A History of Preston

in Hertfordshire

Straw Plaiting

Home page

Site map

Site contents

The country craft of straw plaiting involves  twisting together lengths of straw (as one would braid hair) to produce interwoven lengths in different and intricate patterns. Young and old, women and men were straw plaiters. Children were taught how to plait at Plaiting Schools. Finished work was sold at a plait market or to a plait dealer who then supplied manufacturers of products such as straw hats and bonnets. The craft was practised mainly in the counties of Hertfordshire, Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire and Essex.

 

The first historical references to ‘The Plait’ at Preston are in the Hitchin Parish Registers of 1816/17 when Edward Willmott of Sootfield Green was described as a ‘plait dealer’. In the census of 1841, John Day was also noted as a ‘plait dealer’. In its hey-day (1861), there were one hundred plaiters recorded at the village – out of a population of 424. Villagers took their finished plait to Hitchin to sell in the Plait Market.

 

Payment for plaiting was a vital source of income for Preston families. However, as the nineteenth century progressed, cheaper imports gradually stifled the trade. In  the census of 1911, there were no recorded plaiters at Preston.

 

An overview of straw plaiting

The history of straw plaiting

The origins of plaiting can be traced back a thousand years to when harvest labourers wore braids of straw on their heads. Then, in around 1600, plaiters from Lorraine came to Luton and reputedly introduced methods of straw plaiting to the area.

 

There are a number of references to the making and wearing of straw hats in the seventeenth century. Hockley of Ware, Herts taught the poor in many parishes how to make straw hats. A fatigued Mrs Pepys, after promenading around the forty-two-acre garden at Hatfield Park one summer’s day in 1667 was pleased to try a straw hat as a novelty - “Being come back, and weary with the walk, for as I made it, it was pretty long, being come back to our inne, there the women had pleasure in putting on some straw hats, which are much worn in this country, and did become them mightily, but especially my wife .”

 

In 1689, an Act of Parliament was proposed which included ‘enjoining the wearing of the Woollen Manufactures of this Kingdom at certain Times of the Year.’ Immediately there was an angry response, ‘Upon reading the Petition of divers of the Inhabitants (about 14,000) of the Counties of Bedford, Bucks, and Hertford, who get their Livings by making Straw Hats; praying, to be heard’. Thirty years later, folk from a far larger area protested against the importing of straw hats from Tuscany (which were of better quality than English product).

 

By 1735, the craft was even more popular - "Several thousand plaiters found profitable employment in Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire...I was told  at (Hemel) Hempsted that £200 a week has been turn’d in a market day in straw hats only, which manufacture has thriv’d in those parts above 100 years."

 

By the middle of the eighteenth century, a familiar sight was ‘a farmer’s wife or another small personage’s wife clad on Sundays like a lady of quality...When they go out they always wear straw hats which they have made from wheat straw and are pretty enough’. Straw hats were high fashion.

 

The importing of French straw hats was a casualty of the Napoleonic Wars and high import duties, although the expert handiwork of French prisoners of war languishing in British gaols was highly prized. Short supply of straw hats encouraged English producers to intensify their efforts to cultivate strains of plaiting straw.

 

The voracious demand for straw plait was fuelled by a fashion change from the cotton mob hats of the eighteenth century to the straw bonnets of the 1800s. Even when the English plaiting industry had been undercut by cheap imports at the end of the nineteenth century, the straw boater was still essential summer wear. Watch the grainy film of the announcement of the Armistice in 1919 and wonder at the number of straw hats being launched into the air like so many frisbies.

 

The turn of the nineteenth century brought a challenge to the English industry – how to match the quality of imported straw? The crème de la crème of straw for plaiting was the bearded wheat of Tuscany. It was straight, disease-free, hollow, of constant diameter, had a thin wall and at least nine inches could cut for plaiting. However, after experimentation, English-grown straws like Red Lamas, Rivet and Golden Drop were developed specifically for the plait trade. These strains thrived on the Chiltern fields of chalk such as those around Preston.  Their straw was curiously ‘valued in the inverse ratio of the vigour of the plant’ – the best straw came from the poorest areas - and contained enough silico to be strong, but not brittle. Straw grown in Herfordshire and Bedfordshire was better than that produced in Essex, Berkshire and Suffolk – indeed, Essex dealers preferred to buy straw from Hitchin market rather than locally-grown material.

