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, but the links here are just a hint of what's hiding inside 35 years of those stories.
1848 to 2023: In the first half of the year 175 years ago, many of the lacemakers began to leave Calais and St Pierre-lès-Calais
Leaving Calais and St Pierre-lès-Calais
In early 1848 the population of the communes of Calais and St Pierre-lès-Calais is about 25,000 people. Of those about 11,000 live in St Pierre-lès-Calais and a great many of them have British origins and work in the lacemaking industry. Many of them have lived in France for years if not decades. Many of them were born there.
However, in early 1848 France was in turmoil.
In the 1840s the economies of Britain and many European countries are in decline due to numerous factors; each different and depending on the country’s social, political, agricultural and economic circumstances. Lace is a luxury item and so demand decreases. As the economic conditions in the towns and villages worsens, the working man is intent on putting food on the table and keeping a roof over the heads of his family. In Calais and St Pierre-lès-Calais, the large lacemaking factories have closed by winter 1847 and many of the lacemakers and their families are suffering severe hardship. Most of the workers have no employment, no income and few have any real savings while prices for food increase, and rents need to be paid. Little money means those providing services such as selling fresh food, meat, bread, bar owners, dressmakers and others lose customers and income.
1848 – Stay or Go?
In late February 1848 the people in Paris are in the streets seeking reform of the government which is resisting these calls as is the king. A rowdy crowd, a shot fired, a riot develops and the government falls; the king flees to England. In March with the provisional government in place, a decree is issued to stop foreign workers moving to Paris with the threat of expulsion from France.
Could a similar situation develop in Calais?
Do the unemployed lace workers in Calais and St Pierre-lès-Calais stay or go?
What to do?
The British Consul in Calais Edward Bonham can see the workers’ misery and his correspondence to London initially advises that many of the local workers will return to England to seek work. Already many British workers from other towns in France are arriving in Calais on route to England. There is no change in the situation over the new year and in those early months of 1848 hundreds of workers from other parts of France continue to arrive in Calais. They are mostly in a destitute state, with no money, poorly clothed and often without their tools. Many of these workers report being harassed by mobs of French workers who have no interest in the welfare of foreign workers. They soon board the steam packet boats to cross the Channel to England.
In Calais and Saint Pierre-lès-Calais many of the workers, most of them in the lace industry, are now in real trouble despite the distribution of funds made available by a Committee for the Relief of Workmen recently established in England. The few thousand “British” workers face a choice between returning to England, staying and waiting for conditions to improve, or leaving to start a new life elsewhere.
In England, the public reporting of the situation in France take several form – calm to catastrophic. One report in the Nottingham Journal is of the panic-stricken type as noted in Tulle Issue 29 pp9-10.
Tulle Issues 30, 31 and 32 include a very detailed report from the Sydney Morning Herald 10 October 1848 originally published in The Times 26 Jun 1848 about the turmoil in Paris in early 1848.
The lace workers understand there is little work available in the lace factories in England and many of their fellow workers there are no better off. For many a return to England probably means being sent to the workhouses. Despite this, some choose to leave for England and take their chances or have support there from friends or family. Some have work or funds and decide to stay in France and wait out the turmoil. However, for some these are not options, and they need a solution to their problem. It seems that while their French neighbours in Calais and Saint Pierre-lès-Calais are sympathetic to and share the plight of the British workers, there is concern amongst some British workers that French mobs could cause further trouble for them. However, do the British lace workers in Calais and St Pierre-lès-Calais fear for their lives? A discussion on this concern is found in Tulle Issue 3.
An idea is taken to Consul Bonham to find a way for some of these laceworkers to emigrate. As workers in the lace industry, they are unlikely emigrants to the colonies where field labourers, shepherds and domestic servants are required. However, they meet in late March and draw up a petition to the British Government seeking its assistance to emigrate “to one of the British Colonies, South Australia preferred, where workmen are scarce and labour wanted …”. Bonham reports to the British Government a list of some 650 men, women and children wanting to emigrate. The workers’ situation may be desperate, but the Government will not be rushed. It sends an official to Calais who interviews widely amongst the workers wishing to emigrate. He quickly assesses the workers’ plight and their genuine desire to leave. His report finds reluctant but positive support from the British authorities who accept their statement that they are “men of good moral character and industrious habits”. This initial “reluctant” reply from the Colonial Land and Emigration Office in London to the lacemakers’ petition is noted in Tulle 32 pp15-17. The Government begins to organise the movement of the lace workers from Calais and to find ships for the journey. Bonham corresponds with England daily. He reports his observations of the situation in Calais and the mood of the British lace workers. Some of these letters are noted in Tulle Issue 7 pp12-13.
By early April the first of those lace workers and family members emigrating are sent to England. The Government has contracted the Australian-built ship Harpley to carry the first emigrants to South Australia. There are many conditions and obstacles imposed on the emigrants but probably the most onerous of them is the need for adequate clothing, bedding and equipment. Many of the would-be emigrants have little to no money and much of their clothing and supplies are inadequate for a 3-month long sea voyage and to support themselves at journey’s end. Reluctantly the Government and the Relief Committee agree to assist most of the emigrants to outfit themselves to the required standard. Finance and assistance now flow, and the required supplies and equipment are soon distributed to those in need. The lacemakers are very grateful for the authorities’ efforts on their behalf. They write a letter to the British Consul Edward Bonham expressing their thanks and saying that they “can look forward with hope for a successful termination to our difficulties and distress.” Read the letter in Tulle Issue 21 p10.
Timing is now an issue and the Government decides that the first group of emigrants will travel on the barque Fairlie ready to depart for Australia with Government supported emigrants. By early April the first of those lace workers and family members emigrating are sent to England. The group boards a packet boat at the Calais dockside and steam to Deptford to board Fairlie. The others will follow as soon as they can be moved to England and outfitted.
A side-wheel packet boat alongside the Calais dock 1848
On 1 May 1848 Fairlie sails from Plymouth and heads south bound for Sydney in the colony of New South Wales. Two days later 221 men, women and children leave from the dockside in Calais and arrive alongside Harpley moored in the Thames River. Unlike Fairlie where the lace workers are just 55 out of 323 emigrants that will arrive, almost all those now onboard Harpley are friends or relatives of each other from Calais and St Pierre-lès-Calais. Within a week Harpley sails for Port Adelaide in South Australia. In early June the final large group of people bound for Australia leave Calais and join the few who are already in London to marry before boarding the barque Agincourt. A few days later Agincourt sails for Sydney.
While at the time of leaving a few families change their minds and stay, over the following months at least another ten vessels with lacemakers and their families mostly from Calais and Saint Pierre-lès-Calais sail for the Australian colonies. Those 13 ships carry almost 700 men, women and children connected to the lacemaking trade.
A fourteenth ship sailed in 1857 to carry the Pinchbeck and Stubbs families to Port Phillip.
This is a very short summary of the story told in the website and at much greater detail in Gillian Kelly’s book Well Suited to the Colony.
Another version of this story is in Tulle Issue 9 pp8-16.
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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.