I am grateful to Susan Holmes of the Woodlanders Project who has provided this article.

Lace terms and definitions

Pillow lace (also known as bobbin lace) – a lace textile made by braiding and twisting lengths of thread wound on bobbins to manage them. It is held in place with pins set in a lace pillow, the placement of the pins usually determined by a pattern or pricking pinned on the pillow. Sometimes it is called bone lace, because early bobbins were made of bone or ivory.

Yak lace – coarse bobbin lace typically made from wool, which was cheaper and faster to make, often used on mourning garments.

Lace card-maker, lace pattern-maker – the dealers supplied the lacemakers with patterns to follow for the latest fashions. These were marked out on cards by pattern makers.

Lace man – a male dealer in lace, who sold or supplied raw materials to home-based workers, then sold the lace goods they made.

Lace dealing in the Wycombe area

Lace was made by predominantly female lacemakers in the Chilterns villages and sold to lace-dealers who then sold it on to wholesalers and distributors, often in London, or in their own shops. The lace-dealers supplied the lacemakers with the materials and patterns to make the lace and bought their products. They either dealt with the lacemakers directly, travelling around to visit them, or through the local grocers/drapers in the villages, to which lacemaking schools were sometimes attached.

Truck system

Lacemakers were often paid via the truck system. This was an arrangement under which wages were paid, partly or fully, in the form of payment in kind; such as credit with specified shops, which might sell at inflated prices. The payment might also have been with a money substitute, such as chits, vouchers or tokens, which were only redeemable at specified shops.

This set of practices, which were used to exploit workers such as the lacemakers, were outlawed by several acts of parliament, the most important of which was the Truck Act in 1887.

Connections with grocers

The truck system was probably responsible for the fact that there were many family and business connections between individuals in the lace trade and grocers/drapers. Lacemakers living in outlying areas would have had to travel to a grocery shop, perhaps once a week, so the transactions would all be done on the same trip. Also, these shops may have sold items like thread anyway, so it would be a natural extension to the trade in the lace.

Daniel Hearn and Joseph Veary

In the 1830s, Daniel Hearn (1788–1851) built up the local lacemaking business in High Wycombe. From at least 1823 he ran a large drapery and grocery shop in Easton Street, High Wycombe, in partnership with Joseph Veary, who came from an established family of grocers and tallow-chandlers. By the early 1830s they were already selling lace, including into London with a partner William Kendle of 9 Cheapside. They advertised in local newspapers, a wide variety of goods:

“A splendid collection of India, Norwich and Edinburgh Shawls, of new and novel designs; a large assortment of Gros de Naples, in every colour; a curious and rich assortment of gauze and other ribbons, French blond laces, black lace veils, leisse gauzes of various colours; also a large assortment of muffs, boas, mantrillos, tippets; silk cloaks of the newest patterns; French and English merinos, Pelisse cloths; Welch and Lancashire flannels, blankets, counterpanes, quilts, carpeting, rugs etc.

Broad silks, Silk Norwich, Scotch and Thibit shawls, French and English blands, gauze, lutestring and other ribbons; plain and printed ginghams; French cambrics; plain muslins of every description; silk and fancy cotton hose; India bandanas; French and English gauze and crape shawls; handkerchiefs, scarfs, bobbin and quilling nets.”

As a result of this Daniel Hearn became a wealthy man and in the early 1840s was able to build Buckingham House at No. 36 High Street, High Wycombe, now the site of the premises of W H Smith. This replaced the Catherine Wheel, a timber-built structure which was destroyed by fire. A grocer’s shop was incorporated in Buckingham House and it was said that the lace-workers referred to it a “Bobbin Castle”!

Hearn died in 1851 and in his will left generous bequests to his staff, including £20 and his organ to one of his assistants Thomas Gilbert. His story will be told in the next part of this article.

‘The research for this article was undertaken by Susan Holmes for The Woodlanders’ Lives and Landscapes project, a partnership between Bucks New University and the Chilterns Conservation Board. The project is part of the Chalk, Cherries and Chairs Landscape Partnership running in the Central Chilterns, funded by the National Heritage Lottery Fund https://www.chilternsaonb.org/woodlanders-lives.html’

The full Woodlanders article can be seen at https://www.chilternsaonb.org/news/458/19/The-story-of-Thomas-Gilbert-Lace-Dealer-of-Wycombe.html or on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/woodlanderslives/posts/398575094842692

If any reader has information about, or ancestors who were involved in, the local lacemaking trade, Susan would be very pleased to hear from you, email her at susan.x.holmes@gmail.com