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Dicks (nee Bates), Mary (c1818 – 1859) LACEMAKER

Dicks (nee Bates), Mary (c1818 – 1859) LACEMAKER

In 1919 Thomas Wright called his book, which concentrated on hand-made lace of the East Midlands including Northamptonshire, The Romance of the Lace Pillow. We also see photographs, from around this time, of old women sitting outside their cottage doors, in the Indian summer of the hand-made lace industry. Ten years after Wright’s book, Miss C. L. Dalton, in the Northampton County Magazine, wrote:

Once upon a time the wayfarer passing through Northamptonshire villages would always find pillow-lace makers at the cottage doors in summer; at other seasons, if he had the curiosity to peer through the lattice, they would be seen by the fireside; the pillow spotlessly clean with its gay print drawter*, worker and cover, supported on the well-made stand of oak, ash or beechwood, familiarly called the ‘The Maid’. On the dull gray parchment a fairy web would be growing, minute by minute, as the shining beads, twist and turn, the linen thread dexterously kept in place by a forest of pins.

[* a ‘drawter’ was a cloth to cover the finished lace because grubby lace was unsaleable]



Hannah Peach. Taken in Photographic Studio 1884 -1900

With the kind permission of Northampton Museum & Art Gallery

It has been written that, at one time, the lace worker could earn more than the agricultural labourer, so that women would make more at lace than the men working on the land. I have found no sign of this. Rather, we see poor home-workers, paid a pitiful piecework rate, trying to keep themselves and their families from the workhouse. Writing earlier, on July 8th 1780, the poet and hymn writer William Cowper, told his correspondent, Joseph Hill that:

If you ever take the tip of the chancellor’s ear between your finger and thumb you can hardly improve the opportunity to better purpose than if you should whisper into it the voice of compassion and lenity to the . . . lace makers. I am witness to their poverty and do know that hundreds in this little town [Olney] are upon the point of starving; and that the most unremitting industry is but barely sufficient to keep them from it.

There would have been little romance for Ringstead lacemakers, although there may have been some pride in their work.

Lace was, an unusual craft in that, from the start, it was seen as a gentile occupation for upper class ladies and a useful money-earner to teach paupers. Northamptonshire was not as renowned as Buckinghamshire or Bedfordshire, but it did have a significant lace industry from the early seventeenth, and stretching into the eighteenth and the first half of the nineteenth, centuries.

Why these Midland counties together with Devon became the heartlands of the lace industry is not clear. Theories, from the influence of Katherine of Aragon to the migration of Flemish workers fleeing the Inquisition, have been put forward but none have any hard evidence. But, as G. F. R. Spencely points out:

. . . the common feature among all rural workers, no matter what the time or region in which they are employed was poverty. Poverty had always created the necessity to supplement family income and in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century this situation did not change.

Where there was not sufficient other work for women and children, lace became a way of keeping off ‘the Parish’ and some workhouses encouraged the craft. Daniel Defoe, writing in 1730 wrote of lacemakers coming from:

The most idle, useless and burthensom part of our people, viz the younger women and female children. These were a real charge upon the diligent poor such as the husbandsmen, the farmers and the handicrafts of other trades . . . and were now made able to provide for themselves.

I wonder what Mary Dicks and her fellow workers would have made of such a comment.

The Northampton Militia list of 1777 states that there were between nine and ten thousand young women and boys employed in lace making around Wellingborough and about nine thousand involved in the trade around Kettering.

As we have heard there were concerns about the plight of the lacemakers in the eighteenth century and this continued into the nineteenth with concerns expressed about the effect of cheap foreign imports. [1805 insert from NRO letter]

Our particular story starts with a marriage on 23rd December 1813 at Raunds Parish Church. John Bates married Susanna Shaw and it seems likely that they are our subject’s parents. John, we learn later, came from Piddinton or Paddinton or Puddington or Podington. On balance it is likely that he was the John Bates baptised on 27th December 1789, in Puddington or Podington, near Rushden although it is just over the county border in Bedfordshire. There is also some uncertainty about his bride but the best candidate seems to be the Susanna Shaw baptised in Brigstock on 23rd November 1788, the daughter of William and Elizabeth.

