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Lace finishers

Pillow lace in Italian style, made at East Haddon by Miss Channer

Most of the work of the Lace Finishing Trade Board was focused around Nottingham, a major international centre for the production of lace in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Large sheets of patterned lace were produced by machines in factories and then finished by hand. Once off the loom, the sheets were bleached and dyed. Workers (often women working at home) then began the laborious process of removing the individual pieces of lace from the sheets and clipping off the loose threads until the strip of lace was tidy enough to sell. Management of the homeworkers was usually sub-contracted by the factories to middlewomen, who were often themselves poorly paid. The Lace Finishing Trade Board was one of the first Boards to be created under the Trade Board Act, and was established in 1910 with the intention to provide a guaranteed minimum wage for lace finishers and to try to stamp out sweatshop conditions in the industry.

The series of trade board papers in the Trades Union Congress archive includes two files of documents relating to the Lace Finishing Trade Board. As part of the Modern Records Centre's 'Sweated trades' digitisation project, we have made a selection of these documents available online, including the items highlighted below. Some additional items can be found through our digital collection.

Illustration: Example of pillow lace made at East Haddon by Miss Channer, illustration from the book 'Lace-making in the Midlands past and present', 1900


Wage rates and questions of scope:

Letter regarding proposed reduction in minimum wage rates for Nottingham homeworkers, 1919

Copy of a letter sent by J.J. Mallon, workers' representative on the Trade Board and Secretary of the National Anti-Sweating League, to the businessman Ernest Debenham. Mallon asks for information about prices of lace in 1914 and 1919, to be used as evidence to combat employers' attempts to reduce the minimum wage.

Minimum rates of wages effective from 2 February 1920

Notice of proposed variation in the minimum wages paid to workers in the machine-made lace and net finishing trade. It gives details of piece and time rates for different types of work.

Summary of objections to proposed reduction in the minimum wage rates, 1921

The document includes names and addresses of sixty workers who had sent in written objections to the proposed wage reduction, with a summary of the main arguments given against the planned pay cut.

Report of recent Trade Board activities, with copies of letters protesting against the reduction of wage rates for lace workers, 1921

The report was sent by Susan Lawrence, as a representative of the National Union of General Workers, Women Workers' Section, to J.J. Mallon. It includes copies of letters of protest received from three Nottingham home workers - Mrs. Chantrey, Alice Pike and E. Freeman.

Notes on lace finishing machinery, work and piece rates, undated [1922?]

The notes include information about faults caused by machinery, suggestions for guarantees to be agreed with employers to ensure that workers earn a certain rate, and a table regarding piece rates for particular types of work.

Enquiry into the yield of the general minimum piece rates fixed for three thread drawing, 1922

Report produced as the result of 70 visits to employers and workers in the lace finishing trade. It includes information about the amount of time that different types of work took and the amount of money that could be earned per hour (including information about several named workers, who had been timed).

Enquiry into the yield of a piece rate paid to to Nottingham homeworkers for finishing net veilings, 1922

Results of tests made by homeworkers employed by Byard Manufacturing Company.

Summary of cases which have arisen with regard to minimum rates of wages applicable to female workers whose previous experience included errand work, 1923

Information about four girls' applications for learnership certificates, and discussion about whether their previous work came within the scope of the Trade Board.

Circular regarding questions of scope, 1924

The circular relates to a question about whether two 'learners' (Wood and Hickling) are doing work which is covered by the Trade Board, and are therefore entitled to the minimum wage. It includes some information about the type of work that they are doing ("mainly engaged in separating and reeling veilings for dyeing purposes").


Outworkers and middlewoman:

A sweated industry: The plight of the lace finishers, 1907

Article by J.J. Mallon, Secretary of the National Anti-Sweating League, on the hardships of the Nottingham lace finishers, the "most sunken
and most sad" of Britain's industrial workers. It includes sections on the 'effect on the men', hours of work, wages and possible remedies.

Sixth annual report of the Executive Committee of the National Anti-Sweating League, 1912

The report includes information about a dispute over 'contracting out' agreements and the prosecution of a middlewoman for underpayment (she informed her workers that they should 'voluntarily' return two pence from every shilling she paid them).

Proposed Bill to address the issue of middlewomen, 1920

Correspondence between J.J. Mallon and Susan Lawrence, Secretary of the Workers’ Side of the Lace Finishing Trade Board and the Nottingham branch of the Homeworkers’ League, on Lawrence's proposal for Parliamentary legislation to tackle "the middlewomen question".

Precis of evidence before the Cave Commission, [1921?]

Summary of evidence provided by Susan Lawrence to the government commission. It includes an outline of the role of middlewomen and their exploitation by unscrupulous employers.

Correspondence regarding Nottingham homeworkers and middlewomen in the lace-finishing trade, 1921

Summary of conditions for middle-men/women and the actions of the Trade Board, written by Susan Lawrence for Mr Woolley, and sent to J.J. Mallon. The document includes a copy of a joint letter of protest sent to the Ministry of Labour by Nottingham Chamber of Commerce, Nottingham Lace and Net Finishers' Association and the Nottingham Home-Workers' League.

Statement submitted by employers' representatives to the Cave Commission, 1921

The employers put forward their views on three "serious defects of the Trade Board system" - middlewomen and middlemen, foreign competition and provisions for prosecution of offenders.

Letter regarding the system of outworkers and contractors in the lace trade, 1921

Letter sent by R. Mee, Communist son of a 'sweated' Nottingham laceworker, on the experiences of his mother and the general system of homeworkers, managed by middlewomen. His personal account concludes with the comment "My mother died with clipping scissors in hand and lace over her fingers a few years ago. Dam and Blast the whole lot, thats how I feel."


Exempted workers:

Trade Boards could issue permits of exemption which allowed employers to pay less than the minimum wage. Permits were given to workers who were regarded as having a physical or psychological disability which affected their work. Applications (usually submitted without the employees' names) include short medical profiles of the individuals.

Application for permit of exemption, 1922

Information about the case of a 66 year old women with "debility", employed on 'jennying' by E.W. Roper of Nottingham.

Applications for permits of exemption, 1922

Information about two Nottingham workers - a women aged 21 with "defective eyesight" and a women of 66 with age-related "debility".

Application and statements of permits granted, 1922, 1924

Information about two Nottingham workers - a women aged 21/22 with "defective eyesight" and a women of 66 with age-related "debility".


Inspection and enforcement:

Report on administration for the year ending 31 December 1920

Short report on visits to employers, middleworkers and workers made by Trade Board inspectors over the course of the year.

Report on inspection and enforcement for the period ending 31 December 1922

Short report on visits to employers, middlewomen and workers made by Trade Board inspectors over the course of the year.

Result of inspections carried out in connection with an enquiry into the yield of particular piece rates in the lace finishing industry, 1923

Information regarding 13 firms inspected in 1922.

Report on inspection and enforcement for the year ending 31 December 1924

Short report on visits to employers and middlewomen made by Trade Board inspectors over the course of the year.