By Royal Appointment tells the story of Devon lace through collections at RAMM. RAMM launched this exhibition in early 2020, but as with many things that year it wasn’t open for long. This Collections Story gives you the opportunity to revisit the show online, or browse the content for the first time.
RAMM borrowed many of the objects in the exhibition from other museums and private individuals. Where this content is available online there are links to the relevant webpages.
Two of RAMM’s most longstanding volunteers, Carol McFadzean (left) and Liz Trebble (right), co-curated By Royal Appointment. Nicknamed Cagney & Lacey, they are the super sleuths of the lace world. Their research over several decades gives a voice to the frequently overlooked people who made lace for England’s high society.
Expand the sections below to read more.
Many of the objects from this exhibition are available online. Individual object records may have more information and additional photographs.
This exhibition unravels the threads of some previously untold stories, revealing the beauty and technical skill of Devon lace made for the fashionable elite. It gives voice to the unacknowledged makers who often experienced hardship, poverty and disability. In Devon, children learned lace-making from a young age. It often supplemented an income from fishing or agricultural work. Men, women and children all made lace, and for people who were physically less able, the trade provided their only means of subsistence.
Queen Victoria’s wedding lace was made at Beer on the East Devon coast in the months before her marriage in 1840. It boosted the trade and enhanced the reputation of Devon lace. Even now, local families recount romantic stories of their lace-making forebears, some of whom made lace for royalty. Years after her death, memories of the queen’s wedding lace remained and fashion writers expressed a continuing fascination with this most delicate of textiles.
“There is not a cottage in all the county [of Devon] nor that of Somerset where white lace is not made in great quantities so that not only the whole kingdom is supplied with it but it is exported in great abundance.”— Cosimo de Medici, 1669
Lace-making in Devon began in the late 16th century. Devon is famous for Honiton lace. Yet over time, many styles of lace came to the county to accommodate the fashions of the day and economies of production.
Brussels, Lille and Midlands
Honiton lace is the most well-known Devon lace. People made it throughout East Devon. Stagecoaches took boxes containing this expensive bobbin lace – more costly than jewels – from Honiton to the fashion centres of Bath and London, giving rise to its name.
Other Devon lace
Other styles of Devon bobbin lace include Devonia and Colyton chromatic (both varieties of Honiton), Kerswell, Woodbury Greek and Devon Trolly. Queen Adelaide introduced Woodbury Greek in the early 1840s to alleviate the poverty of the lace-makers in Woodbury parish. It is unique to Devon.
Branscombe point collar About 1860
Branscombe lace dealer John Tucker introduced Branscombe point in the 1850s. This needle lace uses fine, machine-made tape and decorative fillings made by hand. It is quicker to make than Honiton lace and was a means of combating the introduction of less expensive, entirely machine–made lace. Usually one person would make each item, unlike Honiton lace where many people would contribute to a large piece.
Lacemakers use a needle, rather than bobbins, to create Honiton point and Branscombe point. They are quicker to make than Honiton lace and helped to combat the introduction of less expensive machine-made lace.
Lacemakers used linen flax until the import of cotton thread in the first part of the 19th century. They took great care not to waste any valuable thread or damage the equipment they required to make their living.
“Queens have worn it with pride at the bridal altar and on the coronation days of their grandeur and glory. Still, it is the handiwork of ‘fingers weary and worn’, of women hungry, lean and thinly clad; of women working on the clay floors of low, damp cottages, whose coarse patched garments show their poverty all the more vividly against the slowly wrought tissues of the beautiful fabric they bend over from day to day.”— A Walk from London to Land’s End and Back by Elihu Burritt, 1864
By the 19th century thousands of people were employed in Devon making lace. The work was usually carried out by women and children, but this was not always the case. Men also made lace, especially those who had been injured or were born with a disability that prevented them from doing other work.
