The Lace Schools

Above image supplied by The Higgins Bedford Museum

Above image supplied by The Higgins Bedford. Postcard by Braggins and Co. Copyright belongs to The Higgins Bedford.

The following information was given to me by The Higgins Bedford regarding Bedfordshire lace schools:

Eaton Socon overseers entry 1596 Goodwife Clarke paid 2d a week for teaching each child and children received what they earned.

Children taught in the work houses, Jane Harris an inmate was paid 1s a week for teaching children at Eaton Socon in 1719.

Thomas Batchelor 1808 “Children are taught to make lace at about six or seven years old; and they occupy so much of their attention of their school mistress , that the expense of teaching them amounts to 3s. Per week, for a month or six weeks, according to their capacity. After they have learned the rudiments of their art their ordinary schooling is 6d. A week. By age of 10 earnings were around a third of an adult’s which ranged from 5 to 9s.

Schools rapidly increased in the early part of the 19th Century. Marston Moretaine (population 1801 792) had 9 schools in 1819 where 80 to 90 girls and boys made lace.

Youngest worked 4 or 5 hours a day , older children 6 to 8 hours and young women 12 or 15 hours. (Commission on the employment of children) Numbers in the schools ranged between twlve and twenty-five for most schools.

The following information was taken from “The Lace Schools of Buckinghamshire” by P. Bernard (Open University Thesis, 1974), kindly given to me by a member of the Southwick Lacemaking group:

There were different kinds of lace schools. There were the village lace schools, which were run commercially, and the children still remained under the guardianship of their parents and earnt money to contribute to the family income.

Then there were the parish schools, which were schools set up by parish officers to provide a trade for pauper children. A 1917 Committee report reads:

“The children of labouring people are an ordinary burthen to the parish and are usually maintained in idleness, so that their labour is generally lost to the public until they are 12 or 14 years old. Therefore there should be set up a school in each parish for all between 3 and 14 years old so that they will from their infancy by inured to work, which is of no small consequence to the making of them sober and industrious all their lives after… They shall have bread and a little water gruel using the same fire that warms the room and their wages will be ploughed back and so cost the parish nothing.”

The Village Lace Schools

Whole families would take up the trade of lacemaking, with the very youngest being sent to learn in commercial lace schools, often from the age of 5. The smallest ones would wind the bobbins and fetch and carry for the older workers, but before long they would have to work a full day. The Committee of 1843 quotes five to eight hours for the youngest children; ten hours for children over ten. But it also notes: “Young persons are spoken of as often working 14 or 15 hours consecutively.”


The Lacemaking Tells are unaccompanied counting songs and rhymes sung/chanted by young lacemakers in the lace schools, when they were first taught to make lace. These songs tended to be made up of fragments of ballads, nursery rhymes and sometimes even hymns, and re-hashed and appropriated to serve the lacemaking process.

You can find out more about the lacemaking tells in this post


The school mistress was in charge of the group to ensure maximum productivity. She was often strict. Even the private village schools (as well as those set up by the church) were often run by lay sisters, or women who had some sort of religious status. 

[Below: taken from “Working Singing and Telling in the 19th-Century Flemish Pillow-Lace Industry]

The following lace tell reflects the strict conditions of the lace schools under the watchful eye of the lace mistress:

One o’clock and my scholar aint come, 

Two o’clock and my scholar aint come, 

Get a rod and nettle by four,

 And whip her well by five,

 And send her to bed by six, 

Lay her in salt and water by seven, 

And threw her down stairs by eight, 

And break her neck by nine, 

Put her in coffin by ten, 

And screw her down by eleven, 

And put her in ground by twelve, 

One o’clock and Old Dainty’s hung!


Conditions in the Lace Schools

The lighting and heating conditions in the lace schools were very poor. The only light was given out by a single candle in the centre of a table or fixed to a metal pole above eye level. Glass flasks filled with water, called flashes, were placed around the table, or fixed to the candlestick, in order to reflect the candlelight onto the pillows of the young lacemakers. Even strong daylight was inadequate in the small cottage rooms often used for lace schools, and so lacemakers would have strained their eyes considerably. 

Open fires were not allowed either in case soot blackened the lace, so in order to keep warm the young lacemakers would sit with a pot of hot ashes underneath their skirts or at their feet. Ventilation was poor too and so breathing difficulties were common, and “the yellowish complexion and hunched bodies of […] lacemakers were notorious”.


Sources used:

  1. Bernard 1974: The Lace Schools of Buckinghamshire (Open University thesis)


David Hopkin (2019): Working, Singing, and Telling in the 19th-Century Flemish Pillow-Lace Industry, TEXTILE, DOI: 10.1080/14759756.2019.1646499


The Higgins Bedford. Original source: Thomas Batchelor ‘General view of the agriculture of the County of Bedford’ published 1808, and Thomas Wright ‘Romance of the lace pillow’ Published 1930


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