The English pillow lace industry : a study of a rural industry in competition during the nineteenth century
This thesis attempts to give substance to research in an oft-neglected area of Britain's economy by studying, in depth, one of the numerous rural industries which existed in England as it passed through its industrial revolution, and beyond. The pictorial map drawn by Augustus Petermann to accompany the 1851 Census of Population gives a vivid indication of the preponderance of rural industries in the middle of the century. The pillow lace industry was one of the oldest of these, having been born late in the sixteenth century, and in the event it was one of the last to survive, for it was not until the twentieth century that it finally succumbed to the rigours of competition with machinery, and disappeared. The machine industry had been in existence since the end of the eighteenth century and from the mid 1840s had been producing an enormous output of almost perfect imitations of hand-made lace, yet at a much lower price. How had the pillow lace industry survived for so long? The problem is compounded by the added competition of hand-made laces produced overseas, most notably in France and Belgium, where the industry was not only organized on a larger scale than its English counterpart, but was probably more skilled and more flexible in its response to machine competition. Imports of hand-made lace into England reached a peak during the 1850s and 60s, precisely at the time that the machine industry was reaching new heights of technical and organizational perfection. An examination of the pillow lace industry's response to these pressures, the najor theme of this thesis, falls readily into a number of sections. By the nineteenth century the industry had existed for approximately 200 years and had a well-established structure and organization on which its responses, by and large, were based. The thesis therefore begins by placing the industry in its historical context, tracing the industry's history from its origins to the beginning of the nineteenth century. Before a consideration of the industry's response to its competitors can be undertaken the nature of these competitors must first be defined. What were the strengths and weaknesses of rival hand and machine producers? How were they organized and on what scale? What kinds of fabric did they produce and how and where were they marketed? And how did the growth of the machine industry affect the production of hand-made lace overseas and this, in its turn, the hand producers of England? The pillow lace industry's structure and organization were the bases on which its competitive ability ultimately rested. The quality, variety and price of the industry's output, its ability to reach a variety of market outlets, not only at home but also overseas, were among the major determinants of its competitive capacity. Who ran the pillow lace industry and who were its workers? What, if any, were the organizational problems in bringing the various components of the industry's structure together in a putting out system? How was the lace made and how was it channelled to its market outlets, and how prompt was delivery? The answers to these questions, when viewed in the industry's competitive, and historical context, go a good way towards explaining the industry's survival into the nineteenth century. Part IV draws the various elements together and attempts such an explanation. To discover the human aspects of how workers and employers felt and behaved is essential if the true perspective of industrial history is to be obtained. This is the thesis' final task. Workers and employers in this kind of industry are notorious for not leaving private records. For this reason, as elsewhere, the thesis rests on parliamentary records and contemporary histories and to a lesser degree on accounts in contemporary newspapers and periodicals. Yet these provide a wealth of material, enabling the writer to draw up a picture of the workers' health and working conditions and of how the industry's workers said they felt about their existence and the effects which the industry's problems was having upon it. The thesis concludes with an examination of the industry's final thirty years, during which its organization fell substantially into the hands of philanthropic bodies. Partly as a result, the industry did not disappear until the 1930s, over 120 years after the advent of John Heathcoat's lace machine.