Commentators on the lace industry have often taken a romantic view of a picturesque craft, emphasising the making of lace as a feminine occupation. However, men also made lace. The 1911 census shows Walter Linscott (1897-1982) as living on Clapps Lane in Honiton. It gives his profession as as a lace-maker. He was injured on active service with the army during the first world war and received the Victory and British War medals.
This postcard bears the caption, ‘Honiton lace workers and apprentice’. The photograph shows Fore Street, Exmouth and features (left to right) Mrs Horne, Harry Widdon (the town crier) and Mrs Long. It is likely this scene is staged and that Harry was not, in fact, a lace-maker.
Before the larger manufactories were established lace-making took place at home. Often whole families were involved in the process. They received a few shillings for their work or else received payment in kind, such as food. Known as the ‘truck system’. This was outlawed in 1779 but continued illegally well into the 19th century.
As most lace-makers came from poor backgrounds, often their names are not recorded in contemporary documents, and the identities of many talented makers have been lost. There are some exceptions.
The five unmarried Pile sisters are Otterton’s most famous lacemakers. They lived on the green. Mary, Eliza, Blanche, Harriet and Elizabeth Pile were the daughters of a bootmaker. All worked in the lace trade in the 1850s, at a time when East Devon lace was in great demand.
One of the Pile sisters made this mid-19th century guipure collar. Bullocks heart motifs and leadworks are among the traditional features in this design.
Individual lace-makers purchased thread from their associated dealer. The dealer compared the weight of the thread sold and completed sprigs. This prevented the worker from making money ‘on the side’. Each worker made only a small selection of designs dependent on their ability.
It was essential that every member of a lace-making family brought home an income, no matter how meagre. In major lace areas such as East Devon, lace schools were commonplace. They taught children as young as five or six lace-making by teachers or ‘dames’. Yet many schools did not teach them to read or write. Classrooms of up to 30 girls, and sometimes boys, worked long days by the dim light of a lace-maker’s lamp. Pupils paid a small fee for tuition but the dames kept the best examples for sale.
Mrs Caroline Hayman ran the largest of six schools in Otterton, paying for pupil’s work in goods from her shop. ‘The usual hours are from 8 am till 6 pm, and if the children have not done their work they are kept till 8.’ Lace-makers learned to work by candlelight by the age of ten. Older girls would share a candle, sometimes working into the early hours to complete an order.
In 1862 the Children’s Employment Commission exposed the harsh conditions faced by pupils at lace schools. After the Education Act of 1870 fewer children attended lace schools. The common image of the lacemaker became that of an elderly woman sitting at her pillow outside the cottage door.
In 1898 Annie Whittaker learned to make lace from her mother. In turn, Annie taught lace-making to adults and children in East Devon, as well as the female inmates of Exeter Prison. She was strict – no talking was allowed – but her outstanding teaching methods led her to found the Devon Lace Teachers in 1949.
“Mrs Whittaker travelled to school by motorbike, wearing a leather Flying helmet and a man’s greatcoat, with her legged leather boots. The boys were fascinated by her […] and were always willing to give a helping hand, then they would cheer her and make various engine noises!”Devon within Living Memory, by Devon Federation of Women’s Institutes
Saved from the flames The Woodbury Salterton Lace Find
In 2002 a unique lace find was discovered at Woodbury Salterton C of E Primary School. Crammed within a linen bag that had ‘To Burn’ written on its flap were over 700 Devon trolly lace samples and items for Queen Victoria. It caused considerable excitement amongst lace-makers nationally and internationally. Woodbury lace-makers sent samples to Queen Victoria in a satin bag trimmed and embellished with lace in the hope she would place an order. Each lace sample indicated the price per yard ranging from 2½d to 9 shillings, (76 pence to £543 at today’s value). Some have the initials or names of the women making that pattern of lace. People made Devon trolly along the East Devon coast until the mid-19th century, when machines could make similar lace that was far less expensive.
Queen Victoria’s ‘work bag’. About 1840.
