The interesting times of a village lace business

A square piece of white decorative lace work on a blue background

A sample of Branscombe Lace in Honiton Museum - Credit: Honiton Museum

Branscombe point lace is made in a totally different way than other Devon laces. Needles, not bobbins are used. A tape or braid is tacked to a pattern drawn on paper and the spaces between the tape are filled with a variety of stitches using a needle and thread. 

A purl edging is usually worked around the finished piece. It is thought that this method of lacemaking was introduced by John Tucker of Branscombe in the 1860s to make it faster to produce and it sold more cheaply than lace made using the Honiton technique.

John Tucker and his wife Harriet lived with her parents Samuel and Abigail Chick in Branscombe. They were long established and thriving lace merchants and for some time John worked as their agent before becoming a lace manufacturer himself when the Chicks retired to Sidmouth.

In 1844, nationwide newspapers exposed John Tucker for using the truck system to pay workers which was made illegal 13 years earlier. He paid lacemakers in goods such as tea, bread, and butter or with tokens which could be exchanged for goods in his shop. Abigail, his mother and employer, was fined £5 and £2 costs and ordered to pay Sarah Perry £2 10 shillings.

The magistrates warned that if there were further convictions, the full penalty would be awarded. 24 years later the subject of truck lace dealers was raised again. Only four manufacturers in the whole area paid their lace workers with cash. Their names were published, and John Tucker was not one of them. At the height of his trade John employed almost 300 people, most of whom were working in their own homes.

John had 12 children, four died in childhood and the surviving ones worked for him. His daughter, Mary, was a talented designer, but he would only allow her to use one candle to work by. He used to weigh out the thread to his workers and weighed the lace when it was made to ensure the lacemakers did not make a little on the side.

When John died in 1877, he left £50,000 plus property in London, Branscombe, Sidmouth, St Teath and Honiton. His daughters locked up the lace workroom and the shop. The doors were not reopened until after the death of his youngest daughter Louisa. A bonfire burned the contents of the workshop for days on end.

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