Queen Victoria Purchases Headford Lace

During the Irish Famine of 1845-49, many towns around Ireland turned to lacemaking to make ends meet. Of course, the women of Headford had been making lace since c.1766, but we know that the industry had gone through a period of relative decline prior to the Famine.Wadge, E. Harvey [Ed.] (1866) ‘The Irish Industrial Magazine’. Dublin: McGlashan & Gill, p. 204. However by 1849, Mrs. Julia Jackson, wife of the local Church of Ireland rector, was praised for "her successful efforts to revive our hitherto neglected lace manufacture [and having], we trust, by giving wholesome stimulus to industry, and opening a future and remunerative market for the production of our poor and well-conducted female population engaged in this trade, laid the foundation of a continual demand upon their labours".Tuam Herald, 25 August 1849, p. 3. 'Address to the Rev. William Jackson, Vicar of the Union of Templemore, and Late Curate of Headford'. Precisely how this revival of the industry had been achieved was unknown, but a recently-discovered newspaper article has shed some light on that.

On 27 February 1847, the Westmeath Independent reported the following: "HER MAJESTY THE QUEEN. - In consequence of a petition from the poor lace makers of Headford, in the county of Galway, Her Most Gracious Majesty has been pleased to order £20 worth of their lace - thus setting a noble example of encouragement to female industry."The Westmeath Independent, Saturday, February 27, 1847, p.2. 'Her Majesty the Queen'

1847 westmeath independent
Image courtesy of the Westmeath Independent via the British Newspaper Archive

Queen Victoria was always a great patron of lace, and we know that she also purchased bobbin lace from Cong in 1893.Ballinrobe Chronicle, 12 August 1893, p. 1. 'The Industries Stall' For Headford, however, this investment in their lace industry came at a crucial time at the peak of the Famine. 

Queen Victoria1847
Queen Victoria in 1847 by Franz Xaver Winterhalter. Image in the public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Using the price paid by Lady Clonbrock for Headford Lace in 1870,Clonbrock Estate Papers: Ms 35,733 (9). Clothing account book, June 1868-Dec 1872. National Library of Ireland. we can estimate that Queen Victoria's investment could have purchased almost a MILE of lace. Assuming that the lacemakers could produce an inch of lace every 30 minutes (it is more likely that it would have taken them up to twice that long, depending on the pattern), that would have required almost 31,680 hours' labour. 

Not only did Queen Victoria's investment provide a huge boost to the industry, but the fact that the queen had purchased Headford Lace would have increased demand for it. Queen Victoria was the social media influencer of her time! As we have seen, her purchase was publicised in newspapers, thereby incentivising ladies of the upper classes to likewise make purchases of Headford Lace.

What is more important, however, is what this meant for the people of Headford. Susanna Meredith highlighted the importance of the lace industry to the people of Ireland during the Great Hunger: "little girls' fingers, by means of this lace-work, provided for families; and [...] the provision failed not while the famine lasted."Meredith, Susanna (1865) The Lacemakers: Sketches of Irish Character with some account of the Effort to Establish Lacemaking in Ireland. London: Jackson, Walford, and Hodder, p. 17. 

Unfortunately, the lacemaking industry alone could not insulate the town of Headford against the effects of the famine. According to the census returns of 1841 and 1851, the decrease in population as a result of the Famine in Headford was 27% (from 1,647 in 1841 to 1,195 in 1851). This was slightly higher than the average for the county (26.92%), but slightly less than the average for the province of Connacht (28.82%).Candon, Gerardine (2003) Headford, County Galway, 1775-1901. Dublin: Four Courts Press, p. 21. It is clear that Headford was not immune to the ravages of hunger, disease, and emigration during the Famine, but one can only imagine how much worse life would have been for the townspeople had it not been for the income generated by the thriving lace industry during the 1840s.