The Herts hatters
- Credit: Luton Culture
With harvest in full swing, Liz Hamilton of the Herts Campaign to Protect Rural England group looks at the straw hat industry that once employed thousands in the county
Visiting Hatfield in August 1667, the diarist Samuel Pepys walked in the park surrounding Hatfield House ‘to see the vineyard’. Returning to his inn, his wife and other women accompanying them ‘had pleasure putting on some straw hats, which are much worn in this country...and did become them mightily’. Pepys clearly regarded the fashion as a novelty, although hat makers had probably been working in the county since the early years of that century, using plaits made from straw.
By the end of the 17th century, straw hat making had become well established in Hertfordshire and neighbouring Bedfordshire and Buckinghamshire. In the 18th century, the hats produced in these counties were of poor quality, trumped by superior products from Italy. The Napoleonic Wars of 1803-15 cut off these imports and at the same time the quality of home-produced straw hats improved.
The straw-plaiting and hat-making industries were concentrated on the chalky soils in the west of Hertfordshire and on the northern chalk ridge. These soils produced straight but pliable wheat straw which was especially suitable for plaiting. The straw was cleaned and cut into lengths, then plaited. Whole straw produced a rustic weave and split straw created more intricate patterns of finer quality. At its height in the mid to late 19th century, plaiting employed nearly 13,000 people in the county, 94 per cent of them female.
From around 1800 onwards, straw preparation became more refined and was undertaken by dealers who bought straw from farmers and sold bundles of prepared lengths to plaiters. The straw was split, then softened in a splint mill (similar to a mangle). It was usually bleached as well to improve its colour, at first using fumes from molten sulphur and later with hydrogen peroxide.
Initially, both plaiting and hat making were cottage industries, but later Hitchin, Tring, Berkhamsted, Hemel Hempstead and St Albans held plait markets and became the main centres of hat production in Hertfordshire. By the early 19th century, wages as high as five shillings a day were being paid to plaiters and hat makers in the St Albans area. Lower rates were more usual in other plaiting districts: 14 to 18 shillings a week in the Berkhamsted area, for example. At this time, the average wage for male farm labourers was 10 to 12 shillings a week.
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Women and girls had to work long hours to earn these wages and often plaited while walking as well as when sitting at home. The straw lengths (usually 10 inches long) had to be moistened in the lips first. Plait widths ranged from three to 16 straws, although seven was most common. Plait was made into 20-yard lengths called scores and the better workers produced four of these a day. Boys in rural areas also plaited until they were nine or 10 years old, when they went into farm work. The plaiters either sold direct to dealers who went from door to door, or took their plait to the local markets.
Plait schools (such as depicted opposite) took in children as young as three or four to learn the trade, while even younger children were employed to clip the straw ends. These children were expected to produce plait in very poor conditions: the Northchurch plait school near Berkhamsted housed around 40 children in a room measuring 10 feet by 10 feet, with more at busy times. Open fires were too dangerous, so in winter the only heating came from small charcoal braziers.
The Workshop Regulation Act of 1867 banned employment of children under the age of eight, and required all children aged from eight to 13 to attend school for at least 10 hours a week for numeracy and literacy lessons. At first, the plait schools claimed to offer this, but as many were run by women who were themselves illiterate, the schools were eventually forced to close.
From the 1870s onwards, cheap plait from China and Japan competed with local plait leading to a substantial fall in earnings and by 1901 the number of plaiters in the county had fallen to under 700. A few plaiters worked on into the 1920s, but now the once-widespread trade is remembered mainly in place names like Plaiters’ Close in Tring.
It was mainly women who sewed the plait into hats, while men were employed making the wooden blocks around which hats were modelled. Men also finished the hats and packed them for shipping. All these jobs began as cottage-based trades until the work gradually concentrated into fewer and larger factories. In 1914, more than 1,000 people were still employed in straw hat making in St Albans and the last factory in the town closed in 1937.
From the late 19th century, Luton became the main hat-making centre in the region, based in factories and supported by home working in and around the town. In the early 20th century, the hat industry was the dominant commercial activity in Luton, peaking in the 1930s when the town produced 70 million hats a year. These were made mainly of felt as demand for straw hats declined after the First World War. Hats are still made in Luton today, albeit on a much reduced scale.
The plight of the young children from rural homes forced into plaiting at such a young age is a far cry from the sentimental depictions of rural idyll depicted by Victorian and Edwardian artists like Arthur Claude Strachan. Yet conditions were undoubtedly more bearable and less hazardous than their contemporaries faced in textile mills and mines in other regions.
As the harvest progresses this year and straw bales are carted off the fields, spare a thought for those children and women who in past centuries worked so hard at plaiting, gave their families a better standard of living and helped to keep them out of the workhouse.