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Straw Plaiting in Walkern

by janet on 7 February 2012 · 0 comments

Straw Plaiting in Walkern

An article by Janet Woodall & Eleanor Waldock that first appeared in the September 2010 Walkern Journal

Luton was a centre of British straw hat production from the beginning of the 17th century with production of the raw material, straw plait, giving employment to many thousands of women and young children in neighbouring counties. Literally a cottage industry.

The plait stall of I Nicholls in Luton plait halls c1900. Photo by F Thurston c Luton Libraries

The quality of straw grown on the chalk fields of Beds, Bucks, and Herts was ideal for plaiting, and in 1850, a superior variety of wheat called ?Red Lammas? was introduced from Cambridgeshire. The proximity of the Beds/Herts plaiting areas to Watling Street and only 20 to 30 miles from the hat manufacturers in London, was ideal.

Plaiting was essentially a rural occupation with the women in towns sewing plait to make the hats, and getting better pay than their rural cousins. In the 19th century the average Hertfordshire agricultural wage was between 10s and 12s a week. Izzard Prior of Clay Hall (now Walkern Hall) noted that during 1845 wages fluctuated from 9 to 11 shillings per week, and when at the lower level he found it hard to collect the rents. Straw plaiting wives and children could potentially earn appreciably more than their husbands and fathers, and it must have been a very welcome income around the village.

When areas of England were embroiled in discontent at low rural wages, Hertfordshire was relatively peaceful thanks in part to the extra wages brought in by straw plaiting. John Izzard Pryor commented in his diary on a ?state of dismay and terror? in December 1830 when several farms had been ?set fire to by wicked incendiaries very near?, adding that, ?Fires continue to be seen in the distance most nights?. However, in Hertfordshire only one serious case was dealt with arising from the Farm Labourers? Revolt (John Pryor himself was a member of the Grand Jury which heard the case). But plaiting helped keep the lid on the boiling pot of rebellion in Hertfordshire.

Arthur Young in his General View of the Agriculture of Hertfordshire (1804) noted that ?About Stevenage, spinning has given way to plaiting straw, by which they earn three or four times as much.? though

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