Machine-made Lace and Lacemaker Stories
The journal Tulle is a treasure trove of facts, comments, research and speculation about machine-made lace, the Lacemakers of Calais and their families.
All 141 issues of Tulle are available in full on this website to everyone.
SHORTCUTS to the stories in Tulle will make this trove more accessible.
Calais - a lace town
The history of Calais extends back a few thousand years. Its lacemaking past occupies only a few hundred years of that history.
The Early Days
The location of Calais is unusual for a coastal town. It is not on a large bay or estuary where ships could easily dock and find shelter from bad weather. Rather it was established on a long strip of sandy beaches in front of dunes with marshes behind them where a small inlet led to two shallow streams. Early settlements improved the inlet to provide an anchorage for boats and used the marshes as defence against attack from the interior. The Romans used it as a staging port for their invasion of Britain, but it was not until about 1000 years later that it was first fortified with walls and flooded ditches. Its strategic location at the narrows of the Channel made it an important stronghold for invaders and local warlords. Over the next 700 years invaders came and went including the British and Spanish; the inlet was expanded to a small harbour protected by breakwaters and the fortifications were strengthened. This work included the construction of Fort Nieulay and the Citadel and a system of drains, moats and sluice gates that could be used to flood the marshes as protection against invading forces. The water control system also allowed the development of the canals to the inland towns and Calais became a major port where cargoes could be transferred between boat and canal barge to allow trade to flow into and from France.
The First British Lacemakers in Calais
A market in the Place d'Armes in Calais with the Tour du Guet and the Town Hall Belfry in the background
By the early 1800s when the first English lacemakers began to set up in Calais, much of the marshland had been drained to create productive farmland and the town of Calais was a thriving township secure within its walls and system of forts and flooded ditches. The houses were crowded together along with a town hall, the imposing Church of Notre Dame, the Place D’Armes, a large open space where markets and public gatherings took place as well as the Tour du Guet, a watchtower that also served as a lighthouse. Roads and canals extended east, west and south to carry barges laden with goods into and from the interior. Windmills were built within sight of the town walls to pump water from the extensive drainage system and so prevent the farmland from returning completely to its marsh origin. Many of the farm labourers, canal and barge workers lived outside Calais and the village of Saint Pierre-lès-Calais, established just south of the town walls since the 17th century was a small settlement built along named streets and alleyways.
Early view of fortified Calais with the Channel beyond and Saint Pierre-lès-Calais in the foreground
The Lacemakers in Saint Pierre-lès-Calais
By 1825 it had taken Calais less than 10 years to grow from those first few lacemaking machines into a thriving lace-making centre. The now many machines worked day and night and they were very noisy. This constant noise and the influx of lace workers greatly annoyed many of the locals and the newcomers were encouraged to move out. That they did – they joined their fellow lace workers in the village of Saint Pierre-lès-Calais.
With the influx of the lace workers the village of Saint Pierre-lès-Calais grew rapidly from a few hundred houses to some thousand or so until the economic and political turmoil of 1848 when many of the British lace workers returned to Britain or sailed to the Australian colonies.
Saint Pierre-lès-Calais in the 1830s and 1840s
The British lace workers found Calais and Saint Pierre-lès-Calais to their liking and many of them soon began to integrate with the French villagers and the French way of life, even if they did retain their religion and built their own churches and chapels.
What was life in Saint Pierre-lès-Calais like for the lacemakers?
The village of Saint Pierre that the lacemakers knew was not idyllic. Despite the efforts of the pumping windmills, the land was still swampy with open drains and no sewers. In winter many of the streets became boggy and often impassable. Most houses were modest, small in layout and with basic amenities. That said the village was amenable enough where the workers could enjoy their time after work at cafes and taverns and where food was varied and usually in sufficient quantities to feed their families. A dance hall, fairs and circuses, even dog fighting and cock fighting provided amusement and delight after a long dreary day in a factory. Read more in Tulle Issue 34 pp14-20 and Tulle Issue 50 pp26-29
Saint Pierre-lès-Calais after 1848
By late 1848 the turmoil was receding and many of the lace workers who had left for Britain returned to again work in the reviving lace factories. They found that many families had never left Calais and Saint Pierre-lès-Calais. Those English names are found in the Saint Pierre-lès-Calais records into the 20th century as the lace workers raised families alongside their French neighbours. Those “English” children became French. They attended the local schools, spoke French, later did their military service in French regiments, and fought and died for France during the First World War.
The descendants of the Lacemakers of Calais can be found in Britain, France and elsewhere, not just in Australia.
Vital Records – why a name makes a difference?
In 1988 researcher Elizabeth Simpson gave a lecture in Sydney about the lacemakers in Calais and Saint Pierre-lès-Calais which included some interesting comments on the vital records of those lacemakers.
In the 1800s they may have been very close neighbours within the Canton of Calais, but the town of Calais and the village of Saint Pierre-lès-Calais were in separate communes and had their own administrations. The Commune of Calais included the walled town, the citadel, the harbour and the Courgain fishing village located between the walls and the harbour. The Commune of Saint-Pierre-lès-Calais covered the village but also the surrounding farmland to its east, south and west.
The vital records including civil registrations of births, baptisms, marriages, deaths and burials and the five-yearly census returns of both communes were created and recorded separately.
Most of the birth, death and census records of our Lacemakers of Calais ancestors can be found in the archive records of Saint Pierre-lès-Calais rather than those of Calais. That said, many of the British lace workers made the journey across the Channel to marry in Dover where the British marriage records must be searched. While by 1881 the two communes were merged under a single administration and the name of Calais, the records in the Calais Archives website are still found under the original two commune names.
Read how to translate the French death and birth certificates in Tulle Issue 116 pp31-33
Read the full story…
These few comments are some of the interesting observations about vital records in Elizabeth Simpson's 1988 Sydney lecture in Tulle Issue 25 pp5-12
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In Times Past
1848 to 2023 – it is 175 years since some of the lacemakers left Calais and Saint Pierre-lès-Calais for the Australian colonies. Others returned to Britain, but not all left.
Many lacemakers remained and continued their lives in France.