The songs of the lacemakers

A FASCINATING insight into the working lives of women and girls in lace schools is revealed in a YouTube video by Windrose Rural Media Trust which works across Dorset, Somerset and Wiltshire..

Somerset folk singer and collector Amanda Boyd found out more when she was putting together a Zoom presentation for people with dementia during lockdown as part of a Windrose project.

Looking through the Windrose archive, Amanda came across a silent film of a lacemaker in Malmesbury, from the 1960s. She wanted to find out what the woman was doing and find the appropriate song to accompany the film for her series of YouTube songbooks, in which she combines song and archive film for people with dementia. Ordinarily, Amanda would be visiting memory cafes but, since the coronavirus pandemic, she has been working via Zoom.

“The lady was sitting outside her house and was filmed whilst she worked with her bobbins, pillow, and thread,” Amanda explains. “I was intrigued by this little film. Knowing nothing about lacemaking, I wondered what the lady was doing. So I contacted Honiton Museum who then put me in contact with an experienced lacemaker who gave me a running commentary when we watched the film together on Zoom.”

Amanda realised that, just like the shanty singers at Portland Quarry and the farmers in the field, women and children sang as they worked on the lace, creating a rhythm to make the job easier.

Guided by the curator at Honiton Museum, she found a song known as a lacemaker’s ‘tell’ in the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library’s online archive, which had been printed in the Bedfordshire Times and Independent in February 1904.

“My story was coming together,” says Amanda. “Now I had a film, a description of a lacemaking process, and a song. But I wanted to know if anyone had completed research about the songs themselves.”

So she turned to the internet where, through the By the Poor, For the Rich: Lace in Context website, she found David Hopkin, Professor of European Social History at the University of Oxford. He is a social and cultural historian of modern Western Europe and his research includes women workers, especially servants and lacemakers.

Amanda says: “We watched the film together on Zoom and chatted about lacemaker songs. The children’s lacemaking stories were particularly evocative. This raised several questions –  would children sing? Would they sing quietly to themselves? Would they use the songs to disclose things in their lives, communicate a shared experience with the other children? Perhaps they were told to sing to speed up production. Was there any ever fun in the lacemaking classroom?”

She discovered that many lacemakers learned their craft at lacemaking school where songs were used as part of the creative process. Many ‘tells’ refer to domestic violence, from husbands and the ‘lace mistress’ who supervised the students.

Following the Bedfordshire leads, she then found The Higgins Bedford Museum. The keeper of social history, Lydia Saul shared several photos of lacemakers, which Amanda has used alongside David’s narration.

You can find out about Amanda’s search for more information in this YouTube presentation

Pictured: Folk singer Amanda Boyd, and a still from the silent film.