 

Another reason for the growth of straw plaiting in the counties around London was the availability of manure. It was accepted good husbandry to plough straw into the fields to maintain their fertility. This was considered to be so important that landowners stipulated that their tenant farmers could not sell off their straw. However, manure was an alternative fertiliser and there was a constant supply of this from thousands of stables in London to Hertfordshire which was only twenty or so miles away. It was laid down that a ton of straw could be sold to the plaiters for every two cart loads of muck brought in by farmers. 

 

When the average Hertfordshire agricultural wage was between 10s and 12s a week, straw plaiting wives could earn more than their husbands - and even the contributions of children to the family income-pot were considerable. However, there were social repercussions as a result of this extra source of income. Arthur Young in General View of the Agriculture of Hertfordshire (which took the Hitchin district as its example) wrote, ‘The farmers complain of it as doing mischief for it makes the poor saucy and no servants can be procured or any field work done where this manufacture establishes itself,’ adding that 'good earnings are a most happy circumstance, which I wish to see universal…straw plaiting is of very great use to the poor and has had considerable effect in keeping down rates, which must be far more burthensome without it.’

The economics of the plait trade was spelt out in 1874:

           1 cwt of straw = 3/-

           From this, 40 lbs of straw fit for plaiting = 8/- - 18/-

           From this, 17/18 lbs of plait produced = £7 - £20

           From this, straw bonnets/ hats made = £23 - £45

 

It is clear from this breakdown that there were many ‘middle-men’ making money from this trade.

 

How straw was plaited

The 1841 census recorded 4,415 female plaiters in Hertfordshire - although this figure is undoubtedly undervalued as, for example, at Preston no women or children are noted as working at the craft, yet ten years later there were ninety-seven plaiters in the village. The industry peaked in around 1871 when a quarter of the villagers were ‘at the Plait’ but the number of plaiters declined dramatically until 1911 when there were none recorded at Preston.

During the final quarter of the nineteenth century, the straw plait market was flooded first by Chinese and later by Japanese imported plait – supply devastatingly outstripped demand. Another straw that broke the camel’s back was the 1870 Education Act which ordered the compulsory school attendance of children who could not plait at home or at Plaiting Schools as a result.

 

In August of 1885, an exhibition of English Straw plaits and plaiting was held at Waller Street Hall, Luton. It was opened by Prince Edward of Saxe-Welmar and attempted to ‘ revive the public tatste for our home plaits, the disuse of which in this country….has caused great distress among the women and children who formerly earned a competency at it’. However, this was clutching at straws.

By 1894, the plait trade was simply an uneconomical proposition. A news item headlined, ‘A Sweated Industry’, reported: ‘The women of Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire are largely engaged in another sorely sweated industry – the making of straw plait. The work is paid for by the score yards at from 1 1/2d or 2d (for four straw rustic) to 5d; or for the most difficult kinds such as  16-straw brilliant, 6d or 7d per score. In some cases the straw seems to be found by the dealer, generally the worker has to pay for it.....(at) Great Offley women were making 11-straw plait in two colours at 5d a score from which about 2d must be deducted for the straw.’

 

A woman....interviewed at Hemel Hempstead was making “7-straw split”. She had to ‘provide herself with a “mill” costing half-a-crown and a machine for splitting the straws (4d). A bundle of white straws cost 5d and one of blue straws cost 3d which must be bought from the dealer to whom the plait is sold. The straw will work up, if good, into about five score of plait. If the plait is exceptionally good the price paid is 4d per score, but the price is liable to arbitrary reduction if the dealer is not satisfied. The five score would therefore not bring more than 1/8d from which 8d must be deducted from the cost of the straw.’

 

‘If I commence about nine in the morning’, said the woman, ‘and leave off at nine at night, doing some housework between-whiles, I can do 25 yards which will bring me in “clear” about 3d. It is poor enough pay but as I have the children to look after, I can do nothing else.’

 

Where this sort of work is largely done, the homes of the labourers are grievously neglected and intemperance is said to be prevalent. There is no doubt that the dealers form a ring in whose hands the poor workers are absolutely helpless... (At) Tring, Herts, Plait Market, the dealers taking advantage of the fact that the barley harvest was nearly over, and that many men whose wives were plaiters were out of work, were reducing the already starvation prices by a halfpenny or more per score yards. The hat-making appears to be but little better. The women who make men’s “boaters” are paid by the score at 2 1/2d or 3d. As a “boater” will take about three-quarters of a score of plait, the net price for making after payment for thread is about 1 1/2d per hat.’

