This article is reproduced by kind permission of This England Magazine, P.O. Box 52, Cheltenham, Gloucestershire GL50 1YQ

Buckskin and Old Lace


Bernard A Barton

Whilst pondering over the old photographs - taken by my father at the turn of the century - it is hardly surprising that, amongst the memories stirred it should bring to mind the title of that dramatic thriller `Arsenic and Old Lace', and not unnaturally I realised that a similar choice of words could well serve as a caption to this story. Obviously the poison element had to be eliminated, and though the word `Buckskin' hardly matches up with `Lace' it conveniently fell into place as a double-meaning substitute for `Arsenic'; for my story is located in BUCKS and my main characters are my own KIN.

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 Godfrey Sisters Lacemaking
The Godfrey home was in Stoke Goldington, that small village straddling the main road between Northampton and Newport Pagnell and not far from Olney that noted Buckinghamshire Lace Area dating back to the 15th century. Though their cottage had eight rooms and was double-fronted there was nothing striking about its appearance. It faced directly on to the main street, but once behind those thick walls there was no denying it rustic charm, its primitive construction enhanced by typical Victorian furnishings and fittings

Once in the company of those immensely human characters the Godfrey sisters, the warm homely atmosphere became very evident; such fine examples of the simple life and unselfish devotion to Christian beliefs bountifully expressed in regular worship and loyal service rendered to Chapel and Sunday School, just over the road - however that is another story. (See TheChapel that Blossomed for 100 Years)

When as early as 1819 John Heathcoat found it practicable to make lace by machine, subsequent developments in that field meant that the Godfrey sisters and their contemporaries found that their generation had unfortunately been born at a time when the hand made lace industry was already past its peak.

Nevertheless though this was obviously to their disadvantage the making of pillow lace was, to them, still proving a convenient means whereby the womenfolk could, in their spare time, supplement the not too generous wages of their menfolk who were mainly dependent upon agricultural work in the locality. For many years the strength of this work force was not allowed to diminish and instruction in the art of lacemaking by hand was given a high priority in these communities, and children, even at the tender age of six, were receiving tuition at special schools established for this purpose. What could be more appropriate at this point but to quote an extract from Thomas Wright's book `The Romance of the Lace Pillow' page 105, second edition 1982, viz .. `In the middle of a field called Dunsty at Stoke Goldington, is an old ash tree, under which in summertime the girls and boys used to sit and work ..', Dunsty being a popular playing field when I was a youngster! The tree still stands, but it is in a very sorry state.

At the commencement of the 20th century, when my association with Stoke Goldington began, most of the cottagers still had one or more members of the family happy and content to continue making lace for such small rewards as were then available. The Godfrey sisters were no exception and in that industrious household every spare moment - but never on a Sunday - was spent at the pillow, and seated in the front parlour the characteristic `jingle' of beaded bobbins being nimbly tossed over each other, was pleasant music indeed. Naturally when conditions permitted it was not unusual to find these good ladies outside in the open air taking advantage of the better light.

The Godfrey Sister's Cottage
Here then was an industry relying almost entirely upon the diligence of a very mixed group of domesticated part-time workers, with but little experience of the business world outside their small domain. As the industry developed a uniform pattern of trading evolved, with agents or buyers operating as middlemen collecting consignments or merchandise from such centres as Olney, Newport Pagnell, High Wycombe, Aylesbury etc, for sale at pre-arranged points. One of these early dealers was a Ferdinando Shrimpton of Penn. The London Lace Markets where the City Milliners and merchants met, were usually held at the `George Inn', Aldersgate Street, or the nearby `Bull and Mouth' in St Martin's. They returned with stocks of thread, silk etc, which were eventually to be made available to the lacemakers.

With this pattern of trade it was clearly very desirable that the first link in the chain should be a reliable person having the full confidence of the lacemakers. The area around Stoke Goldington was well served in this respect by the Brothers Armstrong one of whom was the proprietor of a drapery and mixed business with premises in the village high street almost opposite the Godfrey cottage. His pony and trap made a familiar sight as he made his way round the countryside combining lace buying with his other business activities. I well recall the tall bearded figure stooping to enter the Godfrey front parlour, there to collect completed orders and supply thread and other lacemaking paraphernalia, also to introduce new patterns to cater for special orders.

My parents as regular visitors from the `outside world' were, I remember, inclined to be critical of what seemed poor payment for so many hours of labour - but that was over 80 years ago when prices were already reflecting the growing competition from machine made lace; moreover if the following extracts from letters published in the `Victorian Working Class' are in any way representative, then the lot of some of the workers was not always a happy one ... viz '.. This is the real British lace, pillow lace, all made with bobbins, there's not a bit of machinery in the town. No, and I wish there was none nowhere else, that I do. Now I can't make more than six yards in a week, do all I can, and that's a shilling, that's just what it is. If I can till it comes to a dozen yards I would be able to get twopence halfpenny a yard, that is 2/3d a dozen. They won't give us more than 2d a yard for less than a dozen yards because they're got to pay something to the lace joiners who join the pieces ..' Another person who lived in a small village said.. `that she was usually employed on Point Ground Edging. The last time I went to sell my lace to Mr ..., I saw one poor woman crying in the streets and asked her what was the matter and she said that when she went to sell her lace Mr ... had baited her, and had got off 6/-from what she ought to have had 15/- for. He wouldn't give her more than 9/- for the lot. The poor woman said that she depended on the money to pay her rent with, but they saw she had a good lot for it and so they made her take what they liked for it. Mr ... won't turn nothing away; he will buy anything if you'll only take his price.' There is nobody today that works at the lace that can't live upon what they earn. The girls that isn't married and works at lace, are obliged all of them to have something from the Parish to keep 'em from starving - osr else they're not virtuous and goes on the streets.'

Gwen Barton (The authors sister)
Sadly the old Godfrey cottage is no more, demolished some years ago; but some more recent members of the Armstrong family can still be found in their old premises. Whether any of the younger generation of villagers can make pillow lace is questionable, though its revival as an art form, is of course growing in popularity in many parts of the count-,,. My recent visits to the area have been greatly enriched by personal contacts with the remaining members of the Godfrey's; Green's; Wesley's; Warren's, and other links which have come about as the result of intermarriage which was very prevalent some years age.

These relationships are naturally somewhat involved, yet to me the term 'BUCKS-KIN' still seems appropriate. And continuing that theme it came as a surprise to me to find when, over 60 years ago, I met my wife-to-be, Cumbrian born Miss Shrimpton, that her paternal forbears might also 'nave hailed from Buckinhamshire! Her father Victor (born 1872) who died in 1901 before she was born, was the son of Robert Shrimpton who is recorded as being a Finisher with the family firm of Shrimpton's who had a thriving needle factory in Redditch. The connection with Bucks was only established later when as more recent study took me to Long Crendon (Bucks) the earlier home of the needle making industry; a village then boasting of quite a `colony' of Shrimpton's. It was from here, midway in the 19th century, that certain . members of that family migrated towards Redditch where the industry soon established itself and continued to flourish. Clear evidence of the Shrimpton influence on this development is to be found in that delightful museum housed and excellently presented in the original Forge Mill situated on the outskirts of Redditch. Needles and Lace might reasonably be said to have something in common, therefore it is not unlikely that the Lace Dealer (mentioned earlier) Ferdinando Shrimpton could well have been linked with the needle-making Shrimpton's. Summarising all this perhaps it will be understood that, on behalf of my late wife, some personal satisfaction is felt in being able to conclude that her forbears, like my own, were 'BUCKS-KIN'.

Bernard A. Barton

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