A few years ago, I went to a talk on the Industrial Exhibition of Aylesbury Vale. I was so fascinated by it that I decided to base my Master’s thesis around it. The chapter included the impact of the Rothschild family on Aylesbury Vale, didn’t make the final cut into my thesis. However, it is such an interesting aspect of Buckinghamshire history, I can’t quite let it fall by the wayside.
The 1851 Great Exhibiton of London, partly bank rolled by the Rothschild Bank, was a great success. What followed was countless Industrial Exhibitons across the country. All the major industrial cities held Exhibitions, mainly showcasing the industry and innovations that were a part of them. The Aylesbury Vale one was not much different, except in one regard, it showcased the talents of the home workers of the Vale. Though industry did feature, so did lace making, straw plaiting, carpentry, to name a few. It took weeks of research to build a picture of the Exhibition, looking at newspapers from across the country, as very little is known about it.
As I was researching, I got the sense of what the intention was behind it. The competition for lace making had moved up a gear by the introduction of machinery in places such as Nottingham. Straw plaiting from abroad was finer and more cost effective, Bucks was in the process of losing two of its main cottage industries. For a time, after the Exhibition, the two industries picked up and managed to survive after other areas had stopped. There was also the issue of Aylesbury, a large town with very little industry. It was only about two years after the Exhibtion that industries moved into Aylesbury, creating more jobs and opportunities for those from the town, and surrounding villages.
How much of this was down to the Exhibition is hard to say. Aylesbury Vale had not been seen as industry worthy before, though Hazell, Watson and Viney had moved out of London prior to the Exhibiton, and into Aylesbury. None of the cottage industries had taken off into factories, as they had done in other parts of the country. With excellent connections to London and Birmingham, it is hard to see why Aylesbury was left until the latter part of the nineteenth century to become an industrial area. It could be argued, that the Exhibition, making the front page of national papers, may have encouraged people to look at Aylesbury Vale with a different view. One thing that is sure, once industry moved in, Aylesbury would never be the same again.
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
V.E. Day is always thought of as a huge celebration for the end of the war in Europe. In some places it was just that. Street parties, bands, lots of flag waving. V.E. Day in Wing was slightly different.
On the 9th April 1945, R.A.F. Wing became one of the repatriation airfields for Prisoners of War, as part of Operation Exodus. These prisoners were being released as the Allies surged further towards their end goal. The 8th May fell 6 weeks into the Operation, by the end, 2 weeks later, Wing would have seen a total of 1,269 planes landed, carrying 32,822 men. Though British servicemen made up the bulk of those landing, there was also a large contingent from the Empire and beyond, showing just what a global war it was. The men were often cheered as they drove through the village.
Wing had been hard hit by the war in the Far East. Several men had died at the fall of Singapore and in PoW camps, held by the Japanese. One of these was John Horn, son of the Estate Manager, who worked in a bank in Leighton Buzzard. The feeling on the 8th was mixed. People were torn between celebrating victory in Europe, with a ‘feeling of deliverance from great danger’, and the continuing fight, some of which included Wing men.
There were signs of rejoicing. Houses were beflagged, the bells were rung within minutes of Churchill’s proclamation, and the 7.30pm Evensong service saw a full church. The Vicar had timed the service so everyone could get home to hear the King’s broadcast at 9pm. The street parties and true celebrations would wait until V.J. Day.
As a break from researching history, I have started looking at my mum’s side of the family tree. This has always fascinated me as my parents trees have turned out to be very similar. Both were born on the outskirts of London (one north, the other south) but without realising, both sets of parents gravitated to the area their grandparents lived, and my parents even closer. I unwittiingly moved into the village my ancestors had lived for hundreds of years, and one of my friends turned out to be a cousin a couple of times removed. Researching local history has meant I have been able to get a closer look at their lives. At some point I would like to research all the places my ancestors lived.
Over the last few years some of my work has been on the First World War, but last year it turned to the Second.
I had been in our church for a heritage function and ended up flicking through the books on our village War Memorial. These were put together by the wonderful Vic Sirrett, who is sadly no longer with us. However, there were gaps in the knowledge of a couple of the names, John Horn was one of them. With the help of Find My Past I was anle to track down his records, and find out what happened to him and why he was on our memorial.
John lived with his parents at the Ascott Estate office as his father, Arthur, was the estate manager for Ascott House, Wing. John was a bank clerk, presumably in Leighton Buzzard. By the time his death was reported in 1944, his parents had moved to Bexhill-on-Sea which was why Vic struggled in finding John.
When John enlisted he was placed with the Bedfordshire Yeomanry as part of the Royal Artillery, as a gunner. John was part of the force that was sent out to Singapore in the winter of 1941/42. It was during this period that the Japanese were trying to gain control of the island, and despite desperate attempts by the British forces, Singapore fell on 15 February 1942. John was initially recorded as MIA (Missing in Action), then later this was recorded as POW (Prisoner of War). He was sent to Changi POW camp with most of the British Army. Life would have been quite good at the start as the Japanese were not bothered about the POWs, However, as the weeks went by life became harsher and stricter. The Japanese felt there was no honour in being captured and so became cruel in their treatment. According to the records, John ended up in the Roberts Barracks hospital. This was part of the original British barracks on the island, and was for the critically ill. He finally died on 7 October 1942 from dysentry and a weak heart. John was interred at the Changi graveyard originally, but was repatriated to the Krangi War Cemetery on 26 April 1946.
Now John can have his Commonwealth Grave certificate recorded in our church. If anyone has any other information on this subject, then please let me know.