By 1905, a score was worth one penny. A massive import of more than sixteen million pounds of plait in 1912 illustrates the smothering market forces on the English cottage industry. By the 1930s, only old-timers who knew of no other employment, and who were perhaps fourth-generation plaiters earned a pittance at what was a dying craft.

 

Wheat for straw plaiting was carefully reaped – and a little earlier than the rest of the harvest. After the cut, suitable straws for plaiting were selected by a drawer. At Harpenden, Herts, ‘…men from the village went from farm to farm to draw straw, being very expert, quick and clever…these straw drawers as a rule were also expert thatchers’.

 

Only perfect samples that were not diseased or rain-spattered were chosen. Straws were drawn from between the drawer’s legs and then tied together (see right).

 

After the ears were lopped off, the resulting 56lb bundles were sold to plait dealers who cut the straw into useable lengths and then sorted into different thicknesses using a wooden trough with metal circles (shown below).

 

 

The graded straw was tied into small sheaves, perhaps bleached and dyed and sold to dealers or directly to plaiters for 4d, 6d, 8d or 10d according to the quality of the straw and state of the market.

A further reason that English straw became usable rather than Tuscany imports was that at the turn of the seventeenth century an efficient method of splitting the straw into narrow splints was discovered using a ‘splitter’ which cost only one or two pence (see below). A cone funneling into a set of cutters was pushed into the end of a straw. This split the straw into a number of roughly equal pieces.

 

The plaiter worked by interweaving three straws in front of her hands and allowing the finished braid to drop towards the body. A bundle of moistened straws were pinned under her left arm pit. As she worked, she would bend her head and pull out one or two new straws, moistening them with saliva and then storing them on the sides of her mouth ready to be plaited. The corner of her lips might be scarred or coloured as a result. Teeth might rot. It was said, ‘Never kiss a plaiter!’

 

Like casting-on knitting, starting the plait was demanding, as was adding new splits – if a plait was wide, replacing straws was almost continuous. Plaiters were taught to use their thumb and second finger, using their forefinger to turn the splint:

                                      ‘Under one; and over two.

                                      Pull it tight and that will do’

 

When the plait was completed, the ends and beginnings of the straw protruded until they were chopped off.

It was essential to keep the ends of the plait damp, so in wintertime, women sat away from the fire and kept warm by filling an earthenware pot with embers or coals and placing the pot under their skirt.

 

 

As they were braided, plaits were measured by holding out work – if it stretched from chin to fingertips, it was approximately a yard long. The lengths were coiled over their left arm. Another more accurate guide of length were notches were cut in mantelpieces at nine, eighteen inches and a yard (see below). Work was sold in multiples or fractions of a ‘score’ (ie twenty yards).

 

The plait was now ready for the ‘brimstone boxes’. These were large, but light – an old fashioned clothes box was ideal. The plait was placed in the middle of the box leaving a clear space in the middle. Then, a saucer or tin lid with a small live coal was placed in the space and a piece of brimstone was balanced on the coal for fumigating or ‘ steaming’. Thus, the plait was bleached, giving it a brighter appearance.

Before being sold, the plait was again dampened and pressed by passing it through a plait mill. Finally it was wound around a board eighteen inches wide.

 

There were three types of straw used for plait: wholestraw; split plait made from single splints and double/improved plait made from two splints. There were also a trio of plait patterns:

 

1. Plain Flat Plait – that was weaved like a pigtail. This used between three and twenty ends, but was usually of seven ends – three to the left, four to the right. The right-hand end was twisted under the end next to it and over the next two. Then, the left- hand end was similarly braided and the sequence begins again. A flat edge and taut, uniform work were prerequisites for an acceptable plait. There were varieties of Plain Flat Plait.

 

2.  Rustic or Pearl Plait  - when only four ends were used and they were folded around each other at an angle of 60 degrees, thus forming a hexagon pattern. As it was simple to execute, children often made this pattern while chanting,

                                        ‘Criss-cross patch and then a twirl,

                                        Twist it back for English Pearl’

 

3. Brilliant plait was only made from single splints and because only the polished face of the straw was presented, the effect was shining or ‘Brilliant’. The straw was passed only from right to left with each right straw laid on its side and passing alternately before and behind the remaining flat splints until it reached the end of the row when it was twisted to lay flat. This was the most difficult pattern to master – especially setting in new splints.

