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18 June 2014
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Legacies - Nottingham

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Black lead and bleaching - the Nottingham lace industry

Lace worker
Lace machine at Long Eaton
From 1800 normal warehouse hours were 8am to 8pm, six days a week, although these often extended to midnight in busy periods, and by 1860s a half day on Saturday was more frequent. Fortunately for warehouse employees at the beginning of the 1860s the time of the last luggage train to London was changed so that parcels had to be at the station by 7pm, previously it had been four the following morning. In addition the few male employees were expected to protect the warehouse, to the extent of sleeping there one week in every three.

However the worst conditions occurred in the workshops and private houses used in outworking and in this poorly-paid section of lace finishing women, children and young persons continued to work long, irregular hours in unhealthy and overcrowded positions into the 1900s.

Lace workers
Young women at Carey's Dyeworks
An outworker mistress would collect work from a warehouse at an agreed price and then would either distribute it out to other women - the second and third-hand mistresses - or assemble a group in her own home. In 1842 children as young as two or three did outwork, although by 1862 the average starting age had risen to about eight years old.

The space per worker varied considerably; in 1862 one of the worst places found by government inspectors had only 67 cubic feet of space available for each worker. Over the years the work required from outworkers varied considerably.

Before the advent of patterning by the machine more than 20,000 women and children embroidered the net, those who ran in the pattern being called the lace runners. Later mending, separating the lace, (drawing), and cutting out surplus threads, (scalloping or clipping and cropping), became more usual.

Work was seasonal, and during a 'rush job' finishers would work through the night; prams filled with lace could be seen going to and from the warehouses at all hours. The number engaged in lace outwork was given as 5,016 in 1907 but the true number will never be known because from oral evidence it would seem that often all members of a family, from grandparents to schoolchildren, would contribute to the family income with lace outwork.

Words: Sheila A. Mason, BA (Hons), FRSA

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