Straw Plaiting | Rectory Lane Cemetery, Berkhamsted

Rectory Lane Cemetery, Berkhamsted

Straw Plaiting

Straw Plaiting

Straw plaiting

Straw-plaiting was a profitable cottage industry in the Berkhamsted region in Victorian times, supplying plaited straw to the hat makers of Luton and Dunstable. It was work predominantly undertaken by women and children. In 1851 45% of women working in Berkhamsted were engaged in plaiting straw and in the more rural areas, as one might expect, the percentage was higher; in Frithsden, it was 89%.

The work was well paid and a woman working at home could earn more than a labourer.   “…it was a profitable occupation and in the first half of the 19th century many women and children earned more than men who laboured in the fields. A good hand at Berkhamsted could earn about 15s a week-then a handsome wage-…Farmers complained that straw plaiting “did mischief, making the poor saucy, rendering the women adverse to husbandry and causing a dearth of indoor servants and field labourers.” (Birtchnell, A Short History of Berkhamsted.)  Nash commented that without the income to be earned from straw plaiting, “it is hard to say what would have been the condition of the labouring class had not their incomes been supplemented by this means.”

In 1851 in Berkhamsted and the surrounding areas,16% of all boys between the age of 5 and 9 were working and 26% of all girls. Of those, 13% of the boys were plaiting straw and 24% of the girls.  Between the ages of 10 and 14, 44% of boys worked, of whom 15% were straw plaiters and 56% of girls worked, 45% of those being engaged in plaiting straw. (Goose, N Population, economy and family structure in Hertfordshire in 1851, Vol. 1, The Berkhamsted region, 1996.)

Whilst the straw plait trade had a positive impact on family incomes, it had a deleterious effect on the education of children. The craft was passed on from generation to generation. Children started straw plaiting at the age of 5 and were sent to dame schools to learn the craft. Straw plait schools were commonly held in ordinary cottages, and Mrs Wimbush’s school in Northchurch was probably typical in that the Children’s Employment Commission of 1864 found it to be overcrowded, close and heavy in atmosphere. In 1876, a Mrs Puddifoot found herself before the court charged with overcrowding in the plait school she ran in Little Gaddesden.

“Mr. Baines, Inspector of Nuisances of Berkhampstead Union, charged Mrs. Puddifoot, of Little Gaddesden, with over-crowding her cottage… eighteen children at a plaiting school – nine over 13 years and nine under, and the defendant and her daughter. The room was 12ft.10in. by 12ft.6in., and 6 feet high to the ceiling. Defendant said she was a poor woman with no husband, and did not know that she did any wrong. She was fined, with expenses, 7s.6d., which she said she had no money to pay.” (Herts Advertiser, May 1876).

In Berkhamsted at one time there were three plait schools in Bridge Street alone.

Little attention was paid to the education of the children. Parents, understandably preferred to put their children to work to supplement the family income rather than sending them to school. The Second Report of the Children’s Employment Commission, published in 1843, reported that “This plaiting is a complete bar to anything like education, for as soon as children can use their fingers they are put to it” and that the only way to encourage school attendance was by inclusion of plaiting in the curriculum. Some schools in an effort to encourage parents to send their children to school permitted “half-time plaiters” but were plagued by disruptive behaviour and repeated absences during busy times of the plaiting trade. In 1866 the managers of the then new National School in Northchurch reported that “The unsatisfactory experiment of admitting straw plaiters among the infants be discontinued” and “that for the future the plaiters be separated and placed in the classroom of the infants School.” (Hosier, Hedghog’s Nortchurch.)

Whereas in the 17th century literacy rates had been lowest in Northern England, by the 1840’s this was reversed. Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire then had the lowest rates of all the counties in England, with Hertfordshire being the worst.

Straw plaiting was also a risk to health. The process involved taking strands of specially prepared, bleached and flattened straw then plaiting it by hand into strips. The straws could be brittle and had to be dampened to stop them splitting, usually by swiping the straw through the mouth. The straw often had traces of sulphur on it, a residue of the bleaching process.  Frequently fingers and mouths were cut. In the later half of the nineteenth century, evidence began to accumulate of the risk to health. The death rate amongst women who plaited straw was almost 50% higher than in the population of women as a whole. Straw plaiters were more likely to die of tuberculosis and cancers of the mouth and throat were more common. The Children’s Employment Commission found children introduced to straw plaiting were more likely to be “feeble and retarded in their development.”

This was the price paid for the additional income produced by the straw plait trade.


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