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Who were we?

The Society was formed in 1982 when a small group of people came to the realisation that they shared a common interest in a particular group of English machine lacemakers that we call the Lacemakers of Calais. They were principally those originally from Nottinghamshire and Leicestershire and many of them were involved in two mass migrations in the space of little more than a decade during the first half of the nineteenth century.


The Lacemakers’ first migration was to escape the poverty, unemployment, misery, disease and discomfort of the overcrowded industrial midlands of England. Their migration was to the shores of France – especially to Calais – where their skills as lace artisans were initially treasured and where their employment and well-being seemed assured. However, during the 1848 Revolution in France, the political and social upheaval left most of them jobless again. Their future in France became uncertain. Some returned to England to find little work and a precarious life and, in some cases became a burden on their parishes. Some decided to stay in France and wait for better times to return. Yet others decided that making a fresh life in a new land was the preferable option. For them, their second migration was to various parts of Australia.


Most of the Lacemaker emigrants who sailed to Australian ports did so in one of three vessels, viz. Agincourt (destination Sydney), Fairlie (destination also Sydney) and Harpley (destination Adelaide). Other Lacemaker emigrants followed in smaller groups on other vessels. These included Andromache, Baboo, Emperor, General Hewitt, Harbinger, Navarino, Nelson, Walmer Castle and possibly others.

The Society's history?

The following snippet appeared in Descent, the journal of the Society of Australian Genealogists in December 1980 (Descent Volume 10, Part 4, page 184). It refers to the first ASLC website. The website has evolved from the Society's second website.


We have received a request for information on assisted immigrant lace-makers who travelled as refugees (displaced British workers) from Calais to Australia in 1848. Some 263 evidently travelled to Sydney on the Agincourt, of whom 121 went to Bathurst and 128 to Maitland. Another 56 arrived in Sydney by the Fairlie, and 254 in Adelaide by the Harpley. Any known details would be appreciated by A. F. Archer..........

On Monday, 24th August, 1981, the following article appeared under what was then a regular column called "Geeves on Monday" in the Sydney Morning Herald.

French connection. Was your ancestor a refugee lacemaker? If so, you have links with the most specialised groups of artisans who ever migrated to this country. Before the industrial revolution, Nottingham was the heartland of English lacemaking. But when the craft was mechanised the traditional lace artisans moved away from Nottingham and settled in France, where lace was still being made by hand. Then came the revolution of 1848, which turned the Nottingham artisans out of France. Three shiploads of them came to Australia to make a new life. Those ships were the Agincourt, Fairlie and Harpley. Now more than 130 years later, a Nottingham genealogist and her Paris associate are rediscovering the forgotten lives of those families. There are voluminous files on them in the French Government archives. Why don’t their Australian relatives form themselves into a big “family”?  For further information, write to Elizabeth Simpson, Peapkins End, 2 Stella Grove, Tollerton, Nottingham NG124EY, England.

Philip Geeves’ article arose out of a realisation that several family historians were researching family histories which shared similar historical perspectives. Our earliest researchers included Bert Archer (researching the Archer family). Christine Sutton (Stubbs family), Theo Saywell and Bob Wilson (Saywell family), Bill Brownlow (Brownlow family), Lindsay Watts (Bromhead family), Doug Webster and Gillian Kelly (Branson family), Lenore Keays (Pedder family), Kingsley Ireland (Longmire family), and Cecil Lander (Lander family). Some of these had paid for assistance from professional genealogists in either Nottingham (Elizabeth Simpson) or Calais (Margaret Audin) to help them in their research and they had also helped tie the loose threads together.

In Descent, December 1981 (Vol. 11, Part 4) another article was published.

We have received the following plea for assistance from a well-known English genealogist. Mrs Elizabeth Simpson of Tollerton, Nottinghamshire.    