 

Broad Twist was the most used pattern in Hitchin Parish, wherein Preston lay

Plait patterns

The plaiters of Preston

An insight into plaiting at Preston in around 1870 is given by Edwin Grey of Harpenden, Herts (which is ten miles from Preston). Grey wrote, ‘Very many of the women and girls were engaged in it (straw plaiting): some of the men and lads were also good at the work, doing it at odd times, or in the evening after farm work, but this home industry was always looked upon as women’s work...and (male) plait hardly ever came up to the standard of that made by women....some men and lads who although not good at making any of the finer sorts, would make the rough and coarser plait called ‘whole straw’; this as the name implies is made from whole unsplit straw. I’ve known men and boys when home from the farm early in winter, or on wet days, sit and make many yards of this coarser material, but this variety when all finished off and ready for sale, realised but a few pence per score yards...very little of the plait made by men or children was taken to the open market, that which was of use being bought up by plait buyers who came round weekly’.

 

The proficient women plaiters made several beautiful varieties: plain, single-splint, pearl, bird’s eye, whipcord etc., some of which had a fancy edge...the plaits commanded prices between 10d and 2/6d or more according to the variety,  quality and state of the market.

 

The industry (was)...excellent for cottage homes: firstly, it was of a clean nature and then again the housewife could, when wanting to go on with other house-work, put aside her plaiting, resuming it again at any time. She could also do the work sitting in the garden or whilst standing by the cottage door enjoying a chat or gossip with her neighbours. The mother could rock the cradle with her foot whilst using both hands at the plaiting and also in summer-time when strolling in the lanes or fields they would most often be plaiting. Most of the plaiters had become so clever that they could do the work quickly, setting in their straws or splints and finish off same with hardly a glance at it, for they could tell by the feel of the fingers when a new splint was required for insertion. I’ve known some of the workers whose fingers become quite sore and bleeding through working so hard to get the required yards of plait finished.

 

According to the census, there  were ninety-seven plaiters at Preston in 1851, ranging from my widowed greatx3 grandmother, Jane Fairey (73), to two three-year-old boys. The seventeen males at the craft in the village were all aged under twelve. Twenty-nine-year-old Mary Andrew at Spindle Cottage was a bonnet maker. While men-folk earned nine or ten shillings from their farm labour, their wives and two children might be paid twelve shillings a week from their plaiting.

 

 

Ten years later, in 1861, the work force had grown a little, to one hundred plaiters. They included Ann Walker (76) and William Fairey (5). There were now two bonnet sewers: Ann Day at The Wilderness and Lydia Westwood at Bunyan’s Cottage. In 1871, Preston had sixty-five plaiters including Mary Scott (65) and Lizzie Fairey (4). The number engaged in the craft had almost halved by 1881 to thirty-four plaiters. The only child aged fourteen or under who was plaiting was Arthur Palmer (12) – the rest were at school. There were just twelve plaiters in 1891; thirteen in 1901 and none in 1911.

 

 

Preston’s plaiting schools

Plaiting is a difficult skill to master so Plaiting Schools (small nursery workshops for nimble-fingered youngsters) were set up in most Hertfordshire villages. Here, the craft was taught with a smattering of learning – ‘hideous parodies of education’.

 

Most ‘Schools’ in rural areas were held in a small cottage room into which up to thirty children, some only three years old, were crammed. A news report in 1867 described the rooms as ‘low, small and close, where the atmosphere in winter becomes intolerable, fetid and unwholesome’. It was observed that there were ‘more pale faces amongst the little ones’ at Plaiting Schools than usual in a country parish. A child of ordinary intelligence might ‘be taught the very finest, and indeed all kinds of plait in three months; the inferior qualities, in a fortnight’.

 

The ‘school day’ ran from 08.30 until 16.00 or 17.00 with a break from 13.00 to 14.00. During busy periods, they might have to work until 22.00 or midnight. Work was governed by a supervisor some of whom wielded a cane to encourage children to complete their daily quotas. Her remit was to ensure that the ‘pupils’ made as much plait as possible and she was judged by how well she compelled the children to work – ‘I keep them to work....They have the stick at first’.