A small bag with metallic Devon trolly edging. The bag is also lined with satin and wadding placed between the two layers like a quilt. A newspaper in 1841 described this as a work bag. Lent by Woodbury Salterton C of E Primary School.
Sheets of Devon trolly lace. About 1840
These two sheets of lace samples are part of the ‘Woodbury Salterton lace find’. The find contained over 700 samples of Devon trolly lace all priced by the yard, but with varying prices for the same design on different pages! Lent by Woodbury Salterton C of E Primary School.
“A pattern for lace must have clean lines, exquisite proportions and a fine sense of fitness and economy; but there must be more than that. There must be imagination and human sensibility. At times a design may even have a touch of something beyond the lines, an illumination, an inspiration.”Marian Powys
Devon trade directories of the 19th century provide information on the many businesses in the county dealing in lace. This includes Budleigh Salterton, Exmouth, Sidmouth and Honiton. Lace dealers and manufacturers also appear in Exeter from the 1820s, often with premises in Cathedral Yard. Among the most successful lace dealers in the county were John Tucker of Branscombe and Charlotte Treadwin who was based in Exeter.
John Tucker and family
John Tucker set up a lace business in Branscombe in the 1830s. By the 1850s he employed over 500 lace-makers, including 284 from Branscombe, about a quarter of the village’s population. John’s daughters Louisa and Mary were both expert lace-makers and produced unique floral designs for their father; his son ran the London office. Tucker’s lace was synonymous with good quality and workmanship and was awarded prize medals at international exhibitions. The firm had the distinction of supplying lace to the Royal family. It closed when John died
Mrs J T Tucker
Charlotte Treadwin & Ellen Herbert
Charlotte Treadwin (1802-1882) is Exeter’s most important lace manufacturer. Far from the stereotype of the elderly villager working alone outside her country cottage, she had a background in fashion and great ambition. She was also an astute businesswoman trading in imported millinery, as well as promoting locally made lace at a time when lace was an important element of elite fashion. Mrs Treadwin’s business paid a fair wage in cash rather than groceries. Her firm exhibited at the Great Exhibition of 1851 and the International Exhibition of 1862 and won numerous royal commissions and prize medals. Charlotte Treadwin and her successor Ellen Herbert both received Royal Warrants.
Now regarded as an internationally important designer and lace-maker, Charlotte Treadwin was an ambitious businesswoman with a background in the fashion industry. Born on Exmoor, she took up an apprenticeship with a dressmaker and milliner. While still a young woman, she learned lace in Woodbury, Devon, and by 1844 was in partnership with Ann Barns at 14 Bartholomew Street West, Exeter. Ann Barns went on to run the Regent Street, London, branch of the business. Charlotte was successful in business long before she married John Treadwin, a watchmaker, at the age of 30.
Charlotte ran her manufactory on very modern lines, compared to the traditional rural system of outworkers and middlemen. She paid her workers a fair wage in cash, rather than in goods. Local newspapers also recorded her benevolence to Exeter charities and institutions including Exeter Female Penitentiary and the West of England Blind Institute.
Treadwin’s last showroom and lace manufactory was at 5 Cathedral Yard from 1867 (ASK Italian restaurant restaurant was at this site until 2020). Her obituary states that she was ‘a woman of culture and taste who had the best interests of the trade at heart’.
Lent by Liz Trebble
The fortunes of the Devon lace trade have fluctuated throughout history. In the 17th century the government put a ban on imports and Charles II proclaimed that no ‘foreign’ lace could worn in the kingdom. This gave the British lace-making industry a boost. But in the early 18th century an act of parliament abolished the restrictions on imports and, once more, local lace-makers faced stiff competition from France and Flanders.
In the early 1800s, the isolation of Britain due to the Napoleonic Wars across Europe, caused the cost of East Devon lace to increase. However, by the 1830s the local lace industry was once more in decline. It needed a royal intervention to revive it.