What we do know is that a John and Sussana(h) Bates had children baptised, and probably born, in Denford. The first child was Dinah, baptised on 17th September 1815 and again on 16th June 1816. Either the first child died (although her burial is not recorded), or she was baptised twice, the first one being a private one, as sometimes happened. Mary, the second daughter was baptised on 1st February 1818. Then followed twin girls, Susannah and Hannah, baptised on 1st July 1821.

If there was happiness at the birth of the twins, it very quickly turned to tragedy. Their mother, Susanna died some ten days later on the 11th July and the twins quickly followed, Hannah on August 18th and Susanna on 2nd September.

At some stage John had become a shopkeeper. We are not sure when this happened, or if it was a way of coping with his two young daughters while making a living. Unusually, for a man with a young family he did not marry again and we know that on 14th April 1838, at his daughter, Mary’s wedding at Ringstead Parish Church he was described as a Denford shopkeeper.

It is Mary who is the main subject of our story and she was marrying Henry Dicks a farm servant from Ringstead. Mary is described as a lacemaker and one wonders if she was taught by her mother or at a local ‘Lace School’. Her older sister, Dinah had married in 1837 to Thomas Crane so John had no help for the shop or house and in 1841, now aged about fifty-three, we find him living alone and a labourer. Whether the loss of his daughters as helpers had any part in this we may never know. It is likely that he would have found labouring hard after his time as a shopkeeper and certainly by 1851 he is living with Mary and her family and is classified as, ‘unable to work’. Ten years later he dies in Thrapston Union Workhouse. His death certificate states that he died of Hydrothorax, a condition which can still be dangerous, mainly in babies and old people, where the lung cavities are filled with liquid. It can often be a result of kidney or heart problems. He had probably been sickly for some time and the best hope he would have had of nursing and medical care was in the workhouse. The Bates women tend to die young and, unusually for the nineteenth century, it is the men who have long 'widowerhoods'.

In 1841, Mary is in Ringstead with her husband Henry Dicks and their first child, Susannah, just two years old. Unfortunately this Census does not usually give the woman’s work unless she is the head of the household but we would expect Mary to have to continue with her lacemaking as long as her young child allowed her the opportunity.

Is it a coincidence that Henry and Mary’s first child, Susannah, is baptised in Leicester on 12th April 1839 just as her uncle, Korah Dicks, had been baptised some twenty-seven years earlier?[see separate biography of Korah] Was there a family connection? Other children soon filled the house and Mary’s time. First there were twin girls, Elizabeth and Mary Ann (baptised 11th November 1841) followed by John (28th January 1844), Joseph (31st December1848) and Thomas (1850).

By the Census of 1851 Mary was thirty-four years old with six children, aged from eleven years to three months. Mary is now shown as a lacemaker, as are the three eldest children, Susannah (11), Elizabeth (9) and Mary Ann (9). It may be that they were taught and worked with their mother, perhaps also helping to look after the younger children. It is also possible, however, that they worked at one of the unofficial lace schools which were usually run by an older woman.

The ‘National School’ had not yet been planned but, as we saw in the story of the schoolmasters, there were some ‘Dame Schools’ , run by local women. In the main lacemaking areas these schools were often ‘Lace Schools’, where young children were taught the rudiments of lacemaking and sometimes a few basic letters and arithmetic. In those areas boys and girls would have attended, the boys usually even more unwillingly than the girls. In Ringstead the only record of a male lacemaker, that I have found, is one five-year-old boy, called Joseph Saddington in 1851. It was considered important to start the children working on the lace as young as five in order to get their fingers nimble enough to do the work.

