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The history of Clophill, Bedfordshire, UK
Including historical descriptions, maps and statistical analysis.

Straw Plait

Plaiting straw to make hats and bonnets has been carried out in the UK for centuries but in the nineteenth century it became a major local cottage industry supplying the hat factories of Luton. In the counties of Bedfordshire, Hertfordshire and Buckinghamshire the main female employment was straw plaiting in the home. Why Luton became the centre of the straw hat industry is not know for sure. Some say it is because the soil of the Chilterns grew a suitable straw.

The census data for Clophill (1851 to 1881) shows that a large proportion of the female population was working as straw plaiters. A straw dealer would purchase straw from farmers and have it prepared for plaiting. It was cleaned , bleached and cut at the nodes into lengths similar to modern drinking straws. It was then delivered to the homes of the plaiters for them to use. The finished plait, in 20 yard lengths, was collected by the dealers and sold to the hat makers in Luton. Alternatively, villagers could travel to the straw plait markets, such as the one at Shefford, to sell their plait at better prices to the dealers. At Luton the plait would be made into hats; hand-sewn at first then later machine-sewn.

34 High Street. Old photo.

34 High Street. Old photo.

Children, some as young as 4 years, had to learn to plait straw. The 1851 census shows that there was a straw plaiting school in Little Lane run by a Lucy Ashby. Most villages had these schools but they were renown for being cramped and unhealthy, being little more than child slave labour. The boys moved on to agricultural labouring work when old and strong enough. The girls continued plaiting at home.

There was a rhyme that they recited to remember the sequence of the plaiting:-

Over one, under two:
Pull it tight, and that will do.

You can see this in the last straw that goes from left to right. The plait was held in the fingers and the thumbs used to bend the straw at the edges. The plaiting schools were known as 'sore thumb schools'.

7 straw Dunstable plait (Gillian Nott)

7 straw Dunstable plait (Gillian Nott)

The industry reached its peak in the 1870's then the affect of cheap imports from China then Japan killed the demand for locally-made plait. The censuses show a rapid reduction in the number of people working in the industry over the next twenty years. Also, the population of Clophill reduced, probable because families were moving to the towns and cities in pursuit of work.

In the memoirs of Jack Burgoine and Jack Pitts they both mention that a Mr Manning lived at 34 High Street and was a hat manufacturer. The is no other evidence to show whether the 'hat factory' was at number 34 but looking at old photos it can be seen that the south wing looks as if it was built for industry. It had a flat concrete roof which now has a pitched roof built on top of it and the windows have been changed. Is this where the 'hat factory' was?

Hat Machinists (c1918)

Hat Machinists (c1918)