Two Queens Purchase Headford Lace

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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 (née de Villiers), 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.

Stepney St. George, the local landlord, wrote a letter to the Queen Dowager Adelaide pleading the case of Headford's lacemakers who, at that time, were suffering the terrible effects of a dysentery epidemic sweeping the region. By return of post, Stepney received a reply from Earl Howe, her majesty's Lord Chamberlain, and a remittance of twenty pounds with an order for Headford Lace to that valueDublin Evening Mail, Wednesday, 17 February 1847, p.3.

queen adelaide
Princess Adelaide of Saxe-Saxe-Meiningen (c.1831) by William Beechey. Image in the public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

In fact, more than one queen placed an order for Headford Lace: less than a fortnight later, Queen Victoria followed the example of her aunt and she also placed an order for twenty pounds worth of Headford Lace.

1847 westmeath independent
Image courtesy of the Westmeath IndependentWestmeath Independent, Saturday, 27 February 1847, p.2.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' 

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 the queens' investment could have purchased almost TWO MILES of lace. An accomplished lacemaker today can produce an inch of Headford Lace in forty-five minutes; at that rate, producing lace to meet the queens’ orders would have required almost 86,400 hours’ labour.

Not only did the royal remittances provide a huge boost to the industry at a crucial time, but the fact that the queens had purchased Headford Lace would have increased demand for it. Queen Victoria, in particular, was the social media influencer of her time! As we have seen, the queens' purchases were publicised in newspapers, thereby incentivising all 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. Stepney St. George himself, who had written the letter that procured the royal investment, succumbed to the Famine fever and died a couple of months later on 21 May. 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.

This article was updated on 05 February 2021.