A Mrs Roberts, who had lived as a child in Spratton, told of her experience of the lace school, which the children attended from the age of eight, in the middle of the nineteenth century:

here the hours were from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. in the summer and from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. in the winter. Half an hour was allowed for breakfast and for tea, and one hour for dinner so that there were ten hours for actual work. The girls had to stick ten pins a minute, or six hundred an hour; and if at the end of the day they were five pins behind, they had to work for another hour. On Saturdays, however, they had a half-holiday, working only to the dinner-hour. They counted to themselves every pin they stuck, and at every fiftieth pin they called out the time, and the girls used to race each other as to who should call out first.

They paid twopence a week (or threepence in winter) for lights, and in return they received the money realised from the sale of the lace made and they could earn sixpence a day. Pay-day was a great event; it came once a month.

In the evenings eighteen girls worked by one tallow candle, value one penny; the ‘candle-stool’ stood about as high as an ordinary table with four legs. In the middle of this was what was known as the ‘pole-board’, with six holes in a circle and one in the centre. In the centre hole was a long stick with a socket for the candle at one end and peg-holes through the sides so that it could be raised or lowered at will. In the other six holes were placed pieces of wood hollowed out like a cup and into each of these was placed a bottle made of very thin glass and filled with water. These bottles acted as strong condensers or lenses, and the eighteen girls sat round the table, three to each bottle, their stools being upon different levels, the highest nearest the bottle which threw the light upon the work like a burning-glass. In the day-time as many as thirty girls, and sometimes boys, would work in a room about twelve feet square with two windows, and in the winter they could have no fire for lack of room. The makers of the best lace would sit nearest the light and so on in order of merit.

There are one or two schoolmistresses who may have run lace schools, such as Elizabeth Colston, originally from Sudborough (a lace-making village), who became the second wife of Isaac Gunn on 27th July 1840 when she was about 43 years old. In 1851 she is shown as an ‘infant teacher’ but we have no proof that she kept a lace school. (Elizabeth gave evidence at the trial of William Weekley Ball).

It may be that, as in Flora Thompson's Lark Rise, that the children leant their lace within the community of women:

Queenie, in her childhood, had been 'brought up to the pillow', sitting among the women at eight years old and learning to fling her bobbins with the best of them. They would gather in one cottage in winter for warmth, she said, each one bringing her faggot or shovel of coals for the fire, and they would sit all day, working, gossiping, singing old songs, and telling old tales till it was time to run home and put on the pots for their husbands' suppers. These were the older women and the young unmarried girls; the women with little children did what lacemaking they could at home.

Even if the children were at home it is likely that they sang the little rhymes or ‘tells’ to help the hours pass and establish a rhythm for the work. Thomas Wright tells us that the:

Northants tells have none of the gruesome features that characterize those of Buckinghamshire and they are less hoydenish and more sentimental than those of Bedfordshire. The Northamptonshire maidens do not gloat over ghosts, corpses, black coffins and gibbets, not do they throw turnips at the heads of inoffensive gentlemen who happen to be passing on horseback.

I would be surprised if, given the chance, the Ringstead girls would not do all of these things. He does quote from some Northamptonshire 'tells' including this one which does help you picture the girls all working together:

Twenty pins have I to do,

Let way be ever so dirty.

Never a penny in my purse,

But farthings five and thirty.


Betsy Bays and Polly Mays,

They are two bonny lasses;

They built a bower upon the tower,

And covered it with rushes*.

[*Custom of carrying rushes and garland to church on Rush-bearing Day.]

For all the customs and mythology that surrounded the craft, it was tedious work for children. Pamela Horn records that many were able to read or write very little, and their bodies were weakened by the bent posture they had to adopt over the bulky ‘pillow’. Some girls even wore a wooden busk in their stays to support them in their work and this distorted their young bones and contracted their chests for life.

The people who might make good money from lacemaking were the dealers who would usually own the patterns, provide the materials and buy the finished product (if it was satisfactory). In lace centres, such as Olney, some dealers became rich men. We do know that Ringstead had a ‘Lace-dealer’ in 1837. This fact emerges because the dealer, William Smith left a will in which his profession is given. The will was read to the family by Mr Williamson, a local farmer. When he reached the part where William Smith had bequeathed the house, orchard and, ‘all that pertained to it’, to the son of his daughter, Mrs Partrick, his son, also William exploded in fury. Being the younger son, he would not have expected to inherit, himself, but he was furious that his eldest brother, who was married with three children, had not been left the property. William snatched the will and left and it is likely that he destroyed it as he threatened.

