The Economics of Straw Plaiting in 1801

An extract from Arthur Young, General View of the Agriculture of the County of Hertfordshire, 1804

About Stevenage, spinning has given way to plaiting straw, by which they earn three or four times as much.

The same is to be found at Hatfield; but Redburn [Redbourn] is the place where the manufacture is most prevalent; where women will earn 1 1s. a week, and where a pound of prepared straw is sold as high as 6d. After six weeks learning, a girl has earned 8s. a week; and some clever little girls even 15s. The farmers complain of it, as doing mischief, for it makes the poor saucy, and no servants can be procured, or any field-work done, where the manufacture established itself. There may be some inconvenience of this sort, but good earnings are a most happy circumstance, which I wish to see universal.

At St. Albans I saw much plaiting; here are women that will earn 5s. a day.

Little or none is found at Watford; much at Berkhamsted; the beginning of this spring (1801), a good hand could earn from 14s. to 18s. a week, which was the price of thirty yards of twist; but now it sells only a 4s. per score. Mrs. Muns, at Market-Street [Markyate], is a great purchaser: she buys the twist of the poor, and makes it up into various fabricks, chiefly bonnets. Luton, in Bedfordshire, is also a considerable mart for it. Black lace making has been carried on at Berkhamsted time immemorial; these fabricks, especially the straw, render the women averse to husbandry work, and are said to make them bad servants, from their ignorance of everything else. It is, however, highly beneficial to the poor: a child can begin at four or fives years old. Some men employ themselves in getting straw for their wives. Some women have earned 2 2.s, a week; but that lasted only a short time. Straw-plaiting is a cleaner trade than black, but not white lacemaking.

At Dunstable, they begin to pick the straw at four years old; plait at five; and at six earn from 1s. 6d. to 2s. 6d. a week; at seven they use the instrument, and earn 1s. a day; some girls of ten years old earn 12s. a week; and one was named who at eight earned as much. Women can earn 1 1s. a week on an average. Some men and boys are employed in it, as much more wholesome employment than lace-making. The instrument for splitting the straw was invented about a year since, and has had a great effect; before they were forced to pick small straws, and could neither make the works they effect now, nor execute any so well. It is highly beneficial to the poor, and has kept their rates down, with no other rise on account of the dear times, &c. than from 2s. 6d. to 4s.

There is so much plaiting at Hitchin, that they will not go into service; boys are here employed in it.

Near Gorhambury [near St. Albans] a girl of twelve or thirteen was named who earns a guinea a week.

It is without any doubt of very great use to the poor, and has had a considerable effect in keeping down rates, which would have been far more burthensome without it.

The straw from stony and heavy land, like that of Essex, will not do for plaiting; and if a crop produces much straw fir for plaiting, the produce of the corn is generally bad: weak straw under hedges and near trees, does best. They give 2d., 3d., and 4d., a pound for it, and sort it themselves.

For more about straw plaiting see The History of Straw Plait in Hertfordshire

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