Strawplaiting was, at one time, a useful source of income for the rural poor of Essex. It was introduced into the county by George, the first Marquis of Buckingham at Gosfield, near Halstead as a way of relieving the plight of the villagers. The straw was used in the making of hats and bonnets. Straw Hats are still to be found, but they aere no longer made in Britain. It was a very skilled craft and local women found that it took some time to get it right, but the First Marquis determinedly wore the first creations to church and prominently displayed his hat on the end of his pew so that the whole congregation behind him should be able to take on the new fashion.
Straw-Plaiting near St Albans
from the Illustrated London News 1853
Essex corn provided a superabundance of the raw material, which was clipped into lengths, bunched loosely together ,damped well and then bleached to a clear golden hue by fuming it in sulphur. It was then split using a small instrument called an 'engine' or splitting “machine” , which had a spiked bone head surrounded by cutters and securely attached to a wooden handle. The spike went into the hollow stem and, when drawn downwards, divided the straw into even strips. A knife had been traditionally used to prepare the straws but the 'engine' made the task easier. Some cutters offered a choice of splint sizes. The plaiter would hold a bundle of damp, prepared straws under her left armpit and as she worked she would bend her head and pull out the new splints, moistening and working them round with her tongue to keep them pliable. This would often cause scarring at the right-hand corner of her mouth, as a result of removing the splints. Theresulting split straws were plaited into lengths wheich were then flattened out and wound round an eighteen-inch measuring-board and taken to the village depot to be collected by the hat manufacturers of Luton and Dunstable
The Marquis was successful. By 1806, the parish of Gosfield, with a population of 453, had earned the huge sum of £1,700 in a single year. The work could be done at home, and the women could do the plaiting and run their homes as well. The children were taught from an early age to help with the process. The straw-plaiting spread from Gosfield to the surrounding area until the whole of North Essex was engaged in the work. In 1850, the local paper reported "In the surrounding district an enormous amount of straw plaiting is carried on there is scarcely a cottage in the district where it is not exercised. Until this last 3 months trade has been slack but there is now a growing demand for it, many merchants from Luton I am informed are in the habit of coming to Castle Hedingham to purchase the straw plait. The best kind of makers get 3s 6d a score and a good hand can make a score and a half a week, for inferior kind of work pay varies from 3d to 10d and 1s a score. The earnings of children and girls may be taken as 3d to 6d a day, these are employed on coarser work, the straw is usually purchased from a local farmer at 6d a bundle which being in quantity as much as a person can carry. The rate of pay for a farm labourer in this district is wretchedly low 6s to 7s a week and were it not for straw plaiting they would be in the worst possible position than now. When plaiting is depressed a considerable amount of work is done for the cheap tailors of Colchester and London who send the different articles to Castle Hedingham and other places in the district to have them made up".
Arthur Young in his General View of the Agriculture of Hertfordshire (1804) wrote‘The farmers complain of it as doing mischief for it makes the poor saucy and no servants can be procured or any field work done where this manufacture establishes itself.’ But he added that 'good earnings are a most happy circumstance, which I wish to see universal’, again emphasising that ‘straw plaiting is of very great use to the poor and has had considerable effect in keeping down rates, which must be far more burthensome without it.’
By 1871, there were nearly four thousand people engaged in the work
Several things happened that caused the decline of the craft. Cheap imports, mechanisation, changes in fashion, and the discouragement of the use of child labour (children tended to be excellent at plaiting). The collapse of the Straw-plaiting industry was sudden and caused much suffering to the northern parishes of Essex which had little else to offer in the way of employment. By 1900, there was not a single straw-plaiter left.