BRANSCOMBE PARISH

The Lace Industry


Honiton lace achieved a national reputation for quality in the late eighteenth century and became a fashion item with mass appeal, in the nineteenth. But not all of it was made in Honiton, or even most of it. It was called Honiton lace because it arrived in London, the main market, by the Honiton coach, later the Honiton train. In fact, it was made in a wide area around Honiton, including Branscombe and Beer.

It was a cottage industry, allowing the members of rural households who were not directly employed in farming or fishing, to contribute to the family income. This tended to be women and girls, but there were men lace-makers, and boys were taught the skills alongside their sisters. In fact, the only form of education for Branscombe's children, up to the late 1800s, was the lace school, which was trade-based, but whose teacher, the lace dame, might also pass on a few rudimentary skills in reading, writing and arithmetic. Children went to lace schools at 5-7 years old, working 12 hours a day in summer. Men worked at lace-making as a sideline, in the evenings, especially sailors back from long voyages.

The three families most associated with developing the lace trade in Branscombe are the Fords, Tuckers and Chicks. At its hight, it was one of Branscombe's staple industries. The lace was used for confirmation veils, baby's bonnets, collars and cuffs, bedspreads, doilies, handkerchiefs, napkins, placemats, runners, tablecloths, and edging for window-blinds.

The theory that lace-making was brought to the area by Huguenot and Flemish refugees in the late sixteenth century has been increasingly discredited, in recent years. Experts now argue there may already have been a flourishing cottage industry in east Devon by the time Branscombe's parish register notes names like Raffel, Guppy, Raymont and French appearing, in the mid-to-late 1500s.

Each area developed a distinctive style and an expert eye could tell the difference between Branscombe lace and a sample from Beer, just two and a half miles away. Traditionally, the outer edge of Branscombe articles had a very attractive handmade buttonhole stitch purl edging, each purl consisting of five button-hole stitches, with an insertion of nibs filling. Bone lace was so-called because of the fishbones that were used to hold it in place on a square of parchment pierced with holes, which was the pattern. Small legbones of sheep served as bobbins, or lace-sticks. Some were handed down as heirlooms, inlaid with silver and carved. The lace was finished over hard, hay-stuffed pillows. The small sprigs which were later joined together to form the finished product being made individually by village workers in their own homes.

In the early nineteenth century, Abigail Chick set up a shop in Dean (now called Street) where she would collect the sprigs, supervise their making-up into finished items and finally market the lace in Sidmouth and elsewhere. In those days, before the introduction of employment laws, it was usual for workers in many trades to receive at least part of their wages in the form of goods. In that way the employer could make a double profit. The practice continued more or less unofficially for most of the century and many local lace dealers kept a small general shop as a lucrative sideline.

There was a good market for English lace at this time, as supplies from the Continent had been disrupted by the Napoleonic Wars. At the hight of the trade it is said that the Tuckers employed 500 people, most of them in Branscombe, Beer, and the surrounding villages. It reached its peak in 1852, when there were 284 lace-makers in Branscombe, out of a total population of about 1000.

The crowning achievement for local lace-makers came in 1839, when the lace flounce for Queen Victoria's wedding dress was ordered from Tuckers of Branscombe. The dress was an exhibit at the Great London Exhibition of 1851, along with the arms of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert made out of Branscombe Point. Another royal order came in 1863, when Princess Alexandra married Edward, the Prince of Wales. This time, the wedding lace consisted of four tiers of flounces to be worn around the bridal dress, with matching lace for trail, a veil and pocket handkerchief.

The remuneration of all lace workers seems pitiable by modern standards. It was said that by hard work - often in cramped conditions in primitive cottages, they could earn a shilling (5p) a day. This was just below the wage of a farm labourer.

In the 1850s, Sir Walter and Lady Trevelyan began regular visits to Seaton. John Tucker was by then the largest employer in the region. Lady Trevelyan was shocked by the low pay and the truck system of part-payment with goods, and campaigned against it by commissioning work herself, at a higher price. The Education Act of 1870 eventually killed off most of the lace schools. At about the same time, there was a drop in demand for hand-made lace, due to the arrival of mass-produced lace from Nottinghamshire. According to the 1871 census, there were 941 men, women and children living in Branscombe, including 2 millers, 4 shoemakers, 3 blacksmiths, two tailors, 3 carpenters and 4 shopkeepers. There were 204 houses. The main occupations were farming and lace-making.

By 1887, two out of three local lace-makers were unemployed. A Parliamentary Committee reported that at Beer, there were 60-70 left, out of 400 a generation before.

But the extinction of the trade was not all bad. The lace-workers who toiled at this close work in small, unwholesome rooms for ten or twelve hours a day, were said to be recognisable by their sallow complexions, their rickety frames and their generally exhausted appearance.

Lace-making is still practised in the village today, and Royal orders have continued to trickle in. One was for the marriage of the late Princess Diana and Prince Charles, another for the christening of their son, Prince William.

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