In 1839 the young Queen Victoria commissioned Jane Bidney of Beer to make a lace flounce. The first occasion she wore it was for her wedding to Prince Albert on 10 February 1840. Victoria treasured the flounce. She wore it at the weddings of her daughters and grandson, and at many other events. Through the Victorian period the Royal household appointed a number of East Devon lace-makers to supply them, such as Esther Clarke of Honiton, John Tucker of Branscombe and Charlotte Treadwin of Exeter.
“I wore a white satin gown with a very deep flounce of Honiton lace, imitation of old. I wore my Turkish diamond necklace and earrings, and Albert’s beautiful sapphire brooch.”Queen Victoria’s journal, 10 February 1840
Victoria’s wedding dress caused a sensation. Aristocratic ladies and the daughters of the wealthy middle classes demanded Devon lace for their wedding dresses too. But the new-found success of the trade was not just down to weddings, lace played a part from cradle to grave. From the 1840s it was popular for infant’s christening robes, and the strict etiquette surrounding Victorian mourning made black lace a favourite for widows’ dresses and even for coffin palls.
On 14 August 1837, shortly after Queen Victoria came to the throne, she appointed Jane Bidney as a lacemaker to the Royal household – she was the first to receive this honour. Jane’s business was at 76 St James Street, London. Over the next two years the queen paid Jane £181-8s – a sum equivalent to around £11,000 today.
In 1839 Jane supervised the making of what became the queen’s wedding lace. She employed Honiton lace-makers from her home town of Beer.
Victoria wore this ‘wedding lace’ frequently on special occasions. The veil was sometimes used as a shawl.
Queen Victoria’s wedding lace consisted of:
- A flounce, 65cm deep and 366cm in circumference. Sprigs of scrolling stems, bearing large exotic leaves and flowers are applied to machine-made cotton net. The queen ordered it in March 1839 before her engagement.
- A bertha collar, 14cm deep at the centre and widening to 19cm at the shoulders. It has the same design as the flounce, on a reduced scale.
- A veil 141cm square made from matching cotton net. The applied border of Honiton lace reflects the design on the flounce, but is more open and less structured and lacks the exotic leaves and flowers. The queen ordered the veil and bertha after her engagement in November 1839. The lace-makers had just six weeks to make them.
Her Majesty the Queen kindly lent the following photographs and works of art:
Queen Victoria. Franz Xaver Winterhalter (1805-73) 1842, oil on canvas.
This is the first official portrait Queen Victoria commissioned from German artist Franz Winterhalter. He went on to become the royal couple’s preferred painter producing over 100 works for them. Here the Queen wears her wedding lace and sapphire and diamond
brooch which was a wedding gift from Albert. View on the Royal Collection Trust’s website.
The marriage of TRH the Duke and Duchess of York, 6 July 1893. Amadée Forestier (1854-1930) 1893, watercolour.
The Duke of York and Princess May (the future King George V and Queen Mary) married during the tropical July heat of 1893 in the Chapel Royal, St James’s. Queen Victoria sits on the right wearing a dress adorned with Devon lace and a veil. Once again she is wearing her wedding lace. View on the Royal Collection Trust’s website.
Queen Victoria and her page, Arthur Ponsonby. Alexander Bassano (1829-1913) 1882, albumen print on card
In this photograph The Queen is dressed for the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Albany and wears a small coronet, Honiton veiling, sleeve trims and skirt. She is wearing her wedding lace. Her page, Arthur, holds her train. View on the Royal Collection Trust’s website.
Queen Victoria (1819-1901): Diamond Jubilee. W & D Downey (active 1855-1941) 1893, carbon print
The Queen wore her wedding lace on many special occasions. This photograph was used as an official Jubilee portrait although it was actually taken in July 1893 at the wedding of the future King George V and Queen Mary. View on the Royal Collection Trust’s website.
Portrait photograph of Queen Victoria (1819-1901) dressed for the Wedding of The Duke of York, 1893. W & D Downey (active 1855-1941) 1893, albumen print.
