The Lace Merchant (character and history)


Above music: Maiden Maiden by Gemma Khawaja. Lyrics by Ulysses Black.

The little puppet prototype pictured is the character of the lace merchant.

The lacemakers were commissioned to make lace by lace merchants or dealers. These merchants would order particular patterns or styles of lace and travelled from village to village, supplying the lacemakers with bobbins, threads and patterns and buying the finished lace. In the lace making villages Cut-off Day was when the lace was removed from the pillow and taken to their village inn to meet the lace buyer or his agent, who would bargain for the lace. The lace-man encouraged competition between lacemakers to get the best deal for himself.

The lace workers were obliged to buy materials only from the lace-merchant himself, and during hard times in the industry, it was custom for the workers to be given “payment in truck” – the merchant would pay the lace workers in goods rather than money, ensuring that they remained reliant on him. As they would only buy materials from the merchant only, this ensured they remained loyal to him also. As the lacemakers were not contracted as workers, they had little to no workers rights. As stated in P. Bernard’s article, The Lace Schools of Buckinghamshire, “when prices were lace were at their lowest and wages dropped to below subsistence level, the workers were still forced to buy their thread at the same or even higher prices.”

The contemptuous attitude of the lacemakers towards the lace merchant can be evidenced in the following lace tell:

Nineteen miles to Charing Cross, 
To see a Black Man ride on a white horse. 
The rogue was so saucy he wouldn’t come down 
To show me the road to the nearest town. 
I picked up a turnut [turnip] and cracked his old crown, 
And made him cry turnuts all over the town. 

(Wright 1930:189)

In “The Romance of th4e Lace Pillow”, Thomas Wright says that the “Black Man” in this tell is “Evidently, Mr.E. Godfroy the lace-buyer, with whom the lace makers sometimes had differences, and a lampoon in the shape of a lace tell was their little revenge.”


Thomas Lester – Lace Merchant (1791 – 1867)

Thomas Lester was a prominent, prize-winning Bedfordshire lace merchant. His business survived up until the onset of machine made lace during the Industrial Revolution. He was considered an extremely innovative designer and his style came to known as Lester Lace. Nature themes – plants and animals – often appear in these designs.

According to Thomas Wright (The Romance of the Lace Pillow):“Mr Thomas Lester […] was a terrible autocrat. In his shop was a drawer which was usually left open and inch or two, and if the lace was not done well, he would take a girl’s hand and deliberately pinch her fingers in the drawer[…] On the other hand, if her lace was done well she would be praised, and rewarded with the present of a bobbin dotted with the words, THOMAS LESTER.” [Wright 1930, p. 203]


Sources used:

The Romance of the Lace Pillow, Thomas Wright 1930

The Lace Schools of Buckinghamshire, P. Bernard (Open University Thesis 1974)

Information supplied by The Higgins Bedford. Original source: ‘Thomas Lester, his lace and the East Midlands Industry 1820 – 1905’ by Anne Buck. 

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