ID: PH01_SPL / Elaine Barker

TitleStraw Plaiting
AbstractLet me take you back to Peldon in 1815.

John Haxell (also spelt Haxcell), whose family gave Haxells Farm its name, was running a small private school for boys. He ran his school from a double cottage somewhere near St Ives Hill, this was 20 years before the Church School was built next to St Mary's Church.

John Haxell was also Overseer of the Poor for the Parish and one of his duties was to arrange 'apprenticeships' for the children of the poor. This often involved working in agriculture for the boys or service for the girls and in the case of young Fanny Pain, as we shall see, straw plaiting.

Amongst his 'Disbustments' for Peldon he notes in the Overseers' Accounts.

March 10th 1815. Paid to Jacob Brown for Larning Fany Pain to Plat in the Straw. 10 shillings.

As a supplementary income for poor families, straw plaiting had become a significant cottage industry in some parts of rural Essex. Already established elsewhere in the 17th century, straw plaiting grew throughout the 18th century becoming an important part of the economies of Hertfordshire, Bedfordshire, parts of Buckinghamshire, Essex and Suffolk. It was introduced to Essex in 1790 by the Marquis and Marchioness of Buckingham who lived at Gosfield Hall. In 1813, Arthur Young in his General View of the Agriculture of the County of Essex wrote that it was... one of the greatest temporal blessings to that place

In Thomas Wright's History of Essex (1830) he reported

The labouring population of Gosfield have received a substantial benefit from the introduction of the straw-plat manufacture by the marquis and marchioness of Buckingham, which though at first of difficult establishment, has now spread over the country to a considerable distance.

In a note to the above, Wright gives further, rather amusing, information regarding the Buckinghams' struggles in getting their scheme off the ground.

The first hats produced were of a coarse and unsightly appearance which no person would wear, and it seemed hopeless to attempt their introduction as articles of dress, but Lady Buckingham decorated one with ribbons and wore it in sight of the whole village; the marquis went to church in another; and at length, by extraordinary perseverance, their benevolent purpose was completely accomplished.

Another report tells us the Marquis hung his straw hat ostentatiously over the front of the Hall pew!

1815, the year of Fanny's tuition in straw plaiting, saw the end of the Napoleonic wars which had extended over 20 years. The country had gone into a depression. Farmers who had grown fat on high corn prices during the wars had overstretched themselves and many went bust. There was an influx of men who had fought in the wars wanting jobs and the farmers were not paying living wages. Farmers had also started to embrace mechanisation which meant fewer working hours for their men. The aftermath was one of distress and suffering.

The low agricultural wages led to labourers attempting to unionise and, in frustration, taking direct action to protest at their lot. Starting with the 'Swing' riots, the burning of hayricks and destruction of machinery in the 1830s, the nineteenth century was to see unrest, lockouts, and waves of emigration of young farm labourers.

Neither was it easy for the labourers' wives and children to supplement the family income. Following the Napoleonic wars, Colchester's cloth industry, already on the wane, was to decline finally and rapidly leaving the women and children, who had hitherto done piecework at home, with little chance of work. Straw plaiting was a boon.

Starting with bundles of straw, Essex women and children would work through the process of splitting, plaiting and dyeing it. The plait was then made into straw hats and bonnets.

During the Wars this cottage industry benefitted hugely from the embargo on imported straw and went on to develop rapidly in the 1840s, probably in response to the agricultural depression. Straw plaiting continued to thrive into the mid to late 19th century reaching its peak around 1870. However, with competition from Japan it fell apart during that decade.

Although it had been a great success, not everyone was happy! Women and children could earn more straw plaiting than the average farm labourer and its popularity in some areas caused a shortage of girls going into service or agricultural work

What happened to Fanny Pain we don't know. Although there are numerous entries dating back to 1760 in the Parish registers for members of the 'Payne' family it seems Fanny was not actually born in Peldon.

Was Fanny the only girl to be engaged in straw-plaiting? Again we don't know, in Peldon's mid-nineteenth century censuses if wives and children had jobs they are not recorded, just the occupation of the head of the family. However, it seems likely in this rural area, in a time of agricultural depression and a ready supply of straw on the doorstep, that families' meagre incomes were supplemented by straw plaiting.

Elaine Barker
Peldon History Project

AuthorElaine Barker
SourceMersea Museum