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Just who were those Lacemakers of Calais?

Lace, gentility and elegance seem to fit together. We visualise old ladies sitting in the sun with their pillows upon their knees and the gossamer fabric that epitomises all that is feminine flowing down their skirts from the myriad of bobbins. We envisage little girls learning their craft in oh-so civilised lace schools in Devon and Bedfordshire.

The Lacemakers of Calais were not little old ladies or even dear little girls. They didn't make lace on pillows, they didn't originate from Calais, and in fact, were not even French.

They were blacksmiths, white smiths, engineers and inventors extrordinaire and they were male.

They designed and built machines of uncountable complexities that, in the long run, produced true lace in an infinite variety of patterns, and of such fineness that it floated like gossamer.

Longmire lace making machine, Nottingham 1904

Longmire machine, Nottingham 1904

The story of machine-made lace began in Nottingham towards the end of the 18th century. The first machines produced a knitted fabric that ran if cut or holed. Forget the romantic pictures of hand made bobbin lace, because it was a dirty trade of sweat shops and pathetic wages, long hours, cruelty to those little girls and totally unable to meet the growing demand. The time for machine lace was ripe, and the first machines that produced tulle were invented on the early 1800s in Nottingham. The tulle base was embroidered by hand, to produce a lace fabric.


England led the world in mechanical textile manufacture and she was fiercely protective of her position. She made it illegal to take the machines, or even the men who made and ran them, out of the country. There were even suggestions that such a crime be punishable by death!


To protect her own industry, France placed high tariffs on English lace, and fine English cotton, making the product outrageously expensive. With very low profits and high wages in England, around 1816 one Robert Webster, with an accomplice Samuel Clark, and smuggled a machine into Calais. The machine was dismantled, packaged as old iron and shipped on numerous boats to Calais. Clarke reassembled it in a shop on quai du Commerce in the village of Saint-Pierre, outside the walls of Calais itself. 

See also Tulle No 35 pp26-28 about the movement of early machines to Calais.

Calais from a balloon

Calais from a Balloon

Trade boomed and in the following years no fewer than eleven machines were set up. The operatives were English and their motive was profit. The machines were owned by Englishmen and operated by Englishmen, lest the secrets of the trade got out!


In 1822 a man called Austin either gave or sold a machine to a French engineer who was able to copy it, and teach his fellow country men how to use it. From this time on, the French and the English worked side by side in Calais and Saint-Pierre, in a blossoming business. Eventually the British trade embargoes were lifted and while the industry had catastrophic rises and falls, it was marked by two spectacular improvements.


First, steam was applied to the lace machine. This enhanced production but meant that machines now needed steam, and the only economical way to do this was to gather them together in one place - marking the commencement of the factory system.

Calais lace factory boiler room,

Boiler Room, Calais c1900

Lace machine with jacquard attachment on right

The second, and most spectacular improvement was the addition of Jacquard's invention to the machine. His system allowed the movement in and out of play of individual threads. Most other textiles had used the Jacquard for years but it wasn't until the 1830s that Fergusson was able to successfully attach it to a lace machine. For the first time it was possible to produce true lace in its entirety on a machine.

By this time there were some three thousand English living and working in Calais and Saint Pierre. Their lifestyle was simple but comfortable and seemingly better than life in the Midland counties of England.

Abandonded lace factory Calais 1996

Abandoned lace factory Calais - 1996

Then France revolted! The Revolution of 1848 was not particularly bloody by other standards but it brought France to a complete stop. Banks were frozen and all work stopped. In some areas of France British workers were actively menaced, but in Calais and Saint-Pierre the atmosphere was simply one of despair. The lace factories were closed and their English owners returned to England to wait for better times. In France there was no money to be had and seemingly no way of survival except to return to England and to the Poorhouses of the various parishes.


Nottingham and its surrounding counties were gripped by the same depression as Europe and her workhouses were bursting at the seams. Despite the desperate situation in the English midlands, some lacemakers in Calais and St Pierre did return to their previous homes in England. Others resolved to stay in France with hope that their world would right itself soon.