"I have been working for some years now in Nottingham on Nottinghamshire records and I have had three Australian contacts, all of whom are descended from a remarkable migration of the artisan class out of England via France to Australia! I refer to the lacemakers who went to Calais to help the French put together and work the machines, which had been virtually pirated out of England, and Nottingham in particular, during the time when the Nottingham industrialists were trying hard to keep hold of this expertise themselves! One of the families I was researching descended from a young couple, who married here in Nottingham and went straight to Calais. There they lived and raised the first of their family. In 1848, the year of the Revolution, a year of unemployment and general unrest amongst 'workers' in the whole country, the 'English' suddenly found themselves very unpopular. Factories closed through lack of orders, the English were thrown out of work, life became rather unpleasant, and on top of this the French were screaming 'Go home, English'! So come home they did. The Nottingham city fathers suddenly saw great hordes of former Nottingham folk looming towards them, all with no work. They foresaw them coming on to the Poor Rate and there were totally insufficient funds to cope with this. They petitioned Parliament in great haste to help over the whole problem. The upshot was that these refugees were offered Government Assisted passage to Australia! Three boat-loads came over together, all leaving English shores in 1848 on board the Agincourt, Fairlie and Harpley. I began to uncover more about this story. Not all of them went and a large number were absorbed back into their own families here. Some were from Wales and the North West of England. Then I found a contact living in France . . . a genealogist! She had uncovered a great box of Napoleonic Prisoners of War. Technically all those English living and working in Calais were aliens, but they were so useful with their ability to work machines that they were allowed to live freely. But they had to report in frequently and, if they wanted to go anywhere, then they had to seek permission. The boxes she has found are full of details of these folk, such as who they were, where they worked, where they wanted to go and why."

Mrs Simpson suggests that descendants of these early emigrant lacemakers might form themselves into groups, either as a whole or as three separate entities, representing the three ships. Descendants of these families are invited to write to Mrs Simpson, who will be pleased to make contact with them.

A further report in Descent Vol. 12, Part 2, June 1982 appeared as follows:-


Further to the item in the December 1981 issue of Descent (vol 11, part 4, pages 198-199) announcing this project, we have been advised of the pending formation of an Australian based group specialising in researching the descendants of lacemakers, who emigrated to Australia in 1848. The following are surnames listed amongst the passengers on the 3 ships Fairlie, Agincourt and Harpley, which brought lacemakers to Australia. 


Mrs Chris Sutton is in the process of organising an association of descendants of the lacemakers, and would be very pleased to make contact with people who feel they might be eligible for membership of the group. 

On 12 June 1982 many of the people who had either read Phillip Geeves' article in the Sydney Morning Herald or Elizabeth Simpson's article in Descent, as well as a small group of others gathered for the first meeting of what they decided would be called the "Australian Society of the Lacemakers of Calais" or ASLC. The meeting was held in a small room in the basement of what was then referred to as Archives House, at The Rocks in Sydney. A collection was taken to enable a journal to be produced for the benefit of all at the meeting who became the Society's first members. 

The first edition of the ASLC's journal, Tulle, was published in September 1982, a modest 8-page affair which recorded the first office bearers of the Society: Robert Wilson (President); Christine Sutton (Secretary), Terence Higgins (Treasurer); Gillian Kelly (Membership Secretary); and Theo Saywell (Publicity Officer).

In the September 1982 edition of Descent (Vol. 12, Part 3, Page 119ff), the first scholarly piece on our story appeared in print - one of our members at the time, the late Mr Doug Webster wrote a very accurate record of the arrival of his ancestor, William Branson, and the motivation behind his immigration.

Webster's ancestor, along with those of the other members, were all formerly associated in one way or another with the production of machine-made lace in Nottingham in the English midlands and later in Calais, France. His words in Descent under an article called "A Migrant Lacemaker" were as follows:-

The Australian Society of the Lacemakers of Calais Inc. is a long-established affiliate member of the Royal Australian Historical Society which was established in Sydney in 1901 and which is Australia's oldest historical organisation.

By February 2013, when this website was being updated, the Australian Society of the Lacemakers of Calais had just celebrated its thirtieth anniversary, it had been responsible for the publication of two books on the Lacemakers and Tulle had been published 118 times. 

The original ASLC website was created by Craig Williams (Saywell Family) and launched on 14 February 1999. We all share a unique bond which is now more than 165 years old. 

Richard Lander
16 February 2013

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