Lacemaking in Potterspury

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Extracts from Potterspury - the story of a village and its people

There is still considerable controversy as to the origins of lacemaking in England. It is probable that it was introduced by successive waves of immigrants from Europe seeking to escape persecution. The first groups arrived in England in 1563 fleeing from the Inquisition. Later it was the turn of the French Huegenots to escape to England. Both of these groups are known to have included large numbers of lace merchants and their lacemakers. There were numbers of other immigrant lacemakers who also came to live and work in England, most of them having their own unique styles. Whilst it is therefore difficult to be sure of the exact origins of the various types of lace it is likely that they have developed from these early immigrants. The type of lace made in this area became known as Bucks Point.


Today we perhaps view the lacemakers as somewhat romantic figures, sitting at their doors in the summer sun. The reality was much harsher. The hours they worked were long and the conditions poor. They worked in poor light, illuminated only by an oil lamp shining through a water-filled bottle used to focus the light onto their work. In order to achieve the speed necessary to earn a living each lacemaker kept to just one or two patterns. In the 1890s the Midland Lace Association was set up under the patronage of Countess Spencer in order to 'Improve the local manufacture of lace, to provide workers with greater facilities for the sale of their work and more remunerative prices, and to provide instruction in lacemaking'.
A prominent figure in the association was Mrs Chettle of Potterspury. Mrs Chettle was the wife of John Chettle the farmer and lived at Beech House Farm. John Chettle played a prominent part in village life for many years. He was a churchwarden and vice chairman of the Parish Council from its inception. Mrs Chettle is believed to have run a 'lace school' and older villagers recall her riding around the village in a pony and trap collecting lace from the lacemakers who worked for her. Most lacemaking villages had their lace schools. The term 'school' is something of a misnomer, as they seem to have been used more as a source of cheap labour. Children would start learning to make lace at the age of seven. By the age of ten they were likely to be working every day from 8.00 a.m. to 5.00 p.m.
Hard though it must have been, lacemaking did at least allow the womenfolk of the village to augment the meagre wages of their husbands, most of whom still worked as agricultural labourers. Some of the lacemakers were highly skilled at their craft, Mrs Wootton, one of the best known, having made lace for royalty. Gradually however from around the end of the First World War fashions changed and the demand for lace fell. What little was still required could now be made by machine in a fraction of the time and at a fraction of the cost and so another of our crafts passed into history.


Today it is kept alive by groups of enthusiasts who pursue it as a hobby and for the satisfaction of keeping the skill alive. The lace bobbins, which once existed in large numbers in so many houses in the village, have now become much sought after collectors' items. Many of them were highly ornate, usually made from wood or bone, decorated with beads and often inscribed to commemorate some local or national event. Quite recently one of these bobbins turned up in the south of England which bore the inscription 'Elizabeth Attabury, died Potterspury 1890[?]'. Whilst we cannot be certain, it is possible that this records the death of Elizabeth Attabury in childbirth at the Potterspury Union workhouse at Yardley Gobion.

 

 

         

 

(c) 2012 Mark Russell - www.potterspury.org.uk

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