 

 

In an extreme case of cruelty at Eaton Bray in 1864, the ‘schoolmaster’, Francis Pollard, was convicted of beating a ten-year-old boy ‘beyond the bounds of moderation’. The boy had not obeyed an order and was struck ‘on the head, arms, back etc’ thrown violently onto the floor and then lifted by his hair.

 

Lack of constant supervision at Plaiting Schools sometimes resulted in tragedy. In 1847, three girls were left in the ‘classroom’ at Arlsey near Shefford as their mistress visited her sick mother. A nine-year-old girl was measuring her plait on the mantle shelf when a ‘piece of fire’ dropped out of the grate, ignited some straw and then her pinafore. She burned to death.

 

In 1843, these comments were made by a woman who had attended a Plaiting School: ‘Been at the trade all my life. Children commence learning about seven years old. Parents pay 3d a week for each child and for this they are taught the trade and how to read. The mistress employs 15-20 at work in a room. The parents get the profits of the child’s labour. A good worker will earn about 2s a week. I have four children at work and consider it as healthy as any other...more so than picking stones and working in the fields’. Another wrote in 1864, ‘I go to Scott’s Plait School three times a day; 8-2; 1-4 pm and 5-8 pm. Mother sets me five yards to do in each school -one at dinner and one at tea

Another wrote in 1864, ‘I go to Scott’s Plait School three times a day; 8-2; 1-4 pm and 5-8 pm. Mother sets me five yards to do in each school - one at dinner and one at tea time. If I am a good girl and do five she does not hit me but the mistress does sometimes.’ 

 

 

Grey: ‘I never knew any of these plaiting schools where writing or arithmetic was taught, probably for the simple reason that these old ladies knew nothing of it themselves....some of my bigger boy and girl playmates told me that after attending the proper school they were required to make so much plait (probably just to keep their hand in) before their mothers allowed them out to play. But there was still some night plaiting schools (where)...some of the lads (attended) from choice in order to earn an extra shilling or so for themselves, or for the sake of company, because they could have done the plait equally as well at home.’

 

Children plaiting at Charlton Mill stream near Preston

Hitchin’s Plait Market

When the plait had been made, it then had to be sold. The plaiting women made the three mile trek from Preston to Hitchin market with their wares. Or perhaps it was bought by one of a network of travelling plait dealers such as John Day and Edward Willmott (of Sootfield Green) who lived in Preston in 1841. In turn, the dealers sold the plait to factories in Luton where it was formed or ‘blocked’ into hats. Luton was known as ‘Strawopolis’ and later its football team were called ‘The Hatters’.

 

In fair weather, mothers would take their older children with them for the walk to Hitchin. It was a long tramp but the tedium was relieved as old friends and acquaintances were met on the road and chatter and conversation would begin.

 

At the market, there were occasional issues over short measure of plait – dealers either accepted the word of plaiters about the quantity of their plait, or measured each piece. In August 1866, the Hitchin town crier announced that Hannah Moules had over-stated the length of her plait. She would have been prosecuted for her dishonesty, but as she confessed her guilt to the inspector, her plait was publicly burnt at the top of the market place as a warning to plaiters to give proper measure.

 

Five years later, Ann Aldridge of Graveley was prosecuted for selling short plait. In the previous year, an inspector had discovered 2,354 cases of selling short measure. Ann sold eighteen and an eighth yards as a score. Her defence was that the plait had been measured by her daughter. She was fined £1, but the magistrates warned that future prosecutions would be dealt with severely.

 

Before 1874, women either exchanged their plait for goods at dealer’s shops or sold it in the market square on Tuesdays, waiting until noon for their money which was doled out from the inn where the dealer was staying. The Hertfordshire Mercury commented, ‘Two long rows are formed on the south side of Market-square and down the centre walk the buyers.....As soon as a bargain is concluded, the woman gets a ticket.....about eleven o’clock, she goes to the public house where the buyer “puts up” and there receives her money....To procure the necessities of life, they (also) barter their plait away to small shop-keepers, taking the value of their plait out in groceries, save for a few pence which they are bound to have to procure a fresh supply of straws.....in season the money paid for plait (at Hitchin) is about £600 weekly.’

 

Grey adds that at market, the women slung the looped plait onto both arms and hold it before them for inspection by the buyers after the plait bell was rung. Then would come the haggling and arguing until the deal was sealed. After they had shopped, it was time for refreshment – a ‘twist’ (dough plaited and baked) and cheese or butter washed down by beer or tea.

