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Australian Society of the

Lacemakers of Calais Inc.


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Photographs of some of the lacemakers or their children - all passengers on one of the lacemaker's ships

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Most people think of the lacemakers of old as little old ladies sitting in sun-filled doorways with a pillow on their knees and their hands flying across a myriad of thread-filled bobbins, and looking as if they had just stepped out of a Dutch interior painting. They have a look that defies time with their lace caps and Rembrandt faces as they ply their intricate and fascinating art.

It often comes as a surprise then that the Lacemakers of Calais were none of these things. They didn't originate from Calais and, in fact, were not even French. They were blacksmiths, white smiths, engineers and inventors extraordinaire. They were male. They designed and built machines of uncountable complexity which, in the long run, produced true lace in an infinite variety of patterns and of such fineness that it floated like gossamer. And, with the addition of electricity, these machines can still be used today.

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. The demand for lace was great, and while romantic visions of hand-made bobbin lace abound, it was a dirty trade of sweat shops and pathetic wages, and totally unable to keep up with demand. The time for machine lace was ripe, and the first machines that produced tulle were invented in the early 1800s in Nottingham. The tulle base was embroidered by hand, to produce a fine fabric.

England was fiercely protective of her world lead in textiles. 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 accomplice, Samuel Clark, ran the risks and smuggled a machine into Calais. The machine was dismantled and shipped on numerous boats in barrels labelled "old iron," and then reassembled in a shop on Quai du Commerce in the village of Saint-Pierre, outside the walls of Calais itself.

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 Englislimen, 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 countrymen how to use it. From this time on, the French and the English worked side by side in Calais et 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.

The first was the application of steam to the machines. This enhanced production and led to the necessity of machines being accumulated in factories - marking the commencement of the factory system. The second was the belated application to the lace machine of an invention of a man called Jacquard. His system allowed the movement in and out of play of individual threads. This system had been applied to other textile machines many years earlier, but 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.

Then France revolted! The Revolution of 1848 was not particularly bloody by other standards but it brought France to a complete standstill. 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 Poorhouses were bursting at the seams. One group of Calais Lacemakers saw returning to the Poorhouses as untenable and in March of 1848 they gathered in a church in Saint-Pierre to discuss their plight. One hundred and fourteen fainilies signed a memorial beseeching the English Governinent to support them in their desires to emigrate to the Australian colonies, especially South Australia.

Their initial pleas were disregarded. Many of the men were over forty, they were highly skilled in a trade not wanted in Australia and many of them had large families with numerous children under the age of ten. The Colonial Office was not convinced that it would be getting immigrants of quality.

However, with statements of support from the English Consul Bonham based in 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 Nottingliam, and kits were found to outfit the emigrants.

The first to leave Calais were shipped by steamer to the Thames, where they boarded the 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 Harpley, an Australian built merchant, which departed Deptford in London on 12 May 1848 bound for 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! Six families not connected to the lace industry took their place. Finally the Agincourt left Gravesend 6 June 1848.

For the Harpley and the Agincourt, the voyages were arduous, but made under the ideal circumstances of most of 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 the 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.

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 Lacemaker's 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 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 lads were offered apprenticeships and their lives, while very different from anything they could ever have imagined, settled down to a pleasant routine.

We can feel for Eliza Lowe's husband and young family - she got wet crossing the mountains, and died of pneumonia within weeks of reaching Bathurst. Jane Crofts got as far as O'Connell, almost to Bathurst, when the arrival of her baby became iniminent and she had to request the dray stop to allow her to give birth.

We recognise the work of Thomas Saywell in the development of coal mines at Bulli and his real estate ventures at Brighton-le-Sands - a name one would have to assume was a reflection on his younger years.

In the years to come, Mary Anne Whewell was to marry coach builder, James Holden in South Australia and their name is legendary in the annals of the Australian motor industry.

Brickie Foster, the son of Frederick, of Forbes, married one Kate Kelly who bore three children. Kate died in the saddest of circumstances and her brother, James, overlanded it from Victoria to take the children back to their grandmother, Ellen. Kate Kelly was Ned's sister.

Part of the original agreement with the Colonial Secretary was that the Lacemakers of Calais would not bring their trade with them and, while this seems sad from our point of view more than 160 years later, it is becoming increasingly apparent that they were only too happy to leave it all behind.

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 goldrushes 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, with the families relocated off the Harpley following in the next months.

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.

Well Suited to the Colony
, The Australian Society of the Lacemakers of Calais, Queanbeyan, 1998

Photographs of some of the lacemakers or their children - all passengers on one of the lacemaker's ships


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