Museum sign
The Cowper and Newton Museum
The Lace Makers

Women worked at the pillows for ten to twelve hours a day. No time could be spared for domestic chores. A woman was employed in the Town of Olney to do ordinary mending. Servants were hard to get; women could earn more at lace making and they had more independence.

William Cowper commented to John Newton, who was trying to find a nursemaid for his adopted daughter (his niece Betsy Catlett):

"the only thing a girl would dandle on her knee in these parts was a lace pillow".

Poverty is relative: the lace makers could earn higher wages than farm workers but only by unremitting toil - and there were other disadvantages: if their children were not in lace schools, the boys especially, roamed the streets in gangs getting into all manner of mischief.

Also, their health suffered:

"The women and girls (of Olney) have a bleached appearance".
Mrs E. Wilson 'Olney and the Lacemakers' 1864

Evidence of the poor health of lace makers is to be found in The 6th Report of the Medical Officer of the Children's Employment Commission:

Between the ages of 15 and 25:

"More than double the number of females died of tuberculosis and other lung diseases than did males".

This pattern of ill health was laid down in poorly ventilated overcrowded lace schools that girls were sent to from a young age.

Silver End in Olney - next door to the Museum - where many lace makers lived...

"...was the seat of cholera and typhus epidemics of 1831 and 1849".

Mrs Clara Webb told a story which indicates conditions in the lace making industry. She remembers walking with her mother, shortly after World War One, from Paulerspury to the other side of Towcester (some 15 miles, 24km) to deliver and receive payment for some lace which had been privately ordered. On arriving Mrs Herbert and Clara were informed by servants that the mistress of the house had left word that "the lace was no longer wanted; fringes being all the rage now".

The story illustrates several points:

  • that the changes in fashion after the First World War; hastened the demise of the bobbin lace industry;
  • that only an order through the Lace Associations guaranteed payment;
  • the treatment of the working classes by the more affluent!
Mrs Hoddle of Olney
and her daughter Elizabeth, circa 1865