 

On 5 August 1874, a new purpose-built Plait Market, erected by CA Bartlett, was opened in Bank Street Hitchin. This was intended to help the selling process for plaiters. The hall measured 22 feet by 28 feet and ‘had little or no ornamentation...(but is) lofty, well ventilated and answers the purpose for which it is intended’. It was managed by ‘a practical man’ and the full market value of the plait was given. The Mart opened from 15.00 to 17.00 daily. Unfortunately, in 1874, the plait trade was plummeting in a downward spiral.

 

The Hertfordshire Mercury carried this report of the new market in October 1874: ‘the number of (plait) sellers.....has risen from 50 in the first week to upwards of 400 in the week just ended.... On entering (the room) we found the seat which runs round part of the clean, comfortable room, occupied by old and young women who were resting after their journeys from the villages where they lived until their turn came to be waited on. Across the room a counter is placed and in front of it are compartments behind each of which stands a buyer or person who is skilled in the quality and value of plait. Each seller in turn takes her stand at one of the compartments and then in a few words the bargain is made........There is a double advantage in the manner in which the plait market is carried on. Not only is the best current price given to the seller but the buyer is able by his knowledge of the requirements of the trade to advise those who come which is the best sort of plait for them to make.....the comforts and advantages of the new institution will be more and more felt as the winter comes on’.

 

However, within seventeen years the plaiters were once again selling in the open-air of Hitchin Market Square. A reporter bemoaned their lot in1891, ‘The heavy downpour of cold rain on Tuesday morning again brought before the townspeople the hardship undergone by the poor women who sell their plait in the market. Many of them have to walk three or four miles to come to Hitchin and when they get here, they must stand in the open street in all weathers for perhaps an hour disposing of their wares. The price they are paid is so small that they have little to spend in refreshing themselves before starting on their way home.’

 

Hitchin’s Plait Market in the 1880s (top) and c1910. The lessening in bustle is clear to see.

The journey back home was harder than the outward trip - usually the goods carried back home were heavier than the plait and the women were tired after their exertions. If the weather was bad, Grey said he had seen ‘women return in a very pitiable plight’ but added that they didn’t grumble much ‘being more hardened to all sorts of weather and accustomed to roughing it more out of doors than are those of the present day’.

 

Exploitation?

Many parents wanted their children to plait because this contributed to the family’s income. They could earn up to 6d a day when the father was earning about 10 shillings a week. If parents felt that children were spending too long at their studies, they might be withdrawn from school.

 

To offset the accusation of the exploitation of child labour, it has to be said that ‘the Plait’ meant that widows and physically incapacitated people could support themselves through plaiting rather than throwing themselves upon parish relief. At Preston the censuses of 1851 and 1861 record only two people as receiving relief.

 

But the main benefit was that family could have a higher standard of living than in other rural parts because of women and children’s earnings as plaiters. Their farm labouring men folk might bring home 10 shillings a week. while the rest of the family could earn another five shillings, a substantial increase.

 

There were other social spin-offs. The independence of women had become an issue and even attitudes towards illegitimacy were affected as women were able to support themselves. Why depend on an unloved man earning a relatively low income? The situation of my great grandmother may illustrate this: although undeniably poor, in 1881 she was the head of a household of seven which was supported by three female straw plaiters. Her husband had ‘gone’ and there were three children in the home.

When areas of England were embroiled in  discontent at low rural wages (such as the Swing Riots in southern England of the 1830s), Hertfordshire was relatively peaceful. John Izzard Pryor (who lived at nearby Baldock and who was an ancestor of the Pryors who lived at Preston) wrote a diary at this time. He commented on a ‘state of dismay and terror’ in December 1830 when several farms had been ‘set fire to by wicked incendiaries very near’. He added that, ‘Fires continue to be seen in the distance most night’. However, in Hertfordshire only one serious case was dealt with arising from the Farm Labourers’ Revolt. (John Pryor himself was a member of the Grand Jury which heard the case). The lid was kept on the boiling pot of rebellion in Hertfordshire - thanks in part to ‘the Plait’.

 

Social implications of plaiting

But plaiting had its opponents who said the craft encouraged immorality, produced illegitimate children and was the cause of dirty conditions in cottages. One is inclined to dismiss much of this carping as being alarmist and generally untrue – like the doomsters who predicted that cows would stop giving their milk when the railways arrived.