He was tried and sentenced to seven years transportation. Luckily for William, and to the great annoyance of Thomas Wilkins, the magistrate, the sentence was commuted to three months imprisonment.

After the death of William I have not found another lace dealer but it is possible that a shopkeeper, such as Noah Green, the draper, carried on this work as an addition to his main source of income. On the other hand, a dealer from Wellingborough may have taken over the village. The 1840 Pigot's Directory does not show one in Thrapston but there are three 'Lace Manufactureres and Dealers' in Wellingborough and one of these, William Sears is definitely described as a 'dealer'. Flora Thompson tells us that in 'the hamlet', on the Northamptonshire/Oxfordshire border, Queenie used to store her lace away in blue paper and sell it once a year to the dealer at Banbury Fair.

Returning to 1851, the Census came at a time when handmade lace was struggling to compete with machine-made lace and foreign imports. The original Northamptonshire lace was a version of Buckinghamshire lace but there were subtle differences. Miss Dalton, writing in 1929 tells us:

Northamptonshire had its own characteristics. The clothwork of the Mechlin lace was utilised for small designs of conventional trend and geometrical shapes combined with the vagrant thread of Lille. The little points d’esprit, which also hailed from France, took the fancy of our county and we called them leadwork or plaits.

I have found it difficult to find a clear illustration of Northamptonshire lace showing these characteristics and the local lacemakers would have made what the market, and their dealer, demanded, as far as they had the skill to do so. The lace and photographs that we have are almost entirely from the end of the century or early in the next and probably do not reflect the piecework products that Mary and her like made in Ringstead.

The first photograph below shows lace which, to my untrained eye, is chunkier and coarser than the fine Mechlin type lace produced earlier. It is perhaps a form of Bedfordshire Lace influenced by Maltese lace. It was probably produced by Mrs Jacques or her daughter-in-law of Rushden in the late nineteenth century. The donor had had to learn lace from Mrs Jacques, who was her grandmother, ‘which she did not enjoy’.


With the kind permission of Northampton Museum & Art Gallery

The second illustration is from Mrs. Dalton’s article and shows fine Buckinghamshire style lace. This would almost certainly have been much more complex and finer than Mary and her children would have produced. It was made by Jane Onions (nee Storey), a shepherd’s wife born in about 1842 in Upper Dean Bedfordshire, which is only some eight miles from Ringstead. At nine years old Jane was already a young lacemaker like Mary’s children, as is her mother and sister. After marriage she lived in Newton Bromswold in Northamptonshire (although further away from Ringstead). She made lace for the infant robes of the future King Edward VIII which would have been some time after 1894. The piece below was made by Jane as she sat in a large shop window in London demonstrating her craft.


Buckingham Lace by Mrs Onions of Newton Bromswold

From Art and Industry by Miss C. L. F. Dalton

Much of the lace in the nineteenth century was for baby’s clothes and pillow edging and after 1840 for wedding dresses. The wedding of Queen Victoria had helped revive the declining lace industry. She wore a white dress and had lace trimmings as well as a lace veil. Perhaps surprisingly, white had not been used for wedding dresses prior to this as it meant the dress was almost unusable after the event. Although the lace for the Queen’s dress was Honiton lace (from Beer in Devon) it started a new fashion which helped the whole industry. It is reported that men began to make lace, because they could earn more from its production than their other work, but I have found no evidence of this in Ringstead. The trade was boosted again when Maltese lace, a form of plaited lace, was shown at the Great Exhibition in 1851. This was a rather showy, but quicker to make, form of lace and versions of this were produced in the East Midlands to meet this new demand.