This seated portrait again shows Queen Victoria dressed in lace for the Duke’s wedding, taken from a different angle. View on the Royal Collection Trust’s website.
Queen Victoria on her deathbed, 1901 1901, gelatin silver print.
The Queen died on the 22 January 1901 at Osborne House. This postmortem portrait shows her lying on her bed covered by her lace veil and flowers, holding a cross. It was widely believed that the Queen was buried with her wedding veil, but this is not the case. It remains with the rest of her wedding lace in the collection of His Majesty The King. View on the Royal Collection Trust’s website.
Roborough flounce, About 1850. Made by Esther Clarke’s manufactory.
Esther Clarke of Honiton received a Royal Appointment in 1837. She produced this magnificent flounce at the request of Lady Rolle and Sir John Buller who commissioned her to ‘furnish an example of Honiton lace such as yet had never been exhibited’. Her sister-in-law Eliza designed the flounce and the patrons paid the expenses of £400 for lace-makers’ wages. It took forty women eight months to create the lace. During the last month an extra ten women worked at night. The flounce won a medal at the 1851 Great Exhibition for ‘design and quality unequalled in its class’. Lent by Allhallows Museum, Honiton. View the flounce online.
Queen Victoria. John Haslem (1808-84) 1848, enamel on copper
Queen Victoria asked Winterhalter to paint her portrait in her wedding clothes as a surprise present to Albert for their seventh wedding anniversary in 1847. This is a miniature copy of Winterhalter’s portrait showing her wearing her wedding lace. Lent by Her Majesty The Queen. View on the Royal Collection Trust’s website.
“Lace-makers are inspired by the craft’s heritage. These days it is made for the joy of producing a unique piece – not as a means of income. Today some lace-makers’ work is more akin to modern art.”– Carol McFadzean, 2020
Handmade lace is no longer made in Devon commercially, but the skills to make it have not been lost. Lace-making classes run throughout the county attended by men, women and children. Students and teachers exhibit their laces in exhibitions and competitions around the world.
Devon makers continue to send gifts of lace to the Royal family on special occasions. In 1982 the lace-makers in Beer made a book of nursery rhyme figures for the christening of Prince William. It is common to destroy designs for royalty once the piece is complete.
Lacemakers still use traditional techniques and also develop new ones. Historic collections, such as RAMM’s, offer unique opportunities for research and inspire new designs. Lace is still made in white cotton but frequently coloured silks are employed to add a modern twist.
It is likely that the art student did not make lace from their design. This means creating prickings from it is quite challenging. Never the less Devon Lace Teachers and RAMM volunteers Carol and Liz took inspiration from the leaves and flowers to design a new piece of lace especially for this exhibition – ‘The Exeter Chromatic’. It brings RAMM’s extensive lace collection into the 21st century.
‘Exeter Chromatic’ is a tribute to the Colyton chromatic shawl designed by in 1851 W.L. Gill of Colyton. He exhibited it at the Great Exhibition. Flower sprigs made in coloured silks were attached to black machine-made net. Even though black lace became very fashionable in the 1850s due to influences from the continent, the shawl was something very innovative. This shawl is now at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. It is not uncommon for 21st-century Devon lace-makers to make traditional designs in coloured silks.
The Royal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery would like to express its gratitude to the following individuals and institutions who have helped to make this exhibition possible.
Carol McFadzean and Liz Trebble, members of Devon Lace Teachers and longstanding RAMM volunteers, for their invaluable assistance with the content and loans for this exhibition.
The Textile Society for a grant to conserve two 19th century lace designs.
Lenders of additional objects:
Her Majesty The Queen, Allhallows Museum, Honiton, Cosprop Limited, London, Dean and Chapter Exeter Cathedral, Devon Lace Teachers, Fairlynch Museum and Arts Centre, Budleigh Salterton, Mrs Gould, Pat Perryman, Pat Webber, and Woodbury Salterton C of E Primary School.