See also the journal Tulle No 51 pp7-10 'Nottingham in 1848' for the work situation and unrest in Nottingham and the journal Tulle No 89 pp21-25 'The Nottingham Workhouse' for the living conditions in it during the 1840s.

However, another group of Calais Lacemakers saw returning to the Poorhouses or waiting there as untenable and in March of 1848 they gathered in a church in Saint-Pierre to discuss their plight. One hundred and fourteen families signed a memorial beseeching the British Government to support them in their desires to emigrate to the Australian colonies, especially South Australia.

St Pierre Church (Calais) c1830

St Pierre Church c1830

The initial pleas were disregarded. Many of the men were too old, too skilled for a land that wanted labourers and too fertile! Their families had many children under the age of ten and raising such youngsters to the useful age of 14 was a high risk. The Colonial Office was not convinced that it would be getting immigrants of quality.


However, with statements of support from English Consul Bonham of Calais, and the sure knowledge that the British parishes would be hard pressed to support such an influx, a compromise was reached. Appeals to raise half the assistance money were launched in London and in Nottingham, and kits were found to outfit the emigrants.


The first to leave Calais were shipped by steamer to the Thames, where they boarded the barque Fairlie and sailed on 30 April 1848. There were 56 Lacemakers on this voyage - chosen as those who seemed to be the least destitute. They were disembarked at Port Jackson.


The next was the ship Harpley, an Australian built merchant vessel, which departed 12 May 1848 and did go to Adelaide. Her complement was intended to be entirely Lacemakers, but at the last moment six families were redirected to other ships. The heads of family of these six, it would seem, were unable to produce their marriage certificate - an ordinary requirement for couples emigrating as married! Finally the barque Agincourt left Gravesend 6 June 1848.


For Harpley and Agincourt, the voyages were arduous, but made under the ideal circumstances of all the passengers knowing each other, coming from similar backgrounds and going forward with similar intent. Those on the Fairlie were entertained and shocked by the behaviour of a particularly difficult group of women and a Superintendent Surgeon who behaved quite unfairly towards some of the men!


The arrival of Harpley in Adelaide marked the beginning of yet another trying period in the Lacemakers lives. There was no Immigrants' Agent to assist them find work and they were, with few exceptions, destitute. However, with the determination already exhibited, they were settled into work within the first few months. Many of the single females married with alarming alacrity.

Port Adelaide 1848

Port Adelaide 1848

Those who reached Sydney stepped into a political climate where the country areas were complaining loudly about not receiving a sufficient supply of labourers and who could blame anyone for wanting to settle in beautiful Sydney after over three months at sea! To overcome this tendency, the Lacemakers were not allowed to disembark at Sydney. Most of the Fairlie lacemakers were despatched to Bathurst and the Agincourt passengers were split in half. The first half, within days of their arrival, sailed by steamer to Morpeth, from where they walked to the East Maitland barracks and were assisted into employment all over the district by the local authorities.


The second half were transported up the river to Parramatta where they were established in the Immigrants' barracks for several days while arrangements were finalised to transport them over the Blue Mountains to Bathurst - a journey of another ten days. On reaching Bathurst, they, too, were settled into Immigrants' barracks with the overflow being accommodated in a converted store. They were quickly absorbed into the fabric of Bathurst society. They were initially mainly employed as servants of the domestic and farm varieties. A few of the children were offered apprenticeships, and their lives, while very different to anything they could ever, have imagined, settled down to a pleasant routine.


Part of the original agreement with the Colonial Secretary was that the Lacemakers of Calais would not bring their trade with them. Apart from a few scraps of machine plans, they didn't. They moved on away from the dirty, noisy trade that had dominated their lives, and in years to come, very few of them even handed down the family lore of this period of their lives.


Australia WAS the land of opportunity. There was sunshine and food, and their children did not have to work long hours from early childhood. It was the time of the gold rushes and Land Acts that put land within the reach of those who wanted it.


Almost seven hundred men, women and children came on those three ships, followed by a handful of others on separate ships. While many followed in the years to come, these original immigrants with all their knowledge and skills, and their special deals with the Colonial Secretary and the British Foreign Office, were the original Lacemakers of Calais and are the focus of this website and our Society.

Gillian Kelly, OAM

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