Pamela Horn records that in the 1851 Census for Northamptonshire there were 10,322 female lacemakers of whom 754 were aged five to nine years and 2,124 aged ten to fourteen and that this is probably an underestimate as some part-timers would not have been recorded. This is a surprising figure, twice that quoted elsewhere but appears to be the correct one. It makes the Northamptonshire workforce on a par with Buckinghamshire and twice that of Bedfordshire and Devon. The 1841 census, which only recorded seven lacemakers for Ringstead, the majority of them fifteen-year-olds, is not a reliable source, for most women’s and part-time jobs went unrecorded unless the woman was the head of the household. In 1851, however there were 79 lacemakers (including eight hair lacemakers). This figure was made up of 6 aged five to nine years; 27 aged ten to fourteen; 17 aged fifteen to twenty; 27 aged twenty-one to sixty and 2 over sixty. In Ringstead, therefore, over 40% of the lacemaking workforce was under fifteen years old and almost entirely female. For most it was an additional family income and when a woman is a lacemaker and head of the household she is often also a ‘pauper’. Thus it is with Ann Barker aged 52, Elizabeth Fairey, 78 and Jane Childs, 36 (whose husband is ‘away’).

By 1861 the fashion peak had passed again and machines were beginning to produce a type of Maltese lace and there are only six lacemakers shown in the Ringstead Census and shoemaking (mainly ‘closing’) had become most working women’s profession of choice. Mrs Bury Palliser, in her History of Lace, reported that:

In the Juror’s Report of the International Exhibition of 1862 the number of lacemakers in the counties of Buckingham, Northampton, Bedford and Oxford is estimated as 25,000.

If this figure is correct, it is also true that, in the case of Ringstead, this does not reflect the sudden decline in laceworkers in the years before 1861 and, one suspects, that this was true across much the shoemaking areas where homeworking was the normal practice.

The census figures for Northamptonshire mirror this decline in lace workers, until, by the end of the century there were only a few hundred left in the whole county who were earning a living by the craft.

It was in 1851 that Mary’s husband, Henry, had pulled out the rotten tooth of Lydia Attley shortly before her disappearance and probable death [see story of William Weekley Ball]. Henry told the court that:

            I am a labourer at Ringstead and have lived there all my days

He also reveals that he was, ‘in the habit of drawing teeth’, so it may be that he earned a little extra income by this work. Lydia, who in the 1841 census is shown as a lacemaker, was a regular visitor at his house so perhaps the women would talk while they looked after the children or worked at their lace. More children kept arriving. There was William in 1853, Sarah in 1856 and finally Ellen in 1858. Mary was giving birth, on average, every two years.

In their small cottage there would have been some six children for much of the time, with Mary trying to produce lace, while feeding and looking after her children. Thomas was her old child to die very young, being buried in November 14th 1854 aged three years. The Register also records that their house was in London End which was where many of the poorer villagers lived.

It would have been a hard, tiring existence. It is important to remember the conditions that Mary would have lived in, with almost certainly a communal dirt toilet outside; no running water or sewerage; probably only one room heated by an open fire or stove which would have served also for cooking; earth, brick or stone floors. Add to this poverty and then imagine being pregnant and ill in these conditions in cold wet weather. It must have been a miserable, debilitating time for Mary as she came to termination of another child towards the end of 1859. We know that the birth went wrong and that on 25th November 1859 Mary died and was buried in Ringstead churchyard. Like too many women at the time, including her own mother, she died from childbirth. Her death certificate records that was forty-five years old and that she 'died of exhaustion, parturition, [childbirth] 44 hours'. It would have been her tenth child.

The older children would naturally have been, by this time, marrying and leaving the nest but, perhaps, their mother’s death accelerated this process. Mary had lived long enough to see the wedding of her eldest child, Susannah to William Samuel Bull, a shoemaker and grocer, in the spring of 1859.

The 1861 Census finds Henry a forty-eight year old widower with his daughter Mary, aged 19 acting as his housekeeper. His son John, aged 16 is a shoemaker and Joseph (12) is an agricultural labourer. There are still three children, William (7), Sarah (5) and Ellen (3) for the younger Mary to look after.

