In 2019, I wrote my Masters dissertation on the rural economy of two Buckinghamshire villages, Bierton and Wing. It was a mix of economic history and a microhistory of the area. Straw plaiting played a really important part within one of the villages and that was also discussed. I also looked at health and migration, which ties in with straw plaiting and the decline in agriculture. This is the straw plaiting part. I thoroughly enjoyed writing my dissertation!
Men and women of Bierton and Wing were involved in the straw plaiting industry. Straw plaiting could be carried out by children as young as two or three, and it was a popular occupation for women, replacing their work in the fields. Straw plaits were created by plaiting specially cut straw lengths, which were then sold to hatters and turned into straw hats and bonnets. In 1851 the main straw plaiting centres were between St. Albans and Leighton Buzzard. With Wing only three miles from Leighton Buzzard it created good opportunities for the plaiters.
During the eighteenth century straw plaiting had been a good financial supplement to agricultural wages, though this was only possible at certain times of the year due to the nature of the plait work. In Pamela Sharpe’s article on Essex plaiters, the 1834 Poor Law report claimed that it was mainly children and single women who plaited. In Wing, 1851, there were sixty-three plaiters who were married, with seventy-five under the age of ten. In Bierton there were thirteen who were married, with five being recorded as under the age of ten.
Plait schools were recorded in both Bierton and Wing. Although there are no records of the conditions within them, David Thorburn’s study on Plaiting Schools suggests that they were unpleasant with the potential of ‘fifty children ranging from four to fourteen years of age’ being in one room. In 1867, an extension to the 1860 Factory Act was added which stopped children under the age of eight being used in factories. In 1868 Leah Taylor, of Wing, was charged with having children under 8 in her charge, in contravention of the Factory Act. She was reminded of the new rules and just charged costs, on the grounds of ignorance. In March 1869, Bierton was recorded as having two plaiting schools as well as a Dame School. The National Schoolmaster complained that there were less children in attendance in September, mainly due to the plait schools as children were plaiting after the harvest.
In 1870, the Education Act created compulsory education for those aged between five and thirteen years of age. Despite it being compulsory there were still some parents who kept their children at home plaiting, rather than sending them to schools. In 1873 Reuben Syratt and William Cuttler, both of Wing, were sent before the Magistrates for keeping their children at home, plaiting. Rueben claimed that it was too expensive to send his daughter, Emma, to school as well as losing her plait money. The magistrates advised him to send her to school and then plait in her spare time, he was also fined. William had already sent his daughter to school by the time of the hearing, and he was just made to pay costs.
The 1867 Factory and the 1870 Education Act were not the only laws to be broken over straw plaiting. Three Wing plaiters were accused of stealing ninety yards of plait, off the back of a cart belonging to a plait dealer. They had bribed a young girl, who had been left in charge of the cart. The police were notified and they set up a watch at a local dealers in Leighton Buzzard. Ruth and Fanny Bolton, along with Ruth Stevens, were caught and sent to trial. Ruth Bolton was sentenced to two months in Bedford Gaol, Fanny Bolton was given six weeks and Ruth Stevens sentenced to two months hard labour. The plait proved to be an expensive commodity
Most studies place the decline of the straw plait industry during the 1870s, due to cheaper imports and lack of diversity amongst the local plaiters. The decline shows in Bierton between the 1871 and 1881 census records, by 1891 there are no recorded plaiters. However, in Wing, this decline is not complete until the start of the twentieth century. Due to the drastic decline in Buckinghamshire, there was an attempt at a revival of the industry towards the end of the nineteenth century. The decline had been blamed on the depopulation of villages throughout the county, as women and children no longer helped to supplement the household income. Work had to be looked for elsewhere and most villages lost population due to this. However, Bierton and Wing seemed to have survived this drop in population numbers due to the plait decline.
In 1891 Buckinghamshire County Council had been petitioned by a number of notable people, including Leopold de Rothschild, of Wing, concerning the lack of adult education in the county, straw plaiting being one of those. The Technical Education Committee decided to invest £100 for a revival scheme to teach the ‘Brilliance’ plait design and encourage new designs for plaiters. It was decided that this would create a new interest in local plaiting and enable competition with Switzerland and Italy, two of England’s main rivals at the time. Wing was one of the main villages that held these classes as part of the Technical Education that had been set up.
There was some opposition to the teaching of plaiting in special classes, firstly it was argued that girls should be taught ironing and cooking and boys agriculture and horticulture. Secondly, that plaiting was something that could not be taught at a later stage, and the skill could only be taught whilst children were small. However, by the November of 1893 the County Council reported that the revival could be achieved and they considered their £100 well spent. The revival, however, was short-lived and the straw plait industry in Wing had completely died out by the 1911 census. There are village recollections of small straw plaiting groups right up until the mid-twentieth century in Wing, in the same cottage as Leah Taylor’s straw plait school was held in the previous century. The straw plait industry had been vital to the economy of these villages, as shown by the attempt to revive it.
Sharpe, Pamela ,’The Women’s Harvest: Straw-Plaiting and the Representation of Labouring Women’s Employment, c.1793-1885’, Rural History, 5(2)
Thorburn, David, ’Gender, work and schooling in the plait villages’. The Local Historian, Vol. 19 No. 3 (August 1989)
Horn, Pamela, ’Child workers in the pillow lace and straw plait trades of Victorian Buckinghamshire and Bedfordshire.’ The Historical Journal, Vol. XVII 1974