 

For example, it was said that plait was produced at the cost of dirty housing conditions. In 1894, The Hertfordshire Mercury commented, ‘Where this sort of work is largely done, the homes of the labourers are grievously neglected and intemperance is said to be prevalent.’ Grey at Harpenden told a different tale. While acknowledging that there would be litter at the house when straw was cut and the whole room was ankle deep with bits of straw, he added that ‘this “shack” was clean and there was no carpet to spoil. The clean litter was soon cleared away and would serve as bedding...for pigs’. He added that on market day, when the mother was out, the mornings were devoted to the cleaning  the house, and the washing and scrubbing of floors.

 

Before a rustic cottage door,

And sitting in the sun,

I saw a girl of eight years old,

And a tiny little one.

 

Each loft arm held a hoop of plait,
Fast growing to a score;

For quickly moved their fingers small,

As I drew near the door.

 

"Well done, my little folks," said I,

Unto the elder maid ;

"Is that your little sister there,
So busy at her trade ?"

 

"Yes, sir," she said, and from

       her mouth

Another straw she took ;

"And that's my brother Billy there,
A plaitin' near the brook."

 

"Do children plait so young," I said,

"Oh yes, 'taint nothin' new,

There's Billy, he are less than her,

And Billy he plaits too."

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

"What may you earn ? you cannot say,
Come, try and give a guess ;"

"Well, sometimes eighteen pence a week,

But sometimes I earns less."

 

"When father had the fever, sir,

We little money got,

But a lady kind, bayed all my plait,
And then I earned a lot."

 

"But mother splits the straws for ma,
And she does more nor that,

She clips the ends, and 'mills' it too,

Afore she sells the plait."

 

"And then she takes all what

      we've made,

And though it rains or snows,

To sell it all,on market days,

To Dunstable she goes."

 

"But mother says, that by and by,

If I makes haste and grows,

That I shall go to Luton, sir,

Where everybody sews."

 

 

 

“The Plait Girl” - a poem

"I do so long for that to come,

I are so proud to grow :
They don't do plait at Luton, sir,

They only has to sew."

 

"You love a romp at play, don't you,

On the green before the door?"

Yes, mother lets us play sometimes,

When we have done a score."

 

"And can you read this little book,

Which in my hand I hold ?"

"No, sir, I can't ; I means to try,
That is—when I are old."

 

"What! don't you go to school ?"

      said I

The child hung down her head;

"Oh ! please sir, we don't go to school,

We has to earn our bread”

 

I gave the book, and turned away,
And musing o'er the chat,

I sighed that children are not taught,
Because they have to plait.

Top

The education ‘curriculum’ often consisted only of the repeating of a few Biblical verses – parents did not want their children’s work to be sidetracked by economically unproductive activities such as learning to read and write. One progressive teacher at Hemel Hempstead wrote, ‘The parents cared nothing for it (an offer to provide instruction) and plaiting alone was everything’. School proper was referred to as the ‘reading school’.

 

Parents paid two pence a week to the Plait School for each child who attended and supplied the straw. But this was recouped from the completed plait – provided it was saleable – valueless work was known as ‘widdle-waddle’. A child of ten could earn two-thirds of their labouring father’s income.

 

Even the Factory Act of 1867, which banned the employment of children under eight years in handiwork and stipulated that those aged between eight and thirteen should attend elementary school for a minimum of ten hours a week, failed to close Plait Schools. Children simply became ‘half-timers’.

 

If an inspector was spotted in a village (and they would stand out like the biblical tares in a field of wheat), the children could be smuggled out through a back door.

 

Although a second school for ‘proper’ education was established at Preston in 1849, the 1861 census notes a plaiting school between Poynders End and Kiln Wood House to the west of the village. Also, a sketch map of Preston dated 1884 (fourteen years after compulsory education had been introduced) shows two centrally-located Plaiting Schools run by Mrs Elizabeth Stratton (who was running a Plait School in 1871) and Mrs Sarah Peters. It is worth noting that when both ladies married (in 1837 and 1829), they marked the marriage certificate rather than signing. It may be surprising that Preston children who were now pupils at the village School should be attending plaiting schools, especially as there was but one plaiter under fourteen years of age noted in the 1881 census. Probably, local children were still being trained in the craft at this time – after ‘proper school’ hours much as Grey describes at Harpenden.