In 1863 Elizabeth married a shoemaker called James Braybrook and a year later, Mary, who had been looking after the house for her father, married George Bird Warren. John, the first son to leave, wed Caroline Stanner (or Starmer) in Kettering in 1866 and his brother Joseph married Sarah Ann Major early in 1871. The two younger daughters also left the family home to work as servants, Sarah Emma, aged sixteen to a Higham Ferrers grocer and Ellen, just thirteen years old, to the Forester’s Arms in Thorpe End, Raunds.

So it was that in the 1871 Census, Henry, aged fifty-eight is living with only his son William still at home. His son John and family live next door and most of the rest are still living in the area.

Sarah married Josiah Branston in the year after the census and Ellen married James Foskett in 1878. Finally William, the youngest son married Mary Ann Manning in 1879. By 1881, aged 68, Henry, Mary’s widower, is living with his widowed daughter Elizabeth Braybrook and he is a ‘rag and bone gatherer’. Henry died in 1890 aged seventy-eight.

Nowhere, among Mary’s children, is there a sign that any of them continued to earn a living by lacemaking. In Ringstead, it had probably disappeared as a paid craft by 1870. The 1867 Factory Act had severely restricted the use of child labour and from 1870 a procession of Education Acts gradually forced children out of the workforce. Perhaps some people still made lace for friends and family but, probably, it had to wait to be revived both as a craft and as a hobby in late nineteenth and in the twentieth century. Following on from the work of William Morris and others many hand crafts became popular again as a reaction to industrialisation and many books were written of its practice and history during this period.

In the Pall Mall Magazine of March 1896 Alice Dryden was able to write:

The custom of wearing lace, which has lain dormant fro many years was revived in 1893 because Her Gracious Majesty has so often appeared in her own costly lace, or from a mere caprice of fashion; certain it is that lace is now a very important item in a well-dressed woman's wardrobe.

She assserted that a woman with a family to look after could still earn between fourpence and sixpence a day, enough to pay the rent of her cottage. For the elderly, frail and 'crippled' the work could be done when they were able and so provide some income when little else was open to them. It is from this later flowering of the craft that the pictures of old ladies outside their cottages mainly come.

From Pillow Lace in the Midlands by Alice Dryden


This Indian Summer of pillow lace came too late fro Ringstead and the homeworking tradition was carried on into the boot and shoe making industry until that also declined and died because of mechanisation and cheap imports. In a sense, for all their drawbacks, the two crafts carried on the independence of the home and family based  peasant tradition.



My special thanks to Brenda Hazel for information on the Bates and Dicks families.

Also to Janice Morris for her article on Traditional and Modern Crafts: Lace-making.

Victoria Davies at the Northampton Museum and Art Gallery could not have been more helpful and went to great trouble to show me the relevant lace collection and photographs for which I am very grateful.


1841, 1851, 1861 Ringstead Censuses (lacemakers analysis) also 1871,1881,1891,1901.

Ringstead and Denford Parish Registers.

The Romance of the Lace Pillow. Thomas Wright 1919 (New edition Ruth Bean 1982).

History of Lace. Mrs. Bury Palliser (Sampson, Low, Son and Marston 1869).

Pillow Lace of the Midlands, Alice Dryden: Pall Mall Magazine March 1896 (Northampton Central Library)

The Origins of the English Pillow Lace Industry. G.F.R. Spenceley (The Agricultural History Review 1973).

Art and Industry. Miss C. L. F. Dalton. (The Northampton County Magazine Vol. 2 1929 (Northampton Central Library.)

Northamptonshire Notes and Queries [Old series Vol. IV p 185]. Re: Spratton Lace School (Northamptonshire Record Office).

The Victorian Country Child. Pamela Horn (first pub 1974; Alan Sutton 1985).

The works of William Cowper; his life letters and poems. William Cowper.

Lark Rise. Flora Thompson (Oxford University Press 1939) (The Cowper and Newton Museum).

200 Years of the Census in Northamptonshire. (Count me in Census 2001 Office for National Statistics).

Northampton Mercury 27 Feb 1864 (Northampton Central Library).


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