860s. Girls - and boys - as young as four would have been sent to her to learn a wide range of skills and, most especially, the patterns for the various "sprigs" used locally which would have been passed from generation to generation and were guarded jealously. Students gradually specialised according to their talent and there is a distinct difference between the lace worker who made up finished pieces from the work of others and the sprig-makers who produced tiny motifs of "pillow" lace.

Exmouth lacemakers c.1906

Exmouth lacemakers c. 1906

The woman on the left is thought to be Mary Ann Long. Many men turned to lace making in the winter when they could not go to sea.

         

Mrs. Dixon describes the school in Little Bicton Place:

"The Principal was a middle-aged spinster named Mary Ann Long. An out and out martinet, her word was backed up with a cane of extra length. Her backward charges used to have to sit at the door on a small stool with a dunce's cap on their heads."

Lace schools in other places would have had a different curriculum. The lace makers of Chawleigh for instance, needed a thorough knowledge of the edging and filling stitches which were worked onto  plain pieces of machine-made net produced in nearby factories. They also needed to know how to lay out patterns, make repeats and adjust  patterns to create corners - all skilled tasks so they learned to read a little and to count as well. Workers on this type of lace are sometimes referred to as "lace runners". Lace workers in East Devon called themselves "pillow-lace makers".

Lace workers were supplied with thread by the lace masters. It was weighed on delivery and the completed work was weighed again on collection - any deficiencies had to be made up by the worker from his or her wage. These were the times before compulsory education and children as young as 8 or 9 could provide a family with a small but useful supplementary wage. This, however, was seldom paid in cash - all workers were usually forced to take payment in goods from shops owned by the lace